ISIS blows up Mosul mosque where it declared ‘caliphate’

The New York Times reports: The Islamic State on Wednesday night destroyed Mosul’s centuries-old Al Nuri Grand Mosque and its distinctive leaning minaret, one of Iraq’s most famous landmarks, according to the Iraqi and American militaries.

Shortly after the military’s report, the terrorist group used its news agency to claim that the mosque had actually been destroyed by an American airstrike.

Col. Ryan Dillon, an American military spokesman in Baghdad, said that the coalition had confirmed, through drone surveillance footage, that the mosque had been destroyed. “We don’t know how,” said Colonel Dillon, who added that the coalition was investigating.

But shortly afterward, the United States Central Command issued a statement bluntly accusing the Islamic State of destroying the mosque.

“As our Iraqi Security Force partners closed in on the al-Nuri mosque, ISIS destroyed one of Mosul and Iraq’s great treasures,” Maj. Gen. Joseph Martin, the American commander for the operation, said in the statement. “This is a crime against the people of Mosul and all of Iraq, and is an example of why this brutal organization must be annihilated.”

The mosque is where the Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ascended a pulpit in 2014 and declared a caliphate after his fighters took control of Mosul and swept through other areas of northern Iraq and Syria. [Continue reading…]

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France’s Macron says sees no legitimate successor to Syria’s Assad

Reuters reports: President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday he saw no legitimate successor to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and France no longer considered his departure a pre-condition to resolving the six-year-old conflict.

He said Assad was an enemy of the Syrian people, but not of France and that Paris’ priority was fighting terrorist groups and ensuring Syria did not become a failed state.

His comments were in stark contrast to those of the previous French administration and echo Moscow’s stance that there is no viable alternative to Assad.

“The new perspective that I have had on this subject is that I have not stated that Bashar al-Assad’s departure is a pre-condition for everything because nobody has shown me a legitimate successor,” Macron said in an interview with eight European newspapers.

“My lines are clear: Firstly, a complete fight against all the terrorist groups. They are our enemies,” he said, adding attacks that killed 230 people in France had come from the region. “We need everybody’s cooperation, especially Russia, to eradicate them.” [Continue reading…]

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The new ‘King’ of Saudi Arabia

Simon Henderson writes: The latest Saudi transition had been predictable since soon after King Salman ascended the throne on the death of his older half-brother Abdullah in January 2015. Within three months, Salman had positioned Muhammad bin Salman, the eldest son of his third wife, as his intended eventual successor. The only question was when the transition would occur. It has now happened, although raising new questions: When will MbS, as he is known, become king in name and under what circumstances?

Those answers are hard to guess, but the king’s now-dismissed predecessor, Muhammad bin Nayef, or MbN, was long perceived by many as a stopgap. Additionally, although an experienced minister of interior and the kingdom’s counterterrorism chief, he was scarred by the 2009 experience of having a supposedly surrendering jihadist meet him wearing a rectal device.

King Salman’s own health is also uncertain. At eighty-one, he walks with a cane and, when meeting foreign leaders, sits before a computer screen to remind him of his talking points. Once reputed to be the House of Saud’s institutional memory, Salman now often displays a puzzled visage and has leaned increasingly on MbS for advice, apparently regarding him as almost a reincarnation of King Abdulaziz, known as Ibn Saud, Salman’s father and the founder in 1932 of Saudi Arabia. [Continue reading…]

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Wall Street Journal fires chief foreign affairs correspondent, Jay Solomon, over ethics conflict

The Associated Press reports: The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday fired its highly regarded chief foreign affairs correspondent after evidence emerged of his involvement in prospective commercial deals — including one involving arms sales to foreign governments — with an international businessman who was one of his key sources.

The reporter, Jay Solomon, was offered a 10 percent stake in a fledgling company, Denx LLC, by Farhad Azima, an Iranian-born aviation magnate who has ferried weapons for the CIA. It was not clear whether Solomon ever received money or formally accepted a stake in the company.

“We are dismayed by the actions and poor judgment of Jay Solomon,” Wall Street Journal spokesman Steve Severinghaus wrote in a statement to The Associated Press. “While our own investigation continues, we have concluded that Mr. Solomon violated his ethical obligations as a reporter, as well as our standards.”

Azima was the subject of an AP investigative article published Tuesday. During the course of its investigation, the AP obtained emails and text messages between Azima and Solomon, as well as an operating agreement for Denx dated March 2015, which listed an apparent stake for Solomon.

