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U.S. racing to send aid to India as COVID-19 cases soar

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(Last Updated On: April 25, 2021)

The United States is deeply concerned by a massive surge in coronavirus cases in India and will race additional support to the Indian government and health care workers, a White House spokeswoman said on Saturday.

“We are in active conversations at high levels and plan to quickly deploy additional support to the Government of India and Indian health care workers as they battle this latest severe outbreak. We will have more to share very soon,” the spokeswoman told Reuters via email.

Washington is under increasing pressure to do more to help India, the world’s largest democracy and a strategic ally in President Joe Biden’s efforts to counter China, as it grapples with a record-setting surge in coronavirus infections.

The Indian government has deployed military planes and trains to get urgently needed oxygen to Delhi from other parts of the country and foreign countries, including Singapore.

The number of cases across the country surged by a record daily rise of 349,691 on Sunday, for a total of 16.96 million cases, including 192,311 deaths, the health ministry said.

The country of 1.3 billion people is on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe, Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, warned in an op-ed published Saturday in the Washington Post.

He said some 2,000 people were dying daily, but most experts estimated that the true number was five to 10 times that level.

Officials from both countries are engaged at various levels to ensure “a small supply of inputs and components from U.S. companies for production of COVID-19 vaccines in India,” a spokesman at the Indian Embassy in Washington told Reuters.

He said it was important to work together to identify ways to overcome bottlenecks in medical supply chains and expedite ongoing vaccination efforts.

Jha called on Washington to send India oxygen, excess testing kits and high-quality personal protective equipment, including face masks, and medicines to treat COVID-19 patients, including sedatives and Remdesivir.

Jha also urged the Biden administration to share excess vaccines with India and other countries in crisis, noting that the United States had an estimated 30 million unused doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine that is in use elsewhere, but has not been authorized by U.S. regulators.

Washington should also lift export controls on raw materials put in place via the Defense Production Act and an associated export embargo in February, Jha wrote.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Friday said U.S. and Indian officials were working to find ways to help address the crisis, but gave no timetable for the support.

She said the United States has already provided India some $1.4 billion in health assistance, emergency relief supplies, pandemic training for Indian state and local health officials, and ventilators.

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Pilgrims from around the world gather in Kerbala for Arbaeen

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(Last Updated On: September 28, 2021)

Masses gathered in Kerbala on Tuesday for the religious pilgrimage of Arbaeen and visited the shrines of Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas.

In a normal year, up to 20 million mostly Shi’ite Muslims take part in the Arbaeen pilgrimage in the holy city of Kerbala to commemorate Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, who was slain in battle in 680 by the Muslim Caliph of the day.

In 2020 and due to the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis, Iraqi authorities had barred entry to most foreign pilgrims, including some three million Iranians.

“Last year we were prevented from performing the pilgrimage. But now thank God, it was granted to us”, an Iranian pilgrim, Hamid Muqaddam said in Kerbala.

This year, Iraqi authorities allowed a limited number of pilgrims from abroad to enter Iraq and attend Arbaeen.

On Monday, Iraqi authorities recorded 2,447 new cases of coronavirus infections and 32 deaths.

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German Social Democrats beat conservatives in vote to decide Merkel successor

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(Last Updated On: September 27, 2021)

Germany’s Social Democrats narrowly won Sunday’s national election, projected results showed, and claimed a “clear mandate” to lead a government for the first time since 2005 and to end 16 years of conservative-led rule under Angela Merkel.

The centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) were on track for 26.0% of the vote, ahead of 24.5% for Merkel’s CDU/CSU conservative bloc, projections for broadcaster ZDF showed, but both groups believed they could lead the next government.

With neither major bloc commanding a majority, and both reluctant to repeat their awkward “grand coalition” of the past four years, the most likely outcome is a three-way alliance led by either the Social Democrats or Merkel’s conservatives.

Agreeing a new coalition could take months, and will likely involve the smaller Greens and liberal Free Democrats (FDP).

“We are ahead in all the surveys now,” the Social Democrats’ chancellor candidate, Olaf Scholz, said in a round table discussion with other candidates after the vote.

“It is an encouraging message and a clear mandate to make sure that we get a good, pragmatic government for Germany,” he added after earlier addressing jubilant SPD supporters.

The SPD’s rise heralds a swing left for Germany and marks a remarkable comeback for the party, which has recovered some 10 points in support in just three months to improve on its 20.5% result in the 2017 national election.

