Posts Tagged Iraq
President Barack Obama launched a final push on Tuesday to persuade Congress to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but lawmakers, opposed to rehousing detainees in the United States, declared his plan a non-starter.
In White House remarks, Obama, a Democrat, pleaded with the Republican-led Congress to give his proposal a “fair hearing.” He said he did not want to pass along the issue to his successor next January.
The Pentagon plan proposes 13 potential sites on U.S. soil for the transfer of remaining detainees but does not identify the facilities or endorse a specific one.
“We’ll review President Obama’s plan,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said. “But since it includes bringing dangerous terrorists to facilities in U.S. communities, he should know that the bipartisan will of Congress has already been expressed against that proposal.”
Paul Ryan, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, said Obama had yet to convince Americans that moving the prisoners to the United States was smart or safe.
Obama pledged to close the prison as a candidate for the White House in 2008. The prisoners were rounded up overseas when the United States became embroiled in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. The facility in years past came to symbolize aggressive detention practices that opened the United States to allegations of torture.
“Let us go ahead and close this chapter,” Obama said.
“Keeping this facility open is contrary to our values … It is viewed as a stain on our broader record of upholding the highest standards of rule of law,” he said.
Obama is considering taking unilateral executive action to close the facility, situated in a U.S. naval station in southeast Cuba, if Congress does not vote to allow transfers to the United States. Republicans oppose any executive order.
The White House has sought to buttress its argument for closing the prison by focusing on its high cost. Obama said nearly $450 million was spent last year alone to keep it running. The new plan would be cheaper, officials said.
The transfer and closure costs would be $290 million to $475 million, an administration official told reporters, while housing remaining detainees in the United States would be $65 million to $85 million less expensive than at the Cuba facility, meaning the transfer bill would be offset in 3 to 5 years.
The prison, which Obama said once held nearly 800 detainees, now houses 91 detainees. Some 35 prisoners will be transferred to other countries this year, leaving the final number below 60, officials said.
Obama noted that his predecessor, Republican President George W. Bush, transferred hundreds of prisoners out of Guantanamo and wanted to close it. Republican Senator John McCain, Obama’s 2008 presidential opponent and a former prisoner of war during U.S. involvement in Vietnam, also wanted it shut.
The plan would send detainees who have been cleared for transfer to their homelands or third countries and transfer remaining prisoners to U.S. soil to be held in maximum-security prisons. Congress has banned such transfers to the United States since 2011.
Though the Pentagon has previously noted some of the sites it surveyed for use as potential U.S. facilities, the administration wants to avoid fueling any political outcry in important swing states before the Nov. 8 presidential election.
The execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr is expected to deepen discontent among Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority and heighten sectarian tensions across the region.
Meanwhile, the execution of al-Qaeda militants convicted over deadly bombings and shootings in Saudi Arabia raised concerns over revenge attacks. The extremist group’s branch in Yemen, known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, threatened violence against Saudi security forces last month if they carried out executions of members of the global network.
Saudi Arabia’s top cleric Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Sheikh said the executions were carried out in line with Islamic law and the need to safeguard the kingdom’s security. He described the executions as a “mercy to the prisoners” because it would save them from committing more evil acts and prevent chaos.
Islamic scholars around the world hold vastly different views on the application of the death penalty in Islamic Shariah law. Saudi judges adhere to one of the strictest interpretations, a Sunni Muslim ideology referred to as Wahhabism.
Influential Shiite figures and groups across the region were swift to condemn al-Nimr’s execution, with Saudi Arabia’s regional rival Iran describing it as “irresponsible.”
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Jaberi Ansari was quoted on the state-owned English-language Press TV warning that the Saudi monarchy would pay a heavy price for its policies. A senior Iranian cleric, Hossein Nouri Hamedani, said in a statement broadcast on state television that the region should expect “both Shiite and Sunni Muslims to react.”
