Fierce fighting near last IS foothold in eastern Syria
By BASSEM MROUE
Monday, February 11
BEIRUT (AP) — Fierce fighting was underway Monday between U.S.-backed Syrian forces and the Islamic State group around the extremists’ last foothold in eastern Syria, with the besieged militants fighting back with suicide car bombs, snipers and booby traps, a Syrian war monitor and a Kurdish news agency said.
An Italian photographer was wounded in the battle between advancing U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and the scores of militants holed up in the village of Baghouz, near the border with Iraq, an Italian news agency said.
The Syrian Democratic Forces on Saturday launched a final push to clear the area from IS under the cover of airstrikes by the U.S.-backed coalition.
The capture of the IS-held village of Baghouz and nearby areas would mark the end of a four-year global war to end IS’ territorial hold over large parts of Syria and Iraq, where the group established its self-proclaimed “caliphate” in 2014.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the push by the Kurdish-led SDF has been slow due to land mines and sniper fire, as well as the extremists’ use of tunnels and suicide car bombs. The IS also using civilians as human shields, the Observatory said.
On Monday, the Observatory said 13 IS militants, including five suicide attackers, were killed as well as six SDF fighters. The Kurdish Hawar news agency also reported heavy fighting in Baghouz.
IS said in a statement posted late Sunday that two of its “martyrdom-seekers” attacked SDF fighters in Baghouz with their explosive-laden car.
Syrian state media claimed a U.S.-led coalition airstrike near Baghouz killed two women and two children. More than 20,000 civilians have left the IS-held area in recent weeks.
The Italian news agency ANSA said Milan-born Gabriele Micalizzi, 34, was injured in the face by splinters of a rocket-propelled grenade, adding that his life was not in danger. It said he was being airlifted by the coalition to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.
U.S. officials have said in recent weeks that IS has lost 99.5 percent of its territory and is holding on to under 5 square kilometers (under 2 square miles), where the bulk of the fighters are concentrated in Syria. But activists and residents say IS still has sleeper cells in Syria and Iraq and is laying the groundwork for an insurgency.
The U.S. military has warned that the group could stage a comeback if the military and counter-terrorism pressure on it is eased.
At Dubai summit, Pakistan premier warns of ‘painful’ reforms
By JON GAMBRELL and FAY ABUELGASIM
Monday, February 11
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said Sunday his nation needed “painful” economic reforms to cut back on its massive debt, just after meeting the head of the International Monetary Fund, signaling the former cricketer may be willing to slash government spending for a bailout.
Khan made the comments at the World Government Summit in Dubai, which also saw Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri make his own investment pitch for his small country, now struggling through a major economic crisis as one of the world’s most-indebted nations.
Khan made a point in a sometimes-rambling address to repeatedly hit on the need for economic reforms as IMF chief Christine Lagarde looked on from the audience.
“I repeat the reforms are painful. It’s like a surgery. When you conduct surgery for a while the patient suffers but that improves,” Khan said. “The worst thing that can happen for society is that you keep postponing reforms because of the fear that you would have opposition, the vested interests stand up and you don’t do reforms.”
That Khan is in the Gulf is not surprising, as he’s gone to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for financial support. He also repeatedly praised China in his speech, another source of funding.
Before taking the stage, Khan met with Lagarde. Pakistan has been seeking an $8 billion bailout from the IMF. Pakistan has around $100 billion in external debts and liabilities, according to the State Bank of Pakistan.
A statement from Lagarde called the meeting “good and constructive.”
“I reiterated that the IMF stands ready to support Pakistan,” Lagarde said. “I also highlighted that decisive policies and a strong package of economic reforms would enable Pakistan to restore the resilience of its economy and lay the foundations for stronger and more inclusive growth.”
The annual World Government Summit sees global leaders and sheikhs cross paths at a luxury hotel near Dubai’s iconic, sail-shaped Burj al-Arab hotel. While typically an upbeat celebration of business buzzwords and self-help talks, this year’s summit comes amid a worldwide turn toward populism and anti-elitism.
Lagarde in her public remarks at the summit didn’t hesitate to criticize Britain’s upcoming departure from the EU, known as “Brexit.” Britain is due to leave the European Union on March 29. U.K. businesses fear a possible “no-deal” Brexit with the EU will cause economic chaos by imposing tariffs, customs and other barriers between Britain and mainland Europe.
“I’m certain of one thing, is that it’s not going to be as good as if they had not been Brexit, that is for sure,” Lagarde said. “Whether it ends well, whether there is a smooth exit given by customs unions as predicated by some, or whether it’s as a result of a brutal exit on March 29 without extension of notice, it’s not going to be as good as it is now.”
