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Monthly Archives: May 2015

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Analysis: Will Congress Let the Spying Stop?

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(PhatzNewsRoom / The Atlantic)    —-   On June 1, the spying stops.

Not all of it, of course, but after the stroke of midnight on that Monday morning the National Security Agency must halt some of the spying programs it launched in the months and years after September 11, 2001. And not because it wants to, either, but because several key provisions of the Patriot Act will expire without congressional action, and lawmakers can’t agree on how much of the surveillance state to keep in place. (June 1 is, of course, still more than a week away, but much like the objects in car mirrors, deadlines in Congress are usually closer than they appear.)

The House last week voted overwhelmingly to approve legislation to reauthorize the Patriot Act while ending the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone metadata and instituting reforms aimed at making the secretive agency more transparent. With its business completed, the House left the Capitol for a Memorial Day recess, with no plans to return before the afternoon of June 1st—hours after the deadline.

The Senate, however, remains bitterly divided on the issue. A majority of senators support the House bill, dubbed the USA Freedom Act, but one of its staunchest opponents is the man in charge, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He believes the Patriot Act should be extended without changes, even though most senators are adamantly opposed to a clean reauthorization. McConnell allowed the House bill to come up for a vote shortly after midnight Saturday, but it fell three votes shy of the 60 it needed to overcome a filibuster. GOP national-security hawks like Lindsey Graham and Richard Burr oppose it, and enough Republicans stuck with McConnell to prevent the Senate from getting steamrolled by the House.

McConnell’s own bid to pass a two-month extension to buy time to negotiate a compromise also fell short, and senators wouldn’t allow him even to approve an extension of 24 hours. Because the House had already skipped town, it might have been a moot point, and it probably wouldn’t prevent a temporary spying slow-down at the NSA. “You can’t extend something that is dead,” declared Senator Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat, in a floor speech Friday. With McConnell backed into a corner, lawmakers like Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon and Republican Dean Heller of Nevada say they won’t support anything except the Freedom Act—not even the shortest of time-buying Patriot Act extensions. Burr, who heads the Senate’s Intelligence Committee, tried to break the impasse on Friday by proposing legislation that mirrored the House bill but provided a longer transition for the NSA to end its bulk collection program. It also sought to address concerns that the telephone companies wouldn’t retain data they would be newly charged with collecting in place of the government.

And then there’s Rand Paul, the presidential hopeful who delivered a 10-hour speech-but-not-a-filibuster on Wednesday to protest a reauthorization of the Patriot Act, which he called “the most unpatriotic of acts.” Paul also opposes the House’s Freedom Act on the grounds that it doesn’t go far enough to curb surveillance. On this point he joins other privacy advocates who point out that the NSA would still be able to access metadata from phone companies and are concerned that the proposal contains too many legal loopholes. Early Saturday he made a point of objecting to any extension of the Patriot Act unless McConnell committed to having a broader debate on the merits of the spying programs.

So the Senate is essentially stuck, and the Obama administration, which supports the Freedom Act, isn’t offering much help. Ratcheting up pressure on McConnell, the Justice Department sent a memo to Congress warning lawmakers that even if they delay action until the weekend, they may be too late to avoid an interruption in surveillance—the programs can’t just be turned off like a light switch. “After May 22, 2015, it will be increasingly difficult for the government to avoid a lapse in the current NSA program of at least some duration,” the memo said. McConnell announced that the Senate would return to session on Sunday, May 31—just hours before the deadline—to figure out what to do.

What this all means for the security of the nation remains unclear. Privacy advocates believe the country would be better off if the entire Patriot Act was left to expire, while supporters of the surveillance programs argue that any interruption would put American lives in danger. “The intelligence community needs these tools to protect Americans,” McConnell said on the Senate floor on Friday. Come June 1, the country could find out if he’s right.

US to “fine tune” Iraq strategy in light of Ramadi debacle

WASHINGTON (AP) — Pentagon leaders are trying to “fine tune” U.S. strategy for ousting the Islamic State group from Iraq, focusing on faster and better training and arming of Sunni tribes whose combat role is central to reversing the extremists’ advances, senior U.S. officials said Thursday.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter, speaking to reporters while traveling to Asia, said he told senior military officers at the Pentagon this week to come up with ideas to improve training and equipping, particularly of the Sunni tribes who complain that the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad is dragging its heels on helping them.

“I can’t describe to you what the possibilities are because folks are looking at them right now,” Carter said.

The scramble for answers comes after Islamic State forces, though outnumbered, captured the Anbar province capital of Ramadi as Iraqi forces fled on May 16. Although the White House says those Iraqi forces were not U.S.-trained, the defeat prompted Carter to make the startlingly frank public assessment last weekend that the Iraqis lacked “the will to fight.”

President Barack Obama on Tuesday said it was time for the U.S. to consider whether it was delivering military aid to Iraq efficiently.

A Pentagon spokesman, Col. Steve Warren, said later that the focus is on fine-tuning the strategy, not rewriting it.

The U.S. military strategy in Iraq is built on airstrikes to degrade the Islamic State forces while rebuilding Iraqi security forces to eventually regain the vast swaths of territory in the north and west that were lost over the past 18 months. The current focus is on retaking Ramadi and other parts of predominantly Sunni Anbar province.

The Obama administration insists it will assist the Sunnis only through the Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad because it wants to foster a multi-sectarian government, rather than directly arm and organize the ethnic tribes for combat. It was unclear whether Carter might recommend scrapping the indirect approach or adjust it in some way in the days ahead, but the tenor of his remarks and comments by other officials suggested that dramatic changes were unlikely.

Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff who was a top commander in Iraq during the 2003-11 war, said there may be merit in enlarging the U.S. military role by embedding U.S. advisers with Iraqi forces in the field. But he made clear that this also has drawbacks, and that it would be a judgment call if recommended by the Pentagon.

Odierno, who served in command three times in Iraq, said the failure of Iraqi security forces to hold their ground was “incredibly disappointing to me personally.” But he also said he sees no wisdom in sending substantial U.S. ground combat forces to do the fighting.

“I’m adamant about that,” he said. Expending American lives to defeat the extremists without fixing Iraq’s internal political divisions would be a waste and an unsustainable solution.

“It always comes back to the government of Iraq,” Odierno said, referring to its inability to unify its Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish populations in a way that would give the country’s security forces confidence and motivation to fight.

Washington already has pledged to accelerate the shipment of certain weapons to Baghdad, including AT-4 weapons that could be used to stop armored vehicles that Islamic State fighters have used effectively as suicide bombs. The U.S. also has said it will try to speed up the delivery of airstrikes requested by the Iraqi government.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Carter focused on arming and equipping Sunni tribes.

“One particular way that’s extremely important is to involve the Sunni tribes in the fight — that means training and equipping them,” Carter said. “Those are the kinds of things the team back home is looking at.”

But a senior defense official said Carter still wants to work through the Iraqi government, an approach that has been ineffective so far. The official was not authorized to describe the defense secretary’s thinking publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Carter said the events in Ramadi “highlighted the central importance of having a capable ground partner” in Iraq.

Part of Iraq’s plan to bolster its effectiveness against IS fighters includes training, equipping and paying Sunni tribesmen to join in the fight. It is reminiscent of the Sunni Sahwa, or Awakening movement, which confronted al-Qaida in Iraq starting in 2006, although that program was begun by U.S. forces working directly with the tribes. Al-Qaida in Iraq is the Islamic State’s predecessor.

In January, the Iraqi government held an inauguration ceremony for a few hundred Sunni fighters in Anbar province with the hope that it would plant the seed for an expanded national guard in which Sunnis would take on responsibility for security in Iraq’s Sunni areas. Those are predominantly under Islamic State control today.

But the force has failed to progress at the rate the Iraqi government had hoped.

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Baldor reported from Singapore. Associated Press writer Vivian Salama in Baghdad contributed to this report.

