Donald Trump says he is ‘absolutely’ ready to send troops to confront Iran Roland Oliphant Roland Oliphant•Donald Trump denied planning to send tens of thousands of troops to the middle east but said he was ready to do so if necessary – AP Donald Trump yesterday suggested he is ready to send “a hell of a lot” of troops to confront Iran in the Middle East amid warnings that the two countries are stumbling towards a war.The comments come amid mounting diplomatic and military tensions in the Persian Gulf after Iran-aligned Yemeni rebels attacked an oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia and an unidentified attacker attempted to sabotage tankers.Mr Trump said reports that the Pentagon has already drawn up plans to deploy 120,000 soldiers to the region in preparation for conflict were “fake news.”But he added: “Now, would I do that? Absolutely. But we have not planned for that,” he said.“Hopefully we’re not going to have to plan for that. And if we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that,” he said.A U.S. Air Force B-52H Stratofortress bomber assigned to the 20th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron refuels during a mission over the middle east Credit: HANDOUT/Reuters Tensions between Washington and Iran have spiralled since last week, when the US accused Iran of preparing to attack US interests in the Middle East and said it was sending an aircraft carrier and a task force of B-52 bombers to the region in response.Iran then said it would resume enriching high-grade uranium needed for a nuclear weapon unless the world finds a way to ease the impact of US sanctions that have devastated its economy.The New York Times reported on Tuesday that Pentagon officials had drawn up a plan to send up to 120,000 troops to the Middle East to counter military attacks. Iran’s president earlier said he would not bow to US pressure and warned that Iran is “too great to be intimidated by anyone.”The Norwegian-flagged MV Andrea Victory was attacked on 12 May 2019 outside Fujairah port, United Arab Emirates Credit: ALI HAIDER/EPA-EFE/REX “God willing we will pass this difficult period with glory and our heads held high, and defeat the enemy,” Hassan Rouhani said at a meeting with Sunni clerics.On Monday four ships were damaged by “sabotage attacks” near the mouth of the Persian Gulf.The United States and its allies have refrained from publicly blaming Iran for the incident, but officials in Washington have briefed reporters that national security agencies believe Iran or Iranian proxies were responsible. Iran has denied all such claims.On Tuesday Khalid al-Falih, the Saudi energy minister, said state owned oil firm Aramco had “temporarily shut down” the East-West pipeline after two pumping stations were targeted. Oil production and exports were not interrupted.Mohammed Abdusalam, a spokesman for the Houthi rebels, wrote on Twitter that the attacks were “a response to the aggressors continuing to commit genocide” against the Yemeni people.The US has pursued a policy of “maximum pressure” including trying to prevent third countries buying Iranian oil since Mr Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from a 2015 deal designed to curtail Iran’s nuclear program in May 2018.Iran has said it cannot remain bound by a one-sided agreement and has given the other signatories – the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union – sixty days to find a way to allow it to continue to sell oil and receive the revenues from such sales. The Trump administration’s policy has caused a rift between the United States and European signatories to the agreement, including Britain. Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, has warned that the US and Iran could stumble into armed conflict.Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, on Tuesday said US officials “fundamentally do not seek a war with Iran” but said there was an increased risk of attack from Iranian allies across the region.Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) Credit: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/POOL/EPA-EFE/REX Speaking at a press conference with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, he said: „we’ve made clear to the Iranian that if US interests are attacked we will respond in an appropriate fashion.”But a senior British general on Tuesday claimed there was little reason to believe Iran posed a greater threat in key areas of the Middle East.“No, there’s been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria,” Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika told reporters at the Pentagon in a video conference from coalition headquarters in Baghdad. “We’re aware of their presence, clearly, and we monitor them, along with a whole range of others because that’s the environment we’re in.”Mr Pompeo was speaking after a meeting with Mr Lavrov and Vladimir Putin. He admitted there were major differences between Russia and the United States over Iran, Venezuela, and Ukraine.Mr Lavrov said Russia supported a „diplomatic solution” to the confrontation and that he believed the US was ready to seek one. Hamid Baeidinejad, Iran’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, described the threat to renew uranium enrichment and heavy water production as an attempt to „save” the 2015 nuclear deal by signalling that immediate action is needed to preserve it. He said Iran did not want a war but warned an armed conflict would be “devastating” for both the United States and the region.“If people in the White House or the region want to drag the US into a conflict they should take this very seriously,” he said. “We are fully prepared for any eventuality.”
