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Saturday, January 4, 2020

World News, World News Updates, World News Headlines, Latest World News, Current Affairs

World News, World News Updates, World News Headlines, Latest World News, Current Affairs


Iranian Cyberattacks Feared After Killing of General Qasem Soleimani

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 02:21 PM PST

(BOSTON) — Iran’s retaliation for the United States’ targeted killing of its top general is likely to include cyberattacks, security experts warned Friday. Iran’s state-backed hackers are already among the world’s most aggressive and could inject malware that triggers major disruptions to the U.S. public and private sector.

Potential targets include manufacturing facilities, oil and gas plants and transit systems. A top U.S. cybersecurity official is warning businesses and government agencies to be extra vigilant.

Iranian state-backed hackers carried out a series of disruptive denial-of-service attacks that knocked the websites of major U.S. banks and the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ offline in 2012-13, a response to U.S. sanctions. Two years later, they wiped servers at the Sands Casino in Las Vegas, crippling hotel and gambling operations.

The destructive attacks on U.S. targets ebbed when Tehran reached a nuclear deal with the Obama administration in 2015. The killing early Friday in Iraq of Quds Force commander Gen. Qasem Soleimani — long after Trump scrapped the nuclear deal — completely alters the equation.

“Our concern is essentially that things are going to go back to the way they were before the agreement,” said John Hultquist, director of intelligence analysis at the cybersecurity firm FireEye. “There are opportunities for them to cause real disruption and destruction.”

Iran has been doing a lot of probing of critical U.S. industrial systems in recent years — trying to gain access — but has limited its destructive attacks to targets in the Middle East such as the Saudi oil company, experts say.

It’s not known whether Iranian cyber-agents have planted destructive payloads in U.S. infrastructure that could now be triggered.

“It’s certainly possible,” said Hultquist. “But we haven’t actually seen it.”

Robert M. Lee, chief executive of Dragos Inc., which specializes in industrial control system security, said Iranian hackers have been very aggressive in trying to gain access to utilities, factories and oil and gas facilities. That doesn’t mean they’ve succeeded, however. In one case in 2013 where they did break into the control system of a U.S. dam — garnering significant media attention — Lee said they probably didn’t know the compromised target was a small flood control structure 20 miles north of New York City.

Iran has been increasing its cyber capabilities but is not in the same league as China or Russia — which has proven most adept at sabotaging critical infrastructure, witnessed in attacks on Ukraine’s power grid and elections, experts agree.

And while the U.S. power grid is among the most secure and resilient in the world, plenty of private companies and local governments haven’t made adequate investments in cybersecurity and are highly vulnerable, experts say.

“My worst-case scenario is a municipality or a cooperative-type attack where power is lost to a city or a couple of neighborhoods,” Lee said.

Consider the havoc an epidemic of ransomware attacks has caused U.S. local governments, crippling services as vital as tax collection. While there’s no evidence of coordinated Iranian involvement, imagine if the aggressor — instead of scrambling data and demanding ransoms — simply wiped hard drives clean, said Hultquist.

The only known cybersecurity survey of U.S. local governments, county and municipal, found that the networks of 28 percent were being attacked at least hourly — and that nearly the same percentage said they didn’t even know how frequently they were being attacked. Although the study was done in 2016, the authors at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County don’t believe the situation has improved since.

The top cybersecurity official at the Department of Homeland Security, Christopher Krebs, urged companies and government agencies to refresh their knowledge of Iranian state-backed hackers’ past exploits and methods after Soleimani’s death was announced. “Pay close attention to your critical systems,” he tweeted.

In June, Krebs warned of a rise in malicious Iranian cyberactivity, particularly attacks using common methods like spearphishing that could erase entire networks: “What might start as an account compromise, where you think you might just lose data, can quickly become a situation where you’ve lost your whole network.”

When then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper blamed Iran for the Sands Casino attack, it was one of the first cases of American intelligence agencies identifying a specific country as hacking for political reasons: The casino’s owner, Sheldon Adelson, is a big Israel backer. Clapper also noted the value of hacking for collecting intelligence. North Korea’s hack of Sony Pictures in retaliation for a movie that mocked its leader followed.

The vast majority of the nearly 100 Iranian targets leaked online last year by a person or group known as Lab Dookhtegan — a defector, perhaps — were in the Middle East, said Charity Wright, a former National Security Agency analyst at the threat intelligence firm InSights. She said it’s highly likely Iran will focus its retaliation on U.S. targets in the region as well as in Israel and the U.S.