Iraqi authorities raise Baghdad attacks death toll to 15

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BAGHDAD (AP) — The death toll from bombings that targeted two prominent hotels in Baghdad a day earlier rose to 15 people, with another 42 wounded, Iraqi authorities said on Friday, as a lawmaker warned that the capital is vulnerable to more attacks.

The double bombing occurred late Thursday when two separate car bombs went off in the parking lots of the Cristal, formerly Sheraton, and Babil hotels. Initial reports said 10 people were killed and 27 wounded, but the casualty figures rose overnight.

The two explosions shattered windows of the recently renovated hotels and destroyed several cars. Baghdad’s top hotels are usually crowded on Thursday nights with people attending wedding celebrations or parties.

The twin attacks targeting heavily secured buildings in the heart of Baghdad demonstrate the boldness and freedom with which militants have been able to operate inside the capital. The two car bombs were detonated by remote control, police said.

Police said a third car bomb found near the Babil Hotel was discovered and defused early Friday. A police officer blamed the infiltration on the negligence of the hotel guards and the weak security measures adopted by police in Baghdad.

All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.

Sameer al-Shwaili, a spokesman for government’s Anti-Terrorism Apparatus, said that more attacks on Baghdad are expected as military operations continue in an effort to drive out Islamic State militants from the Sunni-majority provinces of Anbar and Salahuddin.

“The situation is directly related to operations in Anbar, and operations in Tikrit. Iraq is in a state of war and what happened in Baghdad is a product of that war,” al-Shwaili told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Nobody has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but al-Shwaili placed the blame on the Islamic State group.

“Car bombs and bombs are typically used by Daesh in a way to create fear among the citizens of Iraq,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the IS group.

Muwaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq’s former national security adviser said that the IS group, which mainly attacks members of security forces, and Shiite mosques, seems to be changing tactics and selecting new targets frequented by the middle and upper class.

“I think IS is developing new techniques for getting through the mirrors, the physical searches, and even the canine searches,” said al-Rubaie who is currently a member of the Iraqi parliament.

Baghdad-based security expert Muataz Muhei said that Baghdad police officers and hotel security guards often lack the expertise and needed to deal with the kind of security challenges presented by the Islamic State group.

“Daesh chose those well-protected sites in order to display to the public that they are still able to hit hard targets,” said Muhei.

Iraq witnesses almost daily attacks that have been frequently claimed by the Islamic State group — which seized large swaths of the country during a blitz last year and recently overran the city of Ramadi, provincial capital of Anbar province.

Fighting also continues in several parts of Salahuddin province, where government forces — backed by Shiite militias and airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition — took back the city of Tikrit from IS militants earlier this year.

In Friday’s violence, police and hospital officials said a roadside bomb hit a commuter bus in eastern Baghdad, killing three passengers and wounding 10 others.

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Associated Press writers Vivian Salama and Murtada Faraj contributed to this report.

Volcano erupts in southern Japan, spewing ash high into sky

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TOKYO (AP) — A volcano erupted in spectacular fashion on a small island in southern Japan on Friday, spewing out rocks and sending black clouds of ash 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) into the sky. Authorities told people on the island to evacuate.

One person was reported to have suffered minor burns from falling debris after Mount Shindake erupted, sending dense flows of rock and hot gases seaward, the Japan Meteorological Agency reported.

The injured man, another person who was feeling unwell and a third person were airlifted to nearby Yakushima island, the Fire and Disaster Management Agency said.

Another 133 people were evacuated on a coast guard vessel, a ferry and fishing boats.

“There was a really loud, ‘dong’ sound of an explosion, and then black smoke rose, darkening the sky,” Nobuaki Hayashi, a local village chief, told public broadcaster NHK as he and dozens of others gathered at a shelter before leaving the island.

The agency raised the alert level for Kuchinoerabu island, where Shindake is located, to five, the highest on its scale. Shindake also erupted in August last year for the first time since 1980.

A military helicopter was sent to survey the island and assess damage.

Kuchinoerabu is 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of Japan’s main southern island of Kyushu. A heavily forested, mountainous island bordered mostly by rocky cliffs, it is a national park supported mainly by tourism and fishing.

About two hours after the eruption, NHK showed the mountain shrouded in light gray ash as the clouds from the eruption cleared.

It has little effect on air travel, with no cancellations or major route changes reported.

Kuchinoerabu usually can be reached only by a once-a-day ferry from Yakushima, 12 kilometers (about 7 miles) to the east, which has an airport and a population of more than 13,000 people.

Japan, which sits along the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” has dozens of volcanoes and is frequently jolted by earthquakes.

In March 2011, a magnitude-9 earthquake rocked northeastern Japan, triggering a tsunami that killed more than 18,500 people and ravaged much of the northern Pacific coast.

Authorities recently closed part of a popular hot springs about 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Tokyo because of fears of an eruption of Mount Hakone, which is southeast of Mount Fuji.

The eruption last September of another volcano, Mount Ontake in central Japan, killed 57 people.

Setsuya Nakada, a professor at Tokyo University, told NHK that the eruption on Kuchinoerabu was stronger than Mount Ontake’s.

Since the 2011 disasters, “this sort of activity has continued,” Nakada said, when asked if more eruptions were likely on the island. “Probably the eruptions will continue.”

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Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi contributed to this report.

Biden tries to smooth over anger sparked by Carter’s comment

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Vice President Joe Biden is reassuring Iraq’s government of U.S. support in the fight against the Islamic State group, telephoning Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi with thanks for “the enormous sacrifice and bravery of Iraqi forces” one day after Defense Secretary Ash Carter questioned the Iraqi military commitment.

Biden’s call on Monday followed harsh criticism from Iraqi and Iranian quarters after Carter questioned Iraqi forces’ “will to fight” the surging Islamic State group.

A White House statement on Monday describing Biden’s call said the vice president welcomed an Iraqi decision to mobilize additional troops and “prepare for counterattack operations.” Biden also pledged full U.S. support to “these and other Iraqi efforts to liberate territory from ISIL,” the statement said, using an acronym for Islamic State.

In reaction to Carter’s remarks, which were aired Sunday in a TV interview, a spokesman for Iraq’s prime minister suggested the defense secretary had “incorrect information,” while Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of the elite Quds forces in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, offered his own critical assessment of U.S. forces.

The heated exchanges came after the loss of Ramadi and amid other gains by the IS in recent days. The statements laid bare fissures among countries that have become allies of convenience against the militants. The criticism from both Iraq and Iran began when Carter told CNN’s “State of the Union” that Iraqi forces “vastly outnumbered” the Islamic State group, but still “showed no will to fight” and fled the IS advance on the capital of Anbar province.

On Monday, Saad al-Hadithi, a spokesman for al-Abadi, said his government was surprised by Carter’s comments.

“We should not judge the whole army based on one incident,” al-Hadithi told The Associated Press.

Al-Hadithi said the Iraqi government believes the fall of Ramadi was due to mismanagement and poor planning by some senior military commanders in charge. However, he did not elaborate, and no action has been taken against those commanders.

In Iran, the daily newspaper Javan, which is seen as close to the Revolutionary Guard, quoted Soleimani as saying the U.S. didn’t do a “damn thing” to stop the extremists’ advance on Ramadi.

“Does it mean anything else than being an accomplice in the plot?” he reportedly asked, later saying the U.S. showed “no will” in fighting the Islamic State group.

Soleimani said Iran and its allies are the only forces that can deal with the threat. “Today, there is nobody in confrontation with (the Islamic State group) except the Islamic Republic of Iran, as well as nations who are next to Iran or supported by Iran,” he said.

So far, the American approach to the conflict has been to launch airstrikes as part of an international coalition it leads, as well as equipping and training Iraqi forces. But U.S. officials also have become uneasy with Iran’s growing role in the conflict.

