From The Alpha and the Omega - Chapter Eight
by Jim A. Cornwell, Copyright © 1995, all rights reserved
"KING OF THE SOUTH 2020 JANUARY-FEBRUARY"

    This file is attached to http://www.mazzaroth.com/ChapterEight/BeastThatCameOutOfTheSea.htm from “Beast That Came Out Of The Sea” - Chapter Eight by Jim A. Cornwell, Copyright © 1995, all rights reserved.
    This link will take you back to Astronomical Events To Appear Between 2014 Through 2017 A.D.
    Or continue to King Of The South 2020 March-April.

KING OF THE SOUTH 2020 JANUARY-FEBRUARY


    So as 2019 has passed do we know who the "King of the South in 2019" is?
    The phrase “king of the South” is found in the Bible in only one location — Daniel 11, which is also the chapter containing the most detailed prophecy in the Bible.    The first mention of this ruler is found in verse 5, where we find that “the king of the South shall become strong” and that “His dominion shall be a great dominion.”    Who was this king?    Who will he be in the “time of the end” spoken of in verse 40?    To answer these questions, we need a little background information.    One of the first considerations is the setting of this prophecy.    Daniel received the message in “the third year of Cyrus king of Persia,” which was 537 or 536 B.C. according to The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Daniel 10:1).    The prophecy of Daniel 11 begins with verses 2-4, which describe what would happen in the Persian and Greek Empires after Daniel was given this vision, and continues through “the time of the end” (verse 40).
    The Persian Empire refers to any of a series of imperial dynasties that were centred in Persia/Iran from the 6th century B.C. Achaemenid Empire era to the 20th century AD in the Qajar dynasty era.    Know that Ancient Persia is modern Iran.
    Achaemenid Empire (550–330 BC) also called the First Persian Empire, in Western Asia founded by Cyrus the Great.    It ranges from the Balkans and Eastern Europe proper in the west to the Indus Valley in the east, it was larger than any previous empire in history, incorporating various peoples of different origins and faiths, it is notable for its successful model of a centralised, bureaucratic administration (through satraps under the King of Kings), for building infrastructure such as road systems and a postal system, the use of an official language across its territories, and the development of civil services and a large professional army.    The empire's successes inspired similar systems in later empires.
    By the 7th century BC, the Persians had settled in the south-western portion of the Iranian Plateau in the region of Persis, which came to be their heartland.    From this region, Cyrus the Great advanced to defeat the Medes, Lydia, and the Neo-Babylonian Empire, establishing the Achaemenid Empire.    Alexander the Great, an avid admirer of Cyrus the Great, conquered most of the empire by 330 BC.    Upon Alexander's death, most of the empire's former territory came under the rule of the Ptolemaic Kingdom and Seleucid Empire, in addition to other minor territories which gained independence at that time.    The Iranian elites of the central plateau reclaimed power by the second century B.C. under the Parthian Empire.
    The Achaemenid Empire is noted in Western history as the antagonist of the Greek city-states during the Greco-Persian Wars and for the emancipation of the Jewish exiles in Babylon.    The historical mark of the empire went far beyond its territorial and military influences and included cultural, social, technological and religious influences as well.
    Despite the lasting conflict between the two states, many Athenians adopted Achaemenid customs in their daily lives in a reciprocal cultural exchange, some being employed by or allied to the Persian kings.    The impact of Cyrus's edict is mentioned in Judeo-Christian texts, and the empire was instrumental in the spread of Zoroastrianism as far east as China.    The empire also set the tone for the politics, heritage and history of Iran (also officially known as Persia).    The image below shows you the area for the "King of the South."
       
    So based on the above information I would acknowledge that the "King of the South" will come out of that area.
    As you may have noted that in 2019 I claimed that individual will be: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
    The reason was his image of the pentagram a Satanic symbol which is at the top of Erdogan’s Tek Devlet (One State) monument in Turkey, which is a pentagram, a satanic symbol, and believed in beheading, and Shriah Will Rise Again, religious education, Koranic courses, Arabic and Ottoman lessons, Islamization of all schools, sharia education and finally compulsory worship services in all schools
   
    Could Recep Tayyip Erdogan be the upcoming antichrist and may fit the description and then may not be the final antichrist.    The Bible tells us there are “many antichrists” (1 John 2:18); many believe there will be the single antichrist, and we are rapidly approaching the end of time as we know it, before the great tribulation begins.
    All of the antichrists have the same modus operandi (mode of operation).
    As Erdogan has tried to be a force in the South and has shown hints of hypocrisy along the way, and August 2014, he has steadily become dictatorial, and enacted laws to give him excessive powers.
    “And in his estate shall stand up a vile person, to whom they shall not give the honor of the kingdom, but he shall come in peaceably and obtain the kingdom by flatteriesDaniel 11:21.
    The Bible, in a number of instances, refers to the antichrist as the “Assyrian.”    A good part of Turkey was included in the Assyrian Empire, which also persecuted God’s people.
    “Therefore, thus saith the Lord God of hosts, Oh My people who dwell in Zion, be not afraid of the Assyrian; he shall smite you with a rod and shall lift up his staff against you, after the manner of Egypt.    For yet a little while and the indignation shall cease and My anger in their destructionIsaiah 10:24-25.
    “And this man shall be the peace, when the Assyrian shall come into our land and when he shall tread in our palaces; then shall we raise against him seven shepherds and eight principal menMicah 5:5.
    Erdogan announced, “The Al-Aqsa Mosque is the honor of 1.7 billion Muslims, not just Palestinians, and the Muslim world cannot wait to remain indifferent to the restrictions imposed on the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” which is situated on the historical Jewish Temple Mount.
    Erdogan’s real crimes are buying the Russian S-400 missile system for Turkey, refusing to accept US support for America’s Kurdish YPG allies and allowing Islamist fighters to pour over Turkey’s border into Syria along with a load of weapons, mortars and missiles.    Erdogan said Turkey will work with the Syrian people directly to help achieve peace in the war-torn country.    He went on to clarify this does not mean he is willing to work with the Syrian government.
    “Russia takes the necessary measures against a (possible) threat by Syrian regime in Idlib, and as Turkey, we are taking all kind of measures against radical groups in Idlib,” stated President Erdogan.    “We are also taking joint action with Russia if it is necessary.”    His remarks come almost a month after Turkish and Russian forces announced a demilitarized zone in the Idlib province.
    In December, President Donald Trump’s called Tayyip Erdogan that he was pulling U.S. troops from Syria has stunned Turkey and left it scrambling to respond to the changing battlefield on its southern border, and delivered a standard warning to the Turkish president over his plan to attack U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in northeast Syria, in the course of the conversation Trump reshaped U.S. policy in the Middle East, abandoning a quarter of Syrian territory and handing Ankara the job of finishing off Islamic State in Syria.
    As many promote what Daniel 11:40-45 claims it represents the Northern King’s Conquests. [AS SEEN IN THE VERSES ABOVE THAT THE EVENTS ARE LOOKING AS IF RUSSIA - KING OF THE NORTH AND THE MIDEAST NATIONS - KING OF THE SOUTH ARE GOING TO BECOME ENTWINED INTO THE PROPHECY ABOVE IN THE VERY NEAR FUTURE AND THE KING OF THE WEST HAS PULLED OUT OF THIS MESS WHICH I THINK TRUMP MADE THE RIGHT CALL PROBABLY DUE TO GODS INFLUENCE SO LETS SEE HOW IT UNFOLDS AND ALSO WATCH FOR NEWS THAT THE EUPHARATES RIVER DRIES UP ENGAGING THE KINGS OF THE EAST TO GET INVOLVED.].
    The following image below is seen at http://www.mazzaroth.com/ChapterSix/Psalm83.htm so you can tell by the verses above who are the countries today.
    So what has happened in 2019 regarding the King of the South:
    Libya and its Militia groups battle in the Libyan capital, breaking four-month truce and Libya’s Haftar has blindsided world powers with his advance on Tripoli.
    Iraq must move away from economic reliance on Iran and demonstrators are seen at Al Jumhuriya bridge during a protest over corruption, lack of jobs, and poor services, in Baghdad, Iraq.
    In Lebanon who agreed to a new government and its PM vows bold reforms.    But the U.S. is concerned over Hezbollah’s growing role in Lebanon, who called on supporters to donate as sanctions pressure bites.    Germany won’t classify Iran ally Hezbollah as terrorist and Lebanon’s president urges ‘sacrifice’ as budget cuts are debated.    Hezbollah sanctions are harming Lebanon, says President Aoun.    Hezbollah warns U.S. over sanctions against Iran and allies.    Lebanon’s Aoun invites protesters to talk, hints at government reshuffle and Hezbollah warns of chaos and civil war in Lebanon, but demonstations continue and Prime Minister Hariri resigns as Lebanon crisis turns violent, no one wants to be PM, not only the financial woes.
    Yemen’s Houthi drones strike government military parade, several killed.    Yemen’s Houthis to quit two ports Monday under peace deal.    Yemen’s Houthis begin withdrawal from Hodeidah ports in boost to peace deal.
    The world is crazy now as all the Mideast countries are having riots and demonstrations trying to reform their governments as well as the Hong Kong fiasco is still going on.
    U.S. troops begin withdrawing from Syria after the U.S.-backed Syrian force pushed the Islamic State in ‘its final moments out of their caliphate,’ and by 3/22/2019 White House confirms ISIS caliphate ‘100% eliminated.’    On 10/27/2019 U.S. targeted and killed #1 Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi giving Trump a big win from this.
    Turkey condemns French declaration of Armenian genocide commemoration day.    Turkey was told it cannot become an EU member.    Erdogan accuses women’s march of disrespecting Islam.    Turkey says U.S. missile deal impossible if tied to dropping Russian S-400s and will look elsewhere if U.S. won’t sell Patriots and F-35s.    Turkey economy has worst showing in nine years after lira crisis.    As economy sours, Erdogan’s party could lose grip on big cities in local polls.    Erdogan suffers major setbacks in local elections and that forced an Islam control of election as Erdogan’s AK Party appeals for annulment to seek fresh vote in Istanbul, citing irregularities and calls for annulment of Istanbul election, and ousted the winning Istanbul mayor who was promoting democracy.    Could you imagine a Muslim AK Party was going to let a Republican People's Party take over, which shows you how Islamic philosophy works, and I thought it could not get any worse that the screw up in the 2016 elections in some Florida counties trying to change the counts in certain districts, but they blew it and lost anyway.    The desperate Democrats may want to learn from the AKP and their Islamist predecessors so they can win the 2020 elections.    Erdogan says discussed Turkey setting up safe zone in Syria with Trump.    Turkey is ready to take over Syria’s Manbij, and Erdogan says Kurdish rebels will not shelter in Syrian safe zone.    Turkey aims to form safe zones in Syria for refugees to return.    Islamic State pinned in tiny eastern Syria enclave with families, U.S.-backed Syrian force to start ‘final battle’ against IS enclave IS ‘caliphate’ on brink of defeat in Syria as Trump urges Europe to do more.    U.S. to leave 200 American peacekeepers in Syria after pullout.    Syrian Kurds want secure border strip, reject Turkish ‘safe zone.’    Where do the Kurds fit into Syria’s war they do not because they are descendants of the Armenians.    Turkey should not attack Kurds after U.S. Syria pull-out.    On 10/5/2019 Erdogan says Turkey to launch military operation in northeast Syria.    U.S. withdraws troops from northeast Syria ahead of Turkish offensive.    Thousands flee, dozens killed in Turkish offensive on U.S.-allied Kurds in Syria Turkey bombards Syrian Kurdish militia, thousands flee as death toll mounts.    VP Pence to urge Turkey to halt Syria offensive as threat of further sanctions loom and Turkey agrees with U.S. to pause Syria assault while Kurds withdraw.    U.S. troops cross into Iraq as part of withdrawal from Syria.
    Israel: The U.S. Ambassador to Israel Indicates peace plan may be released this year by encouraging investments in Palestinians as first part of peace plan where Jarod Kushner hopes that the Saudis and other Gulf delegates will like what they hear enough to urge Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to consider the plan.    The message Kushner wants them to take to Ramallah: “We’d like to see you go to the table and negotiate and try to make a deal to better the lives of the Palestinian people.”
    THE QUESTION IS CAN YOU BUY MIDEAST PEACE BETWEEN PALESTINIANS AND ISRAEL WITH ALL THE HATERS IN THE BACKGROUND?
    Plus the issue of the prophecy in Daniel 9:27 "And he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease, and for the overspreading of abominations he shall make it desolate, even until the consummation, and that determined shall be poured upon the desolate."    So is he the (Antichrist) who shall confirm the covenant (make a covenant) for one week (seven years); and in the middle of that week he will break the covenant?
    God has blessed Trump for his appraisal of Israel as his policies are working in this world so far but I think soon there will be an entity that will step out of the limelight to the world who has the influence to all parties to make this plan take place.    So the question is who will that be?
    More than half of the $50 billion would be spent in the economically troubled Palestinian territories over 10 years while the rest would be split between Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan.    Some of the projects would be in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, where investments could benefit Palestinians living in adjacent Gaza, a crowded and impoverished coastal enclave>.
    Senior adviser Kushner to present peace proposal to Middle East and if Trump's version of a “peace plan” or deal-making and we do not know what it is yet.    Some think it is Israel to give up four communities in East Jerusalem in order to establish the Palestinian capital alongside the Israeli capital.    Israelis gave up their rights to their Holy Temple Mount immediately after it was given to them in the Six Day War in 1967, for the sake of “middle east peace.”    “The Temple Mount is in our hands!” again, and they handed it back?    For whatever reason, it was returned on some level to Jordanian control.    After the Six Day War, Judea and Samaria – along with the Golan Heights – were looked at as significantly important to the security of Israel.    Obviously, giving those who hate you the high ground overlooking your most populated areas would not make any sense.    But many Jews began re-settling then Mountains of Israel because they heard the call to return and build the ancient ruins, as the prophets had dreamed in Isaiah 61:4, Jeremiah 31:4, and Ezekiel 28:25,26.    “I will plant Israel in their own land, never again to be uprooted from the land I have given them,” Amos:15.    As it says in Jeremiah 31:6, "For there shall be a day, that the watchmen upon the mount Ephraim shall cry, Arise ye, and let us go up to Zion unto the Lord our God."    So I do not think Trump's plan is the one.    I like Trump but he does not seem to be one yet seen in Daniel 9:27a reads, “Then he shall confirm a covenant with many for one week.”    Daniel prophesies a “he” who confirms a covenant or treaty, depending on the translation, with the many that will last for one week.    And yet, prophecy teachers conclude from this verse that the Antichrist will make a seven-year peace treaty with Israel.    Daniel 9:27 (KJV): "And he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease, and for the overspreading of abominations he shall make it desolate, even until the consummation, and that determined shall be poured upon the desolate." one week = 7 years.
    Trump administration still backs a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.    Israel says it has completed hunt for Hezbollah tunnels from Lebanon.    Israel launches Gaza strikes after rockets fired at Tel Aviv.    Israel’s Netanyahu says he plans to annex settlements in West Bank.    Israel launches series of retaliatory airstrikes at Iranian interests in Syria.    U.S. deploys THAAD missile defense system to Israel.    USAID assistance in the West Bank and Gaza has ceased.    On 3/25/2019 Trump recognizes disputed Golan Heights as Israeli territory in boost for Netanyahu and Israel says Brazil is opening ‘diplomatic office’ in Jerusalem.    On 11/19/2019 U.S. backs Israel on settlements, angering Palestinians and clouding peace process.
    See the artcile below dated 1/31/2020 Turkey’s Erdogan criticizes Arab silence over U.S. Middle East plan to consider as my statements about who the entity might be.

2020 JANUARY-FEBRUARY


1/1/2020 Protesters burn security post at U.S. Embassy in Iraq; Pentagon sending more troops to region by Ahmed Rasheed and Idrees Ali
A burnt reception room of the U.S. Embassy is seen as protesters and militia fighters gather to condemn air strikes on bases
belonging to Hashd al-Shaabi (paramilitary forces), outside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq January 1, 2020. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani
    BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Protesters angry about U.S. air strikes on Iraq hurled stones and torched a security post at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday, setting off a confrontation with guards and prompting the United States to send additional troops to the Middle East.
    The protests, led by Iranian-backed militias, posed a new foreign policy challenge for U.S. President Donald Trump, who faces re-election in 2020.    He threatened to retaliate against Iran, but said later he does not want to go to war.
    The State Department said diplomatic personnel inside were safe and there were no plans to evacuate them.
    Embassy guards used stun grenades and tear gas to repel protesters, who stormed and burned the security post at the entrance but did not breach the main compound.
    The Pentagon said that in addition to Marines sent to protect embassy personnel, about 750 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division were being sent to the Middle East and that additional troops were prepared to deploy over the next several days.
    “This deployment is an appropriate and precautionary action taken in response to increased threat levels against U.S. personnel and facilities, such as we witnessed in Baghdad today,” U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in a statement.
    U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the 750 troops would initially be based out of Kuwait.    The officials said that as many as 4,000 troops could be sent to the region in the coming days if needed.
    More than 5,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq supporting local forces.
    The unprecedented attack on an American diplomatic mission in Iraq marked a sharp escalation of the proxy conflict between the United States and Iran – both influential players in the country – and plunged U.S. relations with Iraq to their worst level in years.
    The United States and its allies invaded Iraq in 2003 and ousted Saddam Hussein.    But political stability has been elusive.
    Trump, on a two-week working vacation in Palm Beach, Florida, spoke by phone to Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi of Iraq.     “President Trump emphasized the need to protect United States personnel and facilities in Iraq,” the White House said.
    Trump accused Iran of orchestrating the violence.
    “Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities.    They will pay a very BIG PRICE!    This is not a Warning, it is a Threat,” Trump said in a tweet.
    Asked later in the day about the possibility of tensions spiraling into a war with Iran, Trump told reporters: “Do I want to?    No.    I want to have peace.    I like peace.    And Iran should want to have peace more than anybody.    So I don’t see that happening.”
    Iran, under severe economic duress from punishing U.S. sanctions put in place by Trump, denied responsibility.
    “America has the surprising audacity of attributing to Iran the protests of the Iraqi people against (Washington’s) savage killing of at least 25 Iraqis,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said.
    The embassy incident came seven years after the 2012 attack by armed militants on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans and led to multiple congressional investigations.
TENSIONS OVER AIR STRIKES
    The protests followed U.S. air strikes on Sunday on bases operated by the Iranian-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah inside Iraq, which killed at least 25 fighters and wounded 55. The strikes were retaliation for the killing of a U.S. civilian contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base, which Washington blamed on Kataib Hezbollah.
    “Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded, and always will,” Trump said in a tweet.    “Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq.    They will be held fully responsible.”
    Democrats upset that Trump ditched the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by Democratic President Barack Obama in 2015 were quick to pounce on the incident as a failure of Trump’s Iran policy.
    “The predictable result of the Trump administration’s reckless bluster, escalation and miscalculation in the Middle East is that we are now hurtling closer to an unauthorized war with Iran that the American people do not support,” said U.S. Senator Tom Udall, a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
    The protesters, joined briefly by Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim militia leaders, threw stones at the embassy gate, while others chanted: “No, no, America!    No, no, Trump!
    Iraqi special forces prevented protesters entering, later reinforced by U.S.-trained Iraqi Counter Terrorism forces.
    The embassy has been hit by sporadic but non-lethal rocket fire in recent months, and was regularly shelled following the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, but had not been physically attacked by demonstrators in that way before.
    U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CBS News that U.S. officials never contemplated evacuating the embassy and had kept the heat on     Iraqi officials to ensure the compound was safe.
    “We reminded them throughout the day of their continued responsibility,” he said.
    The Popular Mobilisation Forces, an umbrella grouping of the militias that have been officially integrated into Iraq’s armed forces, said 62 militiamen and civilians were wounded by the tear gas and stun grenades fired to disperse the crowd.
    A Reuters witness saw blood on the face of one wounded militiaman and on the stomach of the other as their colleagues carried them away.
    Iraqis have been taking to the streets in the thousands almost daily to condemn, among other things, militias such as Kataib Hezbollah and their Iranian patrons that support Abdul Mahdi’s government.
    Kataib Hezbollah is one of the smallest but most potent of the Iranian-backed militias.    Its flags were hung on the fence surrounding the embassy.
(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad and Idrees Ali in Washington; Additional reporting by Jeff Mason in Palm Beach, Fla. and Daphne Psaledakis, Doina Chiacu, Diane Bartz in Washington; Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Peter Cooney)

1/1/2019 Reports: Iranian-backed militants led attack on U.S. Embassy in Baghdad by OAN Newsroom
Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces and their supporters try to break the door of the U.S. embassy, in Baghdad, Iraq,
Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after
smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
    Mounting evidence points to Iran’s involvement in the latest attack on the U.S. Embassy in the Iraqi capital.    According to reports, the attack was led by field commander Qais Khazali and was backed by Iran with the involvement of Quds Force as well the local branch of Hezbollah.
    Iranian-backed Quds Force seek to destroy the State of Israel.    An angry crowd of Shiite radicals have continued to besiege American diplomatic facilities in response to U.S. airstrikes against Iraqi Hezbollah.
    Experts say these factions are now targeting Americans across the region.    Mass demonstratons are challenging Iraq’s political system nearly two decades after the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
    President Trump said Iran will be held accountable for the latest attacks.

1/1/2020 Analyst: Pull U.S. troops from Iraq after militia attack by OAN Newsroom
Protesters burn property in front of the U.S. embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Dozens of
angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a
main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
    A retired U.S. Army official has suggested that the U.S. should pull its troops from Iraq, following the attack at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.    Lt. Col. Daniel Davis expressed his concern Tuesday, saying this is a continuation of violence that’s been ongoing in Iraq for months.
    He went on to say the U.S. must be careful not to be drawn into an escalation against Iran’s militia supporters.    Lt. Col. Davis, who is also an expert at defense priorities, claimed troops must be pulled out from the country before the unrest becomes catastrophic for the U.S.
    “We need to work closely with the Iraqi government because these are government-sanctioned troops that we attacked, and so there is understandably some some challenges there that have to be navigated,” explained the retired Army offical.    “But what we absolutely must do is to keep this from escalating to the point to where American diplomatic personnel or military personnel are killed.”
    His remarks come after the latest U.S. airstrike against the Iran-backed militia that killed at least 25 people.
Fighters from the Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades militia, inspect the destruction of their headquarters in the aftermath of a
U.S. airstrike in Qaim, Iraq, Monday, Dec. 30, 2019. The Iranian-backed militia said Monday that the death toll from U.S. military
strikes in Iraq and Syria against its fighters has risen to 25, vowing to exact revenge for the “aggression of evil American ravens.” (AP Photo)

1/1/2020 Rock-throwing Iraqi militias quit U.S. Embassy after protests by Ahmed Aboulenein
U.S. Embassy security men use stun grenades to disperse protesters and militia fighters during a protest to condemn air strikes on bases
belonging to Hashd al-Shaabi (paramilitary forces), outside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq January 1, 2020. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Supporters of Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary groups who stormed the U.S. Embassy’s perimeter and hurled rocks in two days of protests withdrew on Wednesday after Washington dispatched extra troops and threatened reprisals against Tehran.
    The demonstrators, angry at U.S. air strikes against the Tehran-backed Kataib Hezbollah group in which at least 25 people were killed, threw stones at the building while U.S. forces stationed on the rooftops fired tear gas to disperse them.
    By mid-afternoon, most appeared to have obeyed a call to withdraw, issued by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) umbrella group of mainly Shi’ite militia, which said the demonstrators’ message had been heard.
    Young men used palm tree branches to sweep the street in front of the embassy compound.    Others packed up equipment and vans arrived to take people away. Some left to set up a protest camp in front of a nearby hotel.
    Iraq’s military said all protesters had left by the evening.
    The protests marked a new turn in the shadow war between Washington and Tehran playing out across the Middle East.
    U.S. President Donald Trump, who faces a re-election campaign in 2020, threatened on Tuesday to retaliate against Iran but said later he did not want war.
    The unrest followed U.S. air raids on Sunday against Kataib Hezbollah bases in retaliation for missile attacks that killed a U.S. contractor in northern Iraq last week.
    On Tuesday, crowds chanted: ‘Death to America!,’ lit fires, and smashed surveillance cameras.    They breached an outer perimeter of the embassy but did not enter the main compound.
BIGGEST U.S. EMBASSY
    The huge embassy, built along the banks of the Tigris River in central Baghdad’s fortified “green zone” during the American occupation following the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, is the biggest U.S. diplomatic mission in the world.
    Washington said its diplomats were safe and it was rushing hundreds of extra troops to the region.
    The State Department said on Wednesday that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo decided to postpone his upcoming trip to Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Cyprus to remain in Washington and monitor the situation in Iraq. [L1N29606E]
    The embassy said all public consular operations were suspended and all future appointments canceled.
    The anti-American action comes after months of protests in Iraq against the government and the Iran-backed militias that support it.    Many Iraqis complain their country has become a battlefield for a proxy war for influence between Washington and Tehran, and that their leaders are too beholden to outside powers.
    Iraq’s government has long faced frictions in its close relations with the two foes.    Trump spoke to Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi on Tuesday and demanded Iraq protect the embassy.
    Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday condemned the U.S. attacks.    Iran summoned a Swiss envoy, who represents U.S. interests in Tehran, to complain about what it described as “warmongering” words from Washington.
    Trump accused Iran of orchestrating the violence.
    U.S. officials said 750 extra troops would initially be based out of Kuwait and as many as 4,000 troops could be sent to the region in coming days.
    More than 5,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq supporting local forces.    The air strikes have galvanized calls inside Iraq to expel them.
    Many in the crowd outside the embassy said ending Washington’s presence in Iraq was their main goal.
‘DEVIL’S DEN’
    Despite decades of enmity between Iran and the United States, Iran-backed militias and U.S. forces found themselves on the same side during Iraq’s 2014-2017 war against Islamic State fighters, with both powers helping the government recapture territory from militants who had overrun a third of Iraq.
    Since then, U.S. troops have yet to leave, while the Iran-backed militias have been incorporated into the security forces.
    Abdul Mahdi, who has announced plans to step down in the face of anti-government protests in which more than 450 people were killed, is backed by Iran and its allies.
    The militia may have decided to pull back from the embassy to avoid making him look weak or to avert clashes with government forces.
    Overnight, demonstrators pitched tents and camped outside the embassy walls, then brought food, cooking equipment and mattresses during the morning, indicating plans to stay before the withdrawal call.
    “Our sit-in is eternal, until this devil’s den is closed off forever, but don’t give anyone an excuse to make your protest violent.    Don’t clash with security,” one protest leader told the crowd from a stage erected at the embassy before the departure.
    Young men, some in fatigues, waved militia flags and chanted: “Death to America” as Apache helicopters circled above.
    The embassy’s outer walls bore scorch marks and graffiti.
    “Iraq is not safe for America and its followers,” one read.
(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; Additional reporting by Chris Sanders in Washington; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Peter Cooney)

1/1/2020 Israel’s Netanyahu says he will seek immunity in graft cases by Jeffrey Heller
FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting
in Jerusalem, Israel, December 29, 2019. Abir Sultan/Pool via REUTERS
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday he would ask parliament to protect him from prosecution in the three graft cases he faces, a politically-risky move that could delay criminal proceedings against him for months.
    Netanyahu was indicted in November on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust over allegations he granted state favors worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israeli media barons in return for gifts and favorable coverage.
    He denies any wrongdoing, saying he is the victim of a witch hunt by the media and left to oust a popular right-wing leader.
    A trial cannot get under way once an immunity request is made, and Netanyahu announced the move in a speech on live television just four hours before a deadline for an application was to expire.
    Netanyahu said in his address that the charges against him were politically motivated and he was entitled to parliament’s protection.
    “In a democracy, only the people decide who will lead them,” said Netanyahu, who has been in power consecutively for the past decade and has likened the indictment against him to an attempted coup.
    Under Israel law, a legislator seeking immunity can do so on numerous grounds that include an argument that the prosecution is not acting in good faith.
    Had Netanyahu not filed the request by Wednesday’s deadline, the indictment against him could have been submitted to a court as early as Sunday, setting proceedings in motion.
    Amid deep political deadlock, parliament seems unlikely to decide the issue before Israel’s March 2 election.    Netanyahu will need the support of 61 of its 120 legislators for immunity to be granted, the same majority that eluded him in attempts to form a government after national ballots in April and September.
    If immunity is ultimately granted – entitling Netanyahu to avoid standing trial as long as he is a member of parliament – – Israel’s Supreme Court is empowered to review the decision and strike it down.
    Netanyahu’s immunity request carried political risks, adding more ammunition to challengers who seek to portray him as an autocratic leader who sees himself as above the rule of law and who represents a danger to Israel’s democratic and judicial foundations.
    Responding to Netanyahu’s speech, his main rival, Benny Gantz, a former armed forces chief who heads the centrist Blue and White party, said the prime minister was “jeopardizing the civic principle upon which we were all educated – that everyone is equal before the law.”
    Recent opinion polls have shown neither Blue and White nor Netanyahu’s Likud party are within easy reach of a governing bloc in parliament in an election now two months away.
(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Editing by William Maclean)

1/2/2020 Rock-throwing Iraqi militias quit U.S. Embassy after protests by Ahmed Aboulenein
A U.S. Army paratrooper of an immediate reaction force from the 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment,
1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, reaches for his weapon shortly before boarding a
C-17 transport aircraft leaving Fort Bragg, North Carolina, U.S. January 1, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Supporters of Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary groups who stormed the U.S. Embassy’s perimeter and hurled rocks in two days of protests withdrew on Wednesday after Washington dispatched extra troops and threatened reprisals against Tehran.
    The demonstrators, angry at U.S. air strikes against the Tehran-backed Kataib Hezbollah group in which at least 25 people were killed, threw stones at the building while U.S. forces stationed on the rooftops fired tear gas to disperse them.
    By mid-afternoon, most appeared to have obeyed a call to withdraw, issued by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) umbrella group of mainly Shi’ite militia, which said the demonstrators’ message had been heard.
    Young men used palm tree branches to sweep the street in front of the embassy compound.    Others packed up equipment and vans arrived to take people away.    Some left to set up a protest camp in front of a nearby hotel.
    Iraq’s military said all protesters had left by the evening.
    The protests marked a new turn in the shadow war between Washington and Tehran playing out across the Middle East.
    U.S. President Donald Trump, who faces a re-election campaign in 2020, accused Iran of orchestrating the violence. He threatened on Tuesday to retaliate against Iran but said later he did not want war.
    Iran, under severe economic duress from punishing U.S. sanctions put in place by Trump, denied responsibility.
    The unrest followed U.S. air raids on Sunday against Kataib Hezbollah bases in retaliation for missile attacks that killed a U.S. contractor in northern Iraq last week.
    On Tuesday, crowds chanted: ‘Death to America!,’ lit fires, and smashed surveillance cameras.    They breached an outer perimeter of the embassy but did not enter the main compound.
BIGGEST U.S. EMBASSY
    The huge embassy, built along the banks of the Tigris River in central Baghdad’s fortified “green zone” during the American occupation following the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, is the biggest U.S. diplomatic mission in the world.
    Washington said its diplomats were safe and it was rushing hundreds of extra troops to the region.
    The State Department said on Wednesday that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo decided to postpone his upcoming trip to Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Cyprus to remain in Washington and monitor the situation in Iraq. [L1N29606E]
    Pompeo spoke on Wednesday with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the State Department said.
    Pompeo said on Twitter that Abdul Mahdi had agreed that Iraq “would continue to uphold its responsibility to keep U.S. personnel secure and would move the Iran-backed attackers away from @USEmbBaghdad.”
    Pompeo wrote on Twitter he thanked the emir in the call “for Qatar’s solidarity in the face of Iran’s malign regional influence,” including the attack on the embassy in Baghdad.
    The embassy said all public consular operations were suspended and all future appointments canceled.
    The anti-American action came after months of protests in Iraq against the government and the Iran-backed militias that support it.    Many Iraqis complain their country has become a battlefield for a proxy war for influence between Washington and Tehran, and that their leaders are too beholden to outside powers.
    Iraq’s government has long faced frictions in its close relations with the two foes.    Trump spoke to Abdul Mahdi on Tuesday and demanded Iraq protect the embassy.
    Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday condemned the U.S. attacks.    Iran summoned a Swiss envoy, who represents U.S. interests in Tehran, to complain about what it described as “warmongering” words from Washington.
    U.S. officials said 750 extra troops would initially be based out of Kuwait and as many as 4,000 troops could be sent to the region in coming days.
    More than 5,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq supporting local forces.    The air strikes have galvanized calls inside Iraq to expel them.
    Many in the crowd outside the embassy said ending Washington’s presence in Iraq was their main goal.
‘DEVIL’S DEN’
    Despite decades of enmity between Iran and the United States, Iran-backed militias and U.S. forces found themselves on the same side during Iraq’s 2014-2017 war against Islamic State fighters, with both powers helping the government recapture territory from militants who had overrun a third of Iraq.
    Since then, U.S. troops have yet to leave, while the Iran-backed militias have been incorporated into the security forces.
    Abdul Mahdi, who has announced plans to step down in the face of anti-government protests in which more than 450 people were killed, is backed by Iran and its allies.
    The militia may have decided to pull back from the embassy to avoid making him look weak or to avert clashes with government forces.
    Overnight, demonstrators pitched tents and camped outside the embassy walls, then brought food, cooking equipment and mattresses during the morning, indicating plans to stay before the withdrawal call.
    “Our sit-in is eternal, until this devil’s den is closed off forever, but don’t give anyone an excuse to make your protest violent.    Don’t clash with security,” one protest leader told the crowd from a stage erected at the embassy before the departure.
(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; Additional reporting by David Shepardson and Chris Sanders in Washington; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Peter Cooney)

1/2/2020 Erdogan says up to 250,000 people fleeing from Syria’s Idlib towards Turkey
FILE PHOTO: Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan leaves after the Global Refugee Forum at
the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, December 17, 2019, REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo
    ANKARA (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday that up to 250,000 migrants were fleeing from the northwestern Syrian region of Idlib towards Turkey, adding that Ankara was trying to prevent them from crossing its border.
    Turkey hosts some 3.7 million Syrian refugees, the largest refugee population in the world.    It fears a new wave from Idlib, where up to 3 million Syrians live in the last rebel-held swathe of territory, after Russian and Syrian government forces last month intensified their bombardment of targets in the region.
    “Right now, 200,000 to 250,000 migrants are moving towards our borders.    We are trying to prevent them with some measures, but it’s not easy.    It’s difficult, they are humans too,” Erdogan told a conference in Ankara.
(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay; Editing by Daren Butler)

1/2/2020 Israel prime minister seeks immunity from corruption & fraud charges, vows to strengthen relations with U.S. by OAN Newsroom
File – In this Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019 file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the
weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem. (Abir Sultan /Pool photo via AP, File)
    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu’s is looking to get a “get out of jail for now” card, and mend his relationship with President Trump.    This comes as Netenyahu sent an official request Wednesday asking Israeli parliament to grant him immunity on corruption and fraud charges.
    The prime minister was indicted in November on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust following three corruption probes. This makes him the first Israeli prime minister to face criminal charges.    He’s hoping his request will be granted, which would delay his trial until after the March elections.
    “Many of you think, because that’s what they’ve told you, that immunity for elected officials is granted in perpetuity…that it allows you not to stand trial ever, that’s simply untrue,” said Netenyahu.    “According to the law, immunity is always temporary.    It is cancelled with the end of the term of the Knesset that granted it.”
    The pressure from the corruption charges and challenges to Netanyahu’s leadership from his party as well as citizens discouraged support from President Trump.    The president has since rescinded support for the prime minister and some of his policies, and is taking the opposite stance.
    Specifically, President Trump did not support Netanyahu’s primary election in September and refused to support Israel’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank after giving initial support before the probes.    His pro-Israel rhetoric changed as well, appealing to a broader relationship with Israel as a whole instead of boasting his relationship to the country’s leader.
    “America and Israel are woven together by history, heritage and the hearts of our people,” stated President Trump.    “We share a love of freedom, democracy, religious liberty, the rule of law and national sovereignty.”
    Netenyahu believes that if granted immunity, he will continue to lead Israel beyond the election.    Domestic support didn’t seem to fade much as he overwhelmingly won his December primary.    He boasted that he will get the U.S. to back Israel claimed territory as it did when recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capitol.
    In his victory speech, he specified how he will rekindle his relationship with the U.S. Netenyahu made the following remarks:     “Second, to bring an American recognition to our sovereignty on the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea.
    Third, to bring an American recognition to containing our sovereignty in the settlements in Judea and Samaria, all without exception.
    Fourth, to bring a historic defense treaty with the United States that will completely preserve Israel’s freedom of action
.”
    The Israel-U.S. alliance is far from over as growing conflicts between the U.S. and Iran escalate.    President Trump hopes to harbor a strong relationship with the country as support in the Middle East is paramount.    He recently sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Israel to talk about the “unbreakable bond” between the countries.
    As for Netanyahu, he must wait for Parliament to make a decision and see if the Israeli Supreme Court will overturn the decision.

1/2/2020 Turkish parliament passes Libya deployment bill, but troops unlikely for now
FILE PHOTO: Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to media next to Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu after the Global
Refugee Forum at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, December 17, 2019, REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo
    ANKARA/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey’s parliament on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a bill that allows troops to be deployed in Libya, in a move that paves the way for further military cooperation between Ankara and Tripoli but is unlikely to put boots on the ground immediately.
    President Tayyip Erdogan said last week Turkey would deploy troops in Libya to support Fayez al-Serraj’s internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).
    The GNA last month requested Turkish support as it fends off an offensive by General Khalifa Haftar’s forces, which are backed by Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Jordan.
    Fighting and air strikes continue around Tripoli, where the U.N. refugee agency said three mortars had fallen on Thursday close to an overcrowded transit center housing around 1,000 migrants in the center of the city.
    Turkey’s move comes after Ankara and the GNA signed two separate agreements in November: one on security and military cooperation and another on maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean, infuriating Greece, Israel, Egypt and Cyprus.
    Almost immediately after the vote, Egypt strongly condemned the parliament’s decision, and called on the international community to urgently respond to the move.
    The bill, opposed by all major opposition parties, passed with a 315-184 vote.    Opposition parties said the move may exacerbate conflicts in Libya and endanger Turkish soldiers in the region and Turkey’s national security.
    But Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said the bill was an important step for protecting Ankara’s interests in North Africa and the Mediterranean, and for achieving peace and stability in Libya.
‘DANGEROUS ESCALATION’
    The GNA’s interior minister Fathi Bashagha said Tripoli had requested Turkish support following a “dangerous escalation” in the conflict by Haftar’s forces.
    “As Libya’s only legitimate and sovereign government, the GNA is the singular entity with the right to formalize military alliances necessary to safeguard our nation,” Bashagha said, adding that the GNA aimed to stop a “war criminal” from seizing power and establish stability, security and democracy in Libya.
    Dmitry Novikov, a Russian lawmaker, said after the vote that a Turkish military presence in Libya would “only deteriorate the situation,” according to the Interfax news agency.
    Later on Thursday, Erdogan discussed Libya with U.S. President Donald Trump in a phone call, the Turkish presidency said without providing more details. Erdogan is due to discuss Libya with Russian President Vladimir Putin later this month.
    Ankara has already sent military supplies to the GNA despite a United Nations arms embargo, according to a U.N. report.
    But analysts and some officials say Ankara is unlikely to immediately deploy troops, sending military advisers and equipment first.
    “The hope would be that the Turkish military may not itself be involved in military action,” said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat who is chairman of the think-tank Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.
‘DETERRENT’
    Last week, a senior Turkish official said Ankara could train Libyan soldiers in Turkey, and Reuters reported that Turkey may also consider sending allied Syrian fighters to Tripoli.
    On Wednesday, Vice President Fuat Oktay said the bill served a symbolic role that Ankara hoped would be a “deterrent” to the parties, and that Turkey may not send troops if Haftar’s forces pulled back.
    The maritime agreement between Ankara and Tripoli has ended Turkey’s isolation in the eastern Mediterranean, where it is at odds with Greece over resources off Cyprus.    Greece has said the accord violates international law, but Ankara rejects this, and says it only wants to protect its rights.
    Greece, Cyprus and Israel signed a deal on Thursday to build a 1,900 km (1,180 mile) subsea pipeline to carry natural gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe, but analysts say the accord between Turkey and Libya could present a barrier to the plans.
    “Ankara sees its involvement in Libya as a symbol of its new status as a regional power,” said Asli Aydintasbas, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu, Orhan Coskun and Ece Toksabay in Ankara, Jonathan Spicer, Can Sezer, Ezgi Erkoyun and Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul, Ahmed Tolba and Aidan Lewis in Cairo, Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow, and Ulf Laessing; Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by William Maclean and Giles Elgood)

1/2/2020 Paratroopers leave Fort Bragg, N.C. for Baghdad after militant attack on U.S. Embassy by OAN Newsroom
This Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020, image provided by Maxar Technologies shows black smoke coming out of the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad.
Iran-backed militiamen withdrew from the embassy compound in Baghdad on Wednesday after two days of clashes with American security
forces, but U.S.-Iran tensions remain high and could spill over into further violence. (Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies via AP)
    Hundreds of paratroopers were flown into the Middle East in response to the recent attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.    Around 650 paratroopers could reportedly be seen leaving Fort Bragg in North Carolina amid increased threats in Iraq.
    This came after Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said about 750 soldiers were deployed in the aftermath of the attack, which reportedly left areas of the compound burned and vandalized.
    Analysts say the militants have vowed further acts of revenge against the U.S. in retaliation for airstrikes that killed at least two dozen Iran-backed fighters in Iraq.
    Meanwhile, Iran has claimed it is not afraid to go to war with the U.S. Iranian military leaders recently stated they are not leading the country to war with the U.S., however, they are not shying away from that possibility.
    Officials also said they are “closely monitoring” Washington and advised the U.S. to “speak correctly with the Iranian nation.”    This comes after President Trump threatened Iran Tuesday, and accused the country of coordinating the violent attacks at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

1/3/2020 Iran promises to avenge U.S. killing of top Iranian commander Soleimani by Ahmed Rasheed and Ahmed Aboulenein
FILE PHOTO: Combination photo of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani (L) and
Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a commander in the Popular Mobilization Forces. REUTERS/Stringer/Thaier al-Sudani
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iran promised harsh revenge after a U.S. air strike in Baghdad on Friday killed Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds force and architect of its growing military influence in the Middle East.
    Soleimani was a general who was regarded as the second most powerful figure in Iran after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
    The overnight attack, authorized by President Donald Trump, marked a dramatic escalation in a “shadow war” in the Middle East between Iran and the United States and its allies, principally Israel and Saudi Arabia.
    Top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an adviser to Soleimani, was also killed in the attack.
    Iran has been locked in a long conflict with the United States that escalated sharply last week with an attack on the U.S. embassy in Iraq by pro-Iranian militiamen following a U.S. air raid on the Kataib Hezbollah militia, founded by Muhandis.
    The Pentagon said the “U.S. military has taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing Qassem Soleimani” and that the strike was ordered by Trump to disrupt future Iranian attack plans.
    U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Soleimani was killed in a drone strike.    Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said he was killed in an attack by U.S. helicopters.
    Concern about disruption to Middle East oil supplies pushed oil prices up nearly $3.
    Khamenei said harsh revenge awaited the “criminals” who killed Soleimani.    His death, though bitter, would double the motivation of the resistance against the United States and Israel, he said.
    In a statement carried by state television he called for three days of national mourning.
    The U.S. embassy in Baghdad urged all American citizens to depart Iraq immediately.
‘HEROES NEVER DIE’
    Soleimani led the Quds Force, the foreign arm of the Revolutionary Guards, and had a key role in fighting in Syria and Iraq.
    Over two decades he had been at the forefront of projecting the Islamic Republic’s military influence across the Middle East, acquiring celebrity status at home and abroad.
    Iranian state television presenters wore black and broadcast footage of Soleimani peering through binoculars across a desert and greeting a soldier, and of Muhandis speaking to followers.
    President Hassan Rouhani said the assassination would make Iran more decisive in resisting the United States, while the Revolutionary Guards said anti-U.S. forces would exact revenge across the Muslim world.
    Hundreds of Iranians marched toward Khamenei’s compound in central Tehran to convey their condolences.
    “I am not a pro-regime person but I liked Soleimani.    He was brave and he loved Iran, I am very sorry for our loss,” said housewife Mina Khosrozadeh in Tehran.
    In Soleimani’s hometown, Kerman, people wearing black gathered in front of his father’s house, crying as they listened to a recitation of verses from the Koran.
    “Heroes never die.    It cannot be true.    Qassem Soleimani will always be alive,” said Mohammad Reza Seraj, a high school teacher.[HE IS ROTTING IN HELL RIGHT NOW WITH NO VIRGINS AND HE IS SATAN'S BITCH NOW]
    Trump, who is facing impeachment charges, made no immediate comment but posted a picture of the U.S. flag on Twitter.
    U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat and strong critic of the Republican president, said the attack was carried out without consultation with Congress and without authorization for the use of military force against Iran.
    Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi condemned the killings as a violation of the conditions of the U.S. military presence in Iraq and an act of aggression that breached Iraq’s sovereignty and would lead to war.
    Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who portrays himself as a nationalist rejecting both Iranian and U.S. influence, ordered his followers to be ready to defend Iraq and urged all sides to behave wisely.
    The Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad condemned what it called criminal U.S. aggression.
    Israel has long regarded Soleimani as a major threat.    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short a trip to Greece and Israeli Army Radio said the military had gone on heightened alert.
    The slain commander’s Quds Force, along with paramilitary proxies from Lebanon’s Hezbollah to Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces grouping of Iran-backed militias – battle-hardened militias armed with missiles – has ample means to respond.
    In September, U.S. officials blamed Iran for a missile and drone attack on oil installations of Saudi state energy giant Saudi Aramco.
    Iran, for its part, has absorbed scores of air strikes and missile attacks, mainly carried out by Israel against its fighters and proxies in Syria and Iraq.
LEGENDARY FIGURE
    Analysts say Iran is likely to respond forcefully to the targeting of Soleimani, who had survived several assassination attempts against him by Western, Israeli and Arab agencies over the past two decades.
    The Quds Force, tasked with carrying out operations beyond Iran’s borders, shored up support for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad when he looked close to defeat in the civil war raging since 2011 and also helped militiamen defeat Islamic State in Iraq.
    Soleimani became head of the force in 1998, after which he quietly strengthened Iran’s ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria’s government and Shi’ite militia groups in Iraq.
    Muhandis, who was killed with Soleimani, oversaw Iraq’s PMF, an alliance of paramilitary groups mostly comprising Iran-backed Shi’ite militias that was formally integrated into Iraqi armed forces.
    His Kataib Hezbollah militia, which received battlefield training from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, has long targeted U.S. forces and was one of the earliest groups to send fighters to Syria to support Assad.
(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Ahmed Aboulenein; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington, Michael Georgy in Dubai, Maha El Dahan in Baghdad and Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem; Writing by Samia Nakhoul and Frances Kerry; Editing by Robert Birsel, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Mike Collett-White)

1/3/2020 Soleimani was Iran’s celebrity soldier, spearhead in Middle East by Babak Dehghanpisheh
FILE PHOTO: Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani stands at the frontline during offensive operations against
Islamic State militants in the town of Tal Ksaiba in Salahuddin province March 8, 2015. Stringer via REUTERS/File Photo
    (Reuters) – Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, the top commander of the elite Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards, helped Iran fight proxy wars across the Middle East by inspiring militias on the battlefield and negotiating with political leaders.
    His death on Friday in a U.S. air strike on his convoy at Baghdad airport marked the end of a man who was a celebrity at home and closely watched by the United States, Israel and Tehran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia.
    The Pentagon said the strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans.
    Soleimani was responsible for clandestine overseas operations and was often seen on battlefields guiding Iraqi Shi’ite groups in the war against Islamic State.
    He was killed along with top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.    Both men were seen as heroes in Iran’s fight against its enemies and state television heaped them with praise shortly after their deaths were announced.
    The television showed footage of him with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and in war zones in military garb, including as a young high-school graduate commanding a unit in Iran’s war with Iraq in the 1980s.
    After that, he rose rapidly through the ranks of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to become chief of the Quds Force, a post in which he helped Iran form alliances in the Middle East as it came under pressure from U.S. sanctions that have devastated the Islamic Republic’s economy.
    The United States designated the Revolutionary Guards a foreign terrorist organization in 2019, part of a campaign of maximum pressure to force Iran to negotiate on its ballistic missile program and nuclear policy.
    Soleimani had a pointed reply: any negotiation with the U.S. would be “complete surrender.”
    Soleimani’s Quds Force shored up support for Syrian President Bashir al-Assad when he looked close to defeat in the civil war raging since 2011 and also helped militiamen defeat Islamic State in Iraq.
    Its successes have made Soleimani instrumental to the steady spreading of Iran’s clout in the Middle East, which the United States and Tehran’s regional foes Saudi Arabia and Israel have struggled to keep in check.
    Khamenei made Soleimani head of the Quds Force in 1998, a position in which he kept a low profile for years while he strengthened Iran’s ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad’s government, and Shi’ite militia groups in Iraq.
    In the past few years, he has acquired a more public standing, with fighters and commanders in Iraq and Syria posting images on social media of him on the battlefield, his beard and hair always impeccably trimmed.
WE ARE CLOSE TO YOU
    Soleimani’s growing authority within Iran’s military establishment was apparent in 2019 when Khamenei awarded him the Order of Zolfiqar medal, Iran’s highest military honor.    It was the first time any commander had received the medal since the Islamic Republic was established in 1979.
    In a statement after Soleimani’s death, Khamenei said harsh revenge awaited the “criminals” who killed him.    His death, though bitter, would double the motivation of the resistance against the United States and Israel, the Iranian leader said.
    “Soleimani is … not a man working in an office.    He goes to the front to inspect the troops and see the fighting,” a former senior Iraqi official, who asked not to be identified, said in an interview in 2014.
    “His chain of command is only the Supreme Leader.    He needs money, gets money. Needs munitions, gets munitions.    Needs material, gets material,” the former Iraqi official said.
    Soleimani was also in charge of intelligence gathering and covert military operations carried out by the Quds Force and in 2018 he publicly challenged U.S. President Donald Trump.
    I’m telling you Mr. Trump the gambler, I’m telling you, know that we are close to you in that place you don’t think we are,” said Soleimani, seen wagging an admonishing finger in a video clip distributed online.
    “You will start the war but we will end it,” he said, with a checkered keffiya draped across the shoulders of his olive uniform.
GETS WHAT HE WANTS
    Softly-spoken, Soleimani came from humble beginnings, born into an agricultural family in the town of Rabor in southeast Iran on March 11, 1957.
    At 13, he traveled to the town of Kerman and got a construction job to help his father pay back loans, according to a first person account from Soleimani posted by Defa Press, a site focused on the history of Iran’s eight year war with Iraq.
    When the revolution to oust the Shah began in 1978, Soleimani was working for the municipal water department in Kerman and organized demonstrations against the monarch.
    He volunteered for the Revolutionary Guards and, after war with Iraq broke out in 1980, quickly rose through the ranks and went on to battle drug smugglers on the border with Afghanistan.
    “Soleimani is a great listener.    He does not impose himself.    But he always gets what he wants,” said another Iraqi official, adding that he can be intimidating.
    At the height of the civil war between Sunni and Shi’ite militants in Iraq in 2007, the U.S. military accused the Quds Force of supplying improvised explosive devices to Shi’ite militants which led to the death of many American soldiers.
    Soleimani played such a pivotal role in Iraq’s security through various militia groups that General David Petraeus, the overall head of U.S. forces in Iraq at the time, sent messages to him through Iraqi officials, according to diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks.
    After a referendum on independence in the Kurdish north in 2017, Soleimani issued a warning to Kurdish leaders which led to a withdrawal of fighters from contested areas and allowed central government forces to reassert their control.
    He was arguably even more influential in Syria.    His visit to Moscow in the summer of 2015 was the first step in planning for a Russian military intervention that reshaped the Syrian war and forged a new Iranian-Russian alliance in support of Assad.
    His activities had made him a repeated target of the U.S. Treasury: Soleimani was sanctioned by the United States for the Quds Force’s support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other armed groups, for his role in Syria’s crackdown against protesters and his alleged involvement in a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
    Soleimani’s success in advancing Iran’s agenda had also put him in the crosshairs of regional foes Saudi Arabia and Israel.
    Top Saudi intelligence officials looked into the possibility of assassinating Soleimani in 2017, according to a report in the New York Times in 2018.    A Saudi government spokesman declined to comment, the Times reported, but Israeli military officials publicly discussed the possibility of targeting him.
(Editing by Michael Georgy, Philippa Fletcher and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

1/3/2020 Greece, Israel and Cyprus call Turkey’s planned Libya deployment ‘dangerous escalation’
FILE PHOTO: Turkish lawmakers vote a bill that allows troop deployment to Libya,
at the Parliament in Ankara, Turkey, January 2, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer
    ATHENS (Reuters) – Turkey’s bill allowing troop deployment in Libya marks a dangerous escalation in the North African country’s civil war and severely threatens stability in the region, a joint statement by Greece, Israel and Cyprus said late on Thursday.
    “This decision constitutes a gross violation of the UNSC resolution…imposing an arms embargo in Libya and seriously undermines the international community’s efforts to find a peaceful, political solution to the Libyan conflict,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades said in the statement.
    Turkish parliament overwhelmingly approved a bill that allows troops to be deployed in Libya, in a move that paves the way for further military cooperation between Ankara and Tripoli but is unlikely to put boots on the ground immediately.
    Turkey’s move comes after Ankara and the internationally recognized government of Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj signed two separate agreements in November: one on security and military cooperation and another on maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean, infuriating Greece, Israel, Egypt and Cyprus.
    The three countries also called on Turkey to refrain from sending troops to Libya, which would violate Libyan national sovereignty and independence.
(Reporting by Angeliki Koutantou; Writing by Ezgi Erkoyun; Editing by Sam Holmes)

1/3/2020 Protesters refuse the appointment of Lebanon’s prime minister by OAN Newsroom
Lebanese army soldiers try to remove anti-government protesters who are blocking by their bodies a major highway that
links the capital Beirut to northern Lebanon, in the town of Nahr el-Kalb, north of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Jan. 3, 2020.(AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
    Protesters gathered in Lebanon to call for the resignation of the country’s new prime minister just weeks after he was appointed.    Crowds assembled in near the capital city of Beirut Thursday in opposition to Hassan Diab’s leadership role.
    “Hassan Diab is not a person that represents me,” stated protester Nadine Akkawi.    “We want someone that is like us, we want a proper person that will have a superpower by himself with his government that will take us out of this.”
    Hezbollah-backed Diab has failed to win over Lebanon’s Sunni community even though the position of prime minister is reserved for Sunni Muslims under a power-sharing agreement.    Since his designation, demonstrators have taken to the streets to voice their disagreement with his position.
Anti-government protesters kick stones as they block a major highway that links the capital Beirut to northern Lebanon,
in the town of Nahr el-Kalb, north of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Jan. 3, 2020. Lebanon is facing its worst economic crisis
in decades, while protests against corruption and mismanagement have gripped the country since October. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
    “This prime minister does not have these characteristics we have already asked for, so that is why we are refusing his designation,” said protester Lucien Burjeili.    “We prefer that he will step down, so we will have a new designate because with his presence, he is delaying the real solution.”
    Many doubt Diab’s credibility and say he does not speak for the people of Lebanon.    Anti-government protests have been going on for months and Diab says he will try to form a new government in the next few weeks.

1/3/2020 U.S. killing of Iran’s second most powerful man risks regional conflagration by Samia Nakhoul
FILE PHOTO - Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a commander in the Popular Mobilization Forces attend a
funeral procession of Hashd al-Shaabi (paramilitary forces) members, who were killed by U.S. air
strikes in Qaim district, at the Green zone in Baghdad, Iraq December 31, 2019. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – The U.S. killing of Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful figure after its supreme leader, is seen by Tehran as an act of war that risks regional conflagration.
    By ordering Friday’s air strike on the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s foreign legions, President Donald Trump has taken the United States and its allies into uncharted territory in its confrontation with Iran and its proxy militias across the region.    The Iranian leadership may bide its time.
    But most analysts believe this blow to its prestige, plus Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei’s personal commitment to Soleimani and his campaign to forge an axis of Shi’ite paramilitary power across the Levant and into the Gulf, means Iranian reprisals will be lethal.
    It risks a slide into direct conflict with the United States that could engulf the whole region.
    “The direct assassination of Soleimani by the United States is a naked challenge and Iran has to carry out a major face-saving act to respond,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.    “This is not the end of it.”
    Soleimani, who made his name in Iran’s war with Iraq in the 1980s, rose in 1998 to command the Quds Force, the overseas arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
    After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 toppled Saddam Hussein’s Sunni rule and brought Iraq’s Shi’ite majority to power, the Quds Force built up a powerful array of proxy militias to harry the U.S. occupation.
    They were modeled on Hezbollah, the Shi’ite paramilitary force Iran created in Lebanon – but in Iraq they were four times bigger.
    When Syria was plunged into war by the Sunni rebellion that started in 2011, Soleimani mobilized Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’ite militias to save President Bashar al-Assad and establish a new Quds fortress.
    That enabled Iran to link up its paramilitary proxies in a Shi’ite axis of power across Iraq and through Syria to the Mediterranean, alarming U.S. allies such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
NETHER FORGOTTEN NOR FORGIVEN
    Soleimani, the architect of this muscular policy, then became a regional legend and popular icon in Iran after his forces spearheaded the fight against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
    But the seemingly inexorable success of Soleimani’s paramilitary strategy – permanently mobilized militias armed with precision missiles and drones – came at a cost.
    In Iraq, the Popular Mobilization Forces, the 100,000-strong paramilitary alliance at the sharp end of the power struggle between Iran and the United States, may have over-reached.
    At the instigation of Soleimani and the Quds Force, PMF units have stepped up harassment of U.S. troops in Iraq.br>     But the killing of an American contractor at a base in northern Iraq attacked by the Kataib Hezbollah militia last week prompted U.S. air strikes that killed 25 pro-Iranian fighters.
    In response, the militias laid siege to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, breaking through the perimeter before withdrawing.
    That reminder of the occupation of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 – a humiliation Americans have never forgiven – may have prompted Trump, facing re-election as well as impeachment this year, to sign Soleimani’s death warrant.
    “The Americans have never forgotten the storming of their embassy in Tehran and the hostage-taking,” says Sarkis Naoum, a leading regional analyst.
    “This issue for them was bigger than Soleimani’s killing,” he added.    “Their embassy was the symbol of the nation and their influence.”
MULTI-PRONGED RESPONSE?
    From Iran’s point of view, protests against corruption and bad governance in Iraq and Lebanon are a reminder of the start of the Syrian conflict in which Soleimani’s forces intervened to save Assad.
    Soleimani traveled to both countries in recent weeks to ensure his Hezbollah and PMF allies held the line to protect Iran’s political and military influence.
    After the elimination of Soleimani, Iran is expected to double down in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen on what it regards as its forward lines of defense against a U.S.-led attempt to encircle it with the help of Israel and Saudi Arabia.
    Iran has already given examples of how it can respond.
    After the Trump administration withdrew from the nuclear deal Iran signed with the United States and other world powers in 2015, the IRGC and its proxies progressed from limited attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf to spectacular missile and drone assaults on Saudi oil installations.
    Analysts now see a multi-pronged Iranian response against the United States and its allies as certain.
    Already the Soleimani killing has united otherwise fractious Iraqi Shi’ite groups in demanding U.S. forces quit Iraq.
    A senior official in the Iranian-led regional military alliance said: “When the Americans take this deliberate decision to kill Soleimani it means they have taken a decision for war.”
    “There will not be a quick revenge,” said Carnegie’s Hage Ali.    “Even in a situation like this they are cold, they consider their options and then they react.    It will take time but all options are on the table.”
    The Soleimani operation “<>is a strike into the heart of Iran: they have not just killed Iran’s military mastermind in the region but taken out a future leader of Iran,” Naoum said.
(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam,; Writing by Samia Nakhoul; Editing by Giles Elgood)

1/3/2020 Lebanon’s crisis needs $20 billion-$25 billion bailout, former minister says by Eric Knecht
FILE PHOTO: Lebanese army soldiers stand guard outside a branch of Byblos Bank
in the southern city of Sidon, Lebanon November 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon needs a $20 billion-$25 billion bailout including International Monetary Fund support to emerge from its financial crisis, former economy minister Nasser Saidi told Reuters on Friday.
    Lebanon’s crisis has shattered confidence in its banking system and raised investors’ concerns that a default could loom for one of the world’s most indebted countries, with a $1.2 billion Eurobond due in March.
    Lebanon’s politicians have failed to come up with a rescue plan since Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri quit in October after protests over state corruption.
    Depositors and investors say they have been kept in the dark about the country’s dire financial situation.
    President Michel Aoun said on Friday that he hoped a new government would be formed next week.    But analysts say the cabinet to be led by Hassan Diab may struggle to win international support because he was nominated by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group and its allies.
    Saidi said time was running short, and that $11 billion in previously pledged support from foreign donors was now roughly half of what was needed to mount a recovery.
    “The danger of the current situation is we’re approaching economic collapse that can potentially reduce GDP (for 2020) by 10%,” Saidi said in an interview.
    Economists have said 2020 is likely to register Lebanon’s first economic contraction in 20 years, with some saying GDP will contract by 2%.
    Others have predicted a long depression unseen since independence from France in 1943 or during the 1975-90 civil war.
    Lebanese companies have laid off workers and business has ground to a halt.    A hard currency crunch has prompted banks to restrict access to dollars and the Lebanese pound trades a third weaker on the parallel market, driving up prices.
    “Our policymakers are not wiling to recognize the depth of the problems we have … They need the courage to tell the Lebanese population that difficult times are coming,” said Saidi.
    Credit ratings agencies have downgraded Lebanon’s sovereign rating and the ratings of its commercial banks on fears of default.
    Saidi said a $20-$25 billion package could guarantee payment on some of the country’s public debt, enabling it to restructure in a way that would extend maturities and reduce interest rates.
    Saidi said that would need support from the IMF, World Bank, and Western and Gulf states.
    Hariri last month discussed the possibility of technical assistance from the IMF and World Bank, but there has been no public mention of a financial package.
(Reporting by Eric Knecht; Editing by Giles Elgood)

1/4/2020 Report: Rockets launched near U.S. Embassy, Balad Air Base in Baghdad by OAN Newsroom
FILE – In this photo released by the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), a long-range
S-200 missile is fired in a military drill in the port city of Bushehr, on the northern coast of
Persian Gulf, Iran, Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2016. (Amir Kholousi, ISNA via AP)
    On Saturday, one to two rockets reportedly hit near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad amid escalating tensions in the region.    According to local media, the rockets were reportedly fired near Balad Air Base north of Baghdad, where U.S. troops were said to be stationed.
    No injures or deaths were immediately reported and Iran has not claimed responsibility for the attack.    In response, the embassy has been closed and all U.S. personnel are being transferred to shelter.
    Reports said a fleet of U.S. helicopters was seen descending on the scene and Iraqi military have begun securing the city.
An Iraqi police officer instructs a bulldozer while Iraqi security forces remove cement blocks and opened the streets,
that were closed for security concerns, around the Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020. Iran-backed
militiamen have withdrawn from the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad after two days of clashes with U.S. security forces. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)
    This attack followed several other recent airstrikes in the region, one of which was conducted by U.S. forces to eliminate Iraqi General Qasem Soleimani.    Thousands attended his funeral hours before Saturday’s strike.
    President Trump has called the general’s death a “flawless strike” on the “number one terrorist anywhere in the world.”    During a Friday news conference, the president said Soleimani was plotting “imminent and sinister attacks” on American diplomats and personnel. However, the general was “caught in the act” and terminated.

U.S. soldiers stand guard on the roof of the U.S. embassy while pro-Iranian militiamen and their supporters set
a fire in front of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

1/5/2020 Trump vows to hit 52 Iranian targets if Iran retaliates after drone strike by Ahmed Aboulenein, Maha El Dahan and David Shepardson
FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks following the U.S. Military airstrike against Iranian
General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, Iraq, in West Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., January 3, 2020. REUTERS/Tom Brenner<
    BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday threatened to hit 52 Iranian sites “very hard” if Iran attacks Americans or U.S. assets after a drone strike that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani and an Iraqi militia leader, as tens of thousands of people marched in Iraq to mourn their deaths.     Showing no signs of seeking to ease tensions raised by the strike he ordered that killed Soleimani and Iranian-backed Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at Baghdad airport on Friday, Trump issued a threat to Iran on Twitter.    The strike has raised the specter of wider conflict in the Middle East.
    Iran, Trump wrote, “is talking very boldly about targeting certain USA assets” in revenge for Soleimani’s death.    Trump said the United States has “targeted 52 Iranian sites” and that some were “at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.”
    “The USA wants no more threats!” Trump said, adding that the 52 targets represented the 52 Americans who were held hostage in Iran for 444 days after being seized at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 – an enduring sore spot in U.S.-Iranian relations.
    Trump did not identify the sites.    The Pentagon referred questions about the matter to the White House, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
    Among the mourners in Iraq included many militiamen in uniform for whom Muhandis and Soleimani were heroes.    They carried portraits of both men and plastered them on walls and armored personnel carriers in the procession.    Chants of “Death to America” and “No No Israel” rang out.
    On Saturday evening, a rocket fell inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone near the U.S. Embassy, another hit the nearby Jadriya neighborhood and two more were fired at the Balad air base north of the city, but no one was killed, Iraq’s military said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
    Trump referenced an unusually specific number of potential Iranian targets after a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander had also mentioned a specific number of American targets – 35 of them – for possible retaliatory attacks in response to Soleimani’s killing.
    General Gholamali Abuhamzeh was quoted by Tasnim news agency as saying late on Friday that Iran will punish Americans wherever they are within reach of the Islamic Republic, and raised the prospect of attacks on ships in the Gulf.
    “The Strait of Hormuz is a vital point for the West and a large number of American destroyers and warships cross there. … Vital American targets in the region have been identified by Iran since long time ago. … Some 35 U.S. targets in the region as well as Tel Aviv are within our reach,” he was quoted as saying.
    Iraq’s Kataib Hezbollah militia warned Iraqi security forces to stay away from U.S. bases in Iraq, “by a distance not less than a thousand meters (six-tenths of a mile) starting Sunday evening,” reported Lebanese al-Mayadeen TV, which is close to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
    Trump said on Friday Soleimani had been plotting “imminent and sinister” attacks on American diplomats and military personnel.    Democratic critics said the Republican president’s action was reckless and risked more bloodshed in a dangerous region.
‘MALIGN INFLUENCE’
    Trump’s provocative Twitter posts came only hours after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote on Twitter that he had told Iraq’s president that “the U.S. remains committed to de-escalation.”    Pompeo also wrote on Twitter that he had spoken with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about Iran and “underscored the importance of countering Iran’s malign influence and threats to the region.”
    The White House on Saturday sent to the U.S. Congress formal notification of the drone strike – as required by law – amid complaints from Democrats that Trump did not notify lawmakers or seek advance approval for the attack.    White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien defended the operation’s legality and said Justice Department lawyers had signed off on the plan.
    Democrats sounded unswayed. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the notification document raised “serious and urgent questions about the timing, manner and justification” of the strike.
    Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a strident Trump critic, wrote on Twitter that his threat to hit Iranian sites “is a war crime.”
    “Threatening to target and kill innocent families, women and children – which is what you’re doing by targeting cultural sites – does not make you a ‘tough guy.’    It does not make you ‘strategic.’    It makes you a monster,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote.
    With security worries rising after Friday’s strike, the NATO alliance and a separate U.S.-led mission suspended their programs to train Iraqi security and armed forces, officials said.
    Soleimani, 62, was Iran’s pre-eminent military leader – head of the Revolutionary Guards’ overseas Quds Force and the architect of Iran’s spreading influence in the Middle East.    Muhandis was de facto leader of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) umbrella body of paramilitary groups.
    The attack took Washington and its allies, mainly Saudi Arabia and Israel, into uncharted territory in their confrontation with Iran and its proxy militias across the region.
    The United States has been an ally of the Iraqi government since the 2003 U.S. invasion to oust dictator Saddam Hussein, but Iraq has become more closely allied with Iran.
    The Iraqi parliament is convening an extraordinary session during which a vote to expel U.S. troops could be taken as soon as Sunday.    Many Iraqis, including opponents of Soleimani, have expressed anger at Washington for killing the two men on Iraqi soil and possibly dragging their country into another conflict.
BODIES TAKEN TO HOLY CITIES
    A PMF-organized procession carried the bodies of Soleimani and Muhandis, and those of others killed in the U.S. strike, through Baghdad’s Green Zone.
    The top candidate to succeed Muhandis, Hadi al-Amiri, spoke over the dead militia commander’s coffin: “The price for your noble blood is American forces leaving Iraq forever and achieving total national sovereignty.”
    Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi also attended. Mahdi’s office later said he received a phone call from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and they “discussed the difficult conditions facing Iraq and the region.”
    Mourners brought the bodies of the two slain men by car to the Shi’ite holy city of Kerbala, south of Baghdad, then to Najaf, another sacred Shi’ite city, where they were met by the son of Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and where Muhandis and the other Iraqis killed will be laid to rest.
    Soleimani’s body will be transferred to the southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan that borders Iraq.    On Sunday it will be taken to the Shi’ite holy city of Mashhad in Iran’s northeast and from there to Tehran and his hometown Kerman in the southeast for burial on Tuesday, state media said.
    The U.S. strike followed a sharp increase in U.S.-Iranian hostilities in Iraq since last week when pro-Iranian militias attacked the U.S. embassy in Baghdad after a deadly U.S. air raid on Kataib Hezbollah, founded by Muhandis.    Washington accused the group of an attack on an Iraqi military base that killed an American contractor.
(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein and Maha El Dahan in Baghdad and David Shepardson in Washington; Additional reporting by Ghazwan Jabouri in Tikrit, Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, Nadine Awadallah in Beirut, John Chalmers in Brussels, and Kate Holton in London; Writing by Will Dunham, Mark Heinrich and Grant McCool; Editing by Frances Kerry and Daniel Wallis)

1/5/2020 Trump vows to hit 52 Iranian targets if Iran retaliates after drone strike by Ahmed Aboulenein, Maha El Dahan and David Shepardson
Mourners attend the funeral of the Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, top commander of the elite Quds Force
of the Revolutionary Guards, and the Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis,
who were killed in an air strike at Baghdad airport, in Baghdad, Iraq, January 4, 2020. REUTERS/Wissm al-Okili
    BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday threatened to hit 52 Iranian sites “very hard” if Iran attacks Americans or U.S. assets after a drone strike that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani and an Iraqi militia leader, as tens of thousands of people marched in Iraq to mourn their deaths.
    Showing no signs of seeking to ease tensions raised by the strike he ordered that killed Soleimani and Iranian-backed Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at Baghdad airport on Friday, Trump issued a threat to Iran on Twitter.    The strike has raised the specter of wider conflict in the Middle East.
    Iran, Trump wrote, “is talking very boldly about targeting certain USA assets” in revenge for Soleimani’s death.    Trump said the United States has “targeted 52 Iranian sites” and that some were “at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.”
    The USA wants no more threats!” Trump said, adding that the 52 targets represented the 52 Americans who were held hostage in Iran for 444 days after being seized at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 – an enduring sore spot in U.S.-Iranian relations.
    Trump did not identify the sites.    The Pentagon referred questions about the matter to the White House, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
    Among the mourners in Iraq included many militiamen in uniform for whom Muhandis and Soleimani were heroes.    They carried portraits of both men and plastered them on walls and armored personnel carriers in the procession.    Chants of “Death to America” and “No No Israel” rang out.
    On Saturday evening, a rocket fell inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone near the U.S. Embassy, another hit the nearby Jadriya neighborhood and two more were fired at the Balad air base north of the city, but no one was killed, Iraq’s military said.    There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
    Trump referenced an unusually specific number of potential Iranian targets after a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander had also mentioned a specific number of American targets – 35 of them – for possible retaliatory attacks in response to Soleimani’s killing.
    General Gholamali Abuhamzeh was quoted by Tasnim news agency as saying late on Friday that Iran will punish Americans wherever they are within reach of the Islamic Republic, and raised the prospect of attacks on ships in the Gulf.
    “The Strait of Hormuz is a vital point for the West and a large number of American destroyers and warships cross there. … Vital American targets in the region have been identified by Iran since long time ago. … Some 35 U.S. targets in the region as well as Tel Aviv are within our reach,” he was quoted as saying.
    Iraq’s Kataib Hezbollah militia warned Iraqi security forces to stay away from U.S. bases in Iraq, “by a distance not less than a thousand meters (six-tenths of a mile) starting Sunday evening,” reported Lebanese al-Mayadeen TV, which is close to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
    Trump said on Friday Soleimani had been plotting “imminent and sinister” attacks on American diplomats and military personnel.    Democratic critics said the Republican president’s action was reckless and risked more bloodshed in a dangerous region.
‘MALIGN INFLUENCE’
    Trump’s provocative Twitter posts came only hours after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote on Twitter that he had told Iraq’s president that “the U.S. remains committed to de-escalation.”    Pompeo also wrote on Twitter that he had spoken with Israeli Prime     Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about Iran and “underscored the importance of countering Iran’s malign influence and threats to the region.”
    The White House on Saturday sent to the U.S. Congress formal notification of the drone strike – as required by law – amid complaints from Democrats that Trump did not notify lawmakers or seek advance approval for the attack.    White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien defended the operation’s legality and said Justice Department lawyers had signed off on the plan.
    Democrats sounded unswayed. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the notification document raised “serious and urgent questions about the timing, manner and justification” of the strike.
    Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a strident Trump critic, wrote on Twitter that his threat to hit Iranian sites “is a war crime.”
    “Threatening to target and kill innocent families, women and children – which is what you’re doing by targeting cultural sites – does not make you a ‘tough guy.’    It does not make you ‘strategic.’    It makes you a monster,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote.
    With security worries rising after Friday’s strike, the NATO alliance and a separate U.S.-led mission suspended their programs to train Iraqi security and armed forces, officials said.
    Soleimani, 62, was Iran’s pre-eminent military leader – head of the Revolutionary Guards’ overseas Quds Force and the architect of Iran’s spreading influence in the Middle East.    Muhandis was de facto leader of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) umbrella body of paramilitary groups.
    The attack took Washington and its allies, mainly Saudi Arabia and Israel, into uncharted territory in their confrontation with Iran and its proxy militias across the region.
    The United States has been an ally of the Iraqi government since the 2003 U.S. invasion to oust dictator Saddam Hussein, but Iraq has become more closely allied with Iran.
    The Iraqi parliament is convening an extraordinary session during which a vote to expel U.S. troops could be taken as soon as Sunday.    Many Iraqis, including opponents of Soleimani, have expressed anger at Washington for killing the two men on Iraqi soil and possibly dragging their country into another conflict.
BODIES TAKEN TO HOLY CITIES
    A PMF-organized procession carried the bodies of Soleimani and Muhandis, and those of others killed in the U.S. strike, through Baghdad’s Green Zone.
    The top candidate to succeed Muhandis, Hadi al-Amiri, spoke over the dead militia commander’s coffin: “The price for your noble blood is American forces leaving Iraq forever and achieving total national sovereignty.”
    Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi also attended.    Mahdi’s office later said he received a phone call from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and they “discussed the difficult conditions facing Iraq and the region.”
    Mourners brought the bodies of the two slain men by car to the Shi’ite holy city of Kerbala, south of Baghdad, then to Najaf, another sacred Shi’ite city, where they were met by the son of Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and where Muhandis and the other Iraqis killed will be laid to rest.
    Soleimani’s body will be transferred to the southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan that borders Iraq.    On Sunday it will be taken to the Shi’ite holy city of Mashhad in Iran’s northeast and from there to Tehran and his hometown Kerman in the southeast for burial on Tuesday, state media said.
    The U.S. strike followed a sharp increase in U.S.-Iranian hostilities in Iraq since last week when pro-Iranian militias attacked the U.S. embassy in Baghdad after a deadly U.S. air raid on Kataib Hezbollah, founded by Muhandis.    Washington accused the group of an attack on an Iraqi military base that killed an American contractor.
(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein and Maha El Dahan in Baghdad and David Shepardson in Washington; Additional reporting by Ghazwan Jabouri in Tikrit, Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, Nadine Awadallah in Beirut, John Chalmers in Brussels, and Kate Holton in London; Writing by Will Dunham, Mark Heinrich and Grant McCool; Editing by Frances Kerry and Daniel Wallis)

1/5/2020 Report: Several rockets fired inside Green Zone near U.S. Embassy in Baghdad by OAN Newsroom
Iraqi security forces watch Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces and their supporters enter the heavily fortified Green Zone,
the seat of Iraq’s government and the U.S. Embassy, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
    Several rockets have reportedly been fired into the Green Zone near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.    Sunday reports, which cited Iraqi security forces, said two to three Katyusha rockets fell in and around the zone on Saturday.
    Following the incident, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) issued a statement.
    “The night of January 4th, two rocket attacks occurred near Iraqi bases that host Coalition troops in Baghdad and Balad.    The International Zone took indirect fire that landed outside of Coalition facilities and potentially harmed Iraqi civilians.    No Coalition troops were harmed. We have increased security and defensive measures at the Iraqi bases that host anti-ISIS Coalition troops.”– Myles B. Caggins III, International Coalition Forces Spokesman

    At this point, it is unclear who launched the rockets.    Officials said at least six civilians were injured, but it is unknown how many may have been killed.
    The Pentagon has yet to confirm any details of the incident.    This rocket launch followed two other attacks near the embassy in recent days. U.S. forces were evacuated and the embassy was closed this weekend to avoid further harm.
In this Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020, photo, released by the U.S. military, a U.S. Marine with 2nd Battalion,
7th Marines that is part of a quick reaction force, carries a sand bag during the reinforcement of the
U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad, Iraq. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Kyle C. Talbot via AP)
    This is developing news.    Please check back later for updates.

