News, December 24th

In a northern town brutalized by IS, Iraq tests its power

One by one, the flags belonging to a patchwork of armed forces were lowered in a northern Iraqi town once brutalized by the Islamic State group. The territorial claims symbolized by each were replaced by the fluttering of just one: The Iraqi state’s.

The hoisting of the national flag in Sinjar, home to Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority, is the result of a deal months in the making for the federal government to restore order from a tangled web of paramilitaries, who sowed chaos in the district during the bedlam following liberation from IS three years ago.

This month, Iraq’s army deployed there for the first time since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein.

Lt. Imad Hasan hiked up a rocky ascent overlooking the deserted ruins of Sinjar’s old town, vacant since IS was dislodged. His gaze fell on a lookout on the other side of the mountain — the last, he said, that belongs to a local affiliate of an outlawed Kurdish guerrilla group, known as the PKK.

“We have problems with them,” he said. “Their leaders have agreed to withdraw, but some of their fighters have not.”

Sealing the deal was hard enough. Implementing it brings new problems. Critics say it will take more than a change of flags to cement rule of law in Sinjar.

The Yazidis, traumatized by the mass killing and enslavement that IS unleashed against them, have no trust in the Iraqi authorities they say abandoned them to the militants’ brutality. With the central government weak, they fear militias — including Iranian-backed Shiite factions — will gain sway over them.

The militias policing Sinjar the past three years are a mix. They include peshmerga fighters from Iraq’s Kurdish autonomy zone, as well as the PKK and its affiliate made up of local Yazidi fighters, called the Sinjar Resistance Units or YBS. There are also Yazidi units belonging to the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group of state-sanctioned paramilitaries created in 2014 to defeat IS.

There are signs of recovery of Sinjar. Its city center hummed with shoppers, merchants — and the odd Iraqi army tank. More of the 200,000 Yazidis displaced by the 2014 IS onslaught are coming back — some 21,600 returning between June to September, many times the rate of previous years.

But scratch the surface, and almost everyone harbors raw, unresolved trauma. Everyone vividly recalls the IS attack that murdered fathers and sons, enslaved thousands of women and sent survivors fleeing up Sinjar mountain.

In Sinjar’s market, a farmer, Zaidan Khalaf, introduced himself first by telling The Associated Press how many relatives he lost under IS: 18. Others in the market did the same.

“We lost our dignity,” he said.

Communities remain deeply divided and bitterly resentful of one another.

“What agreement?” scoffed Farzo Mato Sabo, an 86-year-old in the predominantly Yazidi village of Tal Binat, south of Sinjar. She and her three daughters were taken by IS militants and later saved by smugglers. Eleven of her family members are still unaccounted for.

“I lost everyone,” she sobbed. “Will it bring them back?”

Neighboring Tal Binat is the Sunni Arab village of Khailo.

“We used to be like brothers, but now the Yazidis stay away from us,” said a tribal elder, Sheikh Naif Ibrahim. “They can’t distinguish between civilians and IS members.”

Many Yazidis accuse local Sunni Arabs of supporting IS. Since the militants’ fall, Sunni Arabs have had frictions with Yazidi militias — and a number of Sunnis have been killed. At the same time, many Yazidis reject the Kurdish peshmerga, who consider the Sinjar area part of their domain.

“Seven flags ruled over us, you never knew who had power over you which day,” said Khalaf, the farmer.

The U.N. has focused on the return of displaced Yazidis, but this is not the only criterion for success, said Sajad Jiyad, a fellow at The Century Foundation. “It’s about services, schools, security and the ability to move around without being shaken down by various groups,” he said.

“This is a test for the effectiveness of post-war governance and post-war liberation,” he said. “Is the government prepared enough to allow the return to normalcy?”

The Iraqi military will secure the area for now, with other factions leaving their positions, although many remain in the Sinjar area. Under the plan, the Kurdish authority is to appoint a mayor — a prospect many Yazidis oppose — and local police are eventually to take over security, working under the government’s intelligence agency and National Security Adviser. The plan calls for 2,500 new security personnel to be hired locally.

Most Yazidi leaders and residents interviewed said they were irate the community was not consulted by the government in the making of the plan.

“We are the ones who sacrificed, lost our lives,” said Fahed Hamed, Sinjar’s district mayor. “We should have been the main interlocutors.”

“We want a force from our own. We don’t trust anyone.”