While Iraqi officials criticized Carter’s comments, his assessment was comparable to one that Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff, made last week: “The ISF was not driven out of Ramadi. They drove out of Ramadi.”

Still, a senior Obama administration official, speaking before Biden’s call was announced, tried to soften Carter’s blunt words: “We know the Iraqi retreat followed an intense wave of suicide bombings. The reference to lack of will was in relation to this specific episode, which followed 18 months of fierce ISF attrition against ISIL in Ramadi, coupled with what the Iraqi government has acknowledged were breakdowns in military command, planning, and reinforcement.”

The official was not authorized to discussed the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Iran has offered advisers, including Soleimani, to direct Shiite militias fighting against the extremists. Iran has said it does not have combat troops fighting in Iraq, though some Revolutionary Guard members have been killed there.

Baghdad has said military preparations are underway to launch a large-scale counteroffensive in Anbar province, involving Iranian-backed Shiite militias. However, that possibility has sparked fears of potential sectarian violence in the Sunni province, long the scene of protests and criticism against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.

Beyond that, Mideast officials gathered this past weekend in Jordan at an economic summit said they wanted more involvement from the U.S. in the Islamic State war, including weapons deliveries and military action beyond its coalition airstrikes. Obama has remained leery of involving America in yet another ground war in Iraq after only withdrawing combat troops at the end of 2011.

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Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran and Bassem Mroue and Sarah el-Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.

Business: China stocks seesaw, investors jittery after big tumble

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HONG KONG (AP) — Chinese stocks seesawed on Friday as investors remained jittery a day after a sharp sell-off while other world benchmarks were uneven, as European shares slumped while Asian indexes finished higher.

KEEPING SCORE: European stocks opened lower, with France’s CAC 40 losing 1.3 percent to 5,070.82. Germany’s DAX shed 1.3 percent to 11,525.38. Britain’s FTSE 100 dropped 0.4 percent to 7,013.43. U.S. stocks were poised to open lower. Dow futures dropped 0.4 percent to 18,059.00. Broader S&P 500 futures slipped 0.4 percent to 2,113.80.

CHINA GYRATIONS: The Shanghai stock market is increasingly volatile after soaring more than 120 percent in the past year. Among the reasons cited by analysts and state media for Thursday’s sell-off were stricter margin lending requirements by brokers; a Chinese sovereign wealth fund dumping shares in two state banks; the central bank draining liquidity from the market; and a wave of initial share offerings expected next week that will compete for Chinese investors’ money.

ANALYST VIEW: The China “selling may just continue for a few days, as the scramble for the exit door intensifies,” Nicholas Teo of CMC Markets in Singapore said in a commentary. He said the market is facing a “liquidity drain” due to a heavy calendar on IPOs next week.

ASIAN SCORECARD: The Shanghai Composite Index in mainland China finished 0.2 percent lower at 4,611.74 after spending the day swinging between gains and losses following its 6.5 percent tumble on Thursday. Japan’s Nikkei 225 edged up 0.1 percent to 20,563.18 and South Korea’s Kospi added 0.2 percent to 2,114.80. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng rose 0.1 percent to 27,424.19 and Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 rose 1.1 percent to 5,777.20.

ENERGY: Benchmark crude rose as U.S. supplies declined more than expected. The futures contract was up 76 cents to $58.44 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It rose 17 cents to settle at $57.68 a barrel in Nymex floor trading on Thursday. Brent crude, used to price oil sold internationally, rose 59 cents to $63.17 in London.

CURRENCIES: The dollar slipped slightly to 123.70 yen from 123.75 yen in the previous global trading session. The euro rose to $1.0989 from $1.0969.

It’s the final trading day of May.

Here are the five things you need to know before the opening bell rings in New York:

1. Don’t sell in May: Anyone following the market mantra “Sell in May and go away” would have missed out on some decent gains this month.

The Dow Jones industrial average and S&P 500 are both up by about 1.6%, and the Nasdaq has surged by 3.2%.

But it doesn’t look like the indexes will hold onto all those gains on the final trading day of the month.

U.S. stock futures are edging down ahead of the open.

2. International markets overview: European markets are all declining in early trading, with renewed nervousness about the fate of Greece setting the tone. A German newspaper quoted the head of the International Monetary Fund as saying that it was possible Greece would have to leave the eurozone.

In Germany, the benchmark Dax index is declining by about 1%.

Asian markets ended with mixed results. The mood in China has calmed down after a large pullback Thursday, following stellar gains so far this year.

Hyde Chen, an equity analyst at UBS Wealth Management, said profit taking, as well as investors holding back ahead of a rush of IPOs next week, had contributed to the volatility.

3. Stock market mover — Altera: Shares in Altera (ALTR) are surging by about 10% premarket based on a New York Post report that says Intel (INTC, Tech30) is considering a $15 billion bid for the smaller chipmaker.

4. GDP galore: The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis will release a new estimate for first quarter GDP at 8:30 a.m. ET. The original estimate showed the U.S. economy grew by just 0.2% in the first three months of the year, which was well below expectations. Many now predict the economy may have actually shrunk in the first quarter.

Friday also saw disappointing GDP readings from Switzerland and Sweden. The Swiss economy contracted by 0.2% in the first quarter after a sharp appreciation in the currency slammed exports.

Many economists are also expecting a negative reading for Brazil’s GDP, which is set for release Friday.

5. Earnings and economics: Big Lots (BIG) is reporting ahead of the open.

The University of Michigan will update its monthly consumer sentiment index at 10 a.m. ET.

First hearing in House lawsuit over Obama health law

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Obama administration attorneys are urging a federal judge to throw out an election-year lawsuit by House Republicans over the president’s health care law.

Attorneys for the House counter that their unusual suit deals with critically important issues related to the separation of powers and should be allowed to continue.

The two sides meet in court for the first time Thursday in a hearing before U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer, a 2003 appointee of George W. Bush. It comes as the Obama administration and lawmakers of both parties anxiously await a Supreme Court ruling on a different lawsuit that challenges other portions of the health law and threatens insurance subsidies for millions of Americans.

The House suit, authorized by frustrated House Republicans last summer over strenuous objections from Democrats, may not make it that far. Previous attempts by members of Congress to sue past administrations have been tossed out, although the House health law suit is the first by the full House against a sitting president.

In the lawsuit the House contends that the Obama administration usurped the legislative role reserved for Congress by acting administratively to approve certain payments to insurers and delay deadlines in the law without Congress’ say-so.

“This case addresses fundamental issues regarding the limits of executive power under our constitutional form of government,” attorneys for the House said in court filings ahead of Thursday’s hearing. “One fundamental tenet of our divided-power system of government is that all legislative power is vested in Congress, and Congress alone.”

Government attorneys argued that the House could show no direct injury and instead based its lawsuit on general objections to how the Obama administration is implementing the law, which they said doesn’t justify its suit.

“This novel tactic is unprecedented, and for good reason: the House has no standing to bring this suit,” Justice Department attorneys argued. “The House here asserts only that the executive branch is implementing statutory provisions, which were enacted by a previous Congress, in a manner different from what the current House would prefer.”

The lead attorney for the House is prominent George Washington University Law School professor Jonathan Turley, who took the case on after two previous attorneys had bowed out.

In a statement ahead of the hearing, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said: “The very fact that the administration wants to avoid scrutiny – judicial or otherwise – shows you why this challenge is so important. No one – especially no president – is above accountability to the Constitution and the rule of law.”

House Republicans have voted more than 50 times to uproot all or pieces of the law known as “Obamacare,” but have no hope of prevailing legislatively as long as President Barack Obama is in the White House.

“Over 16 million people now have health care. Women are no longer discriminated against. There’s no longer discrimination for preexisting conditions. Young adults can stay on their parents’ plan. So we are very proud of the Affordable Care Act, notwithstanding Republican partisan attempts to dismantle it,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Wednesday.