Scholz, 63, would become the fourth post-war SPD chancellor after Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schroeder. Finance minister in Merkel’s cabinet, he is a former mayor of Hamburg.

Scholz’s conservative rival Armin Laschet, signalled his bloc was not ready yet to concede, though his supporters were subdued.

“It hasn’t always been the first-placed party that provided the chancellor,” Laschet, 60, told the round table. “I want a government where every partner is involved, where everyone is visible – not one where only the chancellor gets to shine,” he said in an early attempt to woo smaller parties.

Schmidt ruled in the late 1970s and early 1980s in coalition with the FDP even though his Social Democrats had fewer parliamentary seats than the conservative bloc.

Attention will now shift to informal discussions followed by more formal coalition negotiations, which could take months, leaving Merkel in charge in a caretaker role.

Scholz and Laschet both said they would aim to strike a coalition deal before Christmas.

Merkel plans to step down after the election, making the vote an era-changing event to set the future course of Europe’s largest economy.

She has stood large on the European stage almost since taking office in 2005 – when George W. Bush was U.S. president, Jacques Chirac in the Elysee Palace in Paris and Tony Blair British prime minister.

After a domestic-focused election campaign, Berlin’s allies in Europe and beyond may have to wait for months before they can see whether the new German government is ready to engage on foreign issues to the extent they would like.

A row between Washington and Paris over a deal for Australia to buy U.S. instead of French submarines has put Germany in an awkward spot between allies, but also gives Berlin the chance to help heal relations and rethink their common stance on China.

On hearing that the SPD were slightly ahead in polls, U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters in Washington: “I’ll be darned… They’re solid.”

On economic policy, French President Emmanuel Macron is eager to forge a common European fiscal policy, which the Greens support but the CDU/CSU and FDP reject. The Greens also want “a massive expansion offensive for renewables”.

“Germany will end up with a rather weak chancellor who will struggle to get behind any kind of ambitious fiscal reform at the EU level,” said Naz Masraff at political risk consultancy Eurasia.

Whatever coalition ends up in power, Germany’s friends can at least take heart that moderate centrism has prevailed, and the populism that has taken hold in other European countries failed to break through.

The projected results for ZDF showed the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) on track for 10.5%, worse than four years ago when they stormed into the national parliament with 12.6% of the vote, and with all mainstream groupings ruling out a coalition with the party.

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Erdogan says Turkey plans to buy more Russian defense systems

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(Last Updated On: September 27, 2021)

President Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey still intended to buy a second batch of S-400 missile defense systems from Russia, a move that could deepen a rift with NATO ally Washington and trigger new U.S. sanctions, Reuters reported.

According to the report Washington says the S-400s pose a threat to its F-35 fighter jets and to NATO’s broader defense systems. Turkey says it was unable to procure air defense systems from any NATO ally on satisfactory terms.

“In the future, nobody will be able to interfere in terms of what kind of defense systems we acquire, from which country at what level,” Erdogan said in an interview that aired on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

“Nobody can interfere with that. We are the only ones to make such decisions.”

The United States imposed sanctions on Turkey’s Defense Industry Directorate, its chief, Ismail Demir, and three other employees in December following the country’s acquisition of a first batch of S-400s, Reuters said.

Talks continued between Russia and Turkey about the delivery of a second batch, which Washington has repeatedly said would almost certainly trigger new sanctions.

“We urge Turkey at every level and opportunity not to retain the S-400 system and to refrain from purchasing any additional Russian military equipment,” said a State Department spokesperson when asked about Erdogan’s comments.

“We continue to make clear to Turkey that any significant new Russian arms purchases would risk triggering CAATSA 231 sanctions separate from and in addition to those imposed in December 2020,” the spokesperson added, referring to the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.

The spokesperson also said the United States regards Turkey as an ally and friend and seeks ways to strengthen their partnership “even when we disagree.”

Erdogan will meet with President Vladimir Putin in Russia on Wednesday to discuss issues including the violence in northwestern Syria, read the report.

Erdogan also said that U.S. President Joe Biden never raised the issue of Turkey’s human rights track record, seen as extremely troublesome by international rights advocacy groups, confirming Reuters reporting from earlier in September.

Asked whether Biden brought up the issue during their June meeting on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Brussels, Erdogan said: “No he didn’t. And because we don’t have any problems of that nature in terms of freedoms, Turkey is incomparably free.”

Turkey is among the top jailers of journalists, according to figures from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), while Human Rights Watch says Erdogan’s authoritarian rule has been consolidated by the passage of legislation that contravenes international human rights obligations, Reuters reported.

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