1/5/2020 Three Americans killed in al Shabaab militant attack on base in Kenya by Abdi Sheikh, Joseph Akwiri and Phil Stewart
An image distributed by al Shabaab after the attack on a military base in Kenya shows a Somalia's
al Shabaab militant holding the group's flag next to a burning aircraft, said to be at the
Manda Bay Airfield in Manda, Lamu, Kenya January 5, 2020. Al-Shabaab/Handout via REUTERS
    NAIROBI/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Three Americans – one U.S. military servicemember and two contractors – were killed by Somalia’s al Shabaab militant group during an attack on Sunday on a military base in Kenya used by both U.S. and Kenyan forces, the U.S. military said.
    The military’s Africa Command confirmed the deaths and said two other Americans who work for the U.S. Department of Defense were also wounded in the attack on the Manda Bay Airfield in Lamu county, close to the Somali border.
    “The wounded Americans are currently in stable condition and being evacuated,” Africa Command (AFRICOM) said in a statement.
    The attack presents another crisis for Washington just as the Pentagon grapples with a rapidly escalating standoff with Iran following a Friday U.S. drone strike in Baghdad that killed top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani.
    Tehran and Washington have traded threats and counter-threats following the strike, stoking fears of open conflict.
    The assault by al Shabaab, which has been fighting for more than a decade to overthrow the Somali government and impose strict Islamic law, began before dawn and lasted around four hours, witnesses and military sources told Reuters.
    A Kenyan police report seen by Reuters said the Islamist militants destroyed two planes, two U.S. helicopters and multiple American military vehicles during their assault.
    The Kenyan military said five militants had been killed in the attack.    There were no immediate reports of Kenyan casualties.
    In a statement earlier on Sunday, al Shabaab claimed it had destroyed seven aircraft and three military vehicles, without providing other details.    It also published pictures of masked gunmen standing next to an aircraft in flames.
    AFRICOM said fewer than 150 U.S. personnel had been at the base, where they provided training and counterterrorism support to East African forces.
    “Alongside our African and international partners, we will pursue those responsible for this attack,” said U.S. Army General Stephen Townsend, who leads Africa Command.
    Kenyan military spokesman Colonel Paul Njuguna said the base had been secured.
    “This morning at around 5:30 am an attempt was made to breach security at Manda Air Strip.    The attempted breach was successfully repulsed,” he said in a statement.
    “Arising from the unsuccessful breach a fire broke out affecting some of the fuel tanks located at the airstrip.    The fire has been put under control.”
    In the operation to repulse the attack, at least five militants were killed and weapons including four AK47 rifles were seized, Njuguna said.
    There was no indication the militants had managed to enter the base.    The airfield is separate to another on Manda Island used by commercial flights to Lamu.
    Kenya sent troops into Somalia in 2011 after a spate of cross-border attacks and kidnappings.    They were later absorbed into an African Union peacekeeping force, now 21,000-strong, which supports the shaky, Western-backed Somali government.
EXPLOSION IN THE DARK
    Independent investigator Benjamin Strick, who analyses satellite imagery for open-source investigation websites such as Bellingcat, said the photos of gunmen next to a burning plane published by al Shabaab matched satellite images of buildings and a distinctive aircraft apron adjacent to the base but outside its perimeter.
    Residents on nearby Lamu Island, a haven for wealthy tourists and visiting European royalty, said a loud explosion jolted them awake before 4 a.m.
    Abdalla Barghash said he later saw a large dark plume of smoke rising from the Manda Bay mainland, where the airstrip and base are located.
    Lamu county, which is far more impoverished than the island, is frequently targeted by al Shabaab with roadside bombs and ambushes on travellers or attacks on isolated villages.
    The insurgents killed three passengers when they attacked a bus in the county on Thursday.
(Reporting by Abdi Sheikh and Joseph Akwiri in Nairobi and Phil Stewart in Washington; Additional reporting by Humphrey Malalo, Feisal Omar and Katharine Houreld; Writing by Katharine Houreld, Elias Biryabarema and Phil Stewart; Editing by Gareth Jones and Peter Cooney)

1/5/2020 Netanyahu, in apparent stumble, calls Israel ‘nuclear power’
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem January 5, 2020. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – In an apparent slip of the tongue on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described Israel as a nuclear power before correcting himself with a bashful nod and an embarrassed smile.
    Israel is widely believed to have an atomic arsenal but has never confirmed or denied that it has nuclear weapons, maintaining a so-called policy of ambiguity on the issue for decades.
    Netanyahu stumbled at the weekly cabinet meeting while reading in Hebrew prepared remarks on a deal with Greece and Cyprus on a subsea gas pipeline.
    “The significance of this project is that we are turning Israel into a nuclear power,” he said, before quickly correcting himself to say “energy power.”
    He then paused for a beat, acknowledging his mistake with a smile, and then ploughed on with his comments.
    The rare blooper from one of Israel’s most polished politicians swiftly proliferated on social media.
    Netanyahu is fighting for his political survival in a March 2 vote after two inconclusive elections in April and September.    In November, he was indicted on corruption charges, which he denies.
(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Maayan Lubell and Frances Kerry)

1/5/2020 Iraqi parliament backs government push to expel foreign troops by Ahmed Rasheed and Ahmed Aboulenein
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi attends an Iraqi parliament session in
Baghdad, Iraq January 5, 2020. Iraqi Prime Minister Media Office/Handout via REUTERS
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s parliament on Sunday backed a recommendation by the prime minister that all foreign troops should be ordered out after the U.S. killing of a top Iranian military commander and an Iraqi militia leader in Baghdad.
    A special session passed a resolution saying that the Shi’ite-led government, which is close to Iran, should cancel its request for assistance from a U.S.-led coalition.
    “Despite the internal and external difficulties that we might face, it remains best for Iraq on principle and practically,” said caretaker premier Adel Abdul Mahdi, who resigned in November amid street protests.
    He later told France’s foreign minister that Iraqi officials were working on implementing the resolution.
    The session was called after a U.S. drone strike on Friday at Baghdad airport killed Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, architect of Iran’s drive to extend its influence across the region, and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
    Rival Shi’ite Muslim leaders, including ones opposed to Iranian influence, have united since then in calling for the expulsion of U.S. troops, and Abdul Mahdi’s eventual successor is almost certain to take the same view.
    However, one Sunni Muslim lawmaker said Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities fear the expulsion of the U.S.-led coalition will leave Iraq vulnerable to an insurgency, undermine security, and further empower its Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias.
    Most Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers boycotted the session, and the 168 lawmakers present were just three more than the quorum.
‘WE HAVE OUR OWN FORCES’
    Lawmakers from the Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, which the U.S. State Department said on Friday it would designate a foreign terrorist organisation, were carrying portraits of Soleimani and Muhandis.
    “There is no need for the presence of American forces after defeating Daesh (Islamic State),” Ammar al-Shibli, a Shi’ite lawmaker, said before the session.    “We have our own armed forces which are capable of protecting the country.”
    Despite decades of enmity between Tehran and Washington, Iranian-backed militias and U.S. troops fought on the same side during Iraq’s 2014-2017 war against Islamic State militants.
    Around 5,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, most in an advisory capacity.
    Many Iraqis, including opponents of Soleimani, are angry with Washington for killing him and Muhandis on Iraqi soil, potentially dragging their country into another conflict.
    The parliamentary resolution was not enough for some Shi’ite leaders, such as the influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose militia has fought U.S. troops in the past.
    “I consider this a weak response, insufficient against American violation of Iraqi sovereignty and regional escalation,” Sadr, who leads the largest bloc in parliament, said in a letter to the assembly.
    Sadr said the security agreement with the United States should be canceled immediately, the U.S. embassy shut and U.S. troops expelled in a “humiliating” manner.
    The cleric, who says he opposes both U.S. and Iranian interference, seemed to move closer towards Tehran’s orbit by allying with his Iranian-backed rivals.
    “I call on Iraq’s resistance groups and the groups outside Iraq to meet immediately and announce the formation of the International Resistance Legions,” he said.
    The Iranian-backed Nujaba militia said it was ready to join such an international alliance.
MESSAGE TO SAUDIS
    Abdul Mahdi said he had been due to meet Soleimani the day he was killed, and that the general had been due to deliver an Iranian response to a message from Saudi Arabia that Abdul Mahdi had earlier passed to Tehran.
    Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran, bitter rivals for influence across the Middle East, had been about to “reach a breakthrough over the situation in Iraq and the region,” Abdul Mahdi said.
    The Trump administration has said Soleimani was planning an imminent attack on Americans.
    Abdul Mahdi said the killings would hamper the government’s ability to curb the worst impulses of the militias, adding that Muhandis had played a large role in this.
    “Before the assassination we had negotiating power and pressure tools in many cases, and now have lost a lot of them.”    In the southern city of Nassiriya, at least one anti-government protester was killed and three were wounded when pro-militia protesters carrying symbolic caskets for Soleimani and Muhandis tried to enter their protest camp and shots were fired, police and medical sources said.
    The anti-government protesters, like thousands across Iraq, have been demanding an overhaul of the entire political system since October and oppose the militias.
    Many of those demonstrators see the political elites as subservient to either the United States or Iran as both try to assert regional influence, and denounce both powers.
    In Basra, pro-militia protesters also clashed with anti-government ones and shots were fired, security sources said.
(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Ahmed Aboulenein; Additional reporting by Maha El Dahan in Baghdad and Aref Mohammed in Basra; Writing by Maha El Dahan and Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Frances Kerry)

1/5/2020 At least 30 killed in Libya military academy attack
A member of security forcers of the Government of National Accord (GNA) gestures as he inspects the site
of an attack on a military academy in Tripoli, Libya January 5, 2020. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny
    Tripoli (Reuters) – At least 30 people were killed and 33 others wounded in an attack on a military academy in the Libyan capital late on Saturday, the health ministry of the Tripoli-based government said in a statement on Sunday.
    Tripoli, controlled by the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), is facing an offensive by military commander Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) that began in April.
    There has been an increase in air strikes and shelling around Tripoli in recent weeks, with fears that fighting could escalate further after Turkey’s parliament voted to allow a troop deployment in support of the GNA.
    Forces allied with the GNA described Saturday’s attack on the military camp at Al-Hadhba as “an aerial bombing” launched by their eastern rivals.    An LNA spokesman denied involvement.
    GNA Health Minister Hamid bin Omar told Reuters earlier in a phone call that the number of dead and wounded was still rising. Tripoli ambulance service spokesman Osama Ali said some body parts could not be immediately counted by forensic experts.
    Earlier, the ambulance service appealed for a temporary ceasefire to allow its crews to retrieve the bodies of five civilians killed on As Sidra Road in southern Tripoli and to evacuate families.
    Emergency teams withdrew after coming under fire while trying to access the area on Saturday, it said.
    The GNA Foreign Ministry called for referring Haftar and his aides to the International Criminal Court on charges of committing “crimes against humanity,” adding that it will call for an emergency UN Security Council meeting to discuss the alleged crimes.
    Qatar, which supports GNA, said on Saturday that the attack “may amount to a war crime and crimes against humanity.”
    Ankara, which last week passed a bill approving a troop deployment in Libya to support Tripoli, also condemned the attack and said the international community needs to take steps to achieve a ceasefire.
    “It is crucial for the international community to urgently take necessary steps to halt external support for the pro-Haftar army and its attacks and establish a ceasefire in Libya,” the Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement.
    The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) condemned the attack saying that “rising escalation… further complicates the situation in Libya and threatens the chances of returning to the political process.”
    In response to the attack, GNA allied forces have targeted the LNA air base of Al-Wattia in an air strike, around 159 km southwest of Tripoli, a spokesman said in a statement.
    Two sources in Haftar forces said four fighters were killed in a drone strike early on Sunday.
    An increase in air strikes and shelling in and around Tripoli has caused the deaths of at least 11 civilians since early December and shut down health facilities and schools, the U.N. mission in Libya said on Friday.
    Rockets and shelling also shut down Tripoli’s only functioning airport on Friday.
    On Friday, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres renewed his call for an immediate ceasefire in Libya.
    He warned that the delivery of foreign support to warring parties would “only deepen the ongoing conflict and further complicate efforts to reach a peaceful and comprehensive political solution.”
    The parliament which moved to the east in 2014 voted to provide Haftar with emergency funding on Saturday.
    The pro-Haftar chamber also held a series of symbolic votes against the GNA and Turkey, which struck two pacts on maritime boundaries and military cooperation in November.
(Reporting by Hani Amara, Ahmed Elumami, Ayman al-Warfalli and Omar Fahmy; additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul; writing by Mahmoud Mourad and Aidan Lewis; editing by Paul Simao and Jason Neely)

1/6/2020 U.N. resumes grain milling in starvation-threatened Yemen
FILE PHOTO: A worker walks past a ship unloading grain at the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Yemen, January 5, 2019. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad
    DUBAI (Reuters) – The U.N. World Food Programme has resumed the milling of grain for food aid to a starving population in Yemen after a halt in late December due to shelling damage, the agency said on Monday.
    Artillery fire on Dec. 26 damaged WFP grain stores at the Red Sea Mills located on the front line in the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah.
    Milling resumed on Dec. 30, the WFP said in a statement.
    The mill and silos have become a focal point of the conflict in Hodeidah, where the United Nations is trying to enforce a ceasefire and troop withdrawal agreed a year ago at peace talks in Stockholm.
    The Red Sea Mills lie on a front line between forces loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s internationally recognized government and those of the Iran-aligned Houthi militia.
    The stores were off limits for around six months from late 2018 and at risk of rotting until the WFP negotiated access in February and began cleaning and milling what had been enough grain to feed 3.7 million people for a month.
    So far just over 4,500 tonnes have been milled into flour and dispatched, the statement said.
    The war has severely hit food supplies in Yemen and millions of people are at risk of starvation in what aid agencies describe as one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
    Yemen has been mired in almost five years of conflict since the Houthi movement ousted Hadi’s government from power in the capital Sanaa in late 2014, prompting intervention in 2015 by a Saudi-led military coalition in a bid to restore his government.
    The United Nations has been trying to re-launch political negotiations to end a war which has killed tens of thousands of people and pushed millions to the brink of famine.
    A year on from the Stockholm deal, U.N.-mediated talks between warring parties in the Hodeidah have so far failed to achieve a full troop withdrawal and ceasefire.
(Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

1/6/2020 Israel worried over tourism growth after reaching record 4.55 million in 2019 by Steven Scheer
FILE PHOTO: Visitors bathe in the Red Sea at a beach in Eilat, Israel,
June 12, 2018. Picture taken June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel received a record number of tourist visits in 2019 but growth could be slowed this year due to cuts in spending on advertising to promote the country as a destination, the tourism ministry said on Monday.
    The announcement came at a time of heightened concern over security in the Middle East after the United States killed a top Iranian general.    However, a tourism ministry official said the ministry was no more concerned about the potential impact of geopolitics on tourism than usual.
    Israel recorded a 10.6% rise in tourism last year to 4.55 million visits, bringing in 22 billion shekels ($6.3 billion) in revenue.
    That came despite two major escalations between Israel and Palestinian militants who control Gaza.    Some 1,300 rockets were fired into Israel in 2019, the most since the last major war fought with Hamas in Gaza in 2014.
    “We are within reach of achieving 5 million tourists, but we are concerned that the momentum we have achieved in focused marketing that has proven itself will not continue with the same intensity because of significant budget cuts,” Tourism Ministry Director-General Amir Halevi said.
    Israel’s budget deficit is expected to have exceeded 3.5% of gross domestic product in 2019, above a target of 2.9%.
    The Israeli economy has so far weathered two inconclusive elections and a year of successive caretaker governments.    The political stalemate means it will be well into 2020 before a new annual budget is passed, triggering months of cutbacks.    The third election in less than a year will be held on March 2.
    “Tourism growth has been driven by increased marketing budgets in recent years, and we hope that, despite the budget cut in 2020, we will be able to maintain the tremendous achievements we have reached,” Tourism Minister Yariv Levin said in a statement.
    The United States remained the top country for incoming tourism in 2019, with a 7% rise to nearly 890,000 entries, followed by France, Russia, Germany, Britain and Italy. Tourism from China jumped 49% to 156,000.
($1 = 3.4755 shekels)
(Reporting by Steven Scheer)

1/6/2020 Turkey says it will send military experts, advisers to Libya by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Orhan Coskun
FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a symposium in Ankara, Turkey,
January 2, 2020. Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey will send military experts and technical teams to support Libya’s internationally recognized government, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Monday, a day after President Tayyip Erdogan said Turkish military units were moving to Tripoli.
    Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj’s Government of National Accord asked for Turkish support last month as it fends off an offensive by forces led by eastern leader Khalifa Haftar, backed by Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.
    Erdogan said on Sunday that Turkish military units had started moving to Libya to support the GNA.    Asked to elaborate on Erdogan’s comments, Cavusoglu said Turkey would send experts, advisers and technical teams under a military cooperation agreement signed with the GNA in November.
    A bill passed by Turkey’s parliament last week also allowed for the deployment of troops.
    “How and when this will happen is to be decided by the government, under the president’s leadership,” Cavusoglu said.
    On Sunday, Saudi Arabia condemned the “recent Turkish escalation in Libya” and the parliamentary approval for troop deployment, calling it a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.    The United Nations has imposed an arms embargo on both sides of Libya’s conflict, which it says several countries have breached.
SYRIAN REBELS IN LIBYA
    Cavusoglu’s comments come a week after Turkish officials said that Ankara was considering sending Syrian rebel fighters to Libya as part of its planned military support.
    Ankara has backed rebels fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the almost nine-year civil war, and Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters spearheaded a Turkish military offensive in northern Syria in October.
    A spokesman for the FSA denied that Ankara had requested that it send fighters to Libya, but a military source within the FSA said some fighters had signed up on an individual basis to work as “bodyguards” for a Turkish security company in Libya.
    Flights were suspended at Tripoli’s only functioning airport on Friday due to rocket fire and shelling, and at least 30 people were killed in an attack on a military academy in Tripoli on Saturday.
    The U.S. Embassy in Libya said the violence “underscores the dangers of toxic foreign interference in Libya, such as the arrival of Syrian fighters supported by Turkey as well as the deployment of Russian mercenaries.”
    Cavusoglu denied that any FSA fighters had been deployed to Libya and said Turkey was against the deployment of mercenaries in Libya, referring to Russian and Sudanese fighters.
    Libya has lacked stable central rule since dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011 by rebel fighters with air support from NATO.
    In recent years the country has had two governments, the GNA based in the capital Tripoli and a rival administration based in the east.    Haftar, the most powerful figure in the east, has launched a campaign to unite the country by capturing Tripoli.
(Editing by Dominic Evans and Peter Graff)

1/6/2020 Pentagon chief denies U.S. leaving Iraq; Tehran crowds mourn commander by Ahmed Aboulenein and Parisa Hafezi
FILE PHOTO: U.S. Army soldiers from 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, Task Force-Iraq, man a defensive position at Forward Operating
Base Union III in Baghdad, Iraq, December 31, 2019. U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Desmond Cassell/Task Force-Iraq Public Affairs/Handout via REUTERS
    BAGHDAD/DUBAI (Reuters) – The United States has no plans to pull American troops out of Iraq, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Monday, following reports by Reuters and other media of a U.S. military letter informing Iraq officials about the repositioning of troops in preparation to leave the country.
    The developments come in the aftermath of an American drone strike ordered by U.S. President Donald Trump that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, widely seen as Iran’s second most powerful figure behind Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
    “There’s been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq,” Esper told Pentagon reporters when asked about the letter, adding there were no plans issued to prepare to leave.
    “I don’t know what that letter is… We’re trying to find out where that’s coming from, what that is. But there’s been no decision made to leave Iraq. Period.”
    The United States has about 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
    The letter was a poorly worded draft document meant only to underscore increase movement of U.S. forces, the top U.S. military officer told reporters.
    “Poorly worded, implies withdrawal.    That’s not what’s happening,” U.S. Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, stressing there was no withdrawal being planned.
    The authenticity of the letter, which was addressed to the Iraqi defense ministry’s Combined Joint Operations Baghdad and signed by a U.S. general, had been confirmed to Reuters by an Iraqi military source.
    Esper added the United States was still committed to countering Islamic State in Iraq, alongside America’s allies and partners.
    Several helicopters could be heard flying over Baghdad on Monday night.    It was not immediately clear if this was a related development.    The letter said coalition forces would be using helicopters to evacuate.
    In Tehran, Khamenei wept in grief with hundreds of thousands of mourners thronging the streets of the Iranian capital on Monday at Soleimani’s funeral.    He was killed by a U.S. drone at Baghdad airport on Friday.
    “Sir, in deference to the sovereignty of the Republic of Iraq, and as requested by the Iraqi Parliament and the Prime Minister, CJTF-OIR will be repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement,” the letter stated.
    It was signed by U.S. Marine Corps Brigadier General William Seely III, commanding general of the U.S.-led military coalition against Islamic State.
    CJTF-OIR stands for Combined Joint Task Force–Operation Inherent Resolve.
    “We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure,” the letter said.
    Iran’s demand for U.S. forces to withdraw from the region gained traction on Sunday when Iraq’s parliament passed a resolution calling for all foreign troops to leave the country.
    Iraqi caretaker Prime Minister Abdel Abdul Mahdi told the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad on Monday that both nations needed to implement the resolution, the premier’s office said in a statement.    It did not give a timeline.
    The letter stated, “During this time, there will be an increase in helicopter travel in and around the International Zone (IZ) of Baghdad.”    The International Zone is the formal name of Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, home to government buildings and foreign missions.
Graphic on 1979-81 Iran hostage crisis – https://graphics.reuters.com/IRAQ-SECURITY/0100B4V42NX/IRAQ-SECURITY.jpg
(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad, Parisa Hafezi, Reuters reporters in Dubai Newsroom, Phil Stewart, Susan Heavey and Jeff Mason in Washington, Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad, Robin Emmott in Brussels and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Alistair Bell)

1/6/2020 U.N. Libya envoy blames deadly military academy strike on Haftar ally by Michelle Nichols
FILE PHOTO: The U.N. Envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salame, speaks during a news conference
in Tripoli, Libya April 6, 2019. REUTERS/Hani Amara/File Photo
    UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The United Nations Libya envoy said on Monday that a country supporting commander Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) was likely responsible for a deadly drone attack on a military academy in the capital Tripoli.
    After briefing the U.N. Security Council, a visibly frustrated Ghassan Salame had a message for countries supporting either Haftar’s LNA or the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA): “Keep out of Libya.”
    At least 30 people were killed and dozens wounded in the attack on a military academy in the Libyan capital late on Saturday, the GNA health ministry said. Tripoli is controlled by the GNA and has been combating an LNA offensive that began in April.
    “Dozens of cadets are being killed in a military academy – unarmed, entirely unarmed – by a drone attack that is probably done by a country supporting the LNA,” Salame told reporters.    “Keep your hands out of Libya, the country is suffering too much from foreign interference in different ways.”
    Turkey has backed the GNA while Haftar has received support from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan.    Russian military contractors have also been deployed with Haftar’s LNA, diplomats and analysts said.
    “There is enough weapons in Libya, they don’t need extra weapons, there are enough mercenaries in Libya, so stop sending mercenaries, as is the case right now with hundreds, probably thousands, coming into the country,” Salame said.
    Libya has lacked stable central rule since leader Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011 by rebel fighters with air support from NATO.    Salame has been trying to mediate an end to the conflict.
    “I’m really angry to see that everybody wants to talk about Libya and very few people want to talk about the Libyans.    What happens to the Libyans?,” Salame said.
    “Libya is not only an oil story, Libya is not only a gas story, Libya is not only a geopolitical story, it is also a human story and people are suffering,” Salame said.    “There is no international clear message that enough is enough.”
    The U.N. Security Council said in a statement after Salame’s briefing that it was concerned by the recent escalation in fighting and stressed the need for countries to comply with the U.N. arms embargo on Libya and cease foreign interference.
    “The situation is bleak right now … but let me also emphasize our determination as the U.N. to try to find a way out,” Salame said.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Chris Reese and Paul Simao)

1/6/2020 Libyan commander Haftar’s forces say they have taken Sirte by Ayman al-Warfalli
Khalifa Haftar (C), the military commander who dominates eastern Libya, leaves after an international
conference on Libya at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, May 29, 2018. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer
    BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – Libyan forces loyal to eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar said on Monday they had taken control of the strategic coastal city of Sirte in a rapid advance preceded by air strikes.
    Holding Sirte would be an important gain for Haftar, who since April has been waging a military offensive on the capital, Tripoli, home to Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).
    Sirte lies in the center of Libya’s Mediterranean coast, and has been controlled by GNA-aligned forces since they ejected Islamic State from the city with the help of U.S. air strikes in late 2016.
    Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) said it had taken areas surrounding Sirte, including al-Qardabiya air base, before moving towards the city center.
    “The commander-in-chief decided on a well-planned, pre-emptive strike and within less than three hours we were in the heart of Sirte,” said LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari.
    “It was a sudden, swift operation,” he said, adding that the advance had been preceded by several hours of air strikes.
    An LNA military source said forces from the city of Misrata, to the northwest, had retreated.    Misrata led the campaign against Islamic State and is a key source of military power for the GNA.
    Earlier, a resident in Sirte city center told Reuters by phone: “We can see convoys of LNA inside Sirte city … they control large parts of the city now.    We also hear gunfire.”
    There was no immediate comment from GNA forces.
    The LNA advance comes as Turkey prepares to send military advisors and experts to Libya to help shore up the GNA, part of rising international involvement in Libya’s conflict.
    Haftar’s LNA has received material and military support from countries including the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt, according U.N. experts and diplomats.
GADDAFI’S BIRTHPLACE
    Since launching a bitter campaign for Benghazi, Libya’s second city, in 2014, Haftar has gradually expanded his territorial control across the vast, mainly desert country.
    Gains have sometimes been made through deals with local groups sympathetic to the LNA and have involved limited military effort, though the offensive to capture Tripoli, home to around half of Libya’s population of 6 million, quickly stalled.
    Sirte was the birthplace of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and the city in which he was captured and killed after a NATO-backed uprising in 2011.    Among the cities that had opposed the uprising, it was taken over by Islamic State in early 2015, becoming the jihadist group’s most important base outside the Middle East.
    It is also one of the main bases of the Ferjan tribe, of which Haftar is a member.
    The city is just to the west of Libya’s oil crescent, a strip of coastline along which several key oil export terminals are located. Haftar’s forces seized the oil ports in 2016.
    LNA sources said Sirte’s 604 Brigade, a powerful military unit dominated by ultra-conservative Salafists that also took part in the fight against Islamic State, switched allegiance to the LNA about two weeks ago.
    Haftar says he is seeking to rid Tripoli of armed groups and combat extremism.    His opponents say he has fueled war and instability, and fear he will return Libya to one-man rule.
    In recent weeks there has been an escalation of fighting, shelling and air strikes around Tripoli.    On Saturday evening a military academy in the capital was hit, killing at least 30 people.
    U.N. Libya envoy Ghassan Salame said the drone strike on the academy had likely been carried out by a foreign country backing the LNA, without elaborating.    He called on foreign powers to “keep out of Libya.”
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Elumami; Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by William Maclean, Gareth Jones and Alex Richardson)

1/7/2020 ‘We’re going to war, bro’: Fort Bragg’s 82nd Airborne deploys to the Middle East by Rich McKay
FILE PHOTO: U.S. Army paratroopers assigned to the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, walk toward an awaiting aircraft
prior to departing for the Middle East from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, U.S. January 5, 2020. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston/File Photo
    FORT BRAGG, N.C. (Reuters) – For many of the soldiers, it would be their first mission.    They packed up ammunition and rifles, placed last-minute calls to loved ones, then turned in their cellphones. Some gave blood.
    The 600 mostly young soldiers at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, were headed for the Middle East, part of a group of some 3,500 U.S. paratroopers ordered to the region.    Kuwait is the first stop for many.    Their final destinations are classified.
    “We’re going to war, bro,” one cheered, holding two thumbs up and sporting a grin under close-shorn red hair.    He stood among dozens of soldiers loading trucks outside a cinder-block building housing several auditoriums with long benches and tables.
    Days after President Donald Trump ordered the drone killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, raising fears of fresh conflict in the Middle East, the men and women of the U.S. Army’s storied 82nd Airborne Division are moving out in the largest “fast deployment” since the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
    The 82nd’s commander, U.S. Army Major General James Mingus, waded through the sea of camouflage-uniformed men and women as they prepared to leave the base near Fayetteville on Sunday.    He shook hands with the troops, wishing them luck.
    One soldier from Ashboro, Virginia, said he wasn’t surprised when the order came.
    “I was just watching the news, seeing how things were going over there,” said the 27-year-old, one of several soldiers Reuters was allowed to interview on condition they not be named.    “Then I got a text message from my sergeant saying ‘Don’t go anywhere.’    And that was it.”
    While the killing of Soleimani has ratcheted up tensions between the United States and Iran, it remains to be seen whether they will escalate to full-out conflict.
    Trump last week said he ordered the killing to stop a war, not to start one.    And despite Tehran’s strident rhetoric, analysts say Iran will want to avoid any conventional conflict with the United States and is likely to focus on asymmetric strikes, such as sabotage or other military action via proxies.
    Risks seemed to be pushed to the back of the minds of the younger soldiers, though many packed the base chapel after a breakfast of eggs, waffles, oatmeal, sausages and 1,000 doughnuts.
    One private took a strap tethered to a transport truck and tried to hitch it to the belt of an unwitting friend, a last prank before shipping out.
‘THIS IS THE MISSION’
    The older soldiers, in their 30s and 40s, were visibly more somber, having the experience of seeing comrades come home from past deployments learning to walk on one leg or in flag-draped coffins.
    “This is the mission, man,” said Brian Knight, a retired Army veteran who has been on five combat deployments to the Middle East.    He is the current director of a chapter of the United Service Organizations military support charity.
    “They’re answering America’s 911 call,” Knight said.    “They’re stoked to go.    The president called for the 82nd.”
    There was lots of wrestling holds as the troops tossed their 75-pound (34 kg) backpacks onto transport trucks.    The packs hold everything from armor-plated vests, extra socks and underwear, to 210 rounds of ammunition for their M4 carbines.
    A sergeant pushed through the crowd shouting for anyone with Type O blood, which can be transfused into any patient.
    “The medics need you now. Move,” he said, before a handful of troops walked off to give a little less than a pint each.
UNCERTAINTY PREVAILS
    While members of the unit – considered the most mobile in the U.S. Army – are used to quick deployments, this was different, said Lieutenant Colonel Mike Burns, an Army spokesman.
    “The guys are excited to go, but none of us know how long they’ll be gone,” Burns said.    “That’s the toughest part.”
    Soldiers were ordered not to bring cellphones, portable video games or any other devices that could be used to communicate with friends and family back home, out of concern that details of their movements could leak out.
    “We’re an infantry brigade,” Burns said.    “Our primary mission is ground fighting.    This is as real as it gets.”
    A sergeant started rattling off last names, checking them off from a list after “heres” and “yups” and “yos.”
    For every fighter, there were seven support crew members shipping out: cooks, aviators, mechanics, medics, chaplains, and transportation and supply managers.    All but the chaplains would carry guns to fight.
    A 34-year-old senior master sergeant said: “The Army is an all-volunteer force.    We want to do this.    You pay your taxes and we get to do this.”
    The reality of the deployment wouldn’t sink in until the troops “walk out that door,” he said, pointing to the exit to the tarmac where C-5 and C-17 transport planes and two contract commercial jets waited.
    His call came when he was on leave in his hometown of Daytona Beach, Florida, taking his two young daughters to visit relatives and maybe go to Walt Disney World.
    “We just got there and I got the call to turn right around and head back to base,” he said.    “My wife knows the drill.    I had to go.    We drove right back.”
    On a single order, hundreds of soldiers jumped to their feet.    They lined up single file and marched out carrying their guns and kits and helmets, past a volunteer honor guard holding aloft flags that flapped east in the January wind.
(Reporting by Rich McKay; Editing by Scott Malone, Sonya Hepinstall and Jonathan Oatis)

1/7/2020 European powers condemn Turkish plans to send troops to Libya by Robin Emmott
Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab arrives for a meeting with foreign ministers of France, Germany and
Italy to discuss Libya's crisis in Brussels, Belgium January 7, 2020. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/Pool
    BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union’s top diplomat and the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany and Italy condemned on Tuesday Turkey’s plans to send military experts and trainers to Libya, saying foreign interference there was exacerbating instability.
    After postponing a trip to Tripoli over safety concerns, the ministers and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell held talks in Brussels to call for a ceasefire as Libya’s internationally recognized government struggled to fend off a military offensive on its power base in the capital.
    “Continuing outside interference is fuelling the crisis,” the ministers and Borrell said in their joint statement released after the meeting.
    In remarks to reporters, Borrell said: “It is obvious that this made a reference to the Turkish decision to intervene with their troops in Libya, which is something that we reject.”
    Turkey will send military experts and technical teams to support Libya’s internationally recognized government, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Monday, a day after President Tayyip Erdogan said Turkish military units were moving to Tripoli.
    Turkey is nominally a candidate to join the EU, though accession talks have long stalled due to disagreements over human rights, Cyprus and other issues.
    The EU talks were to have taken place in Libya but the Tripoli government asked for them to be postponed, according to two EU diplomats.
    Europe and the United States face being sidelined in Libya by Turkey and Russia, which are taking a bigger role in the conflict there.    Libya has been in turmoil since veteran ruler Muammar Gaddafi’s fall due to an uprising in 2011.
PROXY WAR
    Turkey supports the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), while Russia backs eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar, whose forces hold much of the country’s east and south including its second city Benghazi.    They are making a renewed attempt to take Tripoli.
    “There is a proxy war under way.    All interferences have to stop.    There are countries that interfere with a civil war, turning it into a proxy war,” Italy’s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio told reporters in Brussels before traveling to Turkey to meet his Turkish counterpart Cavusoglu.
    The EU had hoped to send a diplomatic mission to Libya to train Libyan officials and build up institutions in support of the GNA, but that has been deemed too dangerous for now, diplomats said.
    Di Maio, along with the Egyptian, French, Greek and Cypriot foreign ministers, are due to discuss their next steps in Cairo on Wednesday, the same day that Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin are to inaugurate a natural gas pipeline running between their countries via the Black Sea.
(Additional reporting by Aidan Lewis in Cairo and Marine Strauss and Francesco Guarascio in Brussels; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Gareth Jones)

1/7/2020 Saudi vice defence minister meets UK defence minister discuss challenges in Mideast: tweet
FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman gestures during
a meeting at the Pentagon in Washington, U.S., August 29, 2019. REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan
    CAIRO (Reuters) – Saudi Vice Minister of Defence Prince Khalid bin Salman said on Tuesday he had met Britain’s defence minister Ben Wallace for talks on fighting terrorism and regional issues.
    “We discussed the strategic partnership between our two friendly countries, especially in the field of defence, in addition to regional and international efforts in the war against terrorism, and the most significant challenges facing our region,” Prince Khalid bin Salman said in a tweet.
(Reporting by Nayera Abdallah; Editing by Gareth Jones)

1/7/2020 Turkish support for Tripoli could ‘rebalance forces’ in Libyaa by Aidan Lewis
FILE PHOTO: A member of Libya's internationally recognised government forces carries
a weapon in Ain Zara, Tripoli, Libya October 14, 2019. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny
    CAIRO (Reuters) – The planned arrival of Turkish military advisers in Libya should bolster the internationally recognized government, but may not be enough to turn the tide of a conflict in which eastern-based forces have the upper hand thanks to foreign support.
    Turkey’s decision to send the advisers and technical experts responded to a request by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA), which Ankara backs against forces allied to veteran commander Khalifa Haftar.
    Turkey has already provided drones and armored vehicles for the defense of the capital, Tripoli, which helped quickly stall the offensive launched by Haftar’s forces nine months ago.
    But Turkish backing has often been outweighed by air power from the United Arab Emirates in support of Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), and by a technological and frontline edge provided by Russian military contractors since September, officials, diplomats and analysts say.
    “The decision by the GNA to request military support from Turkey follows a dangerous escalation in the conflict from Haftar and his backers, including bringing in Russian mercenaries,” GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha said in a statement to Reuters.
    On Monday, the LNA advanced into Sirte, a strategic city in the center of Libya’s Mediterranean coastline, and fighting has increased around Tripoli in recent weeks.
    This has heightened pressure on GNA forces, which two sources close to those forces said had been struggling against missile systems being used to bring down drones and laser-guided shells thought to have been introduced by Russian contractors.
    The GNA’s drone fleet has also been depleted by attacks on airports and air bases in Tripoli and the city of Misrata, northwest of Sirte.
    Turkish officials have indicated that any deployment will not involve troops but that Turkey has been considering sending Syrian rebels.    A source in the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army said some fighters had already signed up as guards.
    “What this will bring above all is a rebalancing of forces,” said Arnaud Delalande, an independent defense consultant and Libya expert.    “In particular it could bring air defense, which could be jamming systems, but also coordination of troops on the ground.”
RUSSIAN AND TURKISH COOPERATION
    Maneuvering in Libya by Russia and Turkey, whose presidents meet in Turkey on Wednesday, has overshadowed European efforts to revive a U.N.-led peace process.
    Although Turkey and Russia have generally been on opposing sides in Syria’s civil war, they have strengthened economic and military ties recently.    They now cooperate in northeast Syria, where they mount joint patrols, and Ankara bought     Russian missile defense systems last year despite opposition in Washington.
    Ankara and Moscow want to protect their strategic interests in Libya, where they lost lucrative contracts in 2011 after a NATO-backed uprising, and in the wider east Mediterranean region. [L8N28R455]
    The two countries are unlikely to clash directly, with Ankara seeking leverage to negotiate over offshore gas drilling rights after signing military and maritime accords with the GNA in November.
    “In Libya, Ankara’s end game is not to help Tripoli win the conflict, which is not realistic.    It is to create a stalemate and political negotiations that preserve its maritime demarcation deal,” said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat who heads the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies think tank.
    A senior Turkish official told Reuters: “Turkey is in close contact with Russia to prevent conflict.    This will continue.”
    Russia could be eyeing a long-term goal of having a naval base in eastern Libya, said Jalel Harchaoui, a research fellow with the Clingendael Institute think tank in The Hague.
    “Russia is presented with a golden opportunity to make its presence in eastern Libya more entrenched,” he said.
    Ankara and Moscow are filling a gap left by U.S. disengagement in Libya under President Donald Trump and there are divisions among European states over Libya.
    “I think the Europeans are completely left out in the cold here,” said Harchaoui.    “They’re scrambling.”
(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun in Ankara and Jonathan Spicer in Istanbul, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

1/7/2020 Russia’s Putin makes rare visit to Syria, meets Assad
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Syria
in this handout released by SANA on January 7, 2020. SANA/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS -
THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE
    BEIRUT/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Vladimir Putin met Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on Tuesday, the Russian leader’s second trip to Syria since Moscow intervened decisively on the Syrian president’s behalf in the country’s civil war.
    The visit comes at a time of heightened regional tension – Assad’s other main military ally, Iran, has said it will retaliate against the United States for the killing of an Iranian general in a drone strike.
    Qassem Soleimani, who was one of the key figures in Syria’s war as the architect of Iranian military operations in the Middle East, had just arrived in Iraq from Syria when he was killed by a U.S. drone on Friday at Baghdad airport.
    Russian and Iranian support has helped Assad win back nearly all the territory lost to rebels who tried to overthrow him during the civil war that began nearly nine years ago.
    Syrian state news agency SANA showed a photograph of Putin smiling as he shook Assad’s hand and said they had listened to a military presentation by the head of Russian forces in Syria.
    Putin and Assad discussed recent developments in the region and plans to “eliminate terrorism” in the Idlib region, one of the last pieces of Syrian territory held by anti-Assad insurgents, SANA reported.
    Putin also delivered greetings to Russian forces in Syria.
    Accompanied by Assad, Putin visited the Old City of Damascus including, the 8th century Umayyad mosque and an ancient church.
    “I think Putin is there to reinforce the Russian position in Syria and with the person of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, especially as Iran’s position has been indelibly weakened, since Soleimani was essentially Iran in Syria,” said David Lesch, an expert on Syria.
    Though Iran and Russia worked together to beat back the anti-Assad insurgency, tensions have occasionally surfaced between them on the ground, where analysts say they have been vying for influence.
    Putin is due to hold talks on Wednesday with President Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, which has sent forces into much of northern Syria to beat back Kurdish-led forces that had been backed by the United States.
    Putin’s previous trip to Syria was in 2017, when he visited Russia’s Hmeymim air base.
    Putin told Assad that much had been done to restore Syrian statehood, while Assad thanked Putin for his assistance in restoring peaceful life in Syria, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported, citing the Kremlin.    Putin will visit several facilities in Syria during the trip, it added.
    Soleimani, the Iranian general killed last week, had played a critical role in supervising Iran-backed ground forces to support the Syrian government during the war and coordinated with Moscow ahead of its intervention in 2015.
(Reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, Polina Devitt in Moscow and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Turkey; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Peter Graff and Alex Richardson)

1/8/2020 President Trump says ‘all is well’ after missiles launched from Iran targeted American troops by OAN Newsroom
File – U.S. Marines are stationed in Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq. Iran struck back at the United States for the killing
of a top Iranian general early Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, firing a series of ballistic missiles at Iraqi bases housing
U.S. troops in a major escalation that brought the two longtime foes closer to war. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed, File)
    President Trump issued his first statement in regards to Iran’s missile attack on bases in Iraq.    While taking to Twitter Tuesday, the president said “all is well” and confirmed the assessment of casualties as well as damages is underway.
    This comes after Iran fired missiles at bases where American troops were stationed in Iraq. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is claiming responsibility for firing dozens of missiles at the Ain al-Asad and Irbil airbases.    The attack comes just days after the U.S. killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in a drone strike, which prompted Iran to threaten retaliation.
FILE – In this Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019 file photo taken from a helicopter shows Ain al-Asad air base in the western Anbar desert, Iraq.
Iran struck back at the United States for the killing of a top Iranian general early Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser, File)
    Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was reportedly notified following Tuesday’s missile strike.    Vice President Mike Pence reportedly attempted to notify Pelosi about the attack, but she rejected his call because she was going into a congressional meeting.     The California congresswoman called Pence after the meeting and was briefed on the situation.    She later took to Twitter to call for an end to violence between Iran and the U.S., where she stated that “America and the world can’t afford another war.”

1/8/2020 Turkey, Russia seek Libya ceasefire as rivals clash by Can Sezer and Ayman al-Warfalli
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a ceremony marking the formal launch of the TurkStream pipeline
which will carry Russian natural gas to southern Europe through Turkey, in Istanbul, Turkey, January 8, 2020. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
    ISTANBUL/BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – Turkey and Russia urged Libya’s warring parties on Wednesday to declare a Jan. 12 ceasefire as eastern forces carried out air strikes on the government in a conflict drawing increasing foreign involvement and concern.
    Turkey backs Fayez al-Serraj’s Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and has said it will send troops as requested, while Russia has sent forces to back General Khalifa Haftar’s eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA).
    However, after talks between their presidents Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin in Istanbul, Turkey and Russia issued a joint statement calling for the end of hostilities, normalization of life in Tripoli and other cities, and U.N.-sponsored peace talks.     The conflict is undermining regional security and “triggering irregular migration, further spread of weapons, terrorism and other criminal activities including illicit trafficking,” the statement said.
    Haftar’s LNA took control of Sirte, a strategically important city in the centre of Libya’s Mediterranean coastline, in a rapid advance on Monday and is seeking to consolidate gains.
    Since April, the LNA has also been waging a campaign to take the capital, Tripoli, about 370 km (230 miles) northwest of Sirte, where it is battling forces aligned with the GNA.
    GNA forces said they withdrew from Sirte to avoid bloodshed.
    Those forces are mainly from the port of Misrata, 190 km east of Tripoli, and had controlled Sirte since driving Islamic State militants from the city in late 2016.
    On Tuesday afternoon, clashes broke out around al-Washka, on the road between Sirte and Misrata, where LNA sources said nine of their men were killed in an evening drone strike.
    On Wednesday, the LNA responded with strikes near the Abu Grein checkpoint, close to al-Washka, where clashes were continuing, LNA military officials said.
    Libya has been divided since 2014 into rival camps based in Tripoli and the east, each with its own set of institutions, and Haftar’s offensive against Tripoli upended U.N. efforts to broker a political settlement.
    The upheaval in Libya, where strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s long rule was toppled in 2011, has in recent years disrupted the OPEC member’s oil production, fueled migrant smuggling to Europe, and given space to Islamist extremists.
    Regional powers have stepped up intervention, with the LNA also receiving support from the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt.
    The European Union’s top diplomat and the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany and Italy this week condemned Turkey’s plans to send military experts and trainers to Libya, saying interference was exacerbating instability.
    Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte held talks with Haftar in Rome on Wednesday and was due to see Serraj later in the day, an Italian government source said.
(Reporting by Ayman al-Warfalli in Benghazi and Ahmed Elumami in Tripoli; Olesya Astakhova and Can Sezer in Istanbul; Giuseppe Fonte in Milan; Writing by Aidan Lewis and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

1/8/2020 Netanyahu says anyone attacking Israel will be dealt ‘strongest blow’
FILE PHOTO: IsraelI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet,br> meeting in Jerusalem January 5, 2020. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday, after an Iranian missile strike on U.S.-led forces in Iraq, that Israel would hit back hard against anyone who attacked his country.
    Netanyahu reiterated his praise for U.S. President Donald Trump for the killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani last week, calling it a bold move.
    The Israeli leader said Soleimani had tried to destabilize the region for decades and was “planning much worse.”
    Without directly referencing Iran’s missile strikes overnight, in what Tehran called retaliation for the general’s death in Baghdad, Netanyahu said in a speech in Jerusalem that Israel stood beside the United States.
    “Whoever tries to attack us will be dealt the strongest blow,” Netanyahu said, accusing Iran of leading a campaign to “strangle and destroy” Israel.
(Reporting by Stephen Farrell, Jeffrey Heller and Ari Rabinovitch)

1/8/2020 Pompeo says U.S. support for Israeli settlements advances peace with Palestinians by Rami Ayyub
FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addresses a news conference in the Press Briefing Room
at the State Department in Washington, U.S., January 7, 2020. REUTERS/Tom Brenner
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday that Washington’s backing for Israel’s settlements in the occupied West Bank will advance Israeli-Palestinian peace, angering Palestinian leaders who seek the territory for a state.
    In a reversal of four decades of U.S. policy, Pompeo in November announced that the United States no longer viewed Israel’s settlements on West Bank land it captured in the 1967 Middle East war as “inconsistent with international law.”
    Palestinians and the international community view the transfer of any country’s civilians to occupied land as illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 and U.N. Security Council resolutions.    Many countries condemned the announcement.
    But the move delighted Israel and provides important U.S. support amid a potential International Criminal Court (ICC) inquiry into alleged war crimes in Palestinian areas, including the West Bank.
    Speaking by video link at a Jerusalem policy forum dubbed “The Pompeo Doctrine,” Pompeo, in a pre-recorded statement, said the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump returned to a “balanced and sober” approach to Middle East peace by changing its position.
    “It’s important that we speak the truth when the facts lead us to it.    And we are recognizing that these settlements don’t inherently violate international law,” Pompeo said.
    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the Trump administration’s backing was a “proper answer to the decision by the ICC in the Hague to investigate Israel’s actions in Judea and Samaria,” referring to the West Bank.
    Last month, the ICC’s chief prosecutor said she would launch a full investigation in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip as soon as the Hague-based body’s jurisdiction had been established.
    The prosecutor’s announcement opened the possibility of charges being filed against Israelis and Palestinians.
    “The ‘Pompeo doctrine’ regarding the status of the settlements simply states that we are not foreigners in our homeland,” Netanyahu told the conference, hosted by the Kohelet Policy Forum, a Jerusalem think-tank.
    The conference sought to build upon the new U.S. stance by laying out legal arguments in defense of Israel’s settlements and debating critics’ defense.
    Around 430,000 settlers live amongst some 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank, where the Palestinians seek to set up a state along with the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
    “Israeli colonial settlements are illegal under international law … ignoring facts (doesn’t) mean they don’t exist,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.
    Erekat added that U.S. policy was pushing “the region further toward bloodshed and violence.”
    The Palestinians have boycotted the Trump administration and its peace efforts, including its long-delayed peace plan, accusing Washington of pro-Israel bias since it recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017 and later moved its embassy there.
(Reporting by Rami Ayyub; Additional reporting by Adel Abu Nimeh in Jericho; Editing by Alex Richardson)

1/8/2020 Iraqi leader faces tricky balancing act as main allies confront one another by Ahmed Aboulenein
FILE PHOTO: Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi speaks during a symbolic funeral ceremony of Major General Ali al-Lami, who commands the
Iraqi Federal Police's Fourth Division, who was killed in Salahuddin, in Baghdad, Iraq October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily/File Photo
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi on Wednesday urged Washington and Tehran to show restraint following Iranian missile attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq as he sought to deal with the two long-standing foes who are also Baghdad’s main allies.
    Abdul Mahdi rejected any violation of Iraqi sovereignty or carrying out of attacks within its borders, and said he was trying to calm the situation.
    Iranian forces fired missiles from Iran at two military bases in Iraq housing U.S. troops on Wednesday in retaliation for Washington’s killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.    The United States is weighing how to respond.
    “We call on all sides to practice self-restraint, keep a cool head, adhere to international agreements, respect the Iraqi state and its government’s decisions, and help it contain and get past this dangerous crisis that threatens it, the region, and the world with a devastating all-out war,” Abdul Mahdi said.
    He used similar words after a drone strike ordered by U.S. President Donald Trump killed Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad last Friday.    He now faces a tricky balancing act.
    Iranian-backed militias and a U.S.-led military coalition have both helped Iraq defeat Islamic State militants who overran a third of its territory in 2014.    They have also been embroiled in a proxy conflict in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.
    Indicating the Baghdad government’s dilemma, Abdul Mahdi’s spokesman said that shortly after midnight on Wednesday, it had received a message from Iran that its response to Soleimani’s killing had started or was about to start.
    Tehran told Abdul Mahdi it would only target locations where U.S. forces were present but did not specify the locations, he said.
    Then Abdul Mahdi received a call from the United States while missiles were falling on the American wing of the air base in Anbar province and an air base in Erbil, the spokesman said.
SHI’ITE WELCOME, SUNNI DISQUIET
    Some Shi’ite militia leaders welcomed the Iranian attack.
    Rival leaders from the Shi’ite majority, including ones opposed to Iranian influence, had united after the killing of Soleimani in calling for the expulsion of the 5,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq.    Parliament on Sunday also passed a resolution demanding they leave.
    “The American aggression provided justification for the Iranian response,” the Fatih alliance representing the militias in parliament said.
    Iran-backed Iraqi militia commander Qais al-Khazali went further and threatened an Iraqi attack as well, saying Tehran had paved the way.
    “The initial Iranian response to the assassination of the martyred commander Soleimani has happened.    Now it is time for the initial response to the assassination of the martyred commander Muhandis,” he said.
    Many Iraqis, including opponents of Soleimani, are angry with Washington for killing him and Muhandis on Iraqi soil, potentially dragging their country into another conflict.
    However, Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities fear the expulsion of the U.S.-led coalition will leave Iraq vulnerable to an insurgency, undermine security, and further empower the Iranian-backed militias.
    Lawmakers from both groups boycotted Sunday’s parliament session.
    On Wednesday, Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi, the top Sunni politician, called for “taking the necessary measures to preserve Iraqi sovereignty.”
    Iraqi President Barham Salih, a Kurd, said the coalition presence was a domestic affair after Iran called on the United States to leave Iraq.    He said Iraq should be kept out of a new war.
    The semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq’s leaders said the coalition’s presence was vital for fighting Islamic State and called on its member states to stay.    They asked Washington and Tehran to keep the region out of their own conflict.
    “The Kurdistan Region views the support of the International Coalition in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region in confronting terror as a necessity," the regional president, prime minister, and parliament speaker said in a joint statement.
(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

1/8/2020 Algeria names panel to amend constitution as protests persist
FILE PHOTO: Newly elected Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune claps during a swearing-in
ceremony in Algiers, Algeria December 19, 2019. REUTERS/Ramzi Boudina
    ALGIERS (Reuters) – President Abdelmadjid Tebboune formed a panel on Wednesday to amend Algeria’s constitution to give parliament and the judiciary a greater role, a step aimed at helping end a months-long political crisis.
    Tebboune was elected last month to replace veteran leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was forced to step down in April amid massive protests that have persisted since then, demanding a total change of the power structure.
    The protesters opposed the election, arguing that any vote held while the old elite still held power was illegitimate, and tens of thousands still demonstrating each week have rejected his offer of dialogue.
    Tebboune’s office said in a statement that the 17 people on the new constitutional committee would have three months to submit proposals for discussion which could then be sent to parliament and finally put to voters in a referendum.
    The panel is led by Ahmed Laraba, a member of the United Nations International Law Commission.    It has a mandate to look at all aspects of state organization and reconsider the role of parliament and the judiciary to promote the rights of citizens.
    Tebboune has also promised measures to diversify the oil-reliant economy by encouraging investment in non-energy sectors with the aim of reducing imports of food and other goods now costing over $40 billion annually.
(Reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

1/8/2020 Rockets fired inside green zone near U.S. Embassy in Baghdad by OAN Newsroom
    Rockets have reportedly been fired in the Green Zone near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.    The Iraqi prime minister said at least two Katyusha rockets were fired in the zone on Wednesday.
    It does not appear that the embassy was hit and there are no reports of any injuries or deaths at this time.
    This rocket strike came five days after rockets were fired in the same area.
    This is developing news.    Please check back later for updates.
A few protesters stage sit-in on a bridge leading to the heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq’s government,
during anti-government demonstrations in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

1/8/2020 Iraqi citizens denounce Iran strike on al-Asad, Erbil, demand pullout of Iranian, U.S. forces by OAN Newsroom
Protesters hold a banner with Arabic that reads, “Iran out, U.S. out, Baghdad is free” during
a sit-in at Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Qassim Abdul-Zahra)
    Iraqi citizens are condemning the latest rocket attack on their country by Iran. Wednesday reports said many Iraqis, who live in areas affected by the latest Iranian strike, were not aware of the reasons behind the strike.
    Iraqi citizens said the Ayatollah regime inflicted pointless death and destruction on their country.    On Tuesday, Iran targeted air bases in al-Asad and Erbil with dozens of missiles, which resulted in numerous casualties for Iraqi military personnel.
Security forces try to open streets while protesters set fire during a demonstration to protest against
the Iranian missile strike, in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
    Residents said Iran and the U.S. shouldn’t use Iraqi territory to solve their disputes.
    “From Tahrir Square, and in the name of all Iraqi revolutionaries, we demand the Iranian government and the United States to provide material and moral compensation to the Iraqi people for every missile that falls and every fallen martyr or wounded person,” stated one Iraqi protester.
    The backlash is adding to the ongoing anti-government protests across Iraq, where citizens have denounced the mismanagement and corruption in Baghdad.
Iraqi protesters chant slogans and carry a poster that reads, “the Martyrs rights are our responsibility,”
during a rally in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

1/9/2019 Iran investigation says airliner caught fire before crash, Ukraine outlines theories by Alexander Cornwell, Babak Dehghanpisheh and Natalia Zinets
Red Crescent workers check the debris from the Ukraine International Airlines plane, that crashed after take-off from Iran's
Imam Khomeini airport, on the outskirts of Tehran, Iran January 8, 2020. Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS
    DUBAI/KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine outlined four potential scenarios on Thursday to explain the deadly crash of one of its airliners in Iran, including a missile strike and terrorism, as Iranian investigators said the plane was on fire before it fell to the ground.
    Kiev said its investigators wanted to search the site of Wednesday’s crash southwest of Tehran for possible debris of a Russian-made missile used by Iran’s military.    An initial report by Iran’s civil aviation organization said the plane had experienced an unspecified technical problem.
    The Ukrainian International Airlines Boeing 737-800, flying to Kiev and carrying mostly Iranians and Iranian-Canadians, crashed shortly after taking off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport, killing all 176 people on board.
    The Iranian report cited witnesses on the ground and in a passing aircraft flying at a high altitude as saying the plane was on fire while in the air.
    It said the three-year-old airliner, which had its last scheduled maintenance on Monday, encountered a technical problem shortly after take-off and started to head toward a nearby airport before it crashed.    The report said there was no radio communication from the pilot and that the aircraft disappeared from radar at 8,000 feet (2,440 m).
    It is so far unclear if any technical issue could be related to a maintenance fault or defective part.
    The disaster puts a renewed spotlight on Boeing, which faces a safety crisis over a different type of 737, though the plane that crashed in Iran does not have the feature thought to have caused crashes of the grounded 737 MAX.
    The Iranian report referred to the crash as an accident.
    Investigations into airliner crashes are complex, requiring regulators, experts and companies across several international jurisdictions to work together.    It can take months to fully determine the cause and issuing an initial report within 24 hours is rare.
    A Canadian security source told Reuters there was evidence one of the engines had overheated.
    The crash happened hours after Iran launched missile attacks on U.S.-led forces in Iraq, leading some to speculate that the plane may have been hit.
    The initial assessment of Western intelligence agencies was that the plane had suffered a technical malfunction and had not been brought down by a missile, five security sources – three Americans, one European and the Canadian – who asked not to be named, told Reuters.
UKRAINIAN THEORIES
    Ukraine Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danylov said the country’s investigators wanted to search for possible Russian missile debris after seeing information on the internet.
    He referred to an unverified image circulated on Iranian social media purportedly showing the debris of a Russian-made Tor-M1 surface-to-air missile of the kind used by the Iranian military.
    Ukrainian investigators into the crash include experts who participated in the investigation into the 2014 shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, Danylov said.
    The Malaysian airliner was shot down on July 17, 2014, over territory held by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine as it was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people on board.
    In a televised statement, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy earlier asked people to refrain from speculation, conspiracy theories and hasty evaluations regarding the crash. He declared Thursday a day of national mourning.
    Zelenskiy said he would speak by telephone with the Iranian president to step up cooperation in investigating the crash.
    Ukraine is looking at various possible causes, including a missile attack, a collision, an engine explosion or terrorism.
    Countries recognized under a UN-administered convention as participants should nominate who they wish to be involved in the Iran-led investigation, the Iranian report said.
    Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne called his Iranian counterpart to stress the need for Canadian officials “to be quickly granted access to Iran to provide consular services, help with identification of the deceased and take part in the investigation of the crash,” a Canadian statement said.
    “Canada and Canadians have many questions which will need to be answered.”
    Zelenskiy, in a phone call with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, invited Britain to join the investigation, Zelenskiy’s office said.
    “Boris Johnson supported this idea and stressed that the best British experts should be involved in finding out all the circumstances of the tragedy,” it said.
    As the country where the plane was designed and built, the United States would usually be allowed to be accredited but neither side has said whether U.S. investigators will be dispatched to Iran.
    Iran’s aviation body could not be reached for comment to clarify its position.
    Tensions between Washington and Tehran have risen with the United States’ killing of a top Iranian general on Friday. Tehran retaliated with a missile strike on U.S. targets in Iraq.
    The Ukrainian airliner took off at 6:12 a.m. local time and was given permission to climb to 26,000 feet, the report said.    It crashed six minutes later near the town of Sabashahr.
    Bodies and body parts recovered from the site of the crash have been taken to the coroner’s office for identification, the report said.
    Smouldering debris, including shoes and clothes, was strewn across a field where the plane crashed on Wednesday.    Rescue workers in face masks laid out scores of body bags.
    Onboard were 146 Iranians, 10 Afghans, 11 Ukrainians, five Canadians and four Swedes, the report said, but said some may have held citizenship of other countries.
    Ukrainian authorities have said those on board included 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians, and 11 Ukrainians.
    The Tehran-Toronto via Kiev route was a popular for Canadians of Iranian descent visiting Iran in the absence of direct flights.
(Reporting by Alexander Cornwell & Babak Dehghanpisheh in Dubai, Natalia Zinets & Pavel Polityuk in Kiev; Additional reporting by Tim Hepher in Paris, Jamie Freed in Sydney, Allison Lampert in Montreal, Steve Scherer in Ottawa, Laurence Frost in Paris, Matthias Williams in Kiev, Mark Hosenball in Washington and David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Writing by Alexander Cornwell, Editing by Angus MacSwan, Catherine Evans and Nick Macfie)
[God has a sense of humor and works in mysterious ways as Iran hurled 16 missiles at American base and did not harm any Americans, and then they turn around and shoot down an aircraft with their missles with 146 Iranians on it    I told you Trump is blessed by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob for moving the Embassy to Jerusalem and promoting the Golan Heights.    The Iranians might need to rethink about who it is battling against them.].

1/9/2020 Reports: Ukrainian plane could have been shot down by Iranian anti-aircraft missile system by OAN Newsroom
Security personnel work at the scene where a Ukrainian plane crash in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital
Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. A Ukrainian airplane carrying over 170 people crashed on Wednesday
shortly after takeoff from Tehran’s main airport, killing all onboard. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
    A Ukrainian 737 airliner crashed in Iran shortly after take-off on Wednesday morning.    While citing preliminary data, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said all 167 passengers and nine crew members on board were killed in the incident.
    The plane, carried by Ukraine International Airlines, had allegedly been in service for over three years.    The jet was departing from Tehran, Iran and was headed to Ukraine’s capital city of Kiev prior to the crash.
    The Iranian Civil Aviation Organization previously reported that the flight was already on fire and on its way back to the airport when it crashed in Tehran.    The plane was seen changing its direction by eye witnesses with flames inside.
    Reports are now suggesting the Ukrainian airliner may have, in fact, been shot down. Senior U.S. Defense and U.S. Intelligence officials have reportedly said the plane was hit by an anti-aircraft missile system, most likely from Iran.    Other reports have suggested Ukrainian officials want to investigate the possibility of a missile strike, and investigate the crash site after seeing photos of the wreckage.
    The airline’s president, Evgeny Dykne, confirmed the captain and pilot had a combined total of more than 23,000 hours of experience on Boeing 737 jets.
    “On behalf of our company, I offer deep condolences to the families of the people who were on board, to everyone close to them,” he stated.    "It was one of our best planes, with an excellent, trustworthy crew.”
    Among the dead included citizens from Canada, Sweden, Germany, the U.K. as well as Ukraine.
Flowers and candles are placed in front of portraits of the flight crew members of the Ukrainian 737-800 plane
that crashed on the outskirts of Tehran, at a memorial inside Borispil international airport outside Kyiv, Ukraine,
Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. A Ukrainian airplane carrying 176 people crashed on Wednesday shortly after takeoff from Tehran’s
main airport, killing all onboard, Iranian state TV and officials in Ukraine said. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
    Investigators from Boeing as well as national authorities are assessing the crash site to determine the exact cause.    It was previously reported that an act of terrorism could be behind tragic crash.    This comes as tensions in Iran continue to escalate over the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani.    Iran launched missiles targeting U.S. troops stationed in Iraq on the same night of the plane crash.
    “45 Ukrainian specialists already arrived to Iran as part of the rescue and recovery group, including those from the State aviation authority, National bureau of investigation of air incidents with civil aircrafts and representatives of Ukraine International Airlines,” announced Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.    “We expect them all to become involved with the work of commission, including the transcription of the black box records.”
    Boeing has since released a statement, saying it is currently investigating the incident.    In the meantime, many flights to and around Iran have either been rerouted or canceled altogether.

1/9/2020 Iran most likely downed Ukraine airliner with missiles, U.S. officials believe by David Shepardson and Natalia Zinets
FILE PHOTO: Red Crescent workers check the debris from the Ukraine International Airlines plane, that crashed after take-off from Iran's
Imam Khomeini airport, on the outskirts of Tehran, Iran January 8, 2020. Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS
    WASHINGTON/KIEV (Reuters) – A Ukraine airliner that crashed in Iran, killing all 176 people aboard, was most likely brought down accidentally by Iranian air defenses, U.S. officials said on Thursday, and President Donald Trump said he did not believe the crash was due to a mechanical issue.     Citing an extensive review of satellite data, one U.S. official said the government had concluded with a high degree of certainty that anti-aircraft missiles brought down the plane, on the same day that Iran launched ballistic missiles at U.S. forces in Iraq.     The official said the Ukraine International Airlines plane had been tracked by Iranian radar.
    The data showed the Boeing 737-800 was airborne for two minutes after departing Tehran when the heat signatures of two surface-to-air missiles were detected, one of the officials said.
    That was quickly followed by an explosion in the vicinity of the plane, this official said.    Heat signature data then showed the plane on fire as it went down.
    The flight was on its way to Kiev carrying mostly Iranians and Iranian-Canadians.
    The crash happened early on Wednesday morning, hours after Iran launched missile attacks on U.S.-led forces in Iraq, leading some to speculate that the plane may have been hit.    https://tmsnrt.rs/36Fn26m
    Iran’s head of civil aviation denied the reports as “illogical rumors.”
    “Scientifically, it is impossible that a missile hit the Ukrainian plane, and such rumors are illogical,” the semi-official ISNA News Agency quoted Ali Abedzadeh as saying.
    Two U.S. officials said Washington believed the downing of the plane was accidental.
    Speaking to reporters at the White House, Trump said he had a terrible feeling about the downed airliner but offered no details.    He said he did not believe it was a mechanical issue.
    “It’s a tragic thing.    But somebody could have made a mistake – on the other side,” Trump said.
    Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was due to provide an update on the crash on Thursday afternoon.
    Ukraine had outlined four potential scenarios to explain the crash, including a missile strike and terrorism.    Kiev said its investigators wanted to search the crash site for possible debris of a Russian-made missile used by Iran’s military.
    An initial report issued by Iran’s civil aviation organization on Thursday cited witnesses on the ground and in a passing aircraft flying at a high altitude as saying the plane was on fire while in the air.
    It said the three-year-old airliner, which had its last scheduled maintenance on Monday, encountered a technical problem shortly after take-off and started to head toward a nearby airport before it crashed.    The report said there was no radio communication from the pilot and that the aircraft disappeared from radar at 8,000 feet (2,440 m).
INITIAL REPORT
    Investigations into airliner crashes require regulators, experts and companies across several international jurisdictions to work together.    It can take months to fully determine the cause and issuing an initial report within 24 hours is rare.
    Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne called his Iranian counterpart to stress that Canadian officials needed “to be quickly granted access to Iran to provide consular services, help with identification of the deceased and take part in the investigation of the crash.”
    “Canada and Canadians have many questions which will need to be answered,” a Canadian statement said.
    Britain wants a transparent investigation, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said on Thursday following a call between the British leader and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
    “The prime minister said that there needed to be a full credible and transparent investigation into what happened,” the spokesman said.
    Tensions between Washington and Tehran have risen with the United States’ killing of a top Iranian general on Friday.
    The Ukrainian airliner took off at 6:12 a.m. local time and was given permission to climb to 26,000 feet, Iran’s report said.    It crashed six minutes later near the town of Sabashahr.
    Bodies and body parts recovered from the site of the crash were taken to the coroner’s office for identification, the report said.
    Smouldering debris, including shoes and clothes, was strewn across a field where the plane crashed.    Rescue workers in face masks laid out scores of body bags.
    Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration declined to comment on the missile reports on Thursday, as did the Pentagon.
    Boeing is still reeling from two deadly crashes of 737 MAX planes in five months that led to the plane’s grounding in March 2019.    The 737-800 that crashed was built in 2016 and is the prior generation of the 737 before the MAX.    Boeing has built about 5,000 of those planes, which have a good safety record.
(Reporting by Mark Hosenball, David Shepardson, Jonathan Landay and Phil Stewart in Washington; Alexander Cornwell & Babak Dehghanpisheh in Dubai, Pavel Polityuk in Kiev; Additional reporting by Tim Hepher in Paris, Jamie Freed in Sydney, Allison Lampert in Montreal, Steve Scherer in Ottawa, Laurence Frost in Paris, Matthias Williams in Kiev, Mark Hosenball in Washington and David Ljunggren in Ottawa, Elizabeth Piper in London; Writing by Alexander Cornwell and Sonya Hepinstall; Editing by William Maclean and Alistair Bell)

1/9/2020 Iran mostly likely brought down Ukraine airliner with anti-aircraft missiles: U.S. officials
FILE PHOTO: Rescue team works among debris of a plane belonging to Ukraine International Airlines, that crashed after take-off from
Iran's Imam Khomeini airport, on the outskirts of Tehran, Iran January 8, 2020. Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A Ukraine airliner that crashed in Iran, killing all 176 people aboard, was most likely brought down accidentally by Iranian anti-aircraft missiles, U.S. officials said on Thursday.
    According to satellite data, one U.S. official said, the Ukrainian International Airlines Boeing 737-800 bound for Kiev was airborne for two minutes after departing Tehran when the heat signatures of two surface-to-air missiles were detected.
    That was quickly followed by an explosion in the vicinity of the plane, the official said.    Heat signature data then showed the plane on fire as it went down.
    Iran’s head of civil aviation was quoted by ISNA News Agency as saying that it was “impossible that a missile hit the Ukrainian plane.”
    Two U.S. officials said Washington believed the downing of the plane, which occurred at a time of rising tensions between Iran and the United States, was accidental.
    An Iranian report on Thursday cited witnesses on the ground and in a passing aircraft flying at a high altitude as saying the plane was on fire while in the air.
    U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday the deadly crash could have been a mistake and he did not believe it was a mechanical issue.
    Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration declined to comment on Thursday, as did the Pentagon.
    Boeing is still reeling from two deadly crashes of 737 MAX planes in five months that led to the plane’s grounding in March 2019.    The 737-800 that crashed was built in 2016 and is the prior generation of the 737 before the MAX.    Boeing has built about 5,000 of those planes, which has a good safety record.
(Reporting by Mark Hosenball, David Shepardson, Jonathan Landay and Phil Stewart; Writing by Tim Ahmann; Editing by Ross Colvin and Sonya Hepinstall)

1/9/2020 Qatar’s emir, UK prime minister discuss events in region: state news agency
FILE PHOTO: Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani speaks during Kuala Lumpur Summit
in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, December 19, 2019. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng
    CAIRO – (Reuters) – Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani phoned British Prime minister Boris Johnson on Thursday to discuss ways to ensure security and stability in the region, the state news agency said, amid increasing U.S.-Iranian tensions.
    Iran earlier on Thursday the U.S. president’s call for a new nuclear pact and its commanders threatened more attacks, after both sides backed off from intensified conflict following the U.S. killing of an Iranian general and Tehran’s retaliatory missile strikes.
(Reporting by Alaa Swilam; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

1/9/2020 Lebanon’s Hezbollah says working for government formation by Tom Perry
FILE PHOTO: Lebanon's Hezbollah supporters attend a funeral ceremony rally to mourn Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite
Quds Force, who was killed in an air strike at Baghdad airport, in Beirut's suburbs, Lebanon, January 5, 2020. REUTERS/Aziz Taher
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – The powerful Lebanese group Hezbollah is working to remove obstacles to a deal on a new government which must be formed as soon as possible to avoid collapse, one of its top officials said on Thursday.
    Lebanon has been without a functioning government since Saad al-Hariri quit as prime minister in October after protests against the political elite over corruption, leaving the country without a rescue plan as financial and economic crises deepen.
    The worst economic crisis since the 1975-90 civil war has led the Lebanese pound to slump amid a dollar shortage and banks to tightly control access to cash and block transfers abroad.
    Spiraling regional tensions since the killing of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, a close ally of Shi’ite Hezbollah, by the United States last week have added to the risks facing the heavily indebted state.    Hezbollah has said Iran’s allies in the region should help avenge the killing.
    But referring to the regional conflict, senior Hezbollah official Ibrahim Amin al-Sayyed said nobody including Hezbollah wanted “a government of confrontation” in Lebanon but one that could save the country.
    “We are carrying a very important and exhausting role to reach an agreement as soon as possible to prevent this collapse,” Sayyed said.
    “We have taken the initiative and continue to do so to remove all obstacles and complications to reach a government.”
    Speaking after a meeting with Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, Sayyid also noted that the regional situation was “another incentive” for concessions.
    Hezbollah, which is sanctioned as a terrorist group by the United States, has exercised more sway over Lebanese state affairs since it won a parliamentary majority together with its political allies in 2018.
    Along with allies including President Michel Aoun, Hezbollah last month nominated former government minister Hassan Diab to form the next government after the failure of efforts to make a deal with Hariri, an ally of the West and Gulf Arab states.
    Shi’ite Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a Hezbollah ally, said the government formation was facing complications and the situation in Lebanon was going from bad to worse.
    The pound has weakened again in recent days on the parallel market: dollars were being offered at 2,400 pounds on Thursday – some 60% weaker than its official peg of 1,507.5 pounds, a dealer said.
    In a rebuke to politicians, Jan Kubis, the senior U.N. official in Lebanon, on Wednesday said it was “increasingly irresponsible” to keep Lebanon without a government.
(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Editing by William Maclean)

1/9/2020 Suspected Islamic militants attack army outpost in Niger, killing 25 soldiers by OAN Newsroom
Photo via official Twitter account of the Nigerian Army.
    Alleged Islamic militants attacked an army outpost in the West African nation of Niger amid sectarian tensions in that country.    On Thursday, the Nigerian military confirmed suspected Islamists staged an attack in the northern part of the country, which killed at least 25 soldiers and wounded several others.
    Officials said the assailants approached the military facility on motorbikes and engaged in combat with security personnel.
    The incident comes amid ongoing clashes between ISIS affiliate Boko Haram and government forces across West Africa.
    “We repelled an attack led by terrorist elements who came with several vehicles and motorbikes.    The response, with aerial support from the air force and our partners, allowed us to hit back and push our enemies outside of our of borders.    Search operations are ongoing.” – Colonel Souleymane Gazobi, Spokesman for the Nigerian Ministry of Defense
    Niger authorities said at least 63 militants were eliminated during the attack.
FILE – In this Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019 file photo, Kenyan security forces aim their weapons up at buildings as they
run through a hotel complex during an attack by extremists in Nairobi, Kenya. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File)

1/9/2020 East Libya forces to press campaign against Tripoli rivals despite ceasefire call
FILE PHOTO: Khalifa Haftar, the military commander who dominates eastern Libya, arrives to attend an international
conference on Libya at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, May 29, 2018. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer/File Photo
    BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – Forces in East Libya led by Khalifa Haftar said on Thursday they will not let up in their military campaign against rival factions in the capital Tripoli, appearing to reject a call by Russia and Turkey for a ceasefire.
    A statement from Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) welcomed Russia’s bid “to seek peace and stability in Libya,” but affirmed “the continuation of the efforts of the armed forces in their war against terrorist groups … which control the capital Tripoli.”
    A high-level source close to the LNA, who asked not to be identified, described the statement as a “conditional acceptance” of Russia and Turkey’s call on Wednesday for a ceasefire to start on Jan. 12.
    Haftar’s forces began an offensive to take control of Tripoli in April that quickly stalled on the city’s outskirts.
    However, the LNA has gained an advantage in recent weeks as fighting intensified and it seized the coastal city of Sirte on Monday.
    Libya has been divided into rival camps based in Tripoli and the east since 2014, each with their own set of institutions.
    Haftar’s offensive upended a U.N.-led peace push and reignited a conflict that has in recent years fuelled migrant smuggling to Europe, given space to Islamist militants and disrupted oil supplies.
    Both Russia and Turkey have been increasingly involved in Libya’s conflict, with Turkey backing the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and the armed factions that support it.    Turkey’s parliament voted last week to allow a troop deployment to the North African country.
    Russia has largely backed Haftar, whilst maintaining relations with the GNA.
    In recent months Russian military contractors have deployed alongside the LNA, which has also received air support from the United Arab Emirates and backing from Jordan and Egypt, according to U.N. experts and diplomats.
    The GNA has said it welcomes any serious call for a return to the political process.
    “The GNA urgently wants to restore peace, and until that is possible … we will exercise our lawful right to enter into military alliances and defend our country from attack,” senior GNA adviser Mohammed Ali Abdallah said in a statement on Thursday.
    The GNA “welcomes any credible ceasefire proposal, but we have a duty to protect the Libyan people” from Haftar’s offensive, he said.
(Reporting by Ayman al-Warfalli and Alaa Swilam; additional reporting and writing by Aidan Lewis; editing by Grant McCool)

1/10/2020 Russian ship nearly collides with U.S. Navy destroyer by OAN Newsroom
Screengrab from official U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet report.
    A Russian Navy ship nearly collided with an American vessel in the northern Arabian Sea on Thursday.    The U.S. Navy released video on Friday, which showed the Russian intelligence collection ship aggressively approaching the USS Farragut.
    The Navy’s Fifth Fleet spokesman said the U.S. destroyer sounded its warning horn five times to signal the ship was in danger of a collision.    The Russian ship refused to obey the warning at first, but eventually changed course and narrowly avoided a collision.
    “While the Russian ship took action, the initial delay in complying with international rules, while it was making an aggressive approach, increased the risk of collision,” the fleet reiterated on Twitter.    “The U.S. Navy continues to remain vigilant and is trained to act in a professional manner."
    This came after President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke over the phone last month, where they discussed counterterrorism efforts and relations between the two countries.

1/11/2020 Oman’s Sultan Qaboos dies; successor vows to pursue peace by Lisa Barrington and Nayera Abdallah
FILE PHOTO: Sultan of Oman Qaboos bin Said al-Said at the Beit Al Baraka Royal Palace
in Muscat, Oman January 14, 2019. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS
    DUBAI (Reuters) – Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said, one of the Middle East’s longest serving rulers who maintained the country’s neutrality in regional struggles, died on Friday and his cousin Haitham bin Tariq al-Said was named as his successor in a smooth transition.
    With his death, the region loses a trusted and seasoned leader who managed to balance ties between two neighbours locked in a regional struggle, Saudi Arabia to the west and Iran to the north, as well as the United States.
    In a televised speech, Haitham promised to uphold Muscat’s policy of peaceful coexistence and friendly relations with all nations while further developing Oman.    “We will continue to assist in resolving disputes peacefully,” he said.
    Oman and fellow Gulf states declared three days of official mourning with flags to be flown at half-mast for the Western-backed Qaboos, 79, who ruled since taking over in a bloodless coup in 1970 with the help of former colonial power Britain.
    State television broadcast images of the funeral procession driving down Sultan Qaboos street in Muscat amid tight security as Omanis thronged the palm tree-lined road, some reaching out their hands and others taking pictures.
    The casket, draped in the Omani flag, was carried into Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque where hundreds of people joined prayers inside.    Haitham stood in front facing the casket, with the traditional curved dagger, or khanjar, strapped to his waist.    Qaboos was later buried in a family cemetery.
    Omanis took to social media to mourn the death of a ruler who had made regular tours of the nation to speak to citizens, often driving his own four-wheel drive in the convoys.
    “The first words I heard from my weeping mother after news of the great Sultan Qaboos’ death was: The father of orphans, of the poor, of the downtrodden, of all of us, has died,” Twitter user Abdullah bin Hamad al-Harthi wrote.
    “Our minds cannot comprehend his absence,” another Twitter user who gave her name as Sheikha said.
    State media did not give a cause of death.    Qaboos had been unwell for years and underwent treatment in Belgium last month.
SECRET LETTER OPENED
    Qaboos had no children and had not publicly appointed a successor.    A 1996 statute says the ruling family must choose a successor within three days of the throne becoming vacant.
    A family council convened on Saturday and chose Haitham after opening a sealed envelop in which Qaboos had secretly written his recommendation in case the family could not agree, opting to follow his “wise” guidance, state media said.
    Born in 1954, Haitham, who studied at Oxford, had served as minister of culture and as foreign ministry undersecretary.    He was appointed in 2013 to chair the committee responsible for Oman’s development.
    “The swift appointment of a successor is positive as the lack of clarity was a key economic uncertainty,” said Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank chief economist Monica Malik.
    He takes power as domestic challenges loom large, from strained state finances to high unemployment in the indebted oil producer, and at a time of heightened tension between Iran and the United States and U.S. ally Saudi Arabia.
    “The wildcard is whether any of Oman’s neighbours might try to pressure the new sultan as he settles into power,” Kristian Coates Ulrichsen of Texas-based Rice University’s Baker Institute told Reuters.
    Oman, whose bonds are rated junk by all three major rating agencies, plans to raise over $5 billion in local and foreign debt this year to partly cover its deficit.
    Any successor may initially hesitate to push through austerity measures so as to win over Omanis, Capital Economics’ Jason Tuvey said in a note this month.
DIPLOMACY
    Condolences poured in for the white-bearded Qaboos with Arab and Western leaders praising what they described as his wise rule.    Former U.S. President George W. Bush said Qaboos had been a stable force in the Middle East.
    “He leaves a profound legacy, not only in Oman but across the region,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement, lauding his commitment to peace.
    Oman maintains friendly ties with Washington and Tehran and helped mediate secret U.S.-Iran talks in 2013 that led two years later to the international nuclear pact which Washington quit in 2018.
    Muscat did not take sides in a Gulf dispute that saw Riyadh and its allies impose a boycott on Qatar in mid-2017 and did not join a Saudi-led military coalition that intervened in Yemen against the Iran-aligned Houthi movement.
    Oman’s diplomatic centrality has been a factor of Qaboos’ personality, said Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
    “It is hard to see how Oman can involve itself in the Yemen, Iran and Qatar issues until a new leader has established himself – which means for the foreseeable future.”
(Reporting by Lisa Barrington, Alexander Cornwell, Davide Barbuscia and Tuqa Khalid in Dubai, Nayera Abdallah and Omar Fahmy in Cairo, Steve Holland in Washington and Estelle Shirbon in London; Writing Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Shri Navaratnam and Jane Merriman)

1/11/2020 Sultan Qaboos ushered in Oman renaissance, quiet diplomacy by Lisa Barrington and Davide Barbuscia
FILE PHOTO: Oman's leader Sultan Qaboos bin Said attends the opening of the
Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Doha December 3, 2007. REUTERS/Fadi Al-Assaad
    DUBAI (Reuters) – Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who died late on Friday, transformed Oman during his 49-year reign from a poverty-stricken country torn by dissent into a prosperous state and an internationally trusted mediator for some of the region’s thorniest issues.
    He became sultan in July 1970 after deposing his father in a palace coup with the aim of ending the country’s isolation and using its oil revenue for modernization and development.
    Qaboos, 79, never publicly named a successor but secretly recorded his choice in a sealed letter should the royal family disagree on the succession line.    “I have already written down two names, in descending order, and put them in sealed envelopes in two different regions,” he said in a 1997 interview.
    State television said his cousin Haitham bin Tariq al-Said was named sultan on Saturday after the high military council called on the ruling family council to choose a successor.    The family had followed Qaboos’ written recommendation, believing in “his wisdom and vision,” a military council statement said.
    State media did not disclose the cause of death. Qaboos, who has dominated decision making in the Gulf state for decades, had been ailing for years and was in Belgium in December for treatment.
    “The immediate danger, perhaps, is that regional players may try to influence the outcome of succession or the chosen new leader,” said Simon Henderson, director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
    “The UAE has an interest, as does Saudi Arabia.    Iran will likely be opportunistic in how it plays its cards.”
    Analysts worry about royal family discord, and a resurgence of tribal rivalries and political instability, now a new ruler has to be chosen at a time when young hawks have assumed power in neighboring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
    Qaboos healed old rifts in a country long divided between a conservative tribal interior and seafaring coastal region.    He became known to his countrymen as “the renaissance,” investing billions of dollars of oil revenues in infrastructure and building one of the best-trained armed forces in the region.
    While brooking no dissent at home, Qaboos charted an independent foreign policy, not taking sides in a power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, or in a Gulf dispute with Qatar.
    Muscat kept ties with both Tehran and Baghdad during the 1980–88 Iran–Iraq War, and with Iran and the United States after their diplomatic falling out in 1979.
    Oman helped to mediate secret U.S.-Iran talks in 2013 that led to an historic international nuclear pact two years later.
    The white-bearded Qaboos met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in October 2018 on a rare visit to Oman.    While other Gulf states have made overtures to Israel, none of their leaders have openly met with Netanyahu.
COUP
    Qaboos, the eighth ruler of the al-Said dynasty that governed Oman since 1744, was born on Nov. 18, 1940 in Dhofar.
    In 1958, he headed to England to complete his education, strengthening historic ties between Britain and the Omani royal family.    He studied for two years at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst and served six months in the British army in West Germany, returning to England in 1962 to study local government.
    From 1964-70, Qaboos was confined to the royal palace in Salalah and denied any role in running Oman.
    He became disenchanted with his father’s methods and skeptical of the army’s ability to defeat Dhofari rebels.
    When oil exports began in 1967, Sultan Said, accustomed to tight financial constraints, was reluctant to spend on development.
    Britain, with considerable clout then over Gulf rulers, helped Qaboos overthrow his father in a palace coup on July 23, 1970.    Sultan Said was forced to abdicate after some resistance and spent the last two years of his life in exile in England.
    The new sultan, then only 30 years old, inherited a country with little infrastructure, few skilled administrators and none of the basic institutions of government.
    Qaboos gradually asserted his authority by taking over the role of prime minister and the ministries of finance, defense and foreign affairs, which he retained.
    He fought Dhofar rebels with help from Britain, Jordan and Iran.    Through military advances and offering rebel leaders state jobs, Qaboos ended the revolt within six years of taking office.
    Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution directed Qaboos’ attention to the Strait of Hormuz, through which almost a fifth of global oil passes.    He pledged to keep the strait open and in 1980 signed a deal to let U.S. forces use Omani facilities for emergencies.
    In 1981, Qaboos began widening political participation and free elections for an advisory council were held in 2003.
CHARISTMATIC AUTHORITY
    When the “Arab Spring” protests started to threaten – and eventually topple – the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, Qaboos took note and defused his own potential bombshell as protests broke out in Oman with promises of jobs and reforms.
    He sacked more than a third of the cabinet, created thousands of public sector jobs and paid a dividend to the unemployed, which the IMF said amounted to a quarter of Omanis.
    However domestic challenges remain with high unemployment and the state increasingly relying on external borrowing as oil prices fell, pushing its credit rating to junk status.
    “Sultan Qaboos had such charismatic authority and became so synonymous with Oman as a modern nation-state that it will naturally be difficult for any successor to replicate that, at least at the beginning,” Kristian Coates Ulrichsen of the Texas-based Rice University’s Baker Institute told Reuters.
(Reporting by Davide Barbuscia, Sylvia Westall and Sami Aboudi; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous and William Maclean; Editing by Daniel Wallis/Clarence Fernandez/Jane Merriman)

1/11/2020 State Dept.: Iraq delegation will not discuss U.S. troop removal by OAN Newsroom
FILE – In this Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020, file photo, this photo provided by the U.S. Army, paratroopers assigned
to 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division walk as they prepare equipment and load aircraft bound for the
U.S. Central Command area of operations from Fort Bragg, N.C. (Spc. Hubert Delany III/U.S. Army via AP, File)
    The United States is rejecting demands from the Iraqi government to remove troops from the region.    On Friday, a spokesperson for the State Department highlighted the crucial mission American forces have in Iraq, including their continued fight against ISIS.
    While a NATO delegation has been sent to Iraq to discuss recent events, the spokesperson said removing U.S. forces is not an option.
    “We have been unambiguous regarding how crucial our mission is in Iraq,” stated Morgan Ortagus.    “At this time, any delegation sent to Iraq would be dedicated to discussing how to best recommit to our strategic partnership, not to discuss troop withdrawal.”
    The U.S. has since warned Iraq that it could shut down Baghdad’s access to the country’s account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York if forced to withdraw its troops.    The president has also threatened to impose sanctions against Iran, which would severely impact the country’s already unstable economy.
FILE – In this May 15, 2019 file photo, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi speaks to the media during a joint news
conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Ankara, Turkey. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici, File)
    Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi made the initial request on Friday, claiming the U.S. violated Iraqi airspace.
    “The Prime Minister said American forces had entered Iraq and drones are flying in its airspace without permission from Iraqi authorities,” read a statement from the prime minister’s office.    “This was a violation of the bilateral agreements.”
    Last week, Iraqi parliament passed a non-binding resolution that called for the removal of the 5,200 troops currently deployed in the country.
    Secretary of State Mike Pompeo previously said the U.S. has no intention of withdrawing troops, due to security concerns in the region.
    “We are confident that the Iraqi people want the United States to continue to be there to fight the counterterror campaign,” he said.    “We’ll continue to do all the things we need to do to keep America safe.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin brief reporters about additional sanctions
placed on Iran, at the White House, Friday, Jan. 10, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
    The U.S. has since warned Iraq that it could shut down Baghdad’s access to the country’s account at the federal reserve bank of New York if forced to withdraw its troops.
    The president has also threatened to impose sanctions against Iran, which would severely impact the country’s already unstable economy.

1/12/2020 Libyan forces loyal to Haftar announce ceasefire, GNA agrees to truce
FILE PHOTO: Khalifa Haftar, the military commander who dominates eastern Libya, arrives to attend an international
conference on Libya at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, May 29, 2018. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer/File Photo
    BENGHAZI (Reuters) – Libyan eastern forces loyal to commander Khalifa Haftar announced on Saturday a ceasefire in the western region, which includes the capital Tripoli, starting 00:01 a.m. on Sunday (22:01 GMT) and the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) agreed to the truce.
    Since April, Libyan National Army forces loyal to Haftar have been waging a campaign to take Tripoli, where they are battling forces aligned with the GNA.
    In a statement posted online early on Sunday, the Tripoli based GNA said: “In response to the Turkish president and the Russian president’s call for a ceasefire, the head of the Presidency Council of the Government of National Accord announces a ceasefire starting 00:00 on Jan. 12.”
    While the LNA had on Thursday rebuffed a call by Turkey and Russia for a ceasefire in a conflict that is drawing increasing foreign involvement and concern, LNA spokesman Ahmed Mismari said in a video statement late on Saturday that the LNA accepted a truce in the west “provided that the other party abides by the ceasefire.”
    He warned that “any breach will be met with a harsh response.”
    The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) welcomed the truce and urged the warring parties “to strictly abide by the ceasefire and make a room for peaceful efforts to address all disputes through a Libyan-Libyan dialogue.”
    Turkey backs the Tripoli-based GNA headed by Fayez al-Serraj, while Russian military contractors have been deployed alongside the eastern forces.
    A senior GNA official said on Thursday that it welcomed any credible ceasefire proposal but had a duty to protect Libyans from Haftar’s offensive.
    Any ceasefire will likely be hard to uphold after a recent escalation in fighting around Tripoli and the strategic coastal city of Sirte and given the fractious, loose nature of Libya’s military alliances.
    Forces loyal to Haftar said this week they had taken control of Sirte in a rapid advance preceded by air strikes.
    Earlier on Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Libyan peace talks will be held in Berlin, adding that Libya’s warring parties would need to play a major role to help find a solution.
(Reporting by Ayman al-Warfalli and Hesham Abdul Khalek; Writing by Mahmoud Mourad; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Daniel Wallis)

1/12/2020 Both sides accuse each other of violating ceasefire in Libya
FILE PHOTO: Khalifa Haftar, the military commander who dominates eastern Libya, arrives to attend an
international conference on Libya at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, May 29, 2018. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer
    TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Both of Libya’s warring factions accused each other of violating a ceasefire proposed by Turkey and Russia, as fighting continued around the capital, Tripoli, on Sunday.
    The Turkish and Russian presidents had called for the ceasefire to start on Sunday, more than nine months into an offensive on Tripoli by the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar.
    Both the LNA and the Tripoli-based, internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) had said they conditionally agreed to the truce.
    But the GNA said in a statement that it had recorded gunfire in the Salaheddin and Wadi Rabea areas “minutes” after the ceasefire was meant to start at 0001 a.m. on Sunday (Saturday 2201 GMT).
    From early on Sunday morning exchanges of fire could be heard in Salaheddin and Ain Zara districts.
    Any attempt to impose a lasting ceasefire will be hard to enforce because of the splintered nature of Libya’s military coalitions, with disparate factions and foreign fighters deployed on both sides.    Both sides refer to each other as militias.
    “The (GNA) militias violated the truce on more than one battlefront, with all types of weapons,” said LNA commander Al-Mabrouk Al-Gazawi, adding that forces were waiting for further instruction from LNA general command.
    The GNA said in a statement it had recorded violations by “the aggressor’s militias” but that it “renews its commitment to the ceasefire, and emphasizes the need for commitment from the patrons of this ceasefire and the United Nations mission in Libya in applying it optimally.”
    Turkey’s defense ministry said it had observed that all sides were trying to abide by the ceasefire, and that the situation was calm except for “one or two separate incidents.”
    The ceasefire call came after a recent escalation of fighting around Tripoli, and the LNA’s advance into Sirte, a strategically important city midway along Libya’s coastline.
    It also came as the United Nations and European powers pushed for a summit in Berlin aimed at winding down foreign involvement and resuming a peace process upended by Haftar’s advance.
    The LNA has received backing from the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt and Russia, while Turkey backs the GNA and voted this month to allow a troop deployment to the North African country.
(Reporting by Ahmed Elumami, Ayman al-Sahli in Tripoli, Ayman al-Warfalli in Benghazi and Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul; Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)

1/12/2020 Several rockets hit Balad Air Base in Iraq, 4 injured by OAN Newsroom
FILE – in this Feb. 13, 2018 file photo, an Iraqi army soldier stand guard near a U.S.- made
Iraqi Air Force F-16 fighter jet at the Balad Air Base, Iraq. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed, File)
    Balad Air Base, which houses American troops, was hit by at least eight rockets on Saturday.    Reports said at least four Iraqi military officials were injured following the strike, which occurred north of Baghdad.
    Iran’s Security Media Cell confirmed that Katyusha rockets were used in the attack.
    Sources suggested American troops had previously pulled out of the base and relocated to safer facilities in Iraq.
    This attack comes amid heightened tensions between Iran and the U.S.    Iran targeted bases, which are housing U.S. troops, in Iraq last week.    However, it remains unclear whether Iran was behind this attack.
    Following the incident, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered his prayers to the injured and said “these continued violations of Iraq’s sovereignty by groups not loyal to the Iraqi government must end.”