—-

Associated Press writer Christina Cassidy contributed from Atlanta

Iran Tensions Turn Focus of Democratic Primary to Foreign Policy

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 01:27 PM PST

With just weeks before voting begins in Iowa, the killing of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in a U.S. airstrike ordered by President Donald Trump has posed a new challenge to his Democratic opponents: how should the Democratic candidates react to the assassination of a terrorist whose death could draw the U.S. into another costly confrontation in the Middle East? In a race that has rarely zeroed in on foreign policy, the question has the potential to reveal fissures between Democratic rivals and possibly upend the wide-open 2020 nominating contest.

On the campaign trail, the Democratic candidates acknowledged Soleimani was responsible for bloodshed across the Middle East, including the deaths of Americans, while highlighting the potential consequences of Iranian retaliation and giving the contenders an opportunity to highlight what several said was a rushed move on the President’s part.

“[Soleimani] supported terror and sowed chaos. None of that negates the fact that this is a hugely escalatory move in an already dangerous region,” former Vice President Joe Biden said in a statement after the strike. “The Administration’s statement says that its goal is to deter future attacks by Iran, but this action almost certainly will have the opposite effect.”

Trump, Biden continued, “just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox.”

Biden’s statement was similar to those of some top Democratic rivals. Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar warned that the attack raised “serious questions and concerns about escalating conflicts,” while former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg said it raised questions about whether the country is “prepared for the consequences.” Klobuchar and Buttigieg also condemned the Trump Administration’s failure to consult leading lawmakers in Congress prior to the airstrike. (Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said the group of lawmakers typically briefed on intelligence matters by the White House, known as the Gang of Eight, had not been consulted beforehand.)

The top two progressive candidates in the race raised similar alarm bells about the prospect of war with Iran, but couched their criticism in stronger language. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren initially tweeted a statement calling the move “reckless,” but referring to Soleimani as a “murderer, responsible for the deaths of thousands.”

Our priority must be to avoid another costly war with Iran,” she wrote.

On Friday, Warren sharpened her language. “Donald Trump ripped up an Iran nuclear deal that was working. He’s repeatedly escalated tensions,” she wrote on Twitter. “Now he’s assassinated a senior foreign military official. He’s been marching toward war with Iran since his first days in office—but the American people won’t stand for it.”

Warren’s rhetoric matched that of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who argued that the strike against Soleimani is analogous to the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2002. “We face a similar crossroads fraught with danger,” he said at a town hall in Anamosa, Iowa on Friday. “Once again, we must worry about unintended consequences and the impact of unilateral decision making.” The populist Senator also noted that, should the U.S. officially enter into a war with Iran, it would be the working class who would face the most severe repercussions.

“It is rarely the children of the billionaire class who face the agony of reckless foreign policy,” he said. “It is the children of working families.”

Sanders never mentioned Biden by name when discussing the strike on Soleimani at his town hall Friday. But his invocation of the Iraq War was telling. He and Biden are the only two presidential candidates who were in the Senate to vote on the Iraq war in 2002. By highlighting his own opposition to the war, he was subtly invoking Biden’s support for it at the time.

It’s a contrast that could prove pivotal as America’s confrontation with Iran unfolds.

United Methodist Church Leaders Plan to Formally Split From the Church

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 12:41 PM PST

(NASHVILLE, Tenn. ) — United Methodist Church leaders from around the world are proposing a new conservative denomination that would split from the rest of the church in an attempt to resolve a yearslong dispute over gay marriage and gay clergy.

Members of the 13-million-person denomination have been at odds for years over the issue. Some members, especially in the United States, have been demanding full inclusion for LGBTQ people.

A specially called meeting last year failed to resolve the differences. The new proposal envisions an amicable separation in which conservative churches forming a new denomination would retain their assets. The new denomination also would receive $25 million.

A ‘Forever War’ With Iran Is Unlikely. But More Death and Violence Seems Inevitable

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 12:30 PM PST

The sudden, shocking killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani by a U.S. drone at the Baghdad airport is one of those moments when a big door swings violently on a seemingly small hinge. How can the death of one man, largely unknown to the U.S. public, cause such an extraordinary range of potentially dangerous outcomes? What are the options, both for Iran and the U.S. moving forward?

