The United States has led criticism of Russia’s new law targeting “undesirable” non-government organisations, which activists fear will stifle critical voices at international rights groups working in the country.
Under the law signed by president Vladimir Putin on Saturday evening, Russian prosecutors will be able to target foreign groups whose “undesirable activities” are deemed to threaten “state security” or the “basic values of the Russian state”.
Such groups and their publications risk being banned in Russia, having their bank accounts blocked and violators face fines or prison terms of up to six years.
People cooperating with such entities would also be hit with fines and could be banned from entering Russia, according to the text, which sailed through the two chambers of Russia’s parliament.
Critics have said the vague wording of the legislation, and a process that bypasses the court system, means that any group or business could be targeted.
US state department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said the law illustrated increasing restrictions on criticism of the Kremlin.
“We are concerned this new power will further restrict the work of civil society in Russia and is a further example of the Russian government’s growing crackdown on independent voices and intentional steps to isolate the Russian people from the world,” she said in a statement.
“Russians, like people everywhere, deserve a government that supports an open marketplace of ideas, transparent and accountable governance, equal treatment under the law and the ability to exercise their rights without fear of retribution.”
A spokesperson for the EU’s foreign service said in a statement that the new law was a “worrying step in a series of restrictions on civil society, independent media and political opposition”.
“It will restrict freedom of speech and media as well as pluralism of opinion,” the spokesperson said.
New law aimed at ‘undermining civil society’
The “undesirables” law builds upon existing legislation branding groups with foreign funding as “foreign agents”, passed shortly after Mr Putin began his third historic term in the Kremlin in 2012, despite massive protests.
Russian officials have accused NATO of trying to undermine the country and views internal criticism as the work of spies and traitors.
The Kremlin’s sensitivity to reproval has been accentuated by the West’s isolation of Russia — and levying of sanctions on the country — over its Crimea annexation and alleged military involvement in Ukraine.
Veteran rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva said the newest law particularly threatens rights groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International, which have a sizeable Russian presence and regularly issue damning statements.
“[The groups] work on monitoring citizen rights and freedoms and often speak out with critical reports, which many people don’t like,” Ms Alexeyeva told Interfax news agency.
“This law is another step toward lowering the curtain between our country and the West.”
In a joint statement last week Amnesty and HRW blasted the law as “the latest chapter in a crackdown” on NGOs and free speech in the country, where Mr Putin’s ratings soared after the Crimea annexation and remain above 80 per cent over a year later, despite a decline in real incomes and other economic troubles.
Britain’s minister for Europe David Lidington said the law was “yet another example of the Russian authorities’ harassment of NGOs”.
“The new law will directly affect the ability of international organisations to work, promote and protect human rights in Russia and is clearly aimed at undermining the work of Russian civil society,” Mr Lidington said in a statement urging the Kremlin “not to interfere in the valuable work of NGOs”.
Members of the Iraqi army and Shi’ite fighters launch a mortar toward Islamic State militants outskirt the city of Falluja, Iraq May 19, 2015.
Shi’ite Muslim militiamen and Iraqi army forces launched a counter-offensive against Islamic State insurgents near Ramadi on Saturday, a militia spokesman said, aiming to reverse potentially devastating gains by the jihadi militants.
The fall of Ramadi, the Anbar provincial capital, to Islamic State on May 17 could be a shattering blow to Baghdad’s weak central government. The Sunni Muslim jihadis now control most of Anbar and could threaten the western approaches to Baghdad, or even surge south into Iraq’s Shi’ite heartland.
Anbar provincial council member Azzal Obaid said hundreds of Shi’ite fighters, who had assembled last week at the Habbaniya air base, moved into Khalidiya on Saturday and were nearing Siddiqiya and Madiq, towns in contested territory near Ramadi.
Two police officers later told Reuters the pro-government forces, which they said included locally allied Sunni tribesmen, had advanced past those towns to within one kilometer of Husaiba al-Sharqiya, an Islamic State-run town 7 kilometers (4 miles) east of the Ramadi city limits.
One officer said the Shi’ite-led forces exchanged fire with Islamic State but there was no immediate word on casualties.
Jaffar Husseini, spokesman for Shi’ite paramilitary group Kataib Hezbollah, said more than 2,000 reinforcements had joined the pro-government advance and they had managed to secure Khalidiya and the road linking it to Habbaniya.
“Today will witness the launch of some tactical operations that pave the way to the eventual liberation of Ramadi,” he told Reuters by telephone.
At the same time, Islamic State units have been pushing toward Fallujah to try to absorb more territory between it and Ramadi that would bring them closer to Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, around 80 km (50 miles) to the east.
Islamic State has controlled Fallujah for more than a year.
Ramadi’s loss is the most serious setback for Iraqi forces in almost a year and has cast doubt on the effectiveness of the U.S. strategy of air strikes to help Baghdad roll back Islamic State, which now holds a third each of Iraq and adjacent Syria.
