Why US troops remain in Iraq 20 years after 'shock and awe'
Twenty years after the U.S. invaded Iraq — in blinding explosions of shock and awe — American forces remain in the country in what has become a small but consistent presence to ensure an ongoing relationship with a key military and diplomatic partner in the Middle East. The roughly 2,500 U.S. troops are scattered around the country, largely in military installations in Baghdad and in the north. And while it is a far cry from the more than 170,000 U.S. forces in Iraq at the peak of the war in 2007, U.S. officials say the limited — but continued — troop level is critical as a show of commitment to the region and a hedge against Iranian influence and weapons trafficking. A look at America's evolving role in Iraq: HOW DID IT START? The U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003 in what it called a massive “shock and awe” bombing campaign that lit up the skies, laid waste to large sections of the country and paved the way for American ground troops to converge on Baghdad. The invasion was based on what turned out to be faulty claims that Saddam Hussein had secretly stashed weapons of mass destruction. Such weapons never materialized. Also Read: Iraq’s crackdown on booze, social media posts raises alarm Saddam was toppled from power, and America's war shifted the country’s governing base from minority Arab Sunnis to majority Shiites, with Kurds gaining their own autonomous region. While many Iraqis welcomed Saddam's ouster, they were disappointed when the government failed to restore basic services and the ongoing battles instead brought vast humanitarian suffering. Resentment and power struggles between the Shiites and the Sunnis fueled civil war, leading ultimately to America's complete withdrawal in December 2011. The divide was a key factor in the collapse of the nation's police and military forces when faced with the Islamic State insurgency that swept across Iraq and Syria in 2014. Also Read: Iraqi president says country now peaceful, life is returning THE U.S. RETURNS The rise of the Islamic State group — its roots were in al-Qaida affiliates — and its expanding threat to the U.S. and allies across Europe sent the U.S. back into Iraq at the invitation of the Baghdad government in 2014. Over that summer and fall, the U.S.-led coalition launched airstrike campaigns in Iraq and then Syria, and restarted a broad effort to train and advise Iraq's military. The coalition's train and advise mission has continued, bolstered by a NATO contingent, even after the Islamic State group's campaign to create a caliphate was ended in March 2019. The roughly 2,500 troops deployed to Iraq live on joint bases with Iraqi troops, where they provide training and equipment. That troop total, however, fluctuates a bit, and the Pentagon does not reveal the number of U.S. special operations forces that routinely move in and out of the country to assist Iraqi forces or travel into Syria for counterterrorism operations. “Iraq is still under pressure from ISIS,” said retired Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie, who led U.S. Central Command and served as the top U.S. commander for the Middle East from 2019 to 2022. “We still help them continue that fight. We’ve done a lot of things to help them improve the control of their own sovereignty, which is of very high importance to the Iraqis.” Also Read: Targeting Iran, US tightens Iraq's dollar flow, causing pain WHY THE U.S. PRESENCE CONTINUES The much-stated reason for the continued U.S. troop presence is to help Iraq battle the remnants of the Islamic State insurgency and prevent any resurgence. But a key reason is Iran. Iran's political influence and militia strength in Iraq and throughout the region has been a recurring security concern for the U.S. over the years. And the presence of American forces in Iraq makes it more difficult for Iran to move weapons across Iraq and Syria into Lebanon, for use by its proxies, including the Lebanese Hezbollah, against Israel. The same is true for the U.S. troop presence around the al-Tanf garrison in southeastern Syria, which is located on a vital road that can link Iranian-backed forces from Tehran all the way to southern Lebanon — and Israel’s doorstep. In both Iraq and Syria, U.S. troops disrupt what could be an uncontested land bridge for Iran to the eastern Mediterranean. U.S. troops in Iraq also provide critical logistical and other support for American forces in Syria, who partner with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces battling the Islamic State group. The U.S. conducts airstrikes and other missions targeting IS leaders, and also supports the SDF in guarding thousands of captured IS fighters and family members imprisoned in Syria. Military leaders successfully beat back efforts by then-President Donald Trump to pull all troops out of both Syria and Iraq. They argued that if anything were to happen in Syria that endangered U.S. forces, they would need to be able to quickly send troops, equipment and other support from Iraq. In a recent visit to Baghdad to meet with Iraqi leaders, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said U.S. forces are ready to remain in Iraq, in a noncombat role, at the invitation of the government. “We’re deeply committed to ensuring that the Iraqi people can live in peace and dignity, with safety and security and with economic opportunity for all,” he said. IRAQ BY THE NUMBERS By the time Washington withdrew its last combat troops in December 2011, tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians were dead, along with 4,487 American troops. More than 3,500 troops were killed in hostile action and nearly 1,000 died in noncombat deaths from 2003 to 2011. More than 32,000 troops were wounded in action; tens of thousands more have also reported illnesses to the Department of Veterans Affairs that are believed to be linked to toxic exposure from the burn pits in Iraq. Legislation signed into law by the Biden administration has expanded the number of those veterans who will qualify for lifetime care or benefits due to that exposure. From 2003 through 2012, the United States provided $60.64 billion to fund Iraq's security forces and civilian reconstruction, according to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. Of that total, $20 billion went to funding, equipping, providing uniforms for and training Iraq's security forces. There were roughly 100,000 contractors each year in Iraq supporting U.S. forces and the U.S. mission from 2007 until 2010, according to the Congressional Research Service. As of late last year, there were about 6,500 contractors supporting U.S. operations in Iraq and Syria, according to U.S. Central Command.