By John Davison and Mark Hosenball
BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Helicopters ferried U.S. staff from the American embassy in Baghdad on Wednesday out of apparent concern about perceived threats from Iran, which U.S. sources believe encouraged Sunday’s attacks on four oil tankers in the Gulf.
The sabotage of the tankers, for which no one has claimed responsibility, and Saudi Arabia’s announcement on Tuesday that armed drones hit two of its oil pumping stations have raised concerns Washington and Tehran may be inching toward conflict.
A U.S. government source said American security experts believe Iran gave its „blessing” to tanker attacks, which hit two Saudi crude oil tankers, a UAE-flagged fuel bunker barge and a Norwegian-registered oil products tanker off Fujeirah near the Strait of Hormuz.
The source said the United States believes Iran’s role was one of actively encouraging militants but indicated the United States does not now have evidence that Iranian personnel played any direct operational role.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry has called the tanker attacks „worrisome and dreadful” and called for an investigation.
There has been a marked increase in U.S.-Iranian tensions since U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to try to cut off all of Iran’s oil exports and to designate its Revolutionary Guards as a „foreign terrorist organization.”
Trump, who last year abandoned the 2015 international nuclear accord with Iran, believes the economic pressure will force Tehran to accept more stringent limitations on its nuclear and missile programs as well as on its support for proxies in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
U.S. SHRINKS DIPLOMATIC PRESENCE
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a surprise visit to Baghdad last week after U.S. intelligence showed Iran-backed Shi’ite militias positioning rockets near bases housing U.S. forces, according to two Iraqi security sources.
Pompeo told Iraq’s top brass to keep the militias, which are expanding their power in Iraq and now form part of its security apparatus, in check, the sources said. If not, the United States would respond with force.
Helicopters took off throughout the day from the vast U.S. embassy compound near the Tigris River in Baghdad, carrying non-emergency staff out, according to an Iraqi source and a diplomatic source inside Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone.
The Iraqi source said U.S. staff were headed for a military base at Baghdad airport. A U.S. official told Reuters late on Wednesday that the evacuation was complete.
Trump is sending an aircraft carrier group, B-52 bombers and Patriot missiles to the Middle East to counter what the United States calls a heightened threat from Iran to U.S. soldiers and interests in the region.
Iran described the U.S. moves as „psychological warfare”, and a British commander cast doubt on U.S. military concerns about threats to its roughly 5,000 soldiers in Iraq, who have been helping Iraqi security forces fight Islamic State.
The U.S. State Department said employees at both the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and its consulate in Erbil, capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, were being pulled out immediately due to safety concerns.
It was unclear how many were affected, and there was no word on any specific threat. Visa services were suspended at the heavily-fortified U.S. missions.
Germany, which has 160 soldiers in Iraq, and the Netherlands which has 169 military and civilian staff, suspended military training operations, citing regional tensions.
The attack on the tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, through which one fifth of the world’s oil consumption flows, appeared designed to test the resolve of the United States and its Sunni Muslim allies without triggering a war, analysts said.
„This is a pin-prick event, a little needle-like jab at the maritime trade going into the Strait of Hormuz,” said Gerry Northwood, chairman of risk management and security firm MAST.
Both the United States and Iran have said they do not want war, and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said on Tuesday he had indications „things will end well” despite the rhetoric.
Iraq is one of few countries with close ties to both the United States and Iran. It has said it will keep strong ties with Iran, and also with the United States and Arab neighbors, some of whom, such as Saudi Arabia, consider Tehran a rival.
The United States, which had a large troop presence in Iraq from 2003-2011 after invading to topple dictator Saddam Hussein, sent troops back there in 2014 to help fight Islamic State.
Iran has close ties to powerful Iraqi political parties and supports powerful Shi’ite militia groups.
„I think we are now in a quite dangerous situation where a miscalculation by either side could lead us into conflict,” U.S. Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN in an interview on Wednesday.
(Reporting by John Davison and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Raya Jalabi in Erbil and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Makini Brice and Phil Stewart in Washington, Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva; Tassilo Hummel and Sabine Siebold in Berlin; and Anthony Deutsch and Toby Sterling in Amsterdam; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Grant McCool)
UAE Navy boats are seen next to Al Marzoqah, Saudi Arabian tanker, off the Port of Fujairah
By Stephen Kalin and Rania El Gamal
RIYADH/DUBAI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia said armed drones struck two of its oil pumping stations on Tuesday, two days after the sabotage of oil tankers near the United Arab Emirates, and the U.S. military said it was braced for „possibly imminent threats to U.S. forces in Iraq” from Iran-backed forces.