But he had little choice given the poor morale and cohesion within government security forces.
A U.N. spokesman said on Friday that some 55,000 people have fled Ramadi since it was stormed by Islamic State earlier this month, with most taking refuge in other parts of Anbar, a vast desert province that borders on Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
ISLAMIC STATE FLAG AT PALMYRA CITADEL
In Syria, Islamic State fighters raised their flag over an ancient citadel in the historic city of Palmyra, pictures posted online overnight by the group’s supporters showed.
The militants seized Palmyra, known as Tadmur in Arabic and strategically significant with nearby natural gas fields and roads leading southwest to Damascus, on Wednesday after days of heavy fighting with the Syrian army.
“Tadmur citadel under the control of the caliphate,” read a caption on one picture posted on social media sites. In another, a smiling fighter is shown carrying the group’s black flag and standing on one of the citadel’s walls.
It was not possible to verify the images’ authenticity.
U.S.-led coalition forces have conducted a further 22 air strikes on Islamic State positions in Iraq and Syria since Friday, including near Ramadi and Palmyra, the U.S. military said.
Palmyra is home to a UNESCO World Heritage site, and Syria’s antiquities chief has said the insurgents would destroy its 2,000-year-old ruins, including well-preserved Roman temples, colonnades and a theater, if they took control of them. While hundreds of statues have been taken to safe locations, there are fears for larger monuments that cannot be moved.
Islamic State destroyed ancient monuments and antiquities they see as idolatrous in areas of Iraq they captured last year.
Supporters have also posted videos they say show the group’s fighters going room to room in government buildings in Palmyra searching for government troops and pulling down pictures of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his father.
Some activists have said more than 200 Syrian soldiers died in the battle for the city in the center of Syria.
Part of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, Syria, in 2014
ISIS’s takeover of Palmyra means they control more than half of Syria
After months of fierce fighting, ISIS captured the town of Palmyra northeast of Syria’s capital Damascus on Thursday, leaving the group in control of more than half of the country’s territory — and raising fears among experts that its fighters will begin smashing spectacular ancient sites.
Set on the strategic road linking Damascus to Deir al-Zour in eastern Syria, Palmyra contains ruins dating back 2,000 years from what was once one of the most prosperous and culturally rich cities of the Roman Empire. Until war erupted in 2011, thousands of tourists visited the site, which adjoins the modern-day town of Palmyra. In the middle of the ancient city is a colonnaded street, and nearby is a huge ancient amphitheater, and towering ancient temples with monumental arches and columns.
Those are all irreplaceable historic treasures, say cultural experts. “Any destruction of Palmyra is not just a war crime, it will mean an enormous loss for humanity,” Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural organization, said in a video appeal early Thursday, just hours before the militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, seized control of the city. “We just have to make everything possible to prevent its destruction. We need total mobilization of the international community.”
ISIS’s capture of Palmyra comes after months in which its fighters have systematically destroyed ancient ruins and artifacts, including smashing statues in the museum of Mosul, which the group captured last June. ISIS claims the antiquities, which far predate the arrival of Islam, represent idol worship, which violates the group’s ideals. Both Iraq and Syria were key trading centers for the ancient empires and contain numerous important sites.
Quantities of ancient artifacts have also been lost to looting and smuggling, with Syrians selling them to criminal networks across the border for trade on international markets. UNESCO staff have helped Syrians to ferry artifacts out of the war zone, and have trained Interpol, border officials and even art auctioneers in how to detect looted items. “We’re doing a lot of effort on all movable objects to get them to safer places,” says Karim Hendili of UNESCO’s World Heritage Center in Paris. UNESCO declared the ancient city a world heritage site in 1980.
As ISIS fighters steadily closed in on the city in recent weeks, Syrians began a furious effort to smuggle out to safety whatever antiquities they could, in order to prevent them being destroyed, should Palmyra fall. The effort began two months ago and accelerated this month as ISIS’s victory looked increasingly likely, according to Cheikmous Ali, of the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology, a volunteer group that has coordinated clandestine rescues for ancient items in areas now controlled by ISIS. Ali told the BBC on Thursday that the group had managed to remove many antiquities from Palmyra. “Some objects are still there,” he said. “It is not 100% empty.”
But experts cannot say for sure how much of Palmyra’s ancient treasures might have been lost or destroyed in years of war. Indeed, they might well have to wait until ISIS posts video from the ground, before knowing the true extent of what has been lost, or is at risk. “As long as we cannot go on the ground to assess accurately it is difficult to say,” Hendili tells TIME. “What we know is that recently the fighting between the Syrian government and the extremists got closer and closer to the site. But the site is very big, with an oasis and a citadel. We will have to cross-check before we know the situation.”
A poster of Fidel Castro in Havana. The United States and Cuban governments closed their embassies in 1961 in response to a demand from Mr. Castro that the American Embassy staff be drastically reduced.
