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US charges Iran in cybertattacks against banks, New York dam

U.S. General Attorney Loretta Lynch holds a press conference

WASHINGTON: The United States on Thursday charged seven Iranians for what it said was a coordinated campaign of cyberattacks from 2011 to 2013 on several US banks and a New York dam.
At a news conference, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the seven Iranians indicted inflicted tens of millions of dollars in damages. The alleged attack against the dam by Iranians could have imposed a clear and present danger to Americans, she said.
Justice Department officials released the indictment at a news conference in Washington in what is one of the highest-profile US indictments against a foreign nation on hacking charges.


Source: http://www.arabnews.com/news/900136

Fears in Iraqi government, army over Shiite militias’ power

It was a tense confrontation between two forces supposed to be on the same side in Iraq.

First, heavily armed police, led by the interior minister, waded into a Shiite militia base south of Baghdad and arrested its deputy commander, accused of organizing attacks on Sunni mosques. They loaded the man, Ali Reda, into an armored SUV.

Then militia reinforcements descended, surrounded the police and demanded Reda be freed. Weapons were drawn. The minister, Mohammed al-Ghabban, the highest figure in Iraq’s police force, frantically called Baghdad from inside his SUV.

In the end, al-Ghabban surrendered his prisoner and left empty-handed, angry and humiliated.

The standoff in mid-January, described to The Associated Press by six different officials and militia leaders, was a stark example of the power that Shiite militias have accrued in Iraq and their boldness in wielding it.

These militias, many of them backed by Iran, mobilized in 2014 to fight Sunni extremists from the Islamic State group. However, they are now showing no intention of standing down after the battle, demanding instead to be a major force shaping Iraq. That prospect worries not only Iraq’s Sunni minority but also officials in the military and the Shiite-led government, who fear the militias will dominate Iraq the way the Revolutionary Guard does Iran and the guerrilla group Hezbollah does Lebanon.

Two top generals warned that the army could eventually come to blows with the militias, known collectively as the “Hashd,” Arabic for “mobilization.”

“They (the militias) have now infiltrated the government and are meddling in politics,” said Ali Omran, commander of the army’s 5th Infantry Division and a veteran of numerous battles against IS. “I told the Hashd people that one day I and my men may fight them.”

The more than 50 Shiite militias in Iraq have between 60,000 and 140,000 fighters, according to estimates from the government and the Hashd itself. They are backed by tanks and weapons, and have their own intelligence agency, operations rooms and court of law.

The larger militias, like Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Hezbollah Brigades, Badr and the Peace Brigades, have been in place since soon after the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein. They are linked to political parties, effectively forming armed branches for politicians.

But the ranks of the militias swelled dramatically after IS overran nearly a third of Iraq in the summer of 2014 and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, called on able-bodied males to fight IS. At the time, tens of thousands turned out.

Those same militias now want to remain a permanent, independent armed force and are resisting attempts to integrate them into the military or police, the AP found from interviews with more than 15 government officials, army generals and militia leaders and visits to Tikrit and Samarra, Sunni-majority areas where the militias now hold power. The militias insist they have earned a special status, pointing to the 5,000 militiamen killed and 16,000 wounded fighting IS.

“Those who sacrificed more are entitled to more,” said Hamed al-Jazaeery, head of the al-Khorasani Brigades militia. “What is written with blood cannot be removed. It is not ink on paper.”

Al-Jazaeery wears the black turban of a cleric and the camouflage fatigues of a fighter. The walls of his office are adorned with photos of the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and its current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Other photos show al-Jazaeery posing with Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the powerful Revolutionary Guard figure who helped organize the Iraqi militias against IS.

“We want to be a third power in Iraq,” alongside the army and police, al-Jazaeery said. “Why can’t the Hashd be like the Revolutionary Guard in Iran?”

The model of the Revolutionary Guard, often cited by militia leaders, would be a dramatic change for Iraq’s militias. In Iran, the Guard is an elite force independent of — and better armed than — the military, tasked with “protecting” the Shiite cleric-led power structure. It is effectively a state within a state, rivaling the political strength of Iran’s supreme leader.

Sunnis fear such militia power would enforce Shiite domination of Iraq. Sunnis already accuse militias of targeting them with abuses. Hundreds of green and red Shiite banners and images of imams — historic religious leaders revered by the Shiites — are posted all over Sunni areas under militia control north and east of Baghdad, in a blatant challenge to sectarian sensitivities.