1/12/2020 Hezbollah: It’s time for Iran’s allies to start working to avenge Soleimani
FILE PHOTO: Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters via a screen during
a funeral ceremony rally to mourn Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, who was killed in an air strike
at Baghdad airport, in Beirut's suburbs, Lebanon, January 5, 2020. REUTERS/Aziz Taher/File Photo
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s Hezbollah said on Sunday it was time for Iran’s allies to begin working to retaliate for the killing of Major General Qassem Soleimani though it would be a “long path” to the goal of ejecting U.S. forces from the region.
    Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah also denied the Iranian general had been planning to blow up U.S. embassies. U.S. President Donald Trump said he had been killed after he landed in Baghdad in part because “they were looking to blow up our embassy.”
    Hezbollah, a heavily armed group designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, was established in 1982 by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and is an important part of a regional Tehran-led alliance known as “the axis of resistance.”
    Iran responded for Soleimani’s killing by launching missiles at two military bases in Iraq that house U.S. forces on Wednesday.    Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called it a “slap on the face” of the United States and said U.S. troops should leave the region.
    Though the region remains tense, both sides have backed off from intensifying the conflict since the Iranian attack.
    Nasrallah said last week that Iran’s allies, which include the Syrian government and numerous paramilitary groups set up with Iranian support in Iraq and Syria, should help exact revenge for Soleimani’s killing.
    “I believe it is time for the axis of resistance to start working,” he said in his speech on Sunday.
    “The resistance forces are serious and aiming for the big goal that I proposed,” Nasrallah said, referring to the objective of seeing U.S. forces leave the region.
    Retaliation would happen in the “coming days, weeks and months,” he said, adding “this is a long path.”
    Explaining the decision to kill Soleimani, Trump said on Thursday “they were looking to blow up our embassy.”
    He also said the United States carried out the strike because of a rocket attack on a U.S. military base in Iraq by an Iran-backed militia in December that killed a U.S. contractor, which U.S. officials believe Soleimani had a role in orchestrating.
    Nasrallah said: “Trump is lying to his people … Haj Qassem Soleimani was not planning to blow up American embassies.”
    The United States holds Hezbollah responsible for the suicide bombing that destroyed the U.S. Marine headquarters in Beirut in October 1983, killing 241 servicemen, and a suicide bombing the same year on the U.S. embassy.
(Reporting by Laila Bassam and Tom Perry; Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

1/12/2020 Qatar emir in Iran, calls for regional de-escalation at ‘sensitive’ time
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani shakes hands with Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani during
a welcome ceremony, in Tehran, Iran January 12, 2020. Official Iranian Presidential Website/Handout via REUTERS
    DUBAI (Reuters) – Qatar’s ruler, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, said during a visit to Iran on Sunday that de-escalation and dialogue were needed to resolve regional crises at a “sensitive” time.
    He was speaking in a televised news conference with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during a visit to Tehran at a time of heightened U.S.-Iranian tensions that threaten to destabilize the region.
    Sheikh Tamim also thanked Iran, with which his country shares a giant gas field, for supporting Doha by providing air and land routes after Saudi Arabia and its allies imposed a trade and transport boycott on Qatar in mid-2017.
(Reporting by Hadeel Al Sayegh; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Edmund Blair)

1/13/2020 Israel’s weakened left-wing parties merge ahead of March election
FILE PHOTO: A Labour party election banner depicting party leader Amir Peretz and writing in Arabic reading
"industrial areas in all Arab and Druze cities" is seen next to another election banner depicting Issawi Frej,
an Arab politician in the left-wing Meretz party with Arabic writing that reads "This time we will participate
in government", in Tira, northern Israel September 5, 2019. Picture taken September 5, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s left-wing parties said on Monday they would join forces ahead of a March 2 national election to regain dwindling influence in parliament and pose a fresh challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
    Labour, which dominated Israeli politics for decades and spearheaded peace efforts with the Palestinians, will join with the veteran party Meretz after seeing their combined seats in the 120-seat Knesset diminish from 29 to 11 after two inconclusive elections this year.
    Many of their voters have defected to the upstart centrist party Blue and White, led by former general Benny Gantz which is the main challenger to Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud.
    The change in the political landscape coincides with a squabble among lawmakers over an immunity request submitted by Netanyahu, who is under indictment in three criminal cases.
    Netanyahu and Gantz failed to form governing coalitions after April and September votes, plunging the country towards an unprecedented third election in less than a year.
    The new left-wing alliance will be headed by Labour’s Amir Peretz, a former defence minister who called the merger “a partnership of change and hope.”    Under leaders like Yitzhak Rabin, Labour was a driving force in Israel’s efforts to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
    Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving premier, has asked parliament to protect him from prosecution on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
    But without a majority of votes in parliament to get it done, he is now pushing to delay debate over his immunity request until after the election — ensuring his trial would not begin until after Israelis go to the polls and possibly grant him a new mandate.
    Gantz’s Blue and White is working to hold the debate as soon as possible.
    Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing, saying he is the victim of a witch hunt by the media and left to oust a popular right-wing leader.
(Reporting by Rami Ayyub and Ari Rabinovitch, Editing by William Maclean)

1/13/2020 Iran won’t target Strait of Hormuz over Soleimani killing: analysts by Luke Baker
FILE PHOTO: A tugboat moves cargo towards the Strait of Hormuz off the coast of Musandam province,
Oman, July 20, 2018. Picture taken on July 20, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed/File Photo
    LONDON (Reuters) – Iran is unlikely to block the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s busiest oil-shipping channel, in reprisal for the killing of Qassem Soleimani for fear of aggravating its Gulf allies and China, regional analysts said on Monday.
    Tehran has long threatened to block the waterway between Iran and Oman – 33 km (21 miles) wide at its narrowest point and the conduit for some 30% of all crude and other oil liquids traded by sea – as a way of hitting back at the West.
    But Iran has found its room for maneuver limited after the killing of Soleimani, Iran’s top military commander, in a Jan. 3 U.S. drone attack at Baghdad airport in Iraq.
    Iran’s retaliatory rocket strikes on Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops, which caused no casualties, and its shooting down – apparently by mistake – of a Ukrainian airliner minutes after take-off from Tehran on Jan. 8, killing all 176 aboard, have also reduced the scope for further quick action.
    The Islamic Republic’s immediate priority is de-escalation, analysts say.
    “The Iranians aren’t going to close the Strait of Hormuz,” said Michael Stephens, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and a former analyst seconded to the British Foreign Office in the Middle East.
    “They don’t want to upset Qatar, one of the few allies they have in the Gulf, and there’s a new sultan in Oman who they need to keep onside.    They need to keep those allies.”
    Furthermore China, which is increasing its influence in the region and buys 50%-70% of Iranian oil exports, would be opposed to any interruption of energy flows through the strait, according to Jonathan Eyal, RUSI’s international director.
    While Iran is expected to retaliate further for Soleimani’s killing in time – either directly or through various Middle East proxies, the United States has thrown Tehran on the defensive with the scale and boldness of its strike on Soleimani.
    “The costs are now extremely high for Iran,” said Stephens.    “They have to factor in that the sky is now effectively the limit for the Americans when it comes to retaliation” against any move by Tehran.
    “Any big, flashy response (by Iran) is much less likely, given those considerations.”
    Instead, short of the Iranians making another strategic miscalculation, analysts expect tensions in the region to move back into a more regular “holding pattern.”
    But the threat of longer-term Iranian retaliation remains, with proxy movements in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere poised to strike if Tehran doesn’t act directly itself.
    Stephens said U.S. special forces in northeast Syria were a potential target for Hezbollah, the Iran-allied Lebanese militia, while a strike against a senior Western military commander in Europe could not be ruled out.
    Another attack on U.S. interests in Iraq was seen as less likely as it could play into the hands of Islamic State militants – bitter enemies of both Iran and the United States.
(Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

1/13/2020 Hours of forewarning saved U.S., Iraqi lives from Iran’s missile attack by Kamal Ayash and John Davison
Military vehicles of U.S. soldiers are seen at Ain al-Asad air base in Anbar province, Iraq January 13, 2020. REUTERS/John Davison
    AIN AL-ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq (Reuters) – Nearly eight hours before Iran’s Jan. 8 missile attack on U.S. forces at bases in Iraq, American and Iraqi soldiers at Ain al-Asad air base scrambled to move personnel and weaponry to fortified bunkers, two Iraqi officers stationed at the base told Reuters.
    By midnight, not a single fighter jet or helicopter remained out in the open, said one of the sources, an intelligence officer.    Another Iraqi intelligence source said U.S. troops even seemed to know the timing of the attack, saying they seemed “totally aware” the base would be attacked “after midnight.”
    When the missiles finally landed at about 1:30 a.m., they struck “empty bunkers that had been evacuated hours before,” the intelligence source said.    No one was injured or killed.
    Such accounts add to the evidence that the Iranian attack was among the worst kept secrets in modern warfare – but the reasons why remain mysterious after days of conflicting statements from officials in Iran, Iraq and the United States.
    After the missiles landed, several major U.S. media outlets quoted U.S. officials saying the attack had been little more than a warning shot, allowing Iran to satisfy calls for revenge at home – after the U.S. air strike on Jan. 3 that killed an Iranian general – without much risk of provoking further U.S. attacks. Others, citing U.S. and Arab sources, reported that Iran warned Iraq before the attacks and that Iraq had passed that information to the United States.
    By Friday, however, top U.S. officials had rejected that narrative.    U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters that day that there was “no doubt” that Iran had the “full intention” of killing U.S. personnel.    That echoed earlier comments from Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, who credited U.S. intelligence – rather than warnings or leaks from Tehran – with the advanced notice that allowed U.S. troops to avoid casualties.
    The ongoing confusion over Tehran’s intentions makes it that much more difficult to judge its true appetite for further attacks on U.S. forces or an all-out war.    A series of conflicting statements from Iranian officials has only added to the uncertainty.    Even as Iran state TV falsely claimed the attack had killed dozens of U.S. soldiers – and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared it “not enough” of a punishment – Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif soon after tweeted that Iran had “concluded” its retaliation and “did not seek escalation or war.”
    Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Aerospace Force, was later quoted in state media saying, “We did not intend to kill.    We intended to hit the enemy’s military machinery.” And yet Hajizadeh repeated the spurious claim that the attack had killed U.S. soldiers.     An advisor to Iraq Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi told Reuters that Iran did not directly notify Iraq until shortly before the missile strike – but said Iran passed warnings through other countries.    The advisor said both Iraq and the United States were warned of the impending strike by one Arab country and one European country, declining the name them.
    And who warned those countries?
    “Iran, obviously,” the adviser said.    “Iran was keen that both the Americans and Iraqis be aware of the strikes before they occurred.”     Reuters could not verify the adviser’s account.
    Iran’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment, and its delegation to the United Nations in New York did not respond to requests.    The Iraqi prime minister’s office and a military spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.    The White House declined to comment.
BURNED OUT LIVING QUARTERS, FUEL FIRES
    Iran fired at least 22 missiles at Ain al-Asad and another base near the northern Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil that also hosts U.S. forces, the Iraqi military has said. The advanced warning proved crucial to life-saving preparations.
    At the sprawling Ain al-Asad base in Iraq’s western Anbar desert on Monday, U.S. Air Force and Army teams cleared piles of metal and concrete debris from the airfield and around bunkers using bulldozers and pickup trucks.
    One cruise missile had knocked down more than a dozen heavy concrete blast walls and incinerated shipping containers used as living space by U.S. soldiers.    Another had destroyed two hangars that normally house Blackhawk helicopters, blasting through offices nearby and causing a fuel fire that lasted hours, U.S. soldiers said.
    “I was 60 meters away from the blast when it hit this aircraft parking area,” said Staff Sergeant Tommie Caldwell of the U.S. Air Force.    “It’s the first time we’ve had an actual missile hit, rather than rockets.    The damage was considerably bigger.”
    Officers at the base said that it had become clear they would be attacked by mid-evening on the night the missiles hit.    Most personnel were moved to bunkers and aircraft moved away from parking and repair sites.
    “I’d received information it was going to be a missile attack, and it was going to be Ain al-Asad,” said Lt. Col. Antionette Chase of the U.S. Army.    “We were very well-prepared … Ten days prior, we had drilled for a similar attack.”
    Still, coalition troops said the attacks did not strike them as a display of restraint from Iran.    As one U.S. Air Force officer put it: “If you fire missiles at an air base where people are maintaining aircraft 24/7, you’re probably going to kill people.”
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, and Steve Holland and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Brian Thevenot)

1/13/2020 Japan pursues regional diplomacy to defuse Gulf tensions by Dahlia Nehme
Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan gestures with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
during a meeting in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates January 13, 2020. WAM/Handout via REUTERS
    ABU DHABI (Reuters) – Japan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates should work together to de-escalate the tense situation in the Gulf, a Japanese foreign ministry official said on Monday, relaying comments by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
    The official said Japan’s strong relationship with both the United States and Iran enabled it to play a diplomatic role in defusing heightened regional tensions following the U.S. killing of Iranian military commander General Qassem Soleimani and a retaliatory missile attack by Iran on U.S. forces in Iraq.
    As part of a Middle Eastern tour, Abe met UAE leaders in Abu Dhabi on Monday after having been to Saudi Arabia on Sunday. He will head to Oman on Tuesday, whose ruler, Sultan Qaboos, died on Friday.
    Abe will “compare notes with the leaders of the three countries who we believe are like-minded in the sense that they are all worried about the extremely high tension in the region and the need for…de-escalation,” the official said.
    He added that Abe has met Iranian President Hassan Rouhani three times last year and maintains “very good contact” with U.S. President Donald Trump.
    Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan thanked Abe for Japan’s “balanced policy” towards the Middle East, in a statement on UAE state media after their meeting.
    Sheikh Mohammed said the UAE was willing to work with Japan and Saudi for regional stability.
    In turn, Abe said he appreciated the “discrete position” the UAE has been demonstrating in the current situation.
    In May and June 2019, several attacks took place on international merchant vessels in the Gulf, including the Japanese-owned tanker Kokuka Courageous, which the United States blamed on Iran.    Tehran denies the allegations.
    The UAE did not lay blame on any country for those attacks or other attacks on Saudi Arabian energy infrastructure.
    Japan’s Cabinet last month approved the deployment of a warship and patrol planes to the region and on Friday ordered them to head to the Middle East to protect ships bringing goods to Japan.
    They are for self-defense and have a mandate of “information collection,” the official said.
(Reporting by Dahlia Nehme; Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Chris Reese and Angus MacSwan)

1/14/2020 Turkey says ready to act against Libyan commander Haftar if attacks continue by Nevzat Devranoglu and Tuvan Gumrukcu
FILE PHOTO: Khalifa Haftar, the military commander who dominates eastern Libya, arrives to attend an
international conference on Libya at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, May 29, 2018. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer/File Photo
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey will not refrain from “teaching a lesson” to Khalifa Haftar if his eastern Libyan forces continue attacks against the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday.
    Turkey and Russia failed to convince Haftar on Monday to sign a binding truce to halt his nine-month campaign to try to conquer the Libyan capital from forces aligned with the internationally recognized government.
    The initiative was the latest attempt to stabilize the North African country beset by turmoil since the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
    Fayez al-Serraj, who heads the Tripoli-based government, signed the truce proposal after indirect talks in Moscow on Monday, but Haftar left the Russian capital without signing.
    The Russian defense ministry was quoted by Interfax news agency on Tuesday as saying Haftar had been positive about the ceasefire deal and was taking two days to consider it.
    But Erdogan said Haftar had “run away.”    Turkey’s parliament voted this month to allow a troop deployment to help the Tripoli government to fend off Haftar, who is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan and Russian mercenaries.
    “If the putschist Haftar’s attacks against the people and legitimate government of Libya continue, we will never refrain from teaching him the lesson he deserves,” Erdogan said in a speech to his AK Party lawmakers in parliament.
‘OUR KIN’
    “It is our duty to protect our kin in Libya,” Erdogan added.
    He said Turkey had deep historical and social ties with the north African country and that Haftar would have taken over the entire nation if Ankara had not intervened.
    Turkey will join Germany, Britain and Russia at a summit on Libya in Berlin on Sunday, he said.
    Haftar’s office and his forces have not officially confirmed the commander rejected the truce proposal, but a website linked to the forces said he would not sign.
    Haftar and Serraj did not meet in Moscow directly, talking instead via Turkish and Russian mediators.    They last met in Abu Dhabi in February 2019 before talks broke down over a power-sharing deal and Haftar moved his troops on Tripoli in April, after expanding his control beyond the east and south.
    Serraj told Reuters in June he would never sit down again with Haftar.
    Conflict in Libya has wrecked the economy, disrupted oil production and triggered flows of migration to Europe that have now largely been stemmed.
    Haftar’s troops have not been able to breach Tripoli’s defenses but have in recent weeks made some small advances with help from Russian mercenaries, residents say.    That has pushed Turkey, which has business interests in the country, to deploy soldiers to Libya to help the Tripoli government.
(Reporting by Nevzat Devranoglu, Tuvan Gumrukcu, Ece Toksabay, Ayman al-Warfalli, Tom Balmforth and Maria Kiselyova, Writing by Daren Butler and Ulf Laessing, Editing by Aidan Lewis and Timothy Heritage)

1/14/2020 Influential Iraqi cleric Sadr calls for anti-U.S. demonstrations
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Populist Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called on Tuesday for a million Iraqis to march against the U.S. “presence and violations” in Iraq after Washington’s killing of an Iranian commander in Baghdad.
    Iraq’s parliament has called for U.S. and other foreign troops to leave amid growing a backlash against Washington’s air strike, which also killed a top Iraqi militia commander.
    Iran launched a missile attack on U.S. targets in Iraq in retaliation for the death of General Qassem Soleimani, a move that heightened fears of a wider Middle East conflict.
    “Go on soldiers of God, soldiers of the nation, onto a million man march condemning the American presence and its violations,” Sadr tweeted.
    “Iraqi space, its land and sovereignty are infringed upon by occupying forces.”
    Sadr has million of followers has been able to summon tens of thousands of people onto the streets of Baghdad for demonstrations in previous years.
    He gave no details of when he was calling for the protest to take place, or where.
    Thousands are of Iraqis still gathering in separate anti-government demonstrations in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square in protests that started on Oct. 1 – potentially setting the stage for rival groups to clash.
(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; Editing by Alison Williams)

1/15/2020 Turkey and Russia discussing ‘secure zone’ in Syria’s Idlib region: Turkish defense minister
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey and Russia are discussing the establishment of a ‘secure zone’ within Syria’s northwestern Idlib region where Syrians displaced by fighting can shelter during the winter, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Wednesday.
    Syrian government attacks in the region were continuing despite a ceasefire which came into effect three days ago, Akar told reporters in Ankara, and Turkey was reinforcing an observation post which has been surrounded by Syrian forces.
    The minister said Turkey has not received an official request regarding a call by the Iraqi parliament on Jan. 5 for the withdrawal of foreign troops.
(Reporting by Orhan Coskun; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Daren Butler)

1/15/2020 Too early to say Libya ceasefire has collapsed: Turkish defense minister
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Wednesday it was too early to say that a ceasefire in Libya had collapsed after Khalifa Haftar, commander of eastern Libyan forces, failed to sign a binding truce at talks this week.
    Turkey, which supports the internationally recognized government in Tripoli which is opposed to Haftar, has sent a training and cooperation team which is now active in Libya, Akar told reporters at a briefing in Ankara.
(Reporting by Orhan Coskun; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Dominic Evans)

1/15/2020 U.N. official: Lebanese politicians watching as economy collapses by Tom Perry
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese politicians are watching the economy collapse, the senior U.N. official in Lebanon said on Wednesday, rebuking a political elite that has failed to form a government as the country sinks deeper into economic and financial crisis.
    Lebanon has been adrift since the government was toppled by the resignation of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri in October as a result of protests against corruption and bad governance that are root causes of the economic crisis.
    "Another day of confusion around the formation of a government, amidst the increasingly angry protests and free-falling economy,” Jan Kubis, U.N. special coordinator for Lebanon, wrote on Twitter.    “Politicians, don’t blame the people, blame yourselves for this dangerous chaos.”
    He also noted that central bank (BDL) governor Riad Salameh had requested extraordinary powers to manage the economy – an apparent reference to his request for more authority to regulate controls being implemented by commercial banks.
    “Lebanon is truly unique – the BDL Governor requesting extraordinary powers to at least somehow manage the economy while those responsible watch it collapsing. Incredible,” Kubis wrote.
    Seeking to avoid capital flight, Lebanon’s commercial banks have been restricting savers’ access to their deposits and blocking most transfers abroad for more than two months.    The measures have not however been formalized in capital controls.
    Security forces fired tear gas to disperse protesters outside the central bank on Tuesday night in confrontations with dozens of people who pelted them with stones and fireworks.
    The fronts of several commercial banks and their ATMs were vandalized near the central bank.
    Hariri said on Tuesday that Lebanon must cooperate with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, but that should be overseen by a new government and not the current caretaker cabinet.
    The powerful Iranian-backed group Hezbollah and its political allies last month nominated Hassan Diab, a little-known former minister, to form a new government after efforts to forge a deal with Hariri failed.    But efforts to form the cabinet have been bogged down in political complications.
(Writing by Tom Perry and Ellen Francis; Editing by Catherine Evans and Giles Elgood)

1/15/2020 Turkey and Russia discussing ‘secure zone’ in Syria’s Idlib region: Turkish defense minister
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey and Russia are discussing the establishment of a ‘secure zone’ within Syria’s northwestern Idlib region where Syrians displaced by fighting can shelter during the winter, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Wednesday.
    Syrian government attacks in the region were continuing despite a ceasefire which came into effect three days ago, Akar told reporters in Ankara, and Turkey was reinforcing an observation post which has been surrounded by Syrian forces.
    The minister said Turkey has not received an official request regarding a call by the Iraqi parliament on Jan. 5 for the withdrawal of foreign troops.
(Reporting by Orhan Coskun; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Daren Butler)

1/15/2020 Displaced and scared: Yemenis still in limbo after almost five years of war by Adel Al-Khadhir and Ahmed al-Ansi
    KHAMIR, Yemen (Reuters) – Widow Samirah Nasser and her eight children tried to return to their Yemeni village but were forced by relentless air strikes to return to the relative safety of a refugee camp.
    Shivering through yet another camp winter, she is one of 3.6 million Yemenis – around 12% of the population – displaced during a nearly five-year war that has spawned what the United Nations says is the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis.
    “When we returned (to our village), planes were in the sky.    They hit the market full of kids,” Nasser said.    “I banned the children from going to school, fearing the warplanes.”
    The air strikes have deterred Nasser over the past three years from attempting another return to her native region of Saada, heartland of the Iran-aligned Houthi movement that has been battling a Saudi-led military coalition since March 2015.
    “The war there does not stop.    Our houses are destroyed, we don’t have anywhere to stay, nothing,” said Houriya Muhammad, a 40-year-old mother-of-three also unable to return to Saada, where she used to sell pots.
    Both women now live in a refugee camp in Khamir, some 2.5 hours by road from the capital Sanaa.    Life is very hard in the camps, where facilities are rudimentary.
    “We are dying of the cold,” said Muhammad.    “My kids and I sleep wedged together with three or four blankets on us.”
    Children, with runny noses, warm themselves near open fires.    Water leaks through holes in the makeshift tents.
    The war in Yemen pits the Saudi-led coalition, backed by the West, against the Iran-aligned Houthis, who still control Sanaa and other major urban centers.
    More than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict, which has crippled basic services and infrastructure and ravaged the economy     More than 11 million people struggle to find enough food, and 240,000 people are living in famine-like conditions, according to The World Food Programme (WFP).
IMPROVEMENTS
    Nor are the refugee camps as safe as aid organizations would want.
    “Fighting is taking place less than 10 kilometers (six miles) from some of the main camps,” said Sultana Begum of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
    People trying to reach safety can be hampered either by Yemen’s mountainous terrain or a lack of money and identification papers, Begum said.
    Yemenis continue to be displaced from fresh conflict areas, with almost 400,000 people driven from their homes in 2019.    But it is not all bad news.    Food security has improved over the past year and the WFP now feeds 12 million people a month.
    Diplomatic initiatives have led to a decrease in air strikes in recent months and a semblance of normality has returned to some larger cities.
    “We can sleep and our children can go to school without fear,” said Abd Rahman Shouei, 28, a resident of the major port city of Hodeidah who ekes out a living by washing cars.
    “True, there is no work, roads are closed and we have no electricity, but the situation in Hodeidah is better now because there is no fighting or bombing.”
    Hodeidah is the entry point for most of Yemen’s imports and a lifeline for millions.    A truce in the Houthi-held city has largely held for more than a year, though a withdrawal of troops agreed last year has stalled and there are intermittent clashes.
    In another flashpoint city, the port of Aden, residents also report some modest improvements in daily life despite continued tensions between Yemen’s internationally recognized government and southern separatists.
    “Electricity has improved, but water and sewage still fill the streets,” said Muhammad Omar a 56-year old government worker.    “We live in a state of neither war nor peace.”
(Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous and Gareth Jones)

1/15/2020 Russia says urging Gulf nations to consider a joint security mechanism by Alasdair Pal and Devjyot Ghoshal
    NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Wednesday Moscow has been urging Gulf countries to consider a common security mechanism for the region and it was time the world got rid of unilateral measures such as sanctions.
    “We have been suggesting to the Gulf countries to think about collective security mechanisms … starting with confidence building measures and inviting each other to military exercises,” Lavrov told a security conference in Delhi.
    Tensions in the Gulf have risen following the U.S. killing of Iranian military commander General Qassem Soleimani and a retaliatory missile attack by Iran on U.S. forces in Iraq.
    “Since I mentioned about Persian Gulf, we are very much concerned about what is going in there,” Lavrov said.
    Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is also attending the conference in Delhi that comes just a day after Britain, France and Germany formally accused Iran of violating the terms of its 2015 agreement to curb its nuclear program, which eventually could lead to the reimposing of U.N. sanctions.
    Iran’s Fars news agency quoted Zarif as saying overnight that the use of the dispute mechanism was legally baseless and a strategic mistake.
    Lavrov said unilateral sanctions were a problem in today’s world.
    “So the 21st century is the time when we must get rid of any methods of dealing in international relations which smack of colonial and neo-colonial times. And sanctions, unilaterally imposed sanctions, they are not going to work.”
    After pulling out of the Iran deal, the United States slapped sanctions back on Iran and has gradually increased its “maximum pressure” campaign targeting the Islamic Republic’s revenues from oil, mining and other industries.
    British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called on Tuesday for U.S. President Donald Trump to replace the Iranian nuclear deal with his own new pact to ensure the Islamic Republic does not get an atomic weapon.
    Trump said in a tweet he agreed with Johnson for a “Trump deal.”
    U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Matthew Pottinger will also be addressing the Delhi meeting on Thursday.
(Additional reporting by Neha Dasgupta and Nidhi Verma; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and Lincoln Feast.)

1/15/2020 U.N. official blames politicians for ‘dangerous chaos’ in Lebanon by Tom Perry
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese politicians are to blame for the country’s economic collapse, a senior U.N. official said on Wednesday, rebuking a ruling elite that has failed to draw up a rescue plan for a country hit by more violent protests.
    With banks tightly limiting access to cash, lenders were targeted overnight by demonstrators in Beirut’s Hamra district.    Bank facades and ATMs were smashed and dozens of people wounded in confrontations with police.
    On Wednesday afternoon, angry protesters lit fires on a main thorougfare in central Beirut, briefly closing it.
    Heavily indebted Lebanon has struggled since the government was toppled by the resignation of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri in October as a result of protests against corruption and bad governance that are root causes of the economic problems.
    Political rivalries have obstructed a deal on a new cabinet as the crisis hits ordinary people: the Lebanese pound has lost around half of its value while anger at banking controls have led to rows and violence in branches.
    “Another day of confusion around the formation of a government, amidst the increasingly angry protests and free-falling economy,” Jan Kubis, U.N. special coordinator for Lebanon, wrote on Twitter.    “Politicians, don’t blame the people, blame yourselves for this dangerous chaos.”
    Kubis appeared to credit central bank governor Riad Salameh, saying he had sought “extraordinary powers to at least somehow manage the economy while those responsible watch it collapsing.”
Incredible,” he wrote.
    Salameh asked for extra powers last week, saying he wanted to standardize banking controls.    The finance ministry has asked him to specify what those extra powers were.
    Looking to assure anxious depositors, parliament speaker Nabih Berri said work was under way to safeguard people’s money, especially small depositors and those of expatriates, without specifying further.
    Lebanese debt graphic: https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/editorcharts/LEBANON-DEBT/0H001QXWPBFZ/eikon.png
BEGGING” IN THE BANK
    With $2.5 billion in Eurobonds due in 2020, Salameh has proposed that local holders of the country’s debt accept a swap for longer dated notes, a move that could ease pressure on dwindling foreign currency reserves.
    Caretaker finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil asked in a letter to Salameh, however, to hold off on any swap after credit ratings agencies warned it could constitute a selective default, according to a source familiar with the letter.
    The long-brewing economic crisis snowballed last year as hard currency inflows slowed down, leading to a shortage of dollars needed to finance the state’s deficit and import needs.
    The violence in Beirut’s Hamra area was some of the worst since anti-government protests began in October.    Security forces fired tear gas outside the central bank to disperse protesters who pelted them with stones and fireworks.
    One man hurled a car battery at the glass facade of a bank as another hit it with a metal pole, Reuters TV footage showed.    On Wednesday morning, glass was being swept up at one vandalized bank as workers tried to fix a broken ATM at another.
    A woman on Hamra street who gave her name as Hind said she supported protests against banks.    “I have been coming here for the last three days and only could take $300 … we are begging, working 55 years to come and beg at the end,” she told Reuters.
    “I was expecting what happened yesterday. Unfortunately the chaos is because of the politicians,” said Hamra shopkeeper Mohammad al-Rayyes.
    The banking association condemned the attacks as the work of a “mercenary mob” and not the “real revolutionaries of Lebanon” seeking reform.
    The powerful Iranian-backed group Hezbollah and its political allies last month nominated Hassan Diab, a little-known former minister, to form a new government after the failure of efforts to forge a deal with Hariri, a traditional ally of the West and Gulf Arab states.
(Additional reporting by Issam Abdallah, Ellen Francis and Eric Knecht; Graphic by Karin Strohecker; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Giles Elgood, Mike Collett-White and Timothy Heritage)

1/16/2020 U.S. Army considering sending missile defense systems to Middle East amid threats by Iran by OAN Newsroom
FILE – In this Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020, file photo, this photo provided by the U.S. Army, paratroopers assigned
to 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division walk as they prepare equipment and load aircraft bound for
the U.S. Central Command area of operations from Fort Bragg, N.C. (Spc. Hubert Delany III/U.S. Army via AP, File)
    The U.S. Army is weighing whether it should send more missile defense systems to the Middle East. On Wednesday, Army Secretary Ryan     McCarthy said there are a number of proposals to send “additional capabilities” to the region amid mounting threats from Iran.
    Earlier this month, Iran conducted missile strikes on two bases in Iraq where U.S. troops were stationed.    McCarthy did not give specifics on which systems would be deployed, but he did mention “missile defense batteries” are being considered.
    Meanwhile, Iran has claimed it’s enriching more uranium now than it did before signing the 2015 nuclear deal.    On Thursday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Tehran has continued to make progress despite international pressure.
    This comes after multiple European powers sent a letter to the United Nations stating they may place sanctions on the regime, which had previously been lifted.
In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani speeches
before the heads of banks, in Tehran, Iran, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020. (Office of the Iranian Presidency via AP)
    “Today, as I stand here in front of you, we have no limits about the nuclear energy, absolutely none,” Rouhani stated.    “Today our daily enrichment is more than before we signed the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal.”
    In the past year, Iran has been gradually backtracking on the agreement in retaliation to the Trump administration’s hardline stance against Tehran.

1/16/2020 U.N. says around 350,0000 Syrians have fled Russian-led assault in Idlib by Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Stephanie Nebehay
    AMMAN/GENEVA (Reuters) – Around 350,000 Syrians, mostly women and children, have fled a renewed Russian-backed offensive in the opposition-held Idlib province since early December, and have sought shelter in border areas near Turkey, the United Nations said on Thursday.
    The humanitarian situation continued to deteriorate as a result of the “escalating” hostilities, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in its latest situation report.
    Russian jets and Syrian artillery have pounded towns and villages in recent weeks in a renewed assault backed by pro-Iranian militias and aimed at clearing the opposition.
    “This latest wave of displacement compounds an already dire humanitarian situation on the ground in Idlib,” David Swanson, Amman-based U.N. regional spokesman for Syria, told Reuters.
    Russian and Syrian jets resumed bombing of civilian areas in the opposition enclave two days after a ceasefire agreed between Turkey and Russia formally took effect on Sunday.
    Karen AbuZayd, a U.N. war crimes investigator on Syria, told reporters in Geneva that many of the destroyed or closed schools in opposition-held areas were now being used as shelters for people fleeing the violence.
    The latest wave of displaced people comes on top of close to 400,000 people who fled earlier fighting for the safety of camps near the Turkish border, U.N. officials say.
    Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria, told reporters on Thursday that many uprooted families now in makeshift camps were running short of food and water.
    The latest offensive has brought the Russian-steered military campaign closer to heavily populated parts of Idlib province, where nearly 3 million people are trapped, according to the United Nations.
    Rescuers and residents said that on Thursday Russian and Syrian jets pounded the devastated city of Maarat al-Numan.    It is one of the main urban centers in the province and lies on a main highway held by rebels.
    The army and Iranian-backed militias are advancing towards the city.    Its capture would be a strategic gain in the current campaign whose goal is also to regain control of major trade arteries important to Syria’s war-torn economy.
    On Wednesday at least 21 civilians were killed in heavy aerial strikes, among them 19 people who died when bombs were dropped on a busy market place in the center of Idlib city, the provincial capital.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Toby Chopra and Frances Kerry)

1/16/2020 Libya’s Haftar committed to ceasefire, Germany says by Madeline Chambers and Ece Toksabay
    BERLIN (Reuters) – A Libyan military commander waging an offensive to capture the capital Tripoli is committed to a ceasefire, Germany said on Thursday, in an apparent advance for efforts to end a near-decade of turmoil in the North African country.
    German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas’s office also said commander Khalifa Haftar is also willing to attend a conference in Berlin on Sunday aimed at addressing the conflict, after Maas visited the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
    Haftar’s office was not available for comment.    But informed sources in the Greek capital Athens said Haftar was expected to have talks there on Friday with Greece’s prime minister and foreign minister during a stopover on his way to Berlin.
    Maas’s comment follows failed efforts by Russia and Turkey to persuade Haftar on a visit to Moscow this week to agree to a lasting ceasefire and halt the offensive on the Libyan capital. Haftar left Moscow without signing the proposal.
    The nine-month-old war over Tripoli is just the latest bout of chaos in Libya, an OPEC oil exporter that has become a hub for human traffickers to ship migrants by boats to Italy, while Islamist militants have exploited the widespread disorder.
    Germany on Sunday hosts a summit bringing together foreign powers and the Libyan rival camps backed by them to try end the war over Tripoli and resume talks on a power-sharing deal.
    Maas flew to Haftar’s base in eastern Libya on Thursday to discuss the Berlin summit.
    “General Haftar has signalled his readiness to contribute to the success of the Libya Conference in Berlin and is willing to participate.     He has repeated his commitment to observe the existing ceasefire,” a German Foreign Ministry tweet quoted Maas as saying after meetings in Benghazi.
    German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed the development and said one aim of the Berlin conference would to be to get back to a weapons embargo.
    “At the Libya conference we must above all see that the weapons embargo is adhered to again, which is basically agreed by the U.N. but unfortunately not honoured,” she told reporters.
OUTSIDE POWERS
    Libya has been fractured and deeply unstable, with outside powers providing support to rival armed factions, since veteran dictator Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in a 2011 uprising.
    Turkey backs Serraj’s internationally recognised GNA government, while Haftar – whose forces control much of Libya’s east and south – has received support from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Russian mercenaries.
    Turkey is beginning to send troops into Libya in support of Serraj’s government, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday.
    “In order for the legitimate government in Libya to remain standing and for stability to be established, we are now sending our soldiers to this country,” Erdogan told an event in Ankara.
    He warned on Tuesday Turkey would not refrain from “teaching a lesson” to Haftar’s forces if their attacks on the GNA continue.    The Moscow talks were the latest attempt to stabilise Libya, which has the largest proven reserves of oil in Africa.
    Turkey and Libya signed two deals in November, one on military cooperation and another on maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean.    Erdogan said Turkey will quickly start granting licences for exploration and drilling in the region.
    “In the areas that remain between Turkey and Libya, it is now legally impossible for there to be exploration and drilling activities or a pipeline without the approval of both sides,” he said.
    Haftar was expected to arrive in Athens on Thursday evening and meet Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias on Friday morning, three sources close to the matter told Reuters.
    Greece is furious at the pact between Turkey and Serraj’s government as it seeks to map out a maritime boundary that skims the Greek island of Crete and which Greece and allies say is contrary to international law.    Maritime boundaries could give nations the right to explore for hydrocarbons in an as-yet untapped part of the Mediterranean.
    Greece says it will exercise a European Union veto on any peace pact in Libya that does not void the Turkish-Libyan deal.
(Additional reporting by Michele Kambas and Renee Maltezou in Athens; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by William Maclean and Mark Heinrich)

1/16/2020 Crisis-hit Lebanon on brink of forming new government by Laila Bassam and Tom Perry
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon is on the brink of forming a new government, caretaker finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil said on Thursday, as pressure mounts to put forward an economic rescue plan to pull the country out of a deep financial crisis.
    Lebanon has been without a government since Saad al-Hariri resigned as prime minister on Oct. 29 in the face of sweeping protests against the country’s elite, complicating efforts to mount an economic recovery.
    “Today I think that we have progressed to a very big extent and we can say that we are on the doorstep of forming a new government,” said Khalil.
    Senior political sources said economist Ghazi Wazni was set to be named finance minister in the new cabinet. Wazni has served as an adviser to parliament’s finance and budget committee.
    He will take on the role amid a crisis that has shattered confidence in the country’s banks and growing concerns over its ability to repay one of the world’s highest debt burdens, with $2.5 billion in Eurobonds due in 2020.
    Khalil said decisions about the Eurobond maturities should come as part of a “comprehensive plan” put forward by the new government.
    Lebanon’s debt problems jumped back into focus this week after reports emerged of a bid by the central bank governor to try and delay some of this year’s bond repayments, a move that could constitute a selective default.
    Last month Hassan Diab, a little-known former minister, was designated as premier to form a new government after the failure of efforts to forge a deal for the return of Hariri, an ally of the West and Gulf Arab states.
    Speaking to reporters after a meeting between Diab and parliament speaker Nabih Berri, Khalil said the new cabinet would be comprised of 18 specialist ministers.
    Protesters who blame the country’s elite for endemic corruption that has plunged the economy into crisis have demanded that any new government be made up of technocrats.
    Lebanon is hoping its new government can enact swift reforms and convince donor countries to release previously pledged financial support.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis, Laila Bassam and Tom Perry; Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Kevin Liffey, William Maclean)

1/16/2020 Beirut shaken by ‘barbaric’ protests crackdown by Ellen Francis
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – An upsurge of violence in Lebanon’s protests against the ruling elite, with police meting out beatings and protesters hurling stones, has alarmed rights groups and whipped up public fury.
    After a brief lull in largely peaceful protests since October, people filled the streets again this week, angry at a political class that has steered Lebanon into its worst economic crisis since a 1975-1990 civil war.
    On Tuesday and Wednesday, police wielding batons and firing tear gas wounded and arrested dozens as protesters lit fires and smashed bank facades and ATMs, Reuters journalists saw.
    “These past two nights, they (police) were really barbaric,” said Cynthia Sleiman, a charity worker and protester who ended up in hospital after Wednesday night’s violence in Beirut.
    “I had just arrived and was looking for my friends when the policeman grabbed me, hitting me on the head and neck.    I fell to the ground and blood was streaming out,” she said.
    Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) said they were pursuing rioters and 100 policemen were injured this week.    “The force member is suffering daily in the street,” ISF chief Imad Othman said on Thursday.    “He is not a robot, he is a human.”
    A security source said at least 80 protesters were injured in two days and 72 others arrested.    Many of those in detention would be released on Thursday, the source said.
    Since the protests led Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri to resign in October, politicians have failed to agree a new cabinet or rescue plan for the heavily-indebted economy.    The Lebanese pound has lost nearly half its value, dollar shortages have driven up prices and confidence in banks has collapsed.
    Azza al-Masri, a media researcher also injured on Wednesday, said she saw a woman faint after police beat her up.    “The viciousness was unlike anything I’ve seen,” she said.
    Activists believe police violence may indicate Lebanon’s establishment has lost patience with protesters and is also stung by public wrath against banks, which have curbed access to savings and blocked most transfers abroad.
    Human Rights Watch’s Beirut director Lama Fakih told Reuters the group was concerned at excessive force by security forces amid rising frustrations on both sides.    She said there was no “strong message” from government that police would be held responsible.
    A Lebanese media group said 15 journalists were attacked on Wednesday.    One of them was a Reuters video journalist, who was treated in hospital for head injuries and released.
    On Thursday, lawyers, journalists and activists gathered at the interior ministry and the justice palace in Beirut to complain about police violence.    Interior Minister Raya al-Hassan told reporters she had not ordered a clampdown and denounced attacks on media, while also urging understanding for police.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis; Additional reporting by Tom Perry and Alaa Kanaan; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

1/16/2020 Libya’s Haftar committed to ceasefire, Germany says by Madeline Chambers and Ece Toksabay
    BERLIN (Reuters) – A Libyan military commander waging an offensive to capture the capital Tripoli is committed to a ceasefire, Germany’s foreign minister said on Thursday, in an apparent advance for efforts to end a near-decade of turmoil in the north African country.
    The minister, Heiko Maas, added that commander Khalifa Haftar is also willing to attend a conference in Berlin on Sunday aimed at addressing the conflict, the foreign ministry said, after Mass visited the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
    Haftar’s office was not immediately available for comment.
    Maas’s comment follows failed efforts by Russia and Turkey to persuade Haftar on a visit to Moscow this week to agree to a lasting ceasefire and halt the offensive on the Libyan capital.    Haftar left Moscow without signing the proposal.
    The nine-month-old war over Tripoli is just the latest bout of chaos in Libya, an OPEC oil exporter that has become a hub for human traffickers to ship migrants by boats to Italy, while Islamist militants have exploited the widespread disorder.
    Germany on Sunday hosts a summit bringing together foreign powers and the Libyan rival camps backed by them to try end the war over Tripoli and resume talks over a power-sharing deal.
    Maas flew to Haftar’s base in eastern Libya on Thursday to discuss the Berlin summit.
    “General Haftar has signaled his readiness to contribute to the success of the Libya Conference in Berlin and is willing to participate.    He has repeated his commitment to observe the existing ceasefire,” the ministry tweeted Maas as saying after meetings in Benghazi.
OUTSIDE POWERS
    The country has been fractured and deeply unstable, with outside powers providing support to rival factions, since veteran dictator Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in a 2011 uprising.
    Turkey backs Serraj’s government, while Haftar has received support from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Russian mercenaries.
    Turkey is beginning to send troops into Libya in support of the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, President Tayyip Erdogan said earlier on Thursday.
    “In order for the legitimate government in Libya to remain standing and for stability to be established, we are now sending our soldiers to this country,” Erdogan told an event in Ankara.
    Erdogan warned on Tuesday that Turkey would not refrain from “teaching a lesson” to Haftar’s eastern Libyan forces if their attacks against the GNA continue.    The talks in Moscow were the latest attempt to stabilize Libya, which has the largest proven reserves of oil in Africa.
    Turkey and Libya signed two agreements in November, one on military cooperation and another on maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean.    Erdogan said Turkey will quickly start granting licenses for exploration and drilling in the region.
    “In the areas that remain between Turkey and Libya, it is now legally impossible for there to be exploration and drilling activities or a pipeline without the approval of both sides,” he said.
(Writing by Ulf Laessing, Editing by William Maclean)

1/16/2020 Turkish President Erdogan defends decision to send troops to Libya by OAN Newsroom
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his ruling party’s legislators,
in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)
    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is defending his decision to send troops to Libya.    On Thursday, Erdogan dismissed international criticism of his actions and said he wants to ensure the stability and survival of what he called “Libya’s legitimate government.”
    He added Turkish ships will continue patrolling Libya’s territorial waters.
    Libyan rebels, who control 85 percent of that country, are pushing to liberate Tripoli and reunite the country.
    Erdogan brushed off concerns his actions could cause an escalation in the Libyan crisis.
    “We signed an agreement with Libya to delineate maritime borders.    It is no longer legally possible to conduct exploration and drilling activities, or to run pipelines in the region between the Turkish and Libyan coasts, without the approval of both countries.    In 2020, we are licensing these areas and starting the search and drilling.” – Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey
    Libyan rebels are accusing Erdogan of advancing ‘political Islam’ in their country to assert its influence in North Africa.

1/18/2020 Erdogan calls on Europe to support Turkey’s moves in Libya: Politico
FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses lawmakers from his ruling AK Party during a meeting at
the parliament in Ankara, Turkey, January 14, 2020. Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS
    ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has called on Europe to support its work in Libya, where it is providing military support to the internationally-recognized government, if it wants to end the conflict there.
    Erdogan made his remarks in a column published on the Politico website on Saturday, ahead of a summit in Berlin on Sunday that will try to stabilize the country.
    At the meeting, Germany and the United Nations will push rival Libyan camps fighting over the capital, Tripoli, to agree to a truce and monitoring mechanism as first steps toward peace, diplomats and a draft communique said.
    Turkey supports the government of Fayez al-Serraj in Tripoli and describes Khalifa Haftar, who heads the eastern Libyan National Army (LNA), as a coup plotter.
    “Keeping in mind that Europe is less interested in providing military support to Libya, the obvious choice is to work with Turkey, which has already promised military assistance,” Erdogan wrote.
    “We will train Libya’s security forces and help them combat terrorism, human trafficking and other serious threats against international security,” he added.
    Sunday’s summit will put pressure on Haftar and the LNA to halt a nine-month offensive against Tripoli after a week-long lull in fighting.    But it will not try to broker power-sharing between the two sides, said diplomats briefed on preparations.
    Haftar and Serraj are both due in Berlin – along with Erdogan and the leaders of Russia, Egypt and other Western and Arab powers.    Libya has been in turmoil since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
    Erdogan said that if Libya’s legitimate government were to fall Islamist militant groups such as Islamic State and Al Qaeda “will find a fertile ground to get back on their feet
    Haftar is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Sudanese and Chadian fighters, and most recently Russian mercenaries.    France has also given some support.
    On the other side, Turkey has supported Serraj by sending troops to balance out recent gains by Russian snipers.    Hundreds of pro-Turkey fighters from Syria’s war have also been deployed, diplomats say.
(Reporting by Daren Butler; Editing by Frances Kerry)

1/18/2020 U.N. envoy hopes for, but cannot predict, speedy reopening of Libya oil ports by Ulf Laessing and Nadeen Ebrahim
FILE PHOTO: The U.N. Envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salame, speaks during a news conference
in Tripoli, Libya April 6, 2019. REUTERS/Hani Amara/File Photo
    BERLIN (Reuters) – The United Nations envoy to Libya said on Saturday he hoped but “could not predict” whether eastern oil ports shut ahead of a pending Berlin summit aimed at reaching a truce in Libya would be reopened soon.
    Ghassan Salame said the Berlin summit scheduled for Sunday would likely discuss the closures to avoid them dragging on for weeks or months like previous seizures of facilities.
    “If the thing is not solved between today and tomorrow I expect the issue to be raised, yes,” Salame told Reuters in Berlin, where Germany and the UN are expected to push for an extended truce.
    Oil export terminals across eastern and central Libya were shut on Friday by tribesmen allied to commander Khalifa Haftar, whose Libya National Army (LNA) based in the east has been locked in a nine-month war with government forces over control of the capital, Tripoli.
    Diplomats see the closures as a power play by the LNA aimed at choking off oil revenue to the internationally recognized Tripoli government.
    The National Oil Corp (NOC) on Saturday declared force majeure on oil exports from the eastern ports of Brega, Ras Lanuf, Hariga, Zueitina and Es Sider, saying the closures would result in the loss of 800,000 barrels (bpd) day in oil output.
    Production in Libya, which was plunged into chaos with the toppling of longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, was estimated at 1.3 million bpd last week.
    Salame said he hoped Haftar would be willing to consider extending a truce which has largely held for a week despite the two sides failing to sign a deal at talks in Moscow mediated by Russia and Turkey on Monday.
    Haftar is expected to attend the summit opposite Tripoli-based Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj.
    The war over Tripoli is backed by foreign powers with the LNA supported by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and most recently Russian mercenaries, and Turkey sending troops and fighters from Syria’s civil war to help al-Serraj.
    “I can confirm the arrival of fighters from Syria,” Salame said, putting estimates at 1,000 to 2,000.
    There have been a series of failed conferences and negotiations to stabilize Libya.
    Salame said he had started the process of a new intra-Libyan dialogue between the rival parliaments in Tripoli and the east, an approach that has failed since 2017.
    “What is different now is that we have war…in 2017 there was no pressure, but now you have thousands of people who have been killed,” he said.
(Reporting by Ulf Laessing and Nadeen Ebrahim in Berlin; writing by Nadine Awadalla and Ulf Laessing; editing by Angus MacSwan and Jason Neely)

1/18/2020 Dozens injured as security forces clash with protesters in Beirut
Demonstrators are hit by water canon during a protest against a ruling elite accused of steering
Lebanon towards economic crisis in Beirut, Lebanon January 18, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Dozens of people were wounded in Beirut on Saturday as security forces used tear gas and water cannons in clashes with protesters armed with tree branches and sign posts near Lebanon’s parliament.
    After a lull in largely peaceful protests which erupted in October, crowds spilled onto the streets again this week.    They have been angered by a ruling elite that has steered the country towards its worst economic crisis in decades.
    Police beatings and arrests in recent days have alarmed human rights groups and sparked fears among activists of a move to crush the dissent.
    Witnesses said riot police fired rubber bullets and used water cannons in the commercial district on Saturday night.    Smoke billowed out of tear gas canisters encircling protesters as ambulances sped through the streets of the capital.
    President Michel Aoun ordered the country’s army and security commanders to restore calm.    Saad al-Hariri, who resigned as premier in October, said the clashes threatened civil peace.    “It is an insane, suspicious and rejected scene,” he tweeted.
    The Internal Security Forces (ISF) said they were being “violently and directly” confronted and advised the public to leave the area.    “Those who are rioting will be pursued, arrested and referred to the judiciary,” it said on Twitter.
    The Lebanese Red Cross said more than 60 people had been treated for injuries, with at least 40 others taken to hospital.
    Young men chanting “revolution” hurled stones, steel barriers and flower pots at riot police, as protesters tried to enter the heavily barricaded part of central Beirut which includes the parliament.
    Firefighters tackled a blaze which engulfed a protest camp in the centre of the city, where burning tents sent plumes of smoke into the air.
    It was not immediately clear what caused the fire.    The ISF denied local media reports that some of its forces had set the camp ablaze, where activists held debates and sit-ins in recent months.
    Hundreds of people also marched and chanted against in the political class in other parts of the capital.    A large banner at one of the rallies read: “If the people go hungry, they will eat their rulers.”
    Anger at the banks – which have curbed people’s access to their savings – has also boiled over, with protesters smashing bank facades and ATMs on Tuesday night.
    The unrest, which stemmed from anger at corruption and the rising cost of living, forced Hariri to resign in October.    Feuding politicians have since failed to agree a new cabinet or rescue plan.
    The Lebanese pound has lost nearly half its value, while dollar shortages have driven up prices and confidence in the banking system has collapsed.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis; Editing by Mike Harrison)

1/18/2020 Yemen’s rival powers battle over banknotes
An employee takes bundles of Yemeni Riyal at the Central Bank of Yemen in Sanaa January 7, 2020. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
    SANAA/ADEN (Reuters) – Yemen’s warring sides opened a new front in their five-year conflict on Saturday – a battle over old and new banknotes that threatens to create two economies in the same state.
    As of midnight, the Houthi movement which controls the capital Sanaa outlawed the use and possession of crisp new Yemeni riyal bills issued by its rivals in the internationally recognized government based in the southern port town of Aden.
    The Iran-allied Houthis, who say people should only use the old bills, have defended the ban as a move against inflation and what they call rampant money-printing by the government.
    The government has branded the ban an act of economic vandalism.    And the population, as ever, have been left stuck in the crossfire.
    Yemenis from both sides told Reuters the ban had effectively created two currencies with diverging values, adding to the turmoil in a state already governed by two powers and brought to its knees by the war.
    In the one-month build up to the ban, people in Houthi-controlled areas have been queuing to try to exchange their new riyal notes for old, turning the grubby and torn bills into a prized and relatively scarce commodity.
    The riyal stood at about 560 to the dollar across Yemen before the ban was announced in mid-December.    The rate has since slipped a little in Houthi-controlled areas to around 582, but slumped much further to 642 in the south, an area now awash with new bills.
    That relative strength might look like a boon for northerners, if only they could get hold of enough of the old notes in time to keep afloat in the largely cash-based economy.
    “We go for the exchange and they won’t take [the new notes] from us.    Or say they need three, four or five days,” craftsman Abdullah Saleh al-Dahmasi told Reuters on a Sanaa street a week before the ban came into force.
    “The new one isn’t accepted and the old one is worn out, they have to find a solution,” the 27-year-old said.
    A few days before the ban came in, around 20 angry men and women were turned away from one exchange which said it had filled its quota for the day.    Many had been coming there for three days in the hope of swapping their cash.
    North-south trade has become far more expensive as traders have to buy and sell two types of riyal – told apart by the state of the paper and the different sizes and designs.
TWO CENTRAL BANKS
    Many people in Sanaa told Reuters they felt the ban was needed to constrain inflation.    But they were facing difficulties in the short-term.
    “When people saw that new currency come into circulation, they held onto it as it was new and shiny.    But now it’s a problem that they have it,” said 28-year-old Abdallah Bashiri, a private sector worker in Sanaa.
    In that city, legal exchanges will swap 100,000 Yemeni riyals (around $172) in new notes for electronic currency that can be spent on things like phone credit or electricity bills, for a small fee of around $1.50.
    But things get more challenging when it comes to actual paper that can be spent in food markets.    Sanaa residents said unofficial exchanges are offering to change 100,000 riyals of new notes into 90-96,000 riyals of the scarcer old.
    After the Houthis stormed the capital Sanaa in 2014 and ousted the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s central bank split into two branches – one in Sanaa, under Houthi control, and one internationally recognized branch in Aden, which has access to money printers.
    The Aden authorities have defended their decision to step up the printing of new money from 2017, saying it was an attempt to deal with a building cash crunch and pay public sector salaries.
    “The Houthis … did not consider the economic cost to society,” Yousef Saeed Ahmad, adviser to the governor of Aden’s central bank, told Reuters there this week.
    “We hope the measures taken are short-term.    They cannot be kept up because the economy is one, it is interrelated and commodities flow from Sanaa to Aden and vice versa.    This measure will aggregate the living conditions of all Yemenis,” he said.
    The crackdown on new banknotes means many public sector workers in Houthi areas have stopped receiving salaries from the Aden government.    The resumption of these salary payments across conflict lines had been a key bipartisan step to alleviate Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.
    The Houthis have defended their ban as a way of defending the value of the currency.
    “The Sanaa central bank had to take measures to stem the dangerous practices the Aden central bank was carrying out through their monetary policy,” said Sami al-Siyaghi, in charge of foreign banking operations at the Sanaa central bank.
    “The imposition of [Aden’s] monetary stance on us led to the collapse of the national currency against foreign currency … With each new issuance you notice a commensurate collapse in the riyal against foreign currency,” Siyashi told Reuters.
(Reporting by Reuters team in Yemen and Lisa Barrington in Dubai; additional reporting by Maha El Dahan in Dubai; Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

1/19/2020 Gulf carriers fly over Iraq, Iran after military action deters others by Alexander Cornwell
FILE PHOTO: An Emirates Airbus A380-800 airliner prepares to land at Nice international airport, France, January 18, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
    KUWAIT (Reuters) – Qatar Airways, Emirates and several other Gulf airlines still fly in Iraqi and Iranian airspace and to cities in both countries, even as other international carriers have rerouted planes since the United States and Iran traded military strikes.
    Executives and analysts said carriers in the Gulf, a major transit stop between European and Asian destinations, have few alternative routes to choose from in an area where much of the airspace is kept clear of civilian aircraft for military use.
    In the latest flare up, a U.S. drone strike killed a top general in Iraq on Jan. 3 and Iran fired missiles at U.S. targets in Iraq on Jan. 8.    In the tense aftermath, Iran’s air defense accidentally shot down a Ukrainian airliner.
    Gulf carriers have grown into major airlines even as regional tensions in recent decades erupted into conflict.    Rerouting flights hurts profits, they say, although they also insist that they take every precaution to keep passengers safe.
    “Iranian airspace is important for all carriers in this region,” said Adil al-Ghaith, Emirates’ senior vice president, commercial operations, Gulf, Middle East and Iran.
    Dubai-based Emirates and sister carrier flydubai together serve 10 cities in Iran and Iraq, and have continued to use the airspace of both countries for other flights.
    Kuwait Airways and Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways have continued using Iranian and Iraqi airspace.
    “We will continue to fly to Iran because Iran is an important country to us and it is our neighbor and we want to serve the people of Iran,” Qatar Airways Chief Executive Akbar al-Baker said on the sidelines of a Kuwait aviation conference.
REROUTING
    Qatar has forged closer economic ties with Iran since 2017 when neighboring Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Arab states cut relations with Doha in a diplomatic row.
    The Qatari state carrier turned to Iranian airspace to keep its network that flies through its Doha hub operating.
    At the same time, many other international carriers have rerouted flights to avoid Iraq and Iran since the military strikes this month, including Lufthansa , Air France , Singapore Airlines and Qantas .
    Some regional carriers have also rerouted changed their routes.    Bahrain’s Gulf Air has redirected European flights away from Iraqi airspace and now flies longer, more fuel consuming routes over Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
    “We want to take the safest option even if it costs us a little bit more for a period of time.    We can live with that,” Gulf Air Deputy Chief Executive Waleed Abdulhameed al-Alawi told Reuters.
    The UAE regulator told its carriers — Emirates, Etihad, flydubai and Air Arabia — this month to “evaluate flight path risks” although it said it was up to the airlines to make the final decision on the routes they chose.
    “Gulf carriers face a big challenge but that doesn’t mean that risks can be taken – even if that inflicts damage on the business model,” independent aviation consultant John Strickland said.
    Ukrainian International Airlines flight 752, bound for Kiev, was shot down in error after taking off from Tehran on Jan. 8, killing all 176 people aboard.    Iran said on Saturday it was sending the black boxes to Ukraine.
(Reporting by Alexander Cornwell; Editing by Edmund Blair)

1/19/2020 Qatar condemns storming of Libya’s eastern Zueitina port
FILE PHOTO: A general view of the Zueitina oil terminal in Zueitina, west of Benghazi April 7, 2014. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori
    DUBAI (Reuters) – Qatar condemned the storming of Libya’s eastern Zueitina oil export port by forces from areas controlled by the Libyan National Army (LNA), Qatar’s state news agency said on Sunday.
    Tribesmen in areas controlled by Haftar’s LNA faction on Friday stormed the eastern Zueitina port and announced the closure of all terminals under LNA control.
(Reporting by Asma Alsharif; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)

1/19/2020 Several wounded as violent protests erupt in Iraq by OAN Newsroom
Anti-government protesters set fires and close streets during ongoing protests
in downtown Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
    Violence erupted in Iraq as citizens voiced their outrage over what they claimed is a slow pace for reforms.    Sunday reports said protesters blocked roads in Baghdad and the city of Najaf.
    Demonstrations occupied three key bridges of entry in the capital, where a dozen people were reportedly wounded in a standoff with security forces.
    Protesters used burning tires to block the roads in Baghdad and threatened further escalation if their demands are not met.
An anti-government protester jumps over burning tires blocking a highway in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
    “The burning tires is an expression of our protest and anger.    We have endured the cold and hunger, we left our work and families.    The government does not care, does not consider that the people are protesting and that they are demanding their rights.    Our demands are legitimate and they must give them to us.” – Unnamed protester
    Protests have now spread from the capital to the city of Najaf, where demonstrators have been repeatedly torching the Iranian consulate.
Anti-government protesters set fires and close streets during ongoing protests
in downtown Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

1/19/2020 Foreign powers back Libya ceasefire as commander’s forces choke oil flows by Ulf Laessing and Michael Nienaber
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin pose for a picture as he arrives
to attend the Libya summit in Berlin, Germany, January 19, 2020. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt
    BERLIN (Reuters) – Foreign powers agreed at a summit in Berlin on Sunday to shore up a shaky ceasefire in Libya, but the meeting was overshadowed by blockades of oilfields by forces loyal to commander Khalifa Haftar that could cripple the country’s crude production.
    Haftar, whose self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) is bearing down on the capital, Tripoli, with the backing of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russian mercenaries and African troops, attended the one-day summit in the German capital despite having abandoned talks over a truce last week.
    Turkey has rushed troops to Tripoli, as well as Turkish-backed fighters from Syria, to help Libya’s internationally recognized government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj resist eastern commander Haftar’s assault.
    Libya has had no stable central authority since dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown by NATO-backed rebels in 2011.    For more than five years, it has had two rival governments, in the east and the west, with streets controlled by armed groups.     A special committee made up of five military officials from each side will monitor the truce, she said.    Foreign powers active in Libya have committed themselves to uphold an existing U.N. arms embargo and stop shipping weapons there, she added.
    Serraj and Haftar did not meet in Berlin, Merkel said, highlighting the gulf between the two.
    “We know that we have not solved all of Libya’s problems today but we were aiming for fresh momentum,” she said.
    Haftar, the east’s most powerful figure, has won backing from a range of foreign allies for an assault to capture Tripoli in the west, while Turkish support for Tripoli’s effort to repel him has turned the conflict into a proxy war.    More than 150,000 people have been displaced by fighting for the capital.
OIL OUTPUT TO TUMBLE ‘IN DAYS’
    Haftar quit a Turkish-Russian summit a week ago and escalated the conflict on Friday when eastern oil ports were shut down. Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) said the shutdown was directly ordered by Haftar’s forces.
    On Sunday, NOC said the major southwestern fields of El Sharara and El Feel were closing after forces loyal to Haftar shut a pipeline.
    The closures will cut Libya’s oil output to 72,000 barrels a day (bpd) from 1.2 million bpd in just a few days’ time unless the blockages are lifted, the NOC said.
    Any lasting closure could hit Tripoli hard since the government relies on oil revenues to fund its budget.
    U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he was very worried about the closure. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Serraj and Haftar had “in general” agreed to solve the output blockage, without giving a time frame.
    U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters that progress had been made towards reaching a full-fledged ceasefire in Libya’s war, adding that he hoped Libyan oil facilities would reopen as a result of the talks.
    The east under Haftar has tried to export oil, bypassing the NOC, to gain a greater share of oil revenues.
UNWILLING TO LAY DOWN ARMS
    A call for a ceasefire from Russia and Turkey helped reduce fighting a week ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin said ahead of a meeting with Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the conference.
    “We don’t lose hope that dialogue will continue and the conflict will be solved,” Putin said.
    Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio called the summit a “point of departure” for achieving a ceasefire and blocking a flow of arms into Libya that has accelerated with Haftar’s offensive.
    Italy, the former colonial power, has a particular interest in Libyan security as the main destination of hundreds of thousands of African migrants sent across the Mediterranean by smugglers until a sharp downturn in flows in 2017.
    But since the NATO bombing campaign that helped overthrow Gaddafi, Western countries have stepped back from playing a decisive role in Libya, allowing Russia, Turkey and Arab states to take the lead as outside powers with the most clout.
    Pompeo and European and Arab leaders attended the summit, and Haftar’s forces published pictures of him meeting Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.    United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash tweeted on Sunday night that the UAE supported efforts by the Berlin conference to seek a political solution to the crisis in Libya.
    Both Serraj and Haftar met Merkel on different occasions.    Serraj could be also seen hugging Erdogan, while Macron and Haftar were both seen smiling in pictures when they met in a corridor.
(Reporting by Ulf Laessing, Michael Nienaber, Humeyra Pamuk, Vladimir Soldatkin, Aidan Lewis, Daren Butler, Andreas Rinke and Sabine Siebold; Writing by Ulf Laessing and Aidan Lewis; Editing by Peter Graff, Pravin Char and Peter Cooney)

1/19/2020 Lebanese security forces, protesters clash for second night
FILE PHOTO: A riot police kicks a tear gas canister during a protest against a ruling elite accused of
steering Lebanon towards economic crisis in Beirut, Lebanon January 18, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese security forces fired water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas on Sunday to try to break up stone-throwing protesters in Beirut, which has been rocked by some of the worst violence since unrest erupted in October.
    Sunday’s confrontation broke out near parliament a day after more than 370 people were wounded, the biggest casualty toll since the protests against the ruling elite began.
    Unrest in the capital this week has deepened the multi-faceted crisis sweeping Lebanon as it grapples with financial strains that have sunk the currency, pushed up prices and driven banks to impose capital controls.
    Politicians have failed to agree on a government or an economic rescue plan since the protests pushed Saad al-Hariri to quit as prime minister in October.
    “We have gone from being a country we used to call the Switzerland of the east to a country ranked at the bottom in everything,” said housewife Rezzan Barraj, 47, at Sunday night’s protest.
    “It’s clear that the more they (security forces) step up their violence, the more people’s strength and determination grow.”
    A Reuters witness saw police fire rubber bullets.    The Lebanese Red Cross said it treated 52 people and took 38 to hospital.
    Hundreds of people yelled “revolution” in the commercial district of the capital.    Protesters pelted riot police with stones and fireworks.
    Some tried to climb over barbed wire and fencing to storm a heavily barricaded part of central Beirut that includes parliament.    One man jabbed police with a pole across the barriers as the violence escalated.
    Zeina Ibrahim, 37, an office manager, said protesters had faced violence from police and attacks from supporters of the sectarian, dominant parties.
    “Violence only breeds violence,” she said.    “After all this time, all these months…I don’t blame protesters at all if they move bit by bit towards violence.”
    The Internal Security Forces (ISF) urged people to remain calm and said otherwise it would be forced to repel them.
    The interior and defense ministers and army and other security chiefs were set to meet at the presidential palace on Monday.
    Human Rights Watch on Saturday called for an end to a “culture of impunity for abuse” by police, which it said fired tear gas canisters at some people’s heads.
    Interior Minister Raya al-Hassan said people had the right to protest but it was unacceptable to “blatantly assault” security forces.
    Protesters have also turned their anger on the banks – which have curbed access to savings – with some smashing the facade of the banking association on Saturday night.
    Hassan Diab, who was designated prime minister with the backing of Islamist movement Hezbollah and its allies last month, met with President Aoun on Sunday.
    A senior political source told Reuters the government line-up would be finalised on Sunday, but Diab left without commenting as a cabinet deal remained elusive.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis, by Yara Abi Nader, Tom Perry, Alaa Kanaan and Yara Abi Nader; Editing by Tom Perry; Peter Graff, Ros Russell and Nick Macfie)

1/19/2020 United Nations condemns attack on Yemen camp, says it threatens peace
FILE PHOTO: Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi attends the Arab summit
in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, May 31, 2019. REUTERS/Hamad l Mohammed
    ADEN (Reuters) – The United Nations said on Sunday that a missile attack on a government military camp in central Yemen which killed dozens of people could derail a fragile political process that aims to calm the almost five-year-old war.
    The attack on Saturday evening hit a mosque in the al-Estiqbal military training camp in Marib, a city held by the internationally-recognised government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, as people gathered for prayer, two medical sources and forces loyal to Hadi said.
    The blast was from a ballistic missile launched by Houthi fighters, the army said in a statement.    It killed 79 people and wounded 81, it said.
    The state news agency, carrying a report on the foreign minister, said more than 100 had been killed.
    The attack “confirms without doubt that the Houthis have no desire for peace,” Hadi said in a statement.
    The Houthi movement has not claimed responsibility.
    The United Nations envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, condemned this incident and other stepped-up air strikes, missile and ground attacks around the country.
    “The hard–earned progress that Yemen has made on de-escalation is very fragile.    Such actions can derail this progress,” Griffiths said, urging parties to direct their energies into politics and away from the battle front.
    Yemen has been mired in almost five years of conflict since the Iran-aligned Houthi movement ousted Hadi’s government from power in the capital Sanaa in late 2014, prompting intervention in 2015 by a Saudi-led military coalition in a bid to restore his government.
    The United Nations has been trying to re-launch political negotiations to end the war and, separately, Riyadh has been holding informal talks with the Houthis since late September about de-escalation.    This has seen violence decrease on a number of fronts in recent months.
    On Sunday a delegation of European Union ambassadors to Yemen was in Sanaa to call for better humanitarian access and an immediate end to the conflict.
    Hadi, who resides in Saudi Arabia, said the military should be on high alert after the assault.
    The Yemen war has killed more than 100,000 people and pushed millions to the brink of famine.
(Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Additional reporting by Asma Alsharif and Nafisa Eltahir; Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

1/19/2020 Jordan parliament passes draft law to ban gas imports from Israel by Suleiman Al-Khalidi
FILE PHOTO: Demonstrators hold Jordanian national flags and chant slogans during a protest against a government's agreement
to import natural gas from Israel, in Amman, Jordan January 17, 2020. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed/File Photo
    AMMAN (Reuters) – Jordan’s parliament on Sunday approved a draft law to ban imports of Israeli gas to the country just days after they started under a multibillion-dollar deal struck in 2016 which is opposed by much of the population.
    The motion was passed unanimously by Jordan’s 130 lawmakers and will be referred to the cabinet to be made law, although legal hurdles may prevent it coming into force.
    The government has previously said it was a deal between companies rather than a political matter.
    The $10 billion supply deal was originally struck between Jordan’s state-owned utility and a U.S. Israeli consortium led by Texas-based Noble Energy, to provide gas to the country’s power plants for electricity generation.
    It was not referred to parliament for approval.
    A source in the Israeli energy industry, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “The gas agreement between Jordanian National Electric Power Company and American-based Noble Energy is being implemented from early January 2020, and no change is expected in that regard.”
    Although U.S. ally Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel the deal, which supplies Jordan for 15 years, has faced much popular opposition, with lawmakers arguing it makes the kingdom dependent on its neighbour for energy.
    Many Jordanians are also the descendants of Palestinians who moved to the country after the creation of Israel in 1948, and view Israel as an erstwhile enemy that expelled their ancestors from their homes.
    The Jordanian government said after the agreement was signed in 2016 that securing stable energy prices for the next decade could achieve annual savings of at least $500 million and help reduce a chronic budget deficit.
    The import of Israeli gas has become a major focus in Jordan and sparked protests and calls for both the deal and the peace treaty to be scrapped.
The gas of the enemy is an occupation.    Down with the gas deal,” placards carried by protesters said.
    Jordan’s ties with Israel have come under increasing strain since the gas deal was struck as Israel has moved to the right and since Donald Trump replaced Barack Obama as U.S. president.
    Jordan’s King Abdullah fears Israel’s rejection of a Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank could spark renewed violence and see a new generation of Palestinians relocating to Jordan.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

1/19/2020 Report: At least 79 dead, 130 wounded after missile attack in Yemen by OAN Newsroom
    Dozens were killed and wounded after a ballistic missile attack on a mosque in Yemen. Sunday reports said at least 79 people are dead and as many as 130 are wounded after Saturday’s strike, which took place in an area controlled by the Saudi-led coalition.
    The attack was blamed on Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. However, the group did not immediately claim responsibility.
FILE – In this Sept. 21, 2019 file photo, Shiite Houthi tribesmen hold their weapons as they chant slogans during a
tribal gathering showing support for the Houthi movement, in Sanaa, Yemen. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed, File)
    A UN diplomat confirmed the attack and cautioned those involved to focus on policy instead of violence.
    “I have said before that the hard-earned progress that Yemen has made on de-escalation is very fragile,” stated Envoy Martin Griffiths.    “Such actions can derail this progress.”
    Yemen’s President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi condemned the attack, calling it “disgraceful” and “cowardly.”
    The strike was described as the bloodiest attack in the region since the start of the region’s civil war.

1/20/2020 Dozens of Iraqi protesters wounded as anti-government unrest resumes
Iraqi demonstrators gesture during ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq January 20, 2020. REUTERS/Thaier al-SudanI
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Dozens of Iraqi protesters were wounded in Baghdad and other cities on Monday in clashes with security forces who were trying to clear blocked roads, security and medical sources said, as anti-government unrest resumed after a lull of several weeks.
    In Baghdad’s Tayaran Square overnight, protesters threw petrol bombs and stones at police who responded with tear gas and stun grenades, Reuters witnesses said.
    Elsewhere in southern Iraq, hundreds of protesters burned tyres and blocked main roads in several cities, including Nassiriya, Kerbala and Amara.    They say Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has not fulfilled promises including naming a new government acceptable to Iraqis.
    “They (security forces) should stop shooting and aiming, who are they and who we are?    Both sides are Iraqis.    So why are you killing your brothers?” said one woman protester in Baghdad who declined to give her name.
    Baghdad police said its forces had successfully reopened all the roads that were closed by “violent gatherings.”
    Mass protests have gripped Iraq since Oct. 1, with mostly young protesters demanding an overhaul of a political system they see as profoundly corrupt and as keeping most Iraqis in poverty.    More than 450 people have been killed.
    Numbers had dwindled but protests resumed last week as demonstrators sought to keep up momentum after attention turned to the threat of a U.S.-Iran conflict following Washington’s killing of Tehran’s top general in an air strike inside Iraq.
    The killing of Qassem Soleimani, to which Tehran responded with a ballistic missile attack on two Iraqi military bases, has highlighted the influence of some foreign powers in Iraq, especially Iran and the United States.
(Reporting by Iraq staff, writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi, Editing by Catherine Evans)

1/20/2020 EU must consider ways to support Libya truce: Borrell
FILE PHOTO: European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell addresses the European Parliament regarding
the situation in Iran and Iraq, in Strasbourg, France January 14, 2020. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler
    BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union will discuss all ways to uphold a formal ceasefire in Libya but any peace settlement will need real EU support to make it hold, the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said on Monday.
    Asked about whether the EU could consider a military peace-keeping mission, Borrell said: “A ceasefire requires someone to take care of it.    You cannot say, ‘this is a ceasefire’ and forget about it … Someone has to monitor it, to manage it.”
    Foreign powers agreed at a summit in Berlin on Sunday to shore up a shaky truce in Libya, which has been in turmoil since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, as two rival governments in the east and the west vie for power and energy resources.
    The EU, which has military missions around the world, has struggled to keep a team of experts in Tripoli to support the U.N.-backed government there due to security concerns, but Borrell has said the EU must do more to defend its interests.
    Also asked if the EU’s naval mission off the Libyan coast could be restarted, he said: “I think we have to revive it, yes.”
    The EU ceased maritime patrols under its EU operation, called Sophia, at the end of March last year after Italy, where anti-migrant sentiment is rising, said it would no longer receive those rescued at sea.
    EU governments did want the mission to continue because they felt it had been effective in dissuading people smugglers and upholding a U.N arms embargo on Libya, meaning Rome’s position remains central to putting boats back on the water.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott, Editing by William Maclean)

1/20/2020 Jordanian parliament votes down gas deal with Israel by OAN Newsroom
File – Demonstrators hold Jordanian national flags and chant slogans during a protest against a government’s agreement
to import natural gas from Israel in Amman, Jordan, January 17, 2020. (REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed/File Photo)
    Jordanian lawmakers are striking down an unpopular gas import deal made between the country’s state owned utility and Israeli gas companies.    The Jordanian parliament reportedly proposed a law Sunday, banning gas imports from Israel.    The law was passed unanimously with all 130 members in agreement.
Protests ensued after the deal was penned because the country’s residents believed their government went over their parliament’s head.     Jordan’s state-owned utility company made the $10 billion supply deal in 2016 with a U.S.-Israel consortium led by Texas-based company Nobel Energy.
    Protester Nadia al-Awadi shared her view on the government’s handling of the deal:
    “We are here protesting against the gas deal, which has been signed in 2016 without the knowledge of the parliament and we want to send a message to the prime minister that it is enough with the humiliation and shame.    How can we purchase our own (Palestinian) gas from them (Israelis) and pay with our own money?    We send this message to them and we say enough with the humiliation, enough shame, enough selling our homelands.”
    Lawmakers and protesters argue the deal makes Jordan dependent on a neighboring country.    Legal hurdles may be problematic for opponents of the gas deal, but they believe it’s a step forward in stopping the agreement.

1/20/2020 Four protesters, two policemen killed as Iraq unrest resumes
A man burns tires during ongoing anti-government protests in Najaf, Iraq January 20, 2020. REUTERS/Alaa al-Marjani
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Six Iraqis including two police officers were killed and scores were wounded in Baghdad and other cities on Monday in clashes with security forces, medical and security sources said, as anti-government unrest resumed after a lull of several weeks.
    Three protesters succumbed to their wounds at a Baghdad hospital after police fired live rounds in Tayaran Square, the sources said.    Two protesters were shot by live bullets while a third was hit by a tear gas canister, they said.
    A fourth demonstrator was shot dead by police in the Shi’ite holy city of Kerbala, the sources added.
    Protesters threw petrol bombs and stones at police who responded with tear gas and stun grenades, Reuters witnesses said.
    “They (security forces) should stop shooting and aiming, who are they and who are we?    Both sides are Iraqis.    So why are you killing your brothers?” said one woman protester in Baghdad who declined to give her name.
    Three Katyusha rockets fell inside the capital’s heavily fortified Green Zone which houses government buildings and foreign missions, police sources told Reuters.    The rockets were launched from Zafaraniyah district outside Baghdad, the sources said, adding that two rockets landed near the U.S. embassy.
    In the Iraqi oil city of Basra, two policemen were struck and killed by a civilian car during a protest, security sources said.    The driver was trying to avoid the scene of clashes between protesters and security forces when he drove into the two officers, they said.
    Elsewhere in southern Iraq, hundreds of protesters burned tires and blocked main roads in several cities, including Nassiriya, Kerbala and Amara.    They say Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has not fulfilled promises including naming a new government acceptable to Iraqis.
    Baghdad police said its forces had reopened all roads that were closed by “violent gatherings.”    It said 14 officers were wounded near Tahrir square, including some with head wounds and broken bones.
    Traffic was disrupted on a highway linking Baghdad to southern cities, a Reuters witness said.    Production in southern oilfields was unaffected by the unrest, oil officials said.
    Mass protests have gripped Iraq since Oct. 1, with mostly young protesters demanding an overhaul of a political system they see as profoundly corrupt and as keeping most Iraqis in poverty. More than 450 people have been killed.
    Numbers had dwindled but protests resumed last week as demonstrators sought to keep up momentum after attention turned to the threat of a U.S.-Iran conflict following Washington’s killing of Tehran’s top general in an air strike inside Iraq.
    The killing of Qassem Soleimani, to which Tehran responded with a ballistic missile attack on two Iraqi military bases housing U.S. troops, has highlighted the influence of some foreign powers in Iraq, especially Iran and the United States.
(Reporting by Iraq staff; Writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Janet Lawrence, William Maclean and Daniel Wallis)

1/21/2020 Lebanon ‘hours away’ from new government: caretaker minister
FILE PHOTO: Lebanese Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil attends a cabinet meeting
at the government palace in Beirut, Lebanon, May 21, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s caretaker Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil said on Tuesday the formation of a new government was “hours away” as the country suffers its worst economic crisis in decades.
    He did not specify when the new government would be formed.
    The heavily indebted country has been without effective government since Saad al-Hariri quit as premier in October due to protests against state corruption and poor governance – the root causes of Lebanon’s worst crisis since a 1975-90 civil war.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)

1/21/2020 Lebanon government to be announced on Tuesday: sources, media
FILE PHOTO: Lebanese caretaker Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil attends a
cabinet meeting in Beirut, Lebanon, May 21, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/File Photo
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s new government will be announced on Tuesday, political sources and local media said, after the powerful Shi’ite Hezbollah group and its allies clinched an agreement on a cabinet that must tackle a deep economic crisis.
    Two senior political sources told Reuters the cabinet would be made up of 20 ministers with economist Ghazi Wazni as finance minister.    In a Twitter post earlier on Tuesday, caretaker Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil of the Hezbollah-allied Amal Movement said a new government was “hours away.”
    Heavily indebted Lebanon has been without effective government since Saad al-Hariri resigned as premier in October due to protests against state corruption and waste – the root causes of the country’s worst financial and economic crisis since its 1975-90 civil war.
    The issue has become more pressing since hundreds of people were injured in clashes between protesters and security forces at the weekend.     Ordinary Lebanese have been hit hard by banks’ restrictions on access to cash, a slump in the Lebanese pound, job losses and inflation.
    Two senior political sources earlier told Reuters all issues that had delayed a government deal had been resolved.
    The heavily armed Hezbollah and its political allies had been unable to agree the make-up of the cabinet since designating former education minister Hassan Diab as premier more than a month ago.
    Diab was headed to the presidential palace on Tuesday and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri was set to follow, political sources and local media said.
    The government is expected to be comprised of specialists rather than politicians – a demand of protesters – but political parties have sought to put forward the names of the specialists themselves in order to maintain cabinet influence.
(Reporting by Laila Bassam, Ellen Francis and Tom Perry; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

1/21/2020 Turkey says Libya’s Haftar must choose political solution
FILE PHOTO: Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar meets Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis
(not pictured) at the Parliament in Athens, Greece, January 17, 2020. REUTERS/Costas Baltas
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Eastern Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar must abide by calls for a political solution to the conflict in Libya and take steps to secure “calm on the ground,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday.
    Haftar abandoned talks for a ceasefire in Moscow last week and the blockade of Libyan oilfields by his forces overshadowed a summit in Berlin on Sunday aimed at shoring up a shaky truce.
    His Libyan National Army (LNA) aims to capture the capital, Tripoli, through the backing of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russian mercenaries and African troops.
    Turkey supports Haftar’s opponents, the Tripoli-based internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez al-Serraj, and has dispatched military advisers and trainers to help the GNA.
    Cavusoglu said Haftar’s refusal to sign a joint communique in Berlin had raised questions about his intent.
    “Does Haftar want a political or military solution? Until now, his stance has shown he wants a military one,” he told Turkish broadcaster NTV at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
    “Haftar must immediately fall back to the political solution line and take concrete and positive steps in line with calls of the international community for calm on the ground.”
    Libya has had no stable central authority since Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown by NATO-backed rebels in 2011.    For more than five years, it has had two rival governments, in the east and the west, with streets controlled by armed groups.
    At the Berlin summit, foreign powers active in Libya committed to uphold an existing U.N. arms embargo and stop shipping weapons there, but Cavusoglu suggested that the commitment was dependent on a ceasefire holding.
    “There were calls for no one to send additional forces or weapons there.    All participants pledged to abide by this as long as the ceasefire continues,” Cavusoglu said.    “Our president was clear on this… and we voiced it at the end of the summit too.”
(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Dominic Evans)

1/22/2020 In Chirac’s shadow, Macron steps into Jerusalem’s symbolism by John Irish
French President Emmanuel Macron makes his speech during the "500 champions of the territories" event for French
medium-sized companies (ETI) at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France January 21, 2020. Yoan Valat/Pool via REUTERS
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Emmanuel Macron begins a visit to Jerusalem on Wednesday with a symbolic stop at one of France’s territories in the Holy Land aiming to avoid controversies of past presidents, while underscoring Paris’ historical influence in the region.
    The two-day visit, which includes political meetings to discuss Iran tensions and the peace process with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, head of opposition Benny Gantz and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, culminates in commemorations marking the 75 years since the liberation of the Auschwitz extermination camp.
    But for the 42-year-old Macron, it is also an opportunity to follow in the steps of previous French leaders in visiting one of the four sites owned by France since the Ottoman era of the 19th century and which to this day remain in its hands through international treaties.
    Arriving through the Old City’s Lion gate in East Jerusalem, Macron will pay a visit to the Church of St. Anne, where the French tricolor has fluttered since the Ottomans gave it to Emperor Napoleon III in 1856 as thanks for his support during the Crimean War.
    “Be it schools, hospitals, orphanages, or religious sites like this, we continue to defend French identity,” said a French diplomatic source ahead of the visit.    “We are a step away here from Temple Mount and the Wailing Wail, the very heart of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, so symbolically we are.”
    French diplomats caution that they want to leave little room for mishaps such as those seen in the past.    Israeli officials have privately expressed disappointment that the French leader had not visited the country earlier in his presidency.
    When former President Jacques Chirac visited Jerusalem’s old town in 1996, he lost patience with the Israeli security agents who were pressing him to move on, telling one of them that his treatment was a “provocation” and threatening to get back on his plane.    He refused to enter St. Anne until Israeli security left the site.
    French officials did not rule out Macron ambling beyond St. Anne and into the historic Via Dolorosa, the route Christians believe Jesus walked to his crucifixion.
    Macron last week played down any real prospect of renewing French efforts to push the peace process, stalled since 2014, saying it was not for him to dictate to either side.
    “I am not going to come saying ‘this is a peace plan’ because it would only fail,” he told reporters on Jan. 15.    “I’m going to speak to the actors, see what the conditions are.    France always has a role to play and I don’t think we’re absent from the debates in the region.”
(Reporting by John Irish; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

1/22/2020 Crisis-hit Lebanon’s new cabinet to meet for first time
FILE PHOTO - United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres attends a news conference after
the Libya summit in Berlin, Germany, January 19, 2020. Michael Kappeler/Pool via Reuters
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s new cabinet is due to meet for the first time on Wednesday, bearing a message of support from the United Nations as ministers begin the urgent task of addressing an unprecedented economic crisis.
    The government, under Prime Minister Hassan Diab, was formed on Tuesday after the Iranian-backed Shi’ite group Hezbollah and its allies agreed on a cabinet of 20 specialists.
    U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres will work with Diab to support the reform agenda, Guterres’ spokesman said in a statement, reiterating the U.N.’s commitment to strengthening Lebanon’s sovereignty, stability and political independence.
    The heavily indebted state has been without effective government since Saad al-Hariri, Lebanon’s main Sunni leader and a traditional ally of the West and Gulf Arab states, quit as premier in October following widespread protests against politicians who have led Lebanon into its worst crisis since the 1975-90 war.
    Diab was nominated by Hezbollah and allies last month.    Hezbollah is designated as a terrorist group by the United States.
    Protesters took to the streets of Beirut as the new government was announced and closed roads in several cities using tyres and other make-shift barriers.
    New Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni said on Tuesday that Lebanon needed foreign aid to save it.    He described forthcoming foreign currency sovereign debt maturities as “a fireball.”
(Reporting by Tom Perry; Editing by Tom Hogue and John Stonestreet)

1/22/2020 Lebanon announces new government amid citizen protests by OAN Newsroom
Anti-government protesters wave a Lebanese flag and hide behind a wood barrier from a water cannon as they clash with the riot police during
a protest against the new government, near the parliament square, in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
    Lebanon is forming a new coalition government amid ongoing protests against the country’s ruling elite.    The announcement came Tuesday after 61-year-old computer engineering professor Hassan Diab was named Lebanon’s new prime minister.
    Diab is supported by Hezbollah, who the government made a deal with to get out of their economic crisis.    Hezbollah believes Diab can distance himself from the current ruling class.
    Citizens have been protesting since October to express their opposition to the elites governing the country since the end of their civil war.    Demonstrators are accusing them of corruption.
This photo released by the Lebanese Government, Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab, left, reviews an honor guard during
a ceremony held on his first day at the Government House in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. A new Cabinet was announced
in crisis-hit Lebanon late Tuesday, breaking a months-long impasse amid mass protests against the country’s ruling elite
and a crippling financial crisis, but demonstrations and violence continued. (Dalati Nohra/Lebanese Government via AP)
    "This establishment and these leaders do not represent us, this government doesn’t reflect us, we want a government made of our own,” stated a protester on streets of Beirut.
    Diab has vowed to crack down on corruption and bring the country out of their current economic crisis.