Carter seeks ways to improve Iraq training, equipping

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ABOARD A US MILITARY AIRCRAFT (AP) — U.S. military leaders are looking for ways to improve and speed up the program to train and equip Iraqi forces, including options to better prepare Sunni tribes to join the fight, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Thursday.

Getting equipment to the battlefield more quickly and enhancing the training could help build the Iraqi forces’ confidence, Carter said, just days after he publicly chastised them for showing “no will to fight” when they fled Ramadi last week even though they greatly outnumbered Islamic State militants.

“One particular way that’s extremely important is to involve the Sunni tribes in the fight — that means training and equipping them,” said Carter, who called a special meeting of his top advisers on Tuesday and tasked them to come up with options. “Those are the kinds of things the team back home is looking at.”

Iraqi officials have complained that they are not getting the heavy military equipment they need fast enough. And on Tuesday President Barack Obama said the U.S. and its allies must examine whether they are deploying military assets in Iraq effectively.

A senior defense official said Carter is not considering providing weapons directly to the Sunnis, and still wants to work through the Iraqi government. The official was not authorized to discuss the options publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.

Speaking to reporters traveling with him to Asia, Carter said that the events in Ramadi “highlighted the central importance of having a capable ground partner” in Iraq.

“I think training and equipment effect the effectiveness of the forces and therefore their ability to operate, and their confidence in their ability to operate,” said Carter. “So, there’s a direct relationship.”

Carter spoke at the start of an 11-day overseas trip that includes stops in Singapore for an international security conference and visits to maritime facilities in Vietnam and India.

According to officials, Carter met with Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Lloyd Austin, his top Middle East commander, and other key policy officials to the Tuesday session and told them he wanted options for improving and hastening the training and equipping program.

Carter’s criticism of the Iraqi forces triggered a quick response from Baghdad, where leaders defended their troops. And the White House moved to temper his comments a bit in the days that followed.

It’s unclear, however, how quickly the U.S. will move to adjust the training or speed up the delivery of equipment, even as the Iraqis mobilize to try and retake western Anbar Province. The Obama administration has so far shown no inclination to commit more U.S. forces to Iraq or allow train and assist teams to move closer to the battlefront with smaller Iraqi units.

On Tuesday, just as Iraqi forces prepared their offensive, Islamic State militants launched a series of suicide bombings outside Fallujah, killing at least 17 soldiers.

Islamic State extremists seized large parts of Anbar in early 2014 and captured Ramadi earlier in May — marking a major defeat for Iraqi forces, which had been making steady progress against the group with the help of U.S.-led airstrikes.

The retreat of the Iraqi forces in Ramadi prompted comparisons with the military’s collapse last year, as troops fled in the face of the Islamic State’s march across portions of Syria and Iraq. And it raised questions about U.S. efforts to train Iraq’s forces amid ongoing sectarian tensions between the Shiite-led government and the Sunnis.

The campaign to retake Anbar is considered critical in regaining momentum in the fight against the Islamic State group.

The U.S. has said it will provide airstrike support to government-led Iraqi forces, but not any Shiite militias operating outside government control.

China defends South China Sea island development

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BEIJING (AP) — Responding to sharply-worded comments from the U.S. defense secretary, China on Thursday defended its building of artificial islands in the South China Sea and accused Washington of stirring up trouble in the economically vital region.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said no outside actors have the right to dictate to China in an area it claims as its sovereign territory.

She said the U.S. was committing “provocations and instigations” that threaten stability — a reference to Washington’s refusal to recognize Chinese sovereignty over the newly built dry land.

“China has its own judgment, and no others are entitled the rights to demand China how to act,” Hua told reporters. She added that China was acting appropriately as a “big power.”

She said the status quo of the South China Sea is generally stable, “but some countries keep on make provocations out of their selfish purposes, willfully challenging China’s territorial integrity and maritime rights.”

Hua’s remarks came a day after Defense Secretary Ash Carter called for an “immediate and lasting halt” to all land reclamation projects by any Pacific nations.

Carter also rejected China’s formal complaint over a U.S. surveillance plane’s flight last week over a Chinese-controlled island in the disputed Spratly group, saying the U.S. would “fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”

Frictions over China’s island building project are expected to overshadow this weekend’s annual Shangri-la Dialogue defense forum in Singapore, which Carter is attending alongside Sun Jianguo, China’s vice chief of general staff, and other military leaders. Unlike last year, when Chinese representatives appeared to be blindsided by criticism, they seem more likely to respond this year.

Syria’s al-Qaida chief says no plans to attack the West

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BEIRUT (AP) — Al-Qaida’s branch in Syria has no plans to attack the West but warns that they might retaliate if airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition continue to target them, the leader of the group said in an interview with an Arab TV station.

The Syrian known as Abu Muhammed al-Golani, who heads the Nusra Front, said the aim of his group is to march to the Syrian capital Damascus and bring down President Bashar Assad’s government. Al-Golani denied that the so-called Khorasan group even exists.

Since September when the U.S. led coalition began targeting the Islamic State group in Syria, U.S. airstrikes have attacked targets associated with the so-called Khorasan group — which Washington says is a special cell within the Nusra Front that is plotting attacks against Western interests.

Al-Golani said in an interview with the Al-Jazeera TV aired Wednesday night that “there is nothing called Khorasan group. We heard this from the Americans only.”

He added that if the coalition’s airstrikes continue “then the alternatives are open and it is the right of any human being to defend himself.”

Al-Golani said that the directions they have received from al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri are “not to use Syria for attacks against the West and Europe.”

“The directions that we are received from Dr. Ayman, may God protect him, are that the Nusra Front aim is to bring down the regime and its allies, I mean Hezbollah,” al-Golani, whose face was not shown during the interview, said.

He added that the “directions we have received until now is not to target the west and America.” He said al-Qaida might be doing so but not the Nusra Front.

The Nusra Front, one of Syria’s strongest groups, is leading the so-called Fatah Army that consists seven Syria-based factions. The Fatah Army has defeated Assad’s forces in northwestern Syria over the past two months capturing wide areas of the northwestern province of Idlib, including the provincial capital that carries the same name.

It was the second interview that al-Golani has given to Al-Jazeera.

Business: Global stocks down as Shanghai sinks, Greece deadline looms

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TOKYO (AP) — Chinese shares dived Thursday after big gains in the past three months and other global stock markets were mostly lower as a deadline neared for cash-starved Greece to make a debt payment.

KEEPING SCORE: Shares suffered a dramatic plunge in China with the Shanghai Composite dropping more than 6 percent. In Europe, France’s CAC 40 slipped 0.6 percent to 5,150.37 and Germany’s DAX lost 0.2 percent to 11,745.84. Britain’s FTSE 100 inched down 0.1 percent to 7,026.85. U.S. shares were set to drift lower, with Dow futures down 0.2 percent to 18,109.00. S&P 500 futures shed 0.1 percent to 2,117.90.

CHINA DIVE: The Shanghai Composite ended down 6.5 percent at 4,620.27 in another episode of the volatility that has punctuated the market during a 12-month period in which it has gained 127 percent. Stock market commentator Hexun attributed the fall to several factors including brokerages tightening margin lending, selling by speculators after the index neared 5,000 and a Chinese sovereign wealth fund selling shares in two state banks. Despite a deepening economic slowdown, the index has gained 40 percent in the past three months alone. Chinese leaders have recently tried to tap brakes on the stock market boom, fearing it could run out of control and disrupt economic reform plans.

ASIA’S DAY: Japan’s Nikkei 225 rose 0.4 percent to 20,551.46; the index is up nearly 10 percent in the past three months as exporter stocks benefit from a cheap yen. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 edged down 0.2 percent to 5,713.10 while South Korea’s Kospi gained 0.2 percent to 2,110.89. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng took its cue from Shanghai and lost 2.2 percent to 27,454.31. Southeast Asian markets fell while Taiwan and New Zealand rose.