The militias call themselves “holy” or “glorious,” and often talk of their battle as a fight for Shiism rather than Iraq. They give Shiite names to major offensives, only for the government to ban their use.

“I joined the Hashd for the imams, not for the government,” said one militiaman, Mohammed al-Azghar, in the central city of Samarra.

The official agency created to oversee the fighters, the Popular Mobilization Commission, has instead become the militias’ political lever in the machinery of power. The government now funds the militias, but some of them refuse to even give officials the names of their fighters, citing security concerns.

“People fear and trust us more than they fear and trust the government,” boasted Ahmed al-Assady, a Shiite lawmaker and spokesman for the Mobilization Commission. “They fear us because we act, not just talk.”

Advisers from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Lebanon’s Hezbollah have helped Iraq’s militias in the battle against IS. Billboards around Baghdad announce the “martyrdom” of fighters, alongside images of Iran’s Khamenei and Khomeini and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Militia TV channels and newspapers also accuse the government of corruption and cast the militias as the true protectors of Iraqis.

In Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown north of Baghdad, the extent of the militias’ prestige is on display: The headquarters of a senior militiaman, Jassim al-Husseini, is located at one of the late dictator’s opulent palaces along the Tigris River.

The chain-smoking al-Husseini wears a military brown jacket and walks with a cane because of a leg injury sustained while fighting IS last year. He confidently spoke of the flaws of Iraq’s government and said the militias cannot be integrated into its security forces.

“Integrating us in the security forces and the military is not an idea that will help build our nation,” he said.

Now the militias demand to participate in a long-expected offensive to retake largely Sunni Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and the main stronghold of IS rule in Iraq — something the military and armed Sunni groups oppose.

“The Hashd will take part in the battle to liberate Mosul no matter what,” said senior Shiite politician Hadi al-Amry, who is also commander of the Iranian-backed Badr militia. “No one can stop us from entering Mosul.”

In Samarra, Sunnis say they already experience what is feared could happen if the militias enter Mosul. The city has a Sunni majority but is home to one of the most revered Shiite shrines, blown up by al-Qaida 10 years ago. In 2014, Shiite militias successfully prevented IS from taking Samarra and have kept their grip on the city since.

Local dignitaries and officials air a flood of grievances blamed on militias, including killings of Sunnis, takeovers of schools and the forcing of Sunnis to sell property in the prime real estate area close to the shrine. To the thud of artillery shelling in the distance, the city council’s deputy chairman, Muzher Fleih, said 650 Sunnis have disappeared, believed abducted and killed by the militias. Among them was his brother, who disappeared last year and was found dead soon after.

“The city is oppressed,” he said.

Militia leaders insist any abuses are isolated incidents. “We are not angels,” said al-Assady, the Mobilization spokesman. “It is only natural that we make mistakes.”

Some in the government and military are beginning to see the militias as a danger to the state itself. In a sign of wariness over the militias’ autonomy, Shiite Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi charged recently that government funds to the Hashd were being mismanaged. One of his close aides told the AP that the comments were directed at Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, the Hashd’s most powerful figure, who is wanted by the United States in connection with the 1983 bombing of the American and French embassies in Kuwait.

There has also been friction with the military. Last month, militiamen refused orders to vacate a building in a military base north of Baghdad, and the army sent troops to take it over. They found the militiamen ready for a fight, with snipers stationed on the roof and in sandbagged positions around it. The dispute was resolved when a substitute building was found for the militiamen.

Since its 2014 collapse, the military has been slowly recovering. But Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, deputy commander of the army’s elite counterterrorism force, said the militias don’t want the military to regain its strength.

“They may be tempted to take on the army if they don’t have their way,” he said.


Source: http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/2016/mar/20/fears-in-iraqi-government-army-over-shiite/all/?print

Clinton: Iran ‘Remains an Extremist Regime That Threatens to Annihilate Israel’

Speaking at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington, D.C. on Monday, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed to the “existential danger” that would occur if Iran had a nuclear weapon and warned that Iran “remains an extremist regime that threatens to annihilate Israel.”

Clinton said this in explaining her support for the nuclear deal that the Obama administration made with the Iranian regime.

“For many years, we’ve all been rightly focused on the existential danger of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon,” Clinton said. “After all, this remains an extremist regime that threatens to annihilate Israel. That’s why I led the diplomacy to impose crippling sanctions and force Iran to the negotiating table, and why I ultimately supported the agreement that has put a lid on its nuclear program.”