The attacks took place against a backdrop of U.S.-Iranian tension following Washington’s decision this month to try to cut Iran’s oil exports to zero and to beef up its military presence in the Gulf in response to what it said were Iranian threats.
Tuesday’s attacks on the pumping stations more than 200 miles (320 km) west of Riyadh and Sunday’s on four tankers off Fujairah emirate have raised concerns that the United States and Iran might inching toward military conflict.
However, U.S. President Donald Trump denied a New York Times report that U.S. officials were discussing a military plan to send up to 120,000 troops to the Middle East to counter any attack or nuclear weapons acceleration by Iran.
„It’s fake news, OK? Now, would I do that? Absolutely. But we have not planned for that. Hopefully we’re not going to have to plan for that. And if we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that,” Trump told reporters.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said there would not be war with the United States despite mounting tensions over Iranian nuclear capabilities, its missile program and its support for proxies in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
„There won’t be any war. The Iranian nation has chosen the path of resistance,” he said in comments carried by Iran’s state TV. He repeated that Tehran would not negotiate with Washington over Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with major powers.
The U.S. military cited possible imminent threats to its troops in Iraq and said they were now on high alert. The U.S. was responding to comments from a British deputy commander of the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State remnants in Iraq and Syria who said there had been no increase in the threat from Iran-backed militia.
The comments „run counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from U.S. and allies regarding Iranian backed forces in the region,” said Navy Captain Bill Urban, a spokesman at the U.S. military’s Central Command.
Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal a year ago and has sharply increased economic sanctions on Iran.
Under the accord negotiated by Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, Iran agreed to curb its uranium enrichment capacity, a potential pathway to a nuclear bomb, in return for sanctions relief.
NO HARD EVIDENCE
The Trump administration’s sanctions are designed to choke off Iran’s oil exports in an effort to force Iran to accept more stringent limits on its nuclear and missile programs as well as to rein in its support for proxy forces in the region.
U.S. national security agencies believe proxies sympathetic to or working for Iran may have sabotaged the tankers near the UAE rather than Iranian forces themselves, a U.S. official familiar with the latest U.S. assessments said.
The official said possible perpetrators might include Houthi rebels in Yemen and Iran-backed Shi’ite militias based in Iraq, but Washington had no hard evidence. On Monday, a U.S. official said Iran was a leading candidate for the tanker sabotage but the United States did not have conclusive proof.
Iran rejects the allegation of Iranian involvement and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that „extremist individuals” in the U.S. government were pursuing dangerous policies.
A senior European diplomat voiced skepticism that Trump’s „maximum pressure” strategy would force Iran to capitulate.
„Iran is not falling to its knees,” said the diplomat on condition of anonymity, saying Iran could resume its nuclear work and leave Washington with no option but military action.
„Does Trump want to go to war with Iran especially during an election campaign year?” he asked.
Democratic Party candidates are already campaigning ahead of the November 2020 U.S. election aiming to stop Republican Trump being re-elected.
HOUTHI TV CLAIMS DRONE ATTACK
Houthi-run Masirah TV earlier said the group had carried out drone attacks on „vital” Saudi installations in response to „continued aggression and blockade” on Yemen.
A Saudi-led coalition has been battling the Houthis for four years in Yemen to try to restore the internationally recognised government in a conflict widely seen as a Saudi-Iran proxy war.
The Houthis have hit Saudi cities with drones and missiles, but two Saudi sources told Reuters this was the first time a facility of the state-run Aramco had been attacked by drones.
Aramco said it had temporarily shut down the East-West pipeline, known as Petroline, to evaluate its condition. The pipeline mainly transports crude from the kingdom’s eastern fields to the port of Yanbu, which lies north of Bab al-Mandeb.
The energy minister of Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, said the latest attacks caused a fire, now contained, and minor damage at one pump station, but did not disrupt oil output or exports of crude and petroleum products.
Oil prices rose on news of the attack on the Saudi pumping stations. Brent futures gained $1.01, or 1.4 percent, to settle at $71.24 a barrel.
Saudi Arabia’s cabinet said the „terrorist attack” against two Saudi oil tankers near the UAE reflected poorly on regional and international security, Saudi Press agency reported.
It quoted the cabinet as saying it was the international community’s shared responsibility „to preserve maritime safety and oil tankers security in anticipation of any effects on energy markets, and the danger of that on world economy.”
The UAE has not blamed anyone for what it called sabotage on the vessels. The UAE said the other tankers hit were a UAE-flagged fuel bunker barge and a Norwegian-registered oil products tanker near Fujairah, one of the world’s largest bunkering hubs just outside the Strait of Hormuz.