GREECE FACTOR: Greece might miss a debt payment on June 5 if it fails to receive bailout funds from creditors, who are demanding that the country make reforms to its economy. It is still unclear whether an agreement can be reached in time.

THE QUOTE: “With the situation in Greece rapidly coming to a head and election results showing disenchantment with the status quo and the establishment across the continent, the pressure to reach a solution on Greece has grown rapidly,” said Nicholas Teo, analyst with CMC in Singapore, in a market commentary. “Developments on this front may continue to drive trading action in the coming days.”

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude added 19 cents to $57.69 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract fell 52 cents to settle at $57.51 a barrel in Nymex floor trading on Wednesday. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils, rose 62 cents to $62.67 a barrel in London.

CURRENCIES: The euro rose to $1.0942 from $1.0899 in the previous trading session. The dollar rose to 123.95 yen from 123.75 yen.

Can you sense a sinking feeling in the markets?

Stocks seem set for a dip.

Here are the five things you need to know before the opening bell rings in New York:

1. Red across the board: U.S. stock futures are pointing lower, European markets are mostly in the red, and Chinese stocks have suffered a major drop.

Both the Shanghai Composite and Shenzhen indexes fell by over 5% Thursday, though this comes on the heels of a stunning rise. The Shenzhen has surged by as much as 100% since the start of 2015, easily making it the world’s top performing stock market.

The generally negative mood in the market follows a positive Wednesday where the Dow Jones industrial average gained 121 points, the S&P 500 rose 0.9% and the Nasdaq closed with a 1.5% gain.

Benchmark U.S. indexes are trading near all-time record highs.

 

2. Earnings: Retailers Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) and Express (EXPR) are reporting ahead of the open.

Gamestop (GME) will report after the close.

3. Sponsors pressure FIFA: Some of the biggest sponsors of world soccer are stepping up the pressure on FIFA in the wake of Wednesday’s corruption revelations. Visa (V) has told the governing body to clean up its act or risk losing it as a sponsor.

4. Economics: The U.S. government is posting weekly jobless claims at 8:30 a.m. ET.

Government data on pending home sales from April will be released at 10 a.m.

Later in the morning, Wall Street will get the latest information on natural gas and crude oil inventories.

 

5. Google Conference: Google (GOOGL, Tech30) is kicking off its annual two-day developer conference, where it will showcase its latest techy innovations. It’s expected to unveil a spruced up Android operating system.

Watch Google shares as investors react to the latest announcements.

Floodwaters deepen in Houston after city gets more rain

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HOUSTON (AP) — Floodwaters deepened across much of Texas on Tuesday as storms dumped almost a foot more of rain on the Houston area, stranding hundreds of motorists and inundating the famously congested highways that serve the nation’s fourth-largest city.

Meanwhile, the search went on for about a dozen people who were still missing, including a group that disappeared after a vacation home was swept down a river and slammed into a bridge.

Several more fatalities were reported — four in Houston and four more in Central Texas. That brought to 17 the number of people killed by the holiday weekend storms in Texas and Oklahoma.

Similar search efforts unfolded just south of the Texas-Mexico border, where crews tried to track down the missing and assessed damage in the city of Ciudad Acuna after a tornado killed 13 people Monday.

In Houston, the water rose sharply overnight as about 11 more inches of rain fell, much of it in a six-hour period. By Tuesday evening, most rivers had receded back within their banks.

The floodwaters affected virtually every part of the city and paralyzed some areas. Firefighters carried out more than 500 water rescues, most involving stranded motorists. At least 2,500 vehicles were abandoned by drivers seeking higher ground, officials said.

“Given the magnitude and how quickly it happened, in such a short period of time, I’ve never seen this before,” said Rick Flanagan, Houston’s emergency management coordinator.

The drenching weather threatened to linger. Forecasts called for a 20 to 40 percent chance of thunderstorms through the rest of the week in Houston.

The flooding closed several highways, and the ones that stayed open became a gridlocked mess.

Interstate 45 near downtown was backed up for miles Tuesday morning, and a handful of motorists traveled the wrong way on the highway to retreat from high water.

Small cars weaved between massive 18-wheelers as other drivers stared at them in disbelief. With no end to the backup in sight, some drivers got off the freeway, only to be held up again by water covering nearby access roads.

In the Heights neighborhood about 5 miles from downtown, groups of people roamed the streets after escaping their stalled cars, and police cruisers blocked some dangerous roads.

Some motorists were stuck on I-45 all night, sleeping in their cars until the backup was cleared about 8 a.m.

NBA fans at the Toyota Center, where the Rockets hosted a Western Conference finals game against Golden State on Monday, were asked with about two minutes left in the game not to leave the arena because of the weather.

The game ended before 11 p.m., but about 400 people remained in their seats at 1:30 a.m., choosing to stay in the building rather than brave the flooded roads that awaited them outside. Up to 150 people stayed all right, according to arena officials.

A spokeswoman for the flood district of Harris County, which includes Houston, said up to 700 homes sustained some level of damage.

Yesenia Lopez and her husband, Armando, waded through knee-deep water, carrying bags of possessions over their heads. During the night, a nearby bayou overflowed and flooded their apartment complex.

“We tried to do as much as we could, saved the family portraits and stuff like that, but everything else is destroyed,” she said.

The two planned to stay with her mother-in-law.

Dripping with water, she said: “Everything is scary. That’s the first time I lived through something like this, so it gives you a lot to think about.”

Some of the worst flooding in Texas was in Wimberley, a popular tourist town along the Blanco River in the corridor between Austin and San Antonio. That’s where the vacation home was swept away.

The “search component” of the mission ended Monday night, meaning no more survivors were expected to be found, said Trey Hatt, a spokesman for the Hays County Emergency Operations Center.

Eight people missing from the destroyed house were friends and family who had gathered for the holiday, said Kristi Wyatt, a spokeswoman for the City of San Marcos. Three children, two age 6 and another 4, were among the missing.

The Blanco crested above 40 feet — more than triple its flood stage of 13 feet. The river swamped Interstate 35 and closed parts of the busy north-south highway. Rescuers used pontoon boats and a helicopter to pull people out.

Hundreds of trees along the Blanco were uprooted or snapped, and they collected in piles of debris up to 20 feet high.

The deaths in Texas included two men and one woman whose bodies were pulled from the Blanco; a 14-year-old who was found with his dog in a storm drain; a high school senior who died after her car was caught in high water; and a man whose mobile home was destroyed by a reported tornado.

The Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management also reported four fatalities between Saturday and Monday after severe flooding and reports of tornadoes.

In Ciudad Acuna, Mayor Evaristo Perez Rivera said 300 people were treated at local hospitals after the twister, and more than 200 homes had been completely destroyed in the city of 125,000 across from Del Rio, Texas.

Thirteen people were confirmed dead — 10 adults and three infants, including one that was ripped from its mother’s arms by the storm.

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Weber reported from Wimberley, Texas. Associated Press writers David Warren and Jamie Stengle in Dallas and photographer David J. Phillip in Houston contributed to this report.

Multiple IS suicide attacks in Iraq’s Anbar kill 17 troops

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BAGHDAD (AP) — Islamic State extremists unleashed a wave of suicide attacks targeting the Iraqi army in western Anbar province, killing at least 17 troops in a major blow to government efforts to dislodge the militants from the sprawling Sunni heartland, an Iraqi military spokesman said Wednesday.

The attacks came just hours after the Iraqi government announced the start of a wide-scale operation to recapture areas under the control of the IS group in Anbar.

Brig. Gen Saad Maan Ibrahim, the spokesman for the Joint Military Command, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the attacks took place outside the Islamic State-held city of Fallujah late the previous night.

