BAGHDAD: The Iraqi government dismissed a call from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for Iranian-backed paramilitary units that helped Baghdad defeat Islamic State and capture the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk to end operations in Iraq.
The paramilitary units have been expanding their reach to northern Iraq, supporting government forces which seized the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk one week ago in a lightning advance in retaliation for a referendum on independence.
Iraqi forces are deploying tanks and artillery just south of a Kurdish-operated oil pipeline that crosses into Turkey, a Kurdish security official said, the latest in a series of Iranian-backed operations against the Kurds.
Speaking after a meeting on Sunday with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, Tillerson said it was time for the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation forces and their Iranian advisers to “go home”.
Washington is concerned Iran will use its expanded presence in Iraq and in Syria to expand its influence in the region. But Abadi showed unwillingness to meet Tillerson’s demand.
“No party has the right to interfere in Iraqi matters,” a statement from his office read. It did not cite the prime minister himself but a “source” close to him.
Predominantly Shia Iran and its Sunni rival Saudi Arabia are locked in a proxy war for influence in the Middle East.
The international battle against the militant Islamic State group in northern Iraq since 2014 saw the United States and Iran effectively fighting on the same side, with both supporting the Iraqi government against the militants.
Washington has 5,000 troops in Iraq, and provided air support, training and weapons to Iraqi government forces, even as Iran armed, trained and advised the Shia paramilitaries which often fought alongside the army.
But the latest twist in the Iraq conflict, pitting the central government against the Kurds, is trickier for US policymakers. Washington still supports the central government but has also been allied to the Kurds for decades.
Iran exhibited its sway over Baghdad’s policies during tensions over a referendum last month in which the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region voted to secede from Iraq against Baghdad’s wishes, Kurdish officials say.
Baghdad responded to the vote by seizing the oil city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds see as the heart of any future homeland.
Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of foreign operations for Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, repeatedly warned Kurdish leaders to withdraw from Kirkuk or face an onslaught by Iraqi forces and allied Iranian-backed fighters, Kurdish officials briefed on the meetings said.
Iraq’s Sunni neighbours, including Saudi Arabia, share Washington’s concerns over Shia power Iran’s influence in Iraq, where the population is predominantly Shia.
The office of Abadi, himself a Shia, said the paramilitary forces were under the authority of the Iraqi government. “Popular Mobilisation are Iraqi patriots,” it said in the statement.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also rejected Tillerson’s statement.
The paramilitaries could not go home because “they are at home” already, he was quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA.
Published in Dawn, October 24th, 2017
WASHINGTON: The widow of a fallen soldier reproached President Donald Trump on Monday over his condolence call last week, saying she was angered by his tone and that he couldn’t remember her husband’s name. Trump quickly responded on Twitter that he’d been “very respectful” and spoke the name “without hesitation.”
Monday’s harsh exchange was the latest in an ongoing dispute over how Trump responded to the deaths of four service members in the African nation of Niger.
Myeshia Johnson, La David Johnson’s widow, spoke on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” It was her first interview after a Democratic congresswoman accused Trump of being callous in the call by telling the widow that her husband “knew what he signed up for.”
Johnson confirmed Wilson’s account, saying the congresswoman was a longtime friend who was with the family in the car when Trump called on Tuesday and listened on speakerphone. She said she had asked for the call to be put on speakerphone so relatives with her could hear.
“The president said that he knew what he signed up for but it hurts anyway,” Johnson said. She added: “The only way he could remember my husband’s name was he told me he had my husband’s report in front of him and that’s when he actually said La David.” Trump, who had accused Rep. Frederica Wilson of fabricating the statement, fired back on Twitter, saying: “I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!” But Johnson offered a different version.
“I heard him stumbling on trying to remember my husband’s name and that’s what hurt me the most, because if my husband is out here fighting for our country and he risked his life for our country why can’t you remember his name,” she said. “And that’s what made me upset and cry even more because my husband was an awesome soldier.”