A fifth of global oil consumption passes through the strait from Middle East crude producers to much of the world.
A UAE official told Reuters the UAE was working with local and international partners from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Norway and France – which has a naval base in Abu Dhabi – to „fully investigate the incident and to identify the people or entities responsible.”
(Reporting by Stephen Kalin and Rania El Gamal; Additional reporting by Alexander Cornwell, Asma Alsharif, Aziz El Yaakoubi and Davide Barbuscia in Dubai; Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad; Mark Hosenball, Doina Chiacu, Makini Brice, Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in Washington; Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Grant McCool)
(Bloomberg) — The U.S. drew up a list of associates of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban who could be targeted with sanctions, the Wall Street Journal reported, in what would amount to a fallback option if engagement fails to sway the illiberal leader to meet his NATO commitments.
The sanctions threat emerged just a day after President Donald Trump praised Orban as a “tough” and “respected” leader at a White House meeting that capped a turnaround in American policy. The U.S. had focused for almost a decade on isolating the four-term premier over his erosion of democracy and deepening ties with Russia and, more recently, China.
The Wall Street Journal, in a report late Tuesday, cited unidentified people talking about the list of targets who could be sanctioned for corruption. They include tycoon Lorinc Meszaros, who’s considered Orban’s closest business ally, Istvan Tiborcz, Orban’s son-in-law who has wide-ranging real estate holdings, and Antal Rogan, Orban’s chief of staff.
“We don’t respond to unfounded, fake news,” Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said in an email. The U.S. embassy in Budapest didn’t comment.
Orban has been a thorn in the side of U.S. efforts to shore up NATO’s eastern flank to counter the growing influence of Russia and China. He’s built a close relationship with President Vladimir Putin and handed Russia a $12 billion contract to expand Hungary’s sole nuclear power plant.
Orban has also opposed U.S. efforts to draw Ukraine closer to NATO, citing disagreements over the treatment of ethnic Hungarians there. He’s rejected U.S. requests to cut business ties with Huawei Technologies Co., instead joining China’s global infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative.
The U.S. had already blacklisted unidentified Hungarian officials in 2014, barring them from entry because of alleged corruption.
(Updates with Hungarian government comment in fourth paragraph.)
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To contact the editors responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at email@example.com, Andras Gergely
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WASHINGTON — Viktor Orbán couldn’t have scripted it any better if he’d tried.
Seated next to President Trump in a gold-colored chair in the Oval Office, the Hungarian prime minister listened intently as the leader of the free world sang his praises to a throng of journalists, photographers and TV cameramen. “Highly respected. Respected all over Europe,” Trump said of Orbán. “Probably, like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s OK.”
Orbán broke into a smile, and the two heads of state traded admiring glances, each looking perfectly chummy, like a reunion between old friends. “You’ve done a good job, and you’ve kept your country safe,” Trump said.
“Grand Slam for #TeamOrban,” a former U.S.-based lobbyist for the Hungarian government texted me soon afterward.
The last time Viktor Orbán visited the White House, it was 2001 and the world looked a lot different. The tide of far-right, nationalist politics that fueled Brexit and Trump’s election had yet to appear, and Orbán was serving his first stint as prime minister. In the intervening years, he lost his seat and then regained it after remaking himself into an early leader of that nationalist wave. Before Steve Bannon, Breitbart News and Donald Trump came on the scene, Orbán and his Fidesz party were demonizing immigrants, attacking the media and stoking xenophobia to take power. He was Trump before Trump. (He was also the first European leader to back Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.)
Today, Orbán is a driving force behind the slide toward authoritarianism in parts of Europe. He said in an infamous 2014 speech that the successful societies of the future were “not Western, not liberal, not liberal democracies and perhaps not even democracies,” and that the models for Hungary should be China, Russia, Turkey and India. He and Fidesz have taken control of more than 90 percent of all media outlets in Hungary in the past decade. His party created a parallel court system to consolidate control over the judiciary. Critics of Orbán and Fidesz are met with intimidation, lawsuits, fines and loss of their livelihoods. Last year, for the first time, Freedom House downgraded Hungary from “Free” to “Partly Free,” the first-ever EU member state to receive the designation.
Orbán’s reputation as an enemy of liberalism is strong enough that his visit prompted a rare outbreak of bipartisanship in Congress. In a letter to Trump, Sens. Jim Risch (R-ID), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) urged Trump to press Orbán about Hungary’s anti-democratic trajectory and its growing economic ties to China and Russia. Another set of House Democrats urged the president to cancel the meeting altogether.