By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD
MEXICO CITY — The United States and Cuba are closer than ever to reaching an agreement to fully restore diplomatic relations and reopen embassies, officials in both countries said as negotiators met Thursday in Washington for another round of talks to iron out remaining details and discuss possible dates.
The move toward full diplomatic relations broken decades ago during the Cold War has been seen as a key step toward ending hostilities and normalizing ties with a historic opponent that once agreed to allow Soviet nuclear missiles on its soil and repelled an invasion by American-backed insurgents.
Yet progress toward full diplomatic relations has not gone as swiftly as initially hoped in December, when President Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba first committed to restoring ties in a surprise announcement.
Now, with a number of obstacles out of the way or close to it, particularly for the Cubans, the talks have reached the most optimistic point after four rounds of conversations in Havana and Washington.
“I’m trying not to sound too Pollyannaish,” said a senior State Department official, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about closed-door diplomatic matters. “But I do think we’re closer than we have been in the past, and I think my counterparts are coming up here with a desire to get this done.
“But equally,” the official added, “we have certain requirements that we need met, so we just have to see whether we can get there in this round of talks. I certainly hope so.”
Gustavo Machin, a top Cuban diplomat who has been part of his country’s delegation at the talks, told reporters in Havana on Monday, “We don’t see obstacles but rather issues to resolve and discuss.”
he governments closed their embassies after President Dwight Eisenhower broke diplomatic relations on Jan. 3, 1961, in response to a demand by Cuba’s new leader, Fidel Castro, that the American Embassy staff be significantly reduced. Mr. Castro called the embassy a spy outpost, part of an American plot to topple the Communist government he installed after the 1959 revolution.
In 1977, during a period of somewhat warmer relations, the two nations agreed to open “interest sections” in their respective capitals, with no ambassadors and limited diplomatic activity, and technically run under the auspices of the Swiss government.
Officials in Havana and Washington agree that having full-fledged embassies and exchanging ambassadors could accelerate the path to normal relations. While the overall United States trade embargo, begun under Mr. Eisenhower and strengthened under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton, remains in place, Mr. Obama has taken several steps to undercut it and increase trade with and travel to Cuba as a way to support the Cuban people and weaken the Castro government’s arguments that the nation’s forced isolation by the United States is the cause of its economic deterioration.
For Cuba, the chief impediments to re-establish normal diplomatic relations have been removed.
With the help of Treasury Department officials, Cuban diplomats have found a bank in the United States willing to handle accounts for their interests section in Washington, which it hopes to elevate to full embassy status but for now handles limited matters like visa processing.
Stonegate, a small Florida bank, has agreed to take the account, but a spokesman said the bank’s executives would not discuss it. Cuba has been without a bank since 2013, when a Buffalo bank canceled its account, Cuban officials have said, out of concerns about violating Treasury Department restrictions on financial transactions with the country.
Next week, Cuba is expected to officially come off the American government’s list of nations that sponsor international terrorism, after a 45-day review period ends following Mr. Obama’s notification to Congress in April that he was taking the action.
But the United States has yet to receive a commitment from Cuba that American diplomats would be able to travel freely on the island and speak to whomever they please, something Cuba generally regards as stirring up dissent. And so far, Cuba has not guaranteed that shipments to the American compound would not be tampered with, and that people visiting the United States Embassy would not face harassment from police officers guarding it.
At a Senate hearing on Wednesday, the top diplomat for Latin America, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta S. Jacobson, who is leading the talks for the United States, said, “We have to have an embassy where diplomats can travel and see the country and talk to people.”
At some embassies around the world, she said, diplomats are asked to notify the host country a day or several days in advance of travel but are generally not confined to one location. Cuban diplomats in the United States cannot travel beyond Washington or New York, and American diplomats in Cuba cannot leave Havana without permission.
Raúl Castro also recently complained to reporters about a program at the American interests section in Havana that trains independent journalists on basics of the profession, calling it “illegal” meddling in a country where the officially sanctioned news media is controlled by the state.
State Department officials defended the program, led by journalism professors from the United States, as routine and offered “around the world,” as one official put it. But the official left open the possibility that it or other programs would be modified or abandoned.
“I think the thing that you have to remember is the democracy programs, in their history since I think about 1996 when they began, have changed over time,” the official said. “And they will continue to change over time to reflect a reality, whether that reality is on the ground in Cuba or in the United States.”
Mr. Obama had hoped to have the embassies open before a historic meeting with Mr. Castro at a regional summit session in Panama last month.
Yet the Cubans have approached the new relationship more warily than the United States, even as American visitors flock to the island and American companies look into the possibility of trade deals and other business activity there.
Even scheduling the current round of talks took some time.
“We were ready to get together right after that meeting with President Castro” in Panama, the State Department official said, “and our counterparts weren’t necessarily as quick to be prepared as we were.”
May 9, 2015: A South Korean man watches a TV news program showing an image published in North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper of North Korea’s ballistic missile believed to have been launched from underwater, at Seoul Railway station
North Korea claimed Wednesday that it has manufactured nuclear warheads small enough to fit on the head of a missile, an announcement that is likely to rachet up tensions in east Asia, particularly with South Korea.
