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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sunni Militants Push for Control of Iraq’s Western Border

Sunni Militants Push for Control of Iraq’s Western Border


Sunni Militants Push for Control of Iraq’s Western Border

Posted: 22 Jun 2014 10:14 AM PDT

Sunni militants in Iraq have captured major border posts connected to Syria and Jordan and a string of towns in a western province, as they tighten their grip on key areas of the country, Iraq’s military authorities announced Sunday.

The takeover of the al-Walid crossing to Syria and the Turaibil crossing to Jordan follow the recent captures of a number of towns in the Anbar province, which has been controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Associated Press reports. ISIS, a militant extremist group once allied with al Qaeda, has been pressing on toward Baghdad in recent weeks.

The capture of Rutba, a town located approximately 90 miles east of the Iraqi-Jordanian border, gives insurgents major control over a key route to Jordan. The control of border posts and towns like Rutba will allow insurgent forces to more easily move weapons and soldiers between countries.

The seizure of Rawah and Anah suggest movement toward the city of Haditha, where a major dam lies which, if destroyed, could wreak havoc on the country’s electrical systems and cause major flooding. Iraqi authorities speaking to the AP on the condition of anonymity say 2,000 troops have been dispatched to protect the dam.

Iraqi military spokesman Gen. Qassim Atta commented on the captures, saying security forces in Rawah, Anah and Qaim had previously been pulled to support other troops elsewhere, the New York Times reports.

During a Sunday appearance on CBS’ Face the Nation, President Barack Obama called ISIS a “medium- and long-term threat.” While ISIS is one of several groups the U.S. should continue to monitor, he said, the organization poses a”destabilizing” threat to Iraq and neighboring countries that make it a particular concern in the region.

Obama said that while the U.S. needs to address unrest in the region, action needs to be a “more focused, more targeted strategy” done in partnership with local law and military officials. Obama’s remarks follow both Iraq’s request for air strike support and comments from Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who accused the U.S. of stirring up unrest in the region to advance its own interests.

During a visit to Egypt, Secretary of State John Kerry called ISIS a threat to “all the countries in the region,” Reuters reports.

Cease-Fire Reached in Palestinian Camp in Syria

Posted: 22 Jun 2014 10:05 AM PDT

(BEIRUT) — Various fighting factions and the Syrian government reached a cease-fire agreement in a besieged Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, activists and state media said Sunday.

If it holds, the agreement in the Yarmouk, the largest of nine Palestinian camps in Syria, could help ease the suffering of some 18,000 civilians who have been trapped there since the government imposed a blockade in mid-2013. Previous agreements to end the fighting in Yarmouk have all collapsed.

The official SANA news agency the latest deal was sponsored by the Syrian government and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the cease-fire.

Under the agreement, heavy weapons are to be removed from the camp, barriers are to be taken down and an internal force is to be created to ensure security. The main entrances to the camp are to be opened, and infrastructure is to be restored.

The Observatory said rebel groups in the camp, as well as pro- and anti-Assad Palestinian factions are all party to the deal.

How Procrastination Is Messing With Your Sleep

Posted: 22 Jun 2014 10:00 AM PDT

Whether you're a night owl or an early riser, sometimes it can be hard to stick to your bedtime. You know, those times when you mean to go to sleep but instead you stay up to watch just one more episode of Orange Is the New Black. Before you know it, it's 1 a.m. The next day, you're probably groggy, tired, and—let's face it—cranky.

Health.com:11 Surprising Health Benefits of Sleep

"Bedtime procrastination" is the name researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands have given to this phenomenon. They define it as "failing to go to bed at the intended time, while no external circumstances prevent a person from doing so."

Translation: Unlike insomnia, which is when you can't fall asleep, bedtime procrastination is when you could go to bed, but you willingly put it off and, as a result, you don't get enough sleep.

Health.com:12 Ways We Sabotage Our Mental Health

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

Police Catch Canadian Fugitives Who Escaped Prison by Helicopter

Posted: 22 Jun 2014 09:14 AM PDT

The three men who made a daring escape from a Canadian prison by helicopter earlier this month were arrested Sunday, according to police.