As part of its reporting, the AP had asked the Journal about the documents appearing to link Solomon and Azima. The relationship was uncovered in interviews and in internal documents that Azima’s lawyer said were stolen by hackers. [Continue reading…]

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Music: Yussef Kamaal — ‘Strings of Light’

 

Yussef Dayes – drums; Kamaal Williams – Mellotron and other keyboards

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Trump, Russia and a shadowy business partnership

Timothy L. O’Brien writes: Trump has repeatedly labeled Comey’s and Mueller’s investigations “witch hunts,” and his lawyers have said that the last decade of his tax returns (which the president has declined to release) would show that he had no income or loans from Russian sources. In May, Trump told NBC that he has no property or investments in Russia. “I am not involved in Russia,” he said.

But that doesn’t address national security and other problems that might arise for the president if Russia is involved in Trump, either through potentially compromising U.S. business relationships or through funds that flowed into his wallet years ago. In that context, a troubling history of Trump’s dealings with Russians exists outside of Russia: in a dormant real-estate development firm, the Bayrock Group, which once operated just two floors beneath the president’s own office in Trump Tower.

Bayrock partnered with the future president and his two eldest children, Donald Jr. and Ivanka, on a series of real-estate deals between 2002 and about 2011, the most prominent being the troubled Trump Soho hotel and condominium in Manhattan.

During the years that Bayrock and Trump did deals together, the company was also a bridge between murky European funding and a number of projects in the U.S. to which the president once leant his name in exchange for handsome fees. Icelandic banks that dealt with Bayrock, for example, were easy marks for money launderers and foreign influence, according to interviews with government investigators, legislators, and others in Reykjavik, Brussels, Paris and London. Trump testified under oath in a 2007 deposition that Bayrock brought Russian investors to his Trump Tower office to discuss deals in Moscow, and said he was pondering investing there.

“It’s ridiculous that I wouldn’t be investing in Russia,” Trump said in that deposition. “Russia is one of the hottest places in the world for investment.” [Continue reading…]

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Despite concerns about blackmail, Flynn heard CIA secrets

The New York Times reports: Senior officials across the government became convinced in January that the incoming national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, had become vulnerable to Russian blackmail.

At the F.B.I., the C.I.A., the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — agencies responsible for keeping American secrets safe from foreign spies — career officials agreed that Mr. Flynn represented an urgent problem.

Yet nearly every day for three weeks, the new C.I.A. director, Mike Pompeo, sat in the Oval Office and briefed President Trump on the nation’s most sensitive intelligence — with Mr. Flynn listening. Mr. Pompeo has not said whether C.I.A. officials left him in the dark about their views of Mr. Flynn, but one administration official said Mr. Pompeo did not share any concerns about Mr. Flynn with the president.

The episode highlights a remarkable aspect of Mr. Flynn’s tumultuous, 25-day tenure in the White House: He sat atop a national security apparatus that churned ahead despite its own conclusion that he was at risk of being compromised by a hostile foreign power. [Continue reading…]

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Queen gives no indication of welcoming Trump to the UK

The Guardian reports: The Queen’s speech has given a further indication that Donald Trump’s planned state visit to the UK has been put on hold, after the monarch did not mention it in her address.

The speech usually mentions any state visits planned for the duration of the parliament. Speaking on Wednesday, the Queen said she and Prince Philip “look forward to welcoming their majesties King Felipe and Queen Letizia of Spain on a state visit in July”.

However, it did not mention the visit of Trump, initially planned for this summer after Theresa May invited him on behalf of the Queen when she visited the US president in Washington DC in January, shortly after he took office.

This Queen’s speech is intended to herald a parliament lasting two years, rather than the usual one, indicating that no date for Trump’s visit has been scheduled for the near future. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman elevated to Crown Prince

Reuters reports: Saudi Arabia’s King Salman made his son his successor on Wednesday, removing his nephew as crown prince and giving the 31-year old almost unprecedented powers as the world’s leading oil exporter implements transformational reforms.

A royal decree appointed Mohammed bin Salman crown prince and deputy prime minister. He retains defense, oil and other portfolios.

It said Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a counter-terrorism chief admired in Washington for putting down an al Qaeda campaign of bombings in 2003-06, was relieved of all positions. [Continue reading…]

Bloomberg reports: In his lightning rise to power in two years, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has shaken things up in ways not seen since the founding of the kingdom 85 years ago.

Abroad, he escalated the war in Yemen and this month cut ties with neighboring Qatar. At home, he instigated an economic overhaul that’s popular with foreign investors, but harder to swallow for some Saudis. At 31, he is heir to the throne, effectively running the world’s largest oil exporter now and likely for decades to come.

A grandson of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, his ascendancy stunned Saudi watchers more used to seeing one geriatric king follow another in a kingdom used to cautious change, a low-profile foreign policy and generous handouts to its population.