It was no surprise that Trump ignored their advice. Trump has made a habit of snubbing allies such as Germany’s Angela Merkel while cozying up to strongmen and autocrats like Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Vladimir Putin of Russia. On the eve of Orbán’s visit, the Atlantic ran a lengthy story about yet another of Orbán’s autocratic initiatives: expelling from Hungary the Central European University, one of Europe’s finest higher-education institutions. Near the end of the story, the U.S. ambassador to Hungary, an 80-year-old jeweler and friend of Trump’s named David Cornstein, said this of Trump: “I can tell you, knowing the president for a good 25 or 30 years, that he would love to have the situation that Viktor Orbán has, but he doesn’t.”
At their Oval Office meeting, Trump praised Orbán’s leadership and strength and said they would be discussing NATO, trade policies and “lots of other subjects.” One of those other subjects was supposed to be a defense deal in which Hungary would purchase U.S.-made surface-to-air missiles. But there was no mention of Orbán’s plans to ratify that agreement during the press conference.
“It seems like Orbán played Trump,” Péter Márki-Zay, mayor of the Hungarian city of Hódmezővásárhely and an opposition leader critical of Orbán, told me. “He got what he wanted without giving up his buddy Putin’s interests in favor of the U.S.”
Márki-Zay was sitting in a coffee shop less than a mile from the White House. A Catholic and social conservative, Márki-Zay defeated the Fidesz party candidate in a 2018 election to be mayor after convincing Hungary’s fractured opposition parties to unite behind his candidacy. He is now trying to build a legitimate anti-Orbán movement by persuading opposition groups in other towns and cities across Hungary to band together.
Márki-Zay and Zoltán Kész, a Hungarian activist and writer, had traveled to Washington on a counter-programming mission timed to coincide with Orbán’s official visit. When I spoke with them, they had come from a meeting at the State Department. “They were very interested in our views on these issues,” Kész told me, and “about whether there is an alternative to Orbán in the future.” Later, Márki-Zay and Kész planned to meet with human-rights groups and Hungarian ex-pats.
Márki-Zay described the constant intimidation he faced opposing Orbán and Fidesz. He took out a plastic bag from his briefcase and showed me dozens of mail pieces and fliers attacking him, his wife and people who worked for his campaign. Some said they were produced by Fidesz, others had no disclaimer. “In many smaller places, people are scared that they’ll lose their jobs, that their kids won’t get admission to state universities, stuff like that,” he said. “People are scared. They don’t dare to stand up.”
While he wrote off some of Trump’s praise as bluster typical of this president, Márki-Zay said that Orbán’s visit was a major propaganda victory that the prime minister would use back in Hungary to validate his agenda. “Orbán wants to project how respected he is, and these were exactly the words the president said,” Márki-Zay told me. “Now, he can claim he’s one of the significant leaders of the world.”
In a few weeks, the European parliament will hold its elections, pitting pro-EU lawmakers against a growing far-right, extremist wing pushing to destabilize the union. Orbán is part of that EU-critical faction, and his successful visit to the White House could further legitimize his campaign against the EU and his drift closer to Russia and China.
“At a time when relations between Washington and Brussels are strained and the relationship between Trump and Merkel is frosty, welcoming Orbán into the Oval Office carries a message that will reverberate throughout Europe,” says Scott Cullinane, a former Republican staff member on the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats. “It is likely that Orbán will seek to use a successful meeting with Trump to position himself as a powerbroker between European capitals and the White House.”
As for Hungarians who don’t support Orbán — he last won reelection with just 48 percent of the vote — the message sent by Trump’s embrace of the Hungarian prime minister is “devastating,” says Heather Conley, a former State Department official under President George W. Bush who oversaw U.S. relations with northern and central Europe and now works at the Center for International and Strategic Studies.
In five months, Hungarians will vote in municipal elections, which will be the first test of Mayor Peter Márki-Zay’s bottom-up opposition campaign. He’s calling it Hungary for All. Despite having little money and intense opposition, Márki-Zay and his allies hope to elect more local officials and show that there is a real opposition to Orbán and Fidesz. The alternative, he says, is a slide further into autocracy and one-party control of Hungary. “It’s not a state of law anymore,” he says. “It’s not a democracy. It’s definitely the most corrupt system in Hungary for the last 1,000 years.”
FILE PHOTO: Aircraft are seen at a runway on the Simon Bolivar airport in Caracas
By Chris Sanders and Luc Cohen
WASHINGTON/CARACAS (Reuters) – The U.S. Department of Transportation on Wednesday ordered the suspension of all commercial passenger and cargo flights between the United States and Venezuela, citing reports of unrest and violence around airports in the South American country.