The militants struck near a water control station and a lock system on a canal between Lake Tharthar and the Euphrates River where army forces have been deployed for the Anbar offensive, he said.

Ibrahim added that the Islamic State extremists used a sandstorm that engulfed most of Iraq on Tuesday night to launch the deadly wave of bombings. He said it was not clear how many suicide attackers were involved in the bombings but they hit the military from multiple directions.

Last month, the water station fell into the hands of IS militants — following attacks that also included multiple suicide bombings and that killed a general commanding the 1st Division and a dozen other officers and soldiers.

Iraqi government forces recaptured the station a few days later.

The Iraqi operation to retake Anbar, which is said to be backed by Shiite militias and Sunni pro-government fighters, is deemed critical in regaining momentum in the fight against the Islamic State.

104,000 taxpayers have personal info stolen from IRS website

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WASHINGTON (AP) — More than 100,000 taxpayers have had their personal tax information stolen from an IRS website as part of an elaborate scheme to claim fraudulent tax refunds.

The information was stolen from an online system called “Get Transcript,” where taxpayers can get tax returns and other tax filings from previous years. In order to access the information, the thieves cleared a security screen that required knowledge about the taxpayer, including Social Security number, date of birth, tax filing status and street address, the IRS said Tuesday.

“We’re confident that these are not amateurs,” said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. “These actually are organized crime syndicates that not only we, but everybody in the financial industry, are dealing with.”

The IRS said it is notifying taxpayers whose information was accessed. The IRS is providing them with credit monitoring services.

Koskinen wouldn’t say whether investigators believe the criminals are based overseas — or where they obtained enough personal information about the taxpayers to access their returns. The IRS has launched a criminal investigation. The agency’s inspector general is also investigating.

Identity thieves, both foreign and domestic, have stepped up their efforts in recent years to claim fraudulent tax refunds. The agency estimates it paid out $5.8 billion in fraudulent refunds to identity thieves in 2013.

“Eighty percent of the of the identity theft we’re dealing with and refund fraud is related to organized crime here and around the world,” Koskinen said. “These are extremely sophisticated criminals with access to a tremendous amount of data.”

Congress is already pressing the IRS for information about the breach.

“It’s deeply concerning that taxpayer information has been compromised,” said Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. “Protecting the taxpayer is supposed to be the IRS’s top priority, and we need answers from them.”

Koskinen said the agency was alerted to the thieves when technicians noticed an increase in the number of taxpayers seeking transcripts.

The IRS said the thieves targeted the system from February to mid-May. The service has been temporarily shut down.

Taxpayers sometimes need copies of old tax returns to apply for mortgages or college aid. While the system is shut down, taxpayers can apply for transcripts by mail.

The IRS said its main computer system, which handles tax filing submissions, remains secure.

In all, the thieves tried to access information from 200,000 taxpayers, the IRS said. They successfully got information on 104,000 of them.

During this filing season, about 140 million taxpayers filed returns. About 23 million people successfully downloaded transcripts from the website used by the thieves.

The agency is still determining how many fraudulent tax refunds were claimed this year using information from the stolen transcripts. Koskinen provided a preliminary estimate, saying less than $50 million was successfully claimed.

Thieves can also use the information to claim fraudulent tax refunds in the future. As identity theft has exploded, the agency has added filters to its computer system to identify suspicious returns. These filters look for anomalies in the information provided by the taxpayer.

Until recently, tax refund fraud has been surprisingly simple, once thieves obtain a taxpayer’s Social Security number and date of birth. Typically, thieves would file fake tax returns with made-up information early in the filing season, before the legitimate taxpayers filed their returns — and before employers and financial institutions filed wage and tax documents with the IRS.

The refunds would often be sent electronically to prepaid debit cards or bank accounts.

IRS officials say new computer filters are helping to stop many crude attempts at identity theft. This year, the IRS stopped almost 3 million suspicious returns, Koskinen said.

However, old tax returns can help thieves fill out credible-looking returns in the future, helping them get around the IRS filters.

Tax returns can include a variety of personal information that can help someone steal an identity, including Social Security numbers and birthdates of dependents and spouses. The IRS said the thieves appeared to already have a lot of personal information about the victims.

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Follow Stephen Ohlemacher on Twitter: http://twitter.com/stephenatap

Business: Asia stocks ruffled by Greece crunch, Fed views; Europe up

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Asian stock markets were ruffled Wednesday by Greece’s impending cash crunch and expectations the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates this year for the first time in almost a decade. But Europe and U.S. futures traded higher.

KEEPING SCORE: Europe bounced back from the previous session’s losses. Britain’s FTSE 100 rose 0.7 percent to 6,996.01 and Germany’s DAX added 0.3 percent to 11,666.36. France’s CAC 40 advanced 0.7 percent to 5,117.55. Futures augured a tepid start for Wall Street. S&P 500 futures rose 0.1 percent and Dow futures also edged up 0.1 percent.

STRONG GREENBACK: The U.S. dollar extended gains against some currencies after a surge the previous day, buoyed by signs of improvement in the U.S. economy such as better-than-expected home sales, durable goods and consumer confidence. Fed Chair Janet Yellen implied that an interest rate hike is likely within this year, further pushing up the greenback. The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta said on Tuesday that it raised its second-quarter growth forecast for the U.S. economy to 0.8 percent from 0.7 percent.

ANALYST’S TAKE: After the “Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta upgraded its gross domestic product forecast for the second quarter, traders quickly upped their bets on the prospects of the Fed tightening this year,” said Stephen Innes, senior trader at OANDA Asia Pacific. “Investors are mulling the possibility of a Greek default and the changing political landscape in Spain. Anti-austerity parties are gaining traction across the eurozone’s periphery, and that’s driving risk-off sentiment in currency markets that are reeling from the Greek drama,” Innes said.

ASIA’S DAY: Asian markets closed mostly lower. Japan’s Nikkei 225 drifted 0.2 percent higher to 20,472.58 while South Korea’s Kospi sank 1.7 percent to 2,107.50. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng dropped 0.6 percent to 28,081.21 and Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 slipped 0.8 percent to 5,725.30. Stocks in Southeast Asia were lower while the Shanghai Composite rose 0.6 percent to 4,941.71.

GREECE WATCH: Greece might miss a payment on June 5 if it fails to receive bailout funds from creditors, who are demanding that the country make reforms to its economy. Talks to reach a deal resumed Tuesday after a weekend break, but it is unclear whether an agreement can be reached in time. Missing those payments could destabilize the country’s financial system and eventually push it out of the 19-country eurozone, a step that could shake the currency union and the global economy.

JOBS DATA: The U.S. Labor Department reports on state unemployment rates for April. In March, employers in U.S. states cut jobs as weak economic growth weighed on hiring and a slowdown in oil and gas drilling caused big job losses in some states.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude added 70 cents to $58.73 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract fell $1.69 to close at $58.03 a barrel in Nymex floor trading on Tuesday. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils, rose 43 cents to $64.15 a barrel in London.

CURRENCIES: The dollar rose to 123.41 yen from 122.99 yen in the previous trading session. The euro strengthened to $1.0903 from $1.0881.

Welcome to Wednesday.

The mood has improved since Tuesday’s drop.

Here are five things you need to know before the opening bell rings in New York:

1. Stock market overview: U.S. stock futures are holding steady following a Tuesday pullback. Investors seem to have been concerned about an upcoming interest rate hike from the Federal Reserve.

On Tuesday, the Dow Jones industrial average, S&P 500 and Nasdaq all declined by about 1%. Still, stocks are not far from their all-time highs.

In Europe, all the main indexes are pushing up in early trading. Asian markets ended with mixed results.

 

2. Currency focus: The International Monetary Fund has declared the Chinese yuan is “no longer undervalued,” after spending years criticizing China for keeping its currency from strengthening too much against the U.S. dollar.