“He’s ambitious, bold, thinks big, but is running very high risks,” said Yezid Sayigh, senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “He hasn’t been rewarded for performance. He’s being rewarded because he’s King Salman’s favorite son and that ultimately he would become positioned to become the next king.” [Continue reading…]

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Forced displacement worldwide at its highest in decades

UNHCR reports: War, violence and persecution have uprooted more men, women and children around the world than at any time in the seven-decade history of UNHCR according to a report published today.

The UN Refugee Agency’s annual Global Trends study found that 65.6 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide at the end of 2016 – a total bigger than the population of the United Kingdom and about 300,000 more than last year.

It noted that the pace at which people are becoming displaced remains very high. On average, 20 people were driven from their homes every minute last year, or one every three seconds – less than the time it takes to read this sentence. [Continue reading…]

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The growing U.S.-Iran proxy fight in Syria

Mohamad Bazzi writes: On Sunday evening, a U.S. warplane shot down a Syrian jet after it bombed American-backed rebels in northern Syria. This marked the first time the United States has downed a Syrian warplane since the start of the country’s civil war in 2011. On Tuesday, the Pentagon announced that the United States had shot down an Iranian-made drone in the country’s southeast, where American personnel have been training anti-Islamic State fighters.

Since President Donald Trump took office, the U.S. military has struck the Syrian regime or its allies at least five times, in most cases to protect U.S.-backed rebels and their American advisers. Even if the Pentagon may not want to directly engage Syrian forces or their Russian and Iranian-backed allies, there’s a danger of accidental escalation, especially as various forces continue to converge on eastern and southern Syria to reclaim strategic territory from ISIS. Russia, for its part, angrily condemned the U.S. action and threatened on Monday to treat all coalition planes in Syria as potential targets.

But the dangers are perhaps particularly acute when it comes to Iran, which made dramatic battlefield moves of its own on Sunday, when it launched several missiles from inside Iran against ISIS targets in eastern Syria. Officially, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said the volley of missiles fired at Deir Ezzor province was a response to a pair of attacks by ISIS in Tehran on June 7, which killed 18 people and wounded dozens; the attacks marked the first time that ISIS had struck inside Iran. But the Iranian regime had several less-dramatic means to exact revenge against ISIS targets in Syria—after all, there’s no shortage of Iranian allies operating in the war-ravaged country.

Instead, Iran’s fiery act of vengeance seemed to be a message aimed at both the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia. (The six ballistic missiles used by Tehran against ISIS, with a range of 700 kilometers, could reach major Saudi cities.) The kingdom has become emboldened regionally and escalated its anti-Iran rhetoric thanks, in part, to Trump’s message of seemingly unconditional support. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: An American F-15E fighter jet shot down an Iranian-made armed drone over southeast Syria on Tuesday that was flying toward American-backed Syrian fighters and their advisers, Pentagon officials said.

The episode was a fresh indication that the air war between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and the American military is likely to continue, and perhaps even escalate, even as the United States has sought to keep its focus on defeating the Islamic State militants operating in Syria and Iraq. [Continue reading…]

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Syria troops position themselves at heart of war on ISIS

The Associated Press reports: Syrian government troops and their allies have steadily positioned themselves in key areas on the flanks of the U.S.-led coalition battle for the Islamic State’s self-declared capital of Raqqa.

They are attempting to become an indispensable player in uprooting the extremists from Syria entirely.

That presents a major challenge for the coalition, which so far has shunned any cooperation with President Bashar Assad and has partnered instead with local Kurdish-led forces.

As the U.S. has intensified its fight against IS in Syria, Assad and his trusted allies of Russia and Iran are increasingly asserting themselves. A Syrian military offensive has unfolded on several fronts, coupled with Russian airstrikes and a show of force by Iran, which fired ballistic missiles on an IS stronghold this week and pushed militias that it sponsors deeper into the battlefield.

Damascus and its allies have long argued that they are the essential partner to any international effort in Syria, portraying all opposition forces as terrorist groups.

A close look at the map shows that pro-Assad troops have placed themselves in key locations in the anti-IS battle, while staying close to the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces who lead the ground offensive. The Syrian government forces and their allies have placed themselves south of Raqqa and on the outskirts of Deir el-Zour, the IS militants’ last refuge.