In Iraq, influential Shiite militia Asaib Ahl Al-Haq called on the government to reconsider allowing Saudi Arabia to keep its newly reopened embassy in Baghdad; the Saudi embassy was reopened Friday for the first time in more nearly 25 years.
A Saudi lawyer in the eastern region of the kingdom said that in addition to al-Nimr, three other Shiite political detainees were executed Saturday. The lawyer spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
In Lebanon, a top Shiite cleric condemned al-Nimr’s execution, describing it as “a grave mistake that could have been avoided with a royal amnesty that would have helped reduce sectarian tensions in the region.” Sheikh Abdul-Amir Kabalan, deputy head of the influential Supreme Shiite Islamic Council that is the main religious body for Lebanon’s 1.2 million Shiites, said the executions “will have repercussions in the coming days.”
The Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah issued a statement calling al-Nimr’s execution an “assassination” and a “ugly crime.”
The group added that those who carry the “moral and direct responsibility for this crime are the United States and its allies who give direct protection to the Saudi regime and cover its crimes against its (Saudi) people and people of the region.”
Anticipating protests in eastern Saudi Arabia, where minority Saudi Shiites are concentrated, Saudi activists there called for peaceful rallies. Small groups of protesters took to the streets in neighboring Bahrain, which has seen low-level violence since 2011 when the tiny island-nation’s Shiite majority held mass protests to demand greater rights from the Sunni-led monarchy.
Advocacy organization Reprieve, which works against the death penalty worldwide, said two out of the four Shiite activists executed were teenagers when they were arrested. Reprieve said Ali al-Ribh was 18 years old and Mohammed al-Shuyokh was 19 at the time of arrest in 2012. Both were convicted on charges related to anti-government protests held in eastern Saudi Arabia.
The Interior Ministry announced the names of all 47 people executed in a statement carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency. Of those executed, 45 were Saudi citizens, one was from Chad and another was from Egypt.
The four Shiites executed had been convicted in connection with a series of violent protests that erupted in the east in 2011 and 2012, in which several protesters and police officers were killed.
The al-Qaeda militants executed had been convicted of taking part in a wave of deadly attacks that killed foreigners and Saudis. One of the executed was Faris al-Shuwail, a leading ideologue in al-Qaeda’s Saudi branch who was arrested in August 2004 during a massive crackdown on the group following the series of deadly attacks.
Saudi Arabia said a royal court order was issued to implement the sentences after all appeals had been exhausted. The executions took place in the capital, Riyadh, and 12 other cities and towns, the Interior Ministry statement said. Nearly all executions carried out in Saudi Arabia are by beheading with a sword.
In a press conference Saturday, Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki said the executions were carried out inside prisons and not in public. He described the executions as an example of Saudi Arabia’s tough response to terrorism.
In announcing the verdicts, Saudi state television showed mugshots of those executed. Al-Nimr was No. 46, expressionless with a gray beard, his head covered with the red-and-white scarf traditionally worn by men in the Arab Gulf region.
Al-Nimr, who was in his 50s, had been a vocal critic of Bahrain’s monarchy, which forcibly suppressed protests in 2011 with the help of Saudi troops. He was popular among disgruntled Shiite youth in both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director Sarah Leah said “regardless of the crimes allegedly committed, executing prisoners in mass only further stains Saudi Arabia’s troubling human rights record.” She said al-Nimr was convicted in an “unfair” trial and that his execution “is only adding to the existing sectarian discord and unrest.”
Al-Nimr never denied the political charges against him, but maintained he never carried weapons or called for violence.
At his trial, he was asked if he disapproved of the Al Saud ruling family after speeches in which he spoke out forcefully against former Interior Minister and late Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdelaziz.
“If injustice stops against Shiites in the east, then (at that point) I can have a different opinion,” the cleric responded, according to his brother Mohammed al-Nimr, who attended court sessions and spoke before the verdict.
Al-Nimr’s brother told reporters by telephone that the executions came as a “big shock” because “we thought the authorities could adopt a political approach to settle matters without bloodshed.” He urged people to “adopt peaceful means when expressing their anger.”