1/22/2020 Soleimani killing adds dangerous new dimension to Iraq unrest by Aziz El Yaakoubi and Ahmed Rasheed
FILE PHOTO: People walk past a picture of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force,
who was killed in an air strike at Baghdad airport, as it is seen in front of the
former U.S. Embassy's building in Tehran, Iran, January 21, 2020. Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iranian-backed Shi’ite factions have exhorted Iraqis to turn out for a “million-strong” march on Friday aimed at whipping up anti-American sentiment as the United States’ struggle with Iran plays out on the streets of Baghdad.
    Those behind the rally have two goals in mind – to pressure Washington to pull its troops out of Iraq, and to eclipse the mass anti-government protests that have challenged their grip on power.
    It is likely to end up at the gates of the U.S. Embassy, the seat of U.S. power in Iraq and the scene of violent clashes last month when militia supporters tried to storm the compound. It could turn nasty again.
    The U.S. killing of Iranian military mastermind General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad this month has given renewed impetus to Iran’s allies in Iraq.
    But it has also raised the specter of more civil strife in a country torn by years of sectarian conflict, lawmakers, protesters and analysts say.
    “The assassination threw the political classes, and Iran-leaning actors in particular, a lifeline,” said Fanar Haddad, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.
    “It created a counter-cause and a counter-crisis that pushed the protests out of the news cycle – albeit briefly.”
    The call for Friday’s “million-strong” march came from cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who opposes all foreign interference in Iraq but has recently aligned himself more closely with Iran.
    Protesters who have separately camped out for months in Baghdad and southern cities demonstrating against the corrupt, Iran-allied government, fear the worst.
    “This million-man march is different from what the street wants.    It supports the current political system in the country, it doesn’t oppose it,” said Abdul Rahman al-Ghazali, a protester at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, a center of the uprising.
    Ghazali and other demonstrators said their movement risked being sidelined by the strength in numbers – and weapons – of those marching against the United States.
    “I am not going to take part in the upcoming protests against America,” said student Hussein Ali.
BRINK OF WAR
    The killing of Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a drone attack brought Iraq and the wider region to the brink of war between Tehran and Washington.
    The biggest loser is Iraq, where both powers vie for influence.    More than 5,000 U.S. troops remain in the country 17 years after the invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein.
    After an unlikely alliance of Iraqi forces, a U.S.-led coalition and the Iran-backed Shi’ite militias defeated Islamic State in 2017, Iraq went through two years of relative calm.
    Unrest that broke out in October when security forces began killing mostly peaceful demonstrators shattered that calm, and U.S.-Iran tension has added to the chaos.
    The protests have been dominated by young people, a generation blighted by rampant unemployment, a corruption-ridden political caste and the years of conflict.    Despite Iraq’s oil wealth, many people languish in poverty.
    More than 450 people have been killed as security forces have fired live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear-gas canisters directly at protesters, with battles raging on three bridges over the River Tigris leading to Baghdad’s Green Zone.
    Friday’s march risks clashes between the anti-government protesters and the militia supporters who back the parties that control government and parliament.
    Analyst Haddad said the anti-government protests would persist, however. The authorities should not fail to form a new government, he added.
    Iraqi factions have been wrangling for weeks over who will succeed caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who resigned in November under pressure from the street.
SECTARIAN DIVISIONS RESURFACE
    The fallout from Soleimani’s killing also laid bare a further fracturing of Iraqi politics, both amongst Shi’ite Muslims and once again on the sectarian lines dividing Shi’ites and Sunnis.
    Sadr and the Iran-aligned leaders intensified calls this month for U.S. troops to withdraw – a rare show of unity between rival Shi’ite groups.    But such unity is not expected to last long and power struggles will continue, lawmakers say.
    Disagreements between Sadr and his main political rival Hadi al-Amiri, whose alliance of Iran-backed militias holds vast sway in parliament, could delay the process further.
    Sadr vetoed the imminent nomination of a new prime minister backed by Amiri this week, several lawmakers said.
    For the first time in nearly two years, parliament voted along sectarian lines to press the government to kick out U.S. forces.    Shi’ite parties voted in favor, while Sunni Muslim and Kurdish lawmakers boycotted the session.
    “When Iraq faced the security challenge of IS, there was a healthy political process, but now the country is broken and this is gone,” said a senior Iraqi politician who spoke on condition of anonymity.
(Additional reporting, editing by John Davison)

1/22/2020 More U.S. troops leave Iraq over potential injuries as Trump downplays brain risk by Alexandra Alper and Idrees Ali
FILE PHOTO: U.S. Army soldiers from 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, Task Force-Iraq, man a defensive position at Forward Operating
Base Union III in Baghdad, Iraq, December 31, 2019. U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Desmond Cassell/Task Force-Iraq Public Affairs/Handout via REUTERS
    DAVOS, Switzerland/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday said he did not consider the brain injuries suffered by 11 U.S. service members in Iran’s recent attack on a base in Iraq to be serious, as the American military moved more troops out of the region for potential injuries.
    In a statement on Wednesday, U.S. Central Command said that more troops had been flown out of Iraq to Germany for medical evaluations following Iran’s Jan. 8 missile attack on the base where U.S. forces were stationed after announcing the 11 injuries last week.
    Further injuries may be identified in the future, it added, without giving further details.
    A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said about a dozen troops were being transported to Germany.
    Trump and other top officials initially said Iran’s attack had not killed or injured any U.S. service members before the Pentagon reversed course on Thursday, saying 11 U.S. troops had been treated for concussion symptoms after the attack on the Ain al-Asad air base in western Iraq.
    On Wednesday, Trump declined to explain the discrepancy.
    “I heard that they had headaches and a couple of other things, but I would say and I can report it is not very serious,” Trump told a news conference in Davos, Switzerland.
    Asked whether he considered traumatic brain injury to be serious, Trump said: “They told me about it numerous days later.    You’d have to ask the Department of Defense.”
    Pentagon officials have said there had been no effort to minimize or delay information on concussive injuries, but its handling of the injuries following Tehran’s attack has renewed questions over the U.S. military’s policy regarding how it handles suspected brain injuries.
    While the U.S. military has to immediately report incidents threatening life, limb or eyesight, it does not have an urgent requirement to do so with suspected traumatic brain injury, or TBI, which can take time to manifest and diagnose.
    According to Pentagon data, about 408,000 service members have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury since 2000.
    “I don’t consider them very serious injuries relative to other injuries I have seen,” Trump said.    “I’ve seen people with no legs and no arms.”
    Various health and medial groups for years have been trying to raise awareness about the seriousness of brain injuries, including concussions.
(Reporting by Alexandra Alper in Davos and Idrees Ali in Washington; writing by Susan Heavey; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

1/22/2020 Iraq happy with U.S. troops, Trump says at talks over mission’s future
U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Iraq's President Barham Salih during the 50th World Economic Forum (WEF) annual
meeting in Davos, Switzerland, January 22, 2020. The Presidency of the Republic of Iraq Office/Handout via REUTERS
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq likes what U.S. troops are doing there, President Donald Trump said on Wednesday at talks with the Iraqi president about the future of the mission, which has been in doubt since a U.S. drone strike killed an Iranian commander in Baghdad.
    Iraqi President Barham Salih’s office said he and Trump had discussed reducing the number of foreign troops in Iraq at a meeting on the sidelines of an economic summit in Davos, Switzerland.
    Asked before the meeting about the prospect of a U.S. withdrawal, Trump said: “We’re talking about a lot of different things and you’ll be hearing whatever we do.    But they like what we’re doing and we like them, and we’ve had a very good relationship.”
    The United States has around 5,000 troops in Iraq, invited back into the country in 2014 by Baghdad to help fight against the Islamic State militant group.
    But the fate of the mission has been in question since Jan. 3, when Trump ordered a drone strike at Baghdad airport that killed Qassem Soleimani, the most prominent military commander of Iraq’s neighbor Iran.    The Iraqi commander of a powerful pro-Iran militia was also killed.
    Iraq’s parliament responded with a non-binding vote to demand the U.S. forces leave, prompting an angry Trump at one point to threaten to impose sanctions on Iraq unless it allows U.S. troops to stay.
    Trump struck a more conciliatory tone on Wednesday, noting also that the U.S. presence was much smaller than during the 2003-2011 U.S. occupation that followed an invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
    “We’re down to 5,000 so we’re down to a very low number — historically low — and we’ll see what happens.”
SANCTIONS
    Asked about his earlier threat to impose sanctions on Iraq, Trump said: “We’ll see what happens, because we do have to do things on our terms.”
    Salih’s office said in a statement: “During the meeting, reducing foreign troops and the importance of respecting the demands of Iraqi people to preserve the country’s sovereignty were discussed.”
    Iraq’s government has long had to balance its close relations with both Washington and Tehran, which sponsors powerful Shi’ite armed groups and political factions hostile to the United States.
    Maintaining that balance became trickier for Baghdad after an escalation that began last month with rockets fired at a U.S. base in Iraq, killing an American contractor, and reached its peak with the drone strike that killed Soleimani.
    Tehran responded with a ballistic missile attack on two Iraqi military bases housing U.S. forces on Jan. 8, for now the final shot in the tit-for-tat escalation.
    Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi asked Washington to prepare for a U.S. troop withdrawal in line with the request by Iraq’s parliament, but Trump’s administration has so far rebuffed the call to withdraw.
    Washington has said it is exploring a possible expansion of NATO’s mission in Iraq, a plan to “get burden-sharing right in the region.”
(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Philippa Fletcher and Gareth Jones)

1/22/2020 Macron berates Israeli security men in tussle at Jerusalem church by John Irish
The Dome of the Rock is seen in the background as French President Emmanuel Macron visits the compound housing al-Aqsa mosque
known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City January 22, 2020. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – “Go outside,” French President Emmanuel Macron demanded in English in a melee with Israeli security men on Wednesday, demanding they leave a Jerusalem basilica that he visited before a Holocaust memorial conference.
    The French tricolor has flown over the Church of St. Anne in Jerusalem’s walled Old City since it was gifted by the Ottomans to French Emperor Napoleon III in 1856.
    France views it as a provocation when Israeli police enter the church’s sandstone complex, in a part of Jerusalem captured and annexed by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.
    Wednesday’s incident was a case of deja vu all over again.    In 1996, France’s then-president Jacques Chirac lost patience with Israeli security agents at the same church, telling one of them that his treatment was a “provocation” and threatening to get back on his plane.
    Chirac refused to enter St. Anne until Israeli security left the site.
    Video showed Macron, jostled in the center of a crowded circle between his own protective detail and Israeli security personnel, including several paramilitary policemen in uniform, under an archway leading into the church.
    Macron then stopped the shoving and shouted at the Israeli security guards in English: “I don’t like what you did in front of me.”
    Lowering his voice, he then said: “Go outside.    I’m sorry, you know the rules.    Nobody has to provoke nobody.”
    Speaking later to reporters, Macron said the incident ended pleasantly and that he shook hands with the Israeli security officials.
    Israeli police said that when Macron arrived at the church “there was a discussion” between Israeli and French security officers about entering with the president.
    “When the president and the delegation finished the visit, he apologized about the incident and shook hands with the security personnel,” a police statement said.
    Macron is one of dozens of world leaders attending Thursday’s World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem, which will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.
    The 42-year-old head of state had seen his visit to St. Anne as a symbolic stop underscoring France’s historical influence in the region.
    Before heading to the church, Macron walked through Jerusalem’s Old City, stopping by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
    He later visited the Muslim Noble Sanctuary that houses al-Aqsa mosque, a site revered by Jews as Temple Mount, and prayed at Judaism’s Western Wall, touching the ancient stones.
(Writing by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Gareth Jones and Nick Macfie)

1/22/2020 Facing economic crisis, Lebanon’s government weighs options by Tom Perry and Ellen Francis
Lebanon's President Michel Aoun heads the first meeting of the new cabinet at the
presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon January 22, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s Hezbollah-backed government will be walking a political tightrope as it looks to secure urgent foreign funding to ward off financial collapse, and it may look to the International Monetary Fund for assistance.
    Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s cabinet is also facing increasingly violent protests against a political elite that has led Lebanon into its worst crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.
    Formed by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its allies, the cabinet faces an economic crisis at a time when Gulf Arab states, who along with Washington label Hezbollah a terrorist group, appear no longer willing to bail out Lebanon.
    President Michel Aoun tasked the government at its first meeting on Wednesday with restoring international confidence, which could unlock funding and ease a liquidity crunch that hit the Lebanese pound, fueled inflation and forced bank controls.
    A senior politician, Alain Aoun, told Reuters on Wednesday that an IMF program is an option for Lebanon depending on terms that should be bearable for the country and not trigger social unrest.
    On Wednesday, some protesters unhappy with the new cabinet breached a small security barricade near parliament in downtown Beirut and set on fire a tent for security forces, who responded with tear gas and water cannon.
    The skirmishes extended to a nearby luxury shopping district.    A civil defense worker told local media some people suffered slight injuries.    Last weekend, hundreds were injured in similar clashes.
    Lebanon had been without effective government since Saad al-Hariri, the country’s main Sunni Muslim leader and a traditional ally of the West and Gulf states, resigned as premier in October.
    Diab’s cabinet was formed on Tuesday by Hezbollah and allies, including the Free Patriotic Movement founded by Aoun, without the participation of major Lebanese political parties that enjoy Western support.
    Lebanon sovereign dollar-bonds moved higher by as much as 1 cent on Wednesday with the formation of a government.
DELICATE MISSION
    Lebanon, burdened with a public debt equivalent to about 150% of GDP, won pledges exceeding $11 billion at an international conference in 2018 conditional on reforms that it has so far failed to implement.
    “Your mission is delicate,” Aoun’s office cited him as telling the cabinet.    “It is necessary to work to tackle the economic situation, restore the confidence of the international community in Lebanese institutions and reassure the Lebanese about their future.”
    Diab has said his first trip abroad would be to the Gulf region – but he will have his work cut out to reassure U.S.-allied rulers there who are concerned about Hezbollah’s rising influence in Beirut.
    Lebanon’s banking association said on Wednesday it expected the cabinet to put forward a clear economic and financial program, offering the banks’ support.
    A push by Lebanon to rein in a parallel market for dollars hit a snag on Wednesday when currency dealers largely refused to sell at a lower price agreed by the union of exchange dealers with the central bank.
    Highlighting challenges ahead, Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni told local media it was unlikely the Lebanese pound exchange rate to the U.S. dollar would “return to what it was” on the parallel market.
    Wazni had also described forthcoming foreign currency sovereign debt maturities as “a fireball.”
    Lebanon should restructure its Eurobonds, including a $1.2 billion Eurobond maturing in March, and secure a multi-billion-dollar IMF bailout, its former labor minister Camille Abousleiman told Reuters.
    “I don’t see the logic of the system leaking $500 to $600 million out of Lebanon on the March payment when an actual restructuring of the Eurobonds is next to inevitable.”
(Reporting by Tom Perry, Ellen Francis with additional reporting by Tom Arnold, Eric Knecht, Alaa Kanaan and Imad Creidi in Beirut, Karin Strohecker in London; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Tom Hogue and Mark Heinrich)

1/22/2020 Macron, meeting Netanyahu, says Iran must not acquire nuclear weapons by John Irish
French President Emmanuel Macron makes his speech during the "500 champions of the territories" event for French medium-sized
companies (ETI) at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France January 21, 2020. Yoan Valat/Pool via REUTERS
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – President Emmanuel Macron said France was determined Iran would never gain a nuclear weapon but it wanted to avoid any military escalation in the Middle East, after he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday.
    Macron’s two-day trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories is timed to coincide with the 75-year anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.
    He is one of dozens of world leaders due to attend Thursday’s World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem.
    Macron started his visit with a morning meeting with Netanyahu at his official residence in Jerusalem, where the two discussed Iran’s nuclear program and regional security issues from Libya to Turkey, according to Netanyahu’s office.
    “In the current context, France is determined that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon, but also that we avoid all military escalations in the region,” Macron said afterwards.
    Netanyahu’s office said the Israeli leader urged Macron to put pressure on Iran over what he called its aggression in the region.
    France, along with Britain and Germany, declared Iran in violation of the 2015 nuclear pact last week and they launched a dispute mechanism that could see the matter referred back to the Security Council and the reimposition of U.N. sanctions.
    The nuclear dispute has been at the heart of an escalation between Washington and Tehran which blew up into military confrontation in recent weeks.
PALESTINIAN MEETING
    Macron is also due to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday afternoon in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank at a time when peace prospects between Israelis and Palestinians look dim.
    The Palestinians are boycotting a peace initiative by U.S. President Donald Trump, and Netanyahu has repeated pledges to annex Israel’s settlements in the occupied West Bank.
    France believes a two-state solution is the only viable option to end the conflict but Macron has ruled out recognizing an independent Palestinian state, saying it would not serve peace efforts.
    Macron last week played down any real prospect of renewing French efforts to push the peace process, stalled since 2014, saying it was not for him to dictate to either side.
    At a campaign rally for his right-wing Likud party on Tuesday, Netanyahu, who is seeking re-election, renewed a promise to “impose Israeli sovereignty on the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea” and annex all Israeli settlements.
    Macron also on Wednesday made a symbolic stop at one of France’s territories in the Holy Land – the Church of St. Anne, where the French tricolor has flown since the Ottomans gave it to Emperor Napoleon III in 1856 as thanks for his support in the Crimean War.    It remains in French hands to this day through international treaties.
    Before heading to the church, he walked through the Old City, speaking to shopkeepers and stopping by the Church of the Holy Sepulcre.
    “Be it schools, hospitals, orphanages, or religious sites like this, we continue to defend French identity,” a French diplomatic source said.
    “We are a step away here from Temple Mount and the Wailing Wall, the very heart of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, so symbolically we are.”
    A squabble broke out between Israeli police and French security officers when Israeli officers tried to enter St. Anne ahead of Macron’s visit.    They were rebuffed by French officials who told them it was French property and a shouting match ensued.
    An Israeli police spokesman said he was looking into the incident.
(Reporting by John Irish, additional reporting by Rami Ayyub; editing by Angus MacSwan)

1/22/2020 Macron says France ‘inflexible’ over Iran’s nuclear ambitions
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and French President Emmanuel Macron shake hands
during their meeting in Jerusalem January 22, 2020. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/Pool
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday that France will be inflexible about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and that his country is determined Tehran will never acquire nuclear weapons.
    “In the current context, France is determined that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon, but also that we avoid all military escalation in the region,” Macron said.
    Macron made the comments in Jerusalem after meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin ahead of commemorations marking 75 years since the liberation of the Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz.
(Reporting by John Irish, Writing by Rami Ayyub)

1/22/2020 Israeli electric company ends power cuts to West Bank after Palestinians pay debt
An Israeli power distribution plant is seen in Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank January 22, 2020. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma
    JERUSALEM/RAMALLAH (Reuters) – Israel’s state-owned electric company said on Wednesday it was ending power cuts to the occupied West Bank after the Palestinians’ main power distributor paid off a chunk of debt.
    Israel Electric Corp (IEC) began sporadic, three-hour power cuts on Dec. 18 to press for payment of some $519 million owed by the Jerusalem District Electricity Company (JDECO).
    Palestinians in the West Bank rely on IEC for over 95 percent of their electricity supply.    The cuts led to power outages in the cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem, affecting an estimated 130,000 people, according to JDECO.
    IEC Chairman Yiftah Ron-Tal said the company was stopping the cuts after “JDECO transferred 740 million shekels ($214.21 million) of debt accumulated by the Palestinian Authority (PA) since 2016.”
    JDECO buys electricity from IEC and then sells it to customers in the West Bank, territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and where the PA has limited self-rule under interim peace accords.
    JDECO signed a loan agreement with several Palestinian banks in order to pay off the debt it owed, said Mansour Nassar, the company’s assistant general manager for technical affairs.
    The Palestinians have tried to reduce what they call their dependence on Israel for energy, in part through state- and private sector-funded solar energy projects and plans to build their own power plants.
(Reporting by Rami Ayyub in Jerusalem and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Peter Graff)

1/23/2020 World leaders gather in Jerusalem for Auschwitz liberation anniversary by Jeffrey Heller
FILE PHOTO: Israeli soldiers stand under pictures of Jews killed in the Holocaust during a visit to the
Hall of Names at the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem January 26, 2014. Monday marks
International Holocaust Remembrance Day to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. REUTER/Baz Ratner/File Photo
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Dozens of world leaders gathered in Jerusalem on Thursday to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, amid a backdrop of rising anti-Semitism in Europe and the United States.
    Israel has hailed the World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem memorial center as the biggest international gathering in its history.
    Russian President Vladimir Putin, meeting on the sidelines of the conference with his Israeli counterpart Reuven Rivlin, said xenophobia and anti-Semitism must be opposed everywhere, regardless of who is behind the hatred.
    “You just said that it’s not known where anti-Semitism ends,” Putin told Rivlin, referring to remarks the Israeli president made at their meeting.    “Unfortunately we do know this – it ends with Auschwitz.”
    The high-profile guest list includes U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, French President Emmanuel Macron, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Britain’s Prince Charles.
    However, the president of Poland, where the death camp was built by the Nazi German occupiers during World War Two, will stay away due to rankling disputes with both Russia and Israel.
    Poland will host its own event at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum on Jan. 27, as it does every year.
    More than one million people, most of them Jews, were killed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust.
    Speeches at the Jerusalem event are likely to focus on the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust as well as a more recent rise in anti-Semitism rhetoric and attacks worldwide https://www.reuters.com/article/us-israel-antisemitism/anti-semitic-attacks-rise-worldwide-in-2018-led-by-us-west-europe-study-idUSKCN1S73M1.
    A global survey https://global100.adl.org/about/2019 by the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League in November found that global anti-Semitic attitudes had increased, and significantly so in Eastern and Central Europe.    It found that large percentages of people in many European countries think Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.
POLISH ANGER
    Polish President Andrzej Duda turned down an invitation to the conference, expressing dissatisfaction that representatives of Russia, France, Britain, the United States and Germany would speak, while Poland was told it would not be allowed to.
    Israeli organizers said the four World War Two allies, and Germany, would address the gathering.
    Polish leaders have also been angered by comments made by Putin last month suggesting Poland shared responsibility for the war.    Poland, which was invaded first by Nazi Germany and then by Soviet forces in September, 1939, sees itself as a major victim of the war, in which it lost a fifth of its population.
    Thursday’s gathering in Jerusalem could burnish Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s domestic image as an international statesman.    The veteran right-wing leader faces his third election in less than a year on March 2, amid legal woes and political deadlock. [nL8N29R5PU]
    At a meeting with Netanyahu on Thursday ahead of the Holocaust Forum, Putin said he had given assurances to the mother of Naama Issachar, a U.S.-Israeli woman jailed in Russia on drug charges, that “everything will be okay” for her daughter. [nL8N29S2DQ]
    Israel has called on Russia to release Issachar who was sentenced by a Russian court to seven and a half years in jail for smuggling nine grams (0.3 oz) of cannabis.
    She was arrested during a stopover at Moscow airport in April, and her case has been widely followed in Israel.
(Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak in Warsaw, Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Nuha Sharaf in Jerusalem; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Stephen Farrell and Gareth Jones)

1/23/2020 Turkish foreign minister says Russian S-400 air defense no threat to NATO
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu attends a session at the 50th World Economic Forum (WEF)
annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, January 23, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
    DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) – Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday that Russia’s S-400 air defense system was compatible with NATO, which needed to set up a working group to study it.
    “The claim is that the S400 and F-35s are incompatible.    That’s the claim.    Here is our proposal, let’s have a working group and NATO can chair this and let’s let experts make the assessment and come back to us,” he said.
    “We believe the S400 and F-35 are compatible,” Cavusoglu said during a panel discussion at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos.
    “It does not pose any threats to the NATO system or to NATO allies,” he added.
(This story corrects to F-35s (not F-45s) after clarification by Cavusoglu)
(Reporting by Luke Baker; Editing by Alexander Smith)

1/23/2020 Macron, in Israel for Holocaust memorial, warns of ‘dark shadow’ of anti-Semitism by John Irish
FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron stands by the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray
in Jerusalem's old city, during a visit in Jerusalem January 22, 2020. REUTERS/Ammar Awad/File Photo
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – President Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday France was determined to combat the hatred and intolerance that have fueled a sharp rise in anti-Semitism in his country as he met Holocaust survivors during a visit to Israel.
    Macron is one of dozens of world leaders attending events at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem to mark the 75-year anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.
    “The dark shadow of anti-Semitism is being reborn,” Macron told members of the roughly 100,000 French-Israeli citizens.
    “Anti-Semitism is back.    It is here and its cortege of intolerance and hate is here.    France won’t accept.”
    “I responded to the call to come to Yad Vashem to say this shall never happen again.    It’s a battle that is never won,” Macron said.    “My determination to act on this is total.”
    Earlier on Thursday, Macron met French survivors of the Holocaust at a memorial near Jerusalem to some 76,000 Jews who were arrested in France during World War Two and transported in terrible conditions in railway boxcars to death camps such as Auschwitz, where most died.
    In 1995 France’s then-president, Jacques Chirac, officially acknowledged for the first time French complicity in the wartime deportations.    But it was only in 2009 that France’s highest court recognized the state’s responsibility.
    A survey published on Tuesday by French think-tank Fondapol and the American Jewish Committee found that 70 percent of Jews living in France today had been victims of anti-Semitism.
    France has Europe’s biggest Jewish community – around 550,000 – and anti-Semitic acts have risen by 70 percent in each of the last two years.    More than 500 were reported in 2018 alone.
    Last month, scores of Jewish graves were found desecrated in a cemetery in eastern France, hours before lawmakers adopted a resolution equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.
UNCERTAIN FUTURE
    Commentators have blamed the surge in anti-Semitic attacks on incitement by Islamist preachers, others on the rise of anti-Zionism – opposition to the existence of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people.
    Macron and the French survivors of the Holocaust were joined by young college students at a solemn ceremony at the Roglit memorial, west of Jerusalem, to remember the French Jews deported between 1942-1944.
    Serge Klarsfeld, an 84-year-old Nazi hunter, welcomed the participation of Macron and the young people in the ceremony.
    “Your presence today with the education minister and the children from the banlieues (suburbs) who are bravely engaged in studying the Shoah and drawing the consequences touches us deeply and allows us to look with hope toward an uncertain future,” said Klarsfeld.
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Gareth Jones)

1/23/2020 Netanyahu accepts President Trump’s invite to White House to discuss peace plan by OAN Newsroom
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech during the dedication of a monument honoring the veterans
and victims of the siege of Leningrad in Jerusalem, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020.(Marc Israel Sellem/Pool Photo via AP)
    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accepted President Trump’s invitation to visit the White House next week.    On Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence invited Netanyahu, along with his chief election rival Benny Gantz, to discuss stalled Mideast peace plans.
    Pence said the visit will be an opportunity to “discuss regional issues as well as the prospect of peace in the Holy Land.”
    Netanyahu said he “gladly” accepted the invitation and added it was his idea to invite Gantz to Washington.    He said he didn’t want to lose this historic opportunity for a peace plan backed by the U.S.
    “I think the president is seeking to give Israel the peace and security that it deserves,” stated the prime minister.    “I gladly accept his invitation to come to Washington and discuss with him his ideas of how to advance peace, and to work closely with him to advance that goal.”
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greet each other at the
World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. January 2020. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool Photo via AP)
    President Trump tweeted about the visit, saying the U.S. is looking forward to welcoming to Netanyahu and Gantz to the White House next week.    The president also responded to reports he will release the full plan this spring.    He said the details and timing of their closely held peace plan are purely speculative.

1/23/2020 Pence calls on world leaders to confront Iran’s role in rise of anti-Semitism by OAN Newsroom
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the World Holocaust Forum marking 75 years since the liberation of the Nazi
extermination camp Auschwitz, at Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial centre in Jerusalem, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. (Ronen Zvulun, Pool via AP)
    The U.S. is criticizing the Iranian regime for bolstering anti-Semitism and threatening the state of Israel.    On Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence joined world leaders in Jerusalem to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz.    He gave a speech at the event in which he discussed the importance of combating anti-Semitism’s global rise.
    Studies showed the large increase in attacks against members of the Jewish faith in recent years have allowed anti-Semitism to become more mainstream in western cultures.
    During his speech, Pence stressed that this hatred towards Jews needs to be stopped right away.    He warned that its complacency helped bring about the horrors of the Holocaust.    The vice president then called on world leaders to confront Iran’s role in perpetuating anti-Semitism in today’s world.
    “We must also stand strong against the leading state purveyor of anti-Semitism, against the one government in the world that denies the Holocaust…and threatens to wipe Israel off the map,” stated Pence.    “The world must stand strong against the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech during the dedication of a monument honoring the veterans and
victims of the siege of Leningrad in Jerusalem, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool Photo via AP)
    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the U.S. for standing up against what he called the “most anti-Semitic regime on the planet.”
    “I am concerned that we have yet to see a unified and resolute stance against the most anti-Semitic regime on the planet.    A regime that openly seeks to develop nuclear weapons and annihilate the one and only Jewish state. Israel salutes President Trump and Vice President Pence for confronting the tyrants of Tehran.” – Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel
    The prime minister went on to say if the world learned one thing from Auschwitz, it was to stop bad things when they are small.    He noted, Iran “is a very bad thing” that has the potential to become worse if the country obtains nuclear weapons.
World leaders pose for a family photo during the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem,
Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

1/23/2020 Turkish FM: Russian-made missile system no threat to NATO or allies by OAN Newsroom
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu speaks during a joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister
Sergey Lavrov, following their talks in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Jan. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, Pool)
    Turkey’s foreign minister is saying his country’s use of a Russian missile defense system poses no threat to NATO or its allies.    On Thursday, Mevlüt Çavusoglu called for NATO to form a working group and address the claim the Russian S-400 missile system isn’t compatible with U.S. made F-35 fighter jets.
    Turkey received a delivery of the missile system last summer, which prompted the Department of Defense to kick it out of the F-35 program.
    NATO’s secretary general said the organization will do whatever it can to find a way to solve the issue.
    “Let me just briefly say that Turkey is really an important ally for many reasons: for their contributions to NATO missions and operations, but also bordering Iraq and Syria,” stated Jens Stoltenberg.    “Of course, the enormous progress we have been able to make liberating all the territory that ISIS controlled until recently.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sideline of the
conference on Libya at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020. (Turkish Presidency Press Service via AP, Pool)
Recent reports said Russia has shipped more than 120 surface-to-air missiles to Turkey, along with additional equipment.    A number of other countries are also reportedly interested in the missile system, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt.

1/23/2020 Young man killed as Baghdad protests rage
FILE PHOTO: Iraqi demonstrators lift up a man who was killed during anti-government
protests in Baghdad, Iraq, January 21, 2020. REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily/File Photo
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – (WARNING: SENSITIVE MATERIAL. THE IMAGE MAY OFFEND OR DISTURB)
    A masked protester stretches his arm out through a cloud of tear gas, trying to reach a comrade fatally injured by a blow to the head during clashes with security services in Iraq.
    Others crowd round the young man’s limp body. One grabs at his shirt, as they lower him to the ground.
    It was the moment captured by Reuters photographer Khalid al-Mousily during a series of rallies and running street battles in the center of Baghdad.
    Mousily, who has been covering the surge of anti-government protests since they erupted in October, got to the scene early on Tuesday as youths gathered at the Mohammed al-Qassim highway to try and block the key route into the city.
    All was quiet, so he stood back and scanned both sides of the demonstrations with his telephoto lens.
    “I saw signs that the security services were planning an advance … Minutes later protesters started to scream ‘Look out everybody tear gas canisters’."
    “I ran towards a blast wall to take shelter and started to take images of the running protesters … I could hear bullets … whizzing over my head.”
    He kept changing positions, first behind an electricity pole, then to another part of the highway where protesters were starting to gather.
    One group of youths started advancing, carrying a large metal sheet in front of them to shield them against bullets.
    He spotted one thin youth trying to climb up the side of a wall on his own to reach the security forces gathered above him.
    “I pointed the camera in his direction, then I saw his body roll down the wall.    I kept pressing the shutter and the protesters around me started screaming with grief: ‘A protester down.    A protester down!’    ‘Hit by a tear gas canister!’.”
    It was obvious the young man was badly wounded and probably dead.
    “I had seen before what happens, when a protester gets a direct hit from one of those canisters,” Mousily said.
    The young man was one of two people killed in that day’s protests, which had surged over the weekend after a lull of several weeks.
    Iraqi authorities declined to comment on the incident. Reuters could not determine the identity of the victim.
    Iraqi security forces deny they have deliberately killed peaceful protesters.    The government has blamed many violent escalations and deaths on unidentified infiltrators it says aim to stir up sedition.
    The violence came amid mounting tensions in the region following the U.S. killing of Tehran’s top general in an air strike inside Iraq.
    “I still can’t get the image of him out of my head, of his face covered with blood and his body rolling down the wall,” Mousily said.    “I feel sorry for him, he was too young to die.”
(Writing by Andrew Heavens; editing by Mike Collett-White)

1/23/2020 Lebanon to seek up to $5bln in soft loans, prime minister rallies support
FILE PHOTO: File picture of Hassan Diab talking to the media after being named Lebanon's new prime minister,
at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon December 19, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir -/File Photo
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s new government must reassure international donors it is serious about reforms to tackle a financial crisis as it looks initially to secure up to $5 billion in soft loans for basic goods, its finance minister said on Thursday.
    The government that took office on Tuesday faces an emergency in which banks have imposed controls, the Lebanese pound has weakened and protesters have turned to violence which a senior U.N. official described as “politically manipulated.”
    “The entire international community has its eye on what this government will do,” Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni said in televised comments.    “What is its programme, what are the reform steps, is it ready for support or no?
    Lebanon is looking to secure $4 billion to $5 billion in soft loans from international donors to finance purchases of wheat, fuel and medicines, The Daily Star newspaper had earlier quoted the minister as saying.
    “This injection will cover the country’s needs for one year,” said Wazni.
    Bank restrictions on access to cash, inflation and job losses have hit people hard.    Increasingly violent though more limited protests have replaced jubilant demonstrations against a political elite blamed for driving Lebanon towards collapse.
    Interior minister Mohammed Fahmi said the state would not tolerate attacks on security forces who he said would protect people’s rights, including freedom of expression.
    On Wednesday, protesters broke stone slabs off buildings in a luxury commercial district of Beirut to hurl at barricades guarded by security forces blocking paths to parliament.
    “This looks more like a political manipulation to provoke the security forces, to undermine civil peace, to fan up sectarian strife,” Jan Kubis, U.N. special coordinator for Lebanon, wrote on Twitter, mentioning attacks on security forces and vandalism of state institutions and private property.
    The new government was set up with backing from the powerful Iran-backed group Hezbollah and its political allies.    Major political parties that have Western backing, including that of former premier Saad al-Hariri, are not part of the cabinet.
    Analysts say the influence of Hezbollah over the cabinet may complicate its attempt to secure foreign funding, particularly from Gulf Arab states that have provided aid in the past but see Hezbollah as a threat.
RESCUE PLAN
    Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc urged the government to hasten its rescue programme.    The cabinet has formed a committee to draft a policy statement to be presented to parliament.
    Prime Minister Hassan Diab met several foreign ambassadors as the heavily indebted government looks to rally support.    It must decide how to deal with maturing Eurobonds, including a $1.2 billion bond due in March.
    Diab’s office said British Ambassador Chris Rampling conveyed Britain’s readiness to support Lebanon but that the government “must show its commitment to reform that Lebanon needs urgently.”
    The European Union’s ambassador to Lebanon, Ralph Tarraf, said he had agreed with Diab on the need for Lebanon to “focus on economic files, address the crisis and institute structural reforms,” two local media outlets reported.
    Foreign governments and institutions have demanded Lebanon enact long-delayed reforms to curb state waste and corruption before any new financial support is released.
    U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday only a government “capable and committed to undertaking real and tangible reforms will restore investor confidence and unlock international assistance.”
    Lebanon won pledges exceeding $11 billion for a programme of infrastructure investment at a 2018 international conference, conditional on such reforms.
(Reporting by Eric Knecht in Beirut and Alessandra Galloni in Davos; Writing by Eric Knecht, Tom Perry and Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Timothy Heritage)

1/24/2020 Trump to unveil long-stalled Middle East peace plan ahead of Israeli leaders’ visit by Jeff Mason and Maayan Lubell
U.S Vice President Mike Pence stands next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to the
Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City January 23, 2020. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
    MIAMI/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday he will release details of his long-delayed peace plan for the Middle East before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his election rival Benny Gantz visit the White House next week.
    The political aspects of the peace initiative have been closely guarded.    Only the economic proposals have been unveiled.
    Trump discussed the timing of the plan’s release with two architects of the plan, senior advisers Jared Kushner and Avi Berkowitz, on Air Force One while returning to Washington from Switzerland on Wednesday.
    Speaking to reporters on Air Force One en route to the Miami area for a political event, Trump said Palestinians might react negatively to his plan at first, but that "it's actually very positive for them."
    "It’s a great plan," said Trump, who will meet with Netanyahu at the White House on Tuesday.    "It’s a plan that really would work."
    Vice President Mike Pence, on a visit to Jerusalem, extended an invitation to Netanyahu and Gantz to make the visit.    It was not immediately clear whether Trump would meet the two leaders separately or together.
    The Trump Middle East peace proposal is a document, dozens of pages long, that addresses in detail the thorny political issues between Israel and the Palestinians, such as the status of Jerusalem.
    U.S. officials made no mention of inviting the Palestinians, and Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said: “We warn Israel and the U.S. administration not to cross any red lines.”
    Trump indicated his administration had spoken "briefly" to the Palestinians and would speak to them again "in a period of time."

    Netanyahu said he had accepted the U.S. invitation.    His office said he would fly to the United States on Sunday.    A Gantz spokesman did not respond when asked whether Gantz had accepted Trump’s invitation.
    Netanyahu, a veteran right-wing Israeli leader, faces political and legal troubles at home – he is heading for his third election in less than a year, and was indicted on criminal charges in November.    He denies any wrongdoing.
    Israeli political analysts viewed Trump’s invitation as a boost to Netanyahu, his right-wing ally.
    Netanyahu’s principal domestic political rival Gantz, a centrist former general, this week lifted his objection to having the peace plan be published before Israel’s March election.    He had previously objected to it as interference in the vote.
LONG-DELAYED PLAN
    The launch of Trump’s plan to end the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has been delayed numerous times over the last two years.
    A source familiar with the peace team’s thinking said bringing both Netanyahu and Gantz in on the details is aimed at defusing any suggestion that Trump might be favoring one Israeli candidate over another.
    Trump is facing his own political clock, preoccupied with his bid for re-election in November, and could ill afford to wait for months for Israel to decide who its next prime minister will be, the source said.
    “If we waited we could be in the same position four months from now and never put out the plan,” the source said.
    The political proposal is the product of three years of work by Kushner, Berkowitz and former envoy Jason Greenblatt.    Kushner proposed a $50 billion economic plan for the Middle East last July at a conference in Bahrain.
    Kushner and Berkowitz had been scheduled to visit Israel and Saudi Arabia after attending the World Economic Conference in Davos, Switzerland, this week, but opted instead to discuss the issue with Trump on his flight home, the source said.
    Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed in 2014 and Palestinians have called Trump’s proposal dead in the water, even before its publication, citing what they see as his pro-Israel policies.
    The Trump administration has reversed decades of U.S. policy on the conflict, refraining from endorsing the two-state solution – the longtime international formula which envisages a Palestinian state co-existing with Israel.
    It has also recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved its embassy there.    More recently, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced in November that the United States no longer viewed Israel’s settlements on West Bank land as “inconsistent with international law.”
    Palestinians and most of the international community view the settlements as illegal under international law.    Israel disputes this, citing historical, biblical and political ties to the land, as well as security needs.
    Netanyahu announced during an election campaign last September that he intends to annex the Jordan Valley, a large swathe of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
    Israel captured the West Bank in a 1967 war and Palestinians, who signed interim peace deals with Israel in the 1990s, seek to make the area part of a future state.
    Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, has publicly refused to engage politically with the Trump administration.
    They fear the plan will dash their hopes for an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
    Trump, who will seek a second term in a Nov. 3 election, faces his own problems at home with Democrats seeking to oust the Republican president on impeachment charges of abusing power and obstructing Congress.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason in Miami and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Additional reporting by Dan Williams, Ali Sawafta in Bethlehem, and Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Howard Goller)

1/24/2020 ‘No, No America’: Iraq protesters demand U.S. military pullout by John Davison and Aziz El Yaakoubi
Supporters of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr hold a sign reading "Get out of our land before you leave defeated"
at a protest against what they say is U.S. presence and violations in Iraq, in Baghdad, Iraq January 24, 2020. REUTERS/Alaa al-Marjani
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Thousands of Iraqis rallied at two central Baghdad intersections on Friday after a prominent cleric called for a “million strong” protest against the American military presence, following the U.S. killing of an Iranian general and an Iraqi militia chief.
    The initial march appeared not to gather further steam, however, largely dissipating after several hours.    Some protesters headed to join separate anti-government demonstrators at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, and others boarded buses to go home.
    The march called by Moqtada al-Sadr aimed to press for a pullout of U.S. troops. Many anti-government protesters feared it could overshadow their separate, months-long demonstrations that have challenged Iran-backed Shi’ite groups’ grip on power.
    Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, later called in his weekly sermon for political groups to form a new government as soon as possible to bring stability to the country and enact reforms to improve Iraqis’ lives.
    Sadr, who commands a following of millions in vast Baghdad slums, opposes all foreign interference in Iraq but has recently aligned himself more closely with Iran, whose allies have dominated state institutions since a 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
    Sadr supported anti-government protests when they began in October, but did not publicly urge his followers to join them.
    The demonstrations have since taken aim at all groups and figures that are part of the post-2003 system including Sadr, who although often considered an outsider is part of that system, commanding one of the two largest blocs in parliament.
    Some lawmakers and protesters say the new, anti-U.S. element to public unrest distracts from the aim of toppling the corrupt political elite and could fuel more violence.
    Throngs of marchers started gathering early on Friday at al-Hurriya Square in central Baghdad and near around the city’s main university, Reuters witnesses said.    Marchers avoided Tahrir square, symbol of mass protests against Iraq’ ruling elites.
    “We want them all out – America, Israel, and the corrupt politicians in government,” said Raed Abu Zahra, a health ministry worker from southern city of Samawa, who arrived by bus at night and stayed in Sadr City, a sprawling district of Baghdad controlled by the cleric’s followers.
    “We support the protests in Tahrir as well, but understand why Sadr held this protest here so it doesn’t take attention from theirs,” he added.
    Men and women marched waving the red, white and black national colors, and chanted slogans against the United States, which leads a military coalition against the Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
DO NOT CROSS THIS BARRIER
    Some were wearing symbolic white robes indicating they’re willing to die for their country while others sat looking out over the square from half finished buildings, holding signs reading “No, no, America, no, no, Israel, no, no, colonialists.”
    Marchers were protected by Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam brigades and Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella grouping of Iran-backed Shi’ite militias, witnesses said.
    The march looked unlikely as initially feared to end up at the gates of the U.S. Embassy, the seat of U.S. power in Iraq and the scene of violent clashes last month when militia supporters tried to storm the compound.
    Sistani, who condemned the killing of Iranian military mastermind General Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike on Jan. 3, repeated his opposition to foreign interference in Iraq.
    “Iraq’s sovereignty must be respected … and citizens should have the right to peaceful protest,” he said.
    Sistani, who comments on politics only in times of crisis and wields great influence over Iraq’s Shi’ite majority, urged reform and a new government as soon as possible.
    Under the government of caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who said he would quit in November, security forces and unidentified gunmen believed to be linked to powerful Iran-backed militias killed nearly 450 anti-establishment protesters.
    Main roads in Baghdad were barricaded on Friday by security forces and the city’s Green Zone, which houses foreign missions, were blocked off with concrete barriers.    Outside the U.S. embassy, a sign read “Warning.    Do not cross this barrier, we will use pre-emptive measures against any attempt to cross.”
    The killing of Soleimani has raised the specter of more civil strife in a country torn by years of sectarian conflict.
    For the first time in nearly two years, parliament voted along sectarian lines to press the government to kick out U.S. forces.    Shi’ite parties voted in favor, while Sunni Muslim and Kurdish lawmakers boycotted the session.
(Additional reporting by Nadine Awadalla; Writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi, Editing by William Maclean)

1/24/2020 Trump’s peace plan may polarize the Middle East it seeks to calm by Stephen Farrell and Rami Ayyub
FILE PHOTO: Israelis enjoy themselves at a public pool in the Israeli settlement of
Maale Adumim in the occupied West Bank, July 1, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun / File Photo
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – As U.S. President Donald Trump prepares to host Israeli leaders in Washington to reveal details of his long-delayed Middle East peace plan, Palestinians warned on Friday that no deal could work without them on board.
    Trump invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief rival centrist former general Benny Gantz to the White House next week, saying he would unveil the plan before his Tuesday meeting with Netanyahu.
    But Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said there had been no communication with the Trump administration, and that no peace deal could be implemented without “the approval of the Palestinian people and the Palestinian leadership.”
    “This is the only way if they are serious, if they are looking for stability in the whole region,” Rudeinah said.
    Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed in 2014 and Palestinians have called Trump’s proposal dead in the water, even before its publication, citing what they see as his pro-Israel policies.
    The Palestinians have boycotted political dealings with the Trump administration since it reversed decades of U.S. policy on the conflict, splintering the international consensus.
    It has refused to endorse the two-state solution – the longtime international peace formula that envisages a Palestinian state established in territory that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
    The Trump administration also recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved its embassy there, and announced that Washington no longer views Israeli settlements on occupied West Bank land as “inconsistent with international law.”
    Palestinians and most of the international community see the settlements as illegal under the 1949 Geneva Conventions that bar populating land captured in war.    Israel disputes this, citing historical, biblical and political connections to the land, as well as security needs.
    Palestinians obtained limited self-rule in parts of the West Bank under mid-1990s interim peace accords.    They now seek East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state comprising the West Bank and Gaza Strip.    Israel withdrew from tiny Gaza in 2005.
    Trump, speaking to reporters on his flight home from the World Economic Forum in Davos, acknowledged Palestinians might react negatively to his plan at first but that “it’s actually very positive for them.”
    It’s a great plan.    It’s a plan that really would work.”
    By contrast Netanyahu immediately accepted Trump’s invite.
    “I think the president is seeking to give Israel the peace and security that it deserves,” Netanyahu said on Thursday, Gantz’s office did not immediately confirm whether he accepted Trump’s invitation.
CLASHING PERSPECTIVES
    The political aspects of Trump’s peace initiative have been kept under wraps.    Only the economic proposals have been unveiled, anchored by a $50 billion regional development plan – which Palestinians spurned as it did not address an end to Israeli occupation.
    Israeli headlines on Friday referred to the Trump Summit” and “Trump Deal.”    Nahum Barnea, a political analyst in Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, expected an American green light” for Israel to annex West Bank settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley, which forms the border with Jordan to the east.
    Palestinian newspapers highlighted warnings that such moves would end peace chances and pitch the region into a “new phase.”
    In Tel Aviv, Israelis appeared generally supportive of their leaders going to Washington, even without Palestinians.
    “We don’t have to go back to the previous peace process that was signed over 25, 30 years ago,” said Yael Rozencwajg, 41, a tech executive from Tel Aviv.    “The situation has completely changed since then.    Trump has started recognizing that.”
    In explaining the U.S. change of stance on settlements this month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the new approach would actually advance peace with the Palestinians “by (speaking) the truth when the facts lead to it.”
    Palestinians challenged the U.S. and Israeli stances.
    In al-Auja, a Jordan Valley village flanked by Israeli settlements, Salim Abu Kharbesh, 59, said: “We are the inhabitants of the land, and they have come to us in spite of us, and in violence.    They own nothing in this land.”
    In Gaza, now ruled by Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas which has fought several wars with Israel, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said no U.S. plan could alter realities on the ground.
    “Our people will not accept it, and will confront it with all their might,” he said.
(This story has been refiled to remove repetition in second paragraph)
(Additional reporting by Sinan Abu Mayzer and Nuha Sharaf in Jerusalem, Adel Abu Nimeh in the Jordan Valley, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

1/24/2020 Two Iraqi protesters killed, 25 wounded in clashes with police: sources
FILE PHOTO: Iraqi demonstrators block roads with burning tires during ongoing
anti-government protests, in Baghdad, Iraq January 23, 2020. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Two protesters were killed and 25 wounded on Friday in clashes with security forces in central Baghdad, police and medical sources said.
    The police used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse a protest that broke out in the early evening at Baghdad’s Mohammed al-Qassim highway, they said.
(Reporting by Iraq staff, writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi, Editing by Catherine Evans)

1/24/2020 Erdogan says Turkish military in Libya to train pro-Serraj forces
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a joint news conference with
German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Istanbul, Turkey, January 24, 2020. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
    ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish military personnel being sent to Libya are supporting and training forces of the internationally recognized government of Fayez al-Serraj, Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday.
    Turkey has sent a training and cooperation team to Libya as part of a military cooperation agreement signed in November with Serraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA).
    “We sent, are sending our military delegation to there … We will not leave Serraj alone.    We are determined to provide all the help we can on this point,” Erdogan said.
    Last week, Germany hosted a summit on Libya involving the rival camps, their main foreign backers and representatives which agreed that a permanent ceasefire has to be achieved in Tripoli to allow a political process to take place.
    Speaking in Istanbul after talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Erdogan also said countries which attended the Libya summit in Berlin on Sunday should not favor Serraj’s opponent, Khalifa Haftar, after he left the meeting without signing a ceasefire deal.
    Haftar’s Libya National Army (LNA) faction is supported by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which have for years provided training and weapons, according to U.N. reports.
    Libya has had no stable central authority since Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown by NATO-backed rebels in 2011.    For more than five years, it has had two rival governments, in the east and the west, with streets controlled by armed groups.
(Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Writing by Ezgi Erkoyun; Editing by Dominic Evans)

1/24/2020 Erdogan says 400,000 people in Syria’s Idlib moving toward Turkey
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends a joint news conference with German Chancellor
Angela Merkel in Istanbul, Turkey, January 24, 2020. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
    ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday that around 400,000 people in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province were moving toward the Turkish border as a result of renewed attacks by the Syrian government.
    Turkish aid groups have begun building more than 10,000 houses in Idlib to shelter the growing number of people displaced by the fighting, while Turkey seeks to prevent a new influx of migrants across its border.
    Speaking at a news conference alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Erdogan said she told him that Germany could provide some support for the plans.
(Reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun and Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Dominic Evans)

1/25/2020 Iraqi security forces raid protest camps after Sadr supporters withdraw by Maher Nazih and Thaier Al-Sudani
A demonstrator holds Iraqi flag near burning tires blocking a road, during ongoing
anti-government protests in Nassiriya, Iraq January 25, 2020. REUTERS/Ahmed Dhahi
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi security forces fired bullets and tear gas on Saturday in raids on protest camps in Baghdad and southern cities, killing four people and wounding dozens more, police and medical sources said.
    The new push to end the sit-in protests and restore order came hours after populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has millions of supporters in Baghdad and the south, said he would end his involvement in anti-government unrest.
    Sadr’s supporters, who had bolstered the protesters and sometimes helped shield them from attacks by security forces and unidentified gunmen, began withdrawing from sit-in camps early on Saturday after his announcement.
    Clashes erupted later in the day as authorities removed concrete barriers near Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, where demonstrators have camped out for months, and across at least one main bridge over the Tigris River, Reuters reporters said.
    In the southern city of Basra, demonstrators began returning to the main protest site following a raid by security forces the night before, burning tires and cutting off a main road, security sources said. At least 16 protesters were arrested.
    In the capital, at least one person was killed and more than 30 hurt as police and protesters clashed near Tahrir Square.
    Another three died and 14 were wounded in the southern city of Nassiriya when security forces seized back control of a bridge occupied for days by demonstrators, security sources and medics said.
    Iraqi security forces have used tear gas and live ammunition against mostly peaceful protesters since the unrest broke out in Baghdad on Oct. 1.    More than 450 people have died in the violence, according to a Reuters tally from police and medics.
MONTHS OF UNREST
    The demonstrators are demanding the removal of what they see as a corrupt ruling elite and an end to foreign interference in domestic politics, especially by Iran, which has come to dominate state institutions since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in a 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
    Saturday’s multiple raids appeared to be an attempt by authorities to fully clear the sit-ins and end months of unrest.
    The security operations were launched hours after Sadr said he would halt the involvement of his supporters.
    Sadr had backed the demands of protesters for the removal of corrupt politicians and for the provision of services and jobs soon after the demonstrations began in October, but stopped short of calling all his followers to join in.
    Many of Sadr’s millions of supporters, often hailing from Baghdad’s slums, have however been involved in the protests.
    Sadr’s followers, in a rally on Friday separate from the anti-government protests, called for the removal of U.S. troops from the country.    The march dissipated after several hours.
    Sadr wrote on Twitter late on Friday he would “try not to interfere in the issue (of protesters), either negatively or positively, so that they can shepherd the fate of Iraq.”    He did not elaborate.
    In Basra, protesters urged him to reconsider.    In a letter circulated on social media, they called for the support of Sadrists, without which they feared attacks by security forces.
(Reporting by Maher Nazih and Thaier al-Sudani; Additional reporting by John Davison, Aziz El Yaakoubi, Nadine Awadalla, and Reuters TV in Baghdad, and Aref Mohammed in Basra; Editing by Helen Popper and David Holmes)

1/25/2020 Lebanese security fire water cannons at protesters
A demonstrator holds the Lebanese flag during a protest against the newly formed government outside
the government headquarters in downtown Beirut, Lebanon January 25, 2020. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese security forces on Saturday fired water cannons and tear gas at anti-government protesters trying to breach a security barricade outside government headquarters in central Beirut.
    Some protesters among the hundreds who had gathered for a planned march managed to open a metal gate blocking their way but were pushed back.
    After Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces used Twitter to warn peaceful demonstrators to leave for their own safety, riot police fanned out to disperse dozens of remaining protesters.
    “We want the demonstrations to be peaceful so they can prevail,” said Abdo Saadeh, criticizing a government formed this week as a “masquerade” by a political elite that protesters blame for driving the country towards collapse.
    The Iranian-backed group Hezbollah and its allies formed a cabinet of technocrats nominated by their parties under Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who was tapped for the job after protests forced former premier Saad al-Hariri to resign on Oct. 29.
    “We came here today because there is no trust in this government,” Saadeh said.    “They brought their cronies, their consultants.”
    The new government must tackle a financial emergency that has sunk the currency, pushed up prices and driven banks to impose capital controls.    Security conditions have deteriorated, with hundreds injured last weekend in clashes between demonstrators and security forces.
    “We want a government of independents, not parties,” said demonstrator Reema Ajouz.    “Independents can save the country.    With the politicians we have we are headed to the precipice.”
(Reporting by Reuters TV team; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Giles Elgood)

1/25/2020 Turkish President Erdogan visits area damaged by 6.9 magnitude earthquake by OAN Newsroom
Rescuers work on a collapsed building after a strong earthquake struck in Elazig
in the eastern Turkey, Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020. (IHA via AP)
    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is promising state support for the victims of Friday’s earthquake in the eastern part of the country.    Erdogan visited one of the hardest hit areas on Saturday as rescue workers continued searching for victims in the rubble of collapsed buildings.
    The latest reports revealed 29 people were killed and more than 1,200 were injured following the 6.9 magnitude quake.
    The Turkish president offered support for those affected and said the country is doing everything it can.
    “Together, with all our institutions, our government will use every means possible. As a result of these efforts, hopefully, we are trying to rescue our citizens, (who are) maybe injured but alive.    May those who lost their lives rest in peace.    I wish speedy recovery for the injured, and I would like to thank to our nation for their solidarity.” – Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey
Rescuers work on a collapsed building after a strong earthquake struck in Elazig
in the eastern Turkey, Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020. (IHA via AP)
    Emergency workers and security forces distributed tents and blankets in affected areas while mosques, schools and other shelters were opened to the homeless.    Around 30 buildings were destroyed in the quake while hundreds of others were damaged or deemed unsafe.

1/26/2020 Turkey quake rescue winds down after dozens pulled from rubble by Umit Ozdal
Rescue workers search the site of a collapsed building, after an earthquake
in Elazig, Turkey, January 26, 2020. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
    ELAZIG, Turkey (Reuters) – A thousands-strong rescue operation to pull survivors from collapsed buildings in eastern Turkey began winding down on Sunday, a day and a half after a powerful earthquake killed dozens.
    Teams had worked through the night to rescue 45 people from the rubble, the disaster authority said, using drills, mechanical diggers, buckets and bare hands in the search for survivors at three sites in Elazig province.
    The magnitude 6.8 quake struck on Friday evening, killing 31 people there and four in the neighboring province of Malatya, with more than 1,600 sustaining injuries.    It was followed by more than 700 aftershocks, Disaster and Emergency Authority AFAD said.
    Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said the bulk of the massive rescue operation was concluded, though emergency teams had pinpointed six people still trapped under rubble.
    “It has been around 36 hours (since the quake), but we are still in the hours where we can hope,” he told a news conference in Elazig, some 550 km (340 miles) east of the capital Ankara.
    Health Minister Fahrettin Koca, speaking alongside Soylu, said 104 people were being treated in hospitals, of whom 13 were in intensive care. None were in a critical condition, however.
    Other provinces had earlier sent thousands of emergency workers to support rescue efforts, which were also supplemented by hundreds of volunteers, officials said.    Tents, beds and blankets were provided to shelter those displaced by the quake.
MOTHER AND INFANT PULLED FREE
    Those rescued overnight included a 35-year-old woman and her infant daughter, who broadcast footage showed emerging from rubble in the Mustafa Pasa district of Elazig.
    Rescuers who heard their screams had taken several hours to reach them in temperatures as low as -4 degrees Celsius (24.8°F), state media said.    The woman’s husband was among those who died.
    In a nearby neighborhood, others stood on mountains of debris where the quake had split an apartment building in half.    They dug through using buckets, blowing whistles when they needed silence to listen out for trapped people.
    Environment and Urbanization Minister Murat Kurum told the same news conference that the quake had damaged buildings in several provinces, and 12 structures needed to be demolished immediately.
    Soylu said those affected by the quake would start receiving financial support from Monday, while AFAD urged residents not to return to damaged buildings because of the potential risk of collapse.
    Speaking on Saturday during a visit to Elazig and Malatya, President Tayyip Erdogan said steel-framed houses would be rapidly built in the region to provide housing for displaced residents, calling the test for Turkey.
    The country has a history of powerful earthquakes.
    More than 17,000 people were killed in August 1999 when a 7.6 magnitude quake struck Izmit, a city southeast of Istanbul.    In 2011, a quake in the eastern city of Van killed more than 500.
(Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by John Stonestreet)

1/26/2020 Iraq security forces clash with protesters in Baghdad, other cities by Aziz El Yaakoubi
Iraqi demonstrators burn tires to block a road during ongoing anti-government
protests in Najaf, Iraq January 26, 2020. REUTERS/Alaa al-Marjani
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi security forces fired teargas and live bullets in renewed clashes with protesters in Baghdad and other cities on Sunday, a Reuters witness and security sources said, following a push to clear a sit-in camps across the country.
    Demonstrators are demanding the removal of what they see as a corrupt ruling elite and an end to foreign interference in domestic politics, especially by Iran, which has come to dominate state institutions since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in a 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
    Iraqi populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for demonstrations against the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Sunday and in other cities.
    This followed a large march on Friday in which tens of thousands protested against the U.S. military presence in Iraq.
    Protesters on Sunday threw petrol bombs and stones at security forces which responded by firing tear gas canisters and live rounds into the air.
    The authorities’ latest attempt to push back protesters and restore order came after Sadr, who has millions of supporters in Baghdad and the south, said on Saturday he would end his involvement in anti-government unrest.
    “We protest because we have a cause, I don’t think Moqtada Sadr or any other politician will change our mind,” said a protester in Baghdad who declined to give his name.
    Sadr’s supporters had bolstered the protesters and sometimes helped shield them from attacks by security forces and unidentified gunmen, but began withdrawing from sit-in camps on Saturday following his announcement.
    Security forces then removed concrete barriers near Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, where demonstrators have camped out for months, and across at least one main bridge over the Tigris River.
    “I don’t go to protests often but I came out today because of what they did yesterday, I want to express my solidarity with my brothers in Tahrir,” said Hussain Ali, a student.
    Protesters in the capital were coughing and washing their faces and eyes to rid themselves of the effects of the gas while Iraqi Red Cross workers provided first aid, as the site was inaccessible to ambulances, a Reuters reporter said.
    At least 14 protesters were injured in the clashes in the capital, security and medical sources said.
    Tuk tuks evacuated wounded protesters in clouds of tear gas and black smoke from burning tires.
    Earlier on Sunday, hundreds of university students gathered in Tahrir square, the main protest camp, chanting slogans against the U.S. and Iran.
UNREST IN THE SOUTH
    Clashes with security forces in the southern city of Nassiriya left at least 17 protesters wounded, four of them by live bullets, police and medical sources said.
    Protesters set fire to two security vehicles in the city center and as hundreds of other demonstrators controlled the key bridges in the city, a Reuters witness said.
    In the southern city of Basra, more than 2000 students from different universities pooled into the protest camp, another Reuters witness said.
    Protests also continued in the cities of Kerbala, Najaf, and Diwaniya in defiance to attempts by security forces to end their months-long sit-in, police sources and Reuters witnesses said.
    The unrest resumed last week after a lull of several weeks, following U.S. air strikes that killed Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani and an Iraqi militia commander.
    The killing of Soleimani, to which Iran responded by ballistic missile attacks on two Iraqi military bases, has revived tensions in Iraq’s domestic politics and delayed the formation of a new government.
(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi and Iraq staff; Additional reporting by John Davison and Ahmed Rasheed; Writing by Nadine Awadalla, Editing by William Maclean and Toby Chopra)

1/26/2020 Syrian government forces capture towns in advance on rebel-held Idlib
FILE PHOTO: Trucks carry belongings of people fleeing from Maarat al-Numan,
in northern Idlib, Syria December 24, 2019. REUTERS/Mahmoud Hassano/File Photo
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian government forces have taken control of several towns in northwestern Idlib province, a war monitor and Syrian state media reported, amid a renewed push by President Bashar al-Assad to recapture the last rebel stronghold.
    Hundreds of thousands of people have fled Idlib in recent weeks amid stepped up air strikes by Russian and Syrian forces aimed at clearing the opposition from its last redoubt after almost nine years of civil war.
    The Syrian Observatory, a war monitor, said on Sunday that six towns in the Idlib countryside had fallen to Syrian government forces in the past 24 hours.
    The Observatory said the government advance, backed by heavy Russian airstrikes, has brought Assad’s forces to the outskirts of Maarat al-Numan, a strategic urban center about 33 km (20 miles) south of the city of Idlib on a highway that connects Damascus to Aleppo.
    The push deeper into rebel-held territory has taken place despite a deal between Turkey and Russia, which back opposing sides in the conflict, for a Jan. 12 ceasefire.
    Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday that around 400,000 people from Idlib province were moving towards the Turkish border as a result of the surge in violence.
    Turkey, which has a presence in the area and is seen by many civilians as a protector against Russian strikes, already hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees and fears that millions more could cross the border.
    Moscow and Damascus say they are fighting jihadist militants that have stepped up attacks on civilians in Aleppo city in northern Syria, but rescue workers and rights groups say air strikes have hit civilian areas including hospitals and schools.
    “The army’s response will not be limited to the origins of attacks by armed terrorist organizations and will include devastating field operations that will not cease until the remnants of armed terrorism is uprooted,” a military source was quoted as saying by state news agency SANA.
(Reporting by Ghaida Ghantous, Eric Knecht, Khalil Ashawi, Editing by William Maclean)

1/26/2020 Erdogan says Haftar pursues Libya attacks ‘with all his resources’
FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a joint news conference with
German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Istanbul, Turkey, January 24, 2020. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Eastern military commander Khalifa Haftar is violating Libya’s truce and so cannot be expected to respect the ceasefire called between his forces and pro-government troops, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday.
    Despite efforts by Turkey and Russia, Haftar abandoned talks on a ceasefire in Moscow earlier this month and his blockade of Libyan oilfields overshadowed a summit in Berlin last week aimed at agreeing on a permanent truce.
    His Libyan National Army (LNA) faction aims to capture the capital, Tripoli, through the backing of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russian mercenaries and African troops.
    Turkey meanwhile backs Fayez al-Serraj’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).
    Fighting has abated in the past weeks but picked up at the weekend at the frontline in southern Tripoli, where artillery fire could be heard, a Reuters reporter said.    More than 150,000 people have been displaced by the months of fighting.
    Speaking before leaving on a visit to Algeria, Erdogan said Haftar’s forces had repeatedly violated the ceasefire, adding that international support for the LNA was “spoiling” Haftar.
    “At this point, we need to see clearly what Haftar’s identity is. He is a man who has betrayed his superiors before as well,” Erdogan said.    “It is not possible to expect mercy and understanding from someone like this on the ceasefire.”
    “He’s continuing attacks with all his resources.    However, he will not be successful here.”
    Libya has had no stable central authority since the toppling of strongman Muammar Gaddafi by NATO-backed rebels in 2011.    It has had two rival governments, in the east and the west, for more than five years, with streets controlled by armed groups.
    Turkey has repeatedly said Haftar must choose a political solution to the conflict and has urged foreign powers to press the commander into a truce.    It has also sent military advisers and trainers to help the GNA fend off Haftar’s assault on Tripoli.
    Ankara has said that it will abide by a United Nations arms embargo on Libya as long as the ceasefire is maintained, but has said it could also deploy troops if necessary.
    In Berlin, foreign powers agreed to form a special committee made up of five military officials from each side to shore up the shaky truce.    They are due to meet for the first time this week in Geneva.
    Erdogan said on Sunday he did not expected a result from that committee due to Haftar’s stance.
    Turkey, the UAE, Egypt, Russia and western countries agreed in Berlin to uphold an existing arms embargo.    But the U.N. mission in Libya said on Saturday numerous cargo flights bringing advanced weapons, trucks and fighters from countries who took part in the summit have been landing in western and eastern Libya.
(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu, Ahmed Elumami and Ayman al-Warfalli; Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ulf Laessing; Editing by John Stonestreet and Frances Kerry)

1/26/2020 Israel approves travel to Saudi under limited circumstances
FILE PHOTO: Muslims pray at the Grand Mosque during the annual Hajj pilgrimage in their
holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia August 8, 2019. REUTERS/Waleed Ali/File Photo
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel on Sunday announced that it would permit Israeli citizens to travel to Saudi Arabia for the first time, under certain conditions.
    Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, after consulting with the country’s security establishment, issued a statement saying that Israelis would be allowed to travel to Saudi Arabia under two circumstances: for religions reasons on pilgrimage on the haj, or for up to nine days for business reasons such as investment or meetings.
    Travelers would still need permission from the Saudi authorities, the statement said.
(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch. Editing by Stephen Farrell)

1/26/2020 Syrian government forces capture towns in advance on rebel-held Idlib
FILE PHOTO: Trucks carry belongings of people fleeing from Maarat al-Numan,
in northern Idlib, Syria December 24, 2019. REUTERS/Mahmoud Hassano/File Photo
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian government forces have taken control of several towns in northwestern Idlib province, a war monitor and Syrian state media reported, amid a renewed push by President Bashar al-Assad to recapture the last rebel stronghold.
    Hundreds of thousands of people have fled Idlib in recent weeks amid stepped up air strikes by Russian and Syrian forces aimed at clearing the opposition from its last redoubt after almost nine years of civil war.
    The Syrian Observatory, a war monitor, said on Sunday that six towns in the Idlib countryside had fallen to Syrian government forces in the past 24 hours.
    The Observatory said the government advance, backed by heavy Russian airstrikes, has brought Assad’s forces to the outskirts of Maarat al-Numan, a strategic urban center about 33 km (20 miles) south of the city of Idlib on a highway that connects Damascus to Aleppo.
    The push deeper into rebel-held territory has taken place despite a deal between Turkey and Russia, which back opposing sides in the conflict, for a Jan. 12 ceasefire.
    Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday that around 400,000 people from Idlib province were moving towards the Turkish border as a result of the surge in violence.
    Turkey, which has a presence in the area and is seen by many civilians as a protector against Russian strikes, already hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees and fears that millions more could cross the border.
    Moscow and Damascus say they are fighting jihadist militants that have stepped up attacks on civilians in Aleppo city in northern Syria, but rescue workers and rights groups say air strikes have hit civilian areas including hospitals and schools.
    “The army’s response will not be limited to the origins of attacks by armed terrorist organizations and will include devastating field operations that will not cease until the remnants of armed terrorism is uprooted,” a military source was quoted as saying by state news agency SANA.
(Reporting by Ghaida Ghantous, Eric Knecht, Khalil Ashawi, Editing by William Maclean)

1/26/2020 Rescuers dig for survivors after Turkey quake kills at least 29 by Umit Ozdal
Rescuers work on a damaged building after an earthquake in Elazig, Turkey, January 25, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer
    ELAZIG, Turkey (Reuters) – Rescuers searched on Saturday for survivors trapped under the rubble of collapsed buildings after a powerful earthquake hit eastern Turkey late on Friday, killing 29 people and injuring more than 1,400.
    Turkish broadcasters showed footage of rescuers pulling people out from under the debris, some around 21 hours after the quake.
    Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said an estimated 22 people were still trapped.    Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Authority (AFAD) said later that 43 people had been rescued so far.
    The magnitude 6.8 quake shook Elazig province, about 550 km (340 miles) east of the capital Ankara, shortly before 9 p.m. (1800 GMT), and was followed by 462 aftershocks, according to AFAD.
    Rescue teams worked through the night with their hands, drills and mechanical diggers to remove bricks and plaster from collapsed buildings in Elazig, where the overnight temperature dipped to -8 degrees Celsius (17.6°Fahrenheit).    Similar cold was expected on Saturday night.
    “Our houses collapsed … we cannot go inside them,” said a 32-year-old man from the town of Sivrice, epicenter of the quake.
    “In our village some people lost their lives.    I hope God will help us,” said the man, who gave only his first name, Sinasi.    “Our animals died.    Our families gathered around the fire to spend the night, covered with blankets,” Sinasi said as he and a relative tried to warm themselves by a small fire.
    Twenty-five people were killed in Elazig and four more in the neighboring province of Malatya, AFAD said, adding 1,466 others were injured.
    Health Minster Fahrettin Koca said 128 injured people were receiving treatment and that 34 of those were in intensive care, but not in critical condition.
A ‘TEST’ FOR TURKEY
    President Tayyip Erdogan canceled his plans in Istanbul on Saturday and traveled to Elazig and Malatya to inspect rescue efforts.    He also attended a funeral for a woman and her son killed in the quake, which he described as a “test” for Turkey.
    “We are doing everything we can as the state and nation, and we will continue to do so.    Our efforts at all rescue sites will continue,” he said at the funeral, adding state house developer TOKI would make sure no one was left “hungry or in the open.”
    He said steel-framed houses would be rapidly built in the region to provide housing for displaced residents.
    AFAD warned residents not to return to damaged buildings because of the danger of further aftershocks.    It said beds, blankets and tents were sent to the area, where some people sheltered in sports halls.
    Turkey’s Kizilay aid group also sent food, heaters and other materials to the region.
    Officials had identified 514 heavily damaged and 409 lightly damaged buildings in Elazig and Malatya, AFAD said in a statement.    It said there were also 72 collapsed structures in the two provinces.
    Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul said a prison in the nearby Adiyaman province was being evacuated due to damage to the building.    He said the 814 inmates were being transferred to prisons in three nearby provinces, while the 126 inmates at a women’s prison in Elazig were also transferred.
    On Friday night, Interior Minister Soylu described the quake as a “Level 3” incident according to the country’s emergency response plan, meaning it called for a national response but did not require international help.
LESSONS FROM THE PAST
    Turkey had learnt lessons from previous disasters that helped it address Friday’s incident, he said.
    Drones were deployed in search operations and to communicate between provinces.
    Emergency teams and rescue equipment were sent from other provinces to Elazig, with thousands of rescuers and medical personnel on the ground to look for and help survivors.
    Several municipalities sent supplies and officials to help in the aid effort.    Turkish Airlines put on additional flights to Elazig from Ankara and Istanbul to help transport rescuers.
    Turkey, which straddles seismic faultlines, has a history of powerful earthquakes.
    More than 17,000 people were killed in August 1999 when a 7.6 magnitude quake struck the western city of Izmit, 90 km (55 miles) southeast of Istanbul. About 500,000 people were made homeless.
(Reporting by Umit Ozdal in Elazig; Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun, Dominic Evans, Tuvan Gumrukcu, Omer Berberoglu, Mert Ozkan and Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Michael Perry, Mark Potter and Frances Kerry)

1/26/2020 Netanyahu touts visit with President Trump to discuss peace plans by OAN Newsroom
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs his weekly cabinet meeting at his office
in Jerusalem on Sunday, January 26, 2020. (Dedi Hayun/Pool Photo via AP)
    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is hoping to “make history” during his upcoming White House visit.    He expressed enthusiasm for his meeting with President Trump shortly before leaving for Washington D.C. on Sunday.
    “I depart to Washington with a sense of a great mission, great responsibility and a great opportunity,” stated Netanyahu.    “I am hopeful that we will be able to make history.”
    The president extended invitations to both Netanyahu and the prime minister’s main rival, Benny Gantz, to discuss peace plans for the Middle East.
    The prime minister said his close relationship with President Trump is incredibly beneficial for Israel and a once in a lifetime opportunity.
    “Tens of talks, hundreds of hours,” said Netanyahu.    “In all of these conversations, I found an attentive ear in the White House for Israel’s essential needs.”
    For years, the Trump administration has been working to broker a peace deal between Israel and Palestine.

1/26/2020 One killed in truck blast in northern Syria’s Azaz – civil defense forces
People stand near a burnt car at the site of a truck blast in Azaz, Syria January 26, 2020. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
    AZAZ (Reuters) – A truck packed with explosives blew up in the city of Azaz in northern Syria on Sunday, killing one person and wounding a number of others, civil defense forces said.
    There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
    Turkish-backed Syrian rebels opposed to President Bashar al-Assad control Azaz, which falls near the Turkish border.
    The civil defense forces said that seven had been severely wounded and were transferred to Turkey for treatment.
(The civil defence forces officialy corrects number of dead to one from seven)
(Reporting by Khalil Ashawi, Editing by William Maclean)

1/27/2020 Trump to unveil Middle East peace plan to Israeli leaders this week by Steve Holland and Dan Williams
Israel's centrist party leader Benny Gantz speaks to reporters as he arrives on a flight via Zurich ahead of his meeting with
U.S. President Donald Trump, at Dulles International Airport near Washington, U.S. January 26, 2020. REUTERS/Joshua Lott
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to disclose details of his long-delayed Middle East peace proposal to Israeli leaders on Monday, as he attempts to generate some momentum toward resolving one of the world’s most intractable problems.
    Trump will hold separate, back-to-back meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, the head of the centrist Blue and White Party, who is Netanyahu’s rival in March 2 elections.
    On Tuesday, Trump will deliver joint remarks with Netanyahu at the White House, where the president may reveal details of his peace proposal.
    The two days of foreign policy meetings will provide Trump with a contrast from the trial in the Republican-led Senate that is weighing articles of impeachment against him approved by the Democratic-led House of Representatives.
    But whether it truly will jumpstart the long-stalled effort to bring Israelis and Palestinians together is far from certain.
    Palestinians have refused to engage the Trump administration on the effort and roundly denounced a $50-billion economic revival plan it set forth last July to lift the Palestinian and neighboring Arab state economies.
    Palestinians fear the plan will dash their hopes for an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
    The White House hope was that if Trump could get the support of both Netanyahu and Gantz for the plan, it would help provide some momentum.    A U.S. official said Trump wants to know both Netanyahu and Gantz are on board with the plan before announcing it.
    Trump’s message to both: “You have six weeks to get this (plan) going, if you want it,” the official said.     Having both leaders present helps take the politics out of the effort, said a U.S. source familiar with internal deliberations.
    “The rationale…is it depoliticizes this to the point that, no matter what happens on March 2, the two leaders of the two largest parties can potentially be supportive,” the source said.
    The Trump plan is the product of three years’ effort by senior advisers Jared Kushner and Avi Berkowitz, as well as Jason Greenblatt, who left the government last autumn.
    Trump last year had hoped to release his secret proposal aimed at triggering negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, but was forced to delay it as Netanyahu struggled to form a governing coalition.
    The proposal, more than 50 pages long, aims to take on some of the most difficult issues separating the two, such as the status of Jerusalem.    Palestinians want the city’s eastern part as their future capital.
    Trump, talking to reporters on Air Force One on Thursday, said he was eager to release his plan.
    “They say that’s the hardest of all deals.    I love doing deals,” he said.
    Netanyahu, a veteran right-wing leader, faces political and legal troubles at home as he heads for his third election in less than a year, and was indicted on criminal charges in November. He denies any wrongdoing.
    Netanyahu’s principal domestic political rival, Gantz, a centrist former general, last week lifted his objection to having the peace plan published before Israel’s March election.    He had previously seen it as interference in the vote.
    “I am looking forward to meeting the president – a president of utmost friendliness to the State of Israel – on a matter that is very important for the State of Israel – with national, strategic and security ramifications,” Gantz told reporters as he landed in Washington on Sunday.
    “We will hold a back-and-forth, get to know one another, and take it from there.”
    But Trump, preoccupied with November’s re-election bid, faces his own political clock, and can ill afford to wait months for Israel to decide its next prime minister, a U.S. official said.
(Reporting by Steve Holland and Dan Williams; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

1/27/2020 Two more missing after Turkey quake kills 39 by Umit Bektas
A rescue worker searches at the site of a collapsed building, after an earthquake in Elazig, Turkey, January 27, 2020. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
    ELAZIG, Turkey (Reuters) – The death toll rose to 39 from the earthquake that struck eastern Turkey on Friday, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said on Monday, as rescue teams continued the search for two others who remained under a collapsed building.
    The magnitude 6.8 quake caused 35 deaths in Elazig province and four in neighboring Malatya.    More than 1,600 others were hurt, including 86 still being treated in hospitals, though none were in serious condition, the government said.
    The two remaining people were under the remains of a building in Elazig, about 550 km (340 miles) east of Ankara.
    Forty-five people had been rescued from under the rubble so far in the search, which was winding down on Sunday evening.
    Authorities have warned residents not to enter damaged buildings because of the danger of collapse and further aftershocks, leaving many without a home in a region where temperatures fell to -6 C (21.2°F) on Monday morning.
    Addressing reporters in Elazig, Soylu updated the death toll and said the government would provide financial support to those whose homes were damaged.    Some 1,000 temporary homes would be built, and some schools and mosques were now being used as shelters, he added.
    Urbanization Minister Murat Kurum said authorities had started demolishing 22 damaged buildings in Elazig.    Construction of some 2,000 new houses in the province is expected to be completed by year end, he added.
    Turkey has a history of powerful earthquakes.    More than 17,000 people were killed in August 1999 when a 7.6 magnitude quake struck Izmit, a city southeast of Istanbul.    In 2011, a quake in the eastern city of Van killed more than 500.
(Reporting by Umit Bektas; Writing by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Jonathan Spicer)

1/27/2020 Lebanese protesters throw rocks at police near parliament
A protestor throws a stone at the riot police during a protest against the
political elite in Beirut, Lebanon January 27, 2020. REUTERS/Aziz Taher
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese protesters hurled rocks and metal barricades at security forces blocking a road near parliament on Monday ahead of a budget debate as Lebanon grapples with a deep financial crisis.
    Some protesters have rejected a new cabinet formed last week and accuse the political elite of ignoring demands that include an independent government and fighting corruption.
    MPs are expected to vote on a budget that was first drafted by the Saad al-Hariri-led government that quit in October, prompted by the protests.
    Parliament’s finance and budget committee has introduced changes since then.    Its chairman, Ibrahim Kanaan, told Reuters on Friday the latest projection was for a budget with a deficit of 7% instead of the originally hoped-for 0.6%, reflecting the crisis.
(Reporting by Eric Knecht; Editing by Tom Perry and Kevin Liffey)

1/27/2020 Lebanese PM won’t obstruct budget drafted by previous cabinet
Lebanon's Prime Minister Hassan Diab arrives to discuss the state budget at the parliament
building in downtown Beirut, Lebanon January 27, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab said on Monday his government would not obstruct the 2020 budget that was prepared by the government of Saad al-Hariri, who quit in October.
    Diab was speaking at the start of a parliamentary debate on the 2020 budget.    Diab’s government was formed last week with backing from the powerful Hezbollah group and its political allies, but has yet to win a vote of confidence in parliament.
(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

1/27/2020 4 protesters killed, dozens wounded in ongoing anti-government demonstrations in Iraq by OAN Newsroom
A riot policeman pins down a female anti-government protester to search her while security forces try to
disperse demonstrators during clashes in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
    Dozens of anti-government protesters have been wounded as demonstrations continue in Iraq.    Hundreds of people took to the streets in Baghdad on Saturday in defiance of a Shi’ite cleric who withdrew his support for the movement.
    The protests began peacefully before security forces used tear gas to disperse crowds.    Four protesters reportedly died during the encounter.
    Iraqi security forces raided several anti-government encampments in multiple cities, where they then proceeded to burn their tents.
    “Removing the tents from the square actually didn’t affect us at all.    In fact, yesterday, for each tent was removed, two or three has been replaced in place of it.” — Manqidh Mundhir, protester – Iraq
    Mass demonstrations in Iraq began last year and stemmed from anger at U.S. counter-terror strikes, corruption and economic inequality.