Palestinian killed by Israeli fire in West Bank
A Palestinian man who entered a settlement in the occupied West Bank armed with knives and explosive devices was shot and killed by an Israeli settler on Friday, the Israeli military said, just hours after a Palestinian gunman shot and wounded Israelis in downtown Tel Aviv. The new violence was the latest to grip Israel and the West Bank in one of the deadliest periods of unrest among Israelis and Palestinians in years. The Israeli military said the armed Palestinian slipped into a farm near the settlement of Karnei Shomron, in the northern West Bank, and was fatally shot by an Israeli settler overseeing the land. Palestinian authorities identified the man as 21-year-old Abed al-Sheikh. His father, Badaie al-Sheikh, said Israeli security forces searched his house, interrogated him and confiscated his son's phone in the nearby Palestinian village of Saniriya. Hours earlier, Israeli security forces entered the Palestinian village of Naalin and prepared to demolish the family house of the Palestinian suspected of carrying out the shooting in Tel Aviv on Thursday night. The shooter had opened fire near Dizengoff Street in a bustling area of Tel Aviv’s city center and wounded three Israelis, including one critically. Hamas group claimed the attacker, a 23-year-old former prisoner named Moataz Khawaja, as a member of the organization’s armed wing. Hamas said the shooting came in response to an Israeli military arrest raid that day that killed three gunmen in the northern village of Jaba, along with another raid earlier this week that killed seven Palestinians in the flashpoint Jenin refugee camp, including a wanted assailant and a 14-year-old boy. “We promise more painful strikes throughout our occupied land as long as (Israel's) aggression continues and its crimes escalate,” the Palestinian group said. Israeli police said Friday they were continuing their investigation into the attack, and that two men from the Israeli town of Ramle, near Tel Aviv, and the Bedouin town of Kuseife, in the Negev desert, had turned themselves in over their alleged smuggling of the gunman and other Palestinians from the occupied West Bank into Israel. As Israeli forces stormed into Naalin and arrested two family members of the suspected attacker for questioning, they said they were met by a barrage of explosive devices, Molotov cocktails and stones. Israeli troops responded with gunfire, which they said struck at least one Palestinian. The person's condition was unclear. Before being arrested, Khawaja's father, Salah Khawaja, said he felt pride in his son for carrying out the attack. Like many Palestinians living in an environment where attacks on Israelis are celebrated and their perpetrators exalted, he expressed little sympathy for Israeli civilians and said he understood his son's desire for revenge. “Praise God, Moataz is beloved by everyone,” he told reporters. “Any young man who witnesses such massacres will naturally respond.” Further north, Israeli forces entered the Palestinian city of Tulkarm, home to an emerging armed group that has increasingly attracted young Palestinians angry at Israeli violence and disillusioned by their leadership. Gunmen opened fire, striking an Israeli military vehicle in the city, the army said. Others hurled explosive devices and shot at Israeli forces from a passing car. The Israeli army said it responded with live fire. There were no immediate reports of casualties on either side. The past few months have been marked by rising violence in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which Israel captured along with the Gaza strip in the 1967 Mideast war. Palestinians seek them for a future independent state. At least 75 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire during military arrest raids and other confrontations so far this year, according to a tally by The Associated Press. Over that same period, a series of attacks by Palestinians against Israelis has left at least 14 Israelis dead so far this year, all but one of them civilians. The upsurge in deaths has raised fears of a possible greater escalation under Israel's most right-wing government in history, which has pledged tough action against the Palestinians.