Here is an excerpt from Clinton’s speech:

“For many years, we’ve all been rightly focused on the existential danger of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. After all, this remains an extremist regime that threatens to annihilate Israel. That’s why I led the diplomacy to impose crippling sanctions and force Iran to the negotiating table, and why I ultimately supported the agreement that has put a lid on its nuclear program.

“Today, Iran’s enriched uranium is all but gone, thousands of centrifuges have stopped spinning, Iran’s potential breakout time has increased and new verification measures are in place to help us deter and detect any cheating. I really believe the United States, Israel and the world are safer as a result.

“But still, as I laid out at a speech at the Brookings Institution last year, it’s not good enough to trust and verify. Our approach must be distrust and verify.

“This deal must come with vigorous enforcement, strong monitoring, clear consequences for any violations and a broader strategy to confront Iran’s aggression across the region. We cannot forget that Tehran’s fingerprints are on nearly every conflict across the Middle East, from Syria to Lebanon to Yemen.

“The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its proxies are attempting to establish a position on the Golan from which to threaten Israel, and they continue to fund Palestinian terrorists. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is amassing an arsenal of increasingly sophisticated rockets and artillery that well may be able to hit every city in Israel.

“Tonight, you will hear a lot of rhetoric from the other candidates about Iran, but there’s a big difference between talking about holding Tehran accountable and actually doing it. Our next president has to be able to hold together our global coalition and impose real consequences for even the smallest violations of this agreement.

“We must maintain the legal and diplomatic architecture to turn all the sanctions back on if needed. If I’m elected the leaders of Iran will have no doubt that if we see any indication that they are violating their commitments not to seek, develop or acquire nuclear weapons, the United States will act to stop it, and that we will do so with force if necessary.

“Iranian provocations, like the recent ballistic missile tests, are also unacceptable and should be answered firmly and quickly including with more sanctions.

“Those missiles were stamped with words declaring, and I quote, ‘Israel should be wiped from the pages of history.’ We know they could reach Israel or hit the tens of thousands of American troops stationed in the Middle East. This is a serious danger and it demands a serious response.

“The United States must also continue to enforce existing sanctions and impose additional sanctions as needed on Iran and the Revolutionary Guard for their sponsorship of terrorism, illegal arms transfers, human rights violations and other illicit behaviors like cyber attacks. We should continue to demand the safe return of Robert Levinson and all American citizens unjustly held in Iranian prisons.”

Bernie Sanders: ‘All options’ on table if Iran cheats on nuclear deal

In the text of the speech Bernie Sanders would have delivered to the AIPAC conference, the Vermont senator laid out his vision for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In a rare foray into foreign policy, Sanders said peace would require recognition of Israel’s right to exist and the end of threats to its security. But it would also require the end of the Israeli occupation and “pulling back settlements in the West Bank.”

“It is absurd for elements within the [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu government to suggest that building more settlements in the West Bank is the appropriate response to the most recent violence,” Sanders said. “It is also not acceptable that the Netanyahu government decided to withhold hundreds of millions of Shekels in tax revenue from the Palestinians, which it is supposed to collect on their behalf. But, by the same token, it is unacceptable for President [Mahmoud] Abbas to call for the abrogation of the Oslo Agreement when the goal should be ending the violence.”

Sanders is the only major party presidential candidate not to appear in person at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s policy conference this week in Washington, D.C.. Citing the demands of his campaign schedule, Sanders sought to address the conference remotely, but was turned down by AIPAC, though the organization had made that accommodation to other presidential candidates in years past.

The speech Sanders released Monday in lieu of a personal appearance dealt at length with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sanders noted his personal ties to Israel, including the time he had lived on a kibbutz, and committed to assuring Israel’s survival and security. Sanders also condemned Hamas’ attacks on Israeli civilians.

But he reiterated his criticism of Israel’s 2014 military campaign in the Gaza Strip and said peace would require ending the blockade of the coastal strip and ensuring Palestinian self-determination and control of their natural resources, especially water.

Turning to other regional challenges, Sanders repeated his past support for the Iran nuclear deal, insisting that for all its flaws it represents the best hope of denying Iran a nuclear weapon.

“I do not accept the idea that the ‘pro-Israel’ position was to oppose the deal,” Sanders said. “Preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon will strengthen not only America’s security, but Israel’s security as well. And I am not alone in that idea. While Prime Minister Netanyahu is vocally opposed to the accord, his is hardly a consensus opinion in Israel. Dozens of former security officials, including retired Army generals and chiefs of the Shin Bet and Mossad intelligence agencies support the agreement.”