According to Yonhap News, a spokesman for North Korea’s National Defense Commission said that the development of the alleged weapons was part of an initiative to boost Pyongyang’s self-defense capability.
“It is long since the DPRK’s nuclear striking means have entered the stage of producing smaller nukes and diversifying them,” the spokesman said, using the acronym of North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “The DPRK has reached the stage of ensuring the highest precision and intelligence and best accuracy of not only medium- and short-range rockets, but long-range ones.”
If the North’s claim is true, it presents a fresh threat to the security of South Korea and Japan, as well as the United States. Pyongyang has previously claimed that it has the technology to build a nuclear weapon small enough to fit on an intercontinental ballistic missile, which could reach the U.S. mainland.
The statement comes days after North Korea claimed that it had successfully test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile earlier this month. South Korea had downplayed that announcement, characterizing the exercise as a test ejection, rather than a firing. South Korean officials believe the missile only traveled approximately 110 yards after it left the water, Yonhap reported.
The South Korean assessment was supported Tuesday by Navy Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told an audience at a Washington think tank that North Korea was “years away” from developing the capability to launch ballistic missiles from submarines.
The U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore raised its own questions about the viability of North Korea’s claimed test, saying that images released by Pyongyang may have been altered and raising the possibility that the missiles were launched from a submerged barge instead of a submarine.
However, U.S. and South Korean officials appear to have acknowledged that North Korea carried out a test of some kind. On Tuesday, Winnefeld said that if North Korea develops the capability of launching ballistic missiles from a submarine, “it will present a hard-to-detect danger for Japan and South Korea as well as our servicemembers stationed in the region.”
ISIS hold Ramadi fornow, but the Iraqi army and Shia militias are preparing a counter-offensive.
The Iraqi Army’s humiliating defeat in Ramadi has left Baghdad with little choice but to make a deal with the devil – the battle-hardened and Iranian-backed Shia militias that offer the best chance of retaking the key city, say experts.
Shia militias, including the formidable Badr Brigade – Shia fighters who sided with Iran during the 1980s Iraq-Iran war — are massing outside the city, some 70 miles west of Baghdad. Their plan is to go in with Iraqi Army troops and oust ISIS, which raised its flag over the city center on Sunday.
“The Iraqi Army and the Shia militias are regrouping, and preparing for a counter-offensive in Ramadi,” Rick Brennan, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation who spent five years as a senior adviser to the U.S. military in Iraq, told FoxNews.com.
“In the short term you have the immediate threat of ISIS, but in the long term the deeper threat is to Iraq’s ability to be free and independent of Iran.”
ISIS took the heart of Ramadi, the largest city in Anbar province, after a well-coordinated wave of truck bombs paved the way for fighters to pour in and rout dug-in Iraqi forces. An estimated 500 soldiers and civilians were killed and thousands sent fleeing, leaving behind U.S.-issued weaponry.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, himself a Shia Muslim, immediately called on the Shia militias, known as the Popular Liberation Force, to come to Anbar to help fight ISIS, ignoring U.S. concerns their presence could spark sectarian bloodshed in a nation where deep divisions exist between Islam’s two main sects.
Some 3,000 Shia militiamen are reportedly encamped at a military base outside the city. Youssef al-Kilabi, a spokesman for the Shia militias fighting alongside government forces, told the AP on Monday that the Iranian-backed paramilitary forces have drawn up plans for a Ramadi counter-offensive in cooperation with government forces.
“[We will] eliminate this barbaric enemy,” al-Kilabi vowed.
Iran’s Defense Minister Gen. Hossein Dehghan flew to Baghdad on a surprise visit for urgent talks with Iraqi leaders.
While the Iraqi government, Iran and the Shia militias, who have all sworn allegiance to Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei, for now share the common goal of defeating ISIS, analysts as well as Sunnis warn that the increasing dependence on Iran will threaten Iraq’s sovereignty down the road.
One U.S. official, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, described Ramadi as “a powder keg” and said any use of militia has “got to be dealt with very, very delicately.”
“There’s the potential it can go very, very badly,” the official said, without predicting such an outcome.
In the Sunni-majority Anbar province, tribal elders also object to Baghdad’s invitation to Shia militias, saying the government should instead be arming volunteer fighters there.
“If the Shia militias enter Ramadi, they will do the same things being done by [ISIS],” Abu Ammar, an Anbar native who owns a grocery store in Ramadi, told the AP. “In both cases, we will be either killed or displaced. For us, the militias and [ISIS] militants are two faces of the same coin.”
The Shia militia fighters were responsible for some of the Iraq War’s most brutal atrocities against Sunnis, and work closely with the Iranian Republican Guard. The U.S., which is providing air and logistical support but does not have enough people on the ground to effectively help in an urban counter-offensive, has insisted that the Shia militias work under the supervision of Iraqi Army officials. Although the militias have agreed to those terms for now, Iraq’s dependence on them could complicate matters.