Yves Denis, Denis Lefebvre, and Serge Pomerleau were in a prison in Orsainville — located north of Quebec City in the Canadian province of Quebec — when a helicopter briefly landed in the courtyard on June 7 and took off with the men inside, NBC News reports.

Police pursued the men by land and air and sought them for more than two weeks. Authorities believe only one extra person piloted the helicopter, but more people could be arrested in relation to the break. Quebec police said the three were discovered and brought back into custody in Montreal.

The men were originally sent to prison in connection to drug-trafficking investigation Project Crayfish, which police say led to many arrests. The three are expected to appear in court on Monday.

Report: Poland’s Foreign Minister Blasts ‘Worthless’ U.S. Relationship

Posted: 22 Jun 2014 08:45 AM PDT

Polish magazine Wprost claims to have obtained recordings of a conversation in which Poland’s Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski says “the Polish-American alliance is worthless, even harmful, as it gives Poland a false sense of security. It’s bulls—t.”

The quote is an excerpt of a longer conversation purportedly between Sikorski and former finance minister Jacek Rostowski that Wrpost is expected to publish Monday or Tuesday, the Associated Press reports. The leaked recording comes just two weeks after President Barack Obama visited Poland.

The conversation is said to have occurred in the spring of 2014, though it’s not yet known who leaked the tape, and the identity of the speakers have not been confirmed.

In the tapes, Sikorski allegedly says Polish people have the mentality of “Murzyńskość," which Radio Polskie says is a racially charged, derogatory term that is roughly similar to “like a Negro.”

“The problem in Poland is that we have very shallow pride and low self-esteem,” Sikorski allegedly says.

Last month, Poland put forth Sikorski as a candidate to succeed European Union foreign policy head Catherine Ashton. Sikorski has been a supporter of the U.S. in the past, but in recent years has become more critical of the U.S. government.

Sikorski has also been a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his role in the Ukraine crisis. During his visit to Warsaw in early June, Obama proposed spending as much as $1 billion to increase U.S. military presence in Poland and surrounding countries in case Putin escalates the conflict in the region, the Washington Post reports.

On Twitter, Sikorski said he had never been to the restaurant where he believed the conversation was said to have been recorded. Wprost’s Michal Majewski replied and said the conversation did not take place at that restaurant — where other recordings obtained by the magazine had — but in a completely different location.

The Polish government said it would comment after the rest of the recordings are published.

[Radio Polskie]

Iraqi Militants Seize 2 More Border Crossings

Posted: 22 Jun 2014 08:12 AM PDT

(BAGHDAD) — Iraqi military officials say Sunni militants have captured two border crossings, one with Jordan and another with Syria, as they press on with their offensive in one of Iraq’s most restive regions.

The officials said the militants on Sunday captured the Turaibil crossing with Jordan and the al-Walid crossing with Syria after government forces there pulled out.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

The capture of the two follows the fall since Friday of the towns of Qaim, Rawah, Anah and Rutba, all of which are in the Sunni Anbar province where militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have since January controlled the city of Fallujah and parts of the provincial capital Ramadi.

Sunni militants have seized another town in Iraq’s western Anbar province, the fourth to fall in two days, officials said Sunday, in what is shaping up to be a major offensive in one of Iraq’s most restive regions.

Iran’s supreme leader meanwhile came out forcefully against any U.S. intervention in Iraq, accusing Washington of fomenting the unrest and appearing to quash recent speculation that the two rivals might cooperate in addressing the shared threat posed by the advance of Islamic extremists.

The militants captured Rutba, about 90 miles (150 kilometers) east of the Jordanian border, late Saturday, the officials said. Residents were on Sunday negotiating with the militants to leave after an army unit on the town’s outskirts threatened to start shelling.

The towns of Qaim, Rawah, Anah and Rutba are the first seized in the mainly Sunni Anbar province since fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and their allies overran the city of Fallujah and parts of the provincial capital of Ramadi earlier this year.

