Defense relationship part of US-Iraq talks in Washington next week, US official says

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani (R) speaks next to US Major General Joel “J.B.” Vowell during a meeting with top-ranking officials of the Iraqi armed forces and of the US-led coalition as part of the first round of talks on the future of American and other foreign troops in the country, in Baghdad, on January 27, 2024. (AFP)
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Updated 12 April 2024
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Defense relationship part of US-Iraq talks in Washington next week, US official says

  • Washington and Baghdad began talks in January to reassess the US-led military coalition presence there

WASHINGTON: The security and defense relationship between the US and Iraq will be an important part of talks when Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani visits Washington next week but is not the primary focus of the visit, a senior State Department official said on Thursday.
The official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said the emphasis of Sudani’s visit would be economic ties, even as Washington and Baghdad are in talks over ending the US-led military coalition in the country.
US forces and Shiite Muslim armed groups have engaged in tit-for-tat attacks in recent months amid regional conflict linked to Israel’s war in Gaza, leading to Sudani in January announcing his intention to end the US military presence.
The senior State Department official said the defense and security relationship will be part of the discussions during Sudani’s visit, when he will meet both with President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin as well as Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“(It is) likely to be a very important part of our – of the discussion,” the official said. “It is not the primary focus of the visit ... but it is almost certainly going to come up.”
The visit’s focus will instead be the economy and issues including education, environment and US support for development, the official said, without providing details.
“We’re going to have a full range of discussions about our relationship and where it’s going,” the official said.
The US invaded Iraq in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein and withdrew in 2011, only for troops to return in 2014 to help fight Islamic State (IS) after the extremist Sunni Muslim militant group overran large parts of the country.
Washington and Baghdad began talks in January to reassess the US-led military coalition presence there.
The official said those talks were likely to lead to a second joint security cooperation dialogue later this year.


Armenia returns four border villages to Azerbaijan

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Armenia returns four border villages to Azerbaijan

YEREVAN: Armenia has returned to Azerbaijan four border villages it had seized decades ago, officials in Yerevan and Baku confirmed Friday, in a key step toward normalizing ties between the historic rivals.
The two ex-Soviet countries in the Caucasus fought two wars in the 1990s and in 2020 for control of the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan recaptured it last year in a lightning offensive, ending three decades of Armenian separatist rule and prompting more than 100,000 locals to flee into Armenia.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan had agreed in March to return the four abandoned villages seized by his country in the 1990s, as part of efforts to secure a lasting peace agreement between the countries.
On May 16, they agreed on the demarcation of 12.7 kilometers (almost seven miles) of their border that returned the villages of Baghanis Ayrum, Ashaghi Askipara, Kheyrimli and GhizilHajjili to Azerbaijan.
Armenia’s security service confirmed Friday that its border guards had “officially” taken up new positions reflecting the border deal and ceded the villages to Azerbaijan’s control.
Azerbaijan’s Deputy Prime Minister Shahin Mustafayev meanwhile announced that his country’s border guards had taken control of the four settlements.
Armenian residents of nearby settlements say the move could cut them off from the rest of the country and accuse Pashinyan of unilaterally giving away territory without any guarantees in return.
The premier’s move has sparked weeks of anti-government protests in Armenia, with thousands of demonstrators led by charismatic cleric Bagrat Galstanyan demanding Pashinyan’s resignation.
A fresh anti-government protest is scheduled for Sunday.
Pashinyan last week described the deal as a “very important milestone for further strengthening Armenia’s sovereignty and independence.”
The territory is of strategic importance for landlocked Armenia because it controls sections of a vital highway to Georgia.

EU’s Borrell says recognizing Palestine is not a gift to Hamas

Updated 35 min 13 sec ago
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EU’s Borrell says recognizing Palestine is not a gift to Hamas

MADRID: European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Friday said that recognizing a Palestinian state was not a gift to Hamas.
Ireland, Norway and Spain said on Wednesday they would recognize a Palestinian state on May 28, to help secure a halt to Israel’s Gaza offensive after the Hamas attack on Oct.7 and revive peace talks that stalled a decade ago.
“Recognizing the Palestinian state is not a gift to Hamas, quite the contrary,” he said. “The Palestinian authority is not Hamas, on the contrary they are deeply confronted.”
He added the EU already talked, financed and met the Palestinian authority.
“Every time someone makes the decision to support a Palestinian state, ... the reaction of Israel is to transform it in an antisemitic attack,” he added.


Philippines opens coast guard post after China build-up

Updated 24 May 2024
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Philippines opens coast guard post after China build-up

  • China and the Philippines are enduring a bitter diplomatic dispute over rival claims to parts of the South China Sea
  • Coastguard says the post will be used to gather data

MANILLA: The Philippines said Friday it had opened a coast guard post in the country’s far north to boost security following China’s “military build-up” near Taiwan over the past two years.
The outpost “shall gather essential maritime data and intelligence, enabling the (Philippine Coast Guard) to respond effectively to threats such as illicit trade, trafficking, piracy, and foreign intrusions,” National Security Adviser Eduardo Ano said in a statement.
“In 2022, the area around Itbayat witnessed a military build-up as China responded to political developments between Taiwan and the United States,” Ano said, announcing the opening of the station on the Philippines’ northernmost inhabited island.
“Securing peace, stability, and freedom of navigation along the Luzon Strait is crucial for ensuring Philippine national security and economic prosperity,” he added.
Itbayat is located around 150 kilometers (93 miles) south of Taiwan’s south coast.
China and the Philippines are enduring a bitter diplomatic dispute over rival claims to parts of the South China Sea.
China has built artificial islands and military installations in waters close to the Philippines.
China’s efforts to enforce its claims have in recent years including water cannon attacks by China Coast Guard vessels that damaged Philippine government boats and injured several crew members.
Itbayat is just outside the area designated by a vaguely defined map of dashes that China uses to claim most of the South China Sea.
Ano made no reference to war games that China began on Thursday in which it encircled Taiwan with warplanes and naval vessels.