“In the short term, you have the immediate threat of ISIS. But in the long term, the deeper threat is to Iraq’s ability to be free and independent of Iran,” Brennan said. “Dependence on the Shia militias, who have sworn allegiance to the ayatollah, is a problem.
The Popular Liberation Forces number about 70,000, including a core of 15,000 hardened fighters who most recently did battle at Tehran’s behest in Syria, where they fought Al Qaeda, ISIS and the Free Syrian Army, Brennan said. Iraq may need their help now, but giving them an official role in the fight against ISIS could further entrench them as both a political and military force within Iraq, Brennan said.
“I call it the ‘Lebanonization of Iraq,’ where you could end up with a central government, but one that is unable to assert itself by the exclusive monopoly of the use of force,” Brennan said.
Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, among the most outspoken critics of Obama’s foreign policy, also expressed concern about Iranian-backed Shia militias launching an offensive.
“Whatever operational success [Shia] militias may have in Anbar would be far exceeded by the strategic damage caused by their violent sectarianism and the fear and suspicion it breeds among Iraqi Sunnis,” they said in a joint statement.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq at the Capitol in Washington last month.
By TIM ARANGO
BAGHDAD — The campaign to retake Anbar Province from the Islamic State was supposed to be Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s show. The script went like this: American air power plus a ground force of Iraqi security forces and local Sunni tribal fighters would push out the militants, with Iran and its Shiite militias nowhere to be seen.
Now, with Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, fully in the hands of the Islamic State, thousands of Shiite militiamen on Monday were rushing to Sunni territory to try to turn the fight around, officials said. And Mr. Abadi’s rivals within Iraq’s Shiite political bloc, many of whom accuse him of doing too much to work with Sunnis rather than just empowering the militias, were enjoying another setback for the increasingly weakened prime minister.
Iraqi security forces withdrawing from Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, on Sunday. As the city fell to the Islamic State, militants from the group carried out executions of people loyal to the government.Key Iraqi City Falls to ISIS as Last of Security Forces FleeMAY 17, 2015
Mr. Abadi became prime minister last year with strong backing from the United States on the belief that he would be a more inclusive leader than his predecessor, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, and reach out to the country’s minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds. Mr. Abadi has done so, by pushing for the arming of local Sunni tribesmen and reaching a deal with the Kurds to share oil revenue.
But at every turn he has been thwarted by powerful Shiite leaders with links to Iran, including Mr. Maliki. Now, the latest setback in Ramadi has given Mr. Abadi’s rivals even more ammunition.
“Abadi does not have a strong challenge from Iraq’s Sunnis or Iraqi Kurds,” said Ahmed Ali, an Iraqi analyst in Washington with the Education for Peace in Iraq Center. “It’s from the Shia side.”
Some Shiite politicians, including Mr. Maliki, and powerful militia leaders linked to Iran, whose fighters are now preparing to fight in Anbar, have become increasingly critical of Mr. Abadi. Either they have spoken out themselves, or media outlets they control have taken aim at the prime minister through distorted media coverage that has highlighted security failures in Anbar.
In one instance, the television news channel Afaq, which is run by allies of Mr. Maliki, gave running coverage to the supposed slaughter of 140 army soldiers last month at an outpost in Anbar, spurring public criticism of Mr. Abadi. Western diplomats and military officials say the story was untrue, and the Islamic State, notably, never claimed to have killed that many.
The effect, though, was to undermine Mr. Abadi’s rule, analysts said. There were calls for Mr. Abadi to resign.
Flashing uncharacteristic anger, Mr. Abadi, who is known for a mostly mild-mannered approach, appeared in front of Parliament and essentially dared his rivals to remove him from power.
“Iran is using Maliki against Abadi,” said a diplomat in Baghdad with close ties to the Iranians who spoke on the condition of anonymity to maintain relationships in the capital. “They don’t want Abadi to become pro-Western. The Iranians want Abadi weak.”
An official close to Mr. Abadi, who spoke anonymously to discuss private conversations, related a joke that has been told among the prime minister’s inner circle: “Even if two fish fight in the river, it is Maliki stirring them up.”
The official added, of Mr. Abadi, “He is obsessed with Maliki.”
The largely Shiite militias are grouped under an umbrella organization called the Popular Mobilization Forces and, on paper at least, are under Mr. Abadi’s command.
Some of the newer units, formed last year after Shiite clerics called on young men to take up arms and fight the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL, do answer to the prime minister. Some of the most powerful groups, though, such as the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, may answer to Mr. Abadi in individual cases — they did not advance on Anbar until the prime minister gave orders, for example. But those militias were trained and supported directly by Iran, and the militias’ leaders have grown immensely in popularity with the Iraqi public as they have won significant battles against the Islamic State.