The capture of Rawah on the Euphrates River and the nearby town of Anah appeared to be part of a march toward a key dam in the city of Haditha, the destruction of which would damage the country’s electrical grid and cause major flooding.

Taking Rutba gives the insurgents control over the final stretch of a major highway to neighboring Jordan, a key artery for passengers and goods that has been infrequently used for months because of deteriorating security.

Iraqi military officials said more than 2,000 troops were quickly dispatched to the site of the dam to protect it. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Chief military spokesman, Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, acknowledged the fall of the Anbar towns, saying government forces had made a tactical retreat and planned to retake them. He provided no further details.

The Islamic State and allied militants have carved out a large fiefdom along the Iraqi-Syrian border. Control over crossings like that one in Qaim allows them to more easily move weapons and heavy equipment. Rebels control the Syrian side of the crossing.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government has struggled to push back against the Sunni militants, who have seized large swaths of the country’s north since taking control of the second-largest city of Mosul on June 10 as troops melted away.

Iraq has requested U.S. airstrikes to help halt the advance, but President Barack Obama has yet to order any, and has instead called on Iraqi leaders to form a more representative government in thinly-veiled criticism of al-Maliki.

The top leader of neighboring Iran, which has strong influence over Baghdad, on Sunday said he was opposed to any U.S. intervention in the country.

“We strongly oppose the intervention of the U.S. and others in the domestic affairs of Iraq,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say over state policy, was quoted as saying by the IRNA state news agency, in his first reaction to the crisis.

“The main dispute in Iraq is between those who want Iraq to join the U.S. camp and those who seek an independent Iraq,” said Khamenei. “The U.S. aims to bring its own blind followers to power.”

The U.S. has long accused Iran of meddling in Iraq, including by organizing and backing Shiite militias following the 2003 invasion.

The commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, Gen. Ghasem Soleimani, was reportedly in Iraq last week to consult with the government on how to stave off insurgents’ gains. Soleimani’s forces are a secretive branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard that were allegedly involved in organizing the anti-U.S. militias and have more recently aided Syria’s President Bashar Assad in his fight against Sunni rebels.

Al-Maliki, who has led the country since 2006 and has not yet secured a third term after April’s parliamentary elections, has increasingly turned to Iranian-backed Shiite militias and volunteers to bolster his beleaguered security forces.

Thousands of Shiite militiamen paraded through Baghdad and other cities on Saturday, brandishing a massive arsenal that included field artillery, rocket launchers and heavy machine guns in a show of force that promised to ramp up sectarian tensions.

In Baghdad, about 20,000 militiamen loyal to anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, many in military fatigues, marched through the sprawling Shiite Sadr City district, which saw some of the worst fighting between Shiite militias and U.S. soldiers before a cease-fire was reached in 2008 that helped stem the sectarian bloodshed that was pushing the country to the brink of civil war.

Al-Maliki has come under growing pressure to reach out to disaffected Kurds and Sunnis, with many blaming his failure to promote reconciliation for the country’s worst crisis since the U.S. military withdrew its forces nearly three years ago.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most respected voice for Iraq’s Shiite majority, who normally stays above the political fray, on Friday joined calls for al-Maliki to reach out to the Kurdish and Sunni minorities.

Al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc won the most seats in the April vote, but his hopes to retain his job have been thrown into doubt, with rivals challenging him from within the broader Shiite alliance.

The U.S., meanwhile, has been drawn back into the conflict. It is deploying up to 300 military advisers to join some 275 troops in and around Iraq to provide security and support for the U.S. Embassy and other American interests.

President Barack Obama, in an interview with CBS’ “Face the Nation” airing Sunday, warned that the al-Qaida-inspired militants in Iraq could grow in power and destabilize the region.

He said Washington must remain “vigilant” but would not “play whack-a-mole and send US troops occupying various countries wherever these organizations pop up.”