Mohammed’s son Ali, the cleric’s nephew, is also facing execution, but his name was not among those listed Saturday. Amnesty International describes Ali al-Nimr as a juvenile offender because he was 17 years old in February 2012 when he was arrested. He was later convicted, and his death sentenced upheld, on charges of attacking security forces, taking part in protests, armed robbery and possessing a machine-gun.
After listing the names and images of those executed, Saudi state television showed black-and-white footage of previous terror attacks in the kingdom, one showing bodies in a mosque after an attack. Soft, traditional music played in the background.
Saudi Arabia carried out at least 157 executions in 2015, with beheadings reaching their highest level in the kingdom in two decades, according to several advocacy groups that monitor the death penalty worldwide.
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said Wednesday morning he is moving toward a major shake-up of his struggling campaign, with less than six weeks to go until early voting begins to select party nominees.
Yet by Wednesday evening, he tried to steer away from that message, announcing that all is well in the Carson camp
In a Wednesday morning interview at his Maryland home, conducted without the knowledge of his own campaign manager, Carson said “personnel changes” could be coming, suggesting he would consider sidelining his top aides.
“Everything. Everything is on the table,” he said of potential changes. “Every single thing is on the table. I’m looking carefully.”
Carson’s longtime business adviser Armstrong Williams put it more bluntly: “Dr. Carson is back in charge, and I’m so happy to see that,” he said. Williams himself has publicly feuded with the paid political professionals brought in to run Carson’s campaign.
Following an afternoon meeting with some of his paid advisers Wednesday – a group that did not include Williams – Carson said in a statement that while he has 100 percent confidence in his campaign team, “we are refining some operational practices and streamlining some staff assignments to more aptly match the tasks ahead.”
The statement added that his senior team “remains in place with my full confidence, and they will continue to execute our campaign plan.”
Campaign manager Barry Bennett was not aware of Carson’s statements about potential changes until later. He later texted: “No staff shake-up.”
The apparent rift between Carson, Williams and the paid campaign staff comes after his weeks-long slide in polls. The political newcomer – a celebrated pediatric neurosurgeon – briefly surged to the top of the GOP field in October, riding public appeal for more anti-establishment candidates, while making headway with Christian and conservative voters.
With the spotlight came scrutiny. Carson publicly lashed out at media reports questioning details of his celebrated autobiography.
Terrorist attacks in Paris and California shifted the focus of the race to foreign policy and national security, sometimes highlighting Carson’s lack of experience. Another challenge: He is soft-spoken in a race dominated by media-savvy, tough-talking figures including real estate mogul Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
“I certainly don’t expect to get through a campaign without some scratches and bruises,” Carson said. “That’s the nature of the beast.”
Then came the internal disarray.
Carson had raised $31 million by the end of September, more than any other Republican in the race, but he’s outpaced the competition on spending – mostly on fundraising costs rather than critical political infrastructure.
“I recognize that nothing is perfect,” Carson said. “And, yes, we’ve had enormous fundraising, but that requires that you be efficient in the way you utilize the funds. And, yes, we are looking at all those things.”
Carson acknowledged that some of his difficulties were of his making.
He said he must prove to voters that he is up to the challenge to be commander-in-chief.
“I think I have to directly address the issue,” he said, sitting in his basement game room, where the walls around him are covered in decades’ worth of accolades.
People think that “because you are soft-spoken and nice, you can’t possibly be tough, you can’t have the strength to deal with the incredible security problems we now face,” Carson said. That “is not true, but I’m now talking about it.”
In recent campaign stops, Carson has started offering more specifics on foreign policy, such as detailing how U.S-led coalition forces can work to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de-facto capital of the Islamic State group’s so-called caliphate.
Carson said he plans to put emphasis on his strategy for Libya when he returns to the trail after Christmas. He maintains that too many U.S. leaders, including some of his GOP rivals, have zeroed in on the Islamic State group’s activities in Iraq and Syria, while failing to acknowledge that they pose a threat beyond those borders.