She urged all parties to “get ready for it” as it will upend how trade is now conducted with Britain.
For his part, Hariri sought to attract investment from Gulf Arab states, which long have been a major benefactor of Lebanon. His nation now faces soaring public debt of $84 billion, or 150 percent of the gross domestic product, making it one of the most-indebted nations in the world. Lebanese unemployment is believed to be around 36 percent.
Political paralysis has exacerbated the crisis. Lebanon formed a government last week after nine months of deadlock.
“We took the decision to bring together all the political powers because is this is the only way to save Lebanon,” Hariri said. “Today in Lebanon, we don’t have the time or the luxury of politics because our economy could completely collapse unless we surgically remove (politics) quickly, seriously and collectively.”
Gulf nations like Saudi Arabia are increasingly suspicious of Lebanon’ government because of the influence of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite political party and militant group. Hezbollah has three ministers in the new government.
A moderator gave Hariri a $100 bill and said he could keep it if he pitched him on investing in the country. After his pitch, Hariri returned the bill and said that he wished he had $115 to offer back.
Making a surprise visit to the summit was U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who took the stage to announce a robotics competition would be held in the United Arab Emirates later this year. Perry, a former governor of Texas who twice ran for president unsuccessfully, has tended to avoid the spotlight in President Donald Trump’s administration.
Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon in Islamabad contributed to this report.
Tabloid CEO’s lawyer denies Enquirer tried to extort Bezos
By MICHAEL BALSAMO
Monday, February 11
WASHINGTON (AP) — The National Enquirer committed neither extortion nor blackmail by threatening to publish intimate photos of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, an attorney for the head of the tabloid’s parent company said Sunday.
Elkan Abromowitz, an attorney for American Media Inc. chief executive David Pecker, said on Sunday a “reliable source” well-known to Bezos and his mistress provided the story about the billionaire’s extramarital affair.
Bezos has said AMI threatened to publish the explicit photos of him unless he stopped investigating how the Enquirer obtained his private exchanges with his mistress, former TV anchor Lauren Sanchez, and publicly declare that the Enquirer’s coverage of him was not politically motivated. Bezos also owns The Washington Post.
Bezos’ investigators have suggested the Enquirer’s coverage of his affair was driven by dirty politics, and the high-profile clash has pitted the world’s richest man against the leader of America’s best-known tabloid, who is a strong backer of President Donald Trump. Trump has been highly critical of Bezos over his ownership of The Washington Post and Amazon, and the Post’s coverage of the White House.
Federal prosecutors are looking into whether the Enquirer violated a cooperation and non-prosecution agreement that recently spared the gossip sheet from charges for paying hush money to a Playboy model who claimed she had an affair with Trump, two people familiar with the matter told The Associated Press on Friday. The people weren’t authorized to discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.
But asked during an interview with ABC’s “This Week” whether he was concerned the Bezos matter could jeopardize the noncooperation agreement, Abramowitz said: “Absolutely not.”
Abramowitz defended the tabloid’s handling of the situation as part of a standard legal negotiation.
“I think both Bezos and AMI had interests in resolving their interests,” Abramowitz said. “It’s absolutely not a crime to ask somebody to simply tell the truth. Tell the truth that this was not politically motivated, and we will print no more stories.”
Bezos’ affair became public when the Enquirer published story on Jan. 9 about his relationship with Lauren Sanchez, who is also married. Bezos then hired a team of private investigators to find out how the tabloid got the texts and photos the two exchanged.
Bezos’ personal investigators, led by his security consultant Gavin de Becker, have focused on Sanchez’s brother, according to a person familiar with the matter. The person wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. Michael Sanchez is his sister’s manager, a Trump supporter and an acquaintance of Trump allies Roger Stone and Carter Page.
Abramowitz would not comment when asked whether Michael Sanchez was the Enquirer’s source but said that “Bezos and Ms. Sanchez knew who the source was.”
Michael Sanchez has declined to speak with AP on the record. In a Jan. 31 tweet, he said without evidence that de Becker “spreads fake, unhinged conservative conspiracy theories.”
Investigators working for Bezos have identified who they believe provided text messages to the Enquirer, the person familiar with the matter told the AP on Sunday. Bezos’ investigators concluded their probe into the text message leak and turned over the results to attorney Richard Ben-Veniste for review and possible referral to law enforcement, the person said. Ben-Veniste had served as special prosecutor during the Watergate scandal.