6 Palestinians killed during Israeli West Bank raid
The Israeli army raided the occupied West Bank city of Jenin on Tuesday, Palestinian health officials said, leading to a gunbattle that killed at least six Palestinians and wounded 10 others. Israeli military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss events still unfolding, said the army had entered Jenin to arrest suspects involved in the killing of two Israeli brothers in the northern West Bank town of Hawara last week. The army also said it was operating in the nearby flashpoint city of Nablus for the same reason. Residents of Nablus reported that at least two people were arrested before the army withdrew. The Jenin brigade, a loosely organized armed group based in the refugee camp, said its men were shooting and throwing explosive devices at Israeli soldiers who had surrounded a house in the refugee camp. Videos showed black smoke billowing from the house after the group reported that the army fired missiles at the house when the suspects refused to surrender, the group reported. The Palestinian Health Ministry said six people were shot and killed, including 26-year-old Mohammed Ghazawi, and at least 10 others wounded. The ministry did not immediately offer further details on the other five killed. The group said on Telegram that its fighters shot down two Israeli drones, posting pictures of young men cheering wildly and taking selfies as they held the charred aircraft aloft. The Israeli military said it was aware of the reports but declined to immediately comment. Tuesday’s raid was the latest in a string of deadly arrest operations by the Israeli military in the northern West Bank, as violence and deaths in the occupied territory surge to the highest levels seen in years. Over the last year of near-daily Israeli military raids, the densely populated Jenin refugee camp has emerged as a hub of activity. More than 60 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire this year, according to a tally by The Associated Press. Palestinian attacks against Israelis have killed 14 Israelis, all but one of them civilians, during that same time. Last month, a rare daytime military raid in the Old City of Nablus targeting the Lion’s Den, a recently formed group, sparked an hourslong gunfight that left 10 Palestinians dead. Palestinian armed groups said that six of the casualties were of theirs. Others appeared to be bystanders. Earlier on Tuesday, Israel’s far-right national security minister joined Jewish revelers in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron, dancing with residents from the hard-line settler community as they celebrated the holiday of Purim. Itamar Ben-Gvir — dressed in a costume combining elements of various uniforms of forces under his command — danced, sang and took selfies with party-goers and soldiers at an event in an Israeli settlement in Hebron. Ben-Gvir, an ultranationalist politician in Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government, lives in an adjacent settlement. It was the latest show of force by ultranationalist settlers in the occupied West Bank, who have been bolstered by Ben-Gvir and other allies in the new Israeli government. Overnight, settlers injured a Palestinian man in the same Palestinian town where a settler mob burned cars and houses last week. Hebron is a contested city that is home to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a site considered holy to Muslims, Christians and Jews. Hundreds of hard-line settlers live in fortified enclaves under military protection in the heart of a city of more than 200,000 Palestinians. Tuesday’s celebration came under heavy security and passed from a settlement to the Israeli-controlled downtown area, where Palestinians have been evicted or forced to close shops over the years. Ben-Gvir, who leads a small ultranationalist faction in Netanyahu’s government, has been a well-known face in Hebron for many years. Before entering office, he was arrested dozens of times and was once convicted of incitement and supporting a Jewish terrorist group. Until recently, he hung a photo in his living room of Baruch Goldstein, a radical Jewish settler who in 1994 killed 29 Palestinians during prayers in the tomb, known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque. The shooting happened on Purim that year. Ben-Gvir, surrounded by bodyguards on Tuesday, is now a prominent figure in Israel’s government, which includes leading members of the settler movement. He held a child and shook hands with the crowd as he explained the significance of his costume. “We love all of you, members of the security forces,” he said. The celebrations came at a time of heightened tensions between Israelis and Palestinians across the West Bank. Jewish settlers wounded a Palestinian man in a flashpoint town of Hawara late Monday that was torched in a settler rampage last week, medics said. The town, where a Palestinian shot and killed two Israeli brothers, was the scene of the worst settler-led attack in decades on Feb. 26, as mobs of Israeli settlers set buildings and cars on fire in revenge for the shooting. Late Monday, a group of settlers came to the main Hawara thoroughfare in a van, blasting music in what Palestinian officials described as a provocation. Monday evening marked the beginning of Purim, which is typically celebrated with costumes and revelry. Ghassan Daghlas, a Palestinian official who monitors Israeli settlements in the northern West Bank, said several Israeli settlers attacked a supermarket. Paramedics said that one man was treated for a head injury. Security camera footage from near the shop appeared to show Israeli settlers throwing rocks at it, and Palestinians hurling stones back. Outside, Israeli men dressed in black are seen hurling stones and pounding the windows of a car with people inside. Amateur video footage appeared to show Israeli settlers dancing with soldiers on the main Hawara road, alongside a van with the words “Happy Purim” emblazoned on the side. The army said the soldiers’ conduct was “not aligned with the behavior expected” and that the incident was under review. Israel captured the West Bank, along with the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, in the 1967 Mideast war, territories the Palestinians seek for their future state. In the decades since, more than 500,000 Jewish settlers have moved into dozens of settlements, which the international community considers illegal and an obstacle to peace.