“They have a global strategy,” Carson said of the militant group, arguing that the U.S. must counter it.
Carson said the rough-and-tumble nature of the 2016 race has not outweighed his favorite campaign moments. “The patients,” he said with a smile, explaining that he often meets former patients on the campaign trail who are eager to share their stories with him.
He recalled meeting one patient to whom he’d given a hemispherectomy – removing half the brain – as an infant. “He had graduated from college number one in his class – with half a brain,” Carson said. “These are incredible stories.”
Carson said a retooled campaign will not involve personal attacks on his Republican rivals, though he said he will look to place greater emphasis on their differences in policy and experience. He repeated his pledge to support the eventual GOP nominee if he does not win the nomination, explaining he’d respect the voters’ wishes.
Besides, Carson said, he likes his opponents – including bombastic Trump.
“There isn’t anybody there who is unpleasant,” Carson said. As an example, he noted that Trump had complimented him during the most recent GOP debate in Las Vegas.
“Then he came up to me during the break,” Carson recalled, “and said, ‘I really meant it.'”
Iraq’s armed forces stormed the center of Ramadi on Tuesday, a spokesman for the counter-terrorism units said, in a drive to dislodge Islamic State militants from their remaining stronghold in a city they captured in May.
The operation to recapture Ramadi, a Sunni Muslim city on the river Euphrates some 100 km (60 miles) west of Baghdad, began in early November after a months-long effort to cut off supply lines to the city, whose fall to Islamic State was a major defeat for Iraq’s weak central government.Progress has been slow because the government wants to rely entirely on its own troops and not use Shi’ite militias in order to avoid rights abuses such as occurred after the recapture of the city of Tikrit from the militants in April.
“Our forces are advancing toward the government complex in the center of Ramadi,” the counter-terrorism units’ spokesman Sabah al-Numani said. “The fighting is in the neighborhoods around the complex, with support from the air force.”Iraqi intelligence estimates the number of Islamic State fighters entrenched in the center of Ramadi, capital of Western Anbar province, at between 250 and 300.
“It’s ferocious fight, it’s premature to say how long it will take but we can say victory will be achieved in a few days,” Numani said.
Dozens of militants had been killed, said Brigadier Gen. Yahya Rasool, spokesman of the joint operations command, declining to give a casualty toll for the armed forces.
The offensive to capture the city center started at dawn, said Numani. Military units crossed the Euphrates river into the central districts using a bridge that was destroyed by the militants and fixed by army engineers, and another floating bridge set up to bring in more forces, he said.”Crossing the river was the main difficulty,” he said. “We’re facing sniper fire and suicide bombers who are trying to slow our advance, we’re dealing with them with air force support.”
If the attack to capture Ramadi succeeds, it will be the second major city after Tikrit to be retaken from Islamic State in Iraq.
Islamic State also controls Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and Falluja, which lies between Ramadi and Baghdad. Retaking Ramadi would provide a major psychological boost to Iraqi security forces after Islamic State seized a third of Iraq, a major OPEC oil producer and U.S ally, last year.
U.S. officials have cautioned against the use of Iran-backed Shi’ite militias in retaking Ramadi from the hardline Sunni militants to avoid further fanning sectarian tensions.
Thousands of Shiite militiamen and supporters rallied on Saturday and demanded that Turkish troops immediately withdraw from Iraqi territory, a show of strength by the country’s powerful militia groups and the Shiite political rivals of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
Militiamen in fatigues, supporters and onlookers gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, chanting, “No to occupation, no to Turkey.” Some young men burned Turkish flags. Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is the current Prime Minister’s fiercest rival, walked through the square and was mobbed by supporters who snapped photos and video on their phones.
Turkey has had troops near the Islamic State-held city of Mosul in northern Iraq since last year but the arrival of additional troops last week has sparked an uproar in the country. Ankara subsequently halted new deployments.
Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the powerful Badr Brigade, a Shiite militia, called for the troops to leave, drawing cheers and chants.