Many international airlines had stopped flying to Venezuela anyway because of security concerns and disputes over money they say the government owes them. But domestic airlines, including Laser Airlines and Avior Airlines, had been offering services to Miami.
Some Venezuelans also expressed concern about the impact of the ban on people receiving food and other provisions via cargo planes from relatives abroad to help them weather a humanitarian crisis.
In a letter to the Transportation Department requesting the halt, the Department of Homeland Security said „conditions in Venezuela threaten the safety and security of passengers, aircraft, and crew traveling to or from that country.”
Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Laser Airlines said it would maintain service to the United States through a layover in the Dominican Republic.
In a tweet, Laser said it would continue offering two flights between Miami and Caracas each day with layovers in Santo Domingo.
An Avior representative did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Copa Airlines, which operates flights between Caracas and its international hub in Panama City that allow passengers to continue on to the United States, said in an email that its operations would not be affected by the measure.
But many of the millions of Venezuelans who have fled the crisis in recent years use U.S.-based companies to ship goods to relatives in the country via cargo planes, and the measure prohibiting direct flights could raise costs, said Marcos Gomez, Amnesty International’s Venezuela director.
„It was a small bit of hope,” Gomez said in a telephone interview, likening the U.S. measure to a form of „collective blockade.”
American Airlines Group Inc, previously the largest carrier providing service between the United States and Venezuela, in March said it was indefinitely suspending its flights to Venezuela.
In April, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration prohibited U.S. air operators from flying below 26,000 feet in Venezuela’s airspace.
The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump last week expanded its Venezuela sanctions to the defense and security services sectors to pressure President Nicolas Maduro.
The moves are part of a four-month-old campaign against Maduro as the United States ramps up its support for opposition leader Juan Guaido.
(Reporting by Chris Sanders in Washington and Luc Cohen in Caracas; additional reporting by Marcelo Rochabrun in Sao Paulo; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Rosalba O’Brien)
WASHINGTON (AP) — International worries that the Trump administration is sliding toward war with Iran flared into the open Tuesday amid skepticism about its claims that the Islamic Republic poses a growing threat to the U.S. and its allies in the Persian Gulf and beyond .
The U.S. military rebutted doubts expressed by a British general about such a threat. President Donald Trump denied a report that the administration has updated plans to send more than 100,000 troops to counter Iran if necessary. But Trump then stirred the controversy further by saying: „Would I do that? Absolutely.”
The general’s remarks exposed international skepticism over the American military build-up in the Middle East, a legacy of the 2003 invasion of Iraq that was predicated on false intelligence. U.S. officials have not publicly provided any evidence to back up claims of an increased Iranian threat amid other signs of allied unease.
As tensions in the region started to surge, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said his nation was worried about the risk of accidental conflict „with an escalation that is unintended really on either side.” Then on Tuesday, Spain temporarily pulled one of its frigates from the U.S.-led combat fleet heading toward the Strait of Hormuz. That was followed by the unusual public challenge to the Trump administration by the general.
„No, there’s been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria,” said Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika, a senior officer in the U.S.-backed coalition fighting the Islamic State group. Ghika, speaking in a video conference from coalition headquarters in Baghdad, told reporters at the Pentagon that the coalition monitors the presence of Iranian-backed forces „along with a whole range of others because that’s the environment we’re in.”
But he added, „There are a substantial number of militia groups in Iraq and Syria, and we don’t see any increased threat from any of them at this stage.”
Late in the day, in a rare public rebuttal of an allied military officer, U.S. Central Command said Ghika’s remarks „run counter to the identified credible threats” from Iranian-backed forces in the Mideast. In a written statement, Central Command said the coalition in Baghdad has increased the alert level for all service members in Iraq and Syria.
„As a result, (the coalition) is now at a high level of alert as we continue to closely monitor credible and possibly imminent threats to U.S. forces in Iraq,” the statement said.
At the White House, Trump, who has repeatedly argued for avoiding long-term conflicts in the Mideast, discounted a New York Times report that the U.S. has updated plans that could send up to 120,000 troops to counter Iran if it attacked American forces.
„Would I do that? Absolutely,” he told reporters. „But we have not planned for that. Hopefully we’re not going to have to plan for that. If we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that.”
Reinforcing Trump’s denial, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a joint news conference in Sochi with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, „We fundamentally do not seek war with Iran.”
