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U.S. considers air strikes on Iraq, holds talks with Iran

Legacy Phuket Gazette

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U.S. considers air strikes on Iraq, holds talks with Iran | The Thaiger

PHUKET MEDIA WATCH

– World news selected by Gazette editors for Phuket’s international community

U.S. considers air strikes on Iraq, holds talks with Iran
Reuters / Phuket Gazette

PHUKET: President Barack Obama considered options for military action to support Iraq’s besieged government on Monday, and U.S. and Iranian officials held talks to stabilise the region, which has been roiled by the advance of Sunni rebels toward Baghdad.

Obama, who was being presented with recommendations from his top national security advisers on Monday evening, has made U.S. action contingent on Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s taking steps to broaden his Shi’ite-dominated government.

Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have routed Baghdad’s army and seized the north of the country in the past week, threatening to dismember Iraq and unleash all-out sectarian warfare with no regard for national borders.

The fighters have been joined by other armed Sunni groups that oppose what they say is oppression by Maliki. The United Nations human rights chief said forces allied with ISIL had almost certainly committed war crimes by executing hundreds of non-combatant men in Iraq over the past five days.

U.S. and Iranian officials discussed the crisis in Vienna on the sidelines of separate negotiations about the Iranian nuclear program, the two sides each said. Both ruled out military cooperation.

A U.S. official said the talks did not include military coordination and would not make “strategic determinations” over the heads of Iraqis.

“Iran is a great country that can play a key role in restoring stability in Iraq and the region,” a senior Iranian official told Reuters. But he added: “Military cooperation was not discussed and is not an option.”

Any joint action between the United States and Iran to help prop up their mutual ally in Baghdad would be unprecedented since Shi’ite Iran’s 1979 revolution, a sign of the alarm raised by the lightning insurgent advance.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the advance an “existential threat” for Iraq. Asked if the United States could cooperate with Tehran against the insurgents, Kerry told Yahoo News: “I wouldn’t rule out anything that would be constructive.”

As for air strikes: “They’re not the whole answer, but they may well be one of the options that are important,” he said. “When you have people murdering, assassinating in these mass massacres, you have to stop that. And you do what you need to do if you need to try to stop it from the air or otherwise.”

Iran has longstanding ties to Maliki and other Shi’ite politicians who came to power in U.S.-backed elections.

POINT MAN

In Baghdad, Brett McGurk, the State Department’s point man on Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Stephen Beecroft, met with Maliki on Monday, U.S. officials said. The meeting is part of a U.S. effort to prod Maliki to govern in a less sectarian manner.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said President Barack Obama had not yet decided on political demands to be presented to Maliki.

ISIL seeks a caliphate ruled on medieval Sunni Muslim precepts in Iraq and Syria, fighting against both Iraq’s Maliki and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, another ally of Iran. It considers Shi’ites heretics deserving death and has boasted of massacring hundreds of Iraqi troops who surrendered to it last week.

Its uprising has been joined by tribal groups and figures from Saddam’s era who believe Maliki is hostile to Sunnis.

ISIL fighters and allied Sunni tribesmen overran another town on Monday, Saqlawiya, west of Baghdad, where they captured six Humvees and two tanks.

Eyewitnesses said Iraqi army helicopters were hovering over the town to provide cover for retreating troops.

A security officer said he saw a helicopter that was shot down by an anti-aircraft machine gun. There was no official comment from the government.

Overnight, the fighters captured the city of Tal Afar in northwestern Iraq, solidifying their grip on the north.

“Severe fighting took place, and many people were killed. Shi’ite families have fled to the west and Sunni families have fled to the east,” said a city official.

Tal Afar is near Mosul, the north’s main city, which ISIL seized last week. Fighters then swept through towns on the Tigris before halting about an hour’s drive north of Baghdad.

Iraq’s army is holding out in Samarra, a city on the Tigris river that is home to a Shi’ite shrine. A convoy sent to reinforce troops there was ambushed on Sunday by Sunni fighters near Ishaqi. Fighting continued through Monday morning.

An Iraqi army spokesman reported fighting also to the south of Baghdad. He said 56 of the enemy had been killed over the previous 24 hours in various engagements.

OBAMA WEIGHING OPTIONS

Obama pulled out all U.S. troops in late 2011 and rules out sending them back, although he is weighing other options such as air strikes. A U.S. aircraft carrier has sailed into the Gulf along with a warship carrying 550 marines.

The only U.S. military contingent is the security staff at the U.S. embassy. Washington is evacuating some diplomatic staff and is sending up to 275 support and military personnel to help safeguard the facilities.

The United Nations said it had relocated 58 staff to Jordan.

Potential cooperation between the United States and Iran shows how dramatically the ISIL advance has redrawn the map of Middle East alliances in a matter of days.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate elected last year, has presided over a gradual thaw with the West, including secret talks with Washington that led to a preliminary deal to curb Iran’s nuclear programme. But open cooperation against a mutual threat would be unprecedented.