China’s yuan, also called the renminbi, has risen about 0.5% against the U.S. dollar in the last year.

The dollar is a bit weaker Wednesday versus a range of other currencies. The euro is strengthening.

3. Earnings: DSW (DSW), Michael Kors (KORS) and Tiffany & Co (TIF) are reporting ahead of the open.

Costco(COST) will report after the close.

4. Smokin’ stocks: Shares in Imperial Tobacco Group (ITYBY) are edging up by about 1.5% in London after the company announced it had received regulatory approval to acquire some cigarette and e-cigarette brands from Reynolds American (RAI) and Lorillard (LO).

“The announcement puts an end to over 10 months of uncertainty about whether the deal would be signed off,” said Mike van Dulken, head of research at Accendo Markets in the U.K.

This comes as BrandZ publishes an annual ranking showing that the Marlboro cigarette brand remains one of the most valuable in the world, worth more even than the Facebook (FB, Tech30) brand. Marlboro cigarettes are sold by Altria (MO) in the U.S. and Philip Morris International (PM) overseas.

 

5. Potent politics: Investors will be watching political moves in Europe as G7 finance ministers begin a three-day meeting in Dresden, Germany.

“Greece is likely to feature prominently in the discussions, and traders will keep a close eye on headlines emerging from the sit-down for direction cues,” said Ilya Spivak, a currency analyst at DailyFX.

Investors in the U.K. will also be watching “The Queen’s Speech,” when Queen Elizabeth II outlines the new government’s legislative agenda. The speech is set to include a bill paving the way for a referendum on the U.K.’s membership of the European Union.

Cleveland, Justice Department reach policing deal

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Cleveland has reached a settlement with the Department of Justice over a pattern of excessive force and civil rights violations by its police department, and it could be announced as soon as Tuesday, a senior federal law enforcement official said.

The official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the settlement before the formal announcement, spoke Monday on the condition of anonymity.

News of the settlement came days after a white police officer was acquitted of manslaughter for firing the final 15 rounds of a 137-shot police barrage through the windshield of a car carrying two unarmed black suspects in 2012.

The suspects’ backfiring vehicle had been mistaken for a gunshot, leading to a high-speed chase involving 62 police cruisers. Once the suspects were cornered, 13 officers fired at the car.

The case prompted an 18-month Department of Justice investigation into the practices of the police. In a scathing report released in December, the department required the city to devise a plan to reform the police force.

The specifics of the settlement were unavailable. Messages left for a Department of Justice spokeswoman and the Cleveland Police Department seeking comment weren’t returned.

The Department of Justice’s report spared no one in the police chain of command. The worst examples of excessive force involved patrol officers who endangered lives by shooting at suspects and cars, hit people over the head with guns and used stun guns on handcuffed suspects.

Supervisors and police higher-ups received some of the report’s most searing criticism. The report said officers were poorly trained and some didn’t know how to implement use-of-force policies. It also said officers were ill-equipped.

Mobile computers that are supposed to be in patrol cars often don’t work, and, even when they do, officers don’t have access to essential databases, the report said.

Police Chief Calvin Williams said in December that while it wasn’t easy to have to share the federal government findings with his 1,500-member department he was committed to change.

“The people of this city need to know we will work to make the police department better,” Williams said.

The investigation marked the second time in recent years the Department of Justice has taken the Cleveland police to task over the use of force. But unlike in 2004, when the department left it up to local police to clean up their act, federal authorities this time have been negotiating a consent decree designed to serve as a blueprint for lasting change among police. Several other police departments in the country now operate under federal consent decrees that involve independent oversight.

The Department of Justice in the last five years has launched broad investigations into the practices of more than 20 police forces, including in Ferguson, Missouri, where a white police officer shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, and in Baltimore, where another black man, Freddie Gray, suffered a spinal cord injury in police custody and later died. The Brown and Gray cases spawned protests that sometimes turned violent.

Saturday’s bench verdict on the manslaughter charge against Cleveland patrolman Michael Brelo led to a day of mostly peaceful protests but also more than 70 arrests.

Two other high-profile police-involved deaths still hang over Cleveland, a predominantly black and largely poor city: a 12-year-old boy holding a pellet gun fatally shot by a rookie patrolman and a mentally ill woman in distress who died after officers took her to the ground and handcuffed her.

With ISIS in Cross Hairs, U.S. Holds Back to Protect Civilians

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(PhatzNewsRoom / NYT)     —-    WASHINGTON — American intelligence analysts have identified seven buildings in downtown Raqqa in eastern Syria as the main headquarters of the Islamic State. But the buildings have gone untouched during the 10-month allied air campaign.

And just last week, convoys of heavily armed Islamic State fighters paraded triumphantly through the streets of the provincial capital Ramadi in western Iraq after forcing Iraqi troops to flee. They rolled on unscathed by coalition fighter-bombers.

American and allied warplanes are equipped with the most precise aerial arsenal ever fielded. But American officials say they are not striking significant — and obvious — Islamic State targets out of fear that the attacks will accidentally kill civilians. Killing such innocents could hand the militants a major propaganda coup and alienate both the local Sunni tribesmen, whose support is critical to ousting the militants, and Sunni Arab countries that are part of the American-led coalition.

But many Iraqi commanders, and even some American officers, argue that exercising such prudence is harming the coalition’s larger effort to destroy the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or Daesh, and that it illustrates the limitations of American air power in the Obama administration’s strategy. A persistent complaint of Iraqi officials and security officers is that the United States has been too cautious in its air campaign, frequently allowing columns of Islamic State fighters essentially free movement on the battlefield.

How ISIS Expands

The Islamic State aims to build a broad colonial empire across many countries.

OPEN Graphic

“The international alliance is not providing enough support compared with ISIS’ capabilities on the ground in Anbar,” said Maj. Muhammed al-Dulaimi, an Iraqi officer in Anbar Province, which contains Ramadi. “The U.S. airstrikes in Anbar didn’t enable our security forces to resist and confront the ISIS attacks,” he added. “We lost large territories in Anbar because of the inefficiency of the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.”

It appears that Islamic State troops are taking advantage of restrictions on how the coalition carries out its bombing campaign, with militants increasingly fighting from within civilian populations to deter attack.

In Iraq, more than 80 percent of the allied airstrikes are supporting Iraqi troops in hotly contested areas like Ramadi and Baiji, the home of a major oil refinery. Many of the other strikes focus on so-called pop-up targets — small convoys of militants or heavy weaponry on the move. These have been a top priority of the campaign, even though only about one of every four air missions sent to attack the extremists have dropped bombs. The rest of the missions have returned to the base after failing to find a target they were permitted to hit under strict rules of engagement designed to avoid civilian casualties.

In Syria, the United States has a very limited ability to gather intelligence to help generate targets, although the commando raid there this month that killed a financial leader of the Islamic State may signal a breakthrough. Many Islamic State training compounds, headquarters, storage facilities and other fixed sites were struck in the early days of the bombing, but the military’s deliberate process for approving other targets has frustrated several commanders.

“We have not taken the fight to these guys,” the pilot of an American A-10 attack plane said in a recent email. “We haven’t targeted their centers of gravity in Raqqa. All the roads between Syria and Iraq are still intact with trucks flowing freely.”

These critics describe an often cumbersome process to approve targets, and they say there are too few warplanes carrying out too few missions under too many restrictions.

“In most cases, unless a general officer can look at a video picture from a U.A.V., over a satellite link, I cannot get authority to engage,” the A-10 pilot said, referring to an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, and speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid punishment from his superiors. “It’s not uncommon to wait several hours overhead a suspected target for someone to make a decision to engage or not.”

To be sure, the air campaign has achieved several successes in conducting about 4,200 strikes that have dropped about 14,000 bombs and other weapons. The campaign has killed an estimated 12,500 fighters and helped Iraqi forces regain about 25 percent of the territory seized in Iraq by the Islamic State, according to American military figures.