In his blog post on Thursday, Bezos alluded to a possible relationship between Saudi Arabia and AMI, but Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s minister of state of foreign affairs, said he had “no idea” about such a relationship and doubted the kingdom played any role in urging AMI to run negative stories about Bezos. Last year, the tabloid produced a glossy magazine that included 97 pages saluting Saudi Arabia, ahead of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s arrival in the U.S. on a public relations blitz to transform his country’s image.
“It’s like a soap opera,” al-Jubeir said of Bezos’ allegations during a round-table on Friday with reporters in Washington.
Asked about AMI’s recent $450 million debt restructuring, Abramowitz said “not a penny” of that money came from the Saudi kingdom. The company had sought financing from the Saudis but never received any, he said.
After Bezos on Thursday posted the exchanges with AMI in an extraordinary blog post on Medium.com, several celebrities and journalists posted on social media that they too had been threatened by AMI. Ronan Farrow said he and “and at least one other prominent journalist” involved in reporting on the tabloid had “fielded similar ‘stop digging or we’ll ruin you’ blackmail efforts from AMI” and actor Terry Crews alleged the company tried to “silence him” by “fabricating stories of me with prostitutes.”
Abramowitz said he didn’t know of any AMI employees blackmailing celebrities or journalists or “committing any crime at all.”
In recent months, the Trump-friendly tabloid acknowledged secretly assisting Trump’s White House campaign by paying $150,000 to Playboy centerfold Karen McDougal for the rights to her story about an alleged affair with Trump. The company then buried the story until after the 2016 election.
Trump’s longtime personal attorney and fixer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty last year to charges that included helping to broker that transaction.
As part of a non-prosecution agreement in that case, AMI promised not to break the law. The deal requires top executives, including Pecker and the Enquirer’s editor, Dylan Howard, to cooperate with federal prosecutors. A violation of the agreement could lead to criminal charges over the McDougal payments.
Associated Press writers Zeke Miller in Washington and Michael R. Sisak and Jim Mustian in New York contributed to this report.
Pelosi shows pragmatic streak in pursuit of border deal
By ANDREW TAYLOR
Sunday, February 10
WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans have vilified Nancy Pelosi for years as a San Francisco liberal and now they’re trying to portray her as a captive of resurgent left-wingers in her Democratic Party.
But in her early moves so far as House speaker, Pelosi is displaying her pragmatic streak. She’s set to endorse a split-the-differences deal on government funding that appears on track to give President Donald Trump at least some barriers on the border, after she had said Trump’s border wall idea was “immoral” and promised he wouldn’t get a penny for it.
And as the Democratic Party’s progressive wing pursues dreams such as “Medicare for all” and a “Green New Deal,” Pelosi is keeping her distance.
“We are results-oriented, values-based, and for the boldest common denominator,” Pelosi said in a brief interview on Friday. “Everybody has a path to make their case, to see what the options are. I’m wedded to the Affordable Care Act because I think it’s a path to health care for all Americans.”
Pelosi presides over a 235-member Democratic caucus that surged into power in last November’s midterm election, fueled by voters’ anger against Trump. The new majority includes young, high-profile and defiantly liberal lawmakers such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who’s a darling among Democratic activists and a social media phenomenon.
“There’s a new crop of Democrats that make Pelosi look moderate. I never thought I’d see that day,” said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore. “You see this Green New Deal rollout, you see this Medicare for all rollout and you don’t see her buying into those proposals.”
While some on the left are demanding Trump’s impeachment, Pelosi is urging Democrats to take it slow, saying there needs to be a full vetting of any evidence. She’s against demanding Trump’s tax returns immediately, to the dismay of impatient lawmakers such as Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J.
There’s no denying Pelosi’s skills. She was a strong speaker when running the House in 2007-10, keeping Democrats unified and sometimes running roughshod over Republicans. But some in her caucus started to doubt her after punishing election cycles in 2010, 2014 and 2016.
Pelosi overpowered her doubters, however, in a leadership challenge last fall, emerging stronger than when she started. At age 78 she emerged from her shutdown victory over Trump as a hero in the party and is carrying greater leverage into the ongoing negotiations. So far, there’s little grousing among Democrats.
Pelosi’s more measured approach is playing out this weekend as talks grind on over border security money. Pelosi took a hard line during the recent 35-day partial federal shutdown, refusing to enter into negotiations while the government was shuttered, while dismissing Trump’s dream of a border wall.
“We’re not doing a wall. Does anybody have any doubt about that? We are not doing a wall. So that’s that,” Pelosi said last month. She called the idea “an immorality.”
Those remarks led many Republicans to believe that Pelosi would become an obstacle in the talks, refusing to agree to enough concessions to win over Republicans controlling the Senate, much less Trump.