Suleimani was part Niccoli Machiavelli, part Cardinal Richelieu, and part battle-hardened special forces foot soldier. Revered in Tehran, he was despised throughout much of the region. The hackneyed phrase, “he had blood on his hands” doesn’t begin to describe the level of death and destruction he left in his wake across the Middle East. Taking his piece off the chessboard is a tactical success for the U.S., especially given his talent and devotion to the hardline regime. But what is missing is any sense of a strategic direction forward, either for the U.S. or Iran.

Let’s start with Iran, which has the more immediate set of choices to make. Given Soleimani’s role as leader of the Iranian military establishment and his significant political aspirations, Iran’s mullahs will be compelled to respond significantly. Their range of options within the Middle East is wide, and the most obvious one would be direct attacks against US personnel in Afghanistan (where the Iranians have deep pockets of influence in the west of the country), Iraq (doubling down on taking out the U.S. Embassy or targeting personnel), Syria or Saudi Arabia. These could be done with improvised explosive devices, surface-to-surface missiles, or direct combat missions by Iranian special forces.

The Iranians could also turn to the sea, striking U.S. warships of the 5th Fleet in the Arabian Gulf, using diesel submarines, cruise missiles, or so-called “swarm attacks” of small boats or closing the Strait of Hormuz to merchant shipping, something they have consistently threatened and signaled through much of 2019.

They can also attack US allies, unleashing their surrogate Hezbollah against Israel, perhaps using the massive surface-to-surface rocket inventory based in southern Lebanon; renewing attacks against Saudi oilfields, increasing the level of the fall 2019 strikes against oil infrastructure; or seize another tanker from the United Kingdom or other U.S. partners.

Finally, they can also choose less conventional options, perhaps a targeted assassination of a senior U.S. military diplomat or military figure in the region or closer to the U.S. itself, claiming they are responding proportionally. And almost certainly they will attempt to use offensive cyber capability to degrade U.S. military command and control, destroy or manipulate key data in the U.S. financial sector, sow chaos in our transportation infrastructure, or attack the electric grid.

Most likely, they will choose some combination of these options, all designed to give President Trump a bad set of choices – either he will have to take further military action, pushing the U.S. toward another “endless war” that he campaigned on ending; or if he doesn’t act, appearing weak in the face of Iranian action. The Iranians want some form of sanction relief before returning to re-negotiate the failed nuclear weapon accord, but that seems very far away at the moment.

On the U.S. side, the first imperative is to improve defenses across the large threat surface described above. Expect additional deployments of sensors and intelligence gathering systems; missile defense around key U.S. bases such as Al Udid in Qatar; specialized U.S Marine detachments to our embassies around the region; substantial ground troops (the first elements of the 82nd airborne division are en route to Kuwait now); more precision guided air munitions and additional fighter-bombers; perhaps another carrier strike group (an aircraft carrier with an air wing of 70 combat aircraft); and a Marine Expeditionary Unit. That set of deployments is underway now, and more will be planned.

Additionally, the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida are working round-the-clock to build options for the President on the offensive side. While it appears the U.S. will at least pause for the moment and assess the Iranian response to Soleimani’s death, the National Security Council should be gaming out U.S. response if these is an Iranian attack. Some of the U.S. options under consideration would likely include attacks against Iranian conventional military facilities (naval and air bases); strikes on the Iranian fleet at sea; destruction of Iranian oil facilities to include refineries; the Iranian electrical grid; offensive cyber-attacks on key Iranian infrastructure; attacks on Iranian militias in the field in Syria and Iraq; or further targeted attacks against individual members of the Quds force. An important element in this drama is the way Iraq–already a highly divided society–will be crushed between the U.S. and Iran. For the Iraqis, this will represent the ultimate “no win” scenario, and it will only inflame the internal tensions.

Both Iran and the United States will generate competing strategic narratives and attempt to influence global opinion. For the U.S., this means gathering what support is possible from our European partners (which will be scarce) and more likely combining options with the Israelis and Gulf Arabs. On the Iranian side, Russia and China will be important partners at least in the diplomatic sense – particularly as the three nations just completed significant naval exercises together in the north Indian Ocean.

The chances of a climb-down appear remote at this point. The nuclear accord is irreparably broken, Iran will respond strongly to Soleimani’s killing, and likely there will be more U.S. casualties. The Trump administration will then likely escalate, and this all could tumble into a prolonged period of combat – probably not another “forever war” with a large ground troop deployment, but a series of combat encounters of increasing violence that deepen the already deadly animosity between Tehran and Washington. All of this, of course, is occurring with an impeachment as backdrop and an election year in the U.S.