“This is a clear message that the Iraqi politicians and the people of Iraq are against this intrusion into the sovereignty of Iraq,” said Saad al-Muttalibi, an Iraqi lawmaker and close Maliki ally.
He said, however, the demonstration was not meant to be a challenge to Abadi’s handling of the crisis. “We support the processes, but we think the people will be heard in such important events,” he said.
Hussein Ali, a 40-year-old Baghdad businessman, said troops can’t enter another country without the agreement of its government.
“Even if they had the agreement of the Kurdish (regional government), that doesn’t count. It’s a violation,” he said.
The Kurdish Regional Government denies brokering a deal with Turkish troops to increase their presence at the base near Mosul, insisting that Baghdad approved the training mission months ago.
Harith al-Qarawee, said the protest Saturday was as much about Baghdad politics as it was about tensions with Turkey. “For Maliki and his allies in the Shia paramilitary groups, this was an opportunity to consolidate their Shia constituency,” he said. It was also a chance to show that Abadi and his allies “cannot match their powerful reaction to the Turkish intervention.”
“Iraq is the ‘sick man’ of the region,” Qarawee said. The country’s internal divisions are not only hampering the country’s fight against the Islamic State group, they’re also encouraging other powers to bypass the central government, he said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeated Friday that Turkey would not pull out troops already in Iraq and that the training process “in agreement” with Iraq would continue.
Ali said he came to Tahrir Square to protest government corruption over the summer, but stopped attending when it became clear nothing was changing. This was the first time he’s felt compelled to return.
“This is more important than the other protests,” Ali said. “This (crisis) honestly will divide Iraq into three parts.”
The number of fighters from Western Europe pouring into Syria has more than doubled since last year, swelling the ranks of the Islamic State and other extremist groups by more than 30,000 despite efforts by the U.S. and other Western countries to cut off the flow, according to a new report by an international security firm.
There is also mounting evidence that significant numbers of these fighters — an average of between 20 percent and 30 percent — are starting to return to their home countries, posing threats that became a grisly reality in the November 13 attacks in Paris, which were coordinated by an ISIS recruit who returned to France, the authors of the report warn.
“All of our assumptions about our ability to monitor these people have been proven faulty,” said Patrick Skinner, a former CIA counterterrorism officer and one of the authors of the report prepared by the Soufan Group.
“When you look at France or Belgium, they have a massive problem,” Skinner added. “It’s clear they haven’t been able to stop people from going and it’s painfully clear they haven’t stopped people from coming back. It’s the round-trip nature of this that is really worrisome.”
The report also suggests that the motivation for those joining the fight is often more personal than political, and may well be immune to the “countering radical extremism” messaging that U.S. and other officials have touted as a potential solution to the problem.
“A search for belonging, purpose, adventure and friendship appear to remain the main reasons for people to join the Islamic State, just as they remain the least-addressed issues in the international fight against terrorism,” the report states.
The report with detailed, country-by-country breakdowns on the flow of foreign fighters, offers a sobering and in some cases more downbeat perspective on the state of the war against ISIS than the one President Obama offered the country in a nationally televised speech Sunday night.
Before U.S. officials began calling attention to the problem, the Soufan Group was among the first to highlight the threat posed by foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq in a major report it released in June 2014. Basing its figures on open-source reporting, official government estimates and private interviews with U.S. and allied intelligence officials, the consulting firm estimated at the time that about 12,000 foreign fighters from 81 countries had flocked to Syria and Iraq.
The new report puts the figure at between 27,000 and 31,000 from at least 86 countries. That is consistent with current U.S. intelligence estimates, updated in just the last few weeks, of about 30,000.
The Soufan Group accepts official U.S. estimates that about 250 of these have come, or attempted to come, from the United States, up from about 120 last year.