A Trump administration official said a recent small meeting of national security officials was not focused on a military response to Iran, but instead concentrated on a range of other policy options, including diplomacy and economic sanctions. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Lavrov said Pompeo told him that a potential deployment of 120,000 U.S. troops to the Mideast was only a „rumor.” Lavrov said the international community needs to focus on diplomacy with Iran, including on the potentially explosive issue of Iran’s nuclear program, which is constrained by a U.S.-brokered deal in 2015 that Trump has abandoned.
U.S. Iran envoy Brian Hook told reporters traveling with Pompeo in Brussels that the secretary of state shared intelligence on Iran with allies since „Europe shares our concerns about stability in the Gulf and the Middle East.” What the Europeans do not share, however, is Washington’s more aggressive approach to Iran.
„We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident, with an escalation that is unintended really on either side but ends with some kind of conflict,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told reporters in Brussels.
„What we need is a period of calm to make sure that everyone understands what the other side is thinking,” Hunt said.
Last week, U.S. officials said they had detected signs of Iranian preparations for potential attacks on U.S. forces and interests in the Mideast, but Washington has not spelled out that threat.
The U.S. has about 5,000 troops in Iraq and about 2,000 in Syria as part of the coalition campaign to defeat the Islamic State group there. It also has long had a variety of air and naval forces stationed in Bahrain, Qatar and elsewhere in the Gulf, partly to support military operations against IS and partly as a counter to Iranian influence.
Gen. Ghika’s comments came amid dramatically heightened tensions in the Middle East. The U.S. in recent days has ordered the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group to the Gulf region, plus four B-52 bombers. It also is moving a Patriot air-defense missile battery to an undisclosed country in the area. As of Tuesday, the Lincoln and its strike group had passed through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait in the Red Sea, but officials would not disclose their exact location.
Tensions rose another notch with reports Sunday that four commercial vessels anchored off the United Arab Emirates had been damaged by sabotage.
A U.S. military team was sent to the UAE to investigate, and one U.S. official said the initial assessment is that each ship has a 5- to 10-foot hole in it, near or just below the water line. The official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss details of the investigation, said the early interpretation is that the holes were caused by explosive charges.
The official on Tuesday acknowledged seeing some photographs of the damage to the ships, but those images have not been made public. The official also said that the team is continuing to conduct forensic testing on the ship damage and that U.S. leaders are still awaiting the final report. The team’s initial assessment is that the damage was done by Iranian or Iranian-backed proxies, but they are still going through the evidence and have not yet reached a final conclusion, the official said.
AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee and AP writer Zeke Miller contributed to this report.
The abortion ban approved Tuesday night by the Alabama Senate and signed into law Wednesday by Republican Governor Kay Ivey is more than just the most restrictive legislation passed by any state in the 46 years since the Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide.
It is also the opening of a new front in the abortion wars, and the clearest statement yet that the tsunami of state abortion restrictions introduced this year is less about actually enforcing those particular restrictions than about giving the justices an opportunity to reverse the 1973 ruling.
“It’s like a racehorse in the Kentucky Derby — blinders on all side,” said Democratic Sen. Rodger Smitherman shortly after he voted against the bill, which would ban all abortions for any reason and carry prison sentences of 99 years to life for doctors who perform them. “They just keep on this Roe v. Wade thing.”
In the hours before last night’s 25-6 vote, a proposed amendment that would have allowed abortion in the case of rape or incest was voted down, 21-11, with four Republicans joining the few Democrats in the body. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Terri Collins, explained that while she is sympathetic to rape and incest survivors, many of whom filled the gallery, “if that amendment was to get on the bill then … it won’t go to the Supreme Court,” adding that there would be time for such amendments after the court returns the right to decide abortion law to the states.
In other words, it was a bill crafted not to govern, but to provoke a case that could reach the high court, the latest of a series of state laws with that purpose, the culmination of a strategy that has been employed since shortly after Roe was decided, but which has gained new impetus with a conservative majority on the court.
The result is a multi-tiered conversation — one about abortion rights, one about abortion politics and one about legal strategy.
In the first, pro-choice groups cite polls that consistently show public support for Roe and opposition to the government involving itself in women’s medical decisions; anti-abortion groups portray abortion as murder, not medical care.
In the second, both groups fundraise and create petitions — to unseat legislators who don’t vote their way, to persuade governors to sign or veto legislation, and, in the case of pro-choice coalitions, to urge blue state legislators to strengthen abortion rights as red states weaken them.
And on the third level, both groups try to predict which cases the newly constituted court might accept and how they might rule. It is the newest territory in this evolving landscape, where strategy is still being debated.