Russia says Daesh behind deadly Moscow concert hall attack

Updated 24 May 2024
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Russia says Daesh behind deadly Moscow concert hall attack

Moscow: Russia on Friday admitted for the first time that Daesh coordinated the deadly concert hall attack in Moscow in March.
“In the course of the investigation... it has been established that the preparations, the financing, the attack, and the retreat of the terrorists were coordinated via the Internet by members of Khorasan Province (IS-K),” a branch of Daesh active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Alexander Bortnikov, the head of FSB, was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency.

At least sixty people have been killed after gunmen stormed a concert hall near Moscow in March, one of the deadliest attacks on Russia in decades.

Gunmen opened fire at a rock concert leaving dead and wounded before a major fire spread through the theater, Moscow’s mayor and Russian news agencies reported.

Putin has called the attack back in March as “a bloody, barbaric terrorist act” and said Russian authorities captured the four suspects as they were trying to escape to Ukraine through a “window” prepared for them on the Ukrainian side of the border.


Russian media broadcast videos that apparently showed the detention and interrogation of the suspects, including one who told the cameras he was approached by an unidentified assistant to an Islamic preacher via a messaging app and paid to take part in the raid.


Putin didn’t mention Daesh, known as Daesh in Arabic, in his speech to the nation, and Kyiv accused him and other Russian politicians of falsely linking Ukraine to the assault to stoke fervor for Russia’s fight in Ukraine, which recently entered its third year.


US intelligence officials said they had confirmed the Daesh affiliate’s claim.
“ISIS bears sole responsibility for this attack. There was no Ukrainian involvement whatsoever,” National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement.
 The US shared information with Russia in early March about a planned terrorist attack in Moscow, and issued a public warning to Americans in Russia, Watson said.


The raid was a major embarrassment for the Russian leader and happened just days after he cemented his grip on the country for another six years in a vote that followed the harshest crackdown on dissent since the Soviet times.
Some commentators on Russian social media questioned how authorities, who have relentlessly suppressed any opposition activities and muzzled independent media, failed to prevent the attack despite the US warnings.


Daesh, which fought against Russia during its intervention in the Syrian civil war, has long targeted Russia. In a statement posted by the group’s Aamaq news agency, the Daesh Afghanistan affiliate said that it had attacked a large gathering of “Christians” in Krasnogorsk.



England’s soccer fortunes add sporting drama to UK election

Updated 24 May 2024
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England’s soccer fortunes add sporting drama to UK election

LONDON: Does British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak risk scoring an own goal by calling an election during the 2024 European Championship soccer tournament in July?
Sunak, himself a soccer fan, might be hoping for a boost to his struggling campaign if England do well, although whether there really is a link between sport and elections is disputed by experts.
Given the national team’s habit of morale-busting defeats in major tournaments, the chance of another hit to the English psyche appears just as likely a backdrop to the election.
On a positive note, however, England, runners-up three years ago, are among the favorites under manager Gareth Southgate with a team full of in-form attacking players including Harry Kane, Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden and Bukayo Saka.
Sunak unexpectedly called a national election for July 4 when the European Championship in Germany will be entering its most exciting phase.
Voters will head to the polls four or five days after England’s first knockout match, assuming the team avoid the embarrassment of elimination in the group stage.
There is also a chance England will have been pitted against their hosts and old rivals Germany in that last-16 game, a prospect that will fill many fans with dread.
Scotland are competing in the tournament too, potentially offering relief to the ruling Scottish National Party which, like Sunak’s Conservatives, is floundering in opinion polls.
Political pundits have offered non-sporting explanations for Sunak’s decision to call an early election, including a fall in Britain’s once double-digit inflation to close to 2 percent and signs that his flagship plan to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda might not get off the ground.
The timing has raised eyebrows, however, for the unusual overlap of an election campaign with the summer sporting calendar.
That has raised memories of one of the most painful of England’s defeats.
In June 1970, a 3-2 loss to West Germany in a World Cup quarter-final was followed four days later by a shock election defeat for incumbent Prime Minister Harold Wilson, triggering debate about the impact of the match.
Much has been written since about a possible link between sport and elections.
A 2010 paper by academics at Stanford and Loyola Marymount University in the United States said wins for local college American football teams earned political incumbents an extra 1.61 percentage points of support in subsequent Senate, gubernatorial and presidential elections.
Others have found no clear connection.
Stefan Mueller and Liam Kneafsey, at University College Dublin and Trinity College Dublin, mapped Irish election outcomes over decades with Gaelic football and hurling match results and found no correlation with support for incumbents or ruling party politicians.
Kneafsey said there were signs that some kind of influence on voters did occur.
“Whether they actually switch their votes, that’s probably a higher bar to clear and certainly the results there are inconclusive,” he said.
While that debate continues, it is clear that politics do weigh on the minds of soccer fans.
At a Euro 2016 match, three days after Britain’s shock Brexit referendum decision, many England fans joined in a crude chant directed at the European Union which ended with the words: “We all voted out.” England were beaten 2-1 by underdogs Iceland and were knocked out of the competition.
Another risk for Sunak is that sports fans resent his scheduling of the election at a time when not only Euro 2024 is taking place — from June 14-July 14 — but also the Wimbledon tennis championships which run from July 1-14.
Campaigning will also overlap with cricket’s T20 World Cup involving England and Scotland from June 2-29.
Some academics will be happy, however, as they will be able to do more research into the links between sport and voting patterns.
“We could actually do with politicians having more elections during this time to definitively test this,” Kneafsey said.