Nearly 3,000 More Army Troops Heading to Middle East in Wake of Soleimani Assassination: Defense Officials

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 10:16 AM PST

(WASHINGTON) — The United States is sending nearly 3,000 more Army troops to the Mideast as reinforcements in the volatile aftermath of the killing of an Iranian general in a strike ordered by President Donald Trump, defense officials said Friday.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a decision not yet announced by the Pentagon, said the troops are from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. They are in addition to about 700 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne who deployed to Kuwait earlier this week after the storming of the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad by Iran-backed militiamen and their supporters.

The dispatching of extra troops reflects concern about potential Iranian retaliatory action for the killing Thursday of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force. But it also runs counter to Trump’s repeated push to extract the United States from Mideast conflicts. Prior to this week’s troop deployments, the administration had sent 14,000 additional troops to the Mideast since May, when it first publicly claimed Iran was planning attacks on U.S. interests.

The reinforcements took shape as Trump gave his first comments on the strike, declaring that he ordered the killing of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani because he had killed and wounded many Americans over the years and was plotting to kill many more. “He should have been taken out many years ago,” he added.

The strike marked a major escalation in the conflict between Washington and Iran, as Iran vowed “harsh retaliation” for the killing of the senior military leader. The two nations have faced repeated crises since Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed crippling sanctions.

The United States urged its citizens to leave Iraq “immediately” as fears mounted that the strike and any retaliation by Iran could ignite a conflict that engulfs the region.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended the strike as “wholly lawful,” saying that Soleimani posed an “imminent” threat against the U.S. and its interests in the region.

“There was an imminent attack,” Pompeo told Fox News. “The orchestrator, the primary motivator for the attack, was Qassem Soleimani.”

The W hite House did not inform lawmakers before the strike. It was expected to give classified briefings to members of Congress and staff in the afternoon. Defense Secretary Mark Esper notified House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of the strike shortly before the Pentagon confirmed it publicly.

Pompeo called world leaders Friday to explain and defend Trump’s decision to order the airstrike that has sparked fears of an explosion of anti-American protests as well as more violence in the already unstable Middle East.

The State Department said Pompeo had spoken Friday with top officials in Afghanistan, Britain, China, France, Germany and Pakistan.

In his calls with the British and German foreign ministers as well as China’s state councilor, Pompeo stressed that Trump acted to counter an imminent threat to U.S. lives in the region but also that the U.S. is committed to “de-escalation” of tensions, according to the department’s summaries of the conversations.

De-escalation was not mentioned in the department’s summary of his call with the French foreign minister, nor in his calls with Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani or the Pakistani military chief of staff. In those calls Pompeo “underscored the Iranian regime’s destabilizing actions through the region and the Trump Administration’s resolve in protecting American interests, personnel, facilities and partners,” the department said.

Trump opted not to play a round of golf on Friday, and he was not expected to be seen publicly until he travels to Miami for an afternoon event for his reelection campaign.

___

Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro and Matthew Lee contributed.

‘A Philosophical Belief.’ British Judge Rules Ethical Vegans Are Protected From Workplace Discrimination

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 08:08 AM PST

(LONDON) — British workers who practice “ethical veganism” to protect animals secured a big win in an employment tribunal when a judge ruled Friday that they are entitled to legal protection from job discrimination.

The judge said that because ethical veganism is a philosophical belief, its adherents are covered by the U.K.’s anti-discrimination law, the 2010 Equality Act.

The ruling came in a claim brought by a man who said he was fired after raising questions about pension fund investments in companies that test products on animals.

Jordi Casamitjana, 55, alleged his dismissal from the League Against Cruel Sports, a British charity that works against animals being abused or killed for sport, resulted from his strong beliefs. The charity did not contest at the hearing whether ethical vegans deserved workplace protections.

Ethical vegans go beyond eating a plant-based diet to try to exclude any form of what they believe is animal exploitation, including not wearing wool or leather clothes.

Jordi Casamitjana looks at camera
Nick Ansell––PA/APJordi Casamitjana leaves an Employment Tribunal after it ruled that ethical veganism is a philosophical belief and is therefore protected by law, outside the court in Norwich, England on Jan. 3, 2020.

Tribunal Judge Robin Postle ruled that ethical veganism met the legal criteria for being considered a protected belief under the same section of the Equality Act that prohibits religious discrimination.

Postle found the beliefs held by ethical vegans to be worthy of respect, compatible with human dignity and not conflicting with the rights of others. “I am satisfied overwhelmingly that ethical veganism does constitute a philosophical belief,” he said.