The conflict drew criticism from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who said on “The View” Monday: “we should not be fighting about a brave American who lost his life.” Johnson also said she has received little information about her husband’s death and complained she has not been able to see his body.
Published in Dawn, October 24th, 2017
DOHA, Qatar, Oct 21, (Agencies): As US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits the Middle East this weekend, he’ll hope to achieve something that has eluded top American diplomats for a generation: sealing a new alliance between Saudi Arabia and Iraq that would shut the doors of the Arab world to neighboring Iran.
While the United States strives to heal the rift between the Gulf Arab states and Qatar, and resolve civil wars in Yemen and Syria, Tillerson is the Trump administration’s point man on an even more ambitious and perhaps even less likely geopolitical gambit. US officials see a new axis that unites Riyadh and Baghdad as central to countering Iran’s growing influence from the Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea, particularly as the Iraqi government struggles to rebuild recently liberated Islamic State strongholds and confronts a newly assertive Kurdish independence movement.
History, religion and lots of politics stand in Tillerson’s way. He arrived in Riyadh on Saturday and planned to visit Qatar on Monday. The effort to wean Iraq from Iran and bond it to Saudi Arabia isn’t new, but US officials are optimistically pointing to a surer footing they believe they’ve seen in recent months.
They’re hoping to push the improved relations into a more advanced phase Sunday when Tillerson participates in the inaugural meeting of the Saudi Arabia- Iraq Coordination Committee in Riyadh. Tillerson will seek Saudi financial generosity and political support for Iraq, its embattled northern neighbor.
Two US officials said Tillerson hopes the oil-rich Saudis will contribute to the massive reconstruction projects needed to restore pre- IS life in Iraqi cities such as Mosul and lend their backing to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi. He is treading delicately among a host of powerful countries on Iraq’s borders which are increasingly trying to shape the future of the ethnically and religiously divided nation.
The officials briefed reporters on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to publicly preview Tillerson’s plans. Shiite-majority Iraq and Sunni- led Saudi Arabia, estranged for decades after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, have tried in recent years to bridge their differences.
Nevertheless, the relationship is still plagued by suspicion. Saudi Arabia reopened its embassy in Baghdad in 2015 after a quarter-century, and earlier this year unblocked long closed border crossings. But the emergence of arch-Saudi rival Iran as a power player in Iraq continues to gnaw at Riyadh and Washington.
Iran’s reported intervention in Iraq’s semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region, following last month’s much criticized vote for independence in a referendum, has deepened the unease. President Donald Trump wants to see “a stable Iraq, but a stable Iraq that is not aligned with Iran,” H.R. McMaster, his national security adviser, said this past week. He suggested Saudi Arabia could play a pivotal role. The US view is that the alternative may mean more conflict in Iraq, which endured years of insurgency after the US-led 2003 invasion and ethnic warfare when the Islamic State group rampaged across the country in 2014.
“Iran is very good at pitting communities against each other,” McMaster said Thursday at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “This is something they share with groups like ISIS, with al-Qaeda. They pit communities against each other because they use tribal and ethnic and sectarian conflicts to gain influence by portraying themselves as a patron or protector of one of the parties in the conflict and then they use that invitation to come in and to help to advance their agenda and, in Iran’s case, I think is a hegemonic design.”
Trump and his national security team have framed much of the Middle East security agenda around counteracting Iran, which they see as a malign influence that poses an existential threat to Israel and other American allies and partners in the region. They also accuse Iran of menacing the United States and its interests at home and elsewhere in the world. Shortly after taking office, Tillerson identified improving Saudi-Iraqi ties as a priority in the administration’s broader policy to confront and contain Iran. Officials say he has devoted himself to the effort.
“HE would make a drum out of the skin of his own mother in order to sound his own praises.” Winston Churchill was taking a celebrated shy here at his arch rival Lloyd George to everyone’s mirth. How would the humour work in India?