This has presented serious challenges to Mr. Abadi’s authority. For instance, in March, at the beginning of an operation to retake the city of Tikrit north of Baghdad, the plans were drawn up by militia leaders and then Mr. Abadi was told it would happen. Once those fighters failed to retake Tikrit decisively, Mr. Abadi asked them to withdraw and called for help from American airstrikes, reasserting, for the moment, his authority.
Now that the militias have been called upon to fight in Anbar, Mr. Abadi’s authority seems to be waning again, and the militias’ cachet has only grown. One of the most popular pictures circulating on social media in Iraq on Monday showed Hadi al-Ameri, the powerful head of the Badr militia, examining a map and seemingly plotting out a new campaign in Anbar.
Fanar Haddad, an Iraqi analyst, recently wrote in an online column that the militias have “provided a potent rallying point for a reinvigorated sense of Iraqi nationalism, albeit one with distinctly Shiite overtones.”
In an interview, Mr. Haddad said Mr. Abadi was limited in his ability to constrain the Popular Mobilization Forces — or Hashid, in Arabic, as the militias are known here. “If you want to be part of Iraq’s evolving political game, you can’t go against the Hashid,” he said. “It’s just too popular.”
The militias’ growing popularity has coincided with an even more powerful approval of Iran’s role in Iraq, at least among Shiite Iraqis.
Once, even many Iraqi Shiites looked at Iran with some suspicion, partly because of the legacy of the long and bloody war Iraq fought with Iran in the 1980s. A frequent gripe of the past was about low-quality Iranian goods, such as cheese and yogurt, clogging the shelves of grocery stories.
Now, though, in the words of Ali Kareem Salman, a 31-year-old government worker in the south, “Shiites think that Iran is the protector of the Shiite sect.”
Hanan Fatlawi, a Shiite lawmaker who is one of Mr. Abadi’s most vocal critics, said: “Previously, you could divide the Shia into two sides: those who hate Iran and those who love them. But after the entrance of ISIS, and with the situation we are in, many people are grateful to Iran. Their opinion changed.”
Of the militias, she said, “Without them there would be no Baghdad.”
There is an essential paradox to Mr. Abadi’s leadership thus far. In nearly every way he has proved to be the inclusive leader mandated by the United States, reaching out to Sunnis and Kurds and seeking consensus. But within Iraq, he is increasingly viewed as weak and unable to effectively shift Iraq’s tragic trajectory.
“This term ‘inclusive personality,’ I only hear from foreigners,” Ms. Fatlawi said. “He was weak from the start.”
Fighters of al-Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant carry their weapons during a parade at the Syrian town of Tel Abyad, near the border with Turkey, Jan. 2, 2014.
By JAMES GORDON MEEK and JUSTIN FISHEL
In a ground raid deep in Syrian territory, U.S. special operations forces killed a top ISIS leader who they were attempting to capture and interrogate about American hostages and how the terror group finances its war machine, the Obama administration said today.
Officials told ABC News that the large-scale operation that killed ISIS oil and gas “minister” Abu Sayyaf was carried out by the Army’s elite counter-terror unit known as Delta Force under the direction of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).
Sayyaf was a Tunisian who the U.S. wished to question about the terror group’s financing and about hostages murdered by ISIS including Kayla Mueller of Prescott, Arizona, the last known American captive. Mueller’s death was announced by ISIS in February and confirmed by the White House.
One knowledgeable counter-terrorism official told ABC News that it was strongly suspected since last year that Sayyaf was the ISIS leader who ABC News previously reported had been given Mueller as a forced bride or slave. On Saturday, spokespersons for law enforcement and at the White House would not comment on such “speculation.”
The Mueller family had no immediate comment either, according to their spokesperson, who added that they are monitoring the situation as it develops.
A concept of operations to capture Sayyaf was approved by President Obama in early March shortly after Mueller’s death was announced, two counter-terrorism officials told ABC News. The NSC declined to comment on the timeline of Obama’s approvals.
Mueller, a young aid worker, was the fourth American killed in ISIS hands and the last of those known to be held, therefore mounting an operation on the ground no longer jeopardized any hostages’ safety, officials noted.
The raid was conducted overnight by a team of American Delta Force commandos who flew from Iraq into “eastern Syria” aboard V-22 Osprey aircraft and Blackhawk helicopters.
One senior U.S. official said there was “a pretty good fight on the ground.” The adversaries used women and children as human shields but no innocents were killed. The battle got so close and intense that there was even some hand-to-hand combat, according to the official.
By the time the operation was over many of the aircraft were riddled with bullet holes, the U.S. official said. The entire operation lasted several hours from the time Delta Force operators took off from inside Iraq and eventually returned with no injuries or loss of life.
JSOC had been tracking Sayyaf since last year given his importance to ISIS, the two counter-terrorism officials told ABC News. The mission was set to launch by mid-March but weather and other conditions delayed it. Some officials had anticipated that Sayyaf would eventually be brought to New York to face terrorism charges, had he been captured alive.