The numbers from Western Europe, Russia and the former Soviet Republics are far more pronounced — and rapidly accelerating. It estimates, for example, that about 5,000 fighters from European Union countries have flocked to the conflict, up from 2,500 in June 2014, with more than two- thirds of them coming from just four countries. The number from France is estimated at 1,700 (up from 700 last year); from the U.K. 760 (up from 400 last year); from Germany, 760 (up from 270 last year; and from Belgium, 470 (up from 250 last year.)
One huge source of the flow has been Russia, a major reason cited by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent decision to begin military strikes in Syria. The report estimates that about 2,400 fighters have come from Russia, up from 800 last year. The largest sources, however, remains Tunisia about 6,000 (twice the estimate from last year); Turkey, between 2,000 and 2,200 (up from 400 last year); and 2,500 from Saudi Arabia (the same number as last year.)
In his talk from the Oval Office Sunday night, President Obama promised an intensification of air strikes and special operations forces against the ISIS. But he offered no major change in U.S. strategy and again vowed to avoid sending a large influx of U.S. ground troops to dislodge ISIS from the territory it now holds.
But Skinner of the Soufan Group said it is increasingly clear that the flow of fighters will not stop until the ISIS suffers a decisive defeat on the ground. “Until the Islamic State is demonstrably defeated, militarily, until they get toppled from Mosul and Raqqa, they will continue to be a magnet,” he said. “They need to have an undeniable loss.”
The State Department today released the largest batch of emails from Hillary Clinton’s private server to date 7,800 pages. Some 66 percent of the 52,000 pages of email she turned over to the government are now available for review and the State Department is on pace to have all of the documents released by January 2016, as ordered by a federal court.
The documents released today are mostly from 2012 and 2013, but include others that span her tenure as Secretary of State. The State Department has not been able to release the email in chronological order because much of it had to be set aside to be reviewed by other government agencies. Officials say many of those pages of email that have been held up were in today’s release.
One email from November 2010, titled “Follow up,” was just recently cleared by the Director of National Intelligence and deemed unclassified. The DNI had previously made public its decision to flag that email for further review. Although the content of the email was unknown until today, it was a discussion between a New York Times reporter and a spokesperson at the State Department, it and others still under scrutiny by government agencies have been seized upon by those critical of Clinton’s use of a private email server. Ultimately this email was not deemed classified, but many other have been.
The latest batch contains 328 emails deemed to have classified information. According to the State Department, that brings the total number with classified information to 999.
The emails in question were deemed classified before their release by the department – and the former secretary of state has said all along she never sent emails with material marked classified at the time.
But the large number of emails containing now-classified material further underscores how much sensitive information was crossing her private server, a situation her critics have described as a security risk.
Her email practices are also the subject of a federal investigation.
The documents in Monday’s release were largely sent or received in 2012 or 2013.
State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau described it as the department’s largest production to date as part of the court-ordered disclosure of emails from the personal server Clinton used while leading the department.
The emails also cover the tumultuous period before and after the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi terror attacks. On the night of the attacks, the communications show Clinton notifying top advisers of confirmation from the Libyans that then-Ambassador Chris Stevens had died.
Early the next morning, Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills tells Clinton they “recovered both bodies” and were looking to get out a statement; Sean Smith, information management officer, was the other State Department employee killed that night.
Another exchange from early 2013 shows retired diplomat James Jeffrey appearing to do damage control over a Washington Post piece from him titled, “How to Prevent the Next Benghazi.”
Jeffrey starts the conversation by warning Mills he’d been contacted by the Post regarding his views and reluctantly agreed to comply. He warns it would be posted and “you may see this piece as critical of expeditionary diplomacy. It’s not; I’ve risked my life practicing it. But having lost over 100 personnel KIA and WIA (and two ARBs judging me) in my time in Iraq (and a son going back to Afghanistan on Department assignment this summer) I feel very strongly that we have to be prudent. If the media ask me if there is any daylight between me and you all I will cite the Pickering Mullen ARB and the Secretary’s testimony and say absolutely not.”
Forwarding the article, he adds, “(Title is not what I gave them and stupid as I state explicitly at the end that being in Benghazi was the right policy call).”