Two flights from Middle East make emergency landing in Sylhet due to dense fog
Two airplanes, carrying passengers from Qatar and Saudi Arabia headed for Dhaka airport, made emergency landings at Sylhet Osmani International Airport due to dense fog on Tuesday. The airplanes of US-Bangla Airlines and Biman from Doha of Qatar and Dammam of Saudi Arabia respectively made the emergency landing. Belayet Hossain, an officer of US-Bangla at the Osmani airport, said the US-Bangla flight carrying 140 passengers was supposed to land at Hazrat Shah Jalal International Airport in the capital in the morning but it landed at the Osmani airport at 8.20am due to the dense fog. Biman flight makes emergency landing in Sylhet Later, the airplane with the passengers took off for Dhaka when normalcy returned around 10.20am, he said. Borhan Uddin, controller of Biman Bangladesh Airlines at Sylhet office, said the Dammam-return flight made the emergency landing in Sylhet around 10am due to the adverse weather in Dhaka. The airplane, however, left the airport for Dhaka an half-hour after its urgent landing, he added. Read more: Mechanical glitch: Biman flight makes emergency landing in Chattagram
Flashes of Arab unity at World Cup after years of discontent
For a brief moment after Saudi Arabia's Salem Aldawsari fired a ball from just inside the penalty box into the back of the net to seal a World Cup win against Argentina, Arabs across the divided Middle East found something to celebrate. Such Arab unity is hard to come by and fleeting when it arrives. But Qatar's hosting of the World Cup has provided a moment where many in the Arab world have rallied by Doha and the Saudi team's win. Whether that momentum continues will be tested on Saturday as Saudi Arabia faces Poland — and as regional tensions, religious differences and renewed economic competition between countries resume. “All Arabic countries are celebrating because one Arab team won,” said 27-year-old Saudi Rakan Yousef after Arab fans congratulated him in Doha, Qatar, on the Green Falcons’ win. “Even the emir of Qatar attended our match. ... There’s this feeling now that we are all brothers. That’s why I’m speechless.” The Arab world's division start even with the Arabic language. Spoken Arabic changes regionally, with the Berber-infused Arabic of North Africa, the rapid-fire Egyptian heard in movies and television comedies, the soft Levantine drawl and the guttural dialect of the Gulf Arabs. Read more: Saudi fans put on brave face after World Cup loss to Poland Religion is another differentiator — there are Muslims, both Sunni and Shiite with subgroups within, and minority Christians, Druze, Baha'i and others. Different views on religion and regional rivalries bleed into conflicts, such as the ongoing war in Yemen. But despite an attempt by al-Qaida to stir up extremists, the monthlong World Cup in energy-rich Qatar so far has seen unity among the Gulf Arab nations. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, the heads of state in two countries that only some two years ago had boycotted Qatar, attended the tournament's opening match. Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, called Qatar's hosting of the tournament “a milestone for all Arabs" and also attended the opening. That feeling was shared by others as well. “We are proud to be here for the first World Cup in an Arabic country,” Morocco coach Walid Regragui said. Jordan's Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi similarly praised Qatar while dismissing the criticisms of journalists — and by extension, rights groups. “Qatar did a tremendous job organizing a World Cup. ... Qatar never claimed it was perfect,” Safadi said. “We have differences in opinion, we have differences in views but that should not take away from the fact that Qatar has really put together a World Cup that is unique in every sense of the word.” Read more: On outskirts of Doha, laborers watch World Cup they built But the biggest surprise came two days later as Saudi Arabia stunned Argentina by winning their opener in the tournament, with Aldawsari doing a cartwheel and a flip. Qatar's ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, attended the match and wore a Saudi flag around his shoulders. One veteran Saudi sports journalist, Majed al-Tuwaijri, even wept on air after the match. “This is the most beautiful and important moment in my life and my 30-year media career," he said, his voice choking up. “I find myself failing to express myself because of the complexity of my feelings toward this great historical victory.” Saudi Arabia's King Salman declared Wednesday a public holiday to commemorate the win. In the kingdom and outside of it, people cheered and waved the country's green and white flag to celebrate. The Saudi flag itself carries two images that show its complicated place in the wider Arab world. It bears a white sword and the Arabic inscription of the shahada, a Muslim declaration of faith: "There is no god but Allah; Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.” After the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 A.D., Islam spread from the austere desert reaches of the Arabian Peninsula that later would become Saudi Arabia. Today, Saudi Arabia maintains beheading as a form of execution and is one of the world's top enforcers of the death penalty. The kingdom also has used its oil money since the 1980s to export an ultraconservative view of Islam called Wahhabism into mosques around the world. Extremists have exploited Wahhabi organizations receiving Saudi funding as well. That history, as well as regional politics, make a wholehearted embrace of Saudi Arabia more complicated for Arabs in the