The force most trusted by locals is a faction the plan seeks to eject — the YBS, whose fighters are largely Sinjar Yazidis. While other forces retreated from the IS onslaught in 2014, many recall it was the YBS that fought to secure a safe route for civilians.

“They were the only ones who stayed to protect us,” said Sherko Khalaf, a Yazidi village mukhtar.

Despite protests by locals, negotiations led to the withdrawal of YBS from Sinjar’s city center.

YBS fighters interviewed said they expected to be subsumed as a unit of the Popular Mobilization Forces, providing them with much-needed political legitimacy. A portion of the 2,500-3,500 YBS fighters are already on the PMF payroll.

In theory, the plan calls for the PMF to end its presence in the city as well. To date, they are supporting forces and securing Sinjar’s peripheries. But Khal Ali, the commander of the Lalish Brigades, a Yazidi unit of the group, told the AP, “The (PMF) will stay forever, we are kings over the heads of the security forces in Sinjar.”

That prospect has divided Yazidis. Some want Yazidi PMF factions included in the security arrangement. Others fear it will bring Sinjar under the influence of the Shiite Arab factions close to Iran that dominate the umbrella group.

“If the international community and central government don’t care about Sinjar, the PMF will take control,” one prominent Yazidi leader said, requesting anonymity to speak freely. “This is clear.”

More England areas put into tightest restrictions as new COVID variant found in UK

British Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Wednesday announced that more areas of the East and South East of England will be put into Tier Four restrictions, the highest level, while revealing that two cases of another new variant of the novel coronavirus have been identified in Britain.

To curb the spread of COVID-19, Sussex, Oxfordshire, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, parts of Essex that are not currently in the tightest restrictions, Waverley in Surrey and Hampshire will all enter Tier Four from Boxing Day, Hancock said at a virtual press conference at Downing Street.

Bristol, Gloucestershire, Somerset, Swindon, the Isle of Wight, the New Forest and Northamptonshire, as well as Cheshire and Warrington, will enter Tier Three, he said.

Under the new tougher measures, residents in Tier Four areas must stay at home, with limited exemptions. People are also urged to work from home when they can, and should not enter or leave those areas.

Meanwhile, Hancock also said that another new variant of the novel coronavirus has been detected in Britain, and two cases have been reported so far.

“Both are contacts of cases who have travelled from South Africa over the past few weeks,” said Hancock.

This new variant is “yet more transmissible” and the development is “highly concerning”, he said.

Cases and close contacts of cases found in Britain are being quarantined, and the British government is placing “immediate restrictions” on travel from South Africa, according to Hancock.

Anyone who has been in South Africa in the last fortnight and anyone who has been a close contact of someone who has been in South Africa in the past two weeks must quarantine immediately, said Hancock.

Experts are still learning about this new variant, and “we are pretty confident that the system we have in place will help control the spread”, Sky News quoted Dr Susan Hopkins, from Public Health England, as saying.

The press conference was held after British ministers met on Wednesday morning to hammer out plans to combat a rising number of infections in the country.

Meanwhile, Hancock said that the government is expanding community testing yet further in areas where the rate of infection is highest.

“So we can identify people, and especially to identify the around one in three people, who carry the virus without displaying any symptoms at all,” he said.

Another 39,237 people in Britain have tested positive for COVID-19, the highest daily increase since the start of the pandemic in the country, bringing the total number of coronavirus cases in the UK to 2,149,551, the official data showed Wednesday.

The total number of coronavirus-related deaths in Britain now stands at 69,051, the data said.

To bring life back to normal, countries such as Britain, China, Germany, Russia and the United States are racing against time to develop coronavirus vaccines.

President Trump Threatens Iran Over Baghdad Embassy Attack

On Wednesday, President Trump blamed Iran for a rocket attack on the US embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone that took place on Sunday.

President Trump wrote on Twitter: “Our embassy in Baghdad got hit Sunday by several rockets. Three rockets failed to launch. Guess where they were from: IRAN. Now we hear chatter of additional attacks against Americans in Iraq.”

He added: “Some friendly health advice to Iran: If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over.”

Trump’s accusation followed Secretary of Mike Pompeo, who blamed the attack on “Iran-backed” militias. Iran denied the charge and has made it clear in recent weeks that they have no interest in provoking the US and even warned militias in Iraq not to fire on US targets.

An Iranian general delivered the message to Iraq after a report said President Trump reviewed options to attack an Iranian nuclear site. But some Shia militias in Iraq rejected the Iranian warning.