Hindutva cohorts spent most of the 10 years of prime minister Manmohan Singh’s years in office hurling abuses at him, calling him a thief and even a eunuch. The gentleman that he was, Singh responded with studied silence, eyes lowered. Now try critiquing Hindutva.
Last week, the police in Kanpur arrested one person and booked 22 others for putting up posters that likened Prime Minister Modi to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The posters featured photos of the two leaders side by side with an accompanying Hindi text: “Kim has decided to destroy the world, Modi has decided to destroy business.”
The traders missed a more telling point, however. India under Modi has slipped in the world hunger ratings to a level below North Korea. And both claim to be muscular nuclear powers that won’t baulk at the idea of using their arsenal against a challenger.
According to The Hindu, an FIR was filed against the 22 traders named on the posters under Sections 505 (statements conducing to public mischief) and 153 (wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot) of the Indian Penal Code.
The threat Hindu extremists pose is by no means limited to their abusive tongue.
Indeed, people who lampoon Modi or his aide Amit Shah, not to forget their handpicked Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, face a real danger at the very least of being abused on social media by their strangely virile followers. If the critic is a woman — and women happen to lead the spiralling chorus against the regime — she can expect to be threatened with rape. In case the indignant critic is male, he would have to endure the choice of his sister or mother being threatened with sexual assault.
In both events, it is the woman that ends up as the eventual victim of Hindutva’s rage. On a lean day, the critics can be arrested or served with a legal notice, as was the case with the traders or like a certain movie actor in southern India who ribbed Modi. Elsewhere, they can be bashed up by an irate mob, often under the watch of indulgent policemen.
Everyone abuses everybody in a world where regional, linguistic, religious or tribal prejudices abound. In India, the caste system has spawned its own vocabulary. Elite Muslims, mostly comprising the ashraaf, share the cultivated litany of caste-based abuses with their elite Hindu allies. Contemptuously calling someone a cobbler or a toilet cleaner, forbidden under Indian law, has been a cultural trait of Hindus and Muslims alike.
Of course, the upper castes are cursed back in turn, and that is the inevitable equaliser. Najman Bua of Rudauli had her peasant response in a rage. She was the Muslim house help who raised me as a child. Her choicest abuse was to call someone an offspring of a bearded Turkish rapist, reference to marauding soldiers.
As a convent-educated girl turned away her face in the old Bombay bus because a sweat-soaked fisherwoman had just found a seat next to her, what was the earful she got from the fish vendor? “Thaavk hai ga, moti baamna chi poar haais ti.” (I know you are a Brahmin’s daughter, and so what!)
Muslims mask their own peculiar genre of perverse talent. When the lights would go off at the Aligarh Muslim University hostels — and the problem of power outrages was perennial in the 1970s — the ashraaf Muslims, mostly those who would be teaching the path of piety to the newcomers during the day, would resort to the foulest invectives they mindlessly hurled at the inmates of a rival hostel in the cover of darkness. Women were again the targets.
The advent of the parliament house of elected deputies, initially under upper-caste sway, put a period of restraint on the style and substance of the conversations in Indian politics. My guess is that the rise of the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra ended the period of mandatory sobriety. The caste verbiage mutated into a ‘dhikkar (fie on you) rally’ by the Dalit Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh. The middle caste Samajwadi Party returned the compliment with a ‘thoo thoo (spit on you) rally’ against the Dalits, recalling perhaps that the lowest in the caste heap had to wear a spittoon round their neck so as not to pollute the path of walkers.
As the two tramps in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot abused each other into an absurd crescendo the bout ended with Estragon calling Vladimir a ‘critic’.
But fascists would not be fascists if they limited their response to criticism with criticism. The threat Hindu extremists pose is by no means limited to their abusive tongue. That is where leaders like Rahul Gandhi miss the point. He personalises everything wrong with Hindutva. He says they routinely abuse him and his family, which is a fact. I have heard activists of Jan Sangh, an earlier avatar of the Bharatiya Janata Party, targeting Indira Gandhi for her gender.