Casamitjana said he hoped his case sets a precedent for other countries.

“This is a very important ruling for vegans everywhere in the world that will inspire other vegans in other countries that don’t have that protection to develop cases that will lead to that protection,” he said.

Read more: Vegan Sues Neighbors for Barbecuing in Their Own Backyard Because She ‘Can’t Go Out There’

Casamitjana’s lawyer said that as a result of the ruling, sanctioning workers for ethical veganism will be prohibited in the same way it is illegal to discriminate against workers based on their race, gender, age or sexual orientation.

Iran Vows ‘Harsh Retaliation’ After U.S. Killing of Top General Qasem Soleimani

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 06:40 AM PST

(BAGHDAD) — Iran has vowed “harsh retaliation” for a U.S. airstrike near Baghdad’s airport that killed Tehran’s top general and the architect of its interventions across the Middle East, as tensions soared in the wake of the targeted killing.

The killing of Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, marks a major escalation in the standoff between Washington and Iran, which has careened from one crisis to another since President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed crippling sanctions.

The United States urged its U.S. citizens to leave Iraq “immediately.” The State Department said the embassy in Baghdad, which was attacked by Iran-backed militiamen and other protesters earlier this week, is closed and all consular services have been suspended.

Read more: Why the U.S. Assassination of Iranian Quds Force Leader Qasem Soleimani Has the U.S. Bracing for Retaliation

Around 5,200 American troops are based in Iraq, where they mainly train Iraqi forces and help to combat Islamic State militants.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that a “harsh retaliation is waiting” for the U.S. after the airstrike, calling Soleimani the “international face of resistance.” Khamenei declared three days of public mourning for the general’s death, and appointed Maj. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani’s deputy, to replace him as head of the elite Quds force.

Iran also summoned the Swiss charges d’affaires, who represents U.S. interests in Tehran, to protest the killing. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the strike “an act of state terrorism and violation of Iraq’s sovereignty.”

The killing, and any forceful retaliation by Iran, could ignite a conflict that engulfs the whole region, endangering U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and beyond. Over the last two decades, Soleimani had assembled a network of heavily armed allies stretching all the way to southern Lebanon, on Israel’s doorstep.

However, the brazen killing may itself act as a deterrent, with fears of an all-out war leading Iran and its allies to delay or restrain any potential response.

Iran Soleimani
Vahid Salemi—APProtesters step on a U.S. flag during a demonstration in Tehran, Iran on Jan. 3, 2020 over the U.S. airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.

The Defense Department said it killed Soleimani because he “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” It also accused Soleimani of approving the orchestrated violent protests at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad earlier this week.

The 62-year-old Soleimani was the target of Friday’s attack on an access road near the airport, which was conducted by an armed American drone, according to a U.S. official. The airport strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces. A PMF official said the strike killed a total of eight people, including Soleimani’s son-in-law, whom he did not identify.

A senior Iraqi security official said the airstrike took place near the cargo area after Soleimani had disembarked from a plane arriving from either Syria or Lebanon. PMF officials said the bodies of Suleimani and al-Muhandis were torn to pieces. A senior politician said Soleimani’s body was identified by the ring he wore.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters. Trump was vacationing on his estate in Palm Beach, Florida, but sent out a tweet of an American flag.

The dramatic attack comes at the start of a year in which Trump faces both a Senate trial following his impeachment by the Congress and a re-election campaign. It marks a potential turning point in the Middle East and represents a drastic change for American policy toward Iran after months of tensions.

Tehran shot down a U.S. military surveillance drone and seized oil tankers last year. The U.S. also blames Iran for a series of other attacks targeting tankers, as well as a September assault on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry that temporarily halved its production.

The tensions are rooted in in Trump’s decision in May 2018 to withdraw the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, struck under his predecessor, Barack Obama.

It’s unclear what legal authority the U.S. relied on to carry out the attack. American presidents claim broad authority to act without the approval of the Congress when U.S. personnel or interests are facing an imminent threat. The Pentagon did not provide evidence to back up its assertion that Soleimani was planning new attacks against Americans.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the “highest priority” was to protect American lives and interests, but that “we cannot put the lives of American service members, diplomats and others further at risk by engaging in provocative and disproportionate actions.” She said Congress was not consulted on the strike and demanded it be “immediately” briefed on the next steps.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said Trump had “tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox,” saying it could leave the U.S. “on the brink of a major conflict across the Middle East.” Other Democratic White House hopefuls also criticized Trump’s order.