1/27/2020 Thousands flee northwest Syria as Assad pushes closer to Idlib city by Khalil Ashawi
Displaced Syrian children ride with belongings at a back of a truck, in Azaz, Syria
January 24, 2020. Picture taken January 24, 2020. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
    AZAZ, Syria (Reuters) – A renewed drive by President Bashar al-Assad to recapture rebel-held territory in Syria’s northwest sparked a fresh exodus of many thousands of civilians toward Turkey’s border on Monday amid heavy air strikes, aid workers and witnesses said.
    Syrian government forces backed by Russian air power have stepped up a campaign to recapture Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold where millions took refuge after fleeing other parts of Syria earlier in its nearly nine-year civil war.
    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said Assad’s forces had since Friday wrestled control of 22 towns and had cut through a strategic highway in Idlib that links the capital Damascus to Aleppo in northern Syria.
    It said the Syrian army had encircled and was close to capturing Maarat al-Numan, an urban center 33 km (20 miles) south of Idlib city.     This would mark a significant advance for Assad’s drive to take back all of Syria.
    A rescue worker who posted a video from Maarat al-Numan said the city had been devastated by an assault of barrel bombs, missiles and shelling in recent days that had laid waste to scores of homes and vital infrastructure.
    “Marat al-Numan is completely destroyed and its population has been displaced and is living in uncertainty,” said the civil defense force worker, who did not identify himself.
    Moscow and Damascus say they are fighting jihadist militants that have stepped up attacks on civilians in Aleppo, but rights groups and rescue workers say air strikes have demolished hospitals, schools and other civilian areas.
    The renewed fighting comes despite a Jan. 12 ceasefire deal between Turkey and Russia, which back opposing sides of the conflict.
    Fouad Sayed Issa, an aid worker with the Violet Organization in northern Syria, said Assad’s latest campaign has frightened Syrians in the rebel enclave who fear death or arrest if their towns are recaptured.
    “Over the past few days we have seen thousands of new internally displaced persons and we are talking here at the very least about 50,000 over the past four days,” said Issa.
    A witness said that thousands on Monday fled from the Idlib towns of Ariha and Saraqib, with trucks and cars seen crawling in gridlocked traffic toward areas, including the town of Azaz, close to the Turkish border.
    The Observatory estimated that about 120,000 people had fled from countryside around Aleppo and Idlib over the past 12 days. Aid workers said most have moved to relatively safer parts of northern Syria near the Turkish frontier.
    Turkey, which backs some rebel groups opposed to Assad, already hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees and fears that millions more could soon cross the border.
(This story was refiled to add word “city” to headline.)
(Reporting by Khalil Ashawi; Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

1/27/2020 Violence escalates in Iraq as government pushes to end protests by Aziz El Yaakoubi and Nadine Awadalla
Iraqi demonstrators run from tear gas thrown during ongoing anti-government
protests in Baghdad, Iraq January 27, 2020. REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa al-Deen
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Gunmen shot dead two protesters in Iraq’s southern city of Nassiriya overnight and a Baghdad district became a battlefield on the third day of a drive by security forces to end months of demonstrations against the largely Iran-backed ruling elite.
    Clashes over the weekend had already killed at least five protesters.    Rockets also hit the U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone housing government buildings.
    Ambassadors of 16 countries in Baghdad including the U.S., France and Britain condemned the use of live fire by Iraqi security forces and called for a credible investigation into the deaths of more than 500 protesters since October.
    Security sources said three people were wounded when at least one rocket landed in the U.S. embassy compound, the first time in years that an attack on the Green Zone – a regular occurrence – had actually hurt staff there.
    The Irai military said five Katyusha rockets had hit the Green Zone late on Sunday, without reporting casualties.    The U.S. embassy was not immediately available for comment.
    Authorities began the pushback on Saturday to try to end protests that began in the capital on Oct. 1 and in other southern cities.     Demonstrators are demanding the removal of all politicians, free elections and an end to corruption.
    In Nassiriya, at least 75 protesters were wounded, mainly by live bullets, in overnight clashes when security forces tried to move them away from bridges in the city, police and health sources said.
    Unknown gunmen in four pickup trucks had attacked the main protest camp there, shooting dead the two people and setting fire to demonstrators’ tents before fleeing the scene, the sources said.
    Some protesters began building more permanent structures using bricks, Reuters witnesses said, while others broke into a police office on Monday and set fire to at least five police vehicles parked inside.
    The leaderless movement is an unprecedented challenge to Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim-dominated and largely Iran-backed ruling elite, which emerged after a U.S.-led invasion toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
REVOLUTION
    Pitched battles raged in the Khilani area of central Baghdad near Tahrir Square, on Monday with protesters throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at security forces using tear gas, live rounds in the air and slingshots to push them back.
    Some of the demonstrators danced on the protest frontline while others shielded themselves behind concrete blocks and trees or by using metal sheets.
    “This revolution is peaceful.    They use various kinds of fire against us, live ammunition, bullets and teargas canisters. I got injured in my face,” said Allawi, a hooded protester who gave only his first name.
    Tuk tuks darted through the crowd to help the wounded and carried away protesters suffering from teargas inhalation.
    Demonstrations continued in other southern cities, despite repeated attempts by security forces to clear up their camps.
    Nearly 500 people have been killed in the unrest, with both security forces and unidentified gunmen shooting people dead.
    After a lull earlier this month, demonstrations resumed; protesters have controlled three key bridges in Baghdad and maintain camps and road blocks in several cities in the south.
    The government has responded with violence and piecemeal reform.    The international community has condemned the violence but not intervened to stop it.
    Saturday’s push by the authorities began after populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said on Friday that he would halt the involvement of his supporters in the demonstrations.
    Sadr had backed the demands of protesters for the removal of corrupt politicians and for the provision of services and jobs soon after the demonstrations began in October, but stopped short of calling on all his followers to join in.
    “Everyone has come out protesting against the government,” said Hussain, a protester.    “We demand that all politicians resign and get out.    We don’t want Moqtada or any of them.”
(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi, Nadine Awadalla, Baghdad bureau, John Irish in Paris; Writing by Ahmed Rasheed, Editing by William Maclean and Philipaa Fletcher)

1/27/2020 Saudi minister says Israeli passport holders cannot visit: CNN
FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Faisal attends a meeting with Greek Foreign Minister
Nikos Dendias (not pictured) at the Foreign Ministry in Athens, Greece January 24, 2020. REUTERS/Costas Baltas
    RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said Israelis were not welcome to visit the kingdom after Israel decreed that Israeli citizens could visit Saudi Arabia under certain circumstances, CNN reported on Monday.
    “Our policy is fixed. We do not have relations with the state of Israel and Israeli passport holders cannot visit the kingdom at the current time,” the U.S. broadcaster quoted Prince Faisal bin Farhan as saying.
    A statement from Israel’s interior minister on Sunday said Israelis – if invited and permitted by Saudi authorities – would be allowed to travel there for religious reasons on pilgrimage or for up to nine days for business reasons such as investment or meetings.
    Israelis, mostly Muslims going on pilgrimage, have for years been visiting the kingdom, which hosts the two holiest sites in Islam, but usually with special permission or using foreign passports.
    When a peace agreement is reached between the Palestinians and the Israelis, I believe the issue of Israel’s involvement in the region will be on the table,” Prince Faisal said.
    U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to disclose details of his Middle East peace plan to Israeli leaders on Monday, as Palestinian officials decried it as a bid “to finish off” the Palestinian cause.

(Reporting by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Alex Richardson)

1/28/2020 Netanyahu withdraws bid for parliamentary immunity from prosecution on corruption charges by Stephen Farrell and Jeffrey Heller
FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to a nomination ceremony at Israeli
President Reuven Rivlin's residence in Jerusalem September 25, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday he is withdrawing his bid for parliamentary immunity from prosecution on corruption charges.
    Israel’s longest-serving prime minister said in a statement the immunity proceedings in parliament would have been a “circus” and he did not want to take part in this “dirty game.”
    Netanyahu, who denies all wrongdoing, said: “I informed the Knesset speaker that I am withdrawing my immunity request.”     The case now moves toward trial, a process which could take months or years.    The right-winger, who faces a national election in March, is under no legal obligation to resign.
    He is now in Washington for meetings with U.S. President Donald Trump ahead of the release of Trump’s long-delayed Israel-Palestinian peace plan, which the Palestinians have already rejected.
    Israel’s attorney general Avichai Mandelblit indicted Netanyahu on corruption charges – the first of their kind against a serving Israeli prime minister – last November following a long-running investigation.    The charges included bribery, breach of trust and fraud.
    Netanyahu’s political opponents, including the centrist former general Benny Ganytz, made his legal troubles a centerpiece of their campaigns against him in two Israeli elections last year.
    He is suspected of wrongfully accepting $264,000 worth of gifts, which prosecutors said included cigars and champagne, from tycoons and of dispensing favors in alleged bids for improved coverage by Israel’s biggest selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, and the Walla website.Netanyahu could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of bribery and a maximum three-year term for fraud and breach of trust.
(Editing by Angus MacSwan)

1/28/2020 Iraqis rebuild wrecked protest camp as violence escalates
Iraqi demonstrators build camps with bricks to replace tents that were set on fire by unidentified gunmen
during ongoing anti-government protests in Nassiriya, Iraq January 28, 2020. REUTERS/Ahmed Dhahi
    NASSIRIYA, Iraq (Reuters) – Anti-government protesters in the southern Iraqi city of Nassiriya say they will not back down despite the destruction of their camp by gunmen in an attack that left at least two people dead.
    Unidentified gunmen in four vehicles tore through the camp late on Sunday and set the protesters’ tents on fire, police and medical sources said.    The incident came a day after security forces had made a violent nationwide attempt to close down such settlements.
    The protesters said they now intended to make their camp more permanent and on Tuesday they began to clear the ruins and build new huts out of bricks and mortar that would provide better protection.
    “After they burned our tents, we started building with bricks.    And if they destroy the brick-built camp, we will use the bricks of our houses, I swear by God.    We do all that for the sake of our motherland, Iraq,” said one protester, who declined to give his name.
    Mass protests against corruption, economic decline and foreign political interference have rocked Iraq since October.
    Nearly 500 people have been killed while demonstrating against the largely Iranian-backed ruling elite.    After a lull this month, protests resumed in Baghdad and other cities, including Nassiriya, Basra and Najaf.
    Nassiriya has been a major flashpoint with frequent violent clashes between protesters and security forces.
    As they began to put their protest camp back together, volunteers turned al-Haboubi square in central Nassiriya into a construction site.    A giant billboard overlooking the scene reads: “The fearful do not create freedom”
    “We will build with bricks, and if they destroy bricks, we will build with concrete.    Iraqis won’t step back until they regain all rights,” another protester said.
(Reporting by Maher Nazeh; Writing by Nadine Awadalla; Editing by Aziz El Yaakoubi and Giles Elgood)

1/28/2020 Give Lebanon’s cabinet a chance, say Christian religious leaders
FILE PHOTO: Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi visits the Lebanese embassy
in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 13, 2017. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser/File Photo
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s Christian religious authorities on Tuesday urged anti-government protesters to give a new government breathing room to tackle a dire financial crisis, condemning what they described as mob assaults on security forces in recent marches.
    Many demonstrators have rejected the government formed last week by the Iran-backed Shi’ite group Hezbollah and its allies without participation of major political parties including the second-largest Christian party, Lebanese Forces (LF).
    Demonstrations that began last October against a political elite blamed for steering Lebanon into its worst crisis in decades have turned violent as some protesters clashed with security forces at barricades around parliament and government headquarters in central Beirut to demand an independent cabinet.
    “The Fathers stress the right for peaceful demonstrations to demand reform, but strongly reject the mobs on the streets and squares, especially in Beirut, lest the mobilization veers away from its noble goals,” the Christian religious leaders said in a statement after a summit.
    Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai had called the summit which gathered patriarchs of Lebanon’s many Christian sects, according to state news agency NNA. The meeting’s communique was read out in live broadcasts on local media.
    The Christian faith leaders said the government should be given “room to take on its responsibilities,” and called on Arab states and the international community to support Lebanon.
    Lebanon is governed according to a sectarian political system that parcels out state positions according to religious sect. The presidency is reserved for a Maronite Christian.
    The largest Christian party, President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, is close to Hezbollah and has backed the new government, which has yet to issue a policy statement.
    The heavily indebted country’s crisis is rooted in decades of state corruption and waste.    Foreign donors say any support to Lebanon will depend on it enacting long-delayed reforms.
    Prime Minister Hassan Diab said on Tuesday he would not obstruct a state budget drafted by the previous cabinet and approved on Tuesday by parliament in a session boycotted by some parties including the staunchly anti-Hezbollah LF.
(Reporting by Laila Bassam; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Peter Graff)

1/29/2020 Lebanon PM asks government, banks for plan to restore confidence
FILE PHOTO: Lebanon's Prime Minister Hassan Diab attends a parliament session at the parliament
building in downtown Beirut, Lebanon January 27, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab asked the government and banking sector on Wednesday to prepare a plan to restore “the minimum degree of confidence” as the country faces its worst economic and financial crisis in decades.
    At a meeting to discuss the financial and economic situation, Diab said the first impressions he got from the central bank and banking association was that there were still “ways out” of the crisis, a statement said.
(Reporting by Tom Perry/Ellen Francis; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous)
[NO ONE IS FEELING SORRY FOR LEBANON SINCE THEY DID THIS TO THEMSELVES BY ACCEPTING FINANCE FROM HEZBOLLAH WHO IS NOT GETTING MONEY FROM THE MULLAHS OF IRAN BECAUSE OF TRUMP'S TARIFFS AND NOW THEY MAY UNDERSTAND THAT BUT TO GET PEACE IN THAT COUNTRY THE U.S. MAY HAVE TO HELP THEM.].

1/29/2020 Chinese family diagnosed with virus in UAE, first known cases in Middle East by Nafisa Eltahir
A traveller wears a mask at the Dubai International Airport, after the UAE's Ministry of Health and Community Prevention
confirmed the country's first case of coronavirus, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates January 29, 2020. REUTERS/Christopher Pike
    DUBAI (Reuters) – A family from China’s central city of Wuhan staying in the United Arab Emirates has been diagnosed with the new coronavirus, the UAE health ministry said on Wednesday, the first known case in the Middle East.
    The virus originated in Wuhan, capital of China’s Hubei province, and has killed at least 132 people in China.    The UAE is a major air transport hub, with Dubai ranked the world’s third busiest and the hub of Emirates airline.
    It was not immediately clear how many family members had been infected or when they arrived in the UAE.
    The ministry of health and the government communications office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
    The family members were in a stable condition and under medical observation, the ministry said in English and Arabic statements on Twitter.
    The statement did not say where the family was being treated.    The UAE is a country of seven emirates, though the majority of the population lives in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
    The ministry said it was “working around the clock to immediately report any new cases.”
    Nearly 60 cases have been reported in 15 other countries, including the United States, France and Singapore.
    Fears of the spreading virus have already pushed airlines to reduce flights to China.    Emirates said on Wednesday its flights were operating normally.
(Reporting by Nafisa Eltahir, Alexander Cornwell and Lisa Barrington; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Nick Macfie)

1/29/2020 Abu Dis, an unlikely capital for a future Palestinian state by Stephen Farrell and Rami Ayyub
FILE PHOTO: An abandoned Palestinian parliament building is seen in a general view picture of the Palestinian town of
Abu Dis in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, east of Jerusalem January 29, 2020. REUTERS/Ammar Awad/File Photo
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Abu Dis, the town earmarked for the Palestinian capital in U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, lies a short distance to the east of Jerusalem’s walled Old City.
    A relatively featureless urban sprawl on the old road to Jericho, it has little of the religious or cultural resonance of the historic city center, which contains sites sacred to the three great monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
    Abu Dis belongs to the Palestinian governorate of Jerusalem but is just outside the Israeli municipal city limits set by Israel after it captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967, later annexing it in a move not recognized by most of the international community.
    What the neighborhood does have is a large shuttered building that was constructed in an earlier, more hopeful era to be a site for the parliament of the Palestinian Authority.
    That hall now lies abandoned and disused after the breakdown of the Oslo peace process and the outbreak of the second Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, two decades ago.
    Since then, Palestinians in Abu Dis have been cut off from Jerusalem neighborhoods to the west by a high concrete wall that Israel built to stop suicide bombers and gunmen entering the city.
    Students at a nearby university have used the wall as a backdrop to project movies during warm summer nights when they sit outside.
    The White House document accompanying the U.S. plan’s release said the barrier should “serve as a border between the capitals of the two parties.”
    It said Jerusalem should “remain the sovereign capital of the State of Israel, and it should remain an undivided city.”
    It continued: “The sovereign capital of the State of Palestine should be in the section of East Jerusalem located in all areas east and north of the existing security barrier, including Kafr Aqab, the eastern part of Shuafat and Abu Dis, and could be named Al Quds or another name as determined by the State of Palestine.”
GRAPHIC: Trump’s Middle East peace plan – https://graphics.reuters.com/ISRAEL-PALESTINIANS-PLAN/0100B5B73B0/ISRAEL-PALESTINIANS-PLAN.jpg
HOLY SITES     That would leave within Israel’s control the hill at the heart of the Old City known to Jews as Har ha-Bayit, or Temple Mount, and to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif, or The Noble Sanctuary.
    The holiest place in Judaism, it was home to the Jewish temples of antiquity and its restraining wall built by Herod the Great – known as the Western Wall – is a sacred place of prayer for Jews.
    Atop the plateau are two imposing Muslim holy places, the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which was built in the 8th century.    Muslims regard the site as the third holiest in Islam, after Mecca and Medina.
    It is this compound that Palestinians seek as part of the capital of a future state and to which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was referring when he said it was “impossible for any Palestinian, Arab, Muslim or Christian child to accept” a state without Jerusalem.
    The day after the Trump plan identified Abu Dis as a potential capital, residents were scornful of the notion.
    Mohammed Faroun, an Abu Dis resident, said: “The capital of Palestine is Jerusalem.”
Another resident, who declined to give his name, said: “Trump, or whoever else, are not welcome.    Jerusalem tells its own story, every stone tells about its history.    It was never Israeli or American, it is Palestinian, Islamic and Arab.”
(Additional reporting by Sinan Abu Mayzer in Abu Dis, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

1/29/2020 Defense minister pushes to extend Israeli sovereignty to West Bank settlements by Stephen Farrell and Ari Rabinovitch
A general view picture shows part of the Israeli settlement of Beitar Illit
in the Israeli-occupied West Bank January 29, 2020. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A leading government hawk called on Wednesday for Israel to establish sovereignty over nearly a third of the occupied West Bank, hours after U.S. Donald Trump announced a Middle East peace plan that Palestinians said amounted to apartheid.
    The remarks by Naftali Bennett, a coalition partner in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government, led Palestinians to say Trump’s plan had given the “green light” for Israel to formally annex its settlements in the West Bank that it has occupied since the 1967 Middle East War.
    Trump’s plan envisages a two-state solution with Israel and a future Palestinian state living alongside each other, but with strict conditions that Palestinians have baulked at.
    He proposed a four-year schedule for the creation of a Palestinian state, with Palestinians first having to agree to halt attacks by the Islamist militant group Hamas which controls the enclave of Gaza.
    But the plan also gave U.S. recognition of Israel’s West Bank settlements – deemed illegal under international law – Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley, and a redrawn, demilitarized Palestinian state that would meet Israel’s security requirements.     Jerusalem would be the undivided capital of Israel, it said.
ELECTION JOSTLING
    With Netanyahu still outside Israel after attending the plan’s presentation in Washington, Bennett outlined his hardline interpretation of what the White House had offered Israel.
    “Last night history knocked on the door of our home and gave us a one-time opportunity to apply Israeli law on all settlements in Samaria, Judea, the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea,” Bennett said, using the Hebrew names for areas in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
    He had ordered a team to be set up to apply Israeli law and sovereignty on all Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
    Bennett is vying with Netanyahu for support from right-wing voters in an election set for March 2.    It is unclear whether the present caretaker administration has a legal mandate to carry out such a move after two inconclusive elections in 2019.
    Netanyahu on Wednesday reiterated his support for Trump’s plan, telling Fox television: “We will not contradict in any way the outline that the president put forward.”
    But Amir Peretz, head of Israel’s left-wing Labor Party, said no unilateral plan could work.    “Now more than ever it’s clear that we need a diplomatic compass,” he said.
SLAP OF THE CENTURY
    Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called Trump’s plan the “slap of the century” after it was announced.
    Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said on Wednesday Trump’s team had simply “copied and pasted” the blueprint that Netanyahu and Israeli settler leaders wanted to see implemented.
    “It’s about annexation, it’s about apartheid,” he said in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.    “Moving to the de jure annexation of settlements is something that was given the green light yesterday.”
    Palestinians also dismissed the proposal for a capital in Abu Dis, in the West Bank just outside the Israeli municipal borders of Jerusalems.    It lies a mile east of the historic walled Old City, home to sites sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam but cut off by an Israeli wall and checkpoints.
    Palestinian leaders believe the Trump administration is biased toward Israel.
    Before announcing the much-touted plan, it had broken from international consensus by recognizing disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, halted aid to the Palestinians, and said it no longer considered the settlements a breach of international law.
    Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and the plan’s principal architect, shrugged off the Palestinian rejection.
    “We’re not going to chase the Palestinians…the Palestinian leadership, you can’t really treat them like they’re a serious government, or capable or competent dealmakers,” he told reporters.    “They’ll do what they’ve always done, which is screw everything up.”
    The Palestinians could push for a U.N. condemnation of the plan.    Israel’s U.N. mission signaled on Tuesday it would work to thwart this in a diplomatic campaign with the United States.
PALESTINIAN STATE
    Gaza political analyst Talal Okal said the deal gave Israel the right to take what it wanted “immediately, while the Palestinians have to wait four years to see whether they have rights or not”.     Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli head of military intelligence said: “This is the most favorable plan for Israel ever presented by an international player.”     However he said that because it included mention of a two-state solution, it could still cause problems for Netanyahu among his right-wing allies.     Bennett seemed to confirm this.    “The Israeli government will not recognize a Palestinian state,” he said
(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Ari Rabinovitch and Rami Ayyub in Jerusalem and Michelle Nichols in New York, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

1/29/2020 Arabs prioritize key ties with U.S. against Iran in reacting to Trump peace plan by Stephen Kalin and Amina Ismail
U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a joint news conference to announce a
new Middle East peace plan proposal in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., January 28, 2020. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
    RIYADH/CAIRO (Reuters) – Arab powers appear to be prioritizing close ties with the United States that are vital to countering Iran over traditional unswerving support for the Palestinians in their reaction to President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan.
    At a White House event on Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump proposed creating a Palestinian state but demilitarized and with borders drawn to meet Israeli security needs, while granting U.S. recognition of Israeli settlements on occupied West Bank land and of Jerusalem as Israel’s indivisible capital.
    The plan diverges from previous U.S. policy and a 2002 Arab League-endorsed initiative that offered Israel normal relations in return for an independent Palestinian state and full Israeli withdrawal from territory captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
    Saudi Arabia’s response exemplified the careful balance now required from Gulf Arab monarchies, Egypt and Jordan which rely on U.S. military or financial backing and find themselves aligned with the United States and Israel in confronting Iran.
    The Saudi Foreign Ministry expressed appreciation for Trump’s efforts and support for direct peace negotiations under U.S. auspices.    At the same time, state media reported that King Salman had called the Palestinian president to reassure him of Riyadh’s unwavering commitment to the Palestinian cause.
    Egypt and Jordan, which already have peace deals with Israel, as well as Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) used similar language that swung between hope for re-starting talks and caution against abandoning long-held stances.
    Despite Palestinians’ rejection of the plan and boycott of Trump over perceived pro-Israel bias, three Gulf Arab states – Oman, Bahrain and the UAE – attended the White House gathering in a sign of changing times.
    In a bitterly divided Arab world, backing for Palestinians has long been seen as a unifying position but also often a source of internal recriminations over the extent of that support, especially as some states have made independent, pragmatic overtures to historical adversary Israel.
    Trump and Netanyahu praised the UAE, Bahraini and Omani ambassadors for attending the White House announcement: “What a sign it portends – I was going to say ‘of the future’ – what a sign it portends of the present,” Netanyahu said to applause.
    Critics were less kind, condemning the envoys’ presence as a “shameful” abandonment of the Palestinian cause.
    “No government or ruler wants to be seen to sell Palestine so cheaply and hand Netanyahu such a victory and, in fact, end up footing the bill,” said Neil Quilliam, senior research fellow at Britain’s Chatham House think-tank.
    “At the same time, all states except perhaps Egypt are dependent upon the U.S. and will not risk angering Trump, given his propensity to act like a petulant child.”
A THOUSAND NO’S
    Saudi King Salman has previously reassured Arab allies he would not endorse any plan that fails to address Jerusalem’s disputed status or Palestinian refugees’ right of return, amid perceptions Riyadh’s stance was changing under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is close to Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, the plan’s main architect.
    Palestinian officials say Prince Mohammed, the de facto Saudi ruler, has pressed Abbas in the past to support the Trump plan despite serious concerns.    Saudi officials have denied any differences between the king and crown prince.
    Naif Madkhali, a prominent Saudi who tweets often in support of the government, blasted Trump’s plan: “No and a thousand no’s,” he wrote under the hashtag #Down_with_the_deal_of_the_century.
    In Bahrain, which hosted a U.S.-led conference last June on the Palestinian economy as part of Trump’s broader peace plan, opposition groups came out strongly against the proposal.
    “Whoever today gives up the Holy Land of Palestine will tomorrow give up his land in order to preserve his seat,” tweeted Waad party leader Ibrahim Sharif.    “Treachery is a stab in the back and is not a point of view.”
    Any change to the consensus on refugees’ right of return to what is now Israel and the Palestinian Territories would reverberate loudest in Jordan, which absorbed more Palestinians than any other country after Israel’s creation in 1948.
    Palestinians, which by some estimates now account for more than half of Jordan’s population, hold full citizenship but are marginalized and seen as a political threat by some people of Jordanian descent.
    “The biggest risk is to Jordan, where sentiment towards the issue and rising levels of discontent converge,” said Quilliam.
    Analysts predicted most Egyptians would reject the plan but not present a problem to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government, which has already cracked down harshly on dissent.
    “I feel angry and helpless as an Egyptian, an Arab, a Muslim and above all a human…” prominent blogger Zainab Mohamed wrote of Trump’s plan.
    The Palestinian Foreign Ministry criticized Arab countries after their generally positive comments on Trump’s plan.
    “Following the revelation of details of the American-Israeli conspiracy, it is unacceptable to hide behind ambiguous and murky statements in order to escape confronting this conspiracy,” it said in a statement.
    However, a spokesman for Abbas said later he had received calls from Saudi King Salman and Lebanese President Michel Aoun “supportive of the Palestinian position.”
(Reporting by Stephen Kalin in Riyadh, Lisa Barrington and Alexander Cornwell in Dubai, Amina Ismail and Ulf Laessing in Cairo, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Ali Sawafta in West Bank; Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

1/29/2020 France’s Macron accuses Turkey’s Erdogan of breaking Libya promises
French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (not pictured) attend a
joint statement at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France January 29, 2020. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier/Pool
    PARIS (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron accused Turkey’s president on Wednesday of breaking promises made at a conference on Libya after Turkish warships and Syrian fighters arrived in the north African country.
    “I want to express my concerns with regard to the behavior of Turkey at the moment, which is in complete contradiction with what President Tayyip Erdogan committed to at the Berlin conference,” Macron told a joint news conference with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
    Macron’s comments came a week after the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Russia – which all back eastern Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar – and Turkey – which backs the government in Tripoli – agreed with Western powers in Berlin to push for a lasting ceasefire and uphold an arms embargo.
    However, since then there has been an uptick in fighting with Haftar’s Libyan National Army attempting to open a new front by moving forces towards the city of Misrata in the west of the country.
    Pictures unverified by Reuters on social media appeared to show Turkish warships off the coast of Libya on Wednesday.
    Macron confirmed the presence of Turkish ships and accused Ankara of violating Libya’s sovereignty and endangering European and West African security.
    “We have seen during these last days Turkish warships accompanied by Syrian mercenaries arrive on Libyan soil.    This is an explicit and serious infringement of what was agreed in Berlin.    It’s a broken promise.”
    Without naming them, the United Nations on Jan. 25 said several countries backing rival factions in Libya had violated the arms embargo since Berlin.
    It said cargo planes full of advanced weapons, armored vehicles, advisers and fighters had arrived at eastern and western Libyan airports, something that risked “plunging the country into a renewed and intensified round of fighting.”
    Macron made no mention of violations from any other countries except NATO ally Turkey.
    Paris has been accused of supporting Haftar politically having previously provided him with military assistance to fight Islamist militants. France denies backing Haftar.
    Libya has had no stable central authority since the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.    It has had two rival governments, in the east and the west, for more than five years.
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Gareth Jones)

1/29/2020 France warns U.S. against pulling troops from fight against Islamists in Africa’s Sahel by Phil Stewart and Tangi Salaün
FILE PHOTO: French soldiers of the 2nd Foreign Engineer Regiment conduct an area control operation in the
Gourma region during the Operation Barkhane in Ndaki, Mali, July 27, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
    WASHINGTON/PARIS (Reuters) – France delivered a stern warning on Monday against possible U.S. troop cuts in West Africa, where groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State are expanding their foothold.
    The Pentagon is considering withdrawing the personnel as part of a global troop review meant to free up more resources to address challenges from China’s military, after nearly two decades of prioritizing counter-terrorism operations around the world.
    French Defense Minister Florence Parly said she warned her U.S. counterpart during a visit to the Pentagon that joint counterterrorism efforts in West Africa would be harmed by cuts to U.S. military assistance.
    “I had the opportunity to (say) again, to mention again, that the U.S. support is critical to our operations and its reduction would severely limit our effectiveness against terrorists,” Parly said at a joint news conference, standing alongside U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
    Esper, who is spearheading the review, said no decisions had been made.    But he did not suggest any reconsideration of potential cuts to U.S. forces in the region.
    The possibility of cuts has alarmed France, which relies on U.S. intelligence and logistics for its 4,500-strong mission in the Sahel.    The deaths of 13 French soldiers in a helicopter crash during a combat mission in Mali in November increased France’s determination to secure more support in the zone.
    France believes it is time to increase, not ease, pressure on militants to prevent “Islamic State from rebuilding in the Sahel,” a senior French defense ministry official told Reuters.
    Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had said ahead of the Pentagon talks to reporters that he hoped Washington “will be rational to keep this partnership … and that good sense will prevail.”
    The U.S. currently has around 6,000 military personnel in Africa.    Although some experts say a repositioning of forces is overdue, many U.S. officials share French concerns about relieving pressure on militants in Africa.
    “Any withdrawal or reduction would likely result in a surge in violent extremist attacks on the continent and beyond,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democrat Chris Coons wrote in a letter to Esper this month.
    Former colonial power France intervened in 2013 to drive back militants who had seized northern Mali the previous year.    Fighters have since regrouped and spread.    Over the past year, militants have stepped up attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
    Although groups in the Sahel are believed to have the intent to carry out attacks against the United States, they are not currently believed to have the capacity to do so, officials say.
SCRAMBLING DRONES
    General Francois Lecointre, chief of staff of the French armed forces, told Reuters that the loss of U.S. intelligence from intercepted communications would be the “biggest setback.”
    “I’m doing my utmost to prevent this from happening,” he said, adding that French drone-based spying systems would not be operational until year-end.
    France said this month it would deploy 220 additional troops to the region, despite rising anti-French sentiment in some countries and criticism at home that its forces are bogged down.
    Parly recently visited the Sahel with counterparts from Portugal, Sweden and Estonia to press European allies to do more, especially by contributing special forces to a new French-led unit due to be set up this year.
    One of the main aims of the outfit, officials said, is to improve coordination between regional troops and French planes able to carry out air strikes.
    So far, take-up has been limited, with only Estonia committing 40 troops.    Discussions continue with eight nations. Germany has refused to take part.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Tangi Salaün; Additional reporting and writing by David Lewis and by John Irish in Paris, Idrees Ali in Washington; Editing by Peter Graff and Lisa Shumaker)

1/29/2020 Iraqi president says will pick new PM if deadlock drags on
FILE PHOTO: Iraq's President Barham Salih attends a session at the 50th World Economic Forum (WEF)
annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, January 22, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi President Barham Salih said on Wednesday he would choose an interim prime minister if political parties failed to name a replacement for Adel Abdul Mahdi by Feb. 1.
    Abdul Mahdi resigned as prime minister in November under pressure from street protests, but has remained in office in a caretaker capacity.
    Mass protests have gripped Iraq since Oct. 1, with the mostly young protesters demanding the overhaul of a system they see as profoundly corrupt and as keeping most Iraqis in poverty. More than 450 people have been killed.
    The deadline set by President Salih is the latest sign that the Shi’ite political parties who dominate Iraq’s parliament have failed so far to bridge their differences and select a new prime minister who is acceptable to the protesters.
    Salih called on the rival political blocs to resume talks and agree a nominee.
    If no name was presented to him by Feb. 1, Salih said in a statement he saw it as essential that he “carry out my constitutional prerogatives and designate whom I find more acceptable to the public and parliament.”
    Two political blocs – Bina, backed by Iran, and Islah, led by populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr – are closely involved in backroom discussions to agree on a candidate.
    The protesters have been demanding not only a new electoral law and committee, but also the removal of the entire political class and appointment of a prime minister with no party affiliation.
(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; Editing by Alex Richardson)

1/29/2020 Turkey’s Erdogan says Russia not abiding by Syria agreements: NTV
FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference ahead of a visit to Algeria,
at Ataturk airport in Istanbul, Turkey, January 26, 2020. Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS
    ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said that Ankara is losing patience with the military assault in Syria’s Idlib region, adding that Russia is violating agreements aimed at stemming conflict there, broadcaster NTV reported on Wednesday.
    Renewed bombardments by Russia-backed Syrian government forces on Idlib have raised concern of a new refugee wave from the area which borders Turkey and is home to 3 million people.
    Turkey and Russia, which support opposing sides in Syria, agreed to work toward de-escalating the fighting in Idlib and creating a demilitarized zone under agreements in 2017 and 2018 known as the Astana and Sochi accords.
    But fighting has continued in the last remaining rebel bastion in country’s nearly nine-year war despite several other agreements for a ceasefire, as recently as this month.
    “Currently, Russia is not abiding by Astana or Sochi,” NTV quoted Erdogan as saying.
    Speaking to reporters on his flight back from Senegal, he said Turkey, which is building houses in northern Idlib to shelter civilians fleeing the bombing, has told Russia that it is running out patience.
    “If we are loyal partners with Russia on this, they have to put forth their stance… Our wish is that Russia immediately makes the necessary warnings to the regime which it sees as a friend,” he said.
    “The Astana process has fallen into silence now.    We need to look at what Turkey, Russia and Iran can do to revive the Astana process,” he said.
    On Tuesday, Syrian government forces entered a town in the south of Idlib city, in a significant advance for President Bashar al-Assad.    Turkey said it would retaliate against any attack on its 12 observation posts around Idlib.
    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor, said a Turkish military convoy of 30 vehicles, including 12 armored vehicles, entered Syria on Monday evening and was expected to establish a new observation post south of the town of Saraqeb in Idlib.
(Reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun and Tuvan Gumrukcu; Writing by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Dominic Evans)

1/29/2020 Israeli citizens cautiously optimistic of President Trump’s peace plan by OAN Newsroom
President Donald Trump walks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to an event in the East Room of the
White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020, to announce the Trump administration’s
much-anticipated plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
    Israeli citizens in the West Bank territory are expressing cautious optimism toward President Trump’s peace plan for Palestine.    According to recent reports, Jewish settlers in the West Bank believe the president’s plan could improve security and end decades-long hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians.
    However, some settlers are expressing concern over the proposed creation of the ‘Palestinian State,’ which they said could claim their land in the future.    Israelis also said it’s unclear if the deal of the century can be implemented after Palestinian leaders rejected it.
    “I believe it’s looking very similar to what happened in 1947,” stated one local.    “To my mind, the Arabs will refuse, we shall agree and then we’ll be able to, absolutely legally, absorb parts of territories which we really have to.”
    Some Israelis also said the Kingdom of Jordan is already a Palestinian state and that there is no need to establish another one.
Israeli border police blocks exit of the Old City’s Damascus gate ahead of a protest against Middle East peace plan announced Tuesday
by US President Donald Trump, which strongly favors Israel, in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Jan 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

1/29/2020 Palestine’s Abbas to address UN Security Council on President Trump’s proposed peace plan by OAN Newsroom
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks after a meeting of the Palestinian leadership
in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
    Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is set to address the UN Security Council on President Trump’s proposed peace plan.    On Wednesday, the Palestinian envoy to the UN criticized the president’s proposal and said the deal would allow Israel to annex 40 percent of the Palestine’s territories.
    The diplomat called for the Security Council to hold a vote on the deal and said he hopes it fails.
    On Tuesday, Abbas rejected President Trump’s offer by saying it disproportionately favors Israel.    Palestinian officials said the deal would force them to negotiate from an unfavorable position.
    “To start the process of annexing about 40 percent of the occupied West Bank and to give us four years to negotiate the remaining part, is that an attractive option for us?” asked envoy Riyad Mansour.    “That doesn’t make sense.”
    The envoy went on to say Abbas will address with Security Council within the next two weeks.

1/30/2020 Kushner says he hopes Israel waits on sovereignty steps in West Bank by Jeffrey Heller
FILE PHOTO: A general view picture shows the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City in the background
and part of the Israeli barrier in the foreground, as seen from the Palestinian town of Abu Dis
in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, east of Jerusalem January 29, 2020. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – White House senior adviser Jared Kushner said Washington wants Israel to wait until after its March 2 election before making any moves towards settlement annexation in the West Bank following the announcement of a U.S. peace plan.
    Kushner, an architect of the peace proposal hailed by Israel and rejected by the Palestinians, raised the stop sign in a video interview, posted on the Internet on Thursday, with GZERO Media, a subsidiary of political risk analysis firm Eurasia Group.
    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters on Tuesday, after President Donald Trump announced the U.S. plan, that he would ask his cabinet next week to approve applying Israeli law to Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
    Such a move could be a first step toward formal annexation of the settlements, along with the Jordan Valley in the West Bank – territory Israel has kept under military occupation since its capture in the 1967 Middle East war and which Palestinians seek for a future state.
    Most countries consider Israeli settlements on land captured in war to be a violation of international law. Trump has changed U.S. policy to withdraw such objections.
    “Well let’s see what happens,” Kushner, who is Trump’s son-in-law, said when asked about the possibility Israel would begin an annexation process as early as this weekend.    “The hope is that they’ll wait until after the election and we’ll work with them to try to come up with something.”
    On Wednesday, Israel’s hawkish defense minister, Naftali Bennett, called for the government to establish sovereignty over nearly a third of the West Bank.
    Trump’s plan envisages a two-state solution with Israel and a future Palestinian state living alongside each other, but with strict conditions that Palestinians reject.
    The blueprint gives Israel much of what it has long sought, including U.S. recognition of its West Bank settlements and Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley. A redrawn, demilitarized Palestinian state would be subject to Israeli control over its security, while receiving tracts of desert in return for arable land settled by Israelis.
    Asked in the interview whether Washington would be supportive if support Israel if “they go ahead and annex,” Kushner said: “No.    What the administration is doing is we’ve agreed with them on forming a technical team to start studying, taking the conceptual map.”
    The coming election is Israel’s third in less than a year, following two that were inconclusive.    Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, is facing criminal corruption charges and trying to hold onto power with a right-wing coalition that views much of the West Bank as the biblical heartland of the Jewish people.
    Israel’s attorney general still has to weigh in on whether Netanyahu’s present caretaker government has the legal authority to carry out annexation moves.
(Editing by Peter Graff)

1/30/2020 Pentagon chief defends Trump after traumatic brain injury comments
FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper listens to a question while addressing the Center for Strategic and International
Studies (CSIS) Global Security Forum on "Emerging Technologies Governance" in Washington U.S., January 24, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Thursday defended President Donald Trump’s response to American troops being diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries from Iran’s missile strike, saying he cared about the service members.
    Last week, Trump appeared to play down the injuries, saying he “heard that they had headaches and a couple of other things,” prompting criticism from lawmakers and a U.S. veterans group.
    The Pentagon has said that 50 U.S. service members have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and that number could rise.
    “I’ve had the chance to speak with the president; he is very concerned about the health and welfare of all of our service members, particularly those who were involved in the operations in Iraq, and he understands the nature of these injuries,” Esper said during a news conference.
    Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the service members suffering from traumatic brain injuries had been diagnosed with mild cases.    He added that the diagnosis could change as time went on.
    Pentagon officials have said there had been no effort to minimize or delay information on concussive injuries, but its handling of the injuries following Tehran’s attack has renewed questions over the U.S. military’s policy regarding how it deals with suspected brain injuries.
    “(Traumatic brain injury) manifests itself over time.    … I still believe that morning there were no casualties reported,” Esper said.
    Since 2000, about 408,000 service members have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, according to Pentagon data.
    Iran fired missiles at the Ain al-Asad base in Iraq in retaliation for the U.S. killing of a top Revolutionary Guard general, Qassem Soleimani, in a drone strike at Baghdad airport on Jan. 3.
    The missile attacks capped a spiral of violence that had started in late December.    Both sides have refrained from further military escalation.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali, Phil Stewart and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

1/30/2020 U.S. seeks Iraqi nod to bring in air defenses after Iran attack
FILE PHOTO: U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks about airstrikes by the U.S. military in Iraq and Syria,
at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., December 29, 2019. REUTERS/Tom Brenner/File Photo
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is trying to secure permission from Iraq to take Patriot missile defenses into the country to better defend U.S. forces after Iran’s Jan. 8 missile attack, which wounded 50 American troops, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Thursday.
    The United States did not have Patriot air defenses deployed to al-Asad air base in Iraq, where at least 11 of Iran’s ballistic missiles struck, killing no one but triggering massive blasts that caused traumatic brain injury among U.S. forces.
    “We need the permission of the Iraqis,” Esper told a news conference.    He said securing their permission was one factor slowing the repositioning of the air defenses.    He said the U.S. military was still deciding on more tactical issues, such as where best to place the defenses.
    Tehran had been expected to retaliate against the United States over the killing of a top Iranian general, likely using ballistic missiles.
    But in the days prior to the Iranian strikes, the Pentagon had expected Tehran more likely to target U.S. positions in countries other than Iraq, since Tehran counts influential allies in Baghdad.
    The United States had moved Patriot batteries last year to Saudi Arabia, for example.
    Thanks to U.S. intelligence, the Pentagon gained hours of warning time that allowed it to move troops to bunkers that were strong enough to prevent loss of life or limb when the Iranian missiles struck, U.S. officials say.
    The bunkers were not designed to prevent the traumatic brain injuries from the massive blasts.    The injuries so far have been categorized as “mild.”
(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Howard Goller)

1/30/2020 International crisis looms as 700,000 flee Syria’s Idlib: U.S. envoy
FILE PHOTO: James Jeffrey, U.S. Special Representative for Syria, addresses the media
in Geneva, Switzerland October 25, 2019. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo
    MARAAT AL-NUMAN,Syria/BEIRUT (Reuters) – An assault on rebel-held northwest Syria by government forces has pushed some 700,000 people to flee toward the Turkish border and raised the specter of an international crisis, U.S. Special Envoy for Syria James Jeffrey said on Thursday.
    Backed by Russian air power, government forces have advanced on Idlib at a rapid clip since last week, taking back dozens of towns and upending a region where millions have taken refuge since the start of Syria’s nearly nine-year war.
    The campaign has ratcheted up tensions between Moscow and Ankara.    Turkey fears a fresh wave of migrants piling across its border and has a dozen observation posts in Idlib, part of a de-escalation agreement it says Russia is now violating.
    Speaking at an online news briefing, Jeffrey said that in the last three days Syrian government and Russian warplanes had hit Idlib with 200 air strikes “mainly against civilians,” and that several Turkish observation posts had been “cut off” by the government advance.
    There are “massive movements of troops pushing back hundreds of square kilometers and setting – I think now – 700,000 people who are already internally displaced on the move once again towards the Turkish border, which will then create an international crisis,” said Jeffrey.
    Turkey already hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees.
    Moscow and Damascus say they are fighting jihadist militants who have stepped up attacks on civilians in Aleppo in northern Syria, but rights groups and rescue workers say air strikes have demolished hospitals, schools and hit other civilian areas.
TOWNS EMPTIED
    In a significant milestone for President Bashar al-Assad’s stated drive to reclaim all of Syria, government forces on Tuesday took Idlib’s second biggest city, Maarat al-Numan, an urban center that straddles the M5 international highway linking the capital Damascus to Aleppo and considered vital for trade.
    A Syrian army general speaking on a media tour of Maarat al-Numan on Thursday said the latest military campaign was focused on securing all of the M5 highway.    “God willing in four to five days it will be ready,” he said.
    Smoke still billowed from some buildings in the city on Thursday while the demolished exteriors of others tumbled onto streets emptied entirely of civilians.
    Syria’s war-torn economy has plunged deeper into crisis in recent months, with a rapidly weakening currency driving up inflation and aggravating hardship for Syrians struggling to afford basic goods.
    “What they’re doing is using Idlib as a sort of distraction that allows time to keep their loyalist constituencies on a war footing,” said Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
    “This is a regime that is unable to demonstrate effective control and revive economic activity, revive markets, and hold up the lira,” said Sayigh.
    A U.N. report on Thursday described increasingly bleak conditions for Syrians in urgent need of shelter and food while fleeing bombardment.
    “Whole towns have emptied as an increasing number of civilians flee northward to areas deemed safer, but which at the same time are rapidly shrinking, as territorial advances against opposition forces continue,” said David Swanson, the U.N. regional spokesperson for the Syria crisis in Amman.
    “This latest wave of displacement underscores the fact that this war, now almost nine years old, is far from over,” said Swanson.
(Reporting by Reuters TV in Maarat al-Numan; Additional reporting and writing by Eric Knecht in Beirut; Editing by Jon Boyle, Alison Williams and Frances Kerry)

1/31/2020 Erdogan says Turkey may launch Syria offensive if Idlib attacks continue
FILE PHOTO - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a joint news conference with
German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Istanbul, Turkey, January 24, 2020. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
    ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey may launch a military operation into Syria’s northwestern Idlib province if the situation is not resolved immediately, President Tayyip Erdogan said Friday as attacks by Russia-backed Syrian government forces risked a new wave of refugees.
    Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, backed by Russian air power, have since last week rapidly advanced on Idlib.    They have taken dozens of towns, including the key city of Maarat al-Numan, upending the last major rebel-held stronghold in Syria’s nearly nine-year war.
    The recent campaign has also raised tensions between Ankara and Moscow, which back opposing sides in the conflict.    Turkey fears a fresh wave of migrants from Idlib and has 12 observation posts in the region, part of a 2018 de-escalation deal that Erdogan says Russia is now violating.
    Speaking in Ankara, Erdogan repeated Turkey could not handle a fresh influx of migrants.    He said Ankara will not allow new threats near its borders, even if it meant resorting to military power, as it did in its three previous cross-border operations in northern Syria.
    “We will do what is necessary when someone is threatening our soil.    We will have no choice but to resort to the same path again if the situation in Idlib is not returned to normal quickly,” Erdogan said.
    He also appeared to hold out the option of another operation in northeastern Syria, where in October Ankara targeted the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia that it calls a terrorist group.
    “We will not refrain from doing what is necessary, including using military force,” he said, adding Turkey wants stability and security in Syria.
    Later on Friday, the Kremlin said Russia was fully compliant with its obligations in Idlib, but that it was deeply concerned about what it said were aggressive militant attacks on Syrian government forces and Russia’s Hmeimim air base.
    Turkey, which has backed some rebels fighting to oust Assad, currently hosts more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees.    Erdogan has repeatedly called for Assad to step down, even while Iran, Russia and Turkey have said they seek a political solution to the conflict.
    “We will not allow the regime to put our country under the constant threat of migrants by tormenting, attacking, spilling the blood of… its people,” Erdogan said
.
(Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Dominic Evans and Jonathan Spicer)

1/31/2020 Cold and humiliated, Syrians displaced yet again by new Assad campaign
A view of the trucks carrying belongings of displaced Syrians, in northern Idlib, Syria January 30, 2020. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
    IDLIB, Syria (Reuters) – Khaled Sabri and his family huddle in the makeshift shelter in northern Idlib, still shell-shocked after fleeing the sudden bombardment of their rebel-held town earlier this week.
    They are part of an exodus that has shaken northwest Syria, the last rebel redoubt in the country’s nine-year civil war, as hundreds of thousands push toward Turkey to escape a sudden and fast-moving advance by government forces.
    Backed by heavy Russian airstrikes, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have recaptured dozens of towns since last Friday in a major campaign that has stoked tensions between Ankara and Moscow and raised the specter of a new refugee crisis.
    “We fled with just the clothes we were wearing because of the heavy bombing,” said 55-year-old Sabri. His city Maarat al-Numan, the second biggest in Idlib, was re-captured on Tuesday in a major milestone for Assad’s stated goal of reclaiming all of Syria.
    At the camp outside Maarat Misrin, a northern Idlib town about 20 km (12 miles) south of the Turkish frontier, dozens of families sheltered in plastic white tents, many unsure of where they would wind up.
    Jennah, 10, said it was the second time her family had been displaced.    Like many others, they had sought refuge in Idlib after being ousted from other areas earlier in the war.
    “I was forcibly displaced from eastern Ghouta, and then we went to Maarat al-Numan and the Syrian regime launched a military campaign on Maarat al-Numan, so we came here.”
    A United Nations report on Thursday estimated that 390,000 people have fled northwest Syria from Dec. 1-Jan. 27, 80% of them women and children.
    Moscow and Damascus say they are fighting jihadist militants who have stepped up attacks on civilians in Aleppo in northern Syria, but rights groups and rescue workers say air strikes and shelling have demolished hospitals, schools and homes.
    Turkey, which fears a fresh wave of migrants piling into it territory, adding to the more than 3.6 million Syrians already there, said on Friday it would not tolerate new threats near its border and would act militarily if needed.
    Trucks crowded with civilians’ furniture, mattresses and rugs were seen on Friday hauling out of towns across much of Idlib and western Aleppo, another area of northern Syria hit hard over the past week.
    “Today we are homeless, humiliated, oppressed and cold.    We want to be returned to our homes and towns,” said a woman who called herself Um Abdallah, or Abdullah’s mother, 30, from Maarat al-Numan.
(Reporting by Reuters TV in Idlib; Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

1/31/2020 Palestinians face uphill battle against Trump’s Middle East plan by Rami Ayyub
FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a joint news conference to discuss a new
Middle East peace plan proposal in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., January 28, 2020. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – When Palestinian leaders learned that the release of U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East plan was imminent, they swiftly announced a “day of rage” – a gritty, oft-used call for resistance against Israel.
    But few demonstrators actually took to the streets despite Palestinians’ broad rejection of Trump’s proposal, a gap between rhetoric and delivery that exposes the scale of the challenge their leaders face in pressuring the United States and Israel.
    As in past decades, critics are branding the Palestinians as naysayers, continually rejecting offers of a settlement in the hope, so far futile, of something better to come.
    And domestic frustration with the Palestinian leadership has been building for years, with an ageing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas seeking a legacy but having dwindling scope to demonstrate progress toward his people’s dream of freedom.
    Contrary to expectations, Trump did propose a “two-state” solution for the conflict – but with strict conditions that would leave any future Palestinian state under near-complete Israeli security control.
    Trump’s endorsement of Israel keeping its settlements delighted right-wingers, who immediately urged the extension of Israeli sovereignty to nearly 30% of the occupied West Bank, which Israel captured in a 1967 war.
    For a graphic on the Trump proposal, click on https://graphics.reuters.com/ISRAEL-PALESTINIANS-PLAN/0100B5B73B0/ISRAEL-PALESTINIANS-PLAN.jpg
    Palestinians say such moves would lead to apartheid.    Israel rejects any comparison of its policies towards the Palestinians to South Africa’s former system of legally-mandated racial segregation.
    Analysts say that Palestinians face a difficult road ahead.
    “They don’t have good options.    Responding positively to the Trump peace plan is impossible for any Palestinian leader.    He would be seen as having sold out the Palestinian national cause completely,” said Greg Shapland, a Middle East specialist at London’s Chatham House think tank.
    “(This) whole exercise seems to be structured in such a way that the Palestinians would have to refuse it and then the Americans can say to Israel and to the rest of the world, ‘go ahead and do it’ because the Palestinians are clearly not interested in peace,” Shapland said.
    That attack line has already been used by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and principal architect of the plan.
    “We’re not going to chase the Palestinians,” he told reporters.    “It will be very hard for them to play the victim card when they basically have a real deal on the table.”
    For a factbox on the plan, click on https://www.reuters.com/article/israel-palestinians-plan-factbox/factbox-trumps-mideast-plan-whats-in-it-idINKBN1ZS280
INTERNATIONAL OPPOSITION
    One avenue for Abbas, 84, is to use the United Nations to drum up international opposition to Trump’s plan.
    But Washington can veto any move in the Security Council. And even if Abbas wins support in the General Assembly it will have little more practical effect than a 2017 vote calling on Trump to drop his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
    That secured 128 of 193 votes in support of the Palestinian argument, but was only a rhetorical show of support.
    Abbas will also try other routes.    On Saturday he travels to Cairo for a meeting of the Arab League, where he will engage regional allies.
    But many Arab states rely on U.S. military aid or financial backing.    And most are led by Sunni Muslim administrations that are aligned with the United States and Israel in confronting Iran’s revolutionary Shi’ite theocracy.
    Diana Buttu, a former legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization, said it was important to “hold the (Arab) states who were part of this charade to account” but that it wasn’t likely to strengthen the Palestinians’ hand.
    “A better strategy is to begin to hold Israel accountable, whether it’s through sanctions or legal (moves),” she said.
    One such legal move is at the International Criminal Court, whose chief prosecutor is seeking an investigation into alleged war crimes in the Palestinian Territories.
    The court is still deciding if it has jurisdiction.    Israel says the court has no jurisdiction to investigate the Palestinian Territories.
(Additional reporting by Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Michelle Nichols in New York and Luke Baker in London, Editing by William Maclean)

1/31/2020 Egypt’s population nears 100 million, putting pressure on resources and jobs by Nadeen Ebrahim and Ulf Laessing
FILE PHOTO: A general view of a street in downtown Cairo, Egypt March 9, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
    CAIRO (Reuters) – Sitting in her sister’s apartment on a noisy Cairo street, Rania Sayed one day hopes to leave a city that is becoming more congested as Egypt’s population ticks up to 100 million, a milestone it will pass next month.br>     Like many others, she wants to move to one of the new satellite settlements being built for a booming population whose rapid growth President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has identified as one of Egypt’s biggest challenges alongside terrorism.
    “I want to move them (her two children) to a place where people have better mentalities, where there is education,” said the 36-year-old resident of the Ard Al Lewa district, where rows of apartment blocks rise above dusty, unpaved streets.
    “Unfortunately, things are very difficult in places like this…so I hope to be able to live to a good social standard.”
    Egypt’s 100 millionth person is expected to be clocked up on the official statistics agency’s digital counter in central Cairo in February.
    The newborn will join a nation where six people in ten are under 29 years old, said Aleksandar Bodiroza, representative of the U.N. populations fund in Egypt.
    Many Arab and African countries are struggling with rising populations.    But in Egypt the pressures are acute, because 97% of its people live on just 8% of its territory, crowded along the Nile, Bodiroza added.
    Creating new space for housing, schools and hospitals is a priority as Egypt’s population grows by 2.5 million people a year, he said. In inhabited areas, 1,400 people are packed into every square kilometer.
GROWTH FOR JOBS
    The biggest problem is jobs.    The workforce will reach 80 million within 10 years, the World Bank says.
    But to create enough jobs, annual economic growth needs to be at least triple the population growth rate, said Radwa El-Swaify, head of research at Pharos, a Cairo financial firm.
    Based on population growth of 2.5% this would require 7.5% GDP growth, compared with the government’s forecast of up to 5.9% for the current fiscal year.
    In addition, Egypt’s economy could be hit by water shortages caused by climate change and a Nile dam being built upstream by Ethiopia.    Infrastructure, including roads and public transport, will also come under pressure as the population grows.
    “Thirty years ago this whole area was agricultural land,” said Nabil Rawash, 60, who also lives in Ard El Lewa.     “But with the overcrowding and population growth, people started coming here to build,” he added, standing in a street packed with people and cars.
NEW CITIES
    Officials say they have managed to bring down fertility rates thanks to a “Two is Enough” campaign challenging the tradition of large families in rural areas.
    This is aimed at more than 1.1 million poor families with up to three children.    The Social Solidarity Ministry has trained volunteers to encourage people to have fewer children.
    “During 2019, we have conducted 2,680,000 home visits,” said Desiree Labib, project director at the ministry.    “Among these visits 407,000 women have asked to be referred to family planning clinics.”
    She pointed to a U.N. study which found the fertility rate dipped to 3.1 in 2018 from 3.5 in 2014.
    “If we apply more discipline, so that families have less children, we can reach fertility rates of 2.1 by 2032,” said Abdelhamid Sharaf El Din, a senior statistics official.
    That still means the population will grow to 153 million by 2052, but if the fertility rate were 3.4 it would hit 191 million, he said.
    Either way, the government needs to do something about congestion in Cairo, home to about one in five Egyptians.    It is planning to start moving ministries as soon as June.
    But for many, moving there is not an option due to lack of transport and jobs, said Timothy Kaldas, non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
    “The over-centralization of Egypt’s state and economy has led to this overwhelming concentration of Egyptians in one metropolis,” he said.
(Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Giles Elgood)

1/31/2020 Turkey’s Erdogan criticizes Arab silence over U.S. Middle East plan
FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference ahead of a visit to Algeria,
at Ataturk airport in Istanbul, Turkey, January 26, 2020. Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Friday criticized Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab nations for not speaking out against the U.S. Middle East plan which he said endorsed the Israeli annexation of Palestinian lands.
    Erdogan, who has positioned himself as a global champion for Muslim causes, said Arab nations’ stance toward Palestinians was pitiable and countries that failed to speak out would be responsible for “grave results
    On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump proposed creating a demilitarized Palestinian state with borders drawn to meet     Israeli security needs, granting U.S. recognition of Israeli settlements on occupied West Bank land and of Jerusalem as Israel’s indivisible capital
.
    Turkey dismissed the plan as an attempt to steal Palestinian lands and kill off prospects of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
    Despite Palestinians’ rejection of the plan and their boycott of Trump, three Gulf Arab states – Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates – attended the White House gathering where Trump announced his plan.
    When we look at the stance of countries in the Muslim world toward this step and the announced text, I pity us.    Saudi Arabia mostly, you are silent.    When will you speak?    The same goes for Oman, Bahrain, the Abu Dhabi leadership,” Erdogan said in comments to members of his ruling party in Ankara.
    “They even go and applaud it there.    Shame on you,” he added.    “Some Arab countries supporting such a plan are betraying Jerusalem, their own peoples and most of all humanity.”
    Despite their historic support for Palestinians, some Arab powers have appeared to prioritize close ties with the United States and a shared hostility toward Iran over traditional Arab alliances.
    Saudi Arabia expressed appreciation for Trump’s efforts and support for direct peace negotiations under U.S. auspices, although state media reported that King Salman had called the Palestinian president to convey Riyadh’s unwavering support.
    Turkey’s ties with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have been tense over a host of issues, from the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to rival policies in Libya.
Erdogan said it was “inexplicable” for Palestinians to be pressured into accepting the plan, adding that he would talk later on Friday to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the leader of the Palestinian militant group, Ismail Haniyeh.
    Abbas will speak at the United Nations Security Council about the plan
.
(Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen and Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Dominic Evans and Andrew Cawthorne)
[This is enlightening to me since this is the first sign to me that an entity is about to come out of the shadows to be the one who will influence the Arab and Muslim world to consider and influence the push to activate Trump’s peace plan, and as you may have read at the top of this file that I have proposed that Erdogan may be the biblical King Of The South, but I still leave it open that another entity as seen in the next article that may still come and be the one who fulfills the prophecy in Daniel 9:27.].

1/31/2020 U.N. aid agency fears U.S. Middle East plan will spark violence
FILE PHOTO: Christian Saunders, United Nations Relief and Works Agency's (UNRWA) interim commissioner-general, gestures during an interview with Reuters in Gaza City, January 16, 2020. REUTERS/Nidal al-Mughrabi
    GENEVA (Reuters) – The U.N. aid agency for Palestinian refugees voiced concern on Friday that the U.S. administration’s Middle East peace plan will spark further violence and said it had contingency measures in place to boost protection and assistance in the occupied territories.
    Christian Saunders, head of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), asked about the U.S. plan which would not allow a right of return to Israel, said that this right was “enshrined in international law and various (U.N.) General Assembly resolutions.”
    “We certainly have serious concerns that (the U.S. plan) it will result in an escalation in clashes, violence,” Saunders told a Geneva briefing.    “Palestinian refugees also look to us for reassurance in times like this when their rights and safety come under threat.”
    UNRWA, which provides critical services to 5.6 million Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, including the West Bank and Gaza, appealed to donors for $1.4 billion this year.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

1/31/2020 Trump spoke to Ethiopia’s Ahmed, expressed optimism on giant Nile dam - White House
FILE PHOTO: Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed attends a signing ceremony with European Commission President
Ursula von der Leyen in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia December 7, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri/File Photo

1/31/2020 Report: Officials believe Al-Qaeda leader killed in U.S. airstrike by OAN Newsroom
Screengrabs of Qassim al-Rimi, via Rewards for Justice website and official CNN report.
    U.S. officials reportedly believe they may have killed the leader of Al-Qaeda following a recent airstrike in the Arabian Peninsula.    Friday reports said the U.S. conducted a strike targeting terror leader Qassim al-Rimi in Yemen, but have yet to confirm his death.
    The Pentagon has not elaborated on the situation.
    “While we are aware of the reports alleging the death of AQAP leader Qassim al-Rimi, the Department of Defense has nothing to offer on this matter,” one State Department told CNN.
    Authorities reportedly said they’ll continue to assess whether al-Rimi was killed in the strike by monitoring social media and messaging apps for evidence.

1/31/2020 U.S. envoy warns Palestinians against raising opposition to U.S. peace plan at U.N. by Michelle Nichols
FILE PHOTO: New U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft speaks to reporters after attending her first
U.N. Security Council meeting at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S. September 12, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Segar
    UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft warned the Palestinians on Friday that bringing their displeasure with the U.S. peace plan to the world body would only “repeat the failed pattern of the last seven decades.”
    Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will speak in the U.N. Security Council in the next two weeks about the plan, Palestinian U.N. envoy Riyad Mansour said on Wednesday, adding that he hoped the 15-member council would also vote on a draft resolution on the issue.
    However, the United States is certain to veto any such resolution, diplomats said.    That would allow the Palestinians to take the draft text to the 193-member U.N. General Assembly, where a vote would publicly show how the Trump administration’s peace plan has been received internationally.
    Craft said that while the Palestinians’ initial reaction to the plan was anticipated, “why not instead take that displeasure and channel it into negotiations?
    “Bringing that displeasure to the United Nations does nothing but repeat the failed pattern of the last seven decades.    Let’s avoid those traps and instead take a chance on peace,” she told Reuters.
    Craft said the United States was ready to facilitate talks and that she was “happy to play any role” that contributes to the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan unveiled by U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday.
    Mansour said on Thursday: “There is not a single Palestinian official (who) will meet with American officials now after they submitted an earthquake, the essence of it the destruction of the national aspirations of the Palestinian people.    This is unacceptable.”
    Israel’s U.N. mission signaled on Tuesday that it was preparing for the Palestinians to pursue U.N. action, saying in a statement that it was “working to thwart these efforts, and will lead a concerted diplomatic campaign with the U.S.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by David Brunnstrom and Dan Grebler)

2/1/2020 Syrian rebels launch attack near Aleppo: rebel sources, monitor
FILE PHOTO: A view of trucks carrying belongings of displaced Syrians, is pictured in the town
of Sarmada in Idlib province, Syria, January 28, 2020. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi/File Photo
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Turkish-backed Syrian rebels attacked government-held positions northeast of Aleppo on Saturday, rebel sources and a war monitor said, opening a new front against Syrian army forces that have made significant advances in nearby Idlib over the last week.
    The attack was focused on territory near the city of al-Bab, which has been controlled by Turkey and its Syrian opposition allies since 2017.    Syrian state media made no mention of a new attack.    Turkish forces were not taking part, rebel sources said.
    Rebel sources said their fighters had taken three villages so far.    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, described it as a fierce attack “carried out by factions loyal to Ankara.”
    Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air power, have made rapid advances in Idlib this week, capturing the town of Maarat al-Numan which is located about 100 km (60 miles) southwest of al-Bab.
    Idlib and the area north of Aleppo form part of the last major rebel-held territory in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad has taken back most of the ground once held by his enemies with Russian and Iranian support.
    The government’s latest Idlib advance has triggered a fresh wave of civilian displacement, with hundreds of thousands moving towards the Turkish border.    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday Turkey may launch a military operation in Idlib unless the fighting there is halted.
    U.S. special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey said on Thursday the Idlib fighting raised the specter of an international crisis.
    Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million refugees from Syria, fears a fresh wave of migrants from Idlib.    It has 12 military observation posts around Idlib, set up under a 2017 agreement with Russia and Iran, and several of them have since been surrounded by advancing Syrian government forces.
(Reporting by Khalil Ashawi and Tom Perry; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

2/1/2020 Palestinians cut ties with Israel, U.S. after rejecting peace plan by Omar Fahmy and Ulf Laessing
FILE PHOTO: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gestures as he speaks during a ceremony marking the 15th anniversary of the death
of his predecessor Yasser Arafat, in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, November 11, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman
    CAIRO (Reuters) – The Palestinian Authority has cut all ties with the United States and Israel, including those relating to security, after rejecting a Middle East peace plan presented by U.S. President Donald Trump, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Saturday.
    Abbas was in Cairo to address the Arab League, which backed the Palestinians in their opposition to Trump’s plan.
    The blueprint, endorsed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calls for the creation of a demilitarised Palestinian state that excludes Jewish settlements built in occupied territory and is under near-total Israeli security control.
    “We’ve informed the Israeli side … that there will be no relations at all with them and the United States including security ties,” Abbas told the one-day emergency meeting, called to discuss Trump’s plan.
    Israeli officials had no immediate comment on his remarks.
    Israel and the Palestinian Authority’s security forces have long cooperated in policing areas of the occupied West Bank that are under Palestinian control.    The PA also has intelligence cooperation agreements with the CIA, which continued even after the Palestinians began boycotting the Trump administration’s peace efforts in 2017.
    Abbas also said he had refused to discuss the plan by with Trump by phone, or to receive even a copy of it to study it.     “Trump asked that I speak to him by phone but I said ‘no’, and that he wants to send me a letter … but I refused it,” he said.
    Abbas said he did not want Trump to be able to say that he, Abbas, had been consulted.
    He reiterated his “complete” rejection of the Trump plan, presented on Tuesday. “I will not have it recorded in my history that I sold Jerusalem,” he said.
PALESTINIAN RIGHTS
    The blueprint also proposes U.S. recognition of Israeli settlements on occupied West Bank land and of Jerusalem as Israel’s indivisible capital.
    The Arab League foreign ministers meeting in Cairo said the plan did not meet the minimum aspirations of Palestinians, and that the League would not cooperate with the United States in implementing it.
    The ministers affirmed Palestinian rights to create a future state based on the land captured and occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, with East Jerusalem as capital, the final communique said.
    Foreign ministers from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, three close U.S. allies, as well as Iraq, Lebanon and others said there could be no peace without recognising Palestinian rights to establish a state within the pre-1967 territories.
    After Trump unveiled his plan, some Arab powers had appeared, despite historic support for the Palestinians, to prioritise close ties with the United States and a shared hostility towards Iran over traditional Arab alliances.
    Three Gulf Arab states – Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates – attended the White House gathering where Trump announced his plan alongside Netanyahu.
    On Tuesday, Netanyahu said he would ask his cabinet this week to approve the application of Israeli law to Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
    Such a move could be a first step towards formal annexation of the settlements and the Jordan Valley – territory Israel has kept under military occupation since its capture in 1967.
    Most countries consider Israeli settlements on land captured in war to be a violation of international law.    Trump has changed U.S. policy to withdraw such objections.
(Reporting by Omar Fahmy, Ulf Laessing, Rami Ayyub, Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams; Editing by Frances Kerry, Kevin Liffey and Nick Macfie)

2/1/2020 New Iraq PM appeals to the masses but is rejected by protesters by John Davison and Aziz El Yaakoubi
Iraq's President Barham Salih instructs newly appointed Prime Minister Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi,
in Baghdad, Iraq February 1, 2020. The Presidency of the Republic of Iraq Office/Handout via REUTERS
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – New Prime Minister Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi appealed to downtrodden Iraqis for their support on Saturday hours after his appointment by President Barham Salih, but protesters were already rejecting the head of government as a stooge of the political elite.
    In Baghdad and southern cities, demonstrators who have camped out for months demanding the removal of Iraq’s ruling class – and had succeeded in toppling the outgoing prime minister – chanted “we reject Allawi” and held posters of his face with a red cross through it.
    Salih appointed Allawi after squabbling lawmakers from rival parties had failed for two months to decide on a successor to Adel Abdul Mahdi, who resigned in November during mass unrest.
    Allawi has one month to form a government and will lead it until early elections are held, for which there is no date set.    The former communications minister will likely get stuck between parties vying for cabinet posts, prolonging the political deadlock.
    He will have to contend with parliament’s two largest rival blocs – that led by populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and another formed by Iran-backed parties with links to powerful paramilitary groups.
    Allawi in a formal address to the nation on state television late on Saturday pledged to built a “state of freedom and justice” and to work to meet protesters’ demands for jobs and services and an end to crippling and widespread corruption especially by foreign-backed political and militia groups.
    “I pledge to protect peaceful protesters and release innocent prisoners … told hold early elections … and protect Iraq from all foreign interference,” he said.
    He said the election would be monitored by international observers but did not elaborate.
    He said he would resign if political blocs attempted to impose candidates for cabinet jobs, and called on protesters to continue demonstrating until their demands are met.
    Allawi will need to contend with militia groups and parties backed by Iran which have come to dominate Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
    Since the defeat of Islamic State in Iraq in 2017, those militias have gained even greater power in parliament and in the economy.
    Some of those militias have been involved, alongside security forces, in the crackdown against protesters who began their demonstrations in October.    Nearly 500 people have been killed in the unrest.
    Soon after Allawi was appointed, protesters gathered in Baghdad and southern cities in opposition, including at Tahrir Square, the centre of the uprising in the Iraqi capital.
    For the demonstrators, Allawi, the former communications minister under ex-premier Nuri al-Maliki – who presided over the fall of multiple Iraqi cities to Islamic State in 2014 and is accused of pro-Shi’ite sectarian policies – is part of the ruling elite and therefore unacceptable.
    Hours before Allawi’s appointment, supporters of populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr attacked protesters in Tahrir square.
    Sadr called on Friday for a mass protest in Baghdad and for sit-ins near the fortified Green Zone to protest the delayed formation of a government, without specifying when the gatherings should take place.
    Sadr later supported Allawi’s appointment, saying he had been “chosen by the people” and that this was a “good step” for Iraq. Sadr, a political opportunist, has both backed protests and sided with the Iran-backed political groups they reject.
    The Dawa party, meanwhile, rejected Allawi’s premiership, saying in a statement that any candidate being decided at this stage was unlikely to have unanimous support.
    Iraq is facing its biggest crisis since the military defeat of Islamic State in 2017.    A mostly Shi’ite popular uprising in Baghdad and the south challenges the country’s mainly Iran-backed Shi’ite Muslim ruling elite.
    The country has been thrown into further disarray since the killing of Iranian military mastermind Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad on Jan. 3. Iran responded with missile attacks on bases hosting U.S. forces, pushing the region to the brink of an all-out conflict.
    Pro-Iran politicians have tried to use those events to shift the focus away from popular discontent with their grip on power and towards anti-American rallies and demands for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
(Additional reporting by Nadine Awadalla; Editing by Helen Popper and Nick Macfie)

2/2/2020 Iraqi cleric Sadr tells followers to clear sit-ins after PM appointed
University students gather during ongoing anti-government protests in Basra, Iraq February 2, 2020. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Populist Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr urged his followers on Sunday to help security forces clear roads blocked during months of sit-in protests, calling for “day-to-day life” to resume following the appointment of a new prime minister.
    Sadr, who has alternately sided with the anti-government protesters and the Iran-backed political groups they reject, urged his unarmed supporters known as “blue hats” to work with authorities to ensure schools and businesses can operate normally again.
    “I advise the security forces to stop anyone from cutting off roads and the ministry of education should punish those who obstruct regular working hours, be they students, teachers or others,” Sadr said in a statement published on Twitter.
    Some of his followers appeared to have helped already to clear out protest areas in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square overnight, a Reuters reporter said.
    The Turkish Restaurant, a tall building occupied by demonstrators since October, was mostly empty and the blue hats stood guard with walkie-talkies outside it.
    Anti-government protests continued nearby, with demonstrators directing their ire toward new Prime Minister Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, who was named on Saturday as part of a deal between Sadr and rival Iran-backed political groups.
    Protesters demanding the removal of Iraq’s ruling elite and the creation of better jobs and services have regularly blocked main roads in Baghdad and southern Iraq since demonstrations erupted in October.
    A political opportunist, Sadr has directed anti-government unrest in previous years but he has not been able to control this round of demonstrations and many protesters oppose him as much as the rest of the political class.
    Saturday’s appointment of Allawi resulted from a deal following two months of wrangling between Sadr and pro-Iran parties, sources close to outgoing premier Adel Abdul Mahdi said.
    Abdul Mahdi resigned in November under pressure from the street protests.
    Sadr’s supporters had previously bolstered the protesters and sometimes helped shield them from attacks by security forces and unidentified gunmen.
    But they withdrew from the main sit-in camps at his request earlier this month, and even attacked protesters in Tahrir Square, the main protest camp in the capital, hours before Allawi’s designation on Saturday.
    Many protesters, including some of his own supporters who had joined demonstrations, accused him of abandoning their cause.    Many of Sadr’s supporters hail from eastern Baghdad slums and share the same grievances as many Iraqis – no work opportunities, poor healthcare and education.
    The unrest is Iraq’s biggest crisis for years.    It has shattered nearly two years of calm that prevailed after the defeat of the Sunni Muslim extremist Islamic State in 2017.
(Reporting by Nadine Awadalla, John Davison and Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Helen Popper)

2/2/2020 Syrian rebels use car bombs, suicide attacks to stop government offensive by OAN Newsroom
This Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, photo, released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, a Syrian army soldier
launches a mortar round toward insurgents on the western rural Aleppo, Syria. (SANA via AP)
    Syrian government forces are facing stiff rebel resistance and suicide attacks amid their ongoing offensive.    Jihadist fighters reportedly used car bombs in an attempt to stop the government offensive in rebel-held areas west of Aleppo.
    Islamist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham staged two suicide bombings on Saturday while another car bomb was set off by remote control.
    Over the weekend, Syrian troops captured several towns along the M5 Damascus-Aleppo Highway.    Officials said their goal is to retake the highway, which currently divides the rebel-held Idlib province in half.
    “Our forces are still working to accomplish the mission,” stated one Syrian soldier.    “Within the coming few hours, nearby towns, God willing, will be liberated from the abomination of terrorism.”
    The Syrian Armed Forces have accused rebels of shooting rockets in residential areas of Aleppo in retaliation for the ongoing offensive.
Destruction by an airstrike is seen in the town of al-Jannah, west of Aleppo, Syria, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Ghaith Alsayed)

2/3/2020 Erdogan says Turkey hits back after Syrian shells kill Turkish troops by Orhan Coskun and Daren Butler
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference in Istanbul, Turkey,
February 3, 2020. Turkish Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS
    ANKARA/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey said on Monday it struck dozens of Syrian government targets after five of its soldiers were killed in northwest Syria’s Idlib region, an incident that could test ties between Moscow and Ankara.
    President Tayyip Erdogan said initial indications showed 30-35 Syrians were “neutralized” in Turkey’s response to what it called intense shelling of its soldiers in Idlib, the last major Syrian rebel stronghold after nearly nine years of war.
    Turkey has reinforced Idlib, which lies just across its southern border with Syria, in a challenge to Damascus and its Russian backers. Erdogan said Turkey had told Russian counterparts “they need to stand aside” in the escalating conflict, in which Ankara and Moscow back opposing sides.
    Russia’s Defense Ministry said Turkish military units came under fire overnight after moving within Idlib without notifying Russia, contradicting Ankara’s claim that it coordinated movements.
    Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, backed by Russian air power, have made large advances in Idlib, prompting Turkey to warn it may launch a military operation there unless the fighting is halted.
    Rebels fighting to oust Assad, some of whom have been backed by Turkey, have also launched counter-attacks against the territorial gains by Assad’s forces.
    “We have responded in kind to these attacks and will continue to do so, whether it is with our artillery or mortars,” Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul.
    “We are determined to continue our operations for the security of our country, people and our brothers in Idlib,” he said before a flight to Kiev.    “Those who question our determination will soon understand they made a mistake.”
    A Turkish security official told Reuters the shelling that killed the soldiers occurred in the area of Saraqeb, a town 15 km (9 miles) to the east of Idlib city. Saraqeb lies at the junction of two main roads that Damascus seeks to fully control.
    “Following the developments in Idlib in recent weeks, serious support was provided over the weekend to the troops, equipment and vehicles in the region,” the official said.
    Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million refugees from Syria, fears a fresh wave of migrants from Idlib.    It has 12 military observation posts around the region, set up under a 2017 agreement with Russia and Iran.
    Several of them have since been surrounded by advancing Syrian government forces.    A spokesman for Erdogan’s AK Party said on Monday Turkey will view Syrian government forces around its posts as “targets.”
    Erdogan accuses Russia of violating a 2017 “de-escalation” agreement to reduce fighting in the region, a charge Moscow denied on Friday.
REINFORCEMENTS
    “Units of Turkish troops made movements inside the de-escalation zone … without notifying the Russian side, and came under fire from Syrian government forces on terrorists in the area to the west of Saraqib,” Russia’s defense ministry said.
    The Syrian Observatory, a UK-based war monitor, said 13 members of the Syrian government forces were killed in Turkish shelling, even while a Syrian state TV correspondent said there had been no casualties among its government forces.
    On Sunday the Observatory said some 320 Turkish trucks and military vehicles entered Idlib at Kafr Lusin crossing on Sunday, much more than usual, and went south.
    Turkey’s defense ministry said Syrian shelling was carried out against its reinforcements, which were meant to prevent clashes in Idlib, despite prior coordination of their positions.
    Erdogan said if talks between diplomats and generals fail to get results he will contact Russian President Vladimir Putin directly to try to resolve the situation.
    “We told especially Russian counterparts that they are not our counterparts here, that it is the (Syrian) regime directly, and that they need to stand aside,” Erdogan said.    “This is not okay, we are giving martyrs here, but our armed forces and our artillery … are keeping them under fire.”
    He added F-16s are involved in Turkey’s operation against 40 points in Idlib.
    However, the Russian defense ministry said Turkish planes did not violate Syria’s border and no air strikes on Syrian troops were recorded.
(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Maria Kiselyova in Moscow, Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai; Writing by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by William Maclean and Giles Elgood)

2/3/2020 Oil wavers as coronavirus hits demand and OPEC+ considers deeper cuts by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin
FILE PHOTO: Pump jacks operate in front of a drilling rig in an oil field in Midland, Texas
U.S. August 22, 2018. Picture taken August 22, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford/File Photo
    LONDON (Reuters) – Oil prices were little changed in the face of conflicting signals on Monday, with demand concerns resulting from the coronavirus outbreak countered by the possibility of deeper crude output cuts by OPEC and its allies.
    Brent crude was down 14 cents at $56.48 a barrel by 1054 GMT, having earlier lost more than $1 to its lowest since January last year at $55.42.
    U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude rose 20 cents to $51.76 after hitting a session low of $50.42, also the lowest since January last year.
    On the first day of trade in China after the New Year holiday, investors erased $393 billion from China’s benchmark equities index, sold the yuan and dumped commodities as fears about the virus dominated markets.
    Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said the spread of the coronavirus had hit oil demand and called for an effort to stabilize oil prices.
    “The oil market is under pressure and prices have dropped to under $60 a barrel and efforts must be made to balance it,” he said.     Zanganeh also said that Iran would agree to the bringing forward of OPEC’s next meeting meeting if the rest of the group agreed to production cuts.
    OPEC and its allies, a group known as OPEC+, are considering a further cut in their oil output of 500,000 barrels per day (bpd), two OPEC sources and a third industry source told Reuters.
    The OPEC+ group is also considering holding a ministerial meeting over Feb. 14-15, one of the OPEC sources said, ahead of a previously scheduled meeting in March.
    “The market needs assurances that the supply/demand equation remains in balance for prices to hit a floor.    This suggests a commitment from OPEC not just to extend oil supply cuts, but even implement deeper ones beyond March,” said FXTM analyst Hussein Sayed.
    As the coronavirus outbreak hit fuel demand in China, Sinopec Corp <0386.HK>, Asia’s largest refiner, told its facilities to cut throughput this month by about 600,000 bpd.
    Independent refineries in Shandong province, which collectively import about a fifth of China’s crude, cut output by 30% to 50% in a little more than a week, executives and analysts said.
    “Clearly travel restrictions and the extended shutdown of large parts of the Chinese industrial sector have weighed on oil demand and this is reflected in the weakness that we are seeing in the ICE Brent time spreads,” said ING analyst Warren Patterson.
    The premium of the first-month Brent contract to the second-month contract narrowed to 9 cents a barrel on Monday, from 70 cents a month ago, indicating that traders are not concerned about supply tightness because of the demand impact of the coronavirus.
(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London, Additional reporting by Florence Tan in Singapore; Editing by Edmund Blair and David Goodman)

2/3/2020 Israel and Sudan will push to normalize relations: Israeli officials
An African migrant stands next to a shop by the Old Central Bus Station in south Tel Aviv, Israel February 3, 2020. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel and Sudan have agreed to move toward forging normal relations for the first time, Israeli officials said on Monday after the leaders of the two former foes met in Uganda.
    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had two hours of talks with Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of Sudan’s sovereign council, in the city of Entebbe in central Uganda.
    “It was agreed to start cooperation leading to normalization of the relationship between the two countries,” an Israeli statement said.
    Sudan’s information minister and government spokesman, Faisal Salih, told Reuters he had no information about the visit and that the cabinet had not discussed it.    Officials would wait for “clarifications” on Burhan’s return, Salih said in a later statement.
    Burhan is the most senior figure in the first phase of a power-sharing arrangement between the military and civilian parties in Sudan that began last August, following the overthrow of long-time Islamist ruler Omar al-Bashir.
    Civilian authorities are due to take the lead for the final 18 months of the 39-month transition.
    Normalising relations with Sudan, where Arab states gathered in 1967 to issue what became known as the “Three No’s” – no recognition of Israel, no peace with Israel and no negotiations with Israel – would allow Netanyahu to burnish his diplomatic credentials a month before Israel’s March 2 election.
    It could pave the way for the right-wing Israeli leader to pledge the deportation of Sudanese who make up around one fifth of illegal workers in Israel, a move backed by many of his supporters.
    These migrants had previously argued that they could not be repatriated as they faced retribution for traveling to Israel, an enemy of Sudan.
    “Netanyahu believes that Sudan is moving in a new and positive direction,” the Israeli statement said.
    Sudan’s leader, it added, “is interested in helping his country go through a modernization process by removing it from isolation and placing it on the world map.”
    Burhan’s visit and any normalization of ties with Israel would likely be controversial with many in Sudan and elsewhere in the Arab world, especially at a time when Netanyahu has been promoting a new U.S. peace plan that Palestinians have flatly rejected.
    Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat called Burhan’s meeting with Netanyahu “a stab in the back of the Palestinian people and a flagrant walkout on the Arab peace initiative,” according to a statement published by the official WAFA news agency.
    Israel previously considered Sudan a security threat because it suspected Iran used Sudan as a conduit for overland smuggling of munitions to the Gaza Strip.    In 2009, regional sources said, Israeli aircraft bombed an arms convoy in Sudan.
    But since Bashir was ousted last April, Khartoum has distanced itself from Iran and no longer poses such a threat, Israeli officials say.
    On Sunday, the United States invited Burhan to visit Washington, Sudan’s sovereign council said.
    Sudan is pushing to be removed from a U.S. list of countries considered state sponsors of terrorism.    The listing has impeded badly needed international financial assistance and commercial activity in Sudan.
    Earlier on Monday, Netanyahu held talks with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who said Uganda was studying the possibility of opening an embassy in Jerusalem.
(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller, Dan Williams and Khalid Abdelaziz; Editing by Pravin Char and Grant McCool)

2/3/2020 In death, Iran’s Soleimani bequeaths perilous dilemma for Iraq by Samia Nakhoul, John Davison and Ahmed Rasheed
FILE PHOTO: An Iranian woman shows a photo of the late Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, during a protest against the killing of
Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed in an air strike at Baghdad
airport, in front of United Nations office in Tehran, Iran January 3, 2020. WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Nazanin Tabatabaee via REUTERS
    BAGHDAD (Reuters)- – A month after a U.S. missile killed him, Qassem Soleimani looms as large over Iraq’s fractured democracy as he ever did alive.
    The death of the Iranian general removed a shrewd guiding hand on the pro-Tehran Shi’ite militias who revered him, setting off a menacing new instability in Iraq’s fragile political arena.
    Now the shadowy power structure he helped to build — a state above the state made up of Iraq’s formal institutions — risks colliding ever more bloodily with a powerful youth-led anti-Iranian protest movement.
    That in turn poses a quandary for Iraq’s leaders, torn by a choice between Iranian tutelage and meeting the demands of a generation seeking an end to Iran’s dominance.
    They know that if they tilt too far towards Tehran they risk worse political turmoil and Iraq written off as a failed state, analysts and diplomats say.
    “There is mounting Iraqi determination to reject the increasing Iranian influence and this is what we are seeing in the protests,” said a prominent Iran-aligned Shi’ite party leader, who declined to be identified.
    “The Iranians should review their policies if they want to build good relations with Iraq.”
    While Soleimani’s death weakens Iran, it also leaves a damaging security vacuum in Iraq because the veteran commander held final sway over Tehran’s Iraqi paramilitary forces.
    Analysts and diplomats fear the absence of his seasoned leadership, and his ability to dial militias up and down, could result in an Iraq with the paramilitary equivalent of a Frankenstein’s monster on the loose.
    One of the most powerful Iraqi paramilitary leaders, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a close Soleimani confidant, died in the same U.S. drone strike on Jan. 3.    Fear and uncertainty among his fellow militia chieftains has sent many of them into hiding, changing residence and even phone numbers.
    “Even Soleimani and Muhandis found it hard at times to keep Kataib Hezbollah (the militia founded by Muhandis) under control and there’s now a stronger possibility they might act on their own,” says one Western envoy to Baghdad.
    In Iraq, months-long protests against political elites and their Iranian patrons continue, having forced the resignation of the prime minister, an important position of formal power alongside the 329-seat parliament and the president.
    But the protests have made no change to the pro-Iranian paramilitary groups.    Estimated to number up to 160,000 men in total, these groups are built around a core of militias founded, trained, armed and ideologically loyal to Iran.
PROXY WAR ON IRAQI SOIL
    Some of those militias have abused their increased power to shoot dozens of demonstrators, whose protests against corruption and incompetence have won the endorsement of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s paramount religious authority.
    “The militias became monsters, greedy and too powerful to handle,” says a senior politician with long experience of trying to govern Iraq.    “They extorted money from businesses, they wanted their share from everything, even forcing the government to give their loyalists jobs and state contracts.”
    A leading Iraqi politician says Soleimani’s power by the end was so great he behaved like a viceroy on his visits, convening not just allies but forces from across the spectrum.
    While both Iran and Iraq worry about the risk of a full-on conflict between Iraqi Shi’ite forces and youths indignant at Tehran’s domination of their country, there is also fear that Iraq may become a war zone between Iran and the United States.
    Unlike in most of the Arab world, Shi’ites are a majority in Iraq, propelled into power by the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 that toppled the minority Sunni dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.
    Through subsequent civil war, with sectarian rival elites looting the state, that majority has failed to build cohesion around the power-sharing with the Sunni Arabs and self-governing Kurdish minority decreed by a 2003 post-war constitution.
    The last round of civil war, against Islamic State’s (IS) short-lived caliphate, was a huge leap forward for Iran’s Iraqi militias, which performed much more strongly than the country’s military, U.S.-trained but hollowed out by corruption.
    Grouped inside the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) or al-Hashid al-Shaabi, they formed after an edict by Sistani and helped turn the Sunni jihadi tide.    A spokesman for the PMF could not immediately be reached for comment.
RISING ANTI-IRAN SENTIMENT
    Anti-Iran sentiment among the activists encamped in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square since October runs high.
    While they did finally topple Abdul-Mahdi – replaced on Saturday by Prime Minister Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi – they want an independent government free of foreign and especially Iranian tutelage, and to hold the killers of protesters accountable.
    Protesters highlight how Iran has flooded the Iraqi market with its own goods, from electronic equipment, to furniture, cars, as well as dairy and agricultural products.
    “All the goods in the market are Iranian, they killed our economy. Our politicians and militias are stooges for Iran, they gave them import licences for all this.    Iraq used to feed all nearby countries with its agricultural products and now it’s all gone,” said Abbas Roweih, 23, an unemployed medical technician.
    The Shi’ite party leader argues that the future of an Iraq with a young population – half under 17 and who never knew Saddam’s tyranny – lies with the protesters and their rage.
    “The young Iraqi democracy needed an earthquake to address the demands of these youths,” said the leader.
HIGH STAKES FOR IRAQ
    Despite his close links to Iran, this leader says that even politicians close to the Shi’ite-dominated government and the PMF believe the militias have become a state above the state.
    He said prime minister Abdul-Mahdi was taken by surprise when in December militia-instigated anti-U.S. protests that followed air raids on Kataib Hezbollah targets turned into a siege of the U.S. embassy and reached its gates.
    When Abdul Mahdi could not reach militia leaders during the siege who had switched off their phones, he sent someone from his office with an open phone line to them and asked them to withdraw from the embassy site, the leader said.    They did not.
    Many observers and analysts believe it was TV footage of Iraqi militiamen breaching the perimeter of the Baghdad embassy – a throwback to the American trauma of the hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran of 1979 – that triggered President Donald Trump’s decision to order the attack on Soleimani.
    “We don’t want to be enemies of Iran but we want relations to be based on mutual respect and for (Iran) not to use Iraq in proxy wars with the United States,” warns the party leader.
    Iraq’s problems don’t end there.
    One is that Iranian proxy forces in Iraq follow Iran’s doctrine of Velayat al-Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurisprudent) that vests ultimate authority in the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.    This notion is foreign to Sistani and other top Iraqi clerics who believe it mires religion in politics.
    Diplomats believe Iraq could pay economically for enacting Iran’s agenda: If Iran does manage to prevail upon Iraq to force out the 5,000 U.S. troops, this might lead Washington to sanction its economy and leaders, diplomatic sources say.    Iraq’s parliament has already voted to expel U.S. troops.
    Many diplomats doubt the will and ability of Iraq’s fractious, disunited political class to avoid this outcome.,br>     “If the Iraqi government acts to have foreign forces withdraw … then there are probably all sorts of consequences,” said a U.S. official.
(Additional reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi and Nadine Awadalla, Editing by William Maclean)