True, they bashed up Rahul Gandhi, metaphorically of course, so much that it made him open his eyes to the real world. Gandhi’s speechwriters seem to accord little space to violence that ordinary Indians face at the hands of fascist vigilantes. They desist from mentioning the daylight murders of men and women like Gauri Lankesh and Malleshappa Madivalappa Kalburgi by suspected Hindutva assassins. For that he deserves to be called an opportunist. In which case, however, rest assured that his henchmen, if he keeps any, will not beat you up or lynch you. And that small blessing may be something to covet in 2019.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, October 17th, 2017
Joshua Boyle, his American wife and three children arrived in Toronto on Friday after being freed from captivity in Pakistan, the Canadian government announced.
Boyle and his wife Caitlan Coleman were captured by the Taliban while hiking in Afghanistan in 2012, and then turned over to the affiliated militant Haqqani network in Pakistan.
Boyle said upon arriving back in Canada that the Haqqani network in Afghanistan had killed his infant daughter and raped his wife during the years they were held in captivity.
The couple was rescued on Wednesday, five years after they had been abducted by the Taliban-linked extremist network while in Afghanistan as part of a backpacking trip. Coleman was pregnant at the time and had four children in captivity. The birth of the fourth child had not been publicly known before Boyle appeared before journalists at the Toronto airport.
“The stupidity and evil of the Haqqani network's kidnapping of a pilgrim and his heavily pregnant wife engaged in helping ordinary villagers in Taliban-controlled regions of Afghanistan was eclipsed only by the stupidity and evil of authorising the murder of my infant daughter,” he said.
Boyle said his wife was raped by a guard who was assisted by his superiors. He asked for the Afghan government to bring them to justice.
“God willing, this litany of stupidity will be the epitaph of the Haqqani network,” he said.
He said he was in Afghanistan to help villagers “who live deep inside Taliban-controlled Afghanistan where no NGO, no aid worker and no government has ever successfully been able to bring the necessary help”.
On the plane from London, Boyle provided a written statement to The Associated Press saying his family has “unparalleled resilience and determination”. Coleman, who is from Stewartstown, Pennsylvania, sat in the aisle of the business-class cabin wearing a tan-colored headscarf.
She nodded wordlessly when she confirmed her identity to a reporter on board the flight. In the two seats next to her were her two elder children. In the seat beyond that was Boyle, with their youngest child in his lap. US State Department officials were on the plane with them.
The handwritten statement that Boyle gave the AP expressed disagreement with US foreign policy.
“God has given me and my family unparalleled resilience and determination, and to allow that to stagnate, to pursue personal pleasure or comfort while there is still deliberate and organised injustice in the world would be a betrayal of all I believe, and tantamount to sacrilege,” he wrote.
He nodded to one of the State Department officials and said, “Their interests are not my interests.” He added that one of his children is in poor health and had to be force-fed by their Pakistani rescuers.
The family was able to leave the plane with their escorts before the rest of the passengers. There was a short delay before everyone else was allowed out.
“It will be of incredible importance to my family that we are able to build a secure sanctuary for our three surviving children to call a home,” he said in his later statement at the airport. “To try to regain some portion of the childhood that they have lost.”
Dan Boyle, Joshua's younger brother, said outside the family home in Smiths Falls, Ontario, that he had spoken to his brother a few times in the past few days.
“He's doing very well. He sounds a lot like how he sounded five years ago. He sounds like he had his head on his shoulders and his wits about him,” he said.
The Canadian government said in a statement they will “continue to support him and his family now that they have returned”.
“Today, we join the Boyle family in rejoicing over the long-awaited return to Canada of their loved ones,” the Canadian government said.