Instead, Pelosi is intent on pursuing a deal with Republicans on a $350 billion-plus appropriations bill that has been hung up for weeks over Trump’s border wall demands. She still opposes the idea of a wall but has signaled she’s open to vehicle barriers and other steps. She says she’s delegating most of the decision-making to allies on the House Appropriations Committee.
“I trust the appropriators,” Pelosi said, and she frequently reminds people that she was “forged” on that pragmatic committee. Predictions that she’d be hemmed in by her prior stance, or that she’d be unwilling to buck progressives, aren’t coming to fruition.
“Nobody hems in the speaker, OK?” said Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa. “The speaker is quite secure in her position and is someone who doesn’t have to worry about what anyone chatters about.”
Part of that is the difference between making a political point and making a law. Must-pass legislation to fund the government, for example, which requires Trump’s approval, gets treated differently than do upcoming messaging measures on climate change, taxes and health care.
Pelosi also relies heavily on her committee chairmen, several of whom have decades of experience in the House dating to the Democratic majority of the early 1990s.
Issues where Democrats want an accomplishment this year, such as lowering prescription drug prices, probably require Democrats and Pelosi to cut deals that won’t please lots of liberals. Pelosi knows the ropes of divided government, often citing her work with the Bush administration in 2007 to pass legislation boosting automobile mileage standards and production of renewable energy.
But Pelosi hints that issue areas where Democrats are developing proposals to run on in the 2020 elections are more wide open.
“Everything’s on the table. Medicare for all is on the table,” Pelosi said. “Everybody knows they have a path. There’s no blocking of anything. Everybody has the path to make their case.”
While high-profile liberals such as Ocasio-Cortez, who won a safe seat in New York City, capture the attention of the party’s left wing, Pelosi is more focused on protecting the first-term members who really matter to holding the Democrats’ majority: lawmakers who took over GOP seats in areas won by Trump.
Republicans say Pelosi is still a stereotypical San Francisco liberal. It’s just that she looks relatively measured when compared with left-wing insurgents.
“She’s trying to hold them back from going over the cliff,” said the House’s top Republican, California Rep. Kevin McCarthy. “The party has moved beyond where she has philosophically been. So she is trying to rein that back.”
American dream: Bait and switch?
by Wim Laven
American mythology posits a narrative for our foundation which rests upon an ideology of values and self-evident truths which separate the United States from the rest of the world. When I teach this I try to sell the “all are created equal” as hard as I can. Including “the pursuit of happiness” with life and liberty is actually an important and unique American value, at least in our affirmative expression of it.
I’ll challenge any student or reader to talk with an immigrant about the American Dream before giving up on it. The so-called Caravan of people walking across Mexico to flee violence in search of the opportunity echoed on our Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore…”
There is an American Dream, and I wish we still hoped to share it.
When the American Dream is used as bait and lures victims into slavery—sometimes manual labor, sometimes sex work—that is when the dream becomes a nightmare; as of 2005 the U.S. State Dept. reported between 14,500 and 17,500 human beings trafficked into the U.S. annually, and many come willingly, believing the lies of the traffickers. The Global Slavery Index 2018 “estimates that on any given day in 2016 there were 403,000 people living in conditions of modern slavery in the United States.” Human trafficking of women and children is the fastest growing crime on the planet, sex trafficking makes $99 billion a year.
What can you do? The State Department offers some advice, including: “If you are in the United States and believe someone may be a victim of human trafficking, report your suspicions to law enforcement by calling 911 or the 24-hour National Human Trafficking Hotline line at 1-888-373-7888.”
While Trump signed the re-authorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act last month—a Good Thing—he also falsely conflates trafficking with his wall. He says: “This really is an invasion of our country by human traffickers,” but it is just another lie (the Washington Post, as of Jan. 21, 2019, has tracked 8,158 untruths in the first two years of Trump’s Presidency). No amount of expertise on human trafficking will sway him, he will peddle the myths and actually make combatting the problem more difficult.
A more constructive partial solution would be to truly offer the American Dream to victims of trafficking, who are often kept in slavery by their traffickers threats that, if they are caught they will be deported. There is a seldom-used and nearly obscure provision in the Victims Protection Act for a special T-visa that would give such victims four years of residence in the US and on year three they could apply for a green card, but the law doesn’t require prosecutors to help or even notify arrested victims of this hope. That should change.
I almost wish we could prove the American Dream was dead, at least then it wouldn’t be the con used to lure so many into captivity, it ought to be called the American Tragedy instead.
Wim Laven, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is an instructor of Political Science and International Relations at Kennesaw State University, and on the Governing Council of the International Peace Research Association.