Iraq enjoyed several years of relative calm before violence spiked a year ago after al-Maliki moved to crush a Sunni protest movement against alleged discrimination and abuse at the hands of his government and security forces.

Meet Peanut, the Ugliest Dog in the World

Posted: 22 Jun 2014 07:51 AM PDT

He’s got a face only a mother could love: Peanut, a rescue dog with unknown breed origins, was crowned the World’s Ugliest Dog at the Sonoma-Marin Fair in Petaluma, Calif., earlier this week.

The dog’s owner, Holly Chandler of Greenville, N.C., says 2-year-old Peanut is a victim of animal abuse and was injured in a fire, though he’s healthy now, CBS reports.

“He doesn’t have lips anymore,” Chandler says. “His eyelids are also gone, and so he can’t close his eyes, so therefore his eyes water. The tears drain into his nose and so he has nice little snot bubbles because of it. So it’s great, that adds to his character.”

Chandler plans to use the $1,500 prize money to help pay for other pets’ veterinary bills and hopes Peanut’s big win will call attention to animal abuse, the Associated Press reports.

"He's my baby,” she said. “I guess I don't see him every day as being that ugly. But I guess the judges thought so.”

[CBS]

MH370 Search Will Move to New Area of Ocean

Posted: 22 Jun 2014 07:27 AM PDT

Australian officials will announce a new search zone for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 on Wednesday, the agency leading the search announced Sunday.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau said re-analyzed satellite data could move the search zone several hundred kilometers south of where it had been looking, CNN reports.

Since the flight went missing in March with 239 people aboard, search efforts have found no sign of the Boeing 777 plane or its passengers.

London newspaper The Sunday Times reported this weekend that Malaysian police have identified captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah as the primary suspect in the plane’s disappearance, but a police spokesperson denied the claims and told CNN that nothing had been conclusive so far and that the investigation was on-going.

The Times’ report acknowledges that police have not ruled out terrorism or mechanical errors and that the case against him relies on circumstantial evidence.

Shah was the only person in the flight crew who had no future plans or obligations, according to the story, and he had reportedly plotted and deleted flight paths to small runways across the Indian Ocean on a flight simulator at his home.

[CNN]

Team USA Faces Portugal in Crucial World Cup Test

Posted: 22 Jun 2014 07:09 AM PDT

Which Portugal team will the United States face on Sunday evening -­­­- a wobbling, shell-shocked side shorn of two of its best players? Or a wounded animal, led by the world's best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, that is poised to strike back after being humiliated by Germany in its opening game?

The answer could be critical to the Americans' prospects for advancing to the knockout round of the World Cup in Brazil. Germany's 2-2 draw with Ghana—an absolutely pulsating soccer match—throws Group G wide open. The result means that Germany hasn't qualified for the knockout round; the Germans have all to play for when they meet the U.S. next week.

The U.S. is riding high after Monday's stunning 2-1 win over Ghana, a win that looks all that much brighter in view of Ghana's outstanding performance against Germany. The U.S. bookended the game with goals by Clint Dempsey in the opening seconds of the match and John Brooks near the end to snatch the win. Between those goals, though, the U.S. looked dreadful and defensive for large periods of the game. An early goal will sometimes do that, tempting a team to relax when it shouldn't.

The U.S. midfield needs to reassert itself on offense. Michael Bradley, normally its calm maestro, sprayed the ball around the park with minimal accuracy. Bradley admitted as much, so expect a better game from him.

Both teams will have to deal with playing in the heart of the Amazon, at the Arena Amazonia in Manaus. The location guarantees high heat and humidity that has clearly drained other teams that have played opening round games there. U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann is a fitness fanatic, so the Americans figure to be ready.

Whether Portugal is ready is another question. The last time these two teams played in the World Cup, in 2002, the U.S. produced an upset win against a superior opponent, a team considered to be Portugal's "golden generation," including Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Fernando Couto. That isn't the case this time. Portugal was rocked 4-0 by a German team that overwhelmed them from the start. German speed in possession is frightening, and it produced two goals within 32 minutes. Then Portugal's numbskull central defender Pepe got himself chucked out for head-butting Germany's Thomas Mueller. The result was a foregone conclusion after that. Even worse, Portugal lost its most creative defender, Fabio Coentrao, to injury. Both Pepe and Coentrao, who play for Real Madrid, are out for the U.S. game.