While government troops may be far from in control of that area and are unlikely to go after the city of Raqqa, Syria expert Sam Heller of the Century Foundation said the forces “have done enough to insert themselves that they’re now a fact on the ground.” [Continue reading…]

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America in retreat, Europe en marche

Sylvie Kauffmann writes: As British conservatives licked their wounds a week ago, and French voters were electing hundreds of rookies to Parliament to strengthen the hand of President Emmanuel Macron, Ukrainians at last had a reason to celebrate — and they did, partying by the thousands in Kiev. For them, June 11 was the dawn of the long-awaited era of visa-free travel to Europe. One local magazine called it “Ukraine’s Berlin Wall moment.”

This event, little noticed in the midst of so many political upheavals, is a fresh sign that Europe is moving forward. Giving some 45 million Ukrainians the right to travel freely through the 26 countries of the Schengen area is something of an achievement at a time when, across the European Union, the word “immigration” sounds like a recipe for electoral disaster.

Don’t expect European Union leaders to boast about it; that is not something they are good at. Yet a new mood is taking hold in Brussels and other European capitals these days, a wind of hope and optimism rarely felt in the last two decades.

After so many existential crises, believers in the European Union are suddenly waking up to realize that the reports of its death were greatly exaggerated. The eurozone has not collapsed. Britain’s exit, which shocked and destabilized the union a year ago, is now perceived as an opportunity for the 27 remaining members to regroup. [Continue reading…]

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America’s cultural divide runs deep

The Washington Post reports: The political divide between rural and urban America is more cultural than it is economic, rooted in rural residents’ deep misgivings about the nation’s rapidly changing demographics, their sense that Christianity is under siege and their perception that the federal government caters most to the needs of people in big cities, according to a wide-ranging poll that examines cultural attitudes across the United States.

The Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey of nearly 1,700 Americans — including more than 1,000 adults living in rural areas and small towns — finds deep-seated kinship in rural America, coupled with a stark sense of estrangement from people who live in urban areas. Nearly 7 in 10 rural residents say their values differ from those of people who live in big cities, including about 4 in 10 who say their values are “very different.”

That divide is felt more extensively in rural America than in cities: About half of urban residents say their values differ from rural people, with less than 20 percent of urbanites saying rural values are “very different.”

Alongside a strong rural social identity, the survey shows that disagreements between rural and urban America ultimately center on fairness: Who wins and loses in the new American economy, who deserves the most help in society and whether the federal government shows preferential treatment to certain types of people. President Trump’s contentious, anti-immigrant rhetoric, for example, touched on many of the frustrations felt most acutely by rural Americans.

The Post-Kaiser survey focused on rural and small-town areas that are home to nearly one-quarter of the U.S. population. [Continue reading…]

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The White House press briefing is slowly dying

Rosie Gray writes: Over the course of the Trump administration, the White House’s daily press briefings have been pared progressively further back; they are now shorter, less frequent, and routinely held off-camera.

The daily briefing is a venerable Washington tradition, though one that has often been a target of criticism. Media critic Jay Rosen has called for media outlets to “send the interns,” arguing that the briefing is a largely useless exercise in grandstanding. President Trump himself has publicly mused about canceling them, tweeting “Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future “press briefings” and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???”

But instead of canceling them entirely, the White House has appeared to embrace a different strategy: simply downgrading them bit by bit, from “briefings” to “gaggles,” and from on-camera to off-camera. Guidance for the briefings have begun to include a note that audio from them cannot be used. Additionally, though Trump has held short press conferences when foreign leaders visit, he has not held a full press conference since February. [Continue reading…]

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Analysis questions plan for powering U.S. economy entirely from renewable energy

The New York Times reports: Could the entire American economy run on renewable energy alone?

This may seem like an irrelevant question, given that both the White House and Congress are controlled by a party that rejects the scientific consensus about human-driven climate change. But the proposition that it could, long a dream of an environmental movement as wary of nuclear energy as it is of fossil fuels, has been gaining ground among policy makers committed to reducing the nation’s carbon footprint. Democrats in both the United States Senate and in the California Assembly have proposed legislation this year calling for a full transition to renewable energy sources.

They are relying on what looks like a watertight scholarly analysis to support their call: the work of a prominent energy systems engineer from Stanford University, Mark Z. Jacobson. With three co-authors, he published a widely heralded article two years ago asserting that it would be eminently feasible to power the American economy by midcentury almost entirely with energy from the wind, the sun and water. What’s more, it would be cheaper than running it on fossil fuels.

And yet the proposition is hardly as solid as Professor Jacobson asserts.

In a long-awaited article published this week in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — the same journal in which Professor Jacobson’s manifesto appeared — a group of 21 prominent scholars, including physicists and engineers, climate scientists and sociologists, took a fine comb to the Jacobson paper and dismantled its conclusions bit by bit. [Continue reading…]

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