Mideast. While some celebrated Saudi Arabia's win in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian enclave blockaded by Egypt and Israel is ruled by the militant group Hamas. The kingdom, while not diplomatically recognizing Israel, now allows Israeli airlines overflight rights. The limits also can be seen in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has been fighting the country's Iranian-backed Houthi rebels since 2015. Houthi Information Minister Daifallah al-Shami on Twitter offered “a thousand congratulations” to Saudi Arabia for placing “Arab football back on the map.” He later deleted the tweet and apologized. “There are red lines that no party or person should cross,” al-Shami wrote. The Saudi win, which the daily newspaper Okaz described as “restoring the glories” of the kingdom, also fits into the new, more nationalistic Saudi Arabia forming under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. As the prince has risen to power, the kingdom has socially liberalized by allowing women to drive, reopening movie theaters and curtailing its morality police. His comments to the team ahead of the tournament, urging them to “enjoy” the matches, have been repeated constantly in Saudi Arabia's tightly controlled press. But Prince Mohammed also led a self-described corruption crackdown targeting anyone with power in the kingdom. U.S. intelligence agencies believe the brutal slaying of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul came at his orders, something denied by the kingdom. Meanwhile, economic competition between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia has been increasing as Riyadh tries to draw international business from Dubai. Qatar, which faced a Saudi-led boycott only two years earlier, has embraced the kingdom while solidifying ties with the United States as hedge. The inconclusive war in Yemen still rages. Soccer provides a respite, but no panacea for those woes. “You’d have to have a historical lobotomy to think this is a stable region,” said David B. Roberts, an associate professor at King’s College London who long has studied Gulf Arab nations.
Message of inclusion imbues Qatar World Cup opening ceremony
Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman extended one yellow-gloved hand to a FIFA World Cup ambassador suffering from a rare spinal disorder in an image meant to represent inclusion in a country facing international criticism over its human rights record. It wasn’t the biggest moment of Sunday’s seven-act World Cup opening ceremony ahead of the match between host country Qatar and Ecuador. The largest cheers were reserved for the Mideast and African leaders watching from their luxury suites in Bedouin-tent-inspired Al Bayt Stadium. In fact, it was Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani who drew thunderous applause in a short speech delivered in Arabic from the suite. “We have worked hard, along with many people, to make it one of the most successful tournaments,” he said. “We have exerted all efforts and invested for the good of all humanity.” He was seated between FIFA president Gianni Infantino and his father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who secured the World Cup for the tiny gulf nation 12 years ago. “How beautiful it is for people to put aside what divides them in order to celebrate their diversity and what brings them together at the same time,” Sheikh Tamim said, his words translated into English on a video screen inside the stadium. “I wish all the participating teams a magnificent football performance, high sportsmanship, and a time full of joy, excitement and delight for you all,” he continued. “And let there be days that are inspiring with goodness and hope.” He then said, “I welcome you and good luck to all,” in his only words spoken in English. Sheikh Hamad, viewed as the modernizer of Qatar during his 18 years as ruler, further delighted the crowd by autographing an official World Cup shirt handed to him by his son. He then held the shirt up to the crowd. Qatar, home to 3 million people, most of them migrant workers, has spent more than $200 billion on preparation for the World Cup. Seven new stadiums were built, including the 60,000-seat Al Bayt Stadium north of Doha. The opening ceremony was meant to introduce Qatar to the world through its culture with a theme of “bridging distances.” Creative director Ahmad Al Baker wanted the ceremony to signify “a gathering for all mankind, an invitation to come together as one, bridging all differences with humanity, respect and inclusion.” Read more: Qatar World Cup: No alcohol sales permitted at stadiums “Finally, we have reached the opening day, the day you have been eagerly waiting for,” Sheikh Tamim said. “We will follow, and with us the whole world, God willing, the great football festival, in this spacious ambience for human and civilized communication. “People of different races, nationalities, faiths and orientations will gather here in Qatar, and around screens on all continents to share the same exciting moments.” His words hit the mark as Sheikh Tamim was joined in the stadium suite by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, two leaders who had boycotted Qatar for years. Not present were the leaders of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, the two other nations involved in the boycott. There were no major Western leaders in attendance, as Qatar is under intense scrutiny for its treatment of the migrant workers who prepared the nation for the World Cup, as well as the LGBTQ community. Gay and lesbian sex is criminalized in Qatar. But among those who did attend the opening match were U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, Senegalese