SAUDI FEARS

Any rapprochement between Washington and Tehran over Iraq could anger U.S. allies Israel and the Sunni Gulf Arab states. Saudi Arabia, the Gulf’s main Sunni power, said it rejected foreign interference in Iraq, and blamed Baghdad’s “sectarian and exclusionary policies” for fuelling the insurgency.

ISIL fighters’ sweep through the Tigris valley north of Baghdad included Saddam’s hometown Tikrit, where they captured and apparently massacred troops at Speicher air base, once one of the main U.S. headquarters.

Pictures distributed on a purported ISIL Twitter account appeared to show gunmen from the Islamist group shooting dozens of men, unarmed and lying prone. Captions said they were army deserters captured as they tried to flee fighting.

ISIL said it executed 1,700 soldiers out of 2,500 it had captured in Tikrit. Although those numbers appeared exaggerated, the total could still be in the hundreds. A former local official in Tikrit told Reuters ISIL had captured 450 to 500 troops at Speicher and another 100 elsewhere in Tikrit. Some 200 troops were still believed to be holding out in Speicher.

U.N rights chief Navi Pillay said corroborated reports showed that soldiers, military conscripts, police and others who had surrendered or been captured had been summarily executed.

“Although the numbers cannot be verified yet, this apparently systematic series of cold-blooded executions, mostly conducted in various locations in the Tikrit area, almost certainly amounts to war crimes,” she said.

Despite Washington’s calls for Maliki to reach out to Sunnis to create unity, the prime minister has spoken more of retaliation than reconciliation.

“We will work on purging Iraq of the tra

— Phuket Gazette Editors

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Philippines

Powerful 6.4 earthquake kills five in the Philippines

May Taylor

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Powerful 6.4 earthquake kills five in the Philippines | The Thaiger

PHOTO: AFP

A strong 6.4 magnitude earthquake has struck the southern Philippines, killing five, including one child, destroying property and disrupting power supply. The death toll is expected to rise.

The powerful quake was felt across the Mindanao region, even causing a 3-storey shopping mall to burst into flames. Residents were evacuated and a child was killed when a house collapsed in the town of Datu Paglas.

AFP reports that the quake was 14 kilometres deep and followed by two aftershocks. The Philippines is part of the “Ring of Fire”, a zone of constant seismic activity that stretches from Japan through Southeast Asia and across the Pacific.

Several injuries have been reported as a result of falling debris. The shopping mall that caught fire was evacuated when the quake struck, but it’s not yet known if there were still people inside as the fire took hold.

The mall was still on fire three hours later as nearly 100 firemen battled to put it out.

Residents on the coast in Davao fled to higher ground fearing a tsunami, even though a government seismologist reassured people there was no tsunami risk as the quake had occurred inland.

It’s understood that prisoners in the municipal jail in the town of Bansalan were also let out, but placed in handcuffs and held outside for the duration of the evacuation.

SOURCE: AFP

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World

Key ally rejects PM Johnson’s Brexit plan – Sterling sags

The Thaiger

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Key ally rejects PM Johnson’s Brexit plan – Sterling sags | The Thaiger

The British Pound tumbled again today after UK PM Boris Johnson’s key ally in parliament said it “could not support” his plans for a Brexit deal, throwing a spanner in the works – just as Britain and the EU were closing in on an agreement.

The comment caused an immediate reaction from this morning’s Asia Pacific markets.

After years of wrangling, the two sides said they were edging towards the basis for a treaty allowing Britain to avoid an economically catastrophic “no-deal” exit from the European Union.

With both teams working through the night, EU negotiator Michel Barnier said there had been “good progress, and work is ongoing”, while France’s deputy foreign minister said Thursday a deal was “within reach but is not guaranteed”.

There had been optimism that a deal was in the offing, just two weeks before Britain is due to leave the bloc, as they worked towards a solution on the vexed question of British-ruled Northern Ireland.

But Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) dropped a bombshell hours before the start of a crunch EU summit Thursday, saying it cannot support the plan.

“As things stand, we could not support what is being suggested on customs and consent issues, and there is a lack of clarity” on Value Added Tax, the DUP, which props up Johnson’s government, said in a statement on Twitter.

“We will continue to work with the Government to try and get a sensible deal that works for Northern Ireland and protects the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom.”

DUP leader Arlene Foster had met Johnson several times this week to discuss the progress of talks and had described as “nonsense” previous reports that she was ready to give way.

The pound, which earlier in the day was hovering at five-month highs around $1.2877 sank to $1.2750 before edging back slightly, while it also lost ground to the euro.

The DUP are against any deal that would tie Northern Ireland to EU rules but cut the rest of the United Kingdom loose.

Markets react

In early trade, London’s FTSE added 0.1%, Paris was flat and Frankfurt eased 0.2%. In Asia, most markets were in the red, with traders unable to take advantage of weak US retail data that raised the chances of another Federal Reserve interest rate cut. Comments in the Fed’s Beige Book update on the economy also pointed to a slowdown.

Hong Kong added 0.7% but Shanghai finished 0.1% lower and Tokyo lost 0.1%.

