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U.S. carries out air strikes against Iran-backed militia in Iraq, Syria

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(Last Updated On: June 28, 2021)

The United States said on Sunday it carried out another round of air strikes against Iran-backed militia in Iraq and Syria, this time in response to drone attacks by the militia against U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq.

In a statement, the U.S. military said it targeted operational and weapons storage facilities at two locations in Syria and one location in Iraq. It did not disclose whether it believed anyone was killed or injured but officials said assessments were ongoing.

The strikes came at the direction of President Joe Biden, the second time he has ordered retaliatory strikes against Iran-backed militia since taking office five months ago. Biden last ordered limited strikes in Syria in February, that time in response to rocket attacks in Iraq.

“As demonstrated by this evening’s strikes, President Biden has been clear that he will act to protect U.S. personnel,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

The strikes came even as Biden’s administration is looking to potentially revive a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. The decision to retaliate appears to show how Biden aims to compartmentalize such defensive strikes, while simultaneously engaging Tehran in diplomacy.

Biden’s critics say Iran cannot be trusted and point to the drone attacks as further evidence that Iran and its proxies will never accept a U.S. military presence in Iraq or Syria.

Biden and the White House declined comment on the strikes on Sunday. But Biden will meet Israel’s outgoing president, Reuven Rivlin, at the White House on Monday for a broad discussion that will include Iran and U.S. efforts to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal. Those efforts have raised serious concerns in Israel, Iran’s arch-foe.

U.S. officials believe Iran is behind a ramp-up in increasingly sophisticated drone attacks and periodic rocket fire against U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq, where the U.S. military has been helping Baghdad combat the remnants of Islamic State.

Two U.S. officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said Iran-backed militias carried out at least five drone attacks against facilities used by U.S. and coalition personnel in Iraq since April.

The Pentagon said the facilities targeted were used by Iran-backed militia including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada.

One of the facilities targeted was used to launch and recover the drones, a defense official said.

The U.S. military carried out strikes with F-15 and F-16 aircraft, officials said, adding the pilots made it back from the mission safely.

“We assess each strike hit the intended targets,” one of the officials told Reuters.

Iraq’s government is struggling to deal with militias ideologically aligned with Iran which are accused of rocket fire against U.S. forces and of involvement in killing peaceful pro-democracy activists.

Earlier in June, Iraq released Iran-aligned militia commander Qasim Muslih, who was arrested in May on terrorism-related charges, after authorities found insufficient evidence against him.

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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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Torrential rains kill over 160 in India, dozens trapped in landslides

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(Last Updated On: July 26, 2021)

Rescue teams in India were digging through thick sludge and debris on Monday to find over 60 people trapped in landslides caused by torrential monsoon rains that have so far claimed more than 160 lives in four days.

The western states of Maharashtra and Goa, as well as Karnataka and Telangana in the south, are the most affected by heavy rains that have flooded croplands over thousands of hectares and forced authorities to move over 230,000 people to safer places.

In Maharashtra, 149 people have died mainly in landslides and other monsoon-related accidents, while another 64 are still missing, the state government said in a statement.

“We are trying hard to rescue people trapped under landslide debris in Raigad and Satara but the possibility of evacuating them alive is remote. They are trapped under mud for more than three days,” said a senior official with the state government, referring to two badly affected districts.

Rescuers couldn’t reach affected villages quickly because approach roads were cut off by overflowing rivers and landslides, officials said.

In Karnataka and Telangana, more than a dozen people died because of floods but waters in the main Krishna and Godavari rivers are receding, authorities said.

In Goa, a hugely popular tourist destination on the western coast, hundreds of houses were damaged as the state recorded the worst floods in nearly four decades, the state’s chief minister Pramod Sawant said.

Rains are easing on the west coast and that will help in rescue operations, said a Pune-based senior scientist with the India Meteorological Department.

“This week also, the west coast will receive rainfall, but the intensity would be much lower compared to the last week,” he said.

Last week, parts of India’s west coast received up to 594 mm (23 inches) of rainfall over 24 hours, forcing authorities to evacuate people from vulnerable areas as they released water from dams that were threatening to overflow.

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Peru socialist Castillo confirmed president after lengthy battle over results

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(Last Updated On: July 25, 2021)

Peru’s electoral authority on Monday named socialist Pedro Castillo as the country’s next president, having officially won the June 6 runoff against right-wing candidate Keiko Fujimori, who accepted the result but said she had been cheated.

The official result had been delayed by appeals from Fujimori aimed at annulling some ballots over fraud accusations. She said she was nonetheless bound by law to recognize the ruling of the National Jury of Elections.

“I proclaim Pedro Castillo as president of the republic and Dina Boluarte as first vice president,” elections chief Jorge Salas said during a televised ceremony on Monday night, Reuters reported.

Earlier in the day, Fujimori said she would recognize the official result “because it is what the law and the constitution that I have sworn to defend, mandates. The truth is going to come out anyway.”

“They have stolen thousands of votes from us,” Fujimori, the daughter of jailed former President Alberto Fujimori,told a news conference. She called on her followers to protest, reported Reuters.

“We have the right to mobilize … but in a peaceful manner and within the framework of the law,” she said.

The Organization of American States, the European Union and Britain have all said the election was clean. The U.S. Embassy in Lima sent a tweet, welcoming the announcement. “We value our close ties with Peru and hope to strengthen them with President elect Pedro Castillo after his inauguration on July 28,” the tweet said.

Castillo, in his first comments as president-elect, called for national unity. “I ask for effort and sacrifice in the struggle to make this a just and sovereign country,” he said.

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