2/3/2020 Arabs in Israeli border towns fear Trump plan will transfer them to West Bank by Rami Ayyub and Sinan Abu Mayzer
FILE PHOTO: Buildings in the Palestinian village of Nazlat Isa near Tulkarm in the Israeli-occupied West Bank are seen behind
the Israeli barrier and from the Arab-Israeli village of Baqa al-Gharbiyye, Israel February 1, 2020. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
    BAQA AL-GHARBIYYE, Israel (Reuters) – Thousands of Israeli Arabs, many waving Palestinian flags, demonstrated in this town in Israel at the weekend to voice their fear that U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East plan could see them stripped of their rights as Israeli citizens.
    Trump’s proposal, disclosed last week, would see Israel keep its settlements in the occupied West Bank.
    But it also raised the possibility that 11 Arab border towns abutting the West Bank would become part of a new Palestinian state – alarming Israel’s 21 percent Arab minority.
    “Israel wants to get rid of these people – their land, their history and their space,” said Mohammed Barakeh, a protester and former Arab member of Israel’s parliament.
    Like their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza, Arabs in Israel have criticized Trump’s plan, which suggested what it billed as a “two-state” solution for the decades-long conflict.
    Critics say that by handing Jewish settlements in occupied territory to Israel and keeping Palestinians under Israeli security control, a viable independent state is impossible.
    On Monday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed the land swap idea, saying: “We do not agree at all, in any way, to swap land and residents from Israel to (Palestine).”
    Israel’s Arabs – predominantly Muslims, Christian and Druze – are mostly the descendants of the Palestinians who remained in their homes or were internally displaced following the 1948 war that surrounded Israel’s creation.
    Many identify as Palestinians and regularly voice solidarity with those in Gaza and the West Bank.
    But they fear losing their rights and ties to the land they have lived on for generations if they are moved from Israel to Palestinian rule in the West Bank.
    Ayman Odeh, who heads a coalition of mainly Arab parties in Israel’s parliament, said Trump’s proposal was “a green light to revoke the citizenship of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arab citizens who live in northern Israel.”
    Feelings also ran high at the weekend in Umm al-Fahm, a town on a hill that looks down into the West Bank across an Israeli military barrier that winds along its northern boundary.
    “I am a Palestinian Arab and a citizen of Israel,” said Umm Mahmoud, 42, a housewife from Umm al-Fahm, as she shopped for home supplies.
    “I cannot accept being transferred to the West Bank.    Although we are the same, we cannot leave our land, lives and traditions.    Although they (West Bank Palestinians) are our family, it is not possible,” she said.
HYPOTHETICAL MATTER
    The Trump plan said land swaps could include both populated and unpopulated areas and redrawing the borders of Israel so that the so-called Triangle Communities become part of the State of Palestine would need to be agreed on by both parties.
    David Friedman, the Trump-appointed U.S. Ambassador to Israel who was closely involved in the framing of the Middle East plan, denied that residents of Arab towns in Israel would lose citizenship if they eventually fell under Palestinian jurisdiction.
    “No one is being stripped of citizenship.    We don’t propose that,” he told reporters last Wednesday.
    Some Israeli government officials have privately voiced reservations about the idea.
    “I regard this as a hypothetical matter.    This is something the sides can weigh as an option after the plan is implemented,” Gabi Ashkenazi, a senior member of the opposition Blue and White Party, told Israeli Internet television channel Ynet.
    “We unequivocally regard the (Arab) citizens of Israel as equal citizens,” Ashkenazi said.
(Reporting by Rami Ayyub and Sinan Abu Mayzer with additional reporting by Stephen Farrell and Nuha Sharaf in Umm al-Fahm, Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Writing by Rami Ayyub and Stephen Farrell)

2/3/2020 Reports: U.S. requesting UN Security Council meeting to address President Trump’s peace plan for Palestine by OAN Newsroom
China’s United Nations Ambassador Zhang Jun speaks during a press conference Thursday Jan. 30, 2020
at U.N. headquarters. The World Health Organization declared the outbreak sparked by a new virus
in China that has spread to more than a dozen countries as a global emergency. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
    U.S. diplomats are requesting a closed-door meeting of the United Nations Security Council this week.    According to reports Monday, members of the council will address President Trump’s peace plan for Israel and Palestine.
    The president’s senior adviser Jared Kushner is expected to attend the gathering to explain the benefits of the plan.
    This comes after Palestinian leaders and Iranian-backed terror groups rejected the peace proposals.    They are demanding East Jerusalem and a removal of Israeli settlements from the West Bank.
    Chinese diplomats have already signaled that they may obstruct the discussions.
    “Palestinians should be a part of any negotiation concerning their future and they should be playing a big role in any plan concerning their fundamental rights,” stated Zhang Jun, UN envoy – Mainland China.
    U.S. diplomats believe the security council could green-light the plan to end violence at the Israeli-Palestinian border.    The meeting is expected to take place this coming Thursday.
A protester covers his face as another waves a Palestinian flag during a protest is held against the proposed
peace deal for the Middle East by President Donald Trump, near the U.S. embassy in Aukar, east of Beirut, Lebanon,
Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020. Hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinians demonstrated Sunday near the U.S. embassy in Lebanon
in rejection to a White House plan for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)


2/4/2020 Turkey, Russia can tackle Syria escalation ‘without anger’: Erdogan by Orhan Coskun and Tuvan Gumrukcu
FILE PHOTO: Turkish and Russian military vehicles return following a joint patrol in northeast Syria, as they are pictured
from near the Turkish border town of Kiziltepe in Mardin province, Turkey, November 1, 2019. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan/File Photo
    ANKARA (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday Turkey and Russia should resolve differences over the conflict in Syria’s Idlib without anger, after a deadly flare-up in violence challenged the fragile cooperation between Moscow and Ankara.
    The two countries support opposing sides in Syria’s nearly nine-year war, as well as in Libya’s escalating conflict, but have worked together to contain some of the bloodshed and have forged close defense ties in recent years.
    An attack by Russian-backed Syrian government forces that killed eight Turkish military personnel on Monday posed the biggest challenge to Russian-Turkish ties since their 2018 deal to stem fighting in Syria’s northwest Idlib region.
    Erdogan told Russian forces on Monday there to “stand aside” while Turkey struck dozens of targets in retaliation.    Moscow and Ankara then argued about whether Turkey had told Russia it was sending waves of reinforcements into Idlib.
    “There is no need for us to be engaged in a conflict or a serious contradiction with Russia at this stage,” he was quoted as telling reporters on a flight from Ukraine.
    “We will of course sit down and discuss everything.    Not with anger, though.    Because those who sit down with anger, get up with losses,” Erdogan added.
    Russia supports President Bashar al-Assad in the war in Syria while Turkey backs rebels who once aimed to topple him.
    Analysts said the relationship should survive the testy spell even while risks remained on the ground in Syria.    Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million refugees, fears Russian air strikes and a recent northward surge by Syrian troops threaten to send millions more refugees towards its border.
    A Turkish security official said clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces continued intermittently on Tuesday around Saraqeb, a town 15 km (9 miles) east of Idlib city.
    “Now we see more clearly the limits of the Turkey-Russia cooperation in Syria…and the question is have we reached a different level of escalation” given the attacks on Turkish troops, said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat who chairs the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.
NO “PERMANENT BREAK
    But “this episode is not going to lead to a permanent break between Ankara and Moscow.    They will find ways to overcome this… because both sides continue to rely on each other” to contain the situation in Idlib, he said.
    Turkey’s foreign minister told his Russian counterpart to rein in Syrian forces and again warned of retaliation against provocative attacks on Turkish observation posts in Idlib set up under a 2017 agreement with Russia and Iran.
    “We also don’t accept the excuse of ‘we cannot fully control the regime’ here,” Mevlut Cavusoglu said of Russia.
    The Turkish security official said Ankara had no plans to withdraw from its 12 observation posts in the area, even though some are now surrounded by Syrian government forces.
    Moscow says it is concerned about attacks by militants who control Idlib, Syria’s last remaining major rebel stronghold.
    Konstantin Kosachev, a senior Russian lawmaker, called the heightened fighting a “serious test of the strength of the existing Russian-Turkish agreements” in both Idlib and in northeast Syria, where the two countries have jointly patrolled.
    The Idlib violence has accelerated in recent months despite several ceasefire efforts, including as recently as January.
    United Nations regional spokesman David Swanson said 520,000 people had been displaced since the beginning of December and the numbers could swell further.
(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Ankara and Eric Knecht in Beirut; Writing by Ali Kucukgocmen and Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Gareth Jones)

2/4/2020 U.N. Libya envoy says military rivals ready to negotiate in Geneva by Emma Farge
U.N. Envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salame holds a news briefing ahead of U.N.-brokered
military talks in Geneva, Switzerland, February 4, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
    GENEVA (Reuters) – The U.N. envoy to Libya said on Tuesday there was a “genuine will to start negotiating” between rival military factions as they planned to meet for the first time for talks in Geneva aimed at securing a lasting ceasefire.
    However, Ghassan Salame told reporters that an arms embargo was being violated by both sides and that new mercenaries and arms were still arriving “by air and by sea” in Libya, where forces loyal to eastern based commander Khalifa Haftar have been trying to take the capital, Tripoli, for the past 10 months.
    The talks bring together five senior military officers from Haftar’s Libyan National Army and five from forces aligned with the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.
    Fighting has continued on the ground despite a call for a truce by Russia and Turkey starting on Jan. 12 and an international summit on Libya in Berlin on Jan. 19 aimed at reducing international interference.
    Haftar has had material support from countries including the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, and Russia, U.N. experts and diplomats say, while the GNA is backed militarily by Turkey.
    Salame deplored the presence of more than “20 million pieces of weaponry” in the country and said that he had asked the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution to reaffirm an existing arms embargo and pass measures to ensure it is respected.
    Talks between the two sides, who did not meet face-to-face in Geneva on Monday, were aiming “to bridge the gaps in their views on how the lasting, sustainable ceasefire can be organized on the ground,” Salame said.
    “We started yesterday to discuss with them a long list of points on our agenda, starting on an attempt to transform the truce into a more solid one, less often violated by either side and also to transform that truce into a real agreement on a lasting ceasefire,” he said.
    Haftar’s offensive, which upended a previous U.N. peace plan, deepened the gulf between loose alliances that have competed for power from western and eastern Libya since 2014.
    The GNA was set up in 2016 from a previous U.N. peace push that Haftar and his backers spurned.
    The conflict that developed in Libya in the years since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011 has given space to militants and migrant smugglers and crippled Libya’s oil reliant economy.
    A blockade of oil ports and fields by groups loyal to Haftar that began just before the Berlin conference has reduced oil output by about one million barrels per day (bpd).
    Asked if he would press Haftar to end the blockade, Salame said it was mainly an issue being pursued on the ground, urging foreign powers to back a broader U.N. bid to resume production.
(Additional reporting and writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Alison Williams, William Maclean)

2/4/2020 Uganda ‘studying’ opening embassy in Jerusalem, Museveni tells Netanyahu by Elias Biryabarema
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and his wife Sara Netanyahu pose for a photograph with Ugandan President
Yoweri Museveni (R) and Uganda's First Lady Janet Museveni at the State House in Entebbe, Uganda February 3, 2020. REUTERS/Abubaker Lubowa
    KAMPALA (Reuters) – Uganda is “studying” the possibility of opening an embassy in Jerusalem, President Yoweri Museveni said on Monday, during a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
    Such a move would be seen internationally as a statement of support for Israel’s claim for the city of Jerusalem to be its capital, a potential political win for Netanyahu less than a month before a national election on March 2.
    “If a friend says I want your embassy here rather than there I don’t see why there would be…,” Museveni said before trailing off and continuing: “we are really working, we’re studying that.”
    “You open an embassy in Jerusalem and I will open an embassy in Kampala,” promised Netanyahu.    “We hope to do this in the near future.”
    Palestinians claim East Jerusalem — captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war — for their own capital.    But a peace plan presented last week by U.S. President Donald Trump envisaged a Palestinian capital outside Jerusalem’s municipal limits.
    The Palestinian leadership on Saturday rejected the plan and cut all ties with the United States and Israel, including those relating to security.
    Uganda and Israel currently have no embassy in each other’s country, though Museveni is a long-standing ally of Israel, which trains some elements of the Ugandan security forces.
    Israel’s embassy in Nairobi, in neighboring Kenya, currently handles its relations with Uganda.
    Uganda’s Entebbe airport was the scene in 1976 of a dramatic rescue operation conducted by Israeli commandos to save nearly 100 mostly Israeli passengers on board an Air France airliner hijacked by Palestinian and German militants.
    Netanyahu, whose elder brother Yonatan, a commander in the operation, was killed in the incident, said he found every visit to Uganda “profoundly moving” for this reason.    Three passengers and all the hostage takers also died in the operation.
    As well as the embassy issue, Netanyahu said Israel and Uganda were exploring the possibility of having direct flights and of closer cooperation in cyber security.
    “Israel is coming back to Africa and Africa is coming back to Israel in a big way,” he said.
    Rights groups, critical of Museveni’s record on human rights, are unlikely to welcome the prospect of increased cooperation with Israel on cyber security.
    Security personnel in Uganda routinely break up opposition rallies with tear gas, beatings and detentions.
(Reporting by Elias Biryabarema; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Gareth Jones)

2/5/2020 Gaza farmers return to their lands along volatile Israeli border by Nidal al-Mughrabi
Palestinian farmers, helped by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), throw wheat seeds as they plant
a field near the Israel Gaza border in the central Gaza Strip February 3, 2020. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
    GAZA (Reuters) – Returning to his fields for the first time in 14 years, Palestinian farmer Naser Abu Isaeed surveyed the toll taken by conflict on formerly productive soil.
    “I saw an empty area full of holes and dry weeds,” said Abu Isaeed, who once grew fruit on the tracts along Gaza’s volatile border with Israel.
    He is one of about 600 Palestinian farmers who regained access to their fields along the border to cultivate crops under a project launched by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
    Citing security concerns, Israel has for years designated a 100 meter by 300 meter strip along its 40-km (25 mile)-long fence at the frontier as off-limits to Palestinians in Gaza, an enclave ruled by the Hamas militant group.
    Palestinians say the policy has deprived them of large areas of farmland, cut into livelihoods and reduced the space available to the densely populated strip’s two million residents.
    Under the ICRC project, launched in 2015, members of the Hamas-led Interior Ministry have cleared unexploded ordnance and other war material from 40 percent of the 2,500 acres (1,012 hectares) that make up the borderlands in that tract.
    Abu Isaeed was one of 90 farmers whose lands were being rehabilitated by ICRC in the project’s third phase which began last August and will end with the harvest in May.    In all, the ICRC said some 580 farmers have regained access to their land.
    Fields were plowed, fertilized and sown with wheat by ICRC-employed workers as part of the endeavor, organized in cooperation with Israeli authorities, Gaza’s Agriculture Ministry, local municipalities and farmers’ committees.
    “We risk death every time we enter the land,” said Serhey Abu Mandeel, 71, noting its proximity to the border, which is closely monitored by the Israeli military.    He and his family owned 12 acres planted with peas, soybeans, wheat and lentils.
    Like other Palestinian farmers, Abu Mandeel complained that herbicides sprayed by cropdusters inside Israel were being carried by winds across the border into Gaza and harming fields there.
    Farmers said the herbicides have killed their crops.    Gaza’s Agriculture Ministry put their losses at $1.25 million since last December.
    “We believe there should be a balance between security concerns and the impact of the herbicides on public health, the environment and the livelihoods of local people,” Gaza ICRC spokeswoman Suhair Zakkout told Reuters, adding they were in discussion with Israel over the issue.
(Editing by Jeffrey Heller, William Maclean)

2/5/2020 Turkey’s Erdogan demands Syrian forces in Idlib withdraw
FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference in
Istanbul, Turkey, February 3, 2020. Turkish Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan threatened on Wednesday to drive back Syrian troops in Idlib unless they withdraw by the end of the month to stem an assault which he said had displaced nearly 1 million people.
    Shelling by Syrian government forces killed eight Turkish military personnel on Monday, prompting Turkish forces to strike back.    The escalation raised concerns over future collaboration between Ankara and Moscow, which have backed opposing sides in the war despite joint efforts to ease the violence.
    Erdogan said two of Turkey’s 12 observation posts, set up around a “de-escalation zone” in northwest Syria’s Idlib region as part of a 2017 agreement with Russia and Iran, were now behind Syrian government front lines.
    “We hope that the process of the regime pulling back behind our observation posts is completed in the month of February,” he told members of his AK Party.    “If the regime does not pull back during this time, Turkey will have to do this job itself.”
    He said the Turkish military would carry out air and ground operations in Idlib, when necessary.
    Erdogan has said Moscow, which supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Ankara, which has backed rebels who tried to topple him, should resolve the conflict “without anger” and agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin to improve coordination of their countries’ actions in Syria.
    The violence in Idlib has accelerated in recent months despite several ceasefire efforts, including as recently as January, displacing hundreds of thousands of people.
    U.N. regional spokesman David Swanson said 520,000 people had been displaced since the beginning of December and the numbers could swell further.
    Erdogan said nearly one million people were moving toward the Turkish border and Syrian territory under Turkish control.    “No one has the right to place such a weight on our shoulders,” he said.
(Reporting by Nevzat Devranoglu; Writing by Ezgi Erkoyun; Editing by Dominic Evans)

2/5/2020 Draft U.N. resolution condemns Israeli annexation in Trump peace plan
FILE PHOTO: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets with Arab League Secretary General
Ahmed Aboul Gheit (not pictured) in Cairo, Egypt January 31, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A draft United Nations Security Council resolution on Tuesday condemned an Israeli plan to annex its settlements in the West Bank in a rebuke of President Donald Trump’s pro-Israel peace proposal.
    The draft text, circulated to council members by Tunisia and Indonesia, would seemingly face a U.S. veto, but nonetheless offered some members’ dim view of the peace plan that Trump rolled out last week with great fanfare.
    Diplomats said negotiations on the text would likely begin later this week.    Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to speak to the council next week about the plan, possibly coinciding with a vote on the draft resolution.
    The resolution “stresses the illegality of the annexation of any part” of occupied Palestinian territories and “condemns recent statements calling for annexation by Israel” of these territories, according to the draft seen by Reuters.
    Trump’s plan, the product of three years effort by senior adviser Jared Kushner, would recognize Israel’s authority over the settlements and would require the Palestinians to meet a highly difficult series of conditions to be allowed to have a state, with its capital in a West Bank village east of Jerusalem.
    Kushner is due to brief Security Council ambassadors on the plan on Thursday.
    While the Palestinians have rejected the plan, a number of Arab governments have said it represents a starting point for a renewal of long-stalled negotiations.
    The resolution stresses the need for an acceleration of international and regional efforts to launch “credible negotiations on all final status issues in the Middle East peace process without exception.”
    A U.S. veto at the council level would allow the Palestinians to take the draft text to the 193-member U.N. General Assembly, where a vote would publicly show how Trump’s peace plan has been received internationally.
(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Mary Milliken & Shri Navaratnam)

2/5/2020 Exclusive: U.S. halts secretive drone program with Turkey over Syria incursion by Humeyra Pamuk and Phil Stewart
FILE PHOTO: A Turkish F-16 fighter jet takes off from Incirlik airbase in the
southern city of Adana, Turkey, July 27, 2015. REUTERS/Murad Sezer/File Photo
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States has halted a secretive military intelligence cooperation program with Turkey that for years helped Ankara target Kurdish PKK militants, four U.S. officials told Reuters.br>     The U.S. decision to indefinitely suspend the program, which has not been previously reported, was made in response to Turkey’s cross-border military incursion into Syria in October, the U.S. officials said, revealing the extent of the damage to ties between the NATO allies from the incident.
    The U.S. officials, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said the United States late last year stopped flying the intelligence collection missions that targeted the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which both the United States and Turkey classify as terrorists.
    The U.S. military had carried out the missions using unarmed drone aircraft, which one official said were flown out of Turkey’s Incirlik air base, where the U.S. military has a significant presence.    The base is also a key hub for U.S. spy agencies operating in the region.
    The U.S. drone flights that took place within the program, in place since 2007, often zeroed in on mountainous territory in northern Iraq near the Turkish border, another official said.
    A Pentagon spokeswoman did not directly comment on any specific programs but noted that the United States has designated the PKK a terrorist organization since 1997.
    “We have supported Turkey in their fight against the PKK in many ways for decades.    As a matter of policy, we do not provide details on operational matters,” the spokeswoman said, when asked about a halt in assistance.
    A State Department spokesperson said the United States does not comment on intelligence matters.
    Officials from the Turkish defense ministry did not respond to a request for comment, but a Turkish official confirmed the program was stopped.
    The halt to U.S. assistance will test the limits of Turkey’s military and intelligence capabilities at a time when its forces are already deployed on multiple fronts in northern Syria and as Ankara mulls deeper engagement in Libya.
    “This makes the anti-PKK campaign more difficult and more costly for Turkey,” one of the four U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said.
    It also adds to a laundry list of grievances between the United States and Turkey, including Ankara’s purchase of Russian air defenses and broader splits over the war in Syria, despite what appears to be a strong relationship between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan.
    “In recent years, Turkey has not been struggling to obtain the information it needs through drones it produces itself,” the Turkish official said.    “However, as an ally the steps taken on this issue do not contribute to ties between the two countries.”
SPLITS OVER SYRIA
    Trump, long a skeptic of U.S. military involvement in Syria, has been blamed by Democrats and even some Republicans for abandoning the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters to the Turkish onslaught, and in so doing, unraveling U.S. policy.
    The Turkish offensive took aim at Kurdish YPG militia in Syria, who had been America’s top allies in the battle against Islamic State.
    Turkey views the YPG as a terrorist organization, indistinguishable from the PKK.    But U.S. policy has long drawn a bright line between the two groups, helping Turkey combat the PKK even as U.S. military forces simultaneously partnered with the YPG militia to combat Islamic State.
    The PKK took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984, waging an insurgency for autonomy in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast.    Since then, more than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict.    Kurds, as an ethnic group, form about 20 percent of Turkey’s population.
    Turkey’s military has often struck targets in Iraq’s Kurdish region near the PKK’s stronghold in the Qandil mountains and has also carried out cross-border operations into northern Iraq targeting the militant group.
    Since the inception of the secretive U.S. intelligence cooperation program, Ankara has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to advance its own defense capabilities and reduced its dependence on U.S. and Israeli drones which it frequently used since the late 1990s.
    Turkey’s privately-owned Baykar Defense, whose management involves Selcuk Bayraktar, a son-in-law of Erdogan, began working on developing Turkey’s first drone fleet since the 2000s.
    Within a decade and a half, it has developed armed and unarmed drones and begun selling them to the Turkish army as well as to Ukraine and Qatar.    As of July 2019, a total of 86 Bayraktar drones are in service with Turkey’s security forces and some of those have been regularly used during Ankara’s three Syria operations in 2016, in 2018 and again last October.
    Arda Mevlutoglu, a Turkey-based defense analyst said the recent advance has equipped Ankara with greater flexibility and freedom in its operational capabilities.
    “Turkey’s dependence on her allies, mainly to the U.S., significantly decreased, if not completely ended in real-time high-quality intelligence gathering and surgical strike type operations,” Mevlutoglu said.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay and Orhan Coskun in Ankara; Editing by Mary Milliken and Sonya Hepinstall)

2/5/2020 Clashes in Iraq’s Najaf kill 8 after cleric’s followers storm protest camp: medics
Iraqi demonstrators sit on the street near burning tires blocking a road during
ongoing anti-government protests in Najaf, Iraq February 5, 2020. REUTERS/Alaa al-Marjani
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – At least eight people were killed in clashes in Iraq’s southern city of Najaf on Wednesday after supporters of populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr stormed an anti-government protest camp, medical and security sources said.
    The medical sources said at least 20 more were wounded in the violence but did not provide further details.
    The security sources said that supporters of Sadr, known as blue hats for the blue caps they often wear, had tried to clear the area of anti-government protesters, who in turn tried to stop them.
    Fights broke out between both groups, the blue hats threw petrol bombs at protester tents and live gunfire rang out shortly afterwards, wounding and killing eight people, they said.
    Iraq’s designated Prime Minister Mohammed Allawi, who was tasked last week with forming a new government, condemned the violence and called on Twitter on the outgoing cabinet which is acting in a caretaker capacity to “protect protesters.”
    Sadr, who supported Allawi’s candidacy in an agreement with Iran-backed parties that dominate Iraq’s government and state institutions, has at different times both supported and abandoned Iraqi protesters who demand a removal of the entire ruling elite.
    The cleric says he opposes all foreign interference in Iraq, but has aligned himself more closely with parties backed by Tehran in recent months.
    He urged followers last week to help authorities bring “day to day life” back to Iraq’s streets by clearing roads blocked by sit-ins and ensuring businesses and schools can reopen after months of protests in which nearly 500 people have been killed in clashes between protesters and security forces.
    Sadr has also urged the blue hats to allow protests to continue.
(Reporting by John Davison in Baghdad, Ali Hafthi in Hilla, Editing by William Maclean)

2/5/2020 Israeli troops kill Palestinian in West Bank protest: medics
Relatives of 17-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Al-Hadad react at a hospital in Hebron
in the Israeli-occupied West Bank February 5, 2020. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma
    HEBRON, West Bank (Reuters) – Israeli troops shot dead a 17-year-old Palestinian who was taking part in a violent protest on Wednesday against U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace plan, witnesses and medical officials said.
    Mohammed al-Hadad was the first Palestinian killed in unrest since Trump unveiled his plan last week to accolades from Israel but condemnation from many in the Arab and Muslim world.
    Witnesses and medical officials said al-Hadad was shot as he took part in a protest in Hebron, a Palestinian city with Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank, where Israeli troops were pelted with rocks.
    The Israeli military spokesman’s office said in a statement that soldiers “identified a Palestinian who hurled a Molotov cocktail at them (and) responded with fire in order to remove the threat.”
    The Palestinians, who have long shunned the Trump administration, accusing it bias toward Israel, say the peace plan falls far short of their demands for territorial and other rights. Washington deems many of those demands unrealistic.
(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

2/6/2020 Palestinian killed in West Bank; Israeli troops hurt in Jerusalem ramming by Dan Williams
A boy walks past the house of Palestinian assailant Ahmed Al-Qanbaa after it was demolished by
Israeli forces? in Jenin in the Israeli-occupied West Bank February 6, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A car ran down a group of Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem early on Thursday in a suspected Palestinian attack and, in a separate incident, Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian during clashes in the occupied West Bank, authorities said.
    Long-simmering Palestinian unrest has been stoked anew by anger at U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, which was embraced by Israel and rejected by the Palestinians when it was announced last week.
    The Jerusalem car-ramming took place on David Remez Street, which is close to the Arab neighborhoods of eastern parts of the city that Palestinians want for a state. A theater and late-night restaurants and bars are also located along the street.
    A military spokeswoman said 12 soldiers were injured.    They were sight-seeing after coming to the city to be sworn in upon completing basic training.
    The Magen David Adom ambulance service said a total of 14 people were injured, including one admitted to hospital with severe injuries and another with moderate injuries.
    “The incident is being investigated as a terror attack,” a police spokesman said. The driver was still at large.
    “It is just a matter of time – and not much time – until we get our hands on the attacker.    Terrorism will mot defeat us, we will win,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement.
    In the West Bank city of Jenin, a 19-year-old man was shot dead by troops while throwing rocks at them, Palestinians said.
    An Israeli military spokesman said troops came to Jenin to demolish the home of a Palestinian who was involved in the 2018 killing of a Jewish settler.    Troops opened fire at Palestinians who shot and threw bombs at them in Jenin, the spokesman said.
    Palestinian medics said a Palestinian police officer was also seriously wounded by Israeli gunfire in the incident.    The military did not immediately comment on that account.
    On Wednesday, Israeli troops shot dead a 17-year-old Palestinian elsewhere in the West Bank, saying he had thrown a fire-bomb at them during a violent protest against Trump’s peace plan. He was the first fatality since Trump’s plan was unveiled.
    There have also been several days of violence across the border with the Gaza Strip.    Palestinians have launched mortar shells, rockets and balloon-borne explosives into Israel, causing panic but no serious casualties.    Israel has carried out nightly air strikes against sites belonging to Gaza’s ruling Hamas Islamists.
    Hamas praised the West Bank clashes and Jerusalem attack.
    “The spreading resistance and clashes by our people in the West Bank and their resistance in the heart of occupied Jerusalem is an active response against the destructive Trump deal,” said Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem.
    The Palestinians, who have long shunned the Trump administration, accusing it of bias toward Israel, say the peace plan falls far short of their demands for territorial and other rights.    Washington deems many of those demands unrealistic.
    Israel supports the Trump plan, which would give it much of what it has sought for decades, including sovereignty over nearly all the occupied land on which it has built settlements.
(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta, Nidal al-Mughrabi and Maayan Lubell; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Tom Hogue, Lincoln Feast and Peter Graff)

2/6/2020 Turkey says Russia must immediately stop Syrian attacks in Idlib
FILE PHOTO: Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu speaks during a joint news conference following talks with
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, Russia January 13, 2020. Pavel Golovkin/Pool via REUTERS
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey expects Russia to stop the Syrian government’s attacks in the northwestern region of Idlib immediately, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday, adding that Ankara needs to work with Moscow to resolve problems in the region.
    Shelling by Syrian forces killed eight Turkish personnel on Monday, prompting a retaliation. The escalation disrupted a fragile cooperation between Ankara and Moscow, which back opposing sides in the conflict, raising concerns over future collaboration.
    On Wednesday, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan threatened to drive back the Syrian forces in Idlib unless they withdraw from the region by the end of month to stem an assault that he said had displaced close to 1 million people.
    In televised comments to reporters in Baku, Cavusoglu said a Russian delegation would come to Turkey to discuss Idlib, adding Erdogan may hold a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin after those talks if necessary.
    “Our expectation from the (Syrian) regime’s guarantors, and specifically Russia here, is to immediately stop the regime.    We are discussing these issues with Russia, with whom we have worked with until now,” Cavusoglu said.
    “We conveyed our determination to our Russian counterparts,” he said adding Ankara was determined to stem the “humanitarian drama” in Idlib.
    The violence in Idlib, the last major rebel-held stronghold in the country’s nearly nine-year war, has accelerated in recent months despite several ceasefire efforts, including as recently as January, displacing hundreds of thousands of people.
    The United Nations says 520,000 people have been displaced since early December and the numbers could increase.
    Russia’s foreign ministry said on Thursday that Russian and Turkish “military specialists” were killed by militants who staged more than 1,000 attacks in Idlib in late January, adding that Moscow would continue to coordinate with Ankara and Tehran.
    Erdogan has said Moscow, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Ankara, which supports rebels trying to oust him, should resolve the conflict “without anger.”    Erdogan and Putin agreed to improve coordination of their countries’ actions in Syria during a phone call earlier this week.
(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Jonathan Spicer)

2/6/2020 U.S. steps up warnings on Russia over Syria’s Idlib, military de-confliction by Humeyra Pamuk
FILE PHOTO: James Jeffrey, U.S. Special Representative for Syria, addresses the media after a meeting
with senior officials from seven Arab and Western countries along with United Nations Special Envoy
Geir Pedersen in Geneva, Switzerland October 25, 2019. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Wednesday stepped up warnings to Russia over its Syria policy, saying Moscow was trying to challenge the U.S. presence in northeastern Syria by violating the terms of a de-confliction agreement and was also helping escalate the fighting in the northwestern province of Idlib.
    James Jeffrey, U.S. special envoy for Syria engagement and fight against Islamic State, said the United States was “very very worried” about the Syrian government assault, backed by Russia, on Idlib, and he repeated calls on Moscow to stop it.
    “This is a dangerous conflict.    It needs to be brought to an end.    Russia needs to change its policies,” Jeffrey said.
    The United States, France and the United Kingdom called for a United Nations Security Council meeting on Thursday to discuss the situation in Idlib.
    President Donald Trump softened his plans to pull out U.S. troops from Syria after backlash from Congress, and has kept around 600 troops, largely in northeastern Syria to continue the fight against Islamic State.
    However, in northwestern Syria, the United States has no troops on the ground and thus little leverage on Russia or the Syrian government in asserting its position.
    The Idlib violence has accelerated in recent months despite several ceasefire efforts, including as recently as January.     On Wednesday, Syrian government forces entered Saraqeb in Idlib, a war monitor and eyewitnesses said, in a renewed push by President Bashar al-Assad to recapture the last rebel stronghold.
    “We’re seeing not just the Russians but Iranians and Hezbollah actively involved in supporting the Syrian offensive.    We don’t know whether the offensive is just to get to the M4-M5 road, or it may continue further,” Jeffrey said, in reference to the strategic highways connecting Syria’s Aleppo to Hama and Latakia on the Mediterranean coast.
    Jeffrey said Moscow could change its policies and meet the requirements of the international community without ousting Assad.    “Those requirements are not unreasonable. … They require a change in that (Assad) government’s behavior.    That government would not survive a week without the Russian assistance.”
RUSSIA VIOLATING DE-CONFLICTION
    Northeastern Syria is a complicated battleground with forces of the United States, Turkey and Russia as well the Syrian government and aligned Iranian militia operating, sometimes in close proximity.
    Moscow has been filling the vacuum of U.S. withdrawal from the area, ramping up its military presence in Syria’s northeast, and de-confliction agreements between the two sides ensure they avoid any clashes.
    But Jeffrey on Wednesday said there have been more incidents of Russia’s violating the terms of de-confliction in what he characterized as an attempt to challenge the U.S. presence in there.
    “We’ve seen a limited number of occasions where … they’ve tried to come deep into the area where we and the SDF are patrolling well inside the basic lines we have sketched.    Those are the ones that are worrying me,” he said, referring to Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that works with Washington in northeastern Syria.
    He said while the numbers of such incidents were not very high, they were on the rise.    “Thus is troubling,” he said, and called on Moscow to adhere fully to the de-confliction agreements with the United States.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; additional reporting by Rodrigo Campos; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Leslie Adler)

2/6/2020 Aid to Houthi-controlled Yemen to be cut back over risk it can be diverted-sources
FILE PHOTO: Workers dispose of sacks of World Food Program (WFP) wheat flour which is reportedly expired
or spoiled, on the outskirts of Sanaa, Yemen August 28, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi/File Photo
    DUBAI (Reuters) – The world’s biggest humanitarian aid operation will be scaled-down next month in Houthi-controlled Yemen, because donors and aid workers say they can no longer ensure that food for millions of people is reaching those who need it.
    Aid agency sources told Reuters Houthi authorities in northern Yemen were obstructing efforts to get food and other help to those in need, to an extent that is no longer tolerable.
    “The operating environment in north Yemen has deteriorated so dramatically in recent months that humanitarians can no longer manage the risks associated with delivering assistance at the volume we currently are,” a senior UN official said.
    Unless things improve, humanitarians and donors will have “no choice” but to reduce assistance, the official said.    This would include curtailing some food aid overseen by the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), which feeds more than 12 million Yemenis a month, 80% of them in Houthi areas.
    The United Nations describes Yemen as the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis and says millions of people are on the verge of starvation.    There is little precedent for a such a large aid program being scaled-back in this way, which the sources called a sign of the seriousness of the concerns.
    The Supreme Council for the Management and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (SCMCHA), a Houthi body formed in November to oversee aid, did not respond to a request for comment.
    Aid agencies have for the past year publicly and privately complained of worsening operating conditions, lack of travel permits and other access restrictions which have left workers in northern Yemen “exasperated,” in the words of one agency employee, and unable to deliver to full capacity.
    “At high levels this has left the agencies, NGOs and donors asking: can we continue like this or do fundamental changes need to be made?” said another source familiar with discussions between donors and aid distributors.
    Donors, U.N. agencies and charities have not publicly announced aid reductions.    Two sources told Reuters cutbacks could begin at the start of March after consultation with donors this month.    Two said they could begin sooner.
‘NO ONE WANTS TO WALK AWAY’
    Yemen has been mired in conflict since the Iran-aligned Houthis ousted the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi from the capital Sanaa in late 2014.    A Saudi-led military coalition has fought to restore Hadi.
    “No one wants to walk away from a crisis, certainly not a crisis as big as the one in Yemen, but humanitarians have to adjust what we are doing based on the risks we are facing,” the U.N. official said.
    Another source said discussions were ongoing about the extent of any suspension: “Any talk of suspension needs to be carefully considered before a decision is made.”
    The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), a major donor, said the United States was “extremely concerned by Houthi officials’ interference in aid operations.”    Washington is working with donors, the United Nations and charities “to communicate unequivocally to Houthi officials to cease their obstructive behavior” so aid can continue, a spokesperson said.
    One of the reasons for the suspension is a dispute over a biometric system designed to record who receives aid.    The WFP partially suspended food aid delivery for two months in Sanaa in June in a dispute over control of the biometric data.    Eight months on, the system is still not operational in Houthi areas.
    A Houthi official told Reuters WFP’s demand to control the data violates Yemeni law, and the group had proposed alternative systems for aid distribution.
    U.N. documents seen by Reuters show that agencies have repeatedly asked Houthi officials over the past year to allow access and deliveries.    Aid workers complain that they have been prevented not only from delivering food, but also from treating it in storage to prevent it from spoiling during delays.
    In one case in the poor Hajjah district, around 2,000 tonnes of food that should have been distributed early last year is now scheduled for destruction.    Permission was not granted to either distribute or treat it.
    “We have seen a disturbing trend that when we inform [Houthi authorities] of the need to remove any infested stocks from the distribution centers, they arrange for media to accompany them and portray it as if WFP is distributing expired or infested food,” one of the documents to Houthi authorities says.
(Reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Peter Graff)

2/6/2020 Lebanon cabinet approves financial rescue plan
Lebanon's President Michel Aoun heads a cabinet meeting at the presidential
palace in Baabda, Lebanon February 6, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s government on Thursday approved a rescue plan to pull the country from its worst economic and financial crisis in decades and it must now win a vote of confidence in parliament.
    A draft policy statement seen by Reuters on Sunday outlined broad plans, including reducing interest rates, recapitalizing banks, restructuring the public sector and seeking support from foreign donors.
    Prime Minister Hassan Diab urged European states to open a credit line and provide aid to rescue his country.
    “Lebanon needs urgent help today at various levels, power, food supplies, raw materials,” he told a meeting of European ambassadors.
    Foreign donors have said they stand ready to support Lebanon only if it implements long-stalled reforms.
    The U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon, Jan Kubis, said this week that a clear and transparent action plan was needed.
    “If you don’t help yourselves, why do you expect assistance from the outside world?” he told local media.
    The information minister said the cabinet approved the rescue plan on Thursday with some amendments, which ministerial sources said were minor.
    It was not immediately clear what changes were made to the 17-page statement, due to be presented on Tuesday in parliament for the new government to secure a vote of confidence.
    Diab’s cabinet was formed last month by the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement and its political allies, which hold a parliamentary majority.    It took office nearly three months after Saad al-Hariri’s government resigned under pressure from sweeping protests against a ruling elite that has failed for decades to tackle waste and corruption.
    Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc said on Thursday that decisions on the country’s debt maturities in coming months would need national consensus.
    “Radical (moves)… require a national decision and popular understanding,” it said in a televised statement.
    Cash-strapped authorities are struggling to decide whether to repay a $1.2 billion Eurobond maturing in March, political and banking sources told Reuters this week.
    The government is facing a liquidity crunch, shattered confidence in banks which have imposed informal controls, a weakened Lebanese pound and soaring inflation.
    “It is imperative to start work immediately to make up for lost time,” President Michel Aoun’s office quoted him as saying on Thursday.
    Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni will meet a World Bank delegation on Friday, his office said.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis and Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Nick Macfie and Gareth Jones)

2/6/2020 Lebanon parliament to vote on government next week: Berri’s office
FILE PHOTO: Lebanese Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri arrives to attend the cabinet meeting
at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon January 22, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri called for a session to be held next week, on Tuesday and Wednesday, to vote on the new government and its policy statement.
    The cabinet on Thursday approved a plan to tackle the country’s severe economic and financial crisis, which it must now present to parliament to secure a vote of confidence.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis; Editing by Toby Chopra)

2/6/2020 OPEC+ panel recommends deeper oil cut, awaits nod from Russia: sources by Rania El Gamal, Alex Lawler and Ahmad Ghaddar
FILE PHOTO: Journalists and police officers stand outside the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries
(OPEC) headquarters in Vienna, Austria December 5, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger/File Photo
    DUBAI/LONDON (Reuters) – An OPEC+ technical panel has recommended a provisional cut in oil output of 600,000 barrels per day (bpd) in response to the coronavirus’ impact on energy demand as it awaits Russia’s final position on the proposal, three sources said.
    The Joint Technical Committee (JTC) is not a decision-making body but does advise the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and allies led by Russia, a grouping known as OPEC+.
    OPEC and its allies led by Russia produce over 40 percent of global oil and the new proposed cut would constitute around 0.6 percent of global supply.
    OPEC+ ministers have not decided on further action, but the recommendation on Thursday by all the members of the JTC, which includes Saudi Arabia and Russia, would signal progress towards a decision.
    “The recommendation is for a cut of 600,000 bpd.    Russia has asked for more time for consultations,” one of the sources said.
    Another OPEC source said the proposed output cut of 600,000 bpd, if agreed by all members, will start immediately and continue until June.
    “The 600,000 bpd has taken into consideration the expected return of Libya oil production and all scenarios such as oil demand growth elsewhere,” the second source said, adding that the proposed cut was enough to counter the expected drop in oil demand due to the coronavirus.
    The OPEC+ ministers have yet to decide on whether to bring forward their upcoming policy meeting to February from March 5-6, the sources said.
    The JTC panel extended its meeting into a third day on Thursday after Russia voiced its opposition to a deeper supply cut and was instead suggesting an extension of current cuts.
    In previous years, Russia has regularly signaled opposition to OPEC before ultimately agreeing on policy during formal meetings.
    Oil prices have fallen by more than $11 a barrel this year to $55, alarming producers.
    Saudi Arabia, OPEC’s de facto leader, and other OPEC members are worried that the continued spread of the virus could hit oil demand and prices further, the sources said.
    Steps that OPEC+ is weighing include further output cuts, extending cuts due to expire in March, and moving forward its planned policy meeting.
    OPEC sources said the meeting was unlikely to be brought forward unless there was general agreement on the need to reduce output further.
    OPEC+ is currently cutting output by 1.7 million bpd.
    While OPEC countries such as Iraq, OPEC’s second-largest producer, have voiced support for any agreement that would stabilize the market, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said on Tuesday he could not say for sure whether it was time to tighten output further.
    The economic slowdown resulting from the virus outbreak is expected to reduce 2020 global demand growth by 300,000-500,000 bpd, or roughly 0.5%, BP Chief Financial Officer Brian Gilvary said on Tuesday.
    Brent pared early gains on Thursday and was 80 cents down to $54.47 a barrel by 1446 GMT. U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) futures were down 34 cents to $50.41.
(Additional reporting by Olesya Astakhova and Vladimir Soldatkin; editing by Jason Neely, Barbara Lewis and David Evans)

2/6/2020 12 Israeli soldiers injured, suspect in custody after terror attack in Jerusalem by OAN Newsroom
Israeli soldiers take aim during clashes in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
    A man is in custody after a car rammed into a group of Israeli soldiers in a suspected Palestinian terror attack. According to local media, the suspect has been identified as Sanad al-Tarman.
    The incident took place early on Thursday in Jerusalem, seriously injuring one person and wounding 11 others.    A group of Golani Brigade soldiers were walking down a sidewalk when the car struck them from behind and fled the scene.
    Soldiers said they were unable to shoot at the driver, despite attempts to load their guns and chase after him, because the hit-and-run happened within seconds.
    “This happened in seconds,” said IDF spokesperson Hidai Zilberman.    “We understand that some soldiers tried to put magazines into their guns and tried to go after the car, but this happened quickly.”
    A joint operation between Israeli military, intelligence and border police units resulted in al-Tarman’s arrest later that day.
    A police spokesperson described how Israel is responding to safety concerns in the area.
    “At this moment in time, security assessments are being made in order to prevent incidents from taking place in Judea and Samaria on the ground,” stated Micky Rosenfeld.    “Heightened security will continue in Jerusalem over the next 24 hours for Friday prayers on the Temple Mount.”
Israeli soldiers take aim at Palestinian protesters during clashes in the West Bank
city of Hebron, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
    This comes amid rising tensions between Israel and Palestine.    Terror group Hamas has been encouraging attacks on Israelis.
    “We call for escalating confrontations with the occupation and its settlers and fighting their assaults against the land and holy sites, especially the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque,” read a recent statement from Hamas.

2/7/2020 Russians headed to Turkey for talks on Syrian offensive in Idlib: minister
FILE PHOTO: Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu speaks during a joint news conference following talks with
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, Russia January 13, 2020. Pavel Golovkin/Pool via REUTERS
    ISTANBUL (Reuters) – A Russian delegation will arrive in Turkey on Saturday for talks aiming to stop the Syrian government’s offensive and halt a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria’s northwest Idlib region, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Friday.
    Cavusoglu repeated Turkey would do whatever is necessary to stop a humanitarian tragedy in Idlib, where on Thursday Russian-led Syrian forces entered the strategic town of Saraqeb in a push to capture the country’s last rebel stronghold.
    The fighting has already displaced half a million people since early December, and Turkey fears another wave of refugees heading for its border.
    Eight Turkish military personnel were killed on Monday in shelling by Syrian government forces in Idlib province, where Ankara has sent reinforcements in the last week.
    Turkey already had a dozen military observation posts positioned around a ‘de-escalation zone’ in the region agreed by Turkey, Russia and Iran, but several posts have now been surrounded by advancing Syrian government forces.
    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor, said that Turkish troops were establishing a new military post east of Idlib city, home to more than one million people, many already displaced from other parts of Syria.
    Moscow and Tehran have supported President Bashar al-Assad during Syria’s nearly nine-year conflict, while Ankara has backed rebels who sought to topple Assad.
(Reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun; Writing by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Dominic Evans)

2/7/2020 Russia holds key to Idlib’s fate as Syrian army advances by Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Orhan Coskun
FILE PHOTO: Trucks carry belongings of people fleeing from Maarat al-Numan, in northern Idlib, Syria December 24, 2019. REUTERS/Mahmoud Hassano
    AMMAN/ANKARA (Reuters) – Wary of a confrontation with Turkey that could suck Moscow into a military quagmire, Russia is likely to take a gradual approach to helping the Syrian government capture the last rebel bastion of Idlib, analysts and diplomats say.
    President Bashar al-Assad’s army, aided by heavy Russian air strikes, has swept through dozens of towns in Idlib province in the last two weeks in the deepest advance in years, forcing tens of thousands to flee to the Turkish border.
    But Russia is unlikely to lend its military muscle for a full-on advance on densely populated Idlib city.
    Such a push would help Assad regain full control of Syria, which he and his late father before him ruled for a total of nearly 50 years, but it would also risk a major confrontation with Turkey, which backs opposition forces in the war.
    Instead, Russia appears intent on “biting” chunks of rebel turf in a piece by piece approach, a senior Western intelligence source told Reuters.
    Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, has threatened military action if Assad’s forces do not retreat by the end of the month and has reinforced Turkish outposts in the region and set up new ones to try to slow the advance.
    “The regime has come very close to Idlib (city),” a Turkish official told Reuters. “The rules of engagement in Syria changed, a new era has started now.”
    The crackle of gunfire can now be heard by the more than a million inhabitants living in the city, many of them Syrians displaced by government assaults on their territory.
    “People everywhere are terrified, people are sleeping in the streets and cars, there is no place to stay,” Ibrahim Samaan al Hajj, a grocer in the city said.
INEVITABLE FIGHT
    Officials from Turkey and Russia are due to discuss the offensive on Saturday as tensions rise after eight Turkish soldiers were killed in Syrian shelling on one outpost, prompting Turkish troops to respond.
    A costly battle for the provincial capital does not appear to be Moscow’s priority.
    “Russia is concerned with opening major highways that are symbols of sovereignty for the regime,” said Syrian military defector general Ahmad Rahhal.    “Falling in the Idlib (city) quagmire is very costly militarily and a humanitarian catastrophe with one million people inside the city.”
    Moscow will be the one to decide if and when to move on Idlib city at some stage, a step that risks unleashing a bloodbath and deepening the humanitarian crisis, opposition military commanders and Western intelligence sources said.
    Syrian ground troops aided by Iranian-backed militias coming from Aleppo are now on the fringes of Idlib city after taking Maarat al-Numan and Saraqeb near the strategic M4-M5 road Aleppo to Hama and Latakia on the Mediterranean coast.
    “For the time being it’s important that they control the highway, and I think it’s an accommodation they can reach with Turkey,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli of the German Marshall Fund.
    He said the takeover on Idlib city is a “matter of time but we are not there yet” because the Syrian army is overstretched.
    The battle for Idlib is a crucial stage of a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of combatants and civilians, made millions refugees in their own country or overseas, and fractured the wider Middle East since it broke out in 2011.
RED LINE
    The fate of the region has been the focus of Russia-Turkey deals involving Iran since 2017 aimed at sparing its three million inhabitants all out war.
    Turkish officials said the new advance imperils understandings under a 2018 pact that left Turkey, which has expanded its influence in Syria, to secure control of rebel-controlled highways and handle the thorny fate of jihadists.    Moscow accuses Ankara of failing to live up to its obligationsa.
    At a recent meeting with some 40 Turkey-backed rebel commanders held in Reyhanli along the border, Turkish intelligence told rebels that talks with Moscow had failed and to prepare for the worst, a source who attended the gathering told Reuters, adding that Idlib city was “a red line.”
    The city has been mostly spared the aerial bombing of the latest two-month old campaign that has triggered the exodus of nearly 600,000 people from areas further south and east.
    Western military experts said Moscow has used a “scorched earth” aerial bombing maneuver that has hit hospitals, schools and other infrastructure in mostly rural areas of the province.    But such tactics could prove more difficult to use in the city.
    “If there is going to be a battle in Idlib, there will be a bloodbath, the jihadists will fight with all their strength and we will see more suicide operations,” Abu Baraa al-Shami, a nom de guerre of a senior commander with Hayat Tahir al Sham, told Reuters in a text message via Internet messaging.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Istanbul; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous, William Maclean)
[HAS ANYONE NOTICED THAT THE PLAYERS IN THIS EVENT MAY BE THE KING OF THE NORTH AND KING OF THE SOUTH IN CONFLICT AS SOME OF EZEKIEL'S PROPHESIES CLAIM WHICH IS WHY THE KING OF THE WEST IS OUT OF THIS GAME IN THE AREA OF THE EUPHRATES RIVER BUT IRAN IS BEHIND THE SCENES.].

2/7/2020 Palestinian protester killed in unrest over U.S. Mideast plan by Stephen Farrell
A Palestinian demonstrator hurls stones at Israeli forces as he stands next to the Israeli barrier
during a protest against the U.S. President Donald Trump's Middle East peace plan, in the
village of Bilin in the Israeli-occupied West Bank February 7, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A Palestinian protester was shot dead in the West Bank on Friday as Palestinian and U.S. leaders blamed each other for violence that erupted after President Donald Trump unveiled a Middle East Peace plan that Palestinians rejected as one sided.
    Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces have repeatedly clashed since the peace proposals were unveiled by Trump, with Israel’s prime minister at his side.
    Friday’s killing raised the Palestinian death toll to four. Israelis have been wounded.
    On Friday, mourners had gathered in the occupied West Bank for the funeral of a Palestinian police officer who was shot dead in the unrest a day earlier.    Palestinian authorities said he was killed by Israeli gunfire.    Israel has not commented.
    There were sporadic clashes between protesters and Israeli security forces near Azzun, where the funeral was held.
    Palestinians also clashed with Israeli troops in Jericho and burned tyres in the West Bank village of Bil’in.
    Palestinian medics said one protester had been shot and killed near Tulkarm on Friday.
    The Israeli army said dozens of Palestinian rioters had hurled rocks and fire bombs at troops, and soldiers had identified a Palestinian who threw a firebomb and “responded with fire in order to remove the threat.”
    “The Palestinian people will not allow the ‘Deal of the Century’ to pass,” said Mohammed Barakeh, waving a Palestinian flag in Bil’in, referring to the U.S. peace deal.
    “They are fighting for their national character and the independence of their country,” said Barakeh, a former Israeli lawmaker and member of Israel’s 21% Arab minority, many of whom identify with Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza.
    President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority has rejected Trump’s peace plan, which would give Israel most of what it has sought during decades of conflict, including the disputed holy city of Jerusalem and nearly all the occupied land on which it has built settlements.
    Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Washington was to blame for the unrest since the plan was unveiled.
    “Those who introduce plans for annexation and the legalizing of occupation and settlements are really responsible for deepening violence and counter-violence,” he said.
    He said Abbas would go to the U.N. Security Council with “a genuine peace plan.”
    Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner, the main architect of the U.S. plan, has denounced the Palestinian leadership, breaking from decades of diplomacy when Washington sought to appear neutral.    On Thursday, he blamed Abbas for the violence.
    “I think he does have responsibility,” Kushner said after briefing U.N. Security Council ambassadors.    “He calls for days of rage in response, and he said that before he even saw the plan.”
    Israeli police said security chiefs had met on Thursday and would increase security “across the country, with emphasis on Jerusalem.”
    Palestinians have long boycotted relations with the Trump administration, which they view as biased.    Washington says its plan offers a path toward a Palestinian state, and blames the Palestinian leadership for chasing unrealistic goals. (Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Editing by Edmund Blair)
[Hamas and Hezbollah are going to try to push the Palestinians to perform these attacks in desperation to try to destroy any peace plan and we know that this is Iran Mullahs behind all of this in their revenge rage but God has ordained it to occur eventually for the eventual occurance of Daniel's prophecy in Daniel 9:27.].

2/8/2020 Israel drawing up map for West Bank annexations: Netanyahu by Maayan Lubell
FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Russian President
Vladimir Putin (not pictured) in Moscow, Russia January 30, 2020. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/Pool
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel has begun to draw up maps of land in the occupied West Bank that will be annexed in accordance with U.S. President Donald Trump’s proposed peace plan, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Saturday.
    “We are already at the height of the process of mapping the area that, according to the Trump plan, will become part of the state of Israel.    It won’t take too long,” Netanyahu said at an election campaign rally in the Maale Adumim settlement.
    Netanyahu said the area would include all Israeli settlements and the Jordan Valley – territory Israel has kept under military occupation since its capture in the 1967 Middle East war but which Palestinians want in a future state.
    “The only map that can be accepted as the map of Palestine is the map of the Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital,” said Nabil Abu Rdainah, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
    Prospects for annexations, which have already been widely condemned, are unclear.
    Israel will hold a national election on March 2 and Netanyahu, who is facing criminal corruption charges, is hoping to win a fifth term in office.    He presently heads a caretaker government, whose legal authority to annex territory is still undecided by judicial authorities.
    Settlers make up part of Netanyahu’s right-wing voter base and many members of his coalition cabinet view the West Bank as the biblical heartland of the Jewish people.
    Most countries consider Israeli settlements on land captured in war to be a violation of international law.    Trump has changed U.S. policy to withdraw such objections.
    Palestinians say the settlements make a future state non-viable.    Israel cites security needs as well as biblical and historical ties to the land on which they are built.
    Trump’s plan envisages a two-state solution with Israel and a future Palestinian state living alongside each other, but it includes strict conditions that Palestinians reject.
    The blueprint gives Israel much of what it has long sought, including U.S. recognition of settlements and Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley.
    A redrawn, demilitarized Palestinian state would be subject to Israeli control over its security, and would receive tracts of desert in return for arable land settled by Israelis.
    Right after Trump presented the plan on Jan. 28, Netanyahu said his government would begin extending Israeli sovereignty to the settlements and the Jordan Valley within days.
    But Washington then appeared to put the breaks on that and Netanyahu has since faced pressure from settler leaders to annex territory despite any U.S. objections.
(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by David Clarke)

2/8/2020 Turkey reinforces troops in Syria’s Idlib, talks with Russia
FILE PHOTO: Trucks carry belongings of people fleeing from Maarat al-Numan, in
northern Idlib, Syria December 24, 2019. REUTERS/Mahmoud Hassano/File Photo
    AZAZ, Syria (Reuters) – Turkey reinforced its military presence in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province on Saturday as Turkish and Russian officials held talks about the Syrian government offensive there, which has displaced more than half a million people in two months.
    Turkey says the advances by Russian-backed Syrian troops and their allies threaten a fresh humanitarian disaster, driving another wave of potential refugees to its southern border, and has threatened to act if they do not pull back.
    Witnesses at the border said convoys of Turkish military vehicles had been crossing into Idlib since Friday, delivering supplies before turning back to return with more.
    The beefing up of Turkish forces has failed to stem the advance by Syrian government forces, which took control of a strategic town close to the provincial capital and also made gains to the east of Idlib – the last major enclave of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad.
    In Ankara, officials from Turkey and Russia held three hours of apparently inconclusive talks, agreeing to meet again next week.    The two countries support opposing sides in Syria’s nearly nine-year civil war, but have forged a series of agreements since 2017 aimed at containing the bloodshed.
    “The situation in Idlib was discussed,” Turkey’s foreign ministry said after the talks.    “Steps that could be taken to establish peace on the ground as soon as possible and advance the political process were evaluated.”
    The escalation in Idlib has displaced around 600,000 people since the beginning of December, according to the United Nations, and disrupted the fragile cooperation between Russia and Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees.
    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who backs some of the rebels who once aimed to topple Assad, threatened this week to repel the Russian-backed Syrian forces unless they withdraw from the region by the end of the month.
    Syrian government forces have pressed their advances, surrounding several Turkish observation posts.    On Monday, eight Turkish military personnel were killed in shelling by Syrian government forces.
    “Our checkpoints in Idlib continue their duties as usual and are capable of protecting themselves,” Turkey’s Defence Ministry said, adding they would respond to any new attack “in the harshest manner in accordance with legitimate defense.”
    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor, said on Saturday that 430 Turkish military vehicles had crossed into Idlib in the last 24 hours.
    Turkish forces were setting up a new post at Al-Mastoumah, on the southern approach to Idlib city, the Observatory said.
    Syrian state TV broadcast live on Saturday from the strategic town of Saraqeb, located at the junction of the two main highways in Idlib that Assad seeks full control of, and lies less than 10 miles (15 km) southeast of Idlib city.
    It said the army had taken full control over the town.
    The military media unit of the Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah, which supports Assad, said it had also taken control of Syrian government force had also taken the town of Al-Eis east of Idlib, close to the main north-south highway leading to Aleppo.
(Reporting by Khalil Ashawi in Azaz, Syria, Ellen Francis in Beirut and Dominic Evans in Istanbul, Editing by Ros Russell and Hugh Lawson)

2/8/2020 Lebanon’s Aoun: foreign states, especially France, want to help Lebanon
FILE PHOTO: Lebanon's President Michel Aoun attends the cabinet meeting at the
presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon January 22, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun said on Saturday that foreign states, particularly France, had expressed a desire to help his country emerge from a severe economic crisis.
    As Lebanon grapples with its worst economic and financial strains in decades, foreign donors have said they will only help if the government enacts long-stalled reforms.
    Aoun said he had a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron and the two would speak again in the next few days.
    “A number of states have expressed their desire to help Lebanon, with France at their forefront,” Aoun’s office quoted him as saying on Saturday in an interview with French magazine Valeurs Actuelles.    It did not elaborate.
    The new Lebanese government has approved a rescue plan that envisages seeking foreign help, calls for interest rate cuts, and warns some “painful steps” will be necessary, according to a copy seen by Reuters on Thursday.
    The policy statement will be presented to parliament next week for a vote of confidence.
    Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s cabinet was formed last month with the support of the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement and its political allies, which hold a parliamentary majority.
    The government must contend with a liquidity crunch, shattered confidence in banks, a weakened Lebanese pound and soaring inflation.
    It took office some three months after Saad al-Hariri’s government resigned under pressure from nationwide protests against a ruling elite accused of corruption.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis; editing by David Evans and Ros Russell)

2/9/2020 Turkey ready to act after reinforcing Syria’s Idlib: official by Orhan Coskun
FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of his ruling AK Party during a meeting
at the Parliament in Ankara, Turkey, February 5, 2020. Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey has sent major reinforcements to Syria’s northwestern Idlib region and “all options are on the table,” a senior official said on Sunday, as Ankara tries to stem rapid advances by Syrian government forces.
    The government offensive in Idlib, the last major enclave of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, has driven more than half a million people from their homes toward the closed Turkish border, threatening a new humanitarian crisis in Syria.
    Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, says it cannot absorb any more and has demanded Damascus pull back in Idlib by the end of the month or face Turkish action.
    Large convoys of military vehicles carrying tanks, armored personnel carriers and other equipment have crossed into Syria to reinforce a dozen Turkish military positions, several of which are now surrounded by advancing Syrian troops.
    “There was a serious troop and military equipment support sent to Syria’s Idlib region in recent weeks,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.
    Three hundred vehicles entered Idlib on Saturday, bringing the total to around 1,000 this month, he said.    He declined to say exactly how many new troops had been deployed, but described it as a “notable amount.”
    “The observation points have been fully reinforced,” the official said.    “The Idlib front has been strengthened."
    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor, said 1,240 Turkish military vehicles crossed into Idlib in the last week, along with 5,000 soldiers.
    The fighting in Idlib has shaken the fragile cooperation between Turkey, which backs rebels who once hoped to topple Assad, and Russia, whose support helped the once-beleaguered president bring most of the country back under his control.
    On Monday, eight Turkish military personnel were killed in shelling by Syrian government forces, prompting Turkey to tell Russia to “stand aside” while its forces to bombard dozens of Syrian army targets in retaliation.
    “The regime, with Russia’s support, has been violating all agreements and accords,” the official said.    “We are prepared for any event.    Of course, all options are on the table.”
    Despite Turkey’s disagreement with Russia over Idlib, the official described talks between them in Ankara on Saturday as positive.    The two sides will meet again in the coming week.
‘TURKEY WILL ACT’
    Syria’s armed forces said on Sunday they have recaptured more than 600 square kilometers (230 square miles) of territory, taking control of dozens of towns and villages in recent days, and said they would maintain the fight.
    “Our brave army will continue to carry out its sacred duties to clear the entire geographic territory of Syria from terrorism and its supporters,” the armed forces said in a statement.
    Ankara has urged Moscow to rein in the Idlib offensive, which has brought Syrian government forces within 10 miles (16 km) of the provincial capital Idlib city, home to more than 1 million people.
    Defence Minister Hulusi Akar reiterated on Sunday that they must pull back soon.    “If the regime forces are not withdrawn by the end of February, we will take action,” he told Hurriyet newspaper in an interview.
    On the eastern flank of the opposition-held enclave, the Observatory said advancing government forces had seized all but a 2 km stretch of the M5 highway, Syrian’s main north-south road which links Syria’s two main cities Damascus and Aleppo.
    Pope Francis called on Sunday for respect of humanitarian law in Idlib, saying reports from the province were “painful … particularly regarding the conditions of women and children, of people forced to flee from a military escalation.”
(Additional reporting by Irem Koca in Istanbul, Eric Knecht in Beirut and Philip Pullella in Vatican City; Writing by Dominic Evans)

2/9/2020 U.S. warns Israel against ‘unilateral’ West Bank moves by Dan Williams
FILE PHOTO: U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman attends a conference in Jerusalem January 8, 2020 REUTERS/ Ronen Zvulun
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A U.S. envoy warned Israel on Sunday not to declare sovereignty over West Bank land without Washington’s consent, pushing back against calls for immediate action by ultra-nationalists within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition.
    U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, unveiled on Jan 28, envisages Israel keeping key swathes of the occupied territory where Palestinians seek statehood.    But the question of timing has opened up a rare rift between the allies.
    Netanyahu initially pledged a speedy “application of Israeli law” – de facto annexation – to Jewish settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley, delighting his religious-rightist base ahead of Israel’s March 2 election, where he hopes to win a fifth term.
    But he was forced to backpedal after the White House made clear it wanted a U.S.-Israeli mapping process – likely to take weeks or more – completed first.
    The Palestinians, for their part, have rejected the Trump plan as a non-starter.
    With Defence Minister Naftali Bennett and other Israeli ultra-nationalists urging an immediate cabinet vote on sovereignty in the West Bank, the U.S. ambassador intervened.
    “Israel is subject to the completion (of) a mapping process by a joint Israeli-American committee.    Any unilateral action in advance of the completion of the committee process endangers the Plan & American recognition,” envoy David Friedman tweeted.
    In a separate speech, Friedman elaborated that his message was “a little bit of patience, to go through a process, to do it right, is not something which we think is too much to ask for.”
‘POTENTIALLY ADVERSE’
    “With the news out that the (Israeli) cabinet was about to be pushed in a direction that was potentially adverse to our view of the process, we just let people know where we stand,” he told the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) think-tank.
    “It was not a threat.”
    In parallel, Netanyahu invoked the White House position.
    “The (U.S.) recognition is the main thing and we don’t want to endanger that,” the premier told his cabinet on Sunday.
    At the JCPA, Friedman said the mapping process was unlikely to be completed before March 2.    But he held out the possibility of implementation even if the election does not produce a clear winner, as was the case twice in the last year.
    Asked if Washington first wanted a permanent Israeli government – as opposed to a caretaker government of the kind Netanyahu has headed by default for months – in place, Friedman said: “We have not made that demand.”
    Most countries consider Israeli settlements on land captured in the 1967 Middle East war to be a violation of international law.    Trump has changed U.S. policy to withdraw such objections and the prospect of Israeli annexations have drawn widespread condemnation.
    Palestinians say the settlements make a future state unviable. Israel cites security needs as well as biblical and historical ties to the land on which they are built.
    “Any unilateral step is rejected whether it is taken before or after the election,” said Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.    “Facts can’t be created on the ground and they will never become a reality.”
    “The only thing we can accept is the Palestinian map on the 1967 borders,” Abu Rdainah added.
    On Saturday, Netanyahu told an election rally that the mapping process with the Americans was already under way.    “We’ve been waiting since 1967 and some people are making a big deal out of a few weeks,” he said, alluding to rightist rivals.
(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Mark Potter)

2/10/2020 UN urges U.S. to remove Sudan from list of state sponsors of terror by OAN Newsroom
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, center, arrives for the opening session of the
33rd African Union (AU) Summit at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020.
    The United Nations called on the U.S. to remove Sudan from its state sponsors list of terror, following a fall of Islamic government in the country.
    While speaking at the African Union Summit Sunday, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres praised ongoing political changes in Sudan and said Sudan needs international support to facilitate its transition to a secular democratic state.
    The Sudanese military ousted the nation’s Muslim President Omar al-Bashir last year due to accusations of him supporting terrorist groups.    Guterres said U.S. sanctions prevent Sudan from receiving aid from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
    “I want to say clearly and loudly here that it is time to expunge Sudan from the list of states supporting and funding terrorism, and to rather drum up international support that will enable the country to overcome its challenges,” stated Guterres.
    The new Sudanese government asked the UN for a peace keeping mission, humanitarian relief and economic assistance programs.

2/11/2020 Lebanese security forces, protesters clash ahead of vote
A protestor throws back a tear gas canister during a protest seeking to prevent MPs and government officials from
reaching the parliament for a vote of confidence, in Beirut, Lebanon February 11, 2020. REUTERS/Aziz Taher
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Security forces fired tear gas and water cannon at protesters in Beirut on Tuesday as the Lebanese parliament convened to hold a vote of confidence on the new government led by Prime Minister Hassan Diab.     MPs are set to vote on the government’s policy statement which says “painful steps” are needed to address a financial crisis that has weakened the currency and pushed banks to severely curb access to deposits.
    Hundreds of protesters gathered in central Beirut to try to block MPs from reaching the parliamentary building.    Security forces blocked off all the roads leading to the barricaded parliament district.
    Men and women, their faces wrapped in scarves, lobbed rocks at security forces deployed at several locations around the city center as clouds of tear gas engulfed them.
    Protesters hurled eggs and threw paint at the cars of lawmakers and ministers while others tried to smash their tinted windows.
    Some MPs skirted the clashes, arriving at parliament on the back of motorcycles.    Crowds chanted revolution, waved Lebanese flags and held signs that said “no confidence.”
    One of the world’s most heavily indebted states, Lebanon is facing a crisis rooted in decades of state waste and corruption which have fueled public anger.
    The crisis came to a head last year as slowing flows of capital from abroad led to a hard currency crunch and protests erupted across the country against the ruling elite.
    Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri has said Lebanon should seek IMF technical help and take a decision on whether to pay maturing foreign debt next month based on IMF advice, an-Nahar newspaper and a government source said on Tuesday.
    Lebanon could not, however, surrender itself to the IMF because the nation could not bear its conditions, he said.
    Senior MP Alain Aoun told Reuters on Tuesday the country needs IMF technical assistance and should draw on IMF advice in its decision on whether to pay a forthcoming Eurobond maturity.
    He said this was also expected to be the position of his political party, the FPM which was founded by President Michel Aoun and named six ministers.
    Berri said Lebanon must take advantage of the time remaining before its next debt maturity on March 9 to send a message abroad, “specifically to the Americans” that the country needs IMF technical help through a rescue plan.
    Berri is one of the country’s most influential figures and his Amal Movement named a number of ministers in Diab’s cabinet which took office last month, including the finance minister.
    “There is still room for Lebanon during the coming two weeks and before the end of the current month to benefit from this measure,” Berri was quoted as saying.
    Based on this, “Lebanon will be able to form its position on the maturing Eurobonds – whether to pay its commitments or not to pay them – based on what the IMF advises.”     But Berri also said the Lebanese people would be unable to bear IMF conditions, saying Lebanon was not Greece or Argentina – countries that have experienced their own financial crises.
(Reporting by Tom Perry, Samia Nakhoul, Ellen Francis, Laila Bassam; Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

2/11/2020 Lebanese parliament convenes to vote on new government
FILE PHOTO: Lebanon's Prime Minister Hassan Diab arrives at the presidential palace
in Baabda, Lebanon January 22, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/File Photo
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese parliament convened a session on Tuesday for MPs to hold a vote of confidence on the new government led by Prime Minister Hassan Diab, as security forces clashed with protesters nearby seeking to thwart the session.
    MPs are set to vote on a government policy statement that says the country needs “painful steps” to rescue it from an unprecedented financial crisis.
(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Alex Richardson)

2/11/2020 Saudi-Qatar talks to end lengthy Gulf dispute falter: sources by Alexander Cornwell
FILE PHOTO: Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani attends the 25th Arab Summit
in Kuwait City, March 25, 2014. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed/File Photo
    DUBAI (Reuters) – Talks between Saudi Arabia and Qatar to resolve a bitter Gulf dispute broke down soon after starting, six sources said, leaving in place a political and trade embargo of Doha that hampers joint Gulf Arab efforts to counter Iran.
    The discussions that began in October were the first glimmer of a thaw in the row that saw Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt sever political, trade and transport ties with Qatar in mid-2017.
    The countries accused Qatar of supporting terrorism and cozying up to regional foe Iran.    Doha denies the charges and says the embargo by its fellow Gulf Arabs aims to undermine its sovereignty.
    Washington has strong ties with all the states involved, including Qatar which hosts the largest U.S. military base in the region, and sees the rift as a threat to efforts to contain Iran.    It has pushed for a united Gulf front
.
    Qatar’s priority in the discussions was to restore free movement for its citizens to the boycotting nations, access to the airspace of those countries and reopening Qatar’s only land border shared with Saudi Arabia, four Western diplomats in the Gulf and two sources familiar with Qatari thinking said.
    However, Riyadh wanted Qatar to first demonstrate a fundamental change in behavior, particularly in its foreign policy that has seen Doha back opposing sides in several regional conflicts, three of the diplomats said.
    Qatar’s government communications office and Saudi Arabia’s media ministry did not reply to a Reuters’ request for comment.
    One diplomat said Saudi Arabia wanted a new arrangement with Qatar that would involve Doha making fresh commitments.
    “That’s a non-starter for Qatar as there are so many foreign policy disagreements,” one of the diplomats said.
    Two additional Gulf sources familiar with the talks said Saudi Arabia, which was representing the remaining boycotting states, ended the talks shortly after an annual Gulf summit in Riyadh in December that Qatar’s emir did not attend.
    The Qataris “didn’t seem serious,” one of the sources said.
    Riyadh had wanted a foreign policy win ahead of hosting the summit of the Group of 20 major economies in 2020 after its reputation was tarnished by the 2018 killing of a prominent journalist by Saudi agents, three of the Western diplomats said.
    A source familiar with Saudi thinking said Riyadh had been hopeful about the talks but things were now “back to square one.”
    The four boycotting states in 2017 presented Doha with a list of 13 demands, including closing Al Jazeera television network, shuttering a Turkish base, halting support for the Muslim Brotherhood and downgrading ties with Iran.
    Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, who visited Saudi Arabia for talks, told Reuters on Dec. 14 there had been “small progress” without elaborating.
    But a Qatari source familiar with government thinking told Reuters that discussions had ended because demands on Qatar were unrealistic, saying “we weren’t going to become a proxy state.”
(Reporting by Alexander Cornwell in Dubai; Additional reporting by Stephen Kalin in Riyadh and John Irish in Paris; Editing by William Maclean)

2/11/2020 Tehran-backed Hezbollah steps in to guide Iraqi militias in Soleimani’s wake
FILE PHOTO: Lebanon's Hezbollah supporters chant slogans during a funeral ceremony rally to mourn Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite
Quds Force, who was killed in an air strike at Baghdad airport, in Beirut's suburbs, Lebanon, January 5, 2020. REUTERS/Aziz Taher
    (Reuters) – Shortly after Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Iraq, the Tehran-backed Lebanese organization Hezbollah urgently met with Iraqi militia leaders, seeking to unite them in the face of a huge void left by their powerful mentor’s death, two sources with knowledge of the meetings told Reuters.
    The meetings were meant to coordinate the political efforts of Iraq’s often-fractious militias, which lost not only Soleimani but also Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a unifying Iraqi paramilitary commander, in the Jan. 3 attack at Baghdad airport, the sources said.
    While offering few details, two additional sources in a pro-Iran regional alliance confirmed that Hezbollah, which is sanctioned as a terrorist group by the United States, has stepped in to help fill the void left by Soleimani in guiding the militias.    All sources in this article spoke on condition of anonymity to address sensitive political activities rarely addressed in public.    Officials with the governments of Iraq and Iran did not respond to requests for comment, nor did a spokesperson for the militia groups.
    The discussions shed light on how Iran and its allied groups are trying to cement control in the unstable Middle East, especially in the wake of the devastating U.S. attack on a revered Iranian military leader.
    The Tehran-backed militias are critical to Iran’s efforts to maintain control over Iraq, where the U.S. still maintains some 5,000 troops.    The country has experienced years of civil war since U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein and more recently, the government – and the militias – have faced growing protests against Iran’s influence in the country. Iran helped found some Iraqi militia groups.
    In the months ahead of his death, Soleimani had waded ever deeper into the Iraq crisis, holding meetings with the Iraqi militias in Baghdad as Tehran sought to defend its allies and interests in its power struggle with the United States, one of the two Iraqi sources said.
    Hezbollah’s involvement marks an expansion of its role in the region.    The Shi’ite group, founded by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in 1982, has been at the heart of Iran’s regional strategy for years, helping Soleimani to train paramilitary groups in both Iraq and Syria.
    One pro-Iran regional official said Hezbollah’s guidance of the militias would continue until the new leadership in the Quds Force – a unit of the Revolutionary Guards led by Soleimani since 1998 – gets a handle on the political crisis in Iraq.
    The meetings between Hezbollah and Iraqi militia leaders began in January, just days after Soleimani’s assassination, the two Iraqi sources said.    Reuters couldn’t confirm the number of meetings or where they took place.    One source said they were in Beirut and the other said they were either in Lebanon or Iran.
    Sheikh Mohammad al-Kawtharani, the Hezbollah representative in Iraq who worked closely with Soleimani for years to guide the Iraqi militias, hosted the meetings, the Iraqi sources said.
    Kawtharani picked up where Soleimani left off, the Iraqi sources said.    The sources said Kawtharani berated the groups, as Soleimani had done in one of his final meetings with them, for failing to come up with a unified plan to contain popular protests against the Baghdad government and the paramilitaries that dominate it.    The government and militia groups have killed hundreds of protesters but not managed to contain the rebellion.
    Kawatharani also urged a united front in picking a new Iraqi prime minister, the Iraqi sources said.    Since then, former Iraqi communications minister Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi has been named – a development welcomed by Iran and accepted by the militia-linked parties it backs but opposed by protesters.
BIG SHOES TO FILL
    For now, Kawtharani is seen as the most suitable figure to direct Iraqi militias until a permanent Iranian successor can be chosen, although he possesses nowhere near Soleimani’s clout and charisma, according to the two Iraqi sources and a senior Iraqi Shi’ite Muslim leader.
    “Kawtharani has connections with the militia groups,” the Shi’ite leader said, noting that he was born in Najaf, lived in Iraq for decades and speaks Iraqi dialect.    “He was trusted by Soleimani, who used to depend and call on him to help him in crises and in meetings in Baghdad.”
    One of the Iraqi sources close to the militias said that Kawtharani also met with the Iraqi populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a powerful but unpredictable figure, to convince him to support the new Iraqi prime minister.    As Reuters has reported, Sadr has given Allawi his support.
    Kawtharani will face serious – perhaps insurmountable- challenges in filling the shoes of the leaders killed in the drone attack, the Iraqi sources close to the militias told Reuters.
    “A lot of faction leaders see themselves as too big and important to take orders from” one Iraqi source said.        “For now, because of pressure from Iran, they’re cooperating with him, but I doubt that will continue and the Iranians know that.”
    One of the pro-Iran sources, a military commander, said Hezbollah’s involvement would consist of political guidance but stop short of providing manpower and materiel to retaliate for the Solemani killing.    The militias “do not need Hezbollah’s intervention because they have the strength in numbers, combat experience and firepower,” the commander said.
    Those groups are difficult to control while Hezbollah is seen as more disciplined.    But like the rest of Iran’s network, Hezbollah risks stretching itself thin, a senior U.S. official in the region and an Iraqi political leader said.
    In recent years, Hezbollah’s role has grown considerably.    It has fought in support of President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria and extended political support to the Iran-allied Houthis of Yemen in their war with a Saudi-led military alliance.
    Iran is likely to rely partly on the clout Nasrallah, a figure who commands deep respect among Iran’s allies across the region, the U.S. official said.    Nasrallah is seen as overseeing Kawtharani’s efforts, according to a senior Shi’ite Iraqi leader.
    “I think ideologically, religiously, he’s seen as a charismatic figure to many of the Iraqi Shia militias,” the U.S. official said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
    In two lengthy televised addresses, Nasrallah has paid homage to Soleimani and vowed to avenge his death.
    He has also declared it a goal of Hezbollah and its allies to eject U.S. forces from the region once and for all
.    U.S. forces have been in Iraq since 2014 as part of a coalition fighting against Islamic State.
    If the Iraqi militias have their way, sources close to them say, these troops will be the first to depart.
(Editing by Julie Marquis)

2/11/2020 Palestinians’ Abbas, at U.N., says U.S. offers Palestinians ‘Swiss cheese’ state by Arshad Mohammed and Steve Holland
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas holds a map while speaking during a Security Council meeting
at the United Nations in New York, U.S., February 11, 2020. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
    (Reuters) – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, appearing before the United Nations Security Council, on Tuesday rejected U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace proposal as a gift to Israel and unacceptable to Palestinians.
    Waving a copy of a map that the U.S. plan envisions for a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, Abbas said the state carved out for Palestinians looked like a fragmented “Swiss cheese.”
    In a setback for the Palestinians, a draft Security Council resolution circulated by Tunisia and Indonesia that would have implicitly criticized Trump’s plan, including Israel’s retention of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, was not put to a vote.
    The text, which faced a near-certain U.S. veto, did not go forward in part because it failed to garner the support needed by the Palestinians to isolate the United States, two diplomats at the United Nations said.
    One said the draft, which the United States wanted to water down, attracted 11 or 12 votes in favor on the 15-member council.    A second diplomat said it would have required too many compromises to achieve the 14-1 vote the Palestinians may have sought.
    “Today, by not putting forward a polarizing resolution, the United Nations Security Council demonstrated that the old way of doing things is over,” a senior Trump administration official said.
    Released on Jan. 28, Trump’s plan would recognize Israel’s authority over West Bank Jewish settlements and require Palestinians meet a difficult series of conditions for a state, with its capital in a West Bank village east of Jerusalem.
    “This is the state that they will give us,” said Abbas.    “It’s like a Swiss cheese, really. Who among you will accept a similar state and similar conditions?
    Speaking at an election rally in the Israeli town of Bat Yam, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the criticism and hinted at the possibility that Arab states might entertain the Trump plan even if Palestinians do not.
    “This is not Swiss cheese. This is the best plan that exists for the Middle East – for the Middle East – and for the State of Israel and for the Palestinians, too,” he said, adding that the plan “recognizes reality and the rights of the people of Israel, both of which you constantly refuse to recognize.”
    Abbas urged Trump to disavow the plan and seek a return to negotiations based on existing U.N. resolutions that call for a two-state solution based on pre-1967 border lines.
    “The U.S. cannot be the sole mediator,” he said, rejecting the traditional U.S. role in seeking to broker an end to the conflict and calling for an international conference.
    Suggesting violent protests could break out, Abbas said “the situation could implode at any moment. … We need hope.    Please do not take this hope away from us.”
    Later, however, he said Palestinians would not “resort to terrorism.”
    Although Trump’s stated aim was to end decades of conflict, his plan favored Israel, underlined by the Palestinians’ absence from his White House announcement with Netanyahu at his side.
    While Arab League foreign ministers on Feb. 1 rejected the plan, three Gulf Arab states – Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates – were represented at the White House announcement, suggesting they may be prioritizing ties with Washington and a shared hostility toward Iran over traditional Arab alliances.
    Abbas said the deal is not an international partnership, but rather a proposal from one state supported by another state to be imposed on Palestinians.
    Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, accused Abbas of being unrealistic and said peace was not possible while he remained in power.
    In a show of support for Abbas, Ehud Olmert, a former centrist Israeli prime minister who had claimed significant progress in talks with the Palestinians aimed at securing a final peace deal, later stood by him at a joint appearance.
    Olmert, once a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, resigned in 2008 and eventually spent 16 months in jail for corruption linked to his position as mayor of Jerusalem.
    A Feb. 5-8 poll conducted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 94% of Palestinians reject the plan, which Trump has called the “Deal of the Century.”
(Reporting by Steve Holland and Arshad Mohammed; editing by Jonathan Oatis, Howard Goller and Dan Grebler)

2/11/2020 Turkey says 51 Syrian soldiers killed as rebels hit back in Idlib by Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Orhan Coskun
A Turkish soldier walks near Turkish military vehicles in Hazano near Idlib, Syria, February 11, 2020. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
    AMMAN/ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey said on Tuesday 51 Syrian soldiers were killed in northwest Syria as Turkish-backed rebels struck back against Russian-supported government forces who had made gains in their campaign to eliminate the last insurgent bastion in the country.
    The Turkish Defense Ministry cited sources on the ground for the information, adding that two Syrian tanks and one ammunition store were destroyed as well.
    Hours before, a war monitor reported that Syrian government forces seized control of the main Aleppo-to-Damascus highway running through the embattled northwest province of Idlib for the first time since the early days of the civil war in 2012.
    But Syrian state media made no mention of this and rebel sources later said fighting was continuing in some northern areas near the M-5 highway, which links Aleppo with the capital Damascus and ultimately Deraa in the far south.
    In response, insurgents shot down a Syrian military helicopter and advanced toward the town of Nairab, which the Turkish Defense Ministry said had been abandoned by Syrian government forces.
    A Turkish official said the rebels, bolstered by Turkish artillery, had begun “a full-fledged attack” on an area recently lost to the government side near Saraqeb, a strategic crossroads town on the M5 highway.    A rebel commander told Reuters they were pushing back government forces there.
    For its part, the Syrian army said on Tuesday it would respond to attacks by Turkish forces who it said were trying to halt army advances into Idlib province.
    The flare-up of fighting has given rise to some of the most serious confrontations between Ankara and Damascus in the nine-year-old war in which Russia and Iran have backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
U.S.-TURKISH TALKS ON WEDNESDAY
    James Jeffrey, the U.S. envoy for Syria, is set to meet senior Turkish officials in Ankara on Wednesday and the U.S. Embassy there said they would discuss working together toward a political solution to the conflict.
    “Today, our NATO ally Turkey is facing a threat from Assad’s government and Russia.    We are here to assess the situation with the Turkish government and offer support if possible,” said Jeffrey, who arrived in Ankara late on Tuesday.
    Idlib’s fate may well be decided by Turkey and Russia as much as by Assad.
    Russia has officers on the ground advising the Syrians on the campaign as well as some ground forces, and Russian warplanes have carried out numerous air strikes.
    Ankara has sent thousands of soldiers across the border to help stem the Syrian offensive.
    Relief agencies meanwhile said an exodus of hundreds of thousands of civilians from the afflicted areas was the largest such movement in the war and marked a new humanitarian crisis.
    Turkey already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees and says it cannot absorb any more.    It said it would halt any new refugee waves from Idlib and its military would remain deployed there.
    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday the Syrian government would pay a “very heavy price” for attacking Turkish troops, including five killed on Monday and eight Turkish personnel killed a week earlier.
    “We gave the necessary responses to the Syrian side at the highest level.    Especially in Idlib, they got what they deserved.    But this is not enough, it will continue,” he said in Ankara, adding he would announce on Wednesday a detailed plan for Idlib.
    Talks in Ankara between Turkey and a Russian delegation ended on Monday without agreement on halting the fighting, a Turkish diplomatic source said.
    Turkish officials told the Russians that attacks on Turkish posts inside Idlib must cease immediately and that Turkish forces had destroyed several Syrian government targets in retaliation.    Erdogan has warned Turkey will drive back Assad’s forces unless they withdraw by the end of this month.
    The Kremlin said on Tuesday all attacks on Russian and Syrian forces in Idlib must stop.
    Russian President Vladimir Putin will discuss the situation with Erdogan by phone later on Tuesday, TASS news agency said.
AIR RAIDS
    Since launching their new offensive in December, government forces have recaptured more than 600 square km (230 square miles) of territory, and in recent days wrested control of dozens of towns and villages.
    The rebels are a mix of nationalist factions and Islamist militants who have had deadly rivalries but are now closing ranks.
    Last week government troops recaptured rebel-held Saraqeb, where Turkey had several military personnel stationed.
    Rescue teams said on Tuesday Russian and Syrian warplanes had bombed several towns in Idlib and carried out air raids in nearby western Aleppo province where rebels are present.    At least 13 civilians were killed overnight in the air strikes, they said.
    The rapid advances by Assad’s forces in Idlib have driven nearly 700,000 people – mostly women and children – from their homes toward the sealed Turkish border in the past 10 weeks.
    “This is, from our initial analysis, the largest number of people in a single period since the Syrian crisis began almost nine years ago,” Jens Laerke, spokesman for the United Nations’ OCHA humanitarian agency, told reporters in Geneva.
    United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Andrej Mahecic said the harsh winter weather was making their suffering worse and that shelter was hard to find.
    “Even finding a place in an unfinished building is becoming nearly impossible,” he said, adding that mosques were full.
    Witnesses and rebels said a new column of Turkish reinforcements, including tanks, rocket launchers and armored vehicles, crossed the border into Idlib overnight.
    The battle for Idlib is a crucial stage of a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of combatants and civilians, made millions refugees in their own country or overseas, and fractured the wider Middle East since it broke out amid the Arab Spring in 2011.
    Moscow’s military intervention in 2015 helped swing the war decisively in favor of Assad, Syria’s ruler for nearly 20 years, but he now presides over a devastated country.
(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara; Writing by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

2/11/2020 UAE’s Gargash says we support calls for de-escalation with Iran: Arabiya TV
FILE PHOTO: UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash is seen during preparatory meeting
for the GCC, Arab and Islamic summits in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, May 29, 2019. REUTERS/Waleed Ali
    CAIRO (Reuters) – United Arab Emirate’s minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash said on Tuesday his country supports calls for de-escalation with Iran and to reach a political solution, Al Arabiya TV reported.
    He added that preventing Iran from having nuclear weapons under the Vienna accord as the sole restriction is not enough.
(Reporting by Hesham Abdul Khalek, writing by Rania El Gamal, editing by Chris Reese)

2/11/2020 Government troops seizes highway in northwest Syria as Turkey-Russia talks end inconclusively
A man rides on a motorbike past Turkish military vehicles in Hazano near Idlib, Syria, February 11, 2020. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
    BEIRUT/ANKARA (Reuters) – Government forces seized control of a highway in northwest Syria for the first time since 2012 on Tuesday as they pressed their campaign to eradicate the last rebel strongholds in Idlib province and the Aleppo countryside, a war monitor said.
    In Ankara, talks between Turkey and Russian ended without agreement on stopping clashes in which 13 Turkish soldiers have been killed in Syria in one week.
    Relief agencies meanwhile said an exodus of hundreds of thousands of civilians from the afflicted areas was the largest such movement in nine years of war and a new humanitarian crisis was unfolding.
    The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government forces had seized the entire length of the M5 highway after driving rebels from their last foothold on the road.    The M5 runs from Aleppo in the north to the capital Damascus then on to southern Deraa.
    They took control of the highway after capturing a western suburb of Aleppo from insurgents.
    The latest advances by President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian and Iranian-backed troops came after 13 Turkish soldiers were killed in the Idlib region in the past week, prompting some of the most serious confrontations between Ankara and Damascus of the war.
    Ankara deployed thousands of soldiers to stem the Syrian offensive.
    Turkish-backed Syrian rebels downed a helicopter believed to belong to the Syrian government in the town of Nairab, Turkish state broadcaster TRT Haber reported on Tuesday.
    Since the new push began, government forces have recaptured more than 600 square km of territory and in recent days have taken control of dozens of towns and villages.
    Last week they recaptured the crossroads town of Saraqeb, on the M5.    Turkey has several military personnel stationed there to prevent further Syrian advances after eight of its soldiers were killed by Syrian shelling.
    A Russian delegation arrived in Ankara on Saturday days after the attack to hold talks aimed at stopping clashes.    On their final day of talks, a second Syrian attack on Turkish troops in the Taftanaz area killed five more troops.
    Ankara has said that it retaliated to both attacks, destroying several Syrian targets.    It said would drive back Assad’s forces unless they withdraw by the end of the month.    It also told the Russian team that attacks against Turkish posts must stop immediately.
    The Russians left Turkey after talks ended on Monday, a Turkish diplomatic source said, with no apparent agreement.
    The Kremlin said on Tuesday all attacks on Russian and Syrian forces in Idlib had to stop.
AIR RAIDS
    Rescue teams in the region said Russian and Syrian war planes bombed several towns in Idlib, with most air raids on towns in western Aleppo, including a residential area in the city of Daraat Izza.    At least 13 civilians were killed overnight in the air strikes, they said.
    The rapid advances by Assad’s forces in Idlib have driven nearly 700,000 people from their homes toward the closed-off Turkish border in the past 10 weeks.    Most of those displaced are women and children.
    “This is, from our initial analysis, the largest number of people in a single period since the Syrian crisis began almost nine years ago,” Jens Laerke, spokesman for the United Nations’ OCHA humanitarian agency, told reporters in Geneva.    “So it’s the fastest growing displacement we have ever seen in the country.
    United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Andrej Mahecic said the harsh winter weather was making their suffering worse and shelter was hard to find.
    “Even finding a place in an unfinished building is becoming nearly impossible,” he said, adding that mosques were full.
    Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, says it cannot absorb any more.    It said it will halt new migrant waves from Idlib and its military will remain there.
    One Turkish politician urged President Tayyip Erdogan to go further.
    “There will be no peace in Turkey until Assad is brought down from his throne.    Turkey must start plans to enter Damascus now, and annihilate the cruel ones,” said Devlet Bahceli, chairman of Erdogan’s nationalist partner party.
    Witnesses and rebels said on Tuesday a new column of Turkish reinforcements, including tanks, rocket launchers and armored vehicles, crossed the border into Idlib overnight.
    Turkish-backed Syrian rebels have also begun an new offensive against the government forces near army-controlled Saraqeb and Nairab to push troops away from Idlib city, where more than one million people live.
    The battle for Idlib is a crucial stage of a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of combatants and civilians, made millions refugees in their own country or overseas, and fractured the wider Middle East since it broke out amid the Arab Spring in 2011.
    Forces arrayed against Assad, Syria’s ruler for nearly 20 years, have failed to dislodge him but he now presides over a devastated country.    Moscow’s military intervention in 2015 helped swing the war decisively in Assad’s favor.
    Despite being on opposing sides, Turkey and Russia collaborate for a political solution to the conflict.
(Reporting by Tom Perry, Tuvan Gumrukcu and Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Jonathan Spicer)

2/11/2020 EU’s Borrell warns of violence if Israel annexes Jordan Valley
FILE PHOTO: EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell addresses the European Parliament
in Strasbourg, France, February 11, 2020. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler
    STRASBOURG (Reuters) – The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, urged Israel on Tuesday not to annex the Jordan Valley, a large swathe of the occupied West Bank, warning of Palestinian protests if it went ahead.
    Israel captured the West Bank in a 1967 war. The Palestinian Authority wants to make the area part of a future state, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his intention on Tuesday to annex the valley if he wins re-election.
    “This may happen … You can be sure it’s not going to be peaceful,” Borrell told the European Parliament.
    Around 65,000 Palestinians and 11,000 Israeli settlers live in the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea area, according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.    The main Palestinian city there is Jericho, with around 28 villages and smaller Bedouin communities.
    Borrell, who traveled to Washington last week, also reiterated his rejection of parts of U.S. President Donald Trump’s new peace plan for the Middle East.
    The U.S. plan would give Israel most of what it has sought during decades of conflict, including nearly all Palestinian land on which it has built settlements.
    “The proposals tabled two weeks ago clearly challenge the internationally agreed parameters.    It is difficult to see how this initiative can bring both parties back to the table,” Borrell said of Israel and the Palestinians.
    “I made this point to my (U.S.) interlocutors: we need to ask ourselves whether this plan provides a basis for progress or not.”
(Reporting by Marine Strauss, Robin Emmott; Editing by Gareth Jones)

2/12/2020 Egypt’s booming population officially hits 100 million
    CAIRO – Egypt’s fast-growing population hit 100 million Tuesday, the official statistics agency announced, presenting a pressing problem for an already overburdened country with limited resources.    The staggering figure is an increase of 7 million since the publication of the latest census results in 2017.    Egypt’s population has tripled since 1960, with the annual growth rate peaking in 1987 at nearly 2.8%.    Every day nearly 5,000 people are born in Egypt, the agency estimates.    Egypt is the most populous Arab nation.