But Trump allies were quick to praise the action. “To the Iranian government: if you want more, you will get more,” tweeted South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.

IRAQ-POLITICS-PROTEST-US-IRAN
Ahmad Al-Rubaye—AFP/Getty ImagesIraqi counter-terrorism forces stand guard in front of the U.S .embassy in Baghdad on Jan. 2, 2020.

Soleimani’s killing follows the New Year’s Eve protests orchestrated by Iran-backed militias at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, which were not related to the anti-government demonstrations. The two-day embassy attack, which ended Wednesday, prompted Trump to order about 750 U.S. troops deployed to the Middle East. No one was killed or wounded in the protests, which breached the compound but appeared to be mainly a show of force.

The breach followed U.S. airstrikes Sunday that killed 25 fighters of Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia operating in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. military said the strikes were in retaliation for last week’s killing of an American contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that the U.S. blamed on the militia.

U.S. officials have suggested they are prepared to engage in further retaliatory attacks in Iraq.

“The game has changed,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Thursday.

___

Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Zeke Miller in Washington; Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Nasser Karimi and Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran; Bassem Mroue and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut; and Joseph Krauss and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

American Allies React With Concern, Cautious Support Following U.S. Killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 06:15 AM PST

The assassination of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad early Friday morning, in a U.S. airstrike authorized by President Trump, has led to markedly different responses from American allies around the world.

On one side, the U.S.’s European allies gave their qualified support to the strike that killed Soleimani, but immediately urged restraint from both countries in the hopes of avoiding a wider conflagration.

Britain and France led the chorus urging de-escalation. “We have always recognized the aggressive threat posed by the Iranian Quds Force led by Qasem Soleimani,” said British foreign secretary Dominic Raab in a statement. “Following his death, we urge all parties to de-escalate. Further conflict is in none of our interests.”

France’s deputy minister for foreign affairs, Amelie de Montchalin agreed, telling RTL radio on Friday morning that “We are waking up in a more dangerous world. Military escalation is always dangerous.”

And while acknowledging “a whole series of military provocations for which Iran bears responsibility,” a spokesperson for Germany’s government flagged a “dangerous escalation point” in the U.S.-Iran conflict in a statement via The Associated Press, and added that “what matters now is contributing with prudence and restraint to de-escalation.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to European allies Friday, and said on Twitter that the U.S. “remains committed to de-escalation.”

Read more: Why the U.S. Assassination of Iranian Quds Force Leader Qasem Soleimani Has the U.S. Bracing for Retaliation

Over in the Middle East, however, Israel and Saudi Arabia, the U.S.’s most powerful allies in the region, were expected to capitalize on the blow to their joint adversary Iran. Soleimani was the powerful leader of the Quds Force, the foreign wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is behind Iranian proxy militias across the Middle East, arching from Lebanon, through Iraq and Syria, down to Yemen.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman did not immediately respond to the Soleimani’s death, however according to reports last year, his top aides had previously discussed plans to assassinate the Iranian general. “Behind the scenes, I expect people like [bin Salman] will all be encouraging Trump to continue with this and hope he strikes Iran again and again,” says David Patrikarakos, author of the book Nuclear Iran. “The Saudis would love to see an escalation to this.”

Over in Israel, embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed Soleimani’s death, cutting short a planned trip to Greece. “President Trump deserves all the credit for acting swiftly, forcefully and decisively,” Netanyahu told reporters before boarding a plane back to Jerusalem. “Israel stands with the United States in its righteous struggle for peace, security and self-defense.”

But Netanyahu also reportedly instructed his ministers not to discuss Soleimani’s death publicly. That could be out of fear of retaliation; the Quds Force and Iran-backed militias in Syria are already engaged in a proxy war with Israel. In Lebanon, Iran’s proxy Hezbollah has more than 100,000 rockets capable of hitting the whole of Israel.

“This is great news for the Israelis,” says Patrikarakos. “Unless, of course, Hezbollah starts launching missiles into Israel.”

Still, barring full regime change, Netanyahu would prefer to see the U.S. coax Iran into giving up its nuclear weapons program and ending its proxy wars in the Middle East, as opposed to all-out war, according to Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, an NGO that monitors and works to prevent conflict globally. “Netanyahu fears this incident lacks a broader U.S. strategy and would either merely escalate dynamics without restraining Iran’s nuclear program and regional activities, or that it would even boomerang, notably with U.S. withdrawal from Iraq,” Zalzberg tells TIME.