Foreign Office spokesman Nafees Zakaria said the Pakistan Army raid that led to the family's rescue was based on a tip from US intelligence and shows that Pakistan will act against a “common enemy” when Washington shares information.
US officials have long accused Pakistan of ignoring groups like the Haqqani network. US officials consider it a terrorist organisation and have targeted its leaders with drone strikes. But the Haqqani group also operates like a criminal network. Unlike the militant Islamic State (IS) group, it does not typically execute Western hostages, preferring to ransom them for cash.
A US national security official, who was not authorised to discuss operational details of the release and spoke only on condition of anonymity, said the US obtained actionable information, passed it to Pakistani government officials, asked them to interdict and recover the hostages and they did.
President Donald Trump, who previously had warned Pakistan to stop harbouring militants, praised Pakistan for its “cooperation on many fronts”. On Twitter, he wrote Friday that the US is starting to develop “a much better relationship with Pakistan and its leaders”.
The operation appeared to have unfolded quickly and ended with what some described as a dangerous raid, a shootout and a captor's final, terrifying threat to “kill the hostage”.
Boyle told his parents that he, his wife and their children were intercepted by Pakistani forces while being transported in the back or trunk of their captors' car and that some of his captors were killed. He suffered only a shrapnel wound, his family said. US officials did not confirm those details.
A US military official said that a military hostage team had flown to Pakistan on Wednesday prepared to fly the family out. The team did a preliminary health assessment and had a transport plane ready to go, but sometime after daybreak Thursday, as the family members were walking to the plane, Boyle said he did not want to board, the official said.
Boyle's father said his son did not want to board the plane because it was headed to Bagram Air Base and the family wanted to return directly to North America. Another US official said Boyle was nervous about being in “custody” given his family ties.
Boyle chose to fly back from Islamabad to Canada on commercial airlines via London.
He was once married to Zaynab Khadr, the older sister of former Guantanamo Bay detainee Omar Khadr and the daughter of a senior Al Qaeda financier. Her father, the late Ahmed Said Khadr, and the family stayed with Osama bin Laden briefly when Omar Khadr was a boy.
The Canadian-born Omar Khadr was 15 when he was captured by US troops following a firefight and was taken to the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay. Officials had discounted any link between that background and Boyle's capture, with one official describing it in 2014 as a “horrible coincidence”.
The US Justice Department said neither Boyle nor Coleman is wanted for any federal crime. On Thursday, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said Boyle was not a target of investigation in Canada.
The Haqqani network had previously demanded the release of Anas Haqqani, a son of the founder of the group, in exchange for turning over the American-Canadian family. In one of the videos released by their captors, Boyle implored the Afghan government not to execute Taliban prisoners, or he and his wife would be killed.
US officials have said that several other Americans are being held by militant groups in Afghanistan or Pakistan.
They include Kevin King, 60, a teacher at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul who was abducted in August 2016, and Paul Overby, an author in his 70s who had traveled to the region several times but disappeared in eastern Afghanistan in mid-2014.
WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump reacted to reports on Tuesday that his secretary of state had called him a moron, saying in an interview if Rex Tillerson did call him a moron, the two should “compare IQ tests”.
“And I can tell you who is going to win,” Trump said in the interview with Forbes magazine.
Trump’s tense relationship with Tillerson burst into public view last week. An NBC News story claimed Vice President Mike Pence had to talk the secretary of state out of resigning this summer, and that Tillerson had called Trump a “moron”.
Tillerson said he never considered resigning, though he didn’t directly address the reported insult.
His spokeswoman later said he never used such language.
State Department officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
President Trump has at times appeared to undercut Rex Tillerson’s message on some of America’s most sensitive national security challenges, including Iran and North Korea.
Tillerson also has publicly complained about the White House blocking him from making key appointments.
Still, last week Trump told reporters he had “total confidence” in his secretary of state.