President Macky Sall, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Kuwait’s crown prince came, along with the director-general of the World Health Organization and Djibouti’s president. Also present was Jordan’s King Abdullah II. They listened to BTS' Jung Kook, while Qatari singer and producer Fahad Al Kubaisi debuted the single “Dreamers,” produced specifically for the World Cup. Then came remarks from Infantino, who spoke in Arabic, Spanish and finally English to officially open the tournament. “Dear friends, welcome, welcome, to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022,” Infantino said in English. “Welcome to celebrate football because football unites the world. And now let’s welcome the teams and let the show begin.” As “The Business” by Tiesto blasted over the speakers, Qatar and Ecuador took to the field and the World Cup officially began. Read more: Enner Valencia stars as Ecuador beat Qatar in World Cup 2022 opener
Turkey launches airstrikes over northern Syria
Turkey launched airstrikes over several towns in northern Syria on Saturday, U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces reported. The airstrikes occurred a week after a bomb rocked a bustling avenue in the heart of Istanbul, killing six people and wounding over 80 others. Turkish authorities blamed the attack on the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, as well as Syrian Kurdish groups affiliated with it. The Kurdish militants groups have, however, denied involvement. Ankara and Washington both consider the PKK a terror group, but disagree on the status of the Syrian Kurdish groups, which have been allied with the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria. Following the strikes, the Turkish ministry of defense posted a photo of a fighter plane with the phrase, “The treacherous attacks of the scoundrels are being held to account." The airstrikes targeted Kobani, a strategic town near the Turkish border that Ankara had previously attempted to overtake in its plans to establish a “safe zone” along northern Syria. SDF spokesperson Farhad Shami in a tweet added that two villages heavily populated with displaced people were under Turkish bombardment. He said the strikes had resulted in “deaths and injuries.” Syrian opposition media reported that Turkish airstrikes targeted Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces positions. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, reported that the strikes had also hit Syrian army positions and that at least 12 had been killed, including both SDF and Syrian army soldiers. Read more: Market blast in north Syria kills at least 9, wounds dozens The observatory said about 25 air strikes were carried out by Turkish warplanes on sites in the countryside of Aleppo, Raqqa and Hasakah. In neighboring Iraq, the U.S. Consulate General in Erbil said it is monito21 die in Syria as airstrike targets market, school shelledring “credible open-source reports” of potential Turkish military action in northern Syria and northern Iraq in the coming days. The Kurdish-led authority in northeast Syria said Saturday that if Turkey attacks, then fighters in the area would have “the right to resist and defend our areas in a major way that will take the region into a long war.” Turkey has launched three major cross-border operations into Syria since 2016 and already controls some territories in the north. Read more:
US moves to shield Saudi crown prince in journalist killing
The Biden administration declared Thursday that the high office held by Saudi Arabia's crown prince should shield him from lawsuits for his role in the killing of a U.S.-based journalist, a turnaround from Joe Biden's passionate campaign trail denunciations of Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the brutal slaying. The administration said the prince’s official standing should give him immunity in the lawsuit filed by the fiancée of slain Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and by the rights group he founded, Democracy for the Arab World Now. The request is non-binding and a judge will ultimately decide whether to grant immunity. But it is bound to anger human rights activists and many U.S. lawmakers, coming as Saudi Arabia has stepped up imprisonment and other retaliation against peaceful critics at home and abroad and has cut oil production, a move seen as undercutting efforts by the U.S. and its allies to punish Russia for its war against Ukraine. The State Department on Thursday called the administration's decision to try to protect the Saudi crown prince from U.S. courts in Khashoggi's killing “purely a legal determination." Saudi officials killed Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. They are believed to have dismembered him, although his remains have never been found. The U.S. intelligence community concluded Saudi Arabia’s crown prince had approved the killing of the widely known and respected journalist, who had written critically of Prince Mohammed’s harsh ways of silencing of those he considered rivals or critics. The Biden administration statement Thursday noted visa restrictions and other penalties that it had meted out to lower-ranking Saudi officials in the death. “From the earliest days of this Administration,the United States Government has expressed its grave concerns regarding Saudi agents’ responsibility for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder,” the State Department said. Its statement did not mention the crown prince's own alleged role. Biden as a candidate vowed to make a “pariah” out of Saudi rulers over the 2018 killing of Khashoggi. Read more: US implicates Saudi crown prince in