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Biden, Kadhimi seal agreement to end U.S. combat mission in Iraq

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Reuters
(Last Updated On: July 27, 2021)

U.S. President Joe Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi sealed an agreement on Monday formally ending the U.S. combat mission in Iraq by the end of 2021, but U.S. forces will still operate there in an advisory role.

The agreement comes at a politically delicate time for the Iraqi government and could be a boost for Baghdad.

Kadhimi has faced increasing pressure from Iran-aligned parties and paramilitary groups who oppose the U.S. military role in the country.

Biden and Kadhimi met in the Oval Office for their first face-to-face talks as part of a strategic dialogue between the United States and Iraq.

“Our role in Iraq will be … to be available, to continue to train, to assist, to help and to deal with ISIS as it arises, but we’re not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission,” Biden told reporters as he and Kadhimi met.

There are currently 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq focusing on countering the remnants of Islamic State. The U.S. role in Iraq will shift entirely to training and advising the Iraqi military to defend itself.

The shift is not expected to have a major operational impact since the United States has already moved toward focusing on training Iraqi forces.

Still, for Biden, the deal to end the combat mission in Iraq follows decisions to carry out an unconditional withdrawal from Afghanistan and wrap up the U.S. military mission there by the end of August.

Together with his agreement on Iraq, the Democratic president is moving to formally complete U.S. combat missions in the two wars that then-President George W. Bush began under his watch nearly two decades ago.

A U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003 based on charges that then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s government possessed weapons of mass destruction. Saddam was ousted from power, but such weapons were never found.

In recent years, the U.S. mission was focused on helping defeat Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

“Nobody is going to declare mission accomplished. The goal is the enduring defeat of ISIS,” a senior administration official told reporters ahead of Kadhimi’s visit.

The reference was reminiscent of the large “Mission Accomplished” banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier above where Bush gave a speech declaring major combat operations over in Iraq on May 1, 2003.

“If you look to where we were, where we had Apache helicopters in combat, when we had U.S. special forces doing regular operations, it’s a significant evolution. So by the end of the year we think we’ll be in a good place to really formally move into an advisory and capacity-building role,” the official said.

U.S. diplomats and troops in Iraq and Syria were targeted in three rocket and drone attacks earlier this month. Analysts believed the attacks were part of a campaign by Iranian-backed militias.

The senior administration official would not say how many U.S. troops would remain on the ground in Iraq for advising and training. Kadhimi also declined to speculate about a future U.S. drawdown, saying troop levels would be determined by technical reviews. 

Kadhimi, who is seen as friendly to the United States, has tried to check the power of Iran-aligned militias. But his government condemned U.S. air strikes against Iran-aligned fighters along its border with Syria in late June, calling it a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. read more

In remarks to a small group of reporters after the talks, Kadhimi stressed that his government was responsible for responding to such attacks. He acknowledged that he had reached out to Tehran to address them.

“We speak to Iranians and others in an attempt to put a limit to these attacks, which are undermining Iraq and its role,” he said.

The United States plans to provide Iraq with 500,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech (PFE.N), COVID-19 vaccine under the global COVAX vaccine-sharing program. Biden said the doses should arrive in a couple of weeks.

The United States will also provide $5.2 million to help fund a U.N. mission to monitor October elections in Iraq.

“We’re looking forward to seeing an election in October,” said Biden.

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Boxer Manny Pacquiao to run for Philippine president in 2022

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(Last Updated On: September 19, 2021)

Boxing star Manny Pacquiao said on Sunday he will run for president of the Philippines next year, after railing against corruption in government and what he calls President Rodrigo Duterte’s cozy relationship with China.

Pacquiao accepted the nomination of his political allies during the national assembly of the faction he leads in the ruling PDP-Laban Party, days after a rival faction nominated Duterte’s long-time aide, Senator Christopher “Bong” Go, as its presidential candidate.

That faction nominated Duterte for vice president, a move that critics called a cynical ploy by Duterte to retain power.

Go declined the nomination, but the rift between the Pacquiao and Duterte factions has escalated, Reuters reported.

“I am a fighter, and I will always be a fighter inside and outside the ring,” Pacquiao, 42, a senator, said in a live-streamed speech during the assembly. “I am accepting your nomination as candidate for president of the Republic of the Philippines.”