Amid the delicate balance, everybody is now watching to see what Iran does next. “Iran simply has to respond,” says Patrikarakos. “It can’t do nothing, because Soleimani was the literal face of Iran in the Middle East. You’ve got the entire Arab Sunni Middle East looking at you now, and if you do nothing, what happens to your deterrence capability?”

“It’s a very precarious situation, because we don’t know about the law of unintended consequences.”

— Additional reporting by Joseph Hincks

Iran Names New Quds Force Commander Following Qasem Soleimani’s Assassination

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 04:40 AM PST

(Bloomberg) — Qasem Soleimani’s deputy Esmail Ghaani has been named commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.

Read more: Why the U.S. Assassination of Iranian Quds Force Leader Qasem Soleimani Has the U.S. Bracing for Retaliation

The announcement was made after Soleimani was killed by a U.S. airstrike in Iraq, in a major escalation of tensions between Tehran and Washington. Iran has vowed a swift and severe retaliation in response to Soleimani’s death, which officials have described as an act of state-sponsored terrorism.

Australia’s Bushfires Have Burned an Area the Size of Vermont and New Hampshire Combined

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 03:30 AM PST

Bushfires raging across Australia have burned more than 12 million acres—an area approximately the size of the U.S. states of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. The smoke from the blazes in the southwest of the country is visible from space, and it is spreading so far that it is causing haze in New Zealand more 1,000 miles away.

The fire season in Australia is far from over, and already it is shaping up to be one of the most intense in the country’s history.

“The intensity, the scale, the number, the geographical range, the fact that they’re occurring simultaneously, and the sorts of environments that are burning are all extraordinary,” David Bowman, a professor of pyrogeography and fire science and the director of the Fire Centre Research Hub at the University of Tasmania, tells TIME.

“We’re in the middle of a war situation…mass evacuations, the involvement of the military, hugely exhausted firefighting campaigns, it’s difficult to explain.”

The bushfires have caused at least 19 deaths and dozens of people are missing. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed. The military has deployed ships and aircraft to bring supplies to towns ravaged by the fires, and to evacuate residents who were cut off by the flames.

Starting Saturday, conditions are expected to worsen again, with hot weather that will likely intensify the fires.

Here’s what to know about the crisis that’s unfolding in Australia.

How extensive are the fires?

About 12.35 million acres of land have burned across Australia, according to the Associated Press. By comparison, wildfires in California in 2018—which the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection says was “the deadliest and most destructive wildfire season on record” in the state—burned an area of less than 2 million acres.

A map maintained by researchers shows large areas of Australia were burned in 2019, with much of the damage in the last month.

Bushfire risk is currently the highest in New South Wales and Victoria, the most populous states, during Australia’s summer, which runs from December to February, but a state of emergency had already been declared in New South Wales in mid-November over the fires this season. In southern Australia and Tasmania, fire season continues into the fall.

Landgate’s MyFireWatch A map shows land burned by fires in Australia by month during the year 2019.

Owen Price, an Associate Professor at the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfire at the University of Wollongong, tells TIME that approximately 30% of the forest in New South Wales has been burned, but that may increase to around 50% this weekend with the weather forecast.

What’s happening?

At least 200 fires were burning in Australia as of Friday. This week alone, 10 deaths have been confirmed in Victoria and New South Wales.

A fire tracker map maintained by researchers in Western Australia shows fires burning across the country, with fires raging on the southeast coast of Victoria.

Fires Australia Friday
Landgate’s MyFireWatch Wildfires burning across Australia on Jan. 3, 2020.

Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews on Thursday declared a state of disaster for several areas, and authorities are calling for the evacuation of large areas of the state. Andrews said on his Twitter account that 28 residents of the state are missing.

In the resort town of Mallacoota, where earlier this week some 4,000 residents were forced to flee to the shores as winds pushed a fire through the area, the military is assisting with evacuations.

Australia’s Minister for Defense posted photos on Twitter of Mallacoota residents being evacuated.

In New South Wales, where Sydney is located, firefighters are battling more than 130 fires, according to the state’s Rural Fire Service. More than 1,300 homes have been destroyed in the state, according to New South Wales Rural Fire Service.

Authorities in the state this week declared the third state of emergency there since mid-November. The seven day state of emergency began on Friday morning.

Victoria’s Bureau of Meteorology posted pictures of hazy skies, and said that visibility at an airport in the city of Albury, on the border of New South Wales and Victoria, was as low as approximately 1,600 feet.