journalist Jamal Khashoggi's killing “I think it was a flat-out murder,” Biden said in a 2019 CNN town hall, as a candidate. “And I think we should have nailed it as that. I publicly said at the time we should treat it that way and there should be consequences relating to how we deal with those — that power.” But Biden as president has sought to ease tensions with the kingdom, including bumping fists with Prince Mohammed on a July trip to the kingdom, as the U.S. works to persuade Saudi Arabia to undo a series of cuts in oil production. Khashoggi's fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, and DAWN sued the crown prince, his top aides and others in Washington federal court over their alleged roles in Khashoggi's killing. Saudi Arabia says the prince had no direct role in the slaying. “It’s beyond ironic that President Biden has singlehandedly assured MBS can escape accountability when it was President Biden who promised the American people he would do everything to hold him accountable," the head of DAWN, Sarah Leah Whitson, said in a statement, using the prince's acronym. Biden in February 2021 had ruled out the U.S. government imposing punishment on Prince Mohammed himself in the killing of Khashoggi, a resident of the Washington area. Biden, speaking after he authorized release of a declassified version of the intelligence community's findings on Prince Mohammed's role in the killing, argued at the time there was no precedent for the U.S. to move against the leader of a strategic partner. The U.S. military long has safeguarded Saudi Arabia from external enemies, in exchange for Saudi Arabia keeping global oil markets afloat. “It’s impossible to read the Biden administration’s move today as anything more than a capitulation to Saudi pressure tactics, including slashing oil output to twist our arms to recognize MBS’s fake immunity ploy,” Whitson said. A federal judge in Washington had given the U.S. government until midnight Thursday to express an opinion on the claim by the crown prince's lawyers that Prince Mohammed's high official standing renders him legally immune in the case. The Biden administration also had the option of not stating an opinion either way. Sovereign immunity, a concept rooted in international law, holds that states and their officials are protected from some legal proceedings in other foreign states’ domestic courts. Upholding the concept of “sovereign immunity” helps ensure that American leaders in turn don’t have to worry about being hauled into foreign courts to face lawsuits in other countries, the State Department said. Read more: Washington Post: Turkish officials say Saudi writer killed Human rights advocates had argued that the Biden administration would embolden Prince Mohammed and other authoritarian leaders around the world in more rights abuses if it supported the crown prince's claim that his high office shielded him from prosecution. Prince Mohammed serves as Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler in the stead of his aged father, King Salman. The Saudi king in September also temporarily transferred his title of prime minister — a title normally held by the Saudi monarch — to Prince Mohammed. Critics called it a bid to strengthen Mohammed’s immunity claim.
Palestinian officials say house fire in Gaza Strip kills 21
A fire set off by stored gasoline in a residential building killed 21 people Thursday evening in a refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, the territory's Hamas rulers said, in one of the deadliest incidents in recent years outside the violence stemming from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The blaze erupted on the third floor of a three-story building in the crowded Jabaliya camp, according to the Palestinian militant group Hamas. No one inside the house survived. The Civil Defense in Gaza, which is run by Hamas, attributed the cause of the fire to gasoline that was being stored in the building. It was not immediately clear how the gasoline ignited. Officials said an investigation was underway. Flames were seen spewing out of the windows of the burning floor as hundreds of people gathered outside on the street, waiting for fire trucks and ambulances. Read more: 4 Palestinians killed in flare-up as Israel counts votes Gaza, ruled by Hamas and under a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade, faces a severe energy crisis. People often store cooking gas, diesel and gasoline in homes in preparation for winter. House fires have previously been caused by candles and gas leaks. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas offered condolences to the families of the dead and declared Friday a day of mourning. Tor Wennesland, the United Nations’ Middle East peace envoy, expressed “heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families, relatives and friends of those who died in the accident; the Government, and the Palestinian people.” Hussein Al-Sheikh, a senior Palestinian Authority official, called on Israel to open its border crossing with Gaza to allow for the evacuation of those injured who need advanced medical care to Palestinian hospitals in the West Bank and Jerusalem. It was later confirmed that all in the house had died. COGAT, the Israeli body controlling the Erez Crossing with the Gaza Strip, did not comment. Read more: Israel and Gaza militants exchange fire after deadly strikes But Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz sent his condolences to the Palestinians, writing on Twitter that “we have offered our assistance in evacuating injured civilians to hospitals via COGAT. The State of Israel is prepared to provide life-saving, medical aid to Gaza residents.”