“The President authorized this operation upon the unanimous recommendation of his national security team and as soon as we had developed sufficient intelligence and were confident the mission could be carried out successfully and consistent with the requirements for undertaking such operations,” a White House National Security Council statement said Saturday morning.
The operation was coordinated with Iraq officials, but “the U.S. government did not coordinate with the Syrian regime, nor did we advise them in advance of this operation,” NSC spokesperson Bernadette Meehan said.
The American commandos took Abu Sayyaf’s wife Umm Sayyaf into custody and rescued a female Yazidi captive “who appears to have been held as a slave by the couple,” according to the NSC.
Sayyaf was a “senior ISIL leader who, among other things, had a senior role in overseeing ISIL’s illicit oil and gas operations — a key source of revenue that enables the terrorist organization to carry out their brutal tactics and oppress thousands of innocent civilians,” the NSC statement said. “He was also involved with the group’s military operations.”
The Sayyafs were also believed to have direct knowledge of American and other western hostages killed while in ISIS captivity. American families of the four who had been killed by the terror group in Syria were contacted by the Obama administration in the hours before the operation was launched by Delta Force, U.S. officials and other sources told ABC News.
“We are currently debriefing the detainee [Umm Sayyaf, held by the U.S. in Iraq] to obtain intelligence about ISIL operations. We are also working to determine any information she may have regarding hostages – including American citizens who were held by ISIL,” Meehan said. “We have been in touch with the families of those American hostages previously held by ISIL, and the governments of nations with citizens held captive by ISIL. Given the sensitivity of those discussions, and out of respect for these families, I am not going to provide any additional detail about what was discussed.”
On July 3, 2014 an entire squadron of Delta operators raided an old oil refinery site south of Raqqa, Syria, where Americans James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller had been detained with other western hostages. At the time the hostages were alive, but they had already been moved and the commandos missed them by one or two days, President Obama later said.
Killing the ISIS oil “minister” Sayyaf is a major success because of his important role in selling the oil in Iraq and Syria that bankrolls the terrorist group’s operations, officials said.
Attitudes are shifting about the death penalty – because of beliefs about revenge killing by the state, as well as legal and logistical issues, including botched executions and cases in which individuals have been found innocent.
By Brad Knickerbocker
That convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev received the death penalty may not be surprising.
Massachusetts does not have the death penalty, but Tsarnaev’s crimes were federal offenses – the US government can execute prisoners – and only jurors who agreed not to rule out that possibility in his case were allowed to serve. Defense attorneys did the best they could to prevent his being legally killed, but Tsarnaev himself had shown no remorse for a horrific attack that killed 3 people and injured more than 260.
But public attitudes and state policies have been shifting in significant ways regarding the death penalty – some of that because of personal beliefs about what critics see as revenge killing by the state, but also because of legal issues and logistical difficulties, including botched executions involving drugs exceedingly difficult to obtain and the continuing string of cases in which individuals long-imprisoned have been found to be innocent.
Recommended: INFOGRAPHIC Death penalty: The state of capital punishment in the US, worldwide
According to Gallup, most American favor the death penalty (63-33 percent). But the number drops significantly – 50-45 percent approval – when respondents are given the choice of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (the jurors’ other choice in the Tsarnaev case).
A Pew Research Center poll, taken six months after Gallup’s, found a narrower split between death penalty supporters and opponents (56-38 percent). “Support for the death penalty is as low as it has been in the past 40 years,” Pew reported last month.
Also indicating a potential change of heart, Pew found, 71 percent say there is some risk that an innocent person will be put to death, 61 percent say the death penalty does not deter people from committing serious crimes, and about half (52 percent) say that minorities are more likely than whites to be sentenced to death for similar crimes.
For a variety of reasons, imposition of the death penalty is dropping in Texas – the state that usually tops the list in executions. Executions there peaked at 40 in 2000; last year there were 10.
“There is no doubt about it. We’re seeing a reduction in the use of the death penalty in Texas,” Kathryn Kase, executive director of Texas Defender Service, told the Dallas Morning News. “Here it is May, and we have had only two death penalty cases in Texas. And in both, the jury chose life without parole instead. That strikes me as really significant.”
In Georgia this week, Norman Fletcher, who served 15 years on the Georgia Supreme Court, where he voted to uphold the death penalty, called state-sanctioned executions “morally indefensible.”
“With wisdom gained over the past 10 years, I am now convinced there is absolutely no justification for continuing to impose the sentence of death in this country,” Judge Fletcher said.
Also in Georgia, David Burge, who chairs Georgia’s 5th Congressional District Republican Party, wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Our government is not perfect, and when you give an imperfect state the power of life and death, innocent lives will inevitably be exposed to the fallibility of the system.”
Calling the death penalty “plagued by frequent errors, inefficiency and waste,” Mr. Burge wrote, “Capital punishment runs counter to core conservative principles of life, fiscal responsibility and limited government. The reality is that capital punishment is nothing more than an expensive, wasteful and risky government program.”