Sanders said if Iran did not abide by the agreement, sanctions should be reimposed “and all options are back on the table.”

Sanders said countering the Islamic State group would require establishing a stable government in Iraq. In Syria, Sanders said the fight against the Islamic State had been “diluted” by the civil war and said turning back the Islamist group would require ensuring that “groups that take territory from the Islamic State can responsibly govern the areas they take back.” Ending the Syrian civil war, Sanders said, would require a negotiated settlement and pushed back against calls for greater American military involvement in the country.

Repeating an idea he has expressed in debates with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, Sanders said that countries in the region had to take the lead in countering the Islamic State:

“Now, I am not suggesting that Saudi Arabia or other states in the region invade other countries, nor unilaterally intervene in conflicts driven in part by sectarian tensions,” Sanders said. “What I am saying is that the major powers in the region – especially the Gulf States – have to take greater responsibility for the future of the Middle East. What I am saying is that countries like Qatar – which intends to spend up to $200 billion to host the 2022 World Cup – can do more to contribute to the fight Against ISIS. They have $200 billion to host a soccer event, yet have done very little to fight ISIS.”

Source: http://www.jta.org/2016/03/21/news-opinion/united-states/bernie-sanders-all-options-on-table-if-iran-cheats-on-nuclear-deal

Putin’s Syrian Withdrawal Could Strengthen Iran

here was a Hollywood film of yesteryear with the title “The Russians Are Coming.”

If one were making that film today it might be called “The Russians Are Going.”

In a move that has surprised many in our State Department, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the withdrawal of the “main part” of the Russian military contingent from Syria.

He noted that the principal tasks “for the armed forces were accomplished,” i.e. stabilizing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

There is no doubt Russian airpower pushed back rebel forces in key areas and reinforced the Shiite hold as Assad’s military force around the northern city of Aleppo.

With settlement talks underway in Geneva, Putin believes a cease fire can be brokered with Assad affixed to the future of Syria and a U.S. team, left without any alternative, accepting Assad.

Keep in mind, President Obama on several occasions argued “Assad must go.”

That refrain is a distant memory.

Some analysts have speculated that Assad was resisting Russian demands for a near term power sharing arrangement and long term constitutional reform.

But, as I see it, this speculation enters the realm of wishful thinking.

Assad is in the driver’s seat, firmly ensconced by the combination of Russian air power, Iranian military force and U.S. equivocation.

Moreover, the Russian draw-down should not be considered a regional withdrawal. Russia will continue to maintain a presence in Syria with an airbase in Hmeimin and a naval base in Tartus.

Some contend the price tag associated with this military engagement was not worth the investment. Here too I would take exception.

The relatively modest investment has given Russia a foothold in the Middle East and a key seat at the table during ceasefire deliberations.

Moreover, the Russian initiative diminished the role and stature of the United States. Putin can assert “we stand by our allies.” It would be hard for President Obama to make the same claim to the Syrian rebels he once supported.
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Others attempting to explain Russian motives contend that Putin wished to extricate himself from a Middle East quagmire. While there are pathologies in the region that won’t soon be resolved or even fully understood, it is precisely this confusion and the power vacuum created by U.S. withdrawal that allowed for the ease of Russian intervention.

Mr. Putin has consolidated his alliance with Iran and by creating the illusion of “responsible” behavior through the draw-down of forces, he undoubtedly hopes to gain concessions from the U.S. and Europe on sanctions relief which had been imposed over the Russian invasion of Crimea.

Looking at this partial withdrawal of Russian forces dispassionately, it appears as if Putin has grabbed the mantle of moderation and is regarded as the stabilizing influence in Syria.

This has been accomplished with a modest outlay of resources and without the loss of Russian lives.

The downside — if there is a downside — is that Putin’s strategy reinforced the Iranian goal of a Persian Crescent throughout the region.

That condition could come back to haunt the Russians through Iranian influence in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan on Russia’s southern flank.

An Iran with nuclear weapons and a missile delivery system is not only a threat to Israel and the Sunni nations, but to Russia as well.
At the moment the Russian-Iranian alliance is intact because those states each benefit from the relationship. However, if history is any guide, Russians are nervous about Shia ambitions and Iranian religious views aren’t exactly compatible with the Russian Orthodox Church.

So the globe spins and the Middle East spins even faster than the rest of the world. Where it lands and when it lands is anyone’s guess; but these questions will surely confound for a lifetime, if not longer.


Source: https://www.newsmax.com/HerbertLondon/Assad-Putin/2016/03/21/id/720128/