In the Forbes interview, done on Friday, Trump responded to criticism that he had undermined his secretary of state through his often provocative tweets that have interfered directly with ongoing diplomatic efforts.
“I’m not undermining,” Trump told Forbes. “I think I’m actually strengthening authority.”
As for Rex Tillerson’s reported “moron” comment, the president said: “I think it’s fake news. But if he did that, I guess we’ll have to compare IQ tests. And I can tell you who is going to win.”
The president launched a series of tweets on a wide range of topics on Tuesday morning.
He said that reaching out to congressional Democrats for help in getting immigration legislation passed is difficult because “the Democrats don’t want secure borders”.
In his tweet, Trump charged that Democrats “don’t care about safety for USA”.
His Twitter post came only two days after Trump sent an immigration overhaul wish-list of legislative proposals to congressional leaders, including a requirement that Congress agree to a host of border security improvements and make significant changes to the green card programme.
Donald Trump had said on Sunday there needs to be security enhancements and the border wall that he’s demanded before he’d sign onto a bill restoring a programme that shields from deportation young people brought to the United States illegally when they were children.
Published in Dawn, October 11th, 2017
NAPA, United States, Oct 10, (Agencies): More than a dozen fast-moving wildfires tearing through California’s wine country have killed at least 10 people, destroying hundreds of homes, authorities said Monday. Fanned by winds of over 50 miles (80 kms) an hour, the blazes have forced more than 20,000 people to evacuate in the country’s heaviest populated state since they began Sunday night.
California’s fire service said about 73,000 acres (30,000 hectares) have been ravaged by the major infernos. “The Sheriff’s Office confirms seven fire-related deaths from the Sonoma Co fires. Our condolences to their friends and families,” tweeted the sheriff of Sonoma County in the state’s north. The previous toll had stood at three.
At least 1,500 buildings were destroyed as the state declared an emergency in three counties ravaged by intense fires, mostly in its famous wine-producing regions. Fourteen major fires are burning in total. Napa, Sonoma and Yuba counties are covered by Governor Jerry Brown’s order. The counties are north of San Francisco Bay.
An AFP correspondent in the Santa Rosa area witnessed multiple explosions from gas lines or gas tanks, in addition to charred out homes and a winery. Fire trucks were out in force in that area, he said. About 410 firefighters are working on blazes in Mendocino, a sheriff’s spokesman in that county told the CBS news network, adding that multiple fatalities were expected.
Another fire in Anaheim has surged to char 800 hectares and at least 200 fire fighters scrambled to try to contain it. Dozens of shelters were opened in schools and churches. Even livestock had shelter areas set up on some fair grounds. “We’re going to have to start over completely,” Dreama Goldberg, who fl ed her home — now a heap of ashes — at eight months pregnant, told NBC. Jesus Torres told CBS he barely had time to grab a few things and run from his home. “We could see the sky was getting red: we did not know it was fire until the last second because there was just smoke everywhere,” he said.
The Hilton Hotel in Santa Rosa said on Facebook that its staff and guests were evacuated safely. “The wildfires in Santa Rosa, California and the surrounding areas have forced the evacuation and temporary closure of Hilton Sonoma Wine Country,” it said on Facebook. “All guests and associates of the Hotel have been safely evacuated and are not able to return until further notice. It is anticipated that the Hotel has sustained significant damage.” Pacific Gas & Electric said more than 196,000 customers had initially lost elecricity although half had had their power restored.
“As of 3.00 pm (2200 GMT), we have about 99,000 customers out of power throughout our service area, with the majority of them in Sonoma and Napa counties,” it said. Coffey Park, a sprawling Santa Rosa neighborhood with dozens of homes, was also charred in the strong winds and low humidity fire experts said were more like fires in southern California. Cheri Sharp told Oregon-based TV news channel KOBI her home of 26 years in Santa Rosa was among those destroyed. “All our pictures are gone. Everything, everything is gone. We’ve got a fire pit. It’s pretty awful,” she said.