The leader of the Shia militia Asaib al-Ahl Haq responded sharply to Iran’s warning. “The Americans occupy our country, not yours. We will not listen to you anymore because our motives are 100 percent nationalist,” Qais al-Khazali said in a TV interview.

Despite the Iranians clear desire to avoid a military confrontation with the US before Trump leaves office, the tripwire is set, and any US casualty between now and January 20th will be blamed on Iran. According to a report from Reuters, the US could already be preparing a military response to Sunday’s attack.

An unnamed administration official told Reuters that top US officials agreed on a “range of options” to present to the president aimed at deterring further attacks on the US in Iraq. The official did not say whether the options included a military operation or not. Sources told Axios that the US was considering quickly closing its embassy in Baghdad in response to Sunday’s attack.

In September, Pompeo threatened to close the US embassy in Iraq in response to rocket attacks on the Green Zone. The threat to close the embassy came along with the threat of US airstrikes on Shia militias. According to a report from Middle East Eye, Pompeo presented the Iraqi government with a list of 80 targets the US would strike if it went through with the embassy closure.

January 3rd marks the one-year anniversary of the US assassination of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who was killed alongside Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes. The series of events that led to the assassination was sparked by a rocket attack on a base in Kirkuk, Iraq, that killed a US contractor on December 27th, 2019.

The US blamed the Kirkuk attack on Kataib Hezbollah, a Shia militia the US sees as an Iranian proxy. The US responded to the Kirkuk attack by launching airstrikes on several Kataib Hezbollah targets, killing 25 of the group’s fighters. The airstrikes enraged many Iraqis, and protesters stormed the US embassy. After the embassy incident, President Trump ordered the drone strike that killed Soleimani and al-Mohandes.

The US never substantiated the claim that Kataib Hezbollah was responsible for the Kirkuk attack. In February, Iraqi intelligence officials told The New York Times that it was more likely that ISIS carried out the Kirkuk attack.

South Dakota’s new unemployment claims drop by 25%

The number of new unemployment claims processed in South Dakota dropped by nearly 25% during the most recent reporting week, state officials reported Thursday.

The South Dakota Department of Labor and Regulation reported that it processed 696 new claims for unemployment benefits during the week ending on Dec. 19. That’s a drop from the 926 claims processed the previous week, but the economy continued to see the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, with unemployment numbers remaining higher than before the pandemic arrived in the U.S.

A total of 4,144 people in South Dakota were receiving unemployment benefits as of Dec. 12 — the highest number since October.

Gov. Kristi Noem has pointed to the state’s relatively healthy economy to defend her decision to forego orders to slow virus outbreaks.

“South Dakota experienced a truly incredible year,” Noem wrote in a message this week. “Despite the pandemic forcing businesses to adjust their practices, we’re wrapping up this year in perhaps the strongest economic position in the country.”

South Dakota’s November unemployment rate of 3.5% was the third-lowest in the country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Tokyo 2020 organizers to extend deals with all domestic sponsors

The Tokyo 2020 organizing committee announced here on Thursday that all 68 domestic companies have decided to extend their sponsorship deals after reaching a “basic agreement.”

The organizers said in a statement that they are proceeding with the conclusion of contracts with all sponsors based on the agreement.

Tokyo 2020 President Yoshiro Mori is thrilled with the progress and has expressed his gratitude to all the sponsors.

“In the midst of this year’s hardships, we believe that it is because of the immense and varied support from our top partners as well as our domestic partners that we have been able to face forward and continue preparations for the games.”

Mori, a former Japanese Prime Minister, promised that the postponed games will be held as rescheduled.

“We believe that holding the Olympic and Paralympic Games next summer will serve as proof that humankind has overcome the pandemic.

“As we move into next year, we will continue to prepare for games fit for a post-corona world with the support and encouragement of everyone involved.”

Tokyo 2020’s domestic sponsorship program has generated a record 3.3 billion US dollars in revenue, with top-tier gold partners including the likes of Canon, NEC and Asahi Breweries.

US non-profit sues FBI for info about phone hacking capability

Non-profit organisation American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is suing the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) demanding more information about its capability to gain access to information stored on personal mobile devices.

“The FBI is secretly breaking the encryption that secures our cell phones and laptops from identity thieves, hackers, and abusive governments, and it refuses to even acknowledge that it has information about these efforts — even though some details have been filed publicly in federal court,” ACLU said in a statement this week.

The non-profit said that publicly available information indicates that the Electronic Device Analysis Unit (EDAU), a team within the FBI, has acquired or is in the process of acquiring software that allows the government to unlock and decrypt information that is otherwise securely stored on cell phones.