One school of thought believes the court is most likely to approve incremental changes to Roe — particularly Chief Justice John Roberts, who is thought to be reluctant to reverse long-standing precedents. The approach has been effective over the decades, as access to abortion has been whittled down by state laws requiring counseling, waiting periods and parental consent. In many states — states like Alabama, where only three abortion clinics remain of the 13 that existed 20 years ago —this effectively made abortion unavailable to many women.
In the months since Brett Kavanaugh joined the court and tipped the ideological balance, there has been a jump in the number of such incremental bans. But there has also been a new tack: bills that would outlaw abortion completely. Six states have passed laws that would ban abortion after six weeks, which pro-choice advocates say is effectively a total ban because most women do not know they are pregnant until about that time. And now Alabama has passed a total and unconditional ban with no exceptions, the clearest possible challenge to Roe.
“What we’re seeing now is much more of a full-frontal attack” on abortion rights and access compared with recent years, Elizabeth Nash, a senior state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute told Yahoo News. “We are seeing a real shift away from the incremental strategy that dominated abortion laws for decades and now we’re seeing the goal of banning abortion outright.”
Not all anti-abortion groups agree with the tactic, even if they are in sympathy with the broad aims. Conservative televangelist Pat Robertson said: “I think Alabama has gone too far. It’s an extreme law, and they want to challenge Roe v. Wade, but my humble view is this is not the case we want to bring to the Supreme Court because this one will lose.”
But those who crafted it predict that their overarching legislations will be more likely to be heard by the court.
“The back door hasn’t worked, I’ll just tell you,” said Rep. Rich Wingo, a Republican member of the Alabama House, who helped craft the ban, which compares abortion to Nazi concentration camps, Russian gulags, and genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia. Incremental methods to eradicate abortion “haven’t worked to date,” he said. “This is a yes or no, up or down.”
Alabama’s governor also welcomed the court fight.
“No matter one’s personal view on abortion, we can all recognize that, at least for the short term, this bill may similarly be unenforceable. As citizens of this great country, we must always respect the authority of the U.S. Supreme Court even when we disagree with their decisions,” Ivey wrote in a statement Wednesday. “Many Americans, myself included, disagreed when Roe v. Wade was handed down in 1973. The sponsors of this bill believe that it is time, once again, for the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit this important matter, and they believe this act may bring about the best opportunity for this to occur.”
On a press call this morning with reporters, Planned Parenthood officials addressed questions of whether pro-choice groups are playing into the hands of anti-abortion groups by challenging all these laws. If the goal is to appeal a bill all the way to the Supreme Court, then perhaps not challenging them would stymie the strategy?
“We aren’t playing into their hands. We’re not playing games, they are,” said Staci Fox, president of Planned Parenthood Southeast Advocates. “They are playing political games with women’s lives. They know and say publicly that these laws are unconstitutional and they don’t care.”
Both sides agree that they have no idea which of the many bills racing toward the Supreme Court will arrive first.
In fact, there have been additions to the pro-choice playbook in the past two years, as both sides adapt to the new field. There have been successful campaigns to increase abortion protections in more progressive states, such as the New York state Legislature, now controlled in both houses by Democrats, which voted in January to declare abortion a “fundamental right,” and Vermont is poised to do the same.
And there are some more creative pushbacks as well. In Alabama, Democratic Sen. Vivian Figures attempted to add amendments that would, among other things, make vasectomies a felony and require lawmakers who vote for the ban to personally pay the legal fees to defend it in court.
A Boeing 737-800 made an emergency landing in Tennessee on Sunday morning.
Delta Air Lines flight 1417 landed safely at McGhee Tyson Airport at 9:17 a.m. after the crew reported a nose gear issue, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
The flight had departed from Tri-Cities Airport in Tennessee and was on its way to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport when crew members declared an emergency.
“Delta apologizes to customers on flight 1417 from Tri-Cities to Atlanta that diverted to Knoxville out of an abundance of caution following a potential mechanical issue,” Delta said in a statement to USA TODAY.
„The aircraft landed and taxied to the gate normally and is being inspected by maintenance technicians.”
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The 129 customers on board the flight were being reaccommodated on another aircraft to more quickly depart to Atlanta, the spokesman added.
The FAA will investigate further.
The aircraft that landed in Knoxville is not the same model as the beleaguered Boeing 737 MAX. Those planes were grounded after two deadly crashes. Delta does not use the 737 MAX.
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Boeing 737 makes emergency landing in Tennessee following a ‘potential mechanical issue’