Sydney sank 0.8%, Singapore shed 0.7% and Seoul retreated 0.2%t, with Wellington and Manila also off. There were gains in Taipei, Mumbai, Bangkok and Jakarta.

Speculation about a possible US rate cut provided support to higher-yielding currencies against the dollar, with the Australian dollar 0.6 percent up and the South Korean won 0.1 percent stronger. The Thai baht, the Mexican peso and the South African rand also posted healthy gains.

Oil prices fell after data pointed to a sharp rise in US stockpiles that reinforced worries about the impact on demand from the China-US trade war and the global economic slowdown.

Key markets today

Pound/dollar: DOWN at $1.2784 from $1.2817 at 2100 GMT

Euro/pound: UP at 86.65 pence from 86.33 pence

Euro/dollar: UP at $1.1081 from $1.1073

Dollar/yen: UP at 108.80 yen from 108.71 yen

London – FTSE 100: UP 0.1 percent at 7,175.09

Tokyo – Nikkei 225: DOWN 0.1% at 22,451.86 (close)

Hong Kong – Hang Seng: UP 0.7% at 26,848.49 (close)

Shanghai – Composite: DOWN 0.1% at 2,977.33 (close)

West Texas Intermediate: DOWN 56 cents at $52.80 per barrel

Brent North Sea crude: DOWN 55 cents at $58.87 per barrel

New York – Dow: DOWN 0.1% at 27,001.98 (close)

SOURCE: Agence France-Presse

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World

EU and UK zone in on possible breakthrough

The Thaiger

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EU and UK zone in on possible breakthrough | The Thaiger

British and European negotiators headed back into intense negotiations on a draft Brexit deal after late-night talks brought them closer but so far fails to confirm an elusive breakthrough.

Reports that Britain has softened its stance on the customs status of Northern Ireland in order to clinch an accord at this week’s European summit had raised hopes that a chaotic “no-deal Brexit” can be avoided and is driving the pound higher.

But a marathon overnight negotiating session in the EU’s Brussels headquarters brought them to the eve of the meeting with still some distance to go to agree the wording of a treaty to govern the terms of Britain’s October 31 departure from the bloc.

“The teams worked into the night and continue to make progress. The teams will meet again this morning,” a UK official said, describing the talks as “constructive”. He and EU officials said the teams would get back to work at around 9am.

A senior European diplomat told AFP that the negotiators had begun to transcribe the British offer into a legal text that could eventually go before the 28 EU national leaders on Thursday at their European Council summit which begins on Thursday.

But there remain some important differences, he cautioned, while a European official, speaking on condition of anonymity as closed-door negotiations continue, played down hopes that any text would be finalised Wednesday.

Even if a text is prepared for the leaders this week – or if, as many observers in Brussels expect, an extraordinary summit is called later – any deal would have to be approved by a skeptical British parliament, which holds a special session on Saturday.

By agreeing to a form of customs boundary in the Irish Sea, Britain could allow its province of Northern Ireland to remain under EU rules, prevent a return to a hard land border with EU member Ireland and salvage a negotiated withdrawal.

But Prime Minister Boris Johnson may struggle to convince hardline Conservative eurosceptic MPS and his allies from Northern Ireland’s loyalist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to accept this concession — less than three weeks before Britain is due to leave the EU.

Nevertheless, EU negotiator Michel Barnier and British Brexit minister Stephen Barclay judged that a deal was close enough to justify officials working into the early hours of Wednesday morning.

Barnier had said a text must be on the table by Wednesday if member state governments are to have a chance to consider it before the summit, because the 28 national leaders have no plans to themselves debate the details of the agreement.

But if, as now seems likely, the Wednesday deadline is missed, officials said talks could instead resume next week and a special summit be called just in time for Johnson to fulfil his pledge to lead Britain out of the bloc on October 31.

European leaders warn they will not let Britain use Northern Ireland as a back door to the single market and Barnier said Tuesday that “it is high time to turn good intentions into legal text.”

Yesterday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel outlined why EU officials are driving a hard bargain and hoping Britain will commit to a “level playing field” in post-Brexit trade and commerce.

“One thing is clear, Britain will develop into another competitor on the doorstep of Europe. And therefore the EU will be challenged to become more competitive and to assume geopolitical responsibility.”

Glimmers of hope

“The last moment is always a bit later than you think,” one German government official told AFP, suggesting Brexit would have to be postponed beyond the end of the month if talks are to reach a successful conclusion.

More than three years after Britain’s 2016 referendum vote to leave the European bloc, talks remain stuck on how to avoid customs checks on the border between British-ruled Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland.

The EU has reservations about London’s proposed customs arrangements and the role for Northern Ireland’s Stormont assembly in giving consent to the plans.

In London, DUP leader Arlene Foster told the BBC that she wanted to support a deal, but would not do so if she felt it divided Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK and added that without her party’s support “everybody knows” it would not pass in parliament.

If no deal is reached by Saturday, Johnson will fall foul of a British law demanding he ask the EU to postpone Brexit for a third time rather than risk a potentially disastrous “no deal” departure.

SOURCE: Agence France-Presse

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