2/12/2020 Haftar forces block U.N. flights in and out of Libya: U.N. mission
FILE PHOTO: Members of Libyan National Army (LNA) commanded by Khalifa Haftar, get ready before heading out of Benghazi
to reinforce the troops advancing to Tripoli, in Benghazi, Libya April 13, 2019. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori
    CAIRO (Reuters) – Forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar have blocked flights carrying United Nations staff to and from Libya, hampering humanitarian and mediation efforts, the U.N. mission said on Wednesday.
    Haftar’s eastern-based Libya National Army has on several occasions in recent weeks refused to grant permission for the regular U.N. flights to land, the U.N. mission in Libya (UNSMIL) said in a statement.
    The LNA has been trying since last April to capture the capital Tripoli from the internationally recognized government but has failed to breach the city’s defenses.
    U.N. envoy Ghassan Salame has been mediating between Haftar, who is backed by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, and the Tripoli government supported by Turkey.
    But relations have been difficult as UNSMIL has condemned air strikes blamed on the LNA, though mostly without mentioning the force by name.
    Eastern officials have accused Salame of being biased against them, charges denied by the United Nations.
    UNSMIL has a large base in Tripoli and also provides humanitarian relief for migrants and people displaced by the conflict.
(Reporting by Omar Fahmy and Ulf Laessing; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

2/12/2020 Turkey will hit Syrian government forces anywhere if troops hurt: Erdogan
FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of his ruling AK Party during a meeting
at the Parliament in Ankara, Turkey, February 5, 2020. Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey’s military will strike Syrian government forces by air or ground anywhere in Syria if another Turkish soldier is hurt, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday.
    Erdogan said Turkey is determined to push Syrian government forces beyond Turkish observation posts in the northwestern Idlib region by the end of February, and he warned allied Syrian rebels not to give government forces an excuse to attack.
    Violence has flared in Idlib, just south of Turkey’s border, in recent weeks as government forces backed by Russia and Iran have made gains in their campaign to eliminate the last insurgent bastion after the country’s nine year war.
    Turkey, which is allied with some rebel groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, mounted a counter attack on Tuesday after 13 Turkish military personnel were killed by Syrian shelling in Idlib in the last 10 days.
    “If there is the smallest injury to our soldiers on the observation posts or other places, I am declaring from here that we will hit the regime forces everywhere from today, regardless of Idlib’s borders or the lines of the Sochi agreement,” Erdogan said, referring to a 2018 ceasefire accord.
    “We will do this by any means necessary, by air or ground, without hesitating, without allowing for any stalling,” he told members of his AK Party in Ankara.    Russia, which has an air base in Syria, has controlled Idlib’s air space for several years.
    The Turkish military casualties have strained ties between Ankara and Moscow.    The TASS news agency quoted the Kremlin as saying Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan agreed in a phone call that the sides would continue contacts on Syria.
    Erdogan said Turkey-backed rebels have mobilized to push Syrian government forces out of Idlib, but added they must remain disciplined.
    “We have given the message that we will act without compromise to those from the opposition groups who act in an undisciplined way and give the regime an excuse to attack,” he said.
(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay; Writing by Ezgi Erkoyun; Editing by Jonathan Spicer)

2/12/2020 Tehran-backed Hezbollah steps in to guide Iraqi militias in Soleimani’s wake
FILE PHOTO: An Iraqi woman holds a picture of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force,
and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed in an air strike at Baghdad airport, during a
funeral procession for militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in Basra, Iraq, January 7, 2020. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani/File Photo
    (Reuters) – Shortly after Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Iraq, the Tehran-backed Lebanese organization Hezbollah urgently met with Iraqi militia leaders, seeking to unite them in the face of a huge void left by their powerful mentor’s death, two sources with knowledge of the meetings told Reuters.
    The meetings were meant to coordinate the political efforts of Iraq’s often-fractious militias, which lost not only Soleimani but also Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a unifying Iraqi paramilitary commander, in the Jan. 3 attack at Baghdad airport, the sources said.
    While offering few details, two additional sources in a pro-Iran regional alliance confirmed that Hezbollah, which is sanctioned as a terrorist group by the United States, has stepped in to help fill the void left by Soleimani in guiding the militias.    All sources in this article spoke on condition of anonymity to address sensitive political activities rarely addressed in public.    Officials with the governments of Iraq and Iran did not respond to requests for comment, nor did a spokesperson for the militia groups.
    The discussions shed light on how Iran and its allied groups are trying to cement control in the unstable Middle East, especially in the wake of the devastating U.S. attack on a revered Iranian military leader.
    The Tehran-backed militias are critical to Iran’s efforts to maintain control over Iraq, where the U.S. still maintains some 5,000 troops.    The country has experienced years of civil war since U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein and more recently, the government – and the militias – have faced growing protests against Iran’s influence in the country.    Iran helped found some Iraqi militia groups.
    In the months ahead of his death, Soleimani had waded ever deeper into the Iraq crisis, holding meetings with the Iraqi militias in Baghdad as Tehran sought to defend its allies and interests in its power struggle with the United States, one of the two Iraqi sources said.
    Hezbollah’s involvement marks an expansion of its role in the region.    The Shi’ite group, founded by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in 1982, has been at the heart of Iran’s regional strategy for years, helping Soleimani to train paramilitary groups in both Iraq and Syria.
    One pro-Iran regional official said Hezbollah’s guidance of the militias would continue until the new leadership in the Quds Force – a unit of the Revolutionary Guards led by Soleimani since 1998 – gets a handle on the political crisis in Iraq.
    The meetings between Hezbollah and Iraqi militia leaders began in January, just days after Soleimani’s assassination, the two Iraqi sources said.    Reuters couldn’t confirm the number of meetings or where they took place. One source said they were in Beirut and the other said they were either in Lebanon or Iran.
    Sheikh Mohammad al-Kawtharani, the Hezbollah representative in Iraq who worked closely with Soleimani for years to guide the Iraqi militias, hosted the meetings, the Iraqi sources said.
Kawtharani picked up where Soleimani left off, the Iraqi sources said.    The sources said Kawtharani berated the groups, as Soleimani had done in one of his final meetings with them, for failing to come up with a unified plan to contain popular protests against the Baghdad government and the paramilitaries that dominate it.    The government and militia groups have killed hundreds of protesters but not managed to contain the rebellion.
    Kawatharani also urged a united front in picking a new Iraqi prime minister, the Iraqi sources said.    Since then, former Iraqi communications minister Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi has been named – a development welcomed by Iran and accepted by the militia-linked parties it backs but opposed by protesters.
BIG SHOES TO FILL
    For now, Kawtharani is seen as the most suitable figure to direct Iraqi militias until a permanent Iranian successor can be chosen, although he possesses nowhere near Soleimani’s clout and charisma, according to the two Iraqi sources and a senior Iraqi Shi’ite Muslim leader.
    “Kawtharani has connections with the militia groups,” the Shi’ite leader said, noting that he was born in Najaf, lived in Iraq for decades and speaks Iraqi dialect.    “He was trusted by Soleimani, who used to depend and call on him to help him in crises and in meetings in Baghdad.”
    One of the Iraqi sources close to the militias said that Kawtharani also met with the Iraqi populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a powerful but unpredictable figure, to convince him to support the new Iraqi prime minister.    As Reuters has reported, Sadr has given Allawi his support.
    Kawtharani will face serious – perhaps insurmountable- challenges in filling the shoes of the leaders killed in the drone attack, the Iraqi sources close to the militias told Reuters.
    “A lot of faction leaders see themselves as too big and important to take orders from” one Iraqi source said.    “For now, because of pressure from Iran, they’re cooperating with him, but I doubt that will continue and the Iranians know that.”
    One of the pro-Iran sources, a military commander, said Hezbollah’s involvement would consist of political guidance but stop short of providing manpower and materiel to retaliate for the Solemani killing.    The militias “do not need Hezbollah’s intervention because they have the strength in numbers, combat experience and firepower,” the commander said.
    Those groups are difficult to control while Hezbollah is seen as more disciplined.    But like the rest of Iran’s network, Hezbollah risks stretching itself thin, a senior U.S. official in the region and an Iraqi political leader said.
    In recent years, Hezbollah’s role has grown considerably. It has fought in support of President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria and extended political support to the Iran-allied Houthis of Yemen in their war with a Saudi-led military alliance.
    Iran is likely to rely partly on the clout Nasrallah, a figure who commands deep respect among Iran’s allies across the region, the U.S. official said.    Nasrallah is seen as overseeing Kawtharani’s efforts, according to a senior Shi’ite Iraqi leader.
    “I think ideologically, religiously, he’s seen as a charismatic figure to many of the Iraqi Shia militias,” the U.S. official said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
    In two lengthy televised addresses, Nasrallah has paid homage to Soleimani and vowed to avenge his death.
    He has also declared it a goal of Hezbollah and its allies to eject U.S. forces from the region once and for all. U.S. forces have been in Iraq since 2014 as part of a coalition fighting against Islamic State.
    If the Iraqi militias have their way, sources close to them say, these troops will be the first to depart.
(Editing by Julie Marquis)

2/12/2020 Turkey will hit Syrian government forces anywhere if troops hurt: Erdogan by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay
FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of his ruling
AK Party at the parliament in Ankara, Turkey, February 12, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday his military would strike Syrian forces by air or ground anywhere in Syria if another Turkish soldier was hurt as the Syrian government fought to regain control of northwestern Idlib province from rebels.
    Thousands of civilians meanwhile were heading north to the Turkish-Syrian border, many trudging by foot through snow in freezing temperatures, to escape air strikes and artillery barrages by the Russian-supported government forces.
    Erdogan said Turkey was determined to push the Syrian troops beyond Turkish observation posts in Idlib by the end of this month and that Ankara would not allow insurgents in Idlib to give them an excuse to attack.
    In turn, the Kremlin accused Turkey of flouting agreements with Russia to neutralize militants in Idlib and said attacks on Syrian and Russian forces there were continuing.
    Syrian troops and Iranian-backed militias have been advancing in Idlib in a campaign to destroy the last bastion of insurgents fighting for the past nine years to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
    An extensive campaign of air strikes and artillery shelling was underway along the M4 highway, which links Latakia on the Mediterranean coast to the contested crossroads town of Saraqeb south of Idlib city, a humanitarian source said on Wednesday.
    The offensive has uprooted hundreds of thousands of people, in the biggest single wave of displacement of the conflict, leaving them desperate for shelter amid atrocious weather conditions.
    Many villages along the M5 highway, running south from the city of Aleppo, were now deserted, the source said.
    Turkey, which is allied with some rebel groups opposed to Assad, counter-attacked on Tuesday after 13 Turkish soldiers were killed by Syrian shelling in Idlib in the last 10 days.
    “If there is the smallest injury to our soldiers on the observation posts or other places, I am declaring from here that we will hit the regime forces everywhere from today, regardless of Idlib’s borders or the lines of the Sochi agreement,” Erdogan said, referring to a 2018 ceasefire accord.
    “We will do this by any means necessary, by air or ground, without hesitating,” he told members of his AK Party in Ankara.
    Turkey has set up 12 observation posts in Idlib as part of an agreement with Russia and Iran to establish what they called a de-escalation zone.
    This month Ankara – which has the second-largest army in NATO – has poured some 5,000 troops and convoys of military vehicles across the border into Idlib, including tanks, armored personnel carriers and radar equipment to bolster its positions.
    Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow remained committed to its deal with Ankara on Syria but that Russia considered militant attacks in Idlib unacceptable.
    “The Turkish side undertook to ensure that terrorist groups in Idlib were neutralized,” he told reporters.    “These groups are carrying out strikes from Idlib on Syrian forces and also taking aggressive action against our military facilities.”
WAVES OF DISPLACED
    The Turkish military casualties have sparked some of the most serious confrontations between Ankara and Damascus in the war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and made millions refugees, including 3.6 million Syrians in Turkey.
    Ankara says it cannot handle another wave of refugees.
    In the last five days, some 52,000 people have fled toward the border, mostly from the towns of Atarib and Darat Izza west of Aleppo city, said Selim Tosun, the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation’s (IHH) media adviser in Syria.
    In total, the number of people displaced since the fighting intensified in November was about 870,000, he said.    Some 400 concrete block dwellings and 2,300 tents had been set up for the displaced people, 70% of whom are children, he said.
    Speaking from the border area in northwest Syria, Tosun said traffic was jammed up for several kilometers.    Cold weather, a lack of health facilities and the risk of epidemics were all threatening those on the move.
    “They have been worn out by the war.    They want at least some welfare and peace.    They want the attacks to stop,” he said.
    The U.N. regional spokesman on Syria, David Swanson, said people were fleeing by night in trucks or by foot in an effort to avoid the attacks.
    “People are fleeing northwards not knowing where they will find shelter.    Some are seeking shelter in host communities, in camps, makeshift shelters, abandoned buildings, schools, mosques and some people are out in the open in the cold and others are in their vehicles, having fled, and are trapped there.    They are waking up each morning not knowing which direction to go,” he told Reuters from Turkey.
    Many were also flocking into Idlib city, already host to tens of thousands of previously displaced people.
U.S. INCIDENT
    Damascus and Moscow say the attacks are targeting hardline Islamist militants who control Idlib.    Turkey says they are hitting civilians.
    Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan agreed in a phone call the sides would continue contacts on Syria, the Kremlin said.    Erdogan said he discussed with Putin the issue of the Turkish casualties.
    The U.S. envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, met Erdogan aide Ibrahim Kalin in Ankara and the two sides said diplomatic efforts needed to be ramped up urgently to halt the wave of displaced, Anadolu news agency said.
    Turkish artillery has been supporting the rebels as they battle to hold on to areas of Idlib.    Russia has officers on the ground advising the Syrians on the campaign as well as some ground forces, and Russian warplanes have carried out numerous air strikes.
    Separately, the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State said its troops opened fire on Wednesday at a checkpoint in northeast Syria after they came under small arms fire, an incident that underscored the multi-faceted nature of the conflict.
(This story adds dropped words in paragraphs 3, 5)
(Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun and Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul, Emma Farge in Geneva, Tom Balmforth and Andrey Kuzmin in Moscow, Suleiman Khalidi in Amman; Writing by Jonathan Spicer and Daren Butler; Editing by Dominic Evans and Angus MacSwan)

2/12/2020 Haftar’s forces ban U.N. from using Tripoli airport
FILE PHOTO: Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar meets Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis
(not pictured) at the Parliament in Athens, Greece, January 17, 2020. REUTERS/Costas Baltas
    BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – Eastern forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar will not allow the United Nations to use the only functioning airport in the capital Tripoli which they have been trying to take in a campaign, a force spokesman said on Wednesday.
    Force spokesman Ahmed Mismari told reporters the U.N. would have to use other airports such as Misrata because it could not guarantee the safety of flights into Tripoli Mitiga airport as Turkey was using it as base.
    The U.N. mission to Libya earlier on Wednesday accused Haftar’s forces of blocking flights carrying U.N. staff to Libya.
(Reporting by Ayman al-Warfalli and Alaa Swilam; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Sandra Maler)

2/12/2020 Lebanon requests technical help from IMF: government source
FILE PHOTO: The International Monetary Fund (IMF) logo is seen outside the headquarters building in Washington, U.S., as IMF Managing
Director Christine Lagarde meets with Argentine Treasury Minister Nicolas Dujovne September 4, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/File Photo
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon formally requested technical assistance from the IMF on Wednesday, asking the Fund to send a team to Beirut to help draw up a comprehensive plan to escape financial collapse, a senior government source told Reuters.
    As the government grapples with an economic crisis that has fueled increasingly violent protests, heavily indebted Lebanon must urgently decide on how to deal with fast approaching debt payments including a $1.2 billion Eurobond due on March 9.
    The financial crisis, worse than any Lebanon endured in its 1975-90 civil war, came to a head last year as slowing capital inflows led to a liquidity crunch and demonstrations erupted against the ruling elite.
    Deciding how to handle Lebanon’s next sovereign debt maturity is a top priority for Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government which won a vote of confidence in parliament on Tuesday.
    The IMF technical team is expected to arrive in Beirut in the next few days to help draw up an economic, financial, and monetary plan, said the senior government source, adding that the request for help was made by phone on Wednesday.
    It was not immediately clear whether the technical assistance would involve a plan for debt restructuring, though some politicians have expressed support for consulting the IMF before any plan is put forward to manage the debt payments.
    A decision on the March Eurobond was expected in Beirut on Thursday at a meeting between the president, central bank governor, finance minister and others, a second government source said.
    Lebanon was seeking advice on the March Eurobond “amid concerns that any reprofiling of Lebanon’s debt should be conducted in an orderly way to avoid damaging the country’s banking system,” the second government source said.
    Lebanese banks holding the bulk of the sovereign debt have piled pressure on the state to pay the March Eurobond on time.    The banks have in recent months imposed tough controls on hard currency amid dwindling reserves and fears of capital flight.
    In London, two of Lebanon’s international corporate creditors, Greylock Capital and Mangart Advisors, said they and others had organized an “informal discussion group” to begin evaluating options.
    Another source familiar with the matter said that “since the government gave the nod for IMF technical help, the general mood is towards doing an orderly restructuring.”
    “The feeling here is that the government would like a restructuring – not to pay – and to set terms on how to pay and when to pay,” a fourth source familiar with the matter said.
    Senior political sources said the major parties that back the Diab government, notably the heavily armed Hezbollah, favored reaching a deal to avoid paying the debt as Lebanon needed its foreign currency to pay for essential imports.
DECADES OF CORRUPTION
    The crisis is rooted in decades of state corruption and bad governance that have landed Lebanon with one of the world’s heaviest public debt burdens.
    The banking association said it was necessary to repay the Eurobond on time to maintain Lebanon’s place and relationships in global financial markets.
    It said the short time remaining before the March 9 maturity did not allow for preparation and “competent handling,” and called for the public debt to be tackled right after the March payment.
    Diab on Tuesday described the government’s task as a “suicide mission.”    The priority would be preserving foreign currency reserves for critical imports, and “all possibilities” were under study for dealing with Eurobonds maturing this year.
    Even as it seeks IMF technical help, comments attributed to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri this week indicated Lebanon’s opposition to a full IMF program, whose tough conditions the country would not be able to bear.
(Reporting by Samia Nakhoul, Ellen Francis, Tom Perry and Laila Bassam; Writing by Ellen Francis; Editing by John Stonestreet, Nick Macfie and Alexandra Hudson)

2/12/2020 U.N. report names 112 companies doing business with Israeli settlements by Stephanie Nebehay
Cars are parked outside Rami Levy supermarket in the Israeli settlement of Mishor Adumim
in the Israeli-occupied West Bank February 12, 2020. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
    GENEVA (Reuters) – The United Nations’ human rights office on Wednesday named 112 companies it said have business ties to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, angering Israel and prompting a Palestinian threat of legal action against the firms.
    A long-delayed report issued in Geneva said 94 of the companies were domiciled in Israel and 18 were listed in six other countries — the United States, Britain, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Thailand and France.
    A spokesman for Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the report was not a “blacklist” and was not intended to qualify any of the companies’ business activities as illegal.
    But it is a sensitive issue as companies named could be targeted for boycotts or divestment intended to put pressure on Israel over its settlements.    Despite the spokesman’s remarks, they could now also face legal battles.
    “We demand the companies immediately close their headquarters and branches inside illegal Israeli settlements because their presence contradicts international and U.N. resolutions,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh wrote on his Facebook page.
    He said companies would be pursued through “international legal institutions and in courts in their countries for taking part in human rights violations in Palestine.”    Palestinians could also demand compensation for “use of our occupied land illegally,” he said.
    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the report as the work of a “biased and uninfluential body.”
    “Instead of dealing with human rights, this body is trying to blacken Israel’s name.    We reject any such attempt in the strongest terms and with disgust,” he said in a statement.
    Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz called the report a “shameful capitulation” to anti-Israel groups.
    Israel captured the West Bank in a 1967 war.    Palestinians and much of the world view the settlements as illegal under international law, but the United States and Israel dispute this.
    The United States in effect backed Israel’s right to build settlements on Nov. 18 last year by abandoning its long-held position that they were “inconsistent with international law.”
    A Middle East peace plan announced last month by U.S. President Donald Trump proposed allowing Israel to keep control of the West Bank settlements though the plan would also create a Palestinian state.
    Several hours after the report was issued, there was no reaction from the U.S. government.
HIGHLY CONTENTIOUS
    The report was issued on the eve of the U.N. Human Rights Council’s main annual session opening in Geneva from Feb 24.    Neither Israel nor the United States are members of the forum which both accuse of a bias against Israel.
    “I am conscious this issue has been, and will continue to be, highly contentious,” Bachelet said in a statement.
    Her office said the report “does not provide a legal characterization of the activities in question, or of business enterprises’ involvement in them.”
    One of the businesses named in the report, home-rental company Airbnb, had already acknowledged having listings in settlements and said last April that it would donate proceeds from any bookings in the territory to international humanitarian aid organizations.
    Another, Cheerios maker General Mills Inc, said it was listed because of a manufacturing facility that “uses natural resources, in particular water and land, for business purposes.”
    About 50% of the workers are Palestinians who enjoy full social benefits and “the facility has a history of continuing employment and employee satisfaction,” a General Mills spokesman said.
    Other businesses listed for inclusion in a database included travel firms and a steel producer.    They did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Jeffrey Heller and Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, and by Uday Sampath Kumar; Editing by Timothy Heritage)

2/12/2020 Netanyahu rejects U.N. report on companies involved with settlements
FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly
cabinet meeting in Jerusalem February 9, 2020. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/Pool
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday denounced a long-delayed U.N. report listing companies that have business ties to Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
    “The U.N. Human Rights Council is a biased and uninfluential body,” Netanyahu said in a statement.    “Instead of dealing with human rights this body is trying to blacken Israel’s name.    We reject any such attempt in the strongest terms and with disgust.”
(Reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Gareth Jones)

2/13/2020 Haftar’s forces in Libya ban U.N. flights to embattled capital by Ayman al-Warfalli and Ulf Laessing
FILE PHOTO: Damage is seen after a shell fell on a residential area in Hadba al-Badri
district, in Tripoli, Libya January 28, 2020. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny/File Photo
    BENGHAZI, Libya/CAIRO (Reuters) – Eastern Libya forces will not allow the United Nations to use the only functioning airport in the capital Tripoli, a spokesman for the group that has been trying to capture the city from the internationally recognized government said on Wednesday.
    The U.N. earlier warned flight restrictions by commander Khalifa Haftar’s forces known as the Libya National Army (LNA) were hampering humanitarian and mediation efforts in the oil-producing country embroiled in a conflict between loose alliances from western and eastern Libya since 2014.
    The LNA, which is backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, has been trying since last April to take Tripoli but has failed to breach the city’s defenses.
    However, it has air superiority thanks to UAE-supplied combat drones, which cover the whole of Libya via a satellite link, a U.N. report said in November.
    LNA spokesman Ahmed Mismari told reporters in the eastern city of Benghazi that the United Nations would have to use other airports such as Misrata because it could not guarantee the safety of flights into Tripoli Mitiga airport as Turkey was using it as a base.
    Turkey has supplied combat drones to Tripoli operating in the past out of Mitiga and also sophisticated air defenses for the capital.
    On Wednesday, the 15-member U.N. Security Council passed its first resolution on Libya since the Tripoli war broke out, expressing “grave concern over the exploitation of the conflict by terrorist and violent groups” and demanding that the parties commit to a lasting ceasefire according to terms agreed by the country’s Joint Military Commission.
    It expressed concern over the growing involvement of mercenaries in Libya.
    David Schenker, the senior U.S. diplomat for the Middle East and North Africa, told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee the task of bringing the Libyans back to the negotiating table had been complicated by the involvement of external actors.
    “Libya is not the place for Russian mercenaries, or fighters from Syria, Chad and Sudan.    It is not the place for the Emiratis, Russians, or Turks to be fighting battles on the ground through intermediaries they sponsor or support,” he said in prepared testimony.
    The Joint Military Commission includes five senior officers from the LNA and five aligned with the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).     The rival factions began U.N.-led talks in Geneva last week aimed at securing a ceasefire, but a first round failed to yield an agreement.
    The U.N. mission in Libya (UNSMIL) earlier said the LNA had in the past three weeks several times blocked U.N. flights carrying staff to and from Libya.
    A humanitarian source said Haftar was imposing a “no-fly zone” for Tripoli and there were concerns that U.N. flights could be a possible target.
    U.N. envoy Ghassan Salame has been mediating between Haftar and the Tripoli government.
    Relations have been difficult as UNSMIL has condemned air strikes blamed on the LNA, though mostly without mentioning the force by name.
    Ties worsened when the U.N. said in a report last month that Haftar’s main stronghold Benghazi had turned into a “hub for illicit economic activities, including the sale of drugs and arms.”    The U.N. also criticized activities of armed groups in western Libya.
    The LNA’s Mismari again accused Salame of being biased against the LNA, a charge denied by the United Nations.
    UNSMIL has a base in Tripoli and also provides humanitarian relief for migrants and people displaced by the conflict with about 170 staff spread between Libya and neighboring Tunisia.
(Reporting by Omar Fahmy, Ulf Laessing, Ayman al-Warfalli and Emma Farge; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Grant McCool and Christopher Cushing)

2/13/2020 Saudi minister denies any plans for crown prince to meet Israeli PM
FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks during talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin
in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 14, 2019. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
    RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister on Thursday denied media reports of a possible meeting between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, amid speculation about normalizing ties between Gulf Arab states and Israel.
    “There is no meeting planned between Saudi Arabia and Israel,” Prince Faisal bin Farhan told Saudi-owned Al Arabiya English website in response to reports that included Israel’s daily Haaretz.
    “Saudi Arabia’s policy has been very clear since the beginning of this conflict.    There are no relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, and the Kingdom stands firmly behind Palestine.”
    The two countries’ interest in containing Iran have increasingly converged with both viewing Tehran as a main threat, but Saudi Arabia maintains that any relations hinge on Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands captured in the 1967 Middle East war, territory Palestinians seek for a future state.
    Netanyahu appeared last month at a White House event where President Donald Trump offered a peace plan that proposed creating a Palestinian state but diverged from a 2002 Saudi initiative.
    The Palestinian leadership has rejected Trump’s plan, saying it heavily favors Israel and will deny them a viable independent state.
    But Gulf Arab states welcomed the U.S. efforts in a move viewed as prioritizing close ties with Washington vital to countering Iran over traditional unswerving support for the Palestinians.
    In 2017, an Israeli cabinet minister said the country had covert contacts with Riyadh, and Israel Radio reported that Prince Mohammed had met with officials in Israel, drawing an official Saudi denial.
    Netanyahu, who faces criminal corruption charges and is seeking re-election next month, has previously pointed to covert cooperation with Arab states, without naming them.
    The longest-serving Israeli prime minister met Sudan’s leader last week during a visit to Uganda and agreed to start normalizing relations.
    Prince Faisal said Saudi Arabia had always shown a willingness to normalize ties with Israel provided there is “a just and fair settlement” agreed by Israel and the Palestinians.
    “Short of that, Saudi policy will remain steadfast,” he added.
(Reporting by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Howard Goller)

2/13/2020 U.S. rejects U.N. database of companies in Israeli-controlled territories: Pompeo by Lisa Lambert
FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo co-hosts an event celebrating the anniversary of the White House's Women’s Global
Development and Prosperity (W-GDP) initiative at the State Department in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2020. REUTERS/Leah Millis
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday said the U.S. government would not furnish any information for a database of companies operating in Israeli-controlled territories that the United Nations’ human rights office released, and said the compilation hurts peace efforts in the Middle East.
    “The United States has long opposed the creation or release of this database,” Pompeo said in a statement.    “Its publication only confirms the unrelenting anti-Israel bias so prevalent at the United Nations … Attempts to isolate Israel run counter to all of our efforts to build conditions conducive to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that lead to a comprehensive and enduring peace.”
    The United Nations Human Rights Council on Wednesday named 112 companies it said have business ties to Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
    A spokesman for Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the report was not a “blacklist” and was not intended to qualify any of the companies’ business activities as illegal.
    But the release prompted a Palestinian threat of legal action against the firms, and raised concerns that the companies could be targets of boycotts or divestment to pressure Israel over its settlements.
    Pompeo, along with two leading U.S. Senators, assailed the release for its potential of making companies boycott targets.
    Democratic Senator Ben Cardin and Republican Senator Rob Portman, who sit on the Finance Committee and Foreign Relations Committee, called it an “anti-Israel database, akin to a blacklist, of companies” that made major U.S. companies, including General Mills and Airbnb vulnerable to boycotts.
    “The Human Rights Council should use its energy to encourage both Israel and the Palestinians to return to good faith negotiations,” said Cardin.    “The United States cannot stand by while American businesses are being pressured by a foreign entity because of their work in Israel, one of our key allies.”
    The United States has stood for many years as one of Israel’s strongest allies and last month Pompeo’s boss, President Donald Trump, revealed a Middle East plan that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed as a path to durable peace.    Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, though, has denounced the plan as a gift to Israel that will lead to violence.
(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Grant McCool)

2/13/2020 Turkey says it will hit groups violating Idlib ceasefire
FILE PHOTO: Turkey's Defence Minister Hulusi Akar attends a NATO defence ministers meeting at the
Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium February 12, 2020. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey will use force against rebel groups violating a ceasefire in Syria’s northwest Idlib region, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on Thursday, in an apparent response to Russian criticism.
    Turkey has allied with some rebels in Idlib opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and has boosted its troops, arms and equipment in the region after 13 of its soldiers were killed by Syrian government forces in just over a week.
    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said his NATO-member military would strike Russia-backed Syrian forces if another Turkish soldier was hurt, and he blamed Moscow for targeting civilians.
    Russia, which supports Assad, in turn accused Turkey of flouting agreements it made with Moscow and of aggravating the situation in Idlib.    The Kremlin said Ankara had failed to neutralize militants there, as per a 2018 agreement to establish a de-escalation zone.
    Apparently responding to the Russian criticism, Akar said Turkey was sending reinforcements to Idlib to ensure a ceasefire is maintained and to “control” the area, according to a ministry statement.
    “Force will be used against those violating the ceasefire, including radicals, and every measure will be taken,” Akar said, referring to a Jan. 12 ceasefire Ankara says has been violated by Assad’s forces.
    The flare-up of fighting has given rise to some of the most serious confrontations between Ankara and Damascus in the nine-year-old war that, since early December in Idlib alone, has displaced hundreds of thousands.
    Aid workers said families fleeing air strikes and advancing troops in Idlib were sleeping in streets and olive groves, and burning toxic bundles of rubbish to stay warm in the biting winter weather.
    Since last week, Ankara has deployed more than 1,000 troops to its military posts in Idlib.
    On Wednesday, Erdogan said Ankara had given a message to the rebels it supports in the conflict to refrain from acting in an undisciplined way and give Syrian forces an excuse to strike.
    The rebels are a mix of nationalist factions and Islamist militants who were rivals but are now closing ranks.
    A Turkish official told Reuters: “Talks are being held with Russia to make sure tensions don’t flare more.”    Yet he added rebels backed by Turkish artillery had in recent days retaken territory previously lost in Idlib.
    Turkey has repeatedly urged Russia to stop the Syrian attacks in Idlib, warning that it will use military power to push back the Syrian forces unless they withdraw by the end of the month.
    Later on Thursday, Russia called on Turkey to refrain from provocative statements about Idlib.    It said it was “perplexed” by the comments of Erdogan’s nationalist partner party leader, who held Moscow responsible for attacks on Turkish troops and said Ankara should plan to “enter Damascus.”
    “We believe that in the context of the tense situation in the north-west of Syria, it is worth exercising restraint and in particular refraining from provocative comments that do not contribute to a constructive dialogue between our countries,” the Russian foreign ministry said.
    Ankara and Moscow back opposing sides, but have collaborated on a political solution to the war.
(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu, Ece Toksabay and Orhan Coskun; Additional reporting by Alexander Marrow in Moscow; Writing by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Giles Elgood)

2/13/2020 Shelterless Syrians burn refuse for warmth in bitter Idlib winter by Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Emma Farge
Internally displaced children stand on snow near tents at a makeshift camp in Azaz, Syria February 13, 2020. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
    AMMAN/GENEVA (Reuters) – Families fleeing air strikes and advancing troops in Syria’s Idlib province are sleeping rough in streets and olive groves, and burning toxic bundles of rubbish to stay warm in the biting winter weather, aid workers say.
    Hundreds of thousands of people have been uprooted by a Syrian government assault which has corralled ever growing numbers of people into a shrinking pocket of land near the Turkish border.
    Humanitarian agency officials say it is the biggest single displacement of civilians in the nine-year-old war.    But they lack the shelter and supplies to support them.
    Relief workers say 10 children have died in the last week alone in makeshift camps that now dot the border area.    A seemingly endless flow of cars and vehicles packed with belongings of fleeing civilians jam the roads.    Some have also fled on foot.
    In one camp in northern Idlib, a family of four died of suffocation on Tuesday after inhaling fumes from a fire they had made from shoes, old clothing and cardboard, their neighbor in the camp, known as Dia3, said.
    “Most people are bringing bundles of shoes or clothing and burning it,” Adnan al Tayeb told Reuters by phone.    “The family were sleeping and suffocated.”
    The father, mother and their two children were among tens of thousands of people who had driven north to escape the Russian-backed Syrian government offensive.
    Up to three million civilians are stuck between the advancing Syrian government troops and the closed-off border with Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees and says it cannot take more.
    Storms which blanketed much of northwest Syria in snow this week has worsened the plight of the displaced.    Shelter is scarce, with houses and tents already packed with dozens of people.    Many who have become destitute have little money to buy fuel or heaters.
    “People are burning anything they have available to them, things that are often dangerous to inhale just to stay warm,” said Rachel Sider of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
    Mark Cutts, United Nations Deputy Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis, said the situation in Idlib was catastrophic.
    “We keep hearing stories of babies and people dying as a result of cold weather and the inability to stay warm,” he said.
    With the Syrian army on the outskirts of Idlib city, currently home to an estimated 1 million people, a full military assault there could lead to even greater upheaval.
NO PLACE LEFT
    International humanitarian agencies say the number of people on the move has swamped existing camps in northern Idlib, set up to shelter families displaced by earlier fighting, and people were being turned away.
    “We are seeing people who simply have nowhere else left to go.    They are being squeezed into a smaller and smaller area and are feeling very abandoned by the whole world and that the world is just failing them,” Cutts said.
    The once agricultural rural terrain of Idlib province, Syria’s main olive growing district, now resembles the shanty towns on the edges of large congested cities.
    “Families are sharing tents with up to 30 to 35 other people so there is very little space for people to seek refuge in northern Idlib at this stage,” Sider said.
    A resident from the once sleepy border town of Atma said the many people in the human wave pouring north are now sleeping in cars and under olive trees along congested routes.
    Some families, with relatives further east, are able to cross from Idlib into areas of northern Syria controlled by Turkish troops.    For most, there is no escape.
    “Along the border area in northern Idlib it’s overcrowded and the situation is much more difficult,” said local aid worker Adi Satouf.
Despite the turmoil and constant upheaval in the shrinking area of rebel rule, few people say they would return to areas now under the control of President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
    “People are no longer thinking of returning as long as Assad is there.    They are ready to put up with every injustice and hardship here but not go back to the regime,” said Ibrahim Islam, a rescue worker now struggling with his family in a camp on the outskirts of Idlib.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Emma Farge; Editing by Dominic Evans and Angus MacSwan)

2/13/2020 Ethiopia passes law imposing jail terms for internet posts that stir unrest by Dawit Endeshaw
FILE PHOTO: Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks during a session with the Members
of the Parliament in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, October 22, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri
    ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Ethiopia’s parliament passed a law on Thursday imposing jail terms for people whose internet posts stir unrest, a move the government says is needed to prevent violence ahead of elections but which the United Nations says will stifle free speech.
    Ethiopia, for decades one of the most tightly controlled states in Africa, has undergone huge political change since reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office two years ago.
    But even as Abiy has freed political prisoners and journalists and lifted a ban on opposition parties, the authorities have struggled to contain a surge in ethnic violence.    An election this year is seen as the biggest test yet of whether his ambitious political reforms can stick.
    The new law permits fines of up to 100,000 Ethiopian birr ($3,000) and imprisonment for up to five years for anyone who shares or creates social media posts that are deemed to result in violence or disturbance of public order.
    Some 297 lawmakers who were present in the chamber voted in favor of the bill while just 23 were opposed.
    “Ethiopia has become a victim of disinformation,” lawmaker Abebe Godebo said.    “The country is a land of diversity and this bill will help to balance those diversities.”
    Several of the lawmakers who opposed the bill said it violates a constitutional guarantee of free speech.
    Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for his reconciliation with Ethiopia’s neighbor and longtime foe Eritrea, has pledged that this year’s election will be free and fair.    The nation of 108 million people has regularly held elections since 1995, but only one, in 2005, was competitive.
    The law was first endorsed by Abiy’s cabinet in November.    At the time, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on freedom of expression urged authorities to reconsider it, warning it would worsen already high ethnic tensions and possibly fuel further violence.
    International rights groups say it creates a legal means for the government to muzzle opponents.
    “Politicians or activists or others will be forced to be cautious, afraid that their speech might fall into the definition of hate speech or can be considered as false information,” said Amnesty International’s Ethiopia researcher Fisseha Tekle.
(Reporting by Dawit Endeshaw; Editing by Giulia Paravicini, Maggie Fick and Peter Graff)

2/14/2020 Lebanon ex-premier Hariri blames political rivals for crisis
Lebanon's former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri speaks during a ceremony marking the 15th anniversary of the assassination of
his father, former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, in Beirut, Lebanon February 14, 2020. REUTERS/Aziz Taher
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s ex-Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, in his first major address as an opposition figure after the formation of a new cabinet, charged his rivals with pushing the country to near-collapse and cast doubt on their ability to win foreign support.
    The speech by Hariri, the country’s top Sunni Muslim politician, laid bare growing political divisions that could complicate Beirut’s push to enact painful reforms and recover from the worst economic crisis since its 1975-1990 war.
    A cabinet formed last month by the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies, the first since Hariri resigned in October in the face of protests, must contend with a severe liquidity crunch and fast-approaching debt payments, with a $1.2 billion Eurobond due on March 9.
    The government clinched a parliamentary vote of confidence on Tuesday but several major parties, such as Hariri’s Future Movement, the Christian Lebanese Forces and Kataeb parties, and the Druze Progressive Socialist Party, all withheld support.
    Speaking on the 15th anniversary of the assassination of his father, ex-premier Rafik al-Hariri, Hariri lambasted his rivals, casting their obstruction of reforms as largely to blame for the depth of the current crisis.
    “We organized the Cedar conference, and we got $11 billion dollars for the economy based on reforms we agreed to and promised to implement,” said Hariri, referring to a 2018 Paris donor conference.    “But what can I do if someone does not keep to his word?
    Hariri, an ally of Western and Gulf Arab states at odds with Iran, threw his most scathing jabs at former Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, the son-in-law of President Michel Aoun, who he called a “shadow” president who had subverted his work and helped push the country to collapse.
    The remarks underscored the end of a fragile cross-sectarian alliance that had held between Hariri, Aoun’s Christian Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah, a coalition that formed the basis of two previous governments.
    In his speech Hariri raised prickly questions about how the new cabinet, seen as dominated by Hezbollah, could win the badly needed support of countries at odds with Iran, another potential obstacle to its recovery bid.
    “Can we establish tourism without Arab and Gulf citizens?    Can we open markets for Lebanese goods without having Arab and Gulf markets in particular?” said Hariri.
    “Iran’s cash can solve the problems of a party, but not a country’s,” said Hariri, in a pointed reference to Hezbollah.
(Reporting by Eric Knecht; Editing by Alex Richardson)

2/14/2020 Algerians keep up protests a year after demonstrations began
Demonstrators carry a national flag as they march, a year since the start of weekly protests calling for a complete overhaul of the
ruling elite, an end to corruption and the army's withdrawal from politics, in Algiers, Algeria, February 14, 2020. REUTERS/Ramzi Boudina
    ALGIERS (Reuters) – Thousands of Algerians marched on Friday, a year since the start of weekly protests calling for a complete overhaul of the ruling elite, an end to corruption and the army’s withdrawal from politics.
    “We will not stop,” chanted a crowd in the center of the capital Algiers, despite a large police presence.
    Over the past year the protesters have changed the face of Algeria’s power structure, causing the fall of a veteran president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, and the arrest of dozens of leading figures including a once untouchable former intelligence chief.
    However, while the new president has released people detained in the protests, set up a commission to amend the constitution and offered talks to the opposition, much of the old ruling elite remains in place.
    The leaderless protest movement, known as “hirak”, is demanding more concessions, including the release of more activists and the departure of more senior figures from positions of power.
    “Our hirak is tireless.    We are ready to keep marching for months more,” said Yazid Chabi, a 23-year-old student on the central Didouche Mourad street in central Algiers.
    However, since December’s presidential election the number of protesters has fallen according to people attending the marches each week.
    Hirak opposed the election, regarding as illegitimate any vote that took place while the old ruling elite was in power and while the military was involved in politics.
    Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a former prime minister seen by the protesters as part of the old elite, was elected, but turnout was only 40% according to official statistics.
    Even without the political unrest, his new government now faces a difficult economic year with energy revenues rapidly sinking, hitting state finances hard.
    Chabi, who is studying law, said he has no expectation of finding work after he graduates.    “Algerians have been getting only promises.    Nothing has improved in recent years because corruption is still there,” he said.
    Two former prime ministers, several ex-ministers and prominent businessmen have been jailed after anti-graft investigations that followed protests demanding the prosecution of people involved in corruption.
    Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad this week said corruption and mismanagement resulted in a “delicate” economic situation for Algeria, an OPEC member country that is also facing a negative impact from falling global crude oil prices.
(This story in paragraph 9, corrects former role of Tebboune to prime minister, not president)
(Reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed; Editing by Angus McDowall and Frances Kerry)

2/15/2020 Turkey says Libya’s Haftar violating ceasefire, must be stopped
FILE PHOTO: Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar meets Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis
(not pictured) at the Parliament in Athens, Greece, January 17, 2020. REUTERS/Costas Baltas
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu accused Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar on Saturday of constantly violating a ceasefire in the country, saying he “must be stopped” so a political solution could be found.
    Turkey backs the internationally-recognized government of Fayez al-Serraj in Libya and has sent military personnel to the country in support of Serraj.    President Tayyip Erdogan has also warned that Ankara may deploy troops there if necessary.
    Speaking at a news conference with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the Munich Security Conference, Cavusoglu said that Haftar, who is based in east Libya, wanted a military solution to the conflict rather than a political one.
(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu)

2/15/2020 Turkey says it met responsibilities over Syria’s Idlib in Russia deal
FILE PHOTO: Internally displaced Syrians from western Aleppo countryside, ride on a vehicle with
belongings in Hazano near Idlib, Syria, February 11, 2020. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi/File Photo
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey has fulfilled its responsibilities in the northwestern Syrian region of Idlib in line with its de-escalation agreements with Russia and Iran, Vice President Fuat Oktay said on Saturday, after violence spiked in recent weeks.
    Turkey and Russia, which back opposing sides in the conflict, agreed in 2018 to set up a de-escalation zone in the region.    But a Syrian government offensive has disrupted Ankara and Moscow’s fragile cooperation, after 13 Turkish soldiers were killed by Syrian attacks in the past two weeks.
    Ankara has said it will use military power to drive back the Syrian forces unless they withdraw by the end of February.    President Tayyip Erdogan threatened to strike Syrian government forces anywhere in Syria if another Turkish soldier was hurt.
    Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, says Turkey has flouted deals it made with Moscow and aggravated the situation in Idlib.    The Kremlin said Ankara had failed to neutralize militants there.
    Oktay told broadcaster NTV that Turkey was determined to stop Syrian government advances in Idlib and Ankara had clearly conveyed its position on Idlib to Moscow during the talks.
    “We cannot overlook the cruelty happening in our neighbor,” Oktay said, adding that Turkey, which hosts more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees, cannot handle a new migrant wave from Idlib where hundreds of thousands have been displaced.
    “Turkey has fulfilled its responsibilities in Idlib.    Some of our observation posts have now fallen into areas controlled by the (Syrian) regime,” he said, referring to Turkey’s military observation posts established in Idlib under the 2018 deal.
    In an apparent response to Russia’s criticism on Thursday, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said Turkey would use force against rebel groups violating a Jan. 12 ceasefire in Idlib and said Ankara was sending reinforcements to control Idlib.
    Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sunday during the Munich Security Conference, the Interfax news agency reported.
(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Edmund Blair)

2/15/2020 Saudi minister: Iran must change behavior before any talks
Saudi Arabia Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud is welcomed by his Bulgarian
counterpart Ekaterina Zaharieva in Sofia, Bulgaria, January 29, 2020.REUTERS/Dimitar Kyosemarliev
    MUNICH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said on Saturday no private messages or direct contact had taken place to ease tensions with Iran and that Tehran first needed to change its behavior before talks can happen.
    “Until we can talk about the real sources of that instability, talk is going to be unproductive,” Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud told the Munich Security Conference.
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Douglas Busvine)

2/15/2020 Despite Yemen violence spike, Saudi says talks with Houthis progressing
FILE PHOTO: New ambassador of Saudi Arabia to Germany Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud poses for the media after
his diplomatic accreditation at Bellevue Palace in Berlin, Germany, March 27, 2019. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
    MUNICH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said on Saturday that Riyadh was still committed to back-channel peace talks with Yemen’s Houthi rebels, despite a recent increase in violence in the five-year conflict.
    Yemen has been mired in fighting since the Iran-backed Houthi movement ousted the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi from the capital in late 2014.
A Saudi-led military coalition intervened in 2015 to try to restore him.    The conflict is widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and its regional foe, Shi’ite Muslim Iran.
    The United Nations has been trying to re-launch political negotiations to end the war and, separately, Riyadh has been holding informal talks with the Houthis since late September about de-escalation.
    “We have a back channel and it’s not yet ready to move to the highest level,” Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud told the Munich Security Conference.
    “It’s making progress.    We have seen some deterioration recently, but we are committed to moving it forward,” he added, referring to a recent rise in military activity by the Iran-backed rebels.
    After a lull in hostilities in recent months on many fronts, violence has escalated at a frontline east of Yemen’s Houthi-held capital Sanaa, since a Jan. 19 missile attack on a government military camp that killed more than 100 people.
    Prince Faisal said Saudi would continue to respond to attacks, but that the recent Houthi assaults were not yet at the point that they were endangering the back-channel talks.
(Reporting by John Irish)

2/15/2020 Erdogan, Trump discuss immediate halt to Idlib crisis: Turkish presidency
FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump, Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan and Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel attend a family
photo opportunity at the NATO leaders summit in Watford, Britain December 4, 2019. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann/Pool
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump exchanged views on an immediate halt to fighting in Syria’s Idlib province Saturday, the Turkish presidency said.
    The two leaders agreed by phone that Syrian government forces’ attacks in the northwestern province, which killed 13 Turkish troops, were unacceptable, it said in a statement.
(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Umit Bektas, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

2/15/2020 Turkey won’t be silent as Syrian government surrounds Turkish posts: Erdogan
FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of his ruling AK Party
at the parliament in Ankara, Turkey, February 12, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey will not remain silent while Syrian government forces surround Turkish military posts in Syria’s Idlib region, President Tayyip Erdogan said in comments reported by NTV, as Ankara and Moscow trade barbs over the escalating conflict.
    Turkey has dismissed Russian accusations that its actions in Idlib have flouted de-escalation agreements with Russia and Iran, and said it would take military action if diplomatic efforts with Moscow fail.
    Erdogan told reporters on a flight from Pakistan that his talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the issue had been positive, NTV reported. He also said U.S. statements of support for Turkey on Idlib “did not instill trust.”
(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Edmund Blair)

2/15/2020 Turkey says Syria dispute won’t affect Russian S-400 defense deal
FILE PHOTO: Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu speaks during a news conference
in Tirana, Albania, February 12, 2020. Turkish Foreign Ministry/Handout via REUTERS
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Saturday that differences over Syria should not affect Ankara’s relations with Moscow or disrupt its contract for the purchase of Russian S-400 missile defenses, Russian news agencies reported.
    “We can not change the principle-based positions we hold or our politics over individual disagreements with one country or another.    We must not allow the problems in Syria to undermine our co-operation and relations,” the TASS news agency cited him as saying after meeting his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.
(Writing by Polina Ivanova; Editing by)

2/16/2020 Yemeni authorities say Saudi airstrike killed 31 by OAN Newsroom
FILE – In this Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, file photo, a Yemeni soldier allied to the country’s internationally recognized
government unslings his machine gun on the outskirts of Sanaa, Yemen. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell, File)
    Reports out of Yemen alleged a Syrian airstrike that killed dozens of people, in what has been described as a retaliatory act.    The United Nations said as many as 31 Yemeni civilians died in airstrikes on Saturday that the country’s Houthi movement claimed were retaliation by a Saudi-led coalition.
    “This is a farmer’s car who was going to Sanaa and he was targeted on the way,” stated an Arabic civilian.
    In the latest flare-up in the five year Yemen conflict, the Iran-aligned Houthis claimed to have shot down a coalition Tornado warplane in the Houthi-controlled Al-Jawf province.    They also released a video purporting to show a missile hitting the jet.
    The area’s health ministry said women and children were among those killed in the subsequent coalition airstrikes.    The UN office in Yemen stated preliminary field reports indicated 12 injured as well as up to 31 civilians have been killed.
Yemenis walk past rubble after deadly airstrikes in and near the presidential compound, in Sanaa, Yemen, Monday, May. 7, 2018.
Airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition fighting Yemen’s Shiite rebels targeted the presidency building in the heart of the Yemeni
capital on Monday, leaving at least six people dead and some 30 wounded, according to health officials. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)
    Coalition spokesman Col. Turki al-Maliki said on Saturday that only a Tornado warplane had crashed in Al-Jawf.    Maliki later said rescue operations had been launched and that the possibility of “collateral damages” had been reported, without providing details.
    The Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015 in support of the internationally-recognized government, which the Houthis ousted from the capital Sanaa in 2014.
    The conflict has been widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and its regional foe, Iran.

2/16/2020 Israel hopes Germany, other ICC members will help stave off Palestinian investigation by Dan Williams and Stephanie van den Berg
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem February 16, 2020. Gali Tibbon/Pool via REUTERS
    JERUSALEM/THE HAGUE (Reuters) – Israel’s prime minister on Sunday hailed what he called efforts by friendly states to stop the International Criminal Court opening an investigation into alleged war crimes against Palestinians.
    The court’s chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said in December there was enough evidence for an investigation into thousands of killings – but asked the court to rule on whether it had the jurisdiction over the Palestinian territories.
    Brazil, Hungary, Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic and Australia have asked the court over the past two weeks to let them file “amicus brief” opinions on the case, ICC records show.
    Some, including Germany, said they would argue the court’s jurisdiction did not extend to the Palestinian territories.    Brazil said it would argue that the Israeli-Palestinian crisis should be resolved through political dialogue, not a court ruling.
    Netanyahu told his cabinet countries had responded to Israeli lobbying over the case.
    “We are struggling against this (proceeding) and, at our side, I must say, are many friends around the world (which) joined the U.S. in a steadfast stand alongside Israel.”
    The Palestinians were accepted as an ICC member in 2015 after they signed the court’s founding Rome Statute, based on their United Nations “observer state” status.
    Israel and the United States, neither of them ICC members, dispute the court’s jurisdiction in the absence of a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza or East Jerusalem.
    The Organisation for Islamic Cooperation, representing 57 Muslim states, asked to file a brief, arguing that the Palestinians have sovereignty over the Palestinian territories.
    The Palestinian Bar Association, the International Commission of Jurists and other legal and human rights organization have also asked to filed briefs with the court to say it does have jurisdiction in this case.
    U.S.-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking stalled in 2014. A new U.S. peace plan, unveiled by President Donald Trump last month, envisaged Israel keeping East Jerusalem and swathes of West Bank land, and was rejected by the Palestinians.
(Editing by Andrew Heavens)

2/16/2020 Netanyahu says Israeli airliners have started overflying Sudan
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem February 16, 2020. Gali Tibbon/Pool via REUTERS
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli commercial planes have started overflying Sudan, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday, casting the new air corridor as the result of a breakthrough meeting with the African Muslim country’s de-facto leader this month.
    Khartoum said on Feb. 5 it had given Israeli planes initial approval to fly over its territory, two days after Sudan’s military head of state, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, met Netanyahu in Uganda.
    “Now we’re discussing rapid normalization.    The first Israeli airplane passed yesterday over the skies of Sudan,” Netanyahu said in a speech to U.S. Jewish leaders, saying the route cut some three hours off flights from Israel to South America.
    Sudan, mindful of pro-Palestinian sensitivities, has stopped short of saying it is normalizing ties with Israel.
    Israel previously considered Sudan a security threat because it suspected Iran used Sudan as a conduit for overland smuggling of munitions to the Gaza Strip.    In 2009, regional sources said, Israeli aircraft bombed an arms convoy in Sudan.
    The corridor described by Netanyahu would also take planes over Egypt, which made peace with Israel in 1979, and Chad, which in 2018 restored long-severed relations with Israel.
    Normalizing relations with Sudan, where Arab states gathered in 1967 to issue what became known as the “Three No’s” – no recognition of Israel, no peace with Israel and no negotiations with Israel – would allow Netanyahu to burnish his diplomatic credentials a month before Israel’s March 2 election.
    Since their meeting, the air corridor is the most prominent development that has been discussed publicly by both sides.
    Israeli commentators have speculated that the new contacts with Khartoum could allow for the repatriation of illegal Sudanese migrants in Israel, and that Israel could in turn lobby the United States to improve Sudan’s standing in Washington.
(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Alison Williams)

2/16/2020 Syrian forces seize most of Aleppo province, ahead of Turkey-Russia talks by Suleiman Al-Khalidi, Tom Perry and Tuvan Gumrukcu
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu speaks during a news conference in Tirana, Albania, February 12, 2020. Turkish
Foreign Ministry/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE
    AMMAN/BEIRUT/ANKARA (Reuters) – Syrian government forces made significant advances on Sunday in the country’s northwestern Aleppo province, seizing most of the rebel-held region, state media said, a day before a new round of talks between Turkey and Russia on the escalation in the area.
    The Syrian government’s recent advances in the northwestern region of the country have upset a fragile cooperation between Ankara and Moscow, which back opposing factions in the conflict but have collaborated toward a political solution to the nearly nine-year war.
    Turkey, which backs rebels looking to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has been outraged since Syrian attacks in the Idlib region killed 13 Turkish troops in two weeks.    It has urged Russia to stop the attacks, warning it would use military power to drive back the Syrian forces unless they withdraw by the end of the month.
    On Sunday, Russian warplanes mounted heavy air strikes in the Aleppo province, bombing towns including Anadan, which was later seized by Syrian forces supported by Iranian-backed militias, activists reported.
    Rebel military sources said opposition fighters had pulled back from the area, including Anadan and the town of Haritan.
    “In day one, they took an area where for eight years they could not take a single village,” Rami Abdulrahman, director of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.
    “There is very rapid advance by the (Syrian) regime in this area,” Abdulrahman said.    “The factions have withdrawn from most of the area,” he added.    The Observatory said Syrian forces had seized 13 towns and villages in the area.
    The advances come after Assad’s forces drove insurgents from the key M5 highway linking Aleppo to Damascus, and reopened the fastest route between Syria’s two biggest cities for the first time in years, in a major strategic accomplishment for Assad.
    Turkey-backed rebels have meanwhile launched an operation in Idlib to retake areas lost to Syrian government forces.    Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said on Sunday that a 100-vehicle convoy of reinforcements, including troops, tanks and military vehicles and equipment, had been deployed to Idlib.
    Turkey has so far sent thousands of troops and hundreds of convoys of military equipment to reinforce its observation posts in Idlib, established under a 2018 de-escalation agreement with Russia.    Images from the region showed many houses draped in Turkish flags, while footage showed residents chanting slogans as convoys passed by.
    A suicide bomber with the main insurgent group in the area, the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham faction, blew himself up in an attack on Russian positions in the town of Kafr Aleppo, the Ibaa news outlet affiliated with the group reported.
TURKEY-RUSSIA TALKS
    As Syrian forces continued their push to retake Idlib, the last major rebel-held enclave in Syria, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Sunday he told his Russian counterpart that attacks in Idlib must stop immediately and that a lasting ceasefire has to be achieved.
    “We told (Russia on Saturday) …that the aggression in Idlib must stop and that a lasting ceasefire has to be achieved now,” Cavusoglu told reporters during a briefing at the Munich Security Conference, adding that Turkish and Russian officials will discuss the issue in Moscow on Monday.
    Cavusoglu also said he met with some U.S. lawmakers at the conference, and added Washington should work to improve its relations with Ankara anyway, not just due to current tensions between Turkey and Russia.
    “We told them that we expected a sincere approach from the United States in line with the spirit of our alliance,” he said, days after the top U.S. envoy for Syria came to Ankara for talks on Idlib and cooperation in Syria.
    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said his military will drive back Syrian forces if they do not withdraw out of Idlib by the end of the month.    On Saturday, he appeared to pull that date forward, saying Turkey would “handle it” before the end of the month if there was no pullback.
    In a meeting with Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani, Assad said that “the Syrian nation was determined to liberate all Syrian land from terrorism,” Syria’s state news agency SANA reported.
(Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Susan Fenton, John Stonestreet and Lisa Shumaker)

2/16/2020 Crisis puts Lebanon’s survival at stake, Hezbollah warns
FILE PHOTO: Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters through a screen during a rally
commemorating the annual Hezbollah's slain leaders in Beirut's southern suburbs, Lebanon February 16, 2020. REUTERS/Aziz Taher
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon may not survive if its new government fails, the powerful Hezbollah warned on Sunday, urging the country’s divided politicians not to obstruct the cabinet as it seeks to address an unprecedented economic and financial crisis.
    Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah also said there was no point in politicians trading blame over the causes of the crisis, after former prime minister Saad al-Hariri on Friday accused his rivals of pushing the country to near-collapse.
    Banks are curtailing access to deposits, the Lebanese pound has slumped, inflation has spiked and firms are shedding jobs and slashing wages in a financial crisis.    Hariri resigned last year amid mass demonstrations against the ruling class.
    Hezbollah, heavily armed and backed by Iran, is one of the main backers of Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s cabinet which was formed last month after the failure of efforts to establish a new national unity cabinet led by Hariri.
    Supporting the government was a “national duty,” Nasrallah said.    “This is not a party matter.    If this government fails, it is not known whether a country will remain for someone to ride in on a white horse and form a new government.”
    Analysts have said Hezbollah’s role in forming the cabinet could make it trickier for Diab to secure badly needed financial support from Western and Gulf Arab states that are alarmed by the Tehran-backed group’s influence in Beirut.
    Nasrallah said that while Hezbollah backed the cabinet, it was not “Hezbollah’s government,” adding that opponents who described the cabinet that way were making it more difficult to combat the crisis and damaging Lebanon’s international ties.
    Lebanon last week asked the International Monetary Fund for technical assistance on dealing with the economic crisis.
    Speaking in Dubai, IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva said Lebanon needed urgent and deep structural reforms.    “We are sending a small team to Lebanon …"    “We’ll do our best to give a diagnostics recommendation on measures to take but the taking is in the hands of Lebanon,” she said.
(Reporting by Tom Perry and Laila Bassam in Beirut, Ghaida Ghantous and Davide Barbuscia in Dubai; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Peter Graff)

2/16/2020 Oman sees biggest Gulf clash risk in Strait of Hormuz
FILE PHOTO: A U.S sailor keeps watch from the captain's bridge onboard the USS John C. Stennis as it makes its
way to the Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz, December 21, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed/File Photo
    MUNICH (Reuters) – The risk of a military confrontation is higher in the Strait of Hormuz than anywhere else in the Gulf region, Oman’s foreign minister said, due in part to the growing number of military vessels from different countries that are guarding it.
    The waterway between Iran and Oman – 33 km (21 miles) wide at its narrowest point – is the conduit for some 30% of all crude and other oil liquids traded by sea.
    Friction between Iran and the West had led several nations to send task forces to guard shipping there, and Washington has blamed Tehran for attacks on international merchant vessels in or near the area, something Tehran denies.
    “There are a lot of military ships in the Hormuz (area) and our concern is there could be a mistake,” Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah said late on Saturday at the Munich Security Conference.
    That would make that area the riskiest flashpoint in the Gulf over the coming months, he added.
    Iran cannot legally close the waterway unilaterally because part of it is in Omani territorial waters.    However, ships that sail it pass through Iranian waters, which are under the responsibility of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Navy.
    Tehran has also threatened reprisals for the Jan. 3 killing of its top military commander, Qassem Soleimani, in a U.S. drone strike, though regional analysts have said that is unlikely to involve an intervention in the Strait.
    Washington, which in 2018 decided to pull out of an international nuclear deal with Iran and re-impose sanctions on it, is leading a naval mission to protect oil tankers and cargo ships that includes Britain.
    France leads a separate European mission, and Japan, Russia, South Korea and China have also sent naval assets to the region.
    There have been periodic confrontations between the Iranian Guards and the U.S. military in the Gulf in recent years.    U.S. officials have said closing the Strait would be crossing a “red line” and America would take action to reopen it.     “The only thing for Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar is the Strait of Hormuz and if it is blocked we will all be in trouble so that’s why it is important to maintain the safeguard of maritime navigation,” Kuwait’s foreign minister Sheikh Ahmad Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah told the same conference.
(Reporting by John Irish and Sabine Siebold; editing by John Stonestreet)

2/16/2020 Small rockets explode near U.S. Embassy in Baghdad by OAN Newsroom
FILE – In this Friday, Jan. 3, 2020, file photo, U.S. Embassy is seen from across
the Tigris River in Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed, File)
    Reports revealed small rockets hit near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad early Sunday. U.S. military and Iraqi officials confirmed the incident happened around 3:30 a.m. local time, but added no casualties have been reported.
    Iraqi officials said two small rockets struck within the U.S. Embassy compound, while a separate rocket exploded outside a coalition military base.
    Last week, U.S. officials reported one rocket hit an Iraqi military base in Kirkuk, hosting coalition troops.
A Hezbollah supporter holds pictures of slain Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani during a ceremony marking the
anniversary of the assassination of Hezbollah leaders, Abbas al-Moussawi, Ragheb Harb and Imad Mughniyeh and the end of a
40-day Muslim mourning period for Soleimani, in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
    There has been recent tension between Iran and President Trump’s administration these past couple of months.    This came after the U.S. killed top Iranian leader Qassem Soleimani back in Janurary, which could have led to this back and forth tension.
    Details are still underway as they look into the reasoning of the attack.    Authorities are reportedly working to determine who is responsible.

2/17/2020 Syrian forces consolidate control of Aleppo, air strikes under way
Syrian army soldiers gesture in al-Rashideen area in Aleppo province, Syria,
in this handout released by SANA on February 16, 2020. SANA/Handout via REUTERS
    BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) – The Syrian army said on Monday it had taken full control of dozens of towns in Aleppo’s northwestern countryside and it would press on with its campaign to wipe out militant groups “wherever they are found
    The advances were made after President Bashar al-Assad’s forces drove insurgents from the M5 highway linking Aleppo to Damascus, reopening the fastest route between Syria’s two biggest cities for the first time in years in a big strategic gain for Assad.
    Assad said on Monday his forces’ rapid recent gains presaged the eventual defeat of the nine-year insurgency that sought to oust him from power.    But in an appearance televised by state media, he also cautioned that the conflict was not yet over.
    “We know this liberation does not mean the end of the war or the crushing of all plots or the end of terror or the surrender of the enemy, but it definitely rubs their noses in the dirt,” Assad said.    “This is a prelude to their (opposition forces’) final defeat, sooner or later.”
    Backed by heavy Russian air strikes and aided by pro-Iranian militias, government forces have intensified since the start of the year their campaign to recapture the Aleppo countryside and parts of neighboring Idlib province in the far northwest of Syria where anti-Assad insurgents hold their last strongholds.
    Russian and government air strikes on Monday hit Darat Izza, near the Turkish border about 30 km (20 miles) north of Aleppo city, wounding several civilians and forcing two hospitals to close, according to hospital staff.
    Witnesses also reported air strikes in southern areas of Idlib province in what the opposition said was a “scorched earth policy” that has left dozens of towns and villages in ruins.
    The advances sent hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians fleeing towards the border with Turkey in the biggest single displacement of the nine-year-old war.
    The United Nations said on Monday that over 875,000 Syrians, mostly children and women, have now fled towns and villages targeted by the heavy aerial bombing campaign since Dec. 1.
    More than 40,000 have been displaced in the last four days alone from western Aleppo province, the scene of heavy fighting, said David Swanson, a U.N. spokesman.
    The offensive has also upset the fragile cooperation between Ankara and Moscow, which back opposing factions in the conflict.
    Turkey and Russia began a new round of talks in Moscow on Monday after several demands by Ankara that Assad’s forces should back down and a ceasefire be put in place.
    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Islamist militant attacks on Russian bases and Syrian positions have continued and “it is not possible to leave this unanswered.”
    “Troops from Russia and Turkey on the ground in Syria, in Idlib, are in constant contact with each other, looking at changes in the conditions.    They have a full understanding of each other,” said Lavrov.
    However, the Syrian armed forces said they would push on with what they called their “sacred and noble task to rid what remains of terrorist organizations wherever on Syria’s geography they are found.”
    Syrian forces had taken full control of dozens of towns in Aleppo’s northwestern countryside, they said in a statement.
    Syrian Transport Minister Ali Hammoud announced on Monday the reopening of Aleppo international airport with the first flight, from Damascus to Aleppo, scheduled for Wednesday and flights to Cairo to be announced within days, state news agency SANA reported.
    The pro-Damascus Al-Watan newspaper said the M5 highway, a vital artery in northern Syria, would be ready for civilian use by the end of the week.    Aleppo city, once Syria’s economic hub, was the scene of some of the most vicious fighting of the war between 2012 and 2016.
    The Syrian army has also opened the international roadway from northern Aleppo to the towns of Zahraa and Nubl toward the Turkish border, a military news service run by Lebanon’s Assad-allied pro-Damascus Hezbollah group said.
    The insurgent forces arrayed against Assad include Western-backed rebels and jihadist militants.
    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said his military will drive back Syrian forces if they do not withdraw from Idlib by the end of the month.    On Saturday, he appeared to move that date forward, saying Turkey would “handle it” before the end of the month if there was no pullback.
    Alarmed by the new refugee crisis on its border, Turkey has sent thousands of troops and hundreds of convoys of military equipment to reinforce its observation posts in Idlib, established under a 2018 de-escalation agreement with Russia.
(Reporting by Eric Knecht, Tom Perry, Khalil Ashawi and Suleiman Khalidi, additional reporting by Alexander Marrow in Moscow; Editing by Angus MacSwan/Mark Heinrich)

2/17/2020 Libya’s rival factions dig in for long conflict by Ulf Laessing, Aidan Lewis and Ayman al-Warfalli
Security forces stand guard during a celebration of the 9th anniversary of the revolution against former Libyan
leader Muammar Gaddafi at Martyrs' Square in Tripoli, Libya February 17, 2020. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny
    CAIRO/BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – Libya’s combatants are readying for a long conflict, as foreign weapons flood in, eastern factions close oil ports and rival alliances wrangle over revenues from Africa’s largest petroleum reserves.
    The moves signal deepening animosity in a war that could worsen regional instability and swell the flow of migrants from the Middle East and Africa almost a decade after Muammar Gaddafi’s fall in 2011.
    From his large villa in Libya’s east, tribal leader Sanoussi al-Zwai sees plenty more trouble ahead for the huge country, for years contested by two rival authorities in the east and west.
    He is an ally of Commander Khalifa Haftar, whose self-styled Libya National Army (LNA) also has the support of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan and Russian mercenaries as it tries to capture the capital Tripoli.
    Zwai’s tribe backs the oil port blockade, resisting calls by the United States and the United Nations to restart flows of Libya’s vital income source, which is run by Haftar’s foe, the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).
    Zwai’s price for unlocking the ports is for the GNA, based 1,000 km (620 miles) away in Tripoli, to funnel more income to his people.    If the GNA resists, he suggests there could be worse to come.
    “We are not happy with what is happening now, but we have ways to escalate if the international community does not listen to us,” said Zwai, leader of a tribe living near eastern oil facilities.
    “There will be a major escalation.    We have other things (means) to use at the time.    If it comes to it, the world knows what escalation is,” he told Reuters in the main eastern city of Benghazi, without saying what any escalation would involve.
RACING TO REARM
    The standoff over oil is only one of several factors that could prolong the almost year-long conflict over the capital, where the GNA last month secured military backing from Turkey including Turkish-backed fighters from Syria.
    The combatants are racing to rearm, receiving shipments both before and after foreign backers agreed to enforce a truce at a summit in     Germany in January.    The inflow of advanced artillery and fighters and advisers breaches pledges made in Berlin to respect an arms embargo, diplomats say.
    On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council called for a ceasefire but Russia, a Haftar backer, abstained from the vote. Diplomats took this as sign that Moscow might not be committed to a U.N.-led political mediation.
    Haftar’s forces and their foreign backers have stopped fighter jet strikes on the capital.    But Western diplomats and experts say this is not due to a genuine desire for peace but because of better air defenses supplied by Turkey.
    Until Turkey’s intervention, Tripoli officials had started to panic they might lose the capital, the diplomats said.
    Instead, Syrian fighters sent by Turkey have helped reverse small LNA gains, restoring frontlines to roughly where they settled just after the LNA attack began in April 2019.
    Estimates from diplomats in Turkey about the number of Syrian fighters vary from 1,500 to 3,000, while the number of Turkish troops was seen at between 200 to 500 including special forces, conventional troops and drone operators.
    “Both sides are preparing for the next battle,” said a Western diplomat.
    Diplomacy repeatedly founders on mutual suspicions.
    “Each time we have any kind of agreement … we always saw the same pattern,” said Taher el-Sonni, the GNA ambassador to the U.N.    “It’s more like gaining time, then (Haftar decides to) just use force.”
    Turkey has sent heavy trucks by sea, while the UAE flew in 89 shipments totaling 4,680 metric tons between Jan 12 and Feb 16, according flight tracking data and a security source.    The UAE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
CONTROL OF OIL WEALTH
    Newly-shipped big guns are already making their presence felt, as shelling from long-range artillery blamed on the LNA hit the city center for the first time this week.
    Away from the Tripoli battle, which has displaced at least 150,000 people, the conflict has shifted to the control of oil wealth. Forces allied to Haftar have kept the ports shut for a month, causing losses of some $1.4 billion.
    The blockade echoes complaints of neglect going back to Gaddafi, who punished the east for dissent in his long rule.
    The National Oil Corporation (NOC), which says it is neutral and deals with all sides in the conflict, blames the LNA for directly ordering the shutdown.
    Pressure from international powers and the United Nations has so far failed to persuade Haftar to reopen the ports and the southern El Sharara oilfield, Libya’s largest.    The veteran commander has even won some new recognition from Western countries that oil revenues need to be distributed fairly.
    A senior U.S. diplomat said it was important that oil revenues are distributed equally, something he said should be discussed in U.N.-led intra-Libyan economic talks, part of a mediation to overcome divisions.
    Neither side discloses how much it spends on the conflict.
    Diplomats say the Tripoli government is less dependent on oil than before, as up to a third of the budget is covered by a fee it levies on all private transactions involving hard currency.    Some of the Syrian fighters sent by Turkey are paid directly by Tripoli, diplomats say.
    A stalemate looms.    On Friday Haftar dashed hopes of a truce, saying there would be no peace until “militias” holding Tripoli had been defeated.    For its part, Tripoli demands the LNA pull back 1,000 km (620 miles) east, something Haftar rejects.
    “We don’t expect to reach a ceasefire unless these troops (LNA) go back where they came from,” said GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha.
(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans; Writing by Ulf Laessing, Editing by William Maclean)

2/17/2020 Snubbed by Gulf, Lebanon’s PM Diab hosts Iranian official
FILE PHOTO: Lebanon's Prime Minister Hassan Diab arrives at the presidential palace
in Baabda, Lebanon January 22, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/File Photo
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who is getting the cold shoulder from Gulf Arab states, on Monday met Iran’s parliament speaker, the first senior foreign official to visit since Diab’s government took office.
    Gulf states had long channeled funds to Beirut but have grown alarmed by the rising clout of Iran’s ally Hezbollah.
Lebanon’s rich Gulf neighbors now appear loathe to help it out of an unprecedented economic and financial crisis.
    The heavily armed Hezbollah backed Diab’s cabinet after efforts failed to strike a deal with Saad al-Hariri, a traditional Western ally who stayed out of the new government.
    The economic crisis came to a head last year as slowing capital inflows led to a liquidity crunch and protests erupted against the ruling elite.    Banks are curbing access to cash, the Lebanese pound has slumped and inflation has spiked.
    Foreign donors have said they will only help after Lebanon enacts reforms.
    However, analysts say Hezbollah’s role in forming the government, which took office last month, could impede securing Western and Gulf aid.
    Iranian speaker Ali Larijani said in a news conference that Iran stood ready to help Lebanon.
    In response to a question on whether this would close the door to any Western aid, he said: “We express our full readiness to support but we do not force this on anyone.”
    Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, said his visit may not help bolster the new Lebanese government’s image.
    “It’s not very helpful at this stage as Lebanon seeks foreign aid and a bailout and the help of Gulf Arab states.    This is the not message you want to send,” he said.
    Diab has said his first trip abroad would be to the Arab region, particularly the Gulf monarchies.    But none of them have officially commented on the government nor extended public invitations to Diab.
    An Arab diplomat in the Gulf said only Qatar had invited Diab to visit so far.    “No other government in the Gulf will invite him,” the diplomat said.
    Qatar did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether it had sent an invitation.
    Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s office said he received an invitation to Tehran during his meeting with Larijani on Monday.
    Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Sunday that the cabinet was not “Hezbollah’s government” and that opponents who described it that way were damaging Lebanon’s ties to foreign states and making it harder to combat the crisis.
    A team of IMF experts will begin consultations with Lebanon’s government in Beirut on Thursday, a source familiar with the matter said.    The heavily indebted state formally requested the Fund’s technical help last week.
    On the parallel market – now the main source of hard currency – the price of U.S. dollars hovered around 2,400 Lebanese pounds on Monday, 60% beyond the official peg of 1,507.5 in place since 1997.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis; Editing by Alison Williams)

2/18/2020 Netanyahu’s trial to begin on March 17: Israeli Justice Ministry
FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet
meeting in Jerusalem February 16, 2020. Gali Tibbon/Pool via REUTERS
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial will start on March 17, two weeks after Israel holds its third national election in less than a year, the Justice Ministry said on Tuesday.
    Netanyahu, the first sitting Israeli prime minister to be charged with a crime, has denied any wrongdoing in the three corruption cases against him.
    In addition to his legal battle, Netanyahu, who heads the right-wing Likud party, is fighting for his political life in a March 2 election, after inconclusive ballots in April and September.
    In a statement, the ministry said Netanyahu, in power for the past decade and Israel’s longest-serving leader, will be required to attend the Jerusalem District Court for the first session to hear an indictment against him. A three-judge panel will hear the case.
    Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing in three corruption cases.    Charges, which were formally filed with the court three weeks ago, include bribery, breach of trust and fraud.
    Netanyahu, 70, is accused of wrongfully accepting $264,000 worth of gifts, which prosecutors said included cigars and champagne, from tycoons, and of dispensing regulatory favours in alleged bids for improved coverage by a popular news website.    He could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of bribery and a maximum three-year term for fraud and breach of trust.
(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Rami Ayyub and Alex Richardson)

2/18/2020 Palestinians channel protests through dawn prayers by Stephen Farrell and Ali Sawafta
Palestinians perform the Fajr (Dawn) prayers outside Al-Nasir mosque in Nablus, in the Israeli-occupied
West Bank February 14, 2020. Picture taken February 14, 2020. REUTERS/Raneen Sawafta
    NABLUS (Reuters) – Before sunrise, thousands of Palestinians streamed toward the mosque in Nablus’s Victory Square, swelling the usual crowds of morning worshippers to launch a new front in their protests against Israel and the United States.
    The scene has been repeated elsewhere in the West Bank, where people have begun turning out for early prayers in unprecedented numbers, forsaking the usual protest sites where they risk arrest and channeling their anger into a mass expression of faith.
    “This is the most peaceful way to get the message out,” said restaurant owner Saif Abu Baker, as the Nablus crowds spilled out of the mosque into surrounding alleyways and courtyards.
Political slogans including “For the sake of God, we have risen up” echoed through Nablus’s Old City after the calls from the muezzin and the murmured recitations of the faithful.
    “I would hope that it is a new form of channeling the way the message is being sent out there,” said Abu Baker.    “Because we have tried protesting and it did not work because we don’t have enough power.    It’s the safer way for everyone.”
    Much of the crowd’s message at Friday’s fajr (dawn) prayers – the day when most people turn out – was a rejection of the perceived pro-Israel bias of U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan.
    There have only been small regular street rallies since that plan was launched last week.    Few have responded to calls by President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority for ‘Days of Rage’.
    Instead many have begun heeding calls on Facebook and other social media sites to attend what is becoming known as the ‘Great Fajr Campaign’ – described as a show of solidarity against Trump and what they see as Israeli threats to Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem and Hebron.    Those two cities have also seen larger turnouts in the past few weeks.
    The first calls for a surge in attendance were from Fatah, Abbas’s nationalist political faction that dominates the Palestine Liberation Organization.
    Numbers grew after the campaign gained support from the Islamist group Hamas, which holds sway in mosques, especially in cities where it has a sizeable following.
KNIGHTS OF THE DAWN
    Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum, in Gaza, told Reuters the campaign was a bid to alert Palestinians to the Trump plan, and to Israel’s plans to annex its West Bank settlements.
    In Nablus – where crowds surged to several thousand on Friday, from around 2,000 the week before – worshippers insisted there was no single group behind the drive, describing it as a grassroots movement still finding its feet.
    But the streets echoed with chants popular at Hamas rallies, including: “A nation with the leadership of Muhammad will not be defeated.”
    The event appeared to be organized – extra prayer carpets were rolled out, food and water were available in abundance and the gathering was supervised by stewards wearing fluorescent jackets proclaiming them ‘Knights of the Dawn,’ and bearing the stenciled image of the nearby al-Nasr (Victory) mosque.
    The crowds have been much smaller than the numbers that attended the Great March of Return protests at the Gaza border fence when that campaign started nearly two years ago.
    In those Gaza demonstrations, 215 Palestinians were killed and several thousand injured in confrontations with Israeli troops.    One Israeli soldier was killed by a Palestinian sniper.
    In Nablus the crowds at dawn prayers have been peaceful, with little sign of any heightened security.
    Hani Al-Masri, a Palestinian political analyst, said the campaign reflected Hamas’s cautious approach to operating in the West Bank, where, unlike Gaza, it faces Israeli troops and Palestinian Authority forces intent on stopping Hamas from inflaming the streets and seizing control.
    Hamas’s organization in the West Bank is not in good shape because of crackdowns by the Palestinian Authority and by Israel,” he said.
    “Fajr prayers is the most that Hamas can do.”
    Asked whether Israel was aware of the enlarged dawn prayer meetings, an Israeli military spokesman and the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency had no immediate comment.
(Stephen Farrell reported from Nablus and Ali Sawafta from Ramallah. Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Dan Williams in Jerusalem. Editing by Andrew Heavens)

2/18/2018 Israel hopes Germany, other ICC members will help stave off Palestinian investigation by Dan Williams and Stephanie van den Berg
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem February 16, 2020. Gali Tibbon/Pool via REUTERS
(This February 16 story changes “thousands of killings” to “reports of more than 200 killings and thousands of injuries” and changes December to January in paragraph 2)
    JERUSALEM/THE HAGUE (Reuters) – Israel’s prime minister on Sunday hailed what he called efforts by friendly states to stop the International Criminal Court opening an investigation into alleged war crimes against Palestinians.
    The court’s chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said in January there was enough evidence for an investigation into reports of more than 200 killings and thousands of injuries.    She has asked the court to rule on whether it had the jurisdiction over the Palestinian territories.
    Brazil, Hungary, Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic and Australia have asked the court over the past two weeks to let them file “amicus brief” opinions on the case, ICC records show.
    Some, including Germany, said they would argue the court’s jurisdiction did not extend to the Palestinian territories.     Brazil said it would argue that the Israeli-Palestinian crisis should be resolved through political dialogue, not a court ruling.
    Netanyahu told his cabinet countries had responded to Israeli lobbying over the case.
    “We are struggling against this (proceeding) and, at our side, I must say, are many friends around the world (which) joined the U.S. in a steadfast stand alongside Israel.”
    The Palestinians were accepted as an ICC member in 2015 after they signed the court’s founding Rome Statute, based on their United Nations “observer state” status.
    Israel and the United States, neither of them ICC members, dispute the court’s jurisdiction in the absence of a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza or East Jerusalem.
    The Organisation for Islamic Cooperation, representing 57 Muslim states, asked to file a brief, arguing that the Palestinians have sovereignty over the Palestinian territories.
    The Palestinian Bar Association, the International Commission of Jurists and other legal and human rights organisation have also asked to filed briefs with the court to say it does have jurisdiction in this case.
    U.S.-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking stalled in 2014.    A new U.S. peace plan, unveiled by President Donald Trump last month, envisaged Israel keeping East Jerusalem and swathes of West Bank land, and was rejected by the Palestinians.
(Editing by Andrew Heavens)

2/18/2020 IDF foils Hamas phone hacking scheme against Israeli soldiers by OAN Newsroom
Masked Hamas militants wave their green flags during a protest against the Mideast plan announced by U.S. President
Donald Trump, after the Friday prayer at the main road in Gaza City, Friday, Feb. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
    Israeli Intelligence thwarted a plot from Hamas after the group attempted to hack Israeli soldiers’ phones via social media.
    On Monday, the Israeli Defense Forces tweeted “hashtag catfish caught” on a photo of an attractive young woman, which IDF officials said is an example of a decoy Hamas used to lure soldiers.
    The hacking scheme planned to get soldiers to start friendships with the women who had real social media profiles, but would eventually lead them to downloading apps containing malware.
    Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said he now knows how clever the Hamas group has recently become.
    “We see that the level of social engineering is much higher and much more advanced and sophisticated when compared to previous attempts done by Hamas,” stated Conricus.    “We see that they’re of course learning and upping their game.”
    A military official stated while dozens of phones were hacked, they do not believe any military intelligence was leaked as the scheme was detected early on.