That may not mean much if Cristiano Ronaldo plays like the star he is. Portugal struggled to qualify for the World Cup, with everything coming down to a final game against Sweden in which the Real Madrid forward singlehandedly destroyed the opposition. Three times Ronaldo bolted past the Swedish defense and three times he scored. Obviously containing Ronaldo is vital to any winning strategy.

The good news for the U.S. is that it can be done. In Portugal's final game in the 2010 World Cup against Spain in South Africa, Ronaldo was reduced to an angry, isolated figure by the end of the game, as the Spanish had cut off the supply of the ball to him. Ball control will do that. And there is also some suspicion that Ronaldo is not 100% fit. But he is 100% expected to play. "We understand what a special player he is," says Bradley. "We understand how good a team they have, but it's not something that fazes us." Still, with the Portuguese facing elimination Sunday night if they lose, the U.S. can expect passionate, if not furious, resistance.

Like Portugal, the U.S. has its own injury problems. Striker Jozy Altidore twanged his hamstring in the first half against Ghana, and Clint Dempsey had his nose broken by an errant kick. Altidore is out since he can't run, which means the U.S. loses a forward who can hold the ball while holding off defenders. Dempsey will start, since his nose would have to be sticking out the back of his head to keep him off the field.

Up front, Klinsmann now has to choose between Aron Johannsson, a 23-year-old striker who impressed the coach in qualifying games, and Chris Wondolowski, a 31- year-old veteran who is a great goal poacher. Johannsson replaced Altidore in the Ghana game but saw little of the ball. "Both Wondo and I have different styles than Jozy," said Johannsson. "If either one of us gets on the field, then we just try to play our game and try to do what the coach wants us to do. If that's to play like Jozy, then we'll try to do that. And if he wants us to play like we normally play then we'll try to do that.” On the other hand, Klinsmann can push the versatile Dempsey higher up, and move midfielder Graham Zusi into the lineup.

This is the perfect opportunity for the United States. The team is exactly where Klinsmann wanted it to be, and now it faces a weakened foe in Portugal. Failing to take advantage will have huge consequences. "If you are not able to follow up the first game with another good result," said Bradley after the Ghana game, "then the first game goes right out the window."

John Kerry Arrives in Egypt for Talks With New Leaders

Posted: 22 Jun 2014 07:05 AM PDT

Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Egypt Sunday to meet with the country’s newly elected leadership and to discuss the country’s political transition, its climate for dissent, its imprisonment of activists and journalists, Egypt’s national security and other issues.

While in Cairo, Kerry is meeting with President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, who was sworn in earlier this month; Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri; and the head of the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, according to the State Department. Kerry’s visit follows President Barack Obama’s congratulatory call to Sisi earlier this month, which reaffirmed the U.S.’s commitment to working with Egypt as it tries to strengthen its democracy.

“There's a strong desire on the part of the United States for this transition to succeed,” said a senior State Department official about the visit. “Egypt is a strategic partner and we have a longstanding relationship with Egypt. It's a partnership that's based on shared interest, strategic interest.”

Relations between the two countries had been strained after Sisi, then a military commander, led the coup last July to remove Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically-elected head of state and a member of Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood, from power just one year after he assumed office. Morsi has since been imprisoned, alongside scores of other Muslim Brotherhood leaders and members.

The U.S. suspended $1.3 billion in yearly military aid to Egypt following the coup, but the State Department said $575 million has been released during the past ten days to pay defense contracts.

The State Department official also commended some signs of change in Egypt, such as Sisi’s call to revise the country’s human rights law and steps taken toward reducing sexual violence against women in Egypt.

Kerry’s visit is part of a broader tour of the Middle East and Europe.

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