How Qatar's wealth brought the World Cup to the Middle East
Qatar is home to some 2.9 million people, but only a small fraction — around one in 10 — are Qatari citizens. They enjoy massive wealth and benefits fueled by Qatar’s shared control of one of the world’s largest reserves of natural gas. The tiny country on the eastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula juts out into the Persian Gulf. There lies the North Field, the world’s largest underwater gas field, which Qatar shares with Iran. The gas field holds approximately 10% of the world’s known natural gas reserves. Oil and gas have made the 50-year-old country fantastically wealthy and influential. In a matter of decades, Qatar’s roughly 300,000 citizens have been pulled from the hard livelihood of fishing and pearl diving. Read more: Rights groups fear for workers as Qatar World Cup spotlight dims The country is now an international transit hub with a profitable national airline, a force behind the influential Al Jazeera news network and is paying for the expansion of the largest U.S. military base in the Mideast. Here’s a look at Qatar’s economy and how this tiny country was able to spend so much to host the FIFA World Cup: QATAR’S ECONOMIC STRENGTH For most of its existence, the tribes of Qatar relied on pearl diving and fishing for survival. Like other parts of the Gulf, it was a harsh and bare existence. The discovery of oil and gas in the mid-20th century changed life in the Arabian Peninsula forever. While much of the world grapples with recession and inflation, Qatar and other Gulf Arab energy producers are reaping the benefits of high energy prices. The International Monetary Fund expects Qatar’s economy to grow by about 3.4% this year. Despite a massive spending spree to prepare for the World Cup, the country still earned more than it spent last year, giving it a cushy surplus that is continuing into 2022. Qatar’s riches are likely to grow as it expands capacity to be able to export more natural gas by 2025. Its sovereign wealth fund, the Qatar Investment Authority, manages and invests the country’s financial reserves. QATAR’S WORLD CUP SPENDING Qatar has spent some $200 billion on infrastructure and other development projects since winning the bid to host the five-week long World Cup, according to official statements and a report from Deloitte. Around $6.5 billion of that was spent on building eight stadiums for the tournament, including the Al Janoub stadium designed by the late acclaimed architect Zaha Hadid. Billions were also spent to build a metro line, new airport, roads and other infrastructure ahead of the matches. The London-based research firm Capital Economics said ticket sales suggest that around 1.5 million tourists will visit Qatar for the World Cup. If each visitor stayed for 10 days and spent $500 a day, spending per visitor would amount to $5,000, the research firm said. That could amount to a $7.5 billion boost to Qatar’s economy this year. However, some fans may fly in just for the matches while staying in nearby Dubai and elsewhere. Read more: Qatar's World Cup stadiums won't turn into white elephants QATAR’S LAVISH BENEFITS Like other rich petro-states in the Gulf, Qatar is not a democracy. Decisions are made by the ruling Al Thani family and its chose advisors. Citizens have little say in their country’s major policy decisions. The government, however, provides citizens with vast perks that have helped to ensure continued loyalty and support. Qatari citizens enjoy tax-free incomes, high-paying government jobs, free health care, free higher education, financial support for newlyweds, housing support, generous subsidies that cover utility bills and plush retirement benefits. The country’s citizens rely on laborers from other countries to fill jobs in the service sector, such as drivers and nannies, and to do the tough construction work that built modern-day Qatar. QATAR’S MIGRANT LABOR FORCE The country has faced intense scrutiny for its labor laws and treatment of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, mostly from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and other South Asian countries. These men live in shared rooms on labor camps and work throughout the long summer months, with just a few hours of midday respite. They often go years without seeing their families back home. The work is often dangerous, with Amnesty International saying dozens may have died from apparent heat stroke. Rights groups have credited Qatar with improving its labor laws, such as by adopting a minimum monthly wage of around $275 in 2020, and for dismantling the “kafala” system that had prevented workers from changing jobs or leaving the country without the consent of their employers. Human Rights Watch, however has urged Qatar to improve compensation for migrant workers who suffered injury, death and wage theft while working on World Cup-related projects.