2/18/2020 Tripoli government suspends Libya talks after Haftar attacks Tripoli port by Ahmed Elumami and Ulf Laessing
A smoke rises from a port of Tripoli after being attacked in Tripoli, Libya February 18, 2020. REUTERS/Ahmed Elumami
    TRIPOLI/CAIRO (Reuters) – Libya’s internationally recognized government on Tuesday suspended talks hosted by the United Nations to halt warfare over the capital after eastern forces shelled Tripoli’s port, killing three people and almost hitting a highly explosive gas tanker.
    The U.N. has been hosting in Geneva ceasefire talks between officers from the Tripoli government and the eastern-based Libya National Army (LNA), led by commander Khalifa Haftar.    The two factions have been trying to take the capital in a near year-long campaign, displacing at least 150,000 people.
    The talks had been agreed by foreign powers backing rival parties at a summit in Germany a month ago, an event that has not halted a war cutting oil exports by 1 million barrels a day.
    Western countries have largely watched passively as Libya fell apart since helping remove Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, opening the door for regional powers such as the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Turkey to back rival camps fighting for control.
    The LNA on Tuesday shelled Tripoli port, saying first it had attacked a Turkish vessel bringing weapons but saying later it had hit an arms depot.    Three civilians were killed and five wounded, the Tripoli forces said.
    The attack came just as the U.S. ambassador Richard Norland was visiting Haftar in the first trip of a U.S. envoy to eastern Libya since the killing of the U.S. ambassador in a raid blamed on an Islamist militia in 2012.
    In response to the LNA attack, the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord said in a statement it suspended its participation in ceasefire talks “until firm responses are taken against the attacker, and we will respond firmly to the attack in appropriate timing.”
    “Negotiations don’t mean anything without permanent ceasefire guarantees returning the displaced people and the security of the capital and the other cities,” it added.
    Tripoli port is a major gateway for food, fuel, wheat and other imports for the capital, which is home to the internationally recognized government.    Heavy artillery fire could be heard at night.
PORT STRIKE
    State oil firm NOC said it had urgently evacuated all fuel tankers from the port after a missile struck meters away “from a highly explosive liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) tanker discharging in the port.”
    “The city does not have operational fuel storage facilities … the consequences will be immediate; hospitals, schools, power stations and other vital services will be disrupted,” NOC Chairman Mustafa Sanalla said in a statement.
    Since January, Turkey has sent several ships carrying arms and heavy trucks to Tripoli and Misrata, another western port allied to the Tripoli government, diplomats say.    It has also sent fighters from Syria’s civil war to defend Tripoli.
    The LNA is allied to a parallel government in eastern Libya supported by the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Russian mercenaries. France has also given some support.
    Eastern ports and airports are out of range of the Tripoli forces and its Turkish drones.
    Tuesday’s attack on the port unfolded as officers from the Tripoli forces and the LNA held a second round of indirect talks in Geneva to establish a permanent ceasefire. Both sides refused again to sit in the same room, U.N. Libya envoy Ghassan Salame said.
    Salame added that he had received conditions from tribesmen allied to eastern forces to lift a blockade of eastern oil export ports, but said these were quite general and would have to be fleshed out in more U.N.-led talks in Geneva next week.
(Reporting by Ahmed Elumami, Emma Farge, Ulf Laessing, Hani Amara, Ayman al-Warfalli and Hesham Abdul Khalek; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Giles Elgood and Lisa Shumaker)

2/19/2020 Turkey’s Erdogan says Syria talks with Russia unsatisfactory, offensive ‘matter of time’
FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan talks to phone as he addresses his ruling AK Party members
in Istanbul, Turkey, February 15, 2020. Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS
THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday talks with Russia on the conflict in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province were far from meeting Turkey’s demands and he said a military operation there was a “matter of time.”
    Turkey and Russia back opposing sides in the nine-year-old Syrian conflict but have collaborated toward finding a political solution to end it.
    However, a Syrian government offensive in Idlib has upset the fragile cooperation after 13 Turkish troops were killed in Syrian attacks earlier this month.
    Ankara has urged Moscow, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to stop the attacks in Idlib, saying the offensive was causing a migrant wave toward Turkey, which currently hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees.
    Erdogan has previously said Turkey may use military force to drive back Syrian forces unless they pull back by the end of the month.
    Speaking to lawmakers from his ruling AK Party, Erdogan said Turkey was determined to make Idlib a secure zone “no matter the cost,” even as talks continue with Russia. Several rounds of talks with Moscow had failed to reach an agreement, he said.
    “We are entering the last days for the (Syrian) regime to stop its hostility in Idlib.    We are making our final warnings,” Erdogan said.    “We did not reach the desired results in our talks (with Russia).    The talks will continue, but it is true that we are far from meeting our demands at the table,” he said.
    “Turkey has made every preparation to carry out its own operational plans.    I say that we can come at any point.    In other words, the Idlib offensive is only a matter of time.”
    Ankara and Moscow signed an agreement in 2018 to establish a de-escalation zone in Idlib, allowing both sides to also set up military observation posts in the region.    Since the escalation of violence in the region, both sides have accused each other of flouting the agreement.
    Turkish and Russian officials held several rounds of talks in Ankara and Moscow.    The foreign ministers Turkey and Russia also met at the weekend, but failed to find a solution.    Erdogan has said Turkey has given the Syrian forces until the end of February to withdraw from Idlib.
    “We will not leave Idlib to the (Syrian) regime, which does not understand our country’s determination, and to those encouraging it,” he said.
(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay; Writing by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

2/19/2020 Erdogan says third Turkish drill ship to begin operations in 2020
FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of his ruling AK Party during a meeting
at the Parliament in Ankara, Turkey, February 5, 2020. Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey has purchased its third offshore drilling ship which will arrive in Turkey next month, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday, adding that the ship will begin operations in 2020.
    Speaking to lawmakers from his ruling AK Party in Ankara, Erdogan said the new ship was an “ultra maritime drill ship” that can drill down to 11,400 meters, but did not specify where the ship would operate.
(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay; Editing by Daren Butler)

2/19/2020 Outgoing Iraqi PM warns he will walk away if successor’s government is not approved soon
FILE PHOTO: Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi speaks during a symbolic funeral ceremony of Major General Ali al-Lami, who commands
the Iraqi Federal Police's Fourth Division, who was killed in Salahuddin, in Baghdad, Iraq October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily
    (Reuters) – Iraq’s outgoing prime minister urged political leaders on Wednesday to quickly approve his designated successor’s cabinet and warned he would walk away from his caretaker post if they do not do so by March 2.
    Facing a wave of protests and civil unrest that has claimed the life of almost 500 people since Oct. 1, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi quit in November. He has stayed on as a caretaker, but says now he’s ready to leave, which would create an unprecedented political vacuum at the top of the government.
    “It would not be correct or appropriate for me to remain in power after March 2, and I will have no recourse but to implement the text of the constitution and the cabinet’s internal bylaws,” said Abdul Mahdi, who has already stopped chairing weekly cabinet meetings.
    It took Iraq’s political leadership until Feb. 1 to agree on Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi to replace Abdul Mahdi, missing a constitutional deadline to appoint one within 15 days of his resignation.
    Allawi now takes over a government tasked with organizing early elections.    The constitution gives him 30 days — until March 2 — to present a cabinet to parliament for approval.
    He has made little progress as rival political factions squabble over ministerial portfolios.    But on Saturday he said he would form a government within the coming week.
(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein)

2/19/2020 UN envoy promotes next steps in Libya peace plan by OAN Newsroom
Ghassan Salame, Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya,
talks at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)
    The head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya recently advocated for the next steps to maintain the country’s fragile ceasefire.     The comments by Ghassan Salame came as representatives of the country’s warring parties spoke with UN officials in Switzerland on Tuesday.
    Salame, also the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General, described the ongoing efforts built on three separate tracks of economic, military and political negotiations.
    The UN-brokered Libyan peace process has continued to reach its goals despite ceasefire violations by both sides.    This comes as the Italian and Russian foreign ministers intend to enforce and monitor an international arms embargo on Libya.
    “I thank Russia for the diplomatic efforts they made to try to find, at least, a ceasefire in Libya,” stated Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio.    “And if we want to achieve the objective of a ceasefire in Libya — to stop this war which is not a civil war, but a proxy war — we have to stop the arrival of arms.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, and his Italian counterpart Luigi di Maio,
give a joint press conference, in Rome, Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
    Libya has been embroiled in war since 2011, which has placed forces of Gen. Khalifa Haftar in the West against the Tripoli-based government of the prime minister.

2/19/2020 Tunisia names new government, avoids risk of early election by Tarek Amara
FILE PHOTO: Tunisian Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh (C) leaves for a meeting with Tunisian President
Kais Saied (not pictured) in Tunis, Tunisia February 15, 2020. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi
    TUNIS (Reuters) – Tunisia’s designated Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh? ?on Wednedsay named a new coalition government? ?after reaching an agreement with Ennahda moderate Islamist Party, the biggest power in Parliament, ending an ongoing political crisis of four months.
    With this agreement, the proposed government will likely win a confidence vote in Parliament in coming days and the country will avoid an early election.
    Fakhfakh proposed the line-up of a new government on Saturday and then said negotiations would continue after Ennahda party sought some changes.
    President Kais Saied said on Monday he would dissolve parliament and call for an early election if the new government failed to win a parliamentary confidence vote.
    Fakhfakh submitted a list of cabinet nominees to President Saied, with Nizar Yaich as finance minister, Nourredine Erray as foreign minister and Imed Hazgui as defence minister.
    The proposed government must be approved by the deeply fragmented parliament in next days.
    Among the other proposed ministers in his cabinet are Mongi Marzouk as energy minister, Mohamed Ali Toumi as tourism minister and Thouraya Jribi as Justice minister.
    Fakhfakh previously said he wants a government based on the values of the 2011 revolution that would address unemployment and improve public services.
    The cabinet proposed include Ennahda, Tahya Tounes, Achaab , Attayar, El Badil parties and independents.
    Tunisia faces a series of long-term economic challenges which threaten to undermine public trust in the young democracy, and which demand political decisions that could be unpopular.
    Tunisian officials said the IMF is waiting for the new government to start talks over a sixth review of its IMF loan program.    Tunisia needs to borrow about $3 billion internationally in 2020 to meet spending commitments.
    Since the 2011 revolution, unemployment has been high and growth low, while the government has sunk further into debt with a series of big budget deficits that foreign lenders demand it bring under control.
    Elections in September and October returned Saied, a political independent, as president, and a parliament in which Ennahda held fewer than a quarter of the seats.

2/19/2020 Libya government, Haftar’s forces dim hopes of salvaging U.N. ceasefire talks by Ahmed Elumami and Ayman al-Warfalli
A damaged container is seen at Tripoli port after an attack, Libya February 19, 2020. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny
    TRIPOLI/BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – Libya’s internationally recognised leader on Wednesday dashed hopes of quickly reviving U.N. ceasefire negotiations after his side withdrew, saying talk of them resuming had been overtaken by events as eastern forces continue to shell the capital.
    The eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) of Khalifa Haftar, which shelled on Tuesday the port of the capital held by the recognized government, also ruled out a truce with “terrorists” and “Turkish invaders,” suggesting a near year-long battle will continue.
    The port is a major entry gate for wheat, fuel and food imports but also an arrival point for Turkish vessels sending arms, drones, trucks and soldiers to help Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj fend off the LNA, which is supported by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan and Russian mercenaries.
    The conflict has cut oil exports by 1 million barrels a day and could deepen a security vacuum that would be exploited by Islamist militants and human traffickers dispatching migrants by boat to Europe.
    The Tripoli government left the ceasefire talks late on Tuesday and a defiant Serraj, visiting the shelled port on Wednesday, rebuffed calls to return immediately to the negotiation table.
    “There must first be a strong signal from all international players who are trying to talk to us,” he told reporters, saying this also applied to parallel discussions focused on political and economic issues.
    He suggested fighting was likely to continue: “We have an even stronger signal than that, which is defending our people.”
    Photographs showed containers in the port with large black holes in them.    The National Oil Corporation and United Nations said shells had almost hit a highly explosive gas tanker.
    Nearly nine years after rebel fighters backed by NATO air strikes overthrew dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya still has no central authority.    The streets are controlled by armed factions, with rival governments based in Tripoli and the east.
    “We really want a ceasefire and serious negotiations to end the war for the sake of all Libyans,” Jalal al-Bosairi, a 45-year-old businessman, said in a Tripoli cafe.
    Since the LNA marched on Tripoli nearly a year ago, fighting has displaced 150,000 people.
DIFFICULT TRUCE TALKS
    A second round of talks involving military officers of both sides began in Geneva on Tuesday following a summit in Germany a month ago involving countries with major stakes in the conflict.
    U.N. Libya envoy Ghassan Salame was trying to convince the Tripoli delegation to stay in Geneva and resume indirect talks earlier on Wednesday, the United Nations confirmed.
    “Delegations are still here (in Geneva) and Dr. Salame has a meeting today with the head of the GNA delegation,” said Jean El Alam, spokesman for the United Nations Libya mission, referring to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord.
    The Geneva meetings have so far been held in different rooms.    Another round of political talks is scheduled next week in Geneva.
    LNA spokesman Ahmed Mismari said his forces had decided to send a delegation to Geneva.    But he added: “There will be no peace, talks or ceasefire with terrorists and Turkish invaders.”
    Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu met with Haftar and they agreed a political settlement is the only option for Libya, RIA news agency said on Wednesday.
    The latest attack on Tripoli is part of an emerging pattern amounting to an apparent power play by Haftar.
    His forces last month shut down Libya’s main oil ports as European and Arab powers and the United States were meeting with his supporters in Berlin to try to halt the Tripoli fighting.
    LNA supply routes are less exposed than those of the GNA as eastern airports and seaports are out of range of the Turkish combat drones used by the Tripoli government.
    In contrast, the LNA uses UAE-supplied drones which cover the whole country, although there have been no air strikes for weeks as Turkey has installed sophisticated defences.
(Reporting by Emma Farge, Ahmed Elumami, Alaa Swilam, Ulf Laessing, Omar Fahmy, Ayman Salhi and Ayman al-Warfalli; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Lisa Shumaker)

2/19/2020 No place to go: Syrian families fleeing Idlib stranded on the roads by Khalil Ashawi
Internally displaced people sit outside tents at a makeshift camp in Azaz, Syria February 19, 2020. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
    AZAZ, Syria (Reuters) – Abu Abdallah has been on the road for days.    After his family fled the air strikes pounding Idlib, they moved from one village to another in northwest Syria but have yet to find refuge.
    “I don’t know where to take them,” the 49-year-old farmer said from his tractor on the side of a road in Azaz town, where he is stranded with his wife, four children and 20 other relatives."    “This is the first time I flee my hometown. God knows where we will go.”
    The family is part of the biggest exodus of Syria’s nine-year war.
    Nearly a million people, mostly women and children, are trying to escape the latest wave of violence in the Idlib region, overwhelming aid agencies.
    Many have nowhere to go, trapped between the fighting and the closed-off Turkish border.    Families sleep outside in streets and olive groves, burning garbage to stay warm. Some children have died from the cold.
    Some of the people fleeing Idlib have already been displaced more than once, after fleeing battles in other parts of Syria earlier in the conflict.
    The United Nations said on Tuesday that government warplanes had struck hospitals and refugee camps as the Syrian army, with Russian backing, gains ground in the northwest, the country’s last rebel stronghold.
    Before she escaped Idlib in recent days, Aziza Hadaja, 70, locked her front door.
    It is the third time she has been uprooted, but in the past, she would go back home.    This time, after government forces marched into her village, she does not know when or if she will return.
    Along with her children and grandchildren, Hadaja is now sheltering in a makeshift tent in a field on the road out of Azaz further north.
    “We came out with the clothes on our backs,” she said.    “We didn’t bring a thing.”
(Reporting by Khalil Ashawi in Syria; Writing by Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Alex Richardson)

2/20/2020 ‘Feels like prison’: Palestinian family cut off from West Bank village by Israeli barrier by Mustafa Abu Ganeyeh
Palestinian man Omar Hajajla, who is cut off with his family from the rest of their village by the Israeli wall, looks out of his house at
the Israeli settlement of Gilo, in Al-Walaja village near Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank February 18, 2020. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma
    AL-WALAJA, West Bank (Reuters) – Omar Hajajla may have a private gateway to his home in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, but it is hardly a sign of luxury: it runs beneath an Israeli barrier that cuts him and his family off from the rest of their nearby Palestinian village.
    Israel began building its West Bank barrier in 2002 at the height of a Palestinian uprising, saying it aimed to stop attacks by bombers and gunmen in its cities.
    But the barrier’s circuitous route along and through the West Bank – Palestinians call it a land grab – slices through some Palestinian communities.
    In Hajajla’s case, it boxed him off from his village of Al-Walaja, near Bethlehem, part of West Bank territory Israel captured in a 1967 war.
    “Prison may be better than this, because even though I am at home, it feels like prison,” said Hajajla, 53, who lives in the house with his wife and three children.
    After appealing to Israel’s Supreme Court, Hajajla in 2013 reached a settlement under which the Israeli Defense Ministry built a tunnel and a remote-operated gate under the barrier, he said, giving his family access to their village.
    That underground bypass road, strewn with graffiti, is now the sole entrance to Hajajla’s home.
    The family needs permission from Israel’s military to use their remote control to open the gate and take their children to school or go to the grocery store, Hajajla says.
    Israel could take away his remote access if he violates a series of conditions, Hajajla says, including having guests over without coordinating their visit in advance with the military.
    “My wife and I try as much as we can to keep our life normal,” Hajajla said.    “We try to give our kids a break from this routine, to teach them that this is our land, our country, and we will never let it slip away.”
    U.S.-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking stalled in 2014.    A new U.S. peace plan, unveiled by President Donald Trump last month, envisaged Israel keeping East Jerusalem and swathes of West Bank land, and was rejected by the Palestinians.
(Reporting by Mustafa Abu Ganeyeh; Writing by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Giles Elgood)

2/202020 Israel, Palestinian Authority agree to end trade dispute: officials
FILE PHOTO: A labourer feeds calves in their shed at a farm in Be'er Tuvia, southern
Israel February 5, 2020. Picture taken February 5, 2020. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo
    JERUSALEM/RAMALLAH (Reuters) – Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have reached an agreement to end a five-month long trade dispute, officials said on Thursday.
    The dispute, which opened a new front in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, began in September when the PA announced a boycott of Israel calves.    The Authority exercises limited self-rule in the occupied West Bank under interim peace deals.
    In response to the boycott, Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett in January announced a halt to all agricultural imports from the PA, which in turn prompted the Authority to end imports of Israeli agricultural products.
    Palestinians in the West Bank send over two-thirds of their farming exports to Israel, whose agriculture ministry says the calves boycott affected around 400 Israeli cattle breeders, costing them a total of $70 million since October.
    A final tit-for-tat move in the trade dispute came on Feb. 8, when Israel’s defense ministry banned all Palestinian exports through Jordan, apparently in an effort to entice the PA to lift its ban on Israeli calves.
    In a statement announcing the agreement, Israel’s defense ministry said that “the calf boycott has been lifted, (and) trade with the PA will be restored accordingly.”
    The actions of the PA had in part reflected greater efforts to end what it sees as over-dependence on Israeli markets.    The PA prime minister’s office said in a statement that under the agreement Israel would allow the PA to begin the “direct import of livestock, including calves, from all countries around the world without obstacles.”
    The trade dispute had threatened to fray trade links that have generally held strong since the two sides signed the interim peace accords in the 1990s, even weathering the collapse in 2014 of peace talks.
    Bilateral tensions have been further fueled by the announcement last month of U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan and an ensuing string of violent incidents in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians have rejected the proposal as favoring Israel.
(Reporting by Ali Sawafta and Dan Williams, Writing by Rami Ayyub, Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Toby Chopra)

2/20/2020 Pompeo in Saudi Arabia to talk Iran, economy and human rights
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia February 20, 2020.
Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
    RIYADH (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to discuss regional security, namely Iran, after the U.S. killing last month of a top Iranian general pushed the oil-producing region closer to an all-out war.
    In meetings with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the next two days, Pompeo will also raise economic and human rights issues like the case of a Saudi-American physician who remains on trial after nearly two years in detention, he told reporters traveling with him.
    Saudi Arabia has backed the Trump administration’s efforts to counter Iran but cautioned against military action after a series of strikes last year damaged its oil facilities.    Riyadh blamed the attacks on Tehran, which denies responsibility.
    The United States and Iran backed off from intensified conflict last month after a U.S. air strike in Iraq killed Qassem Soleimani and Tehran retaliated with missile strikes on U.S. bases that injured more than 100 troops.
    “We are not rushed, the pressure campaign continues.    It’s not just an economic pressure campaign… It’s isolation through diplomacy as well,” Pompeo said before his flight to Riyadh.
    “(In Riyadh) we’ll spend a lot of time talking about the security issues — the threats from Islamic Republic of Iran in particular, but we’ll talk about a broad range of things.”
    Saudi Arabia has come in for intense criticism from Western governments and the U.S. Congress over its devastating five-year war in Yemen as well as the detention of prominent women activists and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul embassy in 2018.
    Five Democratic senators, the chairman of the House foreign affairs committee and the Republican ranking member have urged Pompeo to press for a resolution to the court case of dual national Walid Fitaihi, who was arrested in 2017 under an anti-corruption campaign, and lift travel bans on his family.
    Pompeo’s trip comes three weeks after President Donald Trump unveiled his long-awaited Middle East peace plan, which the Palestinians rejected outright.
    Saudi Arabia expressed support for direct peace negotiations under U.S. auspices while reiterating unwavering commitment to the Palestinian cause.
(Reporting by Stephen Kalin and Lisa Barrington; Editing by Toby Chopra)

2/20/2020 Lebanon’s Aoun vows accountability over financial crisis: Twitter
Lebanon's President Michel Aoun attends the cabinet meeting at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon January 22, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese President Michel Aoun said on Thursday measures would be taken to hold to account all those who contributed to Lebanon’s financial crisis through illegal actions be they transfers abroad, manipulation of Eurobonds or other acts.
    “There is information that we are still in need of with regards to the banking situation.    There are measures that we will take to hold to account all who participated in bringing the crisis to where it is,” Aoun said, according to his Twitter account.
(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Toby Chopra)

2/20/2020 Turkey says talks with Russia on Syria warning but more needed
FILE PHOTO: Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu speaks during a news conference
in Tirana, Albania, February 12, 2020. Turkish Foreign Ministry/Handout via REUTERS
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday there was some rapprochement with Russia in talks about Syria’s Idlib region, where Ankara has threatened to mount an offensive, but added that discussions were not at a desired level yet.
    President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday that a Turkish military operation in Idlib to drive back a Russian-led Syrian government offensive that has displaced nearly a million people was a “matter of time” after talks with Moscow failed to reach a solution.
    Speaking to broadcaster TRT Haber, Cavusoglu said Turkey and Russia would intensify their talks on Idlib in the coming days, adding that Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin may discuss the issue as well.
(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Jonathan Spicer)

2/20/2020 Turkey says its guarantees in Libya depend on durable ceasefire by Ece Toksabay
FILE PHOTO: Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu speaks during a joint news conference following talks with
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, Russia January 13, 2020. Pavel Golovkin/Pool via REUTERS
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey’s guarantees in Libya are dependent on a truce between warring sides being upheld, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday, adding that Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar was violating the ceasefire.
    Turkey backs Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and has signed a military cooperation agreement to help it repel an offensive by Haftar’s forces in the country’s east.    World powers agreed at a summit last month to halt hostilities in Libya while a political process is underway.
    Speaking to state broadcaster TRT Haber, Cavusoglu said the “international system” had failed to stop clashes in Libya and that there was no determination. He said a political process in Libya could not move forward while Haftar’s attacks continue.
(Reporting by Ece Toksabay and Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Jonathan Spicer)

2/20/2020 Algeria ready to mediate in Libya ceasefire talks: president to paper
FILE PHOTO: Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune arrives for the opening of the 33rd Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the
Heads of State and the Government of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, February 9, 2020. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri
    PARIS (Reuters) – Algeria is ready to act as a mediator in any Libya ceasefire talks, its president Abdelmadjid Tebboune told French newspaper Le Figaro in an interview published on Thursday.
    “If we are given a mandate by the U.N. Security Council, we are capable of quickly bringing peace to Libya since Algeria is a sincere and credible mediator, and one that is accepted by all Libyan tribes,” he told Le Figaro, in an interview aimed at reaching Algeria’s large expatriate population in France.
    Nearly nine years after rebel fighters backed by NATO air strikes overthrew late dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya still has no nationally recognized central authority.
    On Wednesday, its internationally acknowledged leader dashed hopes of a quick revival of U.N. ceasefire negotiations after his side withdrew from them as eastern forces shelled the capital.
(Reporting by Marine Pennetier; editing by John Stonestreet)

2/20/2020 Netanyahu announces plans to build 3K new settler homes near East Jerusalem by OAN Newsroom
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the area where a new neighborhood is to be built in the
Israeli West Bank Israeli settlement of Har Homa, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. (Debbie Hill/Pool via AP)
    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced a new plan to build thousands of homes for Jewish settlers near East Jerusalem.    He made the announcement on Thursday while campaigning for the region’s upcoming general election.
    Palestinians have condemned the move, calling it another blow to their hopes for an independent state. Despite this objection, Netanyahu approved the construction and predicted the population in the area will continue to grow.
    “Today, I announce the establishment of Har Homa, a neighborhood where we will build 2,200 housing units,” stated the prime minister.    “Har Homa will be a neighborhood of 50,000 residents, like a medium-size city in Israel.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, stands with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon, left, as he announces a new
neighborhood is to be built in the Israeli West Bank Israeli settlement of Har Homa, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. (Debbie Hill/Pool via AP)
    According the Netanyahu, around 1,000 housing units will be built for Arabs in a nearby neighborhood as part of a solution to the housing shortage in the area.

2/20/2020 Netanyahu announces plans for 3,000 new settler homes near East Jerusalem
FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to supporters at a Likud party rally as he campaigns
ahead of the upcoming elections, in Rishon Lezion near Tel Aviv, Israel February 18, 2020. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
    JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday he was reviving a plan for the construction of 3,000 new settler homes near East Jerusalem, a project effectively frozen after international opposition.
    Netanyahu’s announcement, during an election campaign in which he has sought to shore up support from pro-settlement voters, was condemned by the Palestinians as another blow to their hopes for an independent state.
    He has pledged to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and the area’s Jordan Valley as part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan presented by U.S. President Donald Trump last month. Palestinians have rejected Trump’s blueprint as biased towards Israel.
    Opponents of the project, in the Givat Hamatos area adjacent to the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa, said it would sever parts of East Jerusalem from the nearby Palestinian town of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.
    Construction of 2,610 housing units for Jews in Givat Hamatos was approved by a Jerusalem planning committee in 2014.    The Israeli government effectively put the project on hold after the United States and the European Union criticized the plan.
    Visiting an area overlooking the Israeli settlement of Har Homa on the outskirts of Jerusalem on Thursday, Netanyahu said in a video he posted on social media: “Today I approved the construction in Givat Hamatos” of 3,000 homes for Jews, of which 1,000 would be marketed soon.
    He said some 1,000 housing units would be built for Arabs in Beit Safafa.    No construction date was announced for either area.
    In a separate project, Netanyahu said another 2,200 housing units would be built in Har Homa, located like Givat Hamatos in an area of the West Bank that Israel annexed to Jerusalem after the area’s capture in the 1967 Middle East war.
    “Netanyahu’s insistence on building thousands of settlement units is the systematic destruction of the two-state solution and the implementation of the Trump plan,” Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said after the Israeli leader’s announcement.
    Palestinians and much of the world view Israel’s settlements in areas seized in the 1967 conflict as illegal under international law, but the United States and Israel dispute this.
(This story adds dropped words in paragraph 4)
(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

2/20/2020 Flare-up in fighting in northwest Syria pulls in Russian, Turkish forces by Khalil Ashawi and Orhan Coskun
FILE PHOTO: An internally displaced Syrian boy walks near tents at a makeshift camp in Azaz, Syria February 20, 2020. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
    AZAZ, Syria/ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish forces and Syrian rebels fought government troops in northwest Syria on Thursday and Russian warplanes struck back in a sharp escalation of an intense battle over the last rebel bastions, Russian and Turkish officials said.
    The Turkish Defense Ministry said two of its soldiers were killed and five were wounded in Syrian government air strikes in Idlib, bringing Turkish military fatalities to 15 this month in the Idlib region.    It said more than 50 Syrian soldiers had been killed in retaliation.
    Earlier, talks between Moscow and Ankara, who back different sides in Syria’s nine-year war, had failed to reach a compromise to ease the situation and head off a direct confrontation between them in Aleppo and Idlib provinces.
    Syrian troops backed by Russian forces have been battling since December to eradicate the last rebel strongholds in the region in a war that has killed an estimated 400,000 Syrians and left much of the country in ruins.
    In Geneva, the U.N. refugee chief called for a halt to the fighting to allow hundreds of thousands of trapped and destitute civilians to move to places of safety.
    There was no end was in sight to the misery of the nearly 1 million people – most of them women and children – who have fled the fighting to seek sanctuary in the border area.
    Families are sleeping outside by roads and in olive groves, burning garbage to stay warm.    Some children have died from the cold.    Some families have at least reached tent camps for displaced people.
    “We want the whole world to see us and learn about our conditions, the children and these camps,” said Ruqyyah Omar, a woman who left Idlib and is now at a camp near Azaz, about 30 km (20 miles) northwest of Aleppo city.
    Thursday’s action came a day after Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan threatened a military operation against the Syrian government forces unless they pulled back from rebel-held areas.
    The Russian Defense Ministry said Turkey provided artillery support to the militants, wounding four Syrian soldiers.
    Russian warplanes then attacked the militants who had burst through the government positions in two areas of Idlib, allowing the Syrian army to repel them, the ministry said.
    “So as not to allow the armed groups to make it deep into Syrian territory, Russian Su-25 aircraft carried out a strike … on the armed militant groups that burst through,” it said.
    Ankara said Syrian planes had carried out the air strikes.
    Speaking in an interview recorded early on Thursday, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told CNN Turk that Ankara and Moscow were discussing the use of Syrian air space in Idlib. He said problems could be overcome if Russia “steps aside.”
    Turkey has urged its Western allies to provide “concrete support” in Idlib and Akar said that Washington could send its Patriot missile systems to Turkey to bolster its security.
    “There are air missile threats against our country and there are previous events of the sort.    In that light, there could be a Patriot system battery support here,” Akar said.
UNDER FIRE
    A rebel source told Reuters the Turkish army and rebels had mounted a joint operation to storm the town of Nairab, push the army away from the M4 highway, and relieve the encirclement of five Turkish observation posts on the outskirts of the crossroads town of Saraqeb.
    Turkish forces engaged Syrian troops on Saraqeb’s southern edge, he said.
    “The strategic goal is to reach Saraqeb city because it lies on both key highways,” Ibrahim al Idlibi, a former rebel official and activist said.    “The Turkish troops are now combing Nairab town after the Syrian forces had pulled away.”
    Turkish and Russian officials have failed to reach any compromise in talks, although Turkish officials had sounded more optimistic on Thursday prior to the flare-up on the ground.
    Various options are being discussed, including possible joint patrols in Idlib, a Turkish official said. Both Ankara and Moscow expected their presidents to “end the issue,” he added.
    Akar said Turkey would not accept any Russian proposals to move its observation posts in Idlib, but added that talks with Moscow had not reached an impasse.
    Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose family dynasty has ruled for nearly half a century, has showed no sign of letting up in the campaign to crush his foes.
    Residents and relief staff said Russian warplanes on Thursday resumed attacks on the towns of Darat Izza and Atareb in the northern corner of Aleppo province, where Turkish troops have set up a line of defense.
    The exodus of people has overwhelmed relief agencies but Turkey, struggling to cope with 3.7 million Syrian refugees inside its borders, says it can take no more.
    In Azaz, Abu Abdallah had been stranded on the road for days.    After his family fled air strikes pounding Idlib, they have yet to find refuge.    With him were his wife, four children and 20 relatives.
    “I don’t know where to take them,” the 49-year-old farmer said, sitting on his tractor.    “God knows where we will go.”
    French President Emmanuel Macron called on the U.N. Security Council and European Union to take action.
    “Today, and for several weeks now, one of the worst humanitarian dramas has been unfolding,” Macron told reporters as he arrived at an EU summit in Brussels.
    The U.N. humanitarian affairs agency OCHA said the crisis had reached a horrifying level, with displaced people crammed into a small pocket of Idlib.
    “Places previously considered safe by civilians are now coming under fire,” it said in a report.
    More than 300 people, many of them women and children, had been killed in Idlib and Aleppo due to the hostilities since the start of the year, it said.
(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay in Ankara, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Polina Ivanova in Moscow and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Alison Williams and Jonathan Oatis)

2/20/2020 Turkey will activate Russian S-400 missile systems: minister
FILE PHOTO: Turkey's Defence Minister Hulusi Akar attends a NATO defence ministers meeting
at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium February 12, 2020. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on Thursday that Turkey will activate the S-400 missile systems which it has bought from Russia and there should be “no doubt” about this.
    Akar was speaking in an interview with broadcaster CNN Turk.
(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Chris Reese)

2/20/2020 Pompeo in Saudi Arabia to talk Iran, economy and human rights
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia February 20, 2020.
Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
    RIYADH (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to discuss regional security, namely Iran, after the U.S. killing last month of a top Iranian general pushed the oil-producing region closer to an all-out war.
    In meetings with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the next two days, Pompeo will also raise economic and human rights issues like the case of a Saudi-American physician who remains on trial after nearly two years in detention, he told reporters traveling with him.
    Saudi Arabia has backed the Trump administration’s efforts to counter Iran but cautioned against military action after a series of strikes last year damaged its oil facilities.    Riyadh blamed the attacks on Tehran, which denies responsibility.
    The United States and Iran backed off from intensified conflict last month after a U.S. air strike in Iraq killed Qassem Soleimani and Tehran retaliated with missile strikes on U.S. bases that injured more than 100 troops.
    “We are not rushed, the pressure campaign continues.    It’s not just an economic pressure campaign… It’s isolation through diplomacy as well,” Pompeo said before his flight to Riyadh.
“(In Riyadh) we’ll spend a lot of time talking about the security issues — the threats from Islamic Republic of Iran in particular, but we’ll talk about a broad range of things.”
    Saudi Arabia has come in for intense criticism from Western governments and the U.S. Congress over its devastating five-year war in Yemen as well as the detention of prominent women activists and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul embassy in 2018.
    Five Democratic senators, the chairman of the House foreign affairs committee and the Republican ranking member have urged Pompeo to press for a resolution to the court case of dual national Walid Fitaihi, who was arrested in 2017 under an anti-corruption campaign, and lift travel bans on his family.
    Pompeo’s trip comes three weeks after President Donald Trump unveiled his long-awaited Middle East peace plan, which the Palestinians rejected outright.
    Saudi Arabia expressed support for direct peace negotiations under U.S. auspices while reiterating unwavering commitment to the Palestinian cause.
(Reporting by Stephen Kalin and Lisa Barrington; Editing by Toby Chopra)

2/21/2020 Libya’s Haftar says any ceasefire would be contingent on Turkish withdrawal: RIA
FILE PHOTO: Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar meets Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis
(not pictured) at the Parliament in Athens, Greece, January 17, 2020. REUTERS/Costas Baltas
    MOSCOW (Reuters) – Khalifa Haftar, Libya’s eastern military commander, said he would be ready for a ceasefire if Turkish and Syrian mercenaries left the country and Ankara stopped supplying weapons to Libya’s internationally recognized government in Tripoli, RIA reported.
    The internationally recognized government on Tuesday suspended talks hosted by the United Nations to halt warfare over Tripoli after eastern forces shelled the capital’s port, killing three people and almost hitting a highly explosive gas tanker.
    “A ceasefire (would be) the result of a number of conditions being fulfilled …the withdrawal of Syrian and Turkish mercenaries, an end to Turkish arms supplies to Tripoli, and the liquidation of terrorist groups (in Tripoli),” Haftar told Russia’s RIA news agency in an interview.
(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova; Writing by Anastasia Teterevleva; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

2/21/2020 U.N. says it fears ‘bloodbath’ in northwest Syria fighting by Stephanie Nebehay and Maria Kiselyova
An internally displaced child looks out from a tent, erected at an empty school and university
compound used as shelter in Azaz, Syria February 21, 2020. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
    GENEVA/MOSCOW (Reuters) – The United Nations warned on Friday that fighting in northwest Syria could “end in a bloodbath” and called again for a ceasefire, while Moscow denied reports of a mass flight of civilians from a Russian-led Syrian government offensive.
    Syrian troops backed by Russian air power have been battling since December to eliminate the last rebel strongholds in the region in a war that has killed an estimated 400,000 Syrians, displaced millions more and left much of the country in ruins.
    The latest offensive in the regions of Aleppo and Idlib has uprooted nearly 1 million people – most of them women and children – who have fled clashes to seek sanctuary further north, near the Turkish border.
    The U.N.’s humanitarian agency OCHA said 60% of the 900,000 people trapped in a shrinking space after fleeing are children.
    “We call for an immediate ceasefire to prevent further suffering and what we fear may end in a bloodbath,” OCHA spokesman Jens Laerke told a news briefing in Geneva.
    “The front lines and relentless violence continue to move closer to these areas which are packed with displaced people, with bombardments increasingly affecting displacement sites and their vicinity.”
    At a university building in the town of Azaz in northwest Syria, people fleeing Idlib have poured in every day to shelter from the violence and bitter cold.
    Souad Saleh, 58, is staying in a room with her family and dozens of other people.    “We want to go back home but we can’t.    We left things behind because the warplanes were above us and houses were collapsing,” she said.
    The escape was exhausting.    “Everyone was crying,” the grandmother recalled, bursting into tears.
    Hayat al-Fayad, 50, said her village in Idlib had emptied out since her family ran from the bombing some two weeks ago. “The entire village fled,” she said.
    Other families are sleeping outside by roads and in olive groves, burning garbage to stay warm.    Some children have died from the cold, while some families have at least reached tent camps for displaced people.
    Turkey, which currently hosts 3.7 million Syrian refugees, has said it cannot handle a new influx and has warned that it will use military power to repel Syrian advances in Idlib and ease a humanitarian crisis.
RUSSIA DENIES HUMANITARIAN EMERGENCY
    Russia’s Defense Ministry said reports of hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing from Idlib towards the Turkish border – in an area where Turkish forces maintain forward observation posts – were false, urging Ankara to enable Idlib residents to enter other parts of Syria.
    Turkey and Russia back opposing sides in Syria’s conflict, but have collaborated towards a political solution.    Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s onslaught in the northwest has upset this fragile cooperation, causing Ankara and Moscow to accuse each other of flouting de-escalation agreements in the region.
    Turkish and Russian officials have failed to find a solution to the clashes in several rounds of talks, and a flare-up on the ground on Thursday which killed two Turkish soldiers brought the total Turkish fatalities in Idlib this month to 15 troops.
    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan emphasized the necessity to control Syrian government forces and to ease a humanitarian crisis in Syria’s Idlib region during a phone call with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
    Speaking to reporters earlier, Erdogan said the French and German leaders had proposed a four-way summit with Russia in Istanbul on March 5, but that Putin had not yet responded.    He repeated that Turkey was not withdrawing its forces from Idlib.
    Erdogan further said Turkey was continuing work to set up housing for Syrian migrants in a 30-35 km (19-22 mile) “safe zone” inside Syria along the border with Turkey.
    Earlier on Friday, the Kremlin said it was discussing the possibility of holding the summit with Turkey, France and Germany mentioned by Erdogan.
    The German and French leaders called Putin on Thursday to voice alarm about the humanitarian situation.
    French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel also held a phone call with Erdogan, who asked Paris and Berlin for concrete support in the crisis.
(Additional reporting by Khalil Ashawi in Azaz, Syria, Maria Kiselyova and Andrew Osborn in Moscow and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, and Ellen Francis in Beirut; Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay in Ankara; Editing by Daren Butler, Mark Heinrich and Frances Kerry)

2/21/2020 UAE records two new coronavirus cases, total number reaches 11
FILE PHOTO: Travellers wear masks as they arrive at the Dubai International Airport, after the UAE's Ministry of Health and Community
Prevention confirmed the country's first case of coronavirus, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates January 29, 2020. REUTERS/Christopher Pike
    DUBAI (Reuters) – The United Arab Emirates said on Friday it had registered two new coronavirus cases, bringing the total number of people diagnosed with the virus in the Gulf Arab state to 11.
    The new cases in the UAE were detected in a 34-year-old Filipino national and a 39-year-old Bangladeshi national who had contact with a Chinese national who had been diagnosed with the virus, the health ministry said in a statement.
    It said the two were in stable condition.
    More than 2,100 people have died in China from the new virus that emerged in Wuhan in December.    New research suggesting the virus is more contagious than previously thought has added to the international alarm over the outbreak.
    The UAE, a major international air transit centre and tourism and business hub, recorded its first coronavirus case on Jan. 28 when four members of a Chinese family were diagnosed.
    It has since suspended passenger flights to mainland China, with the exception of Beijing.
    Most of those diagnosed in the UAE with the virus have been Chinese citizens.    Another Filipino national and one Indian national have also been infected, according to the health ministry.
    Three of those previously diagnosed, all Chinese nationals, have fully recovered, the ministry has said.
    The government has not disclosed where patients were being treated or which parts of the country they visited.
(Reporting by Alaa Swilam in Cairo; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous and Alexander Cornwell; Editing by Ros Russell)

2/21/2020 Lebanon confirms first case of coronavirus, two more suspected
Lebanon's Minister of Health, Hamad Hasan and Iman Shankiti, WHO representative in Lebanon, attend a news conference, after the
country's first case of the novel coronavirus was confirmed, in Beirut, Lebanon February 21, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
    BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon confirmed its first coronavirus case on Friday and said it was monitoring two other potential cases after a 45-year-old woman arriving from Iran on Thursday tested positive, Health Minister Hamad Hassan said.
    Addressing a news conference, Hassan said the patient was taken directly to isolation from a plane arriving from the Iranian city of Qom on Thursday after exhibiting symptoms of the virus.
    The patient is being quarantined at Rafik Hariri University Hospital in Beirut and two other individuals from the Qom flight and suspected of carrying the virus would be transferred to the hospital for quarantine as well, Hassan said.
    The plane, a Mahan Air flight that arrived around 7.30pm (1730 GMT) on Thursday, was carrying 125 passengers, a source at Rafic International Airport said.
    A coronavirus outbreak in Iran, which has so far seen four people die, began in the Shi’ite Muslim holy city of Qom, authorities in Iran said.
    An Iranian health ministry official said the likely source was Chinese workers in Qom who had recently travelled to China, where the epidemic originated.
    More than 2,100 people have died in China and new research suggesting the virus is more contagious than previously thought has added to the international alarm over the outbreak.
    Hassan said all necessary precautions in line with World Health Organisation advice were being followed and offered Lebanese a hotline to call if they experienced any associated symptoms.
    “There is no need for excessive panic at this time… The patient is in a good state,” said Hassan.
    He said people who arrived in Lebanon on the Qom flight were asked to remain isolated in their homes for 14 days and that authorities would follow up on arrivals to Lebanon from the past ten days for potential cases.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis, Laila Bassam; Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Toby Chopra)

2/21/2020 Turkey’s Erdogan asks France, Germany to help end Syrian humanitarian crisis
FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of his ruling AK Party during a meeting at the
Parliament in Ankara, Turkey, February 19, 2020. Turkish Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS
    ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan asked the French and German leaders to provide “concrete” support in ending a humanitarian crisis in northwest Syria’s Idlib region, the Turkish presidency said on Friday, amid escalating tensions in the region.
    In a phone call, Erdogan said that attacks in Idlib, where a Russian-led Syrian government offensive has displaced hundreds of thousands of people and brought Ankara, Moscow and Damascus to the brink of confrontation, must be stopped.
    On Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Russian President Vladimir Putin to express their concern about the humanitarian situation in Idlib, urging an end to the conflict there, a German spokesman said.
(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay; Editing by Alison Williams)

2/21/2020 U.S.’s Pompeo to visit Oman, meet new sultan
FILE PHOTO: Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al-Said gives a speech after being sworn in before
the royal family council in Muscat, Oman January 11, 2020. REUTERS/Sultan Al Hasani
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will visit Oman on Friday and will meet with Sultan Haitham Bin Tariq al-Said, the U.S. State Department said in a statement.
    Pompeo, who has been traveling overseas including a stop in Saudi Arabia, will also pay respects to the family of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who died last month.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Peter Graff)

2/21/2020 Erdogan to speak with Putin to determine stance on Syria fighting by OAN Newsroom
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses to his ruling party’s legislator
at parliament, in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)
    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said he is planning to speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin about deescalating the situation in Northwestern Syria.    While speaking to the press, Erdogan announced he would contact Putin on Friday evening to “determine their stance” in the region.
    “The outcome of tonight’s call will determine our stance there.    As long as the (Syrian) regime do not halt the tyranny inflicted on people of Idlib, our withdrawal is out of question.    That’s the only way to make a ceasefire.    This tyranny will stop.” – Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey
    Russian-backed Syrian troops have been fighting in the Idlib province to eliminate rebel-held areas since December.
    Leaders in both Germany and France reportedly suggested a four-way meeting with Russia.    However, President Putin has yet to respond to the request.
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses during his meeting in the Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters
in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
    According to recent reports, two Turkish soldiers were killed in Idlib on Thursday, while Turkey “neutralized” at least 150 Syrian fighters.
    In 2018, Turkey and Russia agreed to create a safe zone for civilians, a million of whom have been displaced since December.

2/22/2020 Erdogan says to meet Putin, Merkel, Macron on March 5 over Idlib
FILE PHOTO: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and French President
Emmanuel Macron hold hands at a news conference after a Syria summit, in Istanbul, Turkey October 27, 2018. Emrah Yorulmaz/Pool via REUTERS
    ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday he will meet Russian, German and French counterparts on March 5 to discuss the situation in Syria’s Idlib region, where a recent push by government forces has displaced nearly a million people.
    “I expressed our determination on (Idlib) clearly to (Vladimir) Putin yesterday.    I also mentioned it to (Angela) Merkel and (Emmanuel) Macron,” Erdogan said.    “On March 5, we will meet with Putin, Macron and Merkel, and we will talk about these again.”
    After a series of calls on Friday, the German and French leaders expressed concern about the humanitarian situation in Idlib and urged an end to the conflict, while the Kremlin said it is discussing the possibility of holding a four-way summit.
(Reporting by Irem Koca and Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Giles Elgood)

2/22/2020 Erdogan: Four-way summit on Syria with Putin, Merkel in the works by OAN Newsroom
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters, in Izmir, Turkey,
Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)
    On Saturday, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan announced he’ll be meeting with leaders from Russia, Germany and France to discuss the ongoing conflict in Syria. According to Erdogan, the four-way summit will focus on the northwestern province of Idlib and the fighting that has displaced nearly a million people.
    German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron pushed for the end of the conflict in a series of calls made on Friday.
    Erdogan previously said he would discuss the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
    “For us, the matter of Idlib is as important as Afrin and the area of Operation Peace Spring.    I expressed our determination clearly to Putin last night. I also mentioned it to Merkel and Macron yesterday.    On March 5th, we will meet again and we will talk about these things.” – Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, third left, speaks with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, second left, and
French President Emmanuel Macron, right, during an EU summit in Brussels, Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. (Yves Herman, Pool Photo via AP)
    Reports have suggested the summit could take place in Istanbul.    In the meantime, Turkey has played host to nearly 4 million Syrian refugees and warned it can’t handle the influx of newly displaced citizens.

2/23/2020 G20 agrees final communique with reference to climate change by Andrea Shalal and Michael Nienaber
FILE PHOTO: Journalists sit in the media center during the meeting of G20 finance ministers
and central bank governors in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, February 22, 2020. REUTERS/Ahmed Yosri
    RIYADH (Reuters) – Finance officials from the world’s 20 biggest economies (G20) meeting in Riyadh on Sunday reached agreement on the wording of a final communique that includes a reference to climate change for the first time, G20 diplomatic sources said.
    Overcoming U.S. objections, the compromise language retained a reference to work by the Financial Stability Board to examine the implications of climate change on financial stability, although it dropped climate change from its list of downside risks to global economic growth.
    One of the sources said it was the first time a reference to climate change had been included in a G20 finance communique, even though it was removed from the top of the joint statement.
    G20 finance ministers and central bankers are meeting in the Saudi capital to discuss top global economic challenges, including the spread of the new coronavirus.
    G20 officials completed work on the communique on Sunday morning.    The final wording was not immediately available.
    Delegates worked out a compromise after Washington objected to the initial proposed language, which had included “macroeconomic risk related to environmental stability” in a list of downside risks, two G20 diplomatic sources said.
    The communique forecasts a modest pick-up in global growth this year and next, but cites downside risks to this outlook stemming from geopolitical and remaining trade tensions and policy uncertainty.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal and Michael Nienaber Editing by Stephen Kalin and Frances Kerry)

2/23/2020 Israeli fire kills Palestinian trying to plant bomb at Gaza border: Israeli military
FILE PHOTO: A Palestinian, who was injured at the Israel-Gaza border, gestures as he is brought
into a hospital in the southern Gaza Strip February 23, 2020. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
    GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli forces killed a Palestinian trying to plant explosives near Israel’s border security fence with the Gaza Strip on Sunday, the Israeli military said.
    The Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad said the man was one of its members, but it did not disclose what he was doing in the area.
    In a statement, the Israeli military said soldiers opened fire at two Palestinians placing an explosive device next to the fence in the Hamas Islamist-run enclave.
    It said one of the men was killed and a military bulldozer removed his body.
    Witnesses and health officials said two other Palestinians were wounded by Israeli gunfire directed at a group of people that had approached the area and tried to recover the body.
    Video footage shot by a Gaza photographer and posted on social media showed what appeared to be a lifeless figure dangling from the mechanical arm of the bulldozer, which was escorted by an Israeli tank.
    The images caused uproar in Gaza, with many on social media calling for retaliation, and the Palestinian Foreign Ministry condemned “the brutal abuse of the body and its abduction.”
    Later in the day a barrage of rockets was fired from Gaza into Israel, setting off sirens and sending residents of southern Israel running for shelters. Some of the rocket fire was intercepted by missile defenses and there were no reports of any Israelis injured.
(Writing by Nidal Almughrabi; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, William Maclean and Giles Elgood)

2/23/2020 Exclusive: If Lebanon needs financial aid, France will be there, finance minister says by Stephen Kalin
FILE PHOTO: French Finance and Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire speaks during the G20 finance ministers
and central bank governors meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, February 22, 2020. REUTERS/Ahmed Yosri
    RIYADH (Reuters) – France is ready to support Lebanon financially – bilaterally or multilaterally – its finance minister said on Sunday, warning against mixing economic recovery in the small Mediterranean state with U.S.-led efforts to counter Iran in the region.
    “France always stands ready to help Lebanon.    It has always been the case in the past and it will be the case in the future…” Bruno Le Maire told Reuters at the end of a meeting of finance officials from the Group of 20 (G20) major economies.
    “If there is any help required from Lebanon, France will be there.”
    Lebanon’s long-brewing economic crisis spiraled last year as the country’s capital inflows slowed and protests erupted against the ruling elite.
    As the crisis deepens, hitting ordinary Lebanese hard, there is no sign of foreign aid.    Western and Sunni-led Gulf Arab states that helped in the past have made clear that any support hinges on Beirut implementing long-delayed reforms to address root causes such as state corruption and bad governance.
    Saudi Arabia’s finance minister said on Sunday the kingdom was in contact with allies and international bodies to coordinate any support for Lebanon on the basis of economic reforms proposed by Beirut.
    An International Monetary Fund (IMF) team has discussed all possible options in recent meetings with Lebanese officials, who are seeking technical advice for tackling the crisis as Beirut mulls a plan for dealing with fast-approaching debt payments.
    Le Maire said decisions by Lebanon’s government were urgently needed to improve the situation on the ground.
    “We want to move in the official fora and we think that the IMF might have a role to play at one stage, but it’s up to the Lebanese government to decide,” he said.    “But if there is any need for help, either bilateral or multilateral, we stand ready to help.”
    Since protests erupted in October, Lebanon’s currency has slumped by roughly 60% on a parallel market, dollars have become scarce, prices have been hiked and thousands of jobs have been shed.
    Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government took office last month with the backing of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shi’ite group, and its allies, as Washington presses its policy of “maximum pressure” against Iran with wide-ranging sanctions.
    “We know that there are ties between the two issues but we don’t want to mix the issue of economic recovery in Lebanon, which is today the clear emergency, and the question of Iran,” Le Maire added.
(Additional reporting by Francesco Canepa and Jan Strupczewski; Editing by Jane Merriman and Alex Richardson)

2/23/2020 Saudi financial minister: Coronavirus, poverty, ‘climate change’ on G-20 agenda by OAN Newsroom
Screengrab via CIC Saudi Arabia Twitter.
    Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan has outlined this year’s agenda for the Group of 20 as his country assumed presidency in the international forum.    While speaking in Riyadh on Sunday, he called on G-20 ministers and central bankers to provide assistance to developing countries and boost efforts to battle the coronavirus outbreak.
    The minister has said poverty, diseases and so-called ‘climate change’ could hurt economies in poor countries and affect global GDP growth.
    “The main theme is ‘Realizing the Opportunities of the 21st Century for All,'” stated Al-Jadaan.    “One of the key aims of that is safeguarding the planet, and that will come through, actually, actions to deal with climate change.”
    Al-Jadaan also urged tighter international coordination on fighting money-laundering and political corruption.
President Donald Trump, fifth from left, joins other leaders for a group photo
at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, Friday, June 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

2/24/2020 Palestinian rockets strike Israel after Gaza border clash
    JERUSALEM – Palestinian militants fired some 20 rockets toward southern Israel on Sunday, hours after Israel said it killed a Palestinian militant who tried to place a bomb along the Israel-Gaza barrier fence.    There was no immediate claim for the rocket fire, but it appeared to be meant to avenge the death of the militant.    Israel said another Palestinian militant was shot and wounded in the clash.    There were no reports of damage or injuries on the Israeli side, but it was the heaviest barrage of rocket fire in several months.

2/24/2020 Israeli jets strike Islamic Jihad targets in Syria and Gaza: Israeli military by Ari Rabinovitch and Nidal al-Mughrabi
FILE PHOTO: A Palestinian, who was injured at the Israel-Gaza border, gestures as he is brought
into a hospital in the southern Gaza Strip February 23, 2020. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
    JERUSALEM/GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli fighter jets launched air strikes on suspected Islamic Jihad positions in Syria, the Israeli military said on Monday, after the militant group and Israel exchanged rockets and air strikes around Gaza.
    An Israeli military statement said its forces had “struck Islamic Jihad terror targets south of Damascus” in addition to “dozens” of Islamic Jihad targets throughout the Gaza Strip.
    The air strike in the Adeliyah region outside Damascus targeted what the Israeli military called “a hub of Islamic Jihad’s activity in Syria,” including the research and development of weapons.
    The Israeli announcement came shortly after Syrian state media said its air defenses had intercepted “hostile targets” over the Syrian capital, Damascus.
    The strike escalated the latest round of hostilities, which began around dawn on Sunday, when, Israel said, its troops killed an Islamic Jihad member who was trying to plant explosives near Israel’s border fence with the Gaza Strip.
    Video footage shot by a Gaza photographer and widely posted on social media showed what appeared to be the lifeless body of an Islamic Jihad militant dangling from an Israeli military bulldozer as it removed the corpse.
    Palestinian health officials and other onlookers said two other Palestinians were wounded by Israeli gunfire directed at a group of people who had approached the area and tried to recover the body.
    The images caused an uproar in Gaza, with many social media commentators calling for retaliation.
    Islamic Jihad fired a barrage of rockets from Gaza into Israel, setting off air-raid sirens in communities such as Ashkelon.    Israel hit back with a series of air strikes in Gaza.
    The rockets sent residents of southern Israel running for shelters.    Some of the rocket fire was intercepted by Israeli aerial missile defenses, and there were no reports of any Israelis injured.
    The Israeli military said that among the “dozens” of targets struck in Gaza were underground infrastructure and compounds in Rafah that had been used to store raw material used for manufacturing rockets.
    Shortly before midnight on Sunday, the Syrian state news agency SANA quoted a military source saying that Israeli planes had entered Syrian airspace and targeted areas around Damascus with a wave of guided missiles.
    Syrian state-run al-Ikhbariya TV aired footage of what it said were explosions set off in the Damascus night sky by the air defenses system shooting down missiles.
    The Syrian military source said most missiles were destroyed before reaching their targets and that the aftermath of the strike was being examined.
    Israel says it has carried out hundreds of strikes against targets in Syria in recent years.
    In November, Islamic Jihad said Israel had targeted the house of one of its officials in Damascus, killing one of his sons.
(Reporting by Nidal Almughrabi in Gaza, Kinda Makieh in Damascus and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Editing by Peter Cooney)

2/24/2020 Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq report coronavirus cases linked to Iran
FILE PHOTO: Locals wear face masks to take precautions from coronavirus, as they shop at the
Bahrain's Autumn Fair 2020, in Manama, Bahrain January 29, 2020. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
    DUBAI (Reuters) – Kuwait, Bahrain and Iraq on Monday recorded their first new coronavirus cases, all people who had been in Iran, which raised its toll from the disease to 12 dead and 61 infected.
    Iraq announced its first case, an Iranian theology student in the holy city of Najaf, who had entered the country before the government banned the entry of non-Iraqis coming from Iran.
    Kuwait detected the virus in three people among 700 who had been evacuated on Saturday from the Iranian city of Mashhad.
    They were a 53-year-old Kuwaiti man, a 61-year-old Saudi man and a 21-year-old whose nationality was unclear, the health ministry said.
    In neighboring Bahrain, the health ministry said a Bahraini citizen who arrived from Iran had been diagnosed with the disease.
    Fears of a coronavirus pandemic grew on Monday after sharp rises in new cases in Iran, Italy and South Korea. The virus has infected nearly 77,000 people and killed more than 2,500 in China.
    Qatar Airways said it would ask passengers arriving from Iran and South Korea to remain in home isolation or a quarantine facility for 14 days.    Qatar has not recorded any coronavirus cases.
    Kuwait Airways and Iraq Airways last week suspended flights to Iran while Saudi Arabia suspended travel to Iran.
    Iraq has shut its Safwan border crossing with Kuwait to travelers and trade at Kuwait’s request.
    Iran’s Deputy Health Minister, Iraj Harirchi, said 12 people had died and up to 61 had been infected in Iran.    Most infections were in the holy city of Qom.
    The United Arab Emirates, a major air transit center and Gulf tourism and business hub, has recorded 13 cases, the latest two are an Iranian tourist and his wife.
(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi, Nayera Abdallah and Babak Dehghanpisheh in Dubai, Aref Mohammed in Basra and ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous and Giles Elgood)

2/24/2020 Libyan premier denounces Haftar as ‘war criminal’ at U.N.
FILE PHOTO: Prime Minister of the U.N.-backed Libyan government, Fayez al-Sarraj, leaves after talks with Malta's
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat at the Auberge de Castille in Valletta, Malta May 27, 2019. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi
    GENEVA (Reuters) – Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj on Monday denounced the shelling of civilian areas and airports in his country, labeling renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar a “war criminal” in a speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council.
    “Children have lost their right to education due to the shelling and the closure of schools because of the attacker and those who fund the attacker and provide weapons, these must be held accountable,” Serraj told the forum.
    He said that his internationally recognized Government of National Accord had “always showed its readiness to move forward on the path to peace and stability.”    U.N. political talks between the two sides are due to be held in Geneva on Wednesday.
(This story corrects pelling of Serraj throughout)
(Reporting by Michael Shields and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Alison Williams)

2/24/2020 Syrian air defences intercept ‘hostile targets’ over Damascus: state media
Light in the sky is seen in Damascus, Syria, in this handout released by SANA on February 24, 2020. SANA/Handout via REUTERS
    CAIRO (Reuters) – Syrian air defences intercepted “hostile targets” over the capital Damascus late on Sunday, state media reported.
    No further details were immediately available.
(Reporting by Samar Hassan; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

[I was watching Fox News on Sunday 2/23/2010 the show "Life, Liberty and Levin," and the guest was Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu and he told us what the Israel Blue White party of Benny Gantz as he described it on the show is no different than the Democrats of the United States which seems to prove the Globalist are trying to do President Donald Trump in every avenue to reverse everything he has achieved since 2016 but they have failed miserably.    What is remarkable and I did not know this until the above mentioned that Netanyahu is going through the identical corrupt actions against him in every avenue of his administration including phony charges and if either party were to win election it would destory Israel and the U.S.    So there is a lot to lose in our freedoms and future and I pray for both that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is guiding the action here.].

2/24/2020 Gaza-Israel hostilities flare through second day with rocket attacks, air strikes by Nidal al-Mughrabi and Rami Ayyub
Flame and smoke are seen during an Israeli air strike in the southern Gaza Strip February 24, 2020. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
    GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Gaza militants on Monday fired rockets toward Israel, which responded with air strikes, in the second day of an escalation that began to ebb after the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad announced a halt to its attacks.
    Islamic Jihad has fired 80 rockets toward Israeli communities along the Gaza border since Sunday, an Israeli military spokeswoman said, while Israel has attacked sites in Gaza and Syria that killed three Islamic Jihad members.
    The violence comes a week before an Israeli election in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking a fifth term in office after two inconclusive votes.
    Islamic Jihad said earlier on Monday it had ended its “military response” to Israel.    But it then reversed course and resumed firing rockets, saying Israel had continued air strikes after the militants’ apparent de-escalation.
    “We have carried out a response in order to stress our position: bombardment for bombardment,” said Abu Hamza, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad’s armed wing.
    A Palestinian official later said that Israel and Islamic Jihad had reached a “reciprocal and simultaneous” ceasefire, brokered by Egypt and the United Nations and set to take effect at 23:30 (21:30 GMT).
    The Israeli military said its jets truck an Islamic Jihad training and weapons storage facility in southern Gaza, as well as other underground infrastructure.
    “Yesterday we attacked in Syria and in Gaza. We are continuing to strike now with jets, tanks and helicopters,” Netanyahu said in a statement on Twitter on Monday evening.
    “We will continue to strike until quiet is restored,” Netanyahu added.
    Israel’s defense ministry said it had closed all of its border crossings with the Gaza Strip, which it keeps under blockade citing security concerns, and closed the coastal enclave’s waters from fishing.    Crossings would remain closed except for humanitarian cases, a statement said.
    The latest fighting began around dawn on Sunday when Israeli troops killed an Islamic Jihad member who was trying to plant explosives near Israel’s border fence with the Gaza Strip.
    Video widely shared on social media showed what appeared to be the lifeless body of the militant dangling from an Israeli military bulldozer as it removed the corpse.
    The images created an uproar in Gaza, prompting calls for retaliation.    Islamic Jihad later fired a barrage of rockets into Israel.
    Just before midnight on Sunday, Israeli warplanes struck what the military called “a hub of Islamic Jihad’s activity in Syria” in the Adeliyah region outside Syria’s capital, Damascus.
    Islamic Jihad continued to fire rockets into southern Israeli communities into Monday as funerals for the group’s two dead militants were held in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus.
    The Gaza rocket fire sent residents of southern Israel running to shelters, and the Israeli military said it had closed down roads in the area as a precaution.    No casualties were reported.
    There was no sign that Gaza’s Islamist rulers Hamas had been drawn into the rocket firing.
    An uneasy truce between Israel and Hamas has helped stave off the sort of large-scale fighting that led to Israel-Gaza wars in 2014 and 2008.
(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Rami Ayyub and Maayan Lubell; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Hugh Lawson and Dan Grebler)

2/24/2020 As Syrian forces advance on Idlib, families fear being trapped at Turkish border by Khalil Ashawi
Internally displaced boys walk near the wall in Atmah IDP camp, located near
the border with Turkey, Syria February 24, 2020. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
    ATMEH, Syria (Reuters) – Syrian government forces are advancing closer to the displaced persons camp where Adnan Abdelkarim and his family have taken shelter along the Turkish border after being uprooted multiple times, and he fears there is nowhere left to go.
    “Today the regime is advancing from everywhere and we are trapped along the border,” said 30-year-old Abdelkarim.
    At the Atmeh camp on the northern edge of Idlib province, uprooted families are arriving in droves as they flee bombardment from air strikes and artillery shelling.
    They fear being trapped between the fighting and the closed-off Turkish border.    About 50 meters from the camp an imposing gray concrete wall is crowned with barbed wire, blocking their entry to Turkey.
    “In the event the regime advances…, either we will die storming the Turkish wall and fleeing with our families…or slaughter ourselves by turning ourselves over,” said Abdelkarim.
    Backed by heavy Russian air power, Syrian government forces have stepped up a campaign to retake the last rebel stronghold in the northwestern regions of Aleppo and Idlib, sparking an exodus of nearly a million people toward a shrinking pocket along the Turkish frontier.
    On Monday, Russian and Syrian warplanes continued to pound eastern and southern areas of Idlib province, according to the Syrian Observatory, a war monitor, and witnesses.
    The Observatory said on Monday that pro-Damascus forces had seized control of 10 more towns in southern areas of Idlib province in less than 24 hours.    It said fighting continued meanwhile around the Idlib town of Neirab between government forces and rebels backed by Turkish artillery.
    “People here have little hope and everyone has started to head toward the border, fearful of the (government) advance,” said Ismail Shahine, 37, originally displaced six years earlier from the Hama countryside.
    Shahine on Monday prepared a tent to accommodate the rest of his family, which he said would soon arrive from the western countryside of Aleppo, where government forces have retaken large swathes of land from rebels at a rapid clip in recent weeks.
    Fearing a fresh refugee crisis, Turkey has poured thousands of troops into Idlib in the last few weeks and President Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to use military force to drive back Syrian forces unless they pull back by the end of the month.
    Turkey hosts about 3.7 million Syrians and says it cannot absorb any more.
    As Turkish military convoys continue to enter northern Syria, Shahine and others near the border have pinned their hopes on Erdogan’s pledge to force Damascus to retreat.
    “Everyone today is waiting for the start of the coming month, for the deadline that Erdogan gave the regime to withdraw,” said Shahine.    “I am expecting that they will make a move and not leave the Syrian people to fend for themselves.”
(Reporting by Khalil Ashawi; Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Nick Macfie)

2/24/2020 To preserve Shi’ite power in Iraq, Iran-backed groups turn to renegade cleric by John Davison
FILE PHOTO: Supporters of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr protest against the U.S. military
presence in Iraq, in Baghdad, Iraq January 24, 2020. REUTERS/Alaa al-Marjani/File Photo
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – When the grip of Iraq’s Tehran-backed Shi’ite Muslim parties and militias threatened to slip following the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, they turned to an unpredictable rival.
    At meetings in the Iranian holy city of Qom, they struck a deal with populist Shi’ite cleric Sayyed Moqtada al-Sadr, who commands a following of millions of Iraqis.
    According to senior Iraqi officials and militia insiders, they promised Sadr a greater say forming a new Iraqi government and an augmented spiritual leadership role among Shi’ite paramilitary groups.
    In return, he would draw on his mass following to weaken the anti-government and anti-Iran dissent that has erupted on Iraqi streets, and redirect the unrest toward demands for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, the sources said.
    The agreement, sponsored by Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah group, sought to preserve Shi’ite power in Iraq by uniting the factions of the Iran-backed groups with their rival Sadr.
    The militias were in disarray after a U.S. air strike killed Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis on Jan. 3.
    Sadr was also off-balance.    He had led anti-government unrest in previous years but did not control the latest round of anger against the political elite in spontaneous, leaderless demonstrations that broke out in October.
    With the deal struck, Sadr – an opportunist who has at different times fought the United States, decried Iranian meddling, and supported then abandoned protests – now looks set to have a big say in the selection of a new government which must be picked by next Monday, officials and lawmakers say.
    The previous cabinet resigned under protest pressure last year.
    After Soleimani’s killing, Iran and Hezbollah officials instructed pro-Iran militia leaders to put aside their differences with Sadr.    The two sides had clashed in parliament and over government posts last year in an intra-Shi’ite power struggle.
    They met in Qom – Sadr’s new base as he pursues further religious study.
    “Iran saw Sadr as the only solution to prevent the collapse of Shi’ite power under protest pressure and the weakening of factions it backs,” an aide to Sadr who traveled to Qom said, requesting anonymity.
    “Sadr has the popular base through which he might control the street.    They wanted to use that.”
    Several paramilitary sources with knowledge of the meetings confirmed that the Iranian side asked Sadr, who comes from an influential clerical family with a history of leading anti-government insurrection under Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, to use his following to control demonstrations.
    In return Sadr demanded freedom to choose the next government and to be able to block the Iran-backed parties’ preferences.    “Iran did not oppose this,” the aide to Sadr said.
    Two paramilitary sources said Sadr demanded control of two ministries under Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, who has asked parliament to approve his government this week.
    The militia groups also agreed Sadr could have an augmented symbolic role leading them in opposition to the United States, the paramilitary sources said.
    “The resistance factions agreed Sadr would be the main voice in the resistance.    The groups will in return support decisions he makes,” said Nasr al-Shammari, a spokesman for the Iran-backed and U.S.-sanctioned Nujaba paramilitary faction.
    Shammari and two other paramilitary sources said Iraq’s militia groups would consider a greater role for the head of Sadr’s Peace Brigades militia, Abu Doaa al-Essawi, in coordinating their military strategy.
    The groups have been seeking a replacement for Muhandis, expected to be a commander from the late militia leader’s own group, Kataib Hezbollah.
    Government officials and parliamentarians say Sadr will have significant influence over the cabinet line-up proposed by Allawi, which the premier has said will consist of independent candidates.
    “If this cabinet passes it’ll work well for Sadr.    He prefers independents because they’re weak and he can coopt them.    He has a militia and the ability to intimidate people,” a government official said.
    Kurdish and Sunni politicians oppose the line-up being pushed by Sadr, fearing they stand to lose portfolios.
SHORT TERM GAINS
    Sadr might make political gains in the short term.    But his deal with Iran-backed groups has alienated many supporters.
    “They stole our revolution, the militias and the Peace Brigades (Sadr’s own militia),” protester Mahdi Abdul Zahra said as he watched police fire at his friends in Baghdad.
    Sadr’s followers, who had joined protests and sometimes protected demonstrators from violence by security forces and militiamen, abandoned protest camps on his instructions and subsequently attacked them.
    Sadr has threatened to call a new “million-strong” rally to pressure parliament to approve the new cabinet – another move that could eclipse the original demonstrations that demand the fall of the entire Iraqi ruling elite.
    Sadr issued an array of contradictory statements in early February.    They called for a large protest demanding the withdrawal of U.S. forces, then for his supporters to abandon anti-government protests, then rejoin them but cleanse them of alcohol and other vices.
    Followers took over some protest sites and clashed with demonstrators, killing several people.
    “We rejected Sadr’s initial call to withdraw from protests and were angry with him,” said Sheikh Shiyaa al-Bahadli, a tribal leader in Baghdad’s poor Sadr City district.
(Reporting by John Davison; additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed, Baghdad bureau, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

2/25/2020 Israel-Gaza ceasefire takes hold after two-day flare-up
FILE PHOTO: A rocket is fired towards Israel, in the southern Gaza Strip February 24, 2020. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
    GAZA (Reuters) – A ceasefire brokered by Egypt and the United Nations took hold on the Israel-Gaza border on Tuesday after two days of fighting between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group.
    Islamic Jihad had fired 80 rockets towards Israeli communities along the Gaza border since Sunday, an Israeli military spokeswoman said, while Israel attacked sites in Gaza and Syria that killed three members of the militant group.
    No casualties were reported on the Israeli side of the frontier and many of the rockets were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile system.
    The violence came a week before an Israeli election in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking a fifth term in office after two inconclusive votes.
    The frontier fell quiet early on Tuesday, after a Palestinian official said Israel and Islamic Jihad had reached a “reciprocal and simultaneous ceasefire” mediated by Egypt and the United Nations.
    “This round is over and Palestinian resistance promised its people that every act of aggression by the Zionist occupation would be met by a reaction from the resistance,” Khader Habib, a senior Islamic Jihad official, told Reuters.
    The Israeli military said it reopened roads near the Gaza border on Tuesday that it had closed when the fighting began and that train services would resume in the area.
    But citing security concerns, the military kept Israel’s border crossings with Gaza closed, except for humanitarian cases, and banned Palestinian fisherman from heading to sea.
    The violence erupted on Sunday when Israeli troops killed an Islamic Jihad member who the military said was trying to plant explosives near Israel’s border fence with the Gaza Strip.
    Video widely shared on social media showed what appeared to be a lifeless body of the militant dangling from an Israeli military bulldozer as it removed the corpse.
    The images created an uproar in Gaza, prompting calls for retaliation that were followed by rockets launched by Islamic Jihad.
(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

2/25/2020 Turkey-backed rebels say they’ve seized town in Syria’s Idlib in first advance by Orhan Coskun and Suleiman Al-Khalidi
FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses the audience during a ceremony at the Presidential Palace
in Ankara, Turkey, February 20, 2020. Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS
    ANKARA/AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian rebels backed by the Turkish military have seized the town of Nairab in northwest Syria’s Idlib, Turkish and rebel officials said on Tuesday, the first area to be taken back from Syrian government forces advancing in the province.
    Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, supported by Russian air power, are trying to retake the last large rebel-held region in Syria after nine years of war.    Nearly a million Syrians have been displaced by the latest fighting.
    Turkey has responded by sending thousands of troops and equipment into the region to support the rebels in resisting the offensive.
    “With the help of our Turkish friends, we have regained control of the strategic town of Nairab, the gateway of Saraqeb, after expelling the terrorist Russian militias,” Yusef Hamoud, spokesman for the Turkey-backed National Army, told Reuters.
    A Turkish security official said that the Turkish military had supported the rebel offensive with shelling and that bomb disposal teams and the rebels were now clearing the town.
    Their next goal was to capture the strategic town of Saraqeb, where Syria’s main north-south highway linking Damascus and Aleppo meets the road west to the Mediterranean.
    “This will happen soon. The regime suffered heavy losses in the clashes last night.    Also, a serious amount of weapons and ammunition was seizedzz,” the Turkish official told Reuters.
    He said there had been no clash between Turkish and Russian forces in Monday’s advance on Nairab and that no Turkish soldiers had lost their lives in the clashes.
    Two weeks ago, the Turkish Defence Ministry said Syrian government forces briefly abandoned Nairab as the Turkey-backed rebels advanced on the town. However, the rebels were subsequently pushed back from the area.
    Since Turkey poured its forces into northwest Syria to halt the Syrian government forces’ campaign, 17 members of the Turkish forces have been killed.
    The fighting has strained ties between Turkey and Russia, which although backing opposing sides in Syria’s conflict had worked to contain the violence until the latest flare-up.
    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said there was not yet full agreement on holding a proposed March 5 summit with Russia, France and Germany on the Idlib conflict, but he may meet Russia’s Vladimir Putin on that date.
    At a news conference in Ankara before leaving on a trip to Azerbaijan, Erdogan said that a Russian delegation was set to come to Turkey on Wednesday to discuss the situation.
    “There is no full agreement yet between (French President Emmanuel) Macron…(German Chancellor Angela) Merkel, and Putin,” he said.    Macron and Merkel have both urged Putin to end the conflict, concerned about the humanitarian situation.
    On Saturday, Erdogan said that Turkey had set out a “road map” for Syria after calls with the three leaders, while the Kremlin has said it was discussing the possibility of holding a four-way summit.
    Turkey already hosts 3.7 million Syrian refugees and says it cannot handle another wave.    It has closed its borders.
    Syrian government forces are advancing closer to the camps for displaced persons near the Turkish border, where the migrants fear being caught up in the fighting.
    The Syrian Observatory, a war monitor, said on Monday that pro-Damascus forces had seized control of 10 more towns in southern areas of Idlib province in less than 24 hours.
(Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Dominic Evans and Nick Macfie)

2/25/2020 South Africa’s lobster catchers suffer in coronavirus fallout by Wendell Roelf
FILE PHOTO: Crates of Rock Lobster are offloaded from fishing boats at
Kalk Bay harbour, in Cape Town, South Africa, September 17, 2003. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
    CAPE TOWN (Reuters) – The lobster catchers of South Africa’s Western Cape have become an unexpected casualty of the coronavirus after China halted imports of the West Coast rock lobster last month as part of measures to contain the outbreak.
    “I am stuck now because they are putting our catches aside now, the factory doesn’t want to take our fish, there is no market for our fish,” said Lorraine Brown, 60, as she waited for the day’s catch to arrive at Witsand’s slipway, used by the Ocean View fishing community, some 40 km from Cape Town.
    “We don’t know where we stand.    They say you can catch, but your crayfish must stand in the water.    For how long are they going to keep it in the tanks, and what money are we going to benefit if the crayfish must all die?” she told Reuters.
    Before China halted seafood imports on Jan. 25, Brown could earn 340 rand ($22) per kg for live exported lobster.    The price has now slipped to 120 rand per kg on the local market, too little to make ends meet, she said.
    First detected in China, the coronavirus epidemic has killed more than 2,000 people and infected tens of thousands more as its pernicious tentacles disrupt global aviation, shipping trade and tourism sectors.
    China has halted live animal trade over fears the trade could help spread the disease.
    South Africa, which has no confirmed coronavirus case, has been hit hard by the suspension of lobster exports to China – which last year bought 95% of its total allowable west coast lobster catch of 1,084 tonnes.
    The West Coast Rock Lobster Association, which represents offshore and near-shore rights holders, said the outbreak has had a “serious impact” with direct financial losses to rights holders estimated in excess of 257 million rand ($17 million).
    “But, then there is the secondary effect on the people working the factories processing less lobster, the people catching it will be taking out less fish … so our fishing communities will have less money,” said the association’s chairwoman, Shamera Daniels.
    There were almost 50 tonnes of live crayfish at risk of dying, being frozen and sold at a significant discount, she said.
    The industry was in discussion with the government about possible interventions, Daniels said, such as extending the fishing season should China’s trade restrictions persist.
    Ocean View’s fishermen said their survival was at stake.
    “We are basically the worst off because of the coronavirus,” said fisherman Charles America.    “The effects might be economic or financial in the upper echelons of the industry, but down on the ground here it is survival, pure survival.”
(Reporting by Wendell Roelf; editing by Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo and Ros Russell)

2/25/2020 Hezbollah says it opposes IMF management of Lebanon crisis
An Iranian carries the Iranian and Hezbollah flags during the commemoration of the 41st anniversary
of the Islamic revolution in Tehran, Iran February 11, 2020. Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA (West Asia News Agency)
via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
    BEIRUT/LONDON (Reuters) – Hezbollah is against allowing the International Monetary Fund to manage Lebanon’s financial crisis, the powerful group said on Tuesday, indicating opposition to any IMF bailout that would impose tough conditions on the heavily indebted state.
    Hezbollah, backed by Iran and designated as a terrorist group by the United States, is one of the main parties that backs the new Beirut government as it struggles with the unprecedented crisis.
    Facing a huge public debt burden and a liquidity crunch, the government on Tuesday appointed international investment firm Lazard and law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP as its financial and legal advisers on a widely expected sovereign debt restructuring.
    Beirut has sought IMF technical but not financial aid.
    “We will not accept submittin