A map showed “very unhealthy” and “hazardous” air quality levels in parts of New South Wales, Victoria and Australia Capital Territory.

Haze from the fires was impacting places as far away as New Zealand, according to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology. An image captured by a NASA satellite captured large swath of smoke from the fires stretching across the Tasman Sea.

NASANOAA-NASA’s Suomi NPP satellite captured imagery of the fires and the resultant billowing smoke cascading off the edge of Australia on Jan. 01, 2020.

The fires are going to get worse

Although conditions had cooled in Australia this week, more hot weather is expected to exacerbate the crisis over the weekend. Victoria’s Bureau of Meteorology predicted “severe” and “extreme” fire danger ratings for several parts of the state due to hot temperatures and changes in the wind.

Bowman, the researcher in Tasmania, says that the scale of fires already burning means that when the weather heats up, fires intensify quickly.

“Every time you get the weather set up, as we’re entering in the next 24 hours, the fires just explode again and you have even bigger fires and new fires and new fire fronts and new lightening strikes…it’s a diabolical ratchet.”

New South Wales’ Rural Fire Service posted a map of current areas burned and expected spread of the fire on Saturday.

Bowman says that there are other bushfire prone areas that may be in danger.

“Here in Tasmania, the whole of the east coast could blow up. There’s a big chunk of forest around Melbourne, tall forests around Melbourne…in southwestern Australia there’s still plenty to burn,” Bowman says.

“The door is open and we have no idea where this is going to end,” he says. “Most of Australia’s vegetation is highly flammable, the fire has plenty to go, it has capacity to keep burning, it’s not going to run out of fuel.”

What role is climate change playing?

Experts say that climate change is contributing to the historically intense fire season.

“Climate change is supercharging the fires,” Lesley Hughes, a professor of biology at Macquarie University and a Climate Councillor at the Climate Council of Australia, tells TIME. “It has affected the ongoing decline of rainfall and therefore impacts of the current drought that we’re experiencing, especially in southeastern Australia” she says.

Hughes adds that climate change may also be causing more frequent and severe heatwave conditions in the country. The year 2019 was the hottest on record for Australia, with the temperature reaching approximately 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above the long-term average, according to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology.

“When you have the combination of very hot, dry days, strong winds, and very dry fuel, if you get any sort of spark, you have the conditions for a very bad bushfire,” Hughes says.

Despite the bushfire crisis, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison has argued that there is no direct link between Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions and the severity of the fires burning across the country. He has, however, acknowledged that climate change could be impacting bushfires and the length of the fire season. Australia is one of the highest per capita emitters of carbon dioxide in the world, according to Climate Analytics, an advocacy group that tracks climate data.

Hughes says that the government’s stance on climate change is hurting its ability to respond to the crisis.

“If you don’t accept the science—that’s been saying for at least 30 years that these are the sort of conditions we should be preparing for and mitigating against—then you come to a disaster like this completely unprepared.”

Political backlash

Australia’s Prime Minister has faced backlash over the crisis, both for his reluctance to link Australia’s emissions to the bushfires and for his response to the fires. Protests broke out at Morrison’s office in December, with some demonstrators demanding action on climate change, while others criticized Morrison for taking a vacation to Hawaii during the fire crisis. The Prime Minister cut short his family holiday and apologized for the timing of his trip.

Alex Oliver, Director of Research at the Sydney-based think-tank Lowy Institute, tells TIME that the Morrison government’s stance on climate change has angered some Australians who see climate change as a serious problem and want to see the government take stronger action.

On Saturday morning Morrison announced a cancellation of an economic visit to India in order to chair a National Security Committee meeting, Sky News Australia reports.

On Thursday, Morrison was confronted by angry residents of a bushfire-ravaged town who cursed at him and insulted him on a visit to the town.

Sarah Maddison, a professor of politics at the University of Melbourne, tells TIME that Morrison’s response to the situation has been “extraordinarily misjudged.”

“He seems determined to minimize the scale and impact of these fires, insisting that this is the kind of natural disaster that Australia experiences all the time,” she says.

Maddison tells TIME that bushfires have in the past often been used by Australia’s leaders to garner political support.

“They put on their Akubras [Australian hat] and they head out to the front line and they offer condolences and they get to set the narrative about… their leadership of the issue,” she says.

For Morrison, the fires appear to have had the opposite effect, she says.

“He seems to be scurrying around with his tail between his legs, so determined to avoid talking about climate policy that he’s unable to offer anything that looks like genuine compassion or empathy.”

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