Public court records also describe instances where the EDAU appeared capable of accessing encrypted information off a locked iPhone, it said.

The EDAU even sought to hire an electronics engineer whose major responsibilities would include “perform (ing) forensic extractions and advanced data recovery on locked and damaged devices.”

And yet, the agency refuses to even confirm or deny the existence of any records pertaining to the EDAU, the ACLU said.

“Seeking some much-needed transparency, today we asked a federal court to intervene and order the DOJ (US Department of Justice) and the FBI to turn over all responsive documents pertaining to the EDAU,” the organisation said.

“We’re demanding the government release records concerning any policies applicable to the EDAU, its technological capabilities to unlock or access electronic devices, and its requests for, purchases of, or uses of software that could enable it to bypass encryption.”

The FBI has repeatedly pressured Apple to build a backdoor into its system, most notably in the San Bernardino case, The verge reported on Wednesday.

The FBI had claimed that some of Apple’s security features prevented it from accessing the contents of the work phone of one of the shooters in the 2015 San Bernardino attack before saying in 2016 that the agency no longer needed Apple’s help in breaking into the iPhone.

Whether the FBI has gained the capability to break iOS encryption remains unclear, said the report.

World readies for lockdown Christmas

Coronavirus misery hung over Christmas preparations worldwide on Thursday, with countless millions forced to cancel plans or limit festivities under fresh virus lockdowns.

After a grinding pandemic year that has seen more than 1.7 million people die from Covid-19, a slew of new outbreaks are a stark reminder that despite emergency vaccine roll-outs, life is unlikely to return to normal quickly.

In Australia — often a rare bright spot in keeping the virus in check — a growing cluster of cases in northern Sydney has confined residents to seaside suburbs and prompted a ban on all but the smallest Christmas family gatherings.

Jimmy Arslan, who owns two cafes at the epicentre of the city’s outbreak, said trade was down 75 percent and his Canberra-based family had been forced to cancel their Christmas visit.

“It’s heartbreaking. It’s a very, very sour ending for a sour year,” the 46-year-old told AFP.

“Let’s just say we all should welcome 2021 and kick 2020 in its arse.”

In Europe, much of the continent is enduring a dark winter of resurgent outbreaks.

Germany has been forced to cancel its famous Christmas markets and Pope Francis plans to bring the Vatican’s Christmas midnight mass forward by two hours to meet Italy’s curfew rules.

In Bethlehem — which Christians believe is the birthplace of Jesus Christ — mass will be held without worshippers and broadcast online.

Nicolas al-Zoghbi, who visited Bethlehem’s Chapel of Saint Catherine in the lead-up to Christmas, said the joyfulness of the season had been replaced by “depression”.

“We hope the Lord will destroy corona, just get rid of it so we can return to our previous life,” he said.

But for many, the isolation that has defined the past year will continue into Christmas Day and beyond — such as in Belgium, where residents are largely limited to welcoming a single visitor.

In the Catholic-majority Philippines some are choosing to spend the holidays alone because of the risk of catching the virus on public transport, as well as quarantine rules making travelling time-consuming and expensive.

“I am ordering food in, re-watching old movies, and catching up with my family by video,” said Kim Patria, 31, who lives alone in Manila.

Britons, meanwhile, were cut off from swathes of the world on their Sceptred Isle, due to the emergence of a new Covid-19 strain.

Some UK border restrictions have been temporarily relaxed for the holidays, but thousands from other European countries are still stranded in England.

“Home for Christmas? Forget it,” said Laurent Beghin, a French truck driver who delivered his cargo but was still stuck days later.

In the United States, more than one million people have now been vaccinated, but the country’s coronavirus response remained chaotic as Donald Trump helicoptered off the White House lawn for one of the last times in his presidency.

The Republican and his wife Melania were bound for a vacation at his glitzy Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida after his shock rejection of a massive coronavirus relief package passed by Congress.

New Year’s celebrations are looking downbeat globally, with lockdowns looming for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Austria through the post-Christmas period, while Portugal has imposed a New Year’s Eve curfew.

For now, Sydney still plans to ring in 2021 with its famous Harbour Bridge fireworks display, with New South Wales state Premier Gladys Berejiklian pledging the seven-minute spectacle will go ahead “no matter what”.

But as with most of 2020, people are being encouraged to watch on television from their sofas.

Published by jim

Curator of things...

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