In February, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf suspended the death penalty, saying in a statement: “If the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is going to take the irrevocable step of executing a human being, its capital sentencing system must be infallible. Pennsylvania’s system is riddled with flaws, making it error prone, expensive, and anything but infallible.”
Gov. Wolf is a Democrat, but this question of “fallibility” and the death penalty increasingly is being raised by those on the right as well.
In the conservative Washington Times recently, editorial writer Drew Johnson observed that “more and more lawmakers, scholars and pundits on the right side of the aisle now recognize that it’s bad policy to give an all-too-fallible government the power to execute its own citizens.”
“Nationally, a diverse collection of conservative leaders – including Dr. Robert George, pro-life advocate Abby Johnson, Dr. Ron Paul, Richard Viguerie and others – all have voiced their opposition to the death penalty,” writes Mr. Johnson. “Most recently, the former Republican Attorney General of Virginia, Mark Earley, changed his mind and said that he no longer has faith in the government to implement the death penalty.”
The legislature in Nebraska recently voted to replace the death penalty with life without parole. The vote was 30 to 13. Most Republicans (17 out of 30) joined Democrats in approving
U.S. blues legend B.B. King performs onstage during the 45th Montreux Jazz Festival in Montreux July 2, 2011.
BY BILL TROTT
Blues legend B.B. King, who took his music from rural juke joints to the mainstream and inspired a generation of guitarists from Eric Clapton to Stevie Ray Vaughan, has died in Las Vegas. He was 89.
King, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, had said in May he was in hospice care at his home after being hospitalized in April with dehydration related to diabetes.
“The blues has lost its king, and America has lost a legend,” President Barack Obama said in a statement, recalling how he sang “Sweet Home Chicago” with King at a White House blues concert three years ago. “B.B. may be gone, but that thrill will be with us forever. And there’s going to be one killer blues session in heaven tonight.”
King’s death was confirmed late on Thursday on a Facebook page linked to the website of his daughter Claudette.
Born on a Mississippi plantation to sharecropper parents, he outlived his post-World War Two blues peers – Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker – to see the rough music born in the cotton fields of the segregated South reach a new audience.
“Being a blues singer is like being black twice,” King wrote in his autobiography, “Blues All Around Me,” of the lack of respect the music got compared with rock and jazz.
“While the civil rights movement was fighting for the respect of black people, I felt I was fighting for the respect of the blues.”
King will forever be associated with his trademark black Gibson guitars, all of which he christened “Lucille” in recollection of a woman who two men fought over in 1949 in an Arkansas dance hall where he was playing.
The men knocked over a kerosene lamp, setting fire to the building. King risked his life to retrieve his $30 guitar.
In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time ranked King at No. 3, behind only Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman.
Chicago blues veteran Buddy Guy described King as “the greatest guy I ever met.”
“The tone he got out of that guitar, the way he shook his left wrist, the way he squeezed the strings… it was all new to the whole guitar playin’ world,” Guy wrote in a posting on Instagram. “I promise I will keep these damn blues alive.”
Rocker Bryan Adams said on Twitter King was “one of the best blues guitarists ever, maybe the best. He could do more on one note than anyone.”
Rapper Snoop Dogg, rocker Lenny Kravitz, Kiss frontman Gene Simmons, former Beatle Ringo Starr and U.S. country singer Brad Paisley were among others who posted tributes.
Born Riley B. King on Sept. 16, 1925 in Itta Bena, Mississippi, he began learning guitar as a boy and sang in church choirs.
After World War Two Army service, King sang on street corners to pick up money. In 1947 he hitchhiked to Memphis, Tennessee, where he learned from and played with his cousin, revered blues guitarist Bukka White.
King went from touring black bars and dance halls in the 1940s and ’50s to headlining an all-blues show at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1970 and recording with the likes of Clapton and U2 in the ’90s.
He had a deep, resonant singing voice and, despite having what he called “stupid fingers,” an immediately recognizable guitar sound.
His unique style of trilling the strings with a fluttering left-hand vibrato, which he called “the butterfly,” delivered stinging single-note licks that brimmed with emotion and helped shape early rock.
In Memphis, King played in clubs and became a disc jockey at radio station WDIA, where he was known as the Beale Street Blues Boy. That was shortened to Blues Boy and then B.B., and those closest to him just called him B.
King became a star of the rhythm and blues charts and at his peak was on stage 300 nights a year and playing to audiences all over the world including the former Soviet Union and China. He still toured regularly into his 80s.
In the 1960s, King enjoyed a resurgence as young British and American rockers discovered the blues as the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, building a new, mostly white following.
He won 15 Grammys, more than any other bluesman, starting in 1970 for the crossover pop hit “The Thrill Is Gone,” according to the Recording Academy. In 1987, he received a lifetime award.
King was awarded the National Medal for the Arts in 1990.
His two marriages ended in divorce with no children but he acknowledged fathering 15 with different women.