Pacquiao’s faction has not expressed support for Duterte’s vice-presidential bid. Duterte is prohibited by the constitution from running for a second six-year term as president.

One of the greatest boxers of all time and the only man to hold world titles in eight different divisions, Pacquiao was mum about his 26-year professional career.

Despite his popularity, Pacquiao trails the front-runners in opinion polls that have been topped consistently by Duterte’s daughter Sara Duterte-Carpio.

Pacquiao, once a close ally of Duterte, had said more than 10 billion pesos ($200 million) in pandemic aid intended for poor families was unaccounted for, adding this was just one discovery in his planned corruption investigation.

His anti-corruption crusade comes as the Senate has opened an investigation into alleged overpricing of medical supplies and equipment purchased under the government’s pandemic response programme.

Duterte challenged Pacquiao to name corrupt government offices to prove that the boxer was not just politicking ahead of the election.

Pacquiao countered by warning of jail for corrupt government officials: “Your time is up!”

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Australia agrees on increased US air deployments in Australia

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(Last Updated On: September 17, 2021)

Australia and the United States have reached new force posture agreements that will see greater air cooperation through rotational deployments of all types of U.S. military aircraft to Australia, Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton said on Thursday.

Speaking at a joint news conference after meetings between the U.S. and Australian foreign and defense ministers in Washington, Dutton said the two sides would be “significantly enhancing our force posture cooperation, increasing interoperability and deepening alliance activities in the Indo-Pacific.”

“This will include greater air cooperation through rotational deployments of all types of U.S. military aircraft to Australia,” he said.

“We’ve also established combined logistics sustainment and capability for maintenance to support our enhanced activities, including logistics and sustainment capability for our submarines and surface combatants in Australia.”

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the meeting had endorsed “major force posture initiatives that will expand our access and presence in Australia.”

Dutton and Austin spoke a day after the United States and Britain said they would provide Australia with the technology and capability to deploy nuclear-powered submarines.

China on Thursday denounced the new Indo-Pacific security alliance between the United States, Britain, and Australia, saying such partnerships should not target third countries and warning of an intensified arms race in the region.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday said France was a “vital partner” in the Indo-Pacific region and that Washington would continue to cooperate with Paris, comments that appeared aimed at calming French anger after the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom clinched the historic defense export contract to supply Australia with submarines.

The three countries announced on Wednesday they would establish a security partnership for the Indo-Pacific that will help Australia acquire U.S. nuclear-powered submarines and scrap the $40 billion French-designed submarine deal.

France has reacted angrily to the loss of the deal, calling it a “stab in the back.”

Speaking at a news conference after meetings between the U.S. and Australian foreign and defense ministers in Washington, Blinken said Washington had been in touch with its French counterparts before the announcement of the submarine deal.

In 2016 Australia had selected French shipbuilder Naval Group to build a new submarine fleet worth $40 billion to replace its more than two-decades-old Collins submarines.

The United States and its allies are looking for ways to push back against China’s growing power and influence, particularly its military buildup, pressure on Taiwan and deployments in the contested South China Sea.

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Ukraine, U.S. to hold joint military drills

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(Last Updated On: September 17, 2021)

Ukraine and the United State will start joint military exercises in western Ukraine next week, the Ukrainian General Staff said on Thursday, days after Belarus and Russian staged large-scale drills that have concerned neighbouring countries, Reuters reported.

The “Zapad-2021” war games ran on Russia and Belarus’ western flanks, including sites close to the European Union’s borders, and alarmed Ukraine and some NATO countries.

Ukraine said the “RAPID TRIDENT – 2021” exercises would involve 6,000 troops from 15 countries – Ukraine, the United States and other NATO members – and would last till Oct. 1.

“The main goal is to prepare for joint actions as part of a multinational force during coalition operations,” it said in a statement.

According to the report Ukraine views the military exercises with Western partners as an important step on the path to NATO, believing that membership in the alliance would strengthen the country’s resistance to Russian aggression.

Kyiv’s relations with Moscow deteriorated in 2014 after Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine and backed pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s Donbass region. The seven-year war with separatists killed more than 13,000 people.

Ukraine’s relations with Belarus also have worsened since Kyiv called the 2020 presidential election in Belarus neither free nor fair and condemned violence against protesters, Reuters reported.

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