It has blunted the advance of Islamic State fighters in most areas by forcing them to disperse and conceal themselves. Allied warplanes have attacked oil refineries, weapons depots, command bunkers and communications centers in Syria as part of a plan to hamper the Islamic State’s ability to sustain its operations in Iraq and to disrupt communications among its senior leaders.

But American officials acknowledge that the Islamic State has remained resilient and adaptive. Fighters mingle with civilians more than ever. Islamic State commanders routinely change their methods of communication to avoid detection. Militants used a sandstorm, which made it more difficult for the Iraqis to identify targets, to seize an advantage in the recent Ramadi attack.

“We have always said this fight will be difficult, and there will be some setbacks,” Lt. Gen. John Hesterman III, the top allied air commander, said in a statement from his headquarters in Qatar. “Coalition air power has dramatically degraded Daesh’s ability to organize, project and sustain combat power while taking exceptional care to limit collateral damage and civilian casualties.”

The air campaign has averaged a combined total of about 15 strikes a day in Iraq and Syria. In contrast, the NATO air war against Libya in 2011 carried out about 50 strikes a day in its first two months. The campaign in Afghanistan in 2001 averaged 85 daily airstrikes, and the Iraq war in 2003 about 800 a day. American officials say targeting is more precise than in the past, so fewer flights are needed.A major constraint on the air campaign’s effectiveness, critics say, has been the White House’s refusal to authorize American troops to act as spotters on the battlefield, designating targets for allied bombing attacks.

Some members of Congress, including Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, have advocated this idea.

The absence of air controllers is a particular complication for battles in urban places like Ramadi, where Islamic State units cannot always be readily identified by American pilots flying overhead.

The administration is considering training a cadre of Iraqi troops to designate airstrike targets from allied fighter jets.

Canadian special forces advising Iraqi troops are designating targets “on a case-by-case basis,” said Ashley Lemire, a spokeswoman for the Canadian defense ministry. “This is seen as a high-end military capability that the I.S.F. does not currently have,” she added, referring to the Iraqi security forces.

Administration officials stand by their overriding objective to prevent civilian casualties. Civilian deaths from airstrikes during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were sometimes unacknowledged or understated by the military and caused a lot of ill will, which is one reason for the United States’ caution now. Underscoring that goal, the military’s Central Command on Thursday announced the results of an inquiry into the deaths of two children in Syria in November, saying they were most likely killed by an American airstrike. It was the first time the Pentagon had acknowledged civilian casualties since it began the air campaign. A handful of other attacks are under investigation.

“The U.S. has indeed put in place rigorous policies and procedures to minimize civilian harm, but with no combat troops on the ground it is hard to evaluate how successful these policies have been,” said Federico Borello, the executive director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict, an advocacy group.

The American-led coalition has imposed other conditions on its use of airstrikes. During the operation in March and April to liberate Tikrit, the United States initially refrained from bombing runs because of the involvement of Iranian-backed Shiite militias in the fighting who were not under Iraqi government control. Once those militias failed to retake the city, they pulled back, and the Americans began bombing before Iraqi security forces and the militias advanced.

Iraqi officials have praised those airstrikes as an important component in the liberation of Tikrit. But many of the Iraqis involved in that operation complain that the Americans refused to strike targets that they had provided.

One army commander in Salahuddin Province, of which Tikrit is the capital, said he had passed along a long list of potential targets, including weapons caches, training centers and the homes of local Islamic State leaders.

“The least important 5 percent of them were targeted,” said the officer said, who was not authorized to speak publicly and did not want to be identified as criticizing Iraq’s ally. “We also asked the U.S. coalition to attack ISIS convoys while they were moving from one place to another, but they either neglected our requests or responded very late.”

These same Iraqi commanders drew criticism on Sunday from Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, who said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that Iraq’s troops had shown no will to fight in Ramadi and had abandoned the city.

Civilians from Raqqa, who were interviewed in Turkey and often go back and forth across the border, said the Islamic State offices were well known around the city and had not been targeted by coalition airstrikes. Locals assume that this is because the Islamic State holds civilian prisoners in each location to deter the coalition.

The Islamic State’s primary security office is known as Point 11 and is inside a soccer stadium, where its central prison is also believed to be. The extremists’ Islamic court is in a building that used to belong to the Syrian Finance Ministry; it, too, holds prisoners, residents say. The office of the militant group’s so-called Islamic police is also near Point 11 and contains a small jail.

An American military spokeswoman declined to comment on specific targets in Raqqa.

Civilians who now rely on the Islamic State for services often come and go from the offices, according to a middle-age real estate agent, who still lives in Raqqa and spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of the extremists.

“The civilians like the coalition because it doesn’t hit civilians, but ISIS hates it because it targets their fighters,” he said.

But even residents who oppose the Islamic State said they could not imagine the group’s leaving Raqqa at this time, because it had learned to deal with the airstrikes and there was no force on the ground to challenge it.

“If they had acted when ISIS was small, they could have stopped them, but now it has settled and grown and people have gotten used to it,” said an aid worker from Raqqa who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he travels in areas controlled by the Islamic State. “As long as there is no plan to get rid of them, they are staying, and it is clear that there is no plan.”

Afghan forces struggle as Taliban seeks northern stronghold

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KUNDUZ, Afghanistan (AP) — Taliban insurgents, their ranks swelled by foreign fighters pushed across the border from Pakistan, nearly surrounded this northern Afghan city last month with an offensive that stunned local authorities and raised concerns over their ability to defend the country without U.S. and foreign combat troops.

Under pressure from a yearlong military offensive in neighboring Pakistan, the Taliban and allied militants — some waving the black flags of the Islamic State group — appear to be trying to carve out a new safe haven in northern Afghanistan that could give them access to Central Asia and China, Afghan officials say.

As Afghanistan’s U.S.-trained and equipped forces have struggled to fend off the insurgents — who at one point came within 3 kilometers (less than 2 miles) of Kunduz — authorities have increasingly turned to local militias and former warlords, a further indictment of the costly, decade-long U.S. effort to build an effective Afghan military.

Provincial Gov. Mohammad Omer Safi said 3,000 troops are now battling a well-armed insurgent force of some 2,000 fighters who crashed against the city’s gates late last month at the start of the spring fighting season. He said logistical problems that left troops without food, fuel or ammunition for days on end have been resolved, but that the Taliban have proven tough to dislodge.

“We have surrounded the enemy everywhere and we will not allow them to advance any further,” he told The Associated Press. “Maybe with the passage of time they will be weakened, run out of ammunition and find themselves moved back. This is not a one day or two days, or one month or two months fight.”

Safi said that in addition to switching from hit-and-run attacks to seizing and holding territory, the Taliban have also been joined by other militants, including from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The IMU has longstanding ties to the Taliban and al-Qaida, and is believed to have pledged allegiance to the IS group last year.

There are ominous signs of a growing IS presence in northern Afghanistan. Safi said fighters have raised the group’s black flag in nearby villages, and that foreign fighters from Turkey, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have been found among the dead.

A Western intelligence official said the extent of the IS presence in Afghanistan remains unclear, saying “there is a lot of self-branding, rather than franchising.”

But an Afghan intelligence official said the group is present in at least four of the country’s 34 provinces, mainly in the south. He pointed to the beheading of seven Afghan soldiers in northern Badakhshan province last month, noting that the tactic has rarely been used by the Taliban. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to comment publicly on the matter.

Gen. John F. Campbell, the commander of international forces in Afghanistan, said Saturday that the IS group is actively recruiting but is not yet operational in the country. He also noted reports that IS militants have clashed with the Taliban.

Safi, the Kunduz governor, said the army had managed to push back the insurgents to Gor Tepa, some 15 kilometers from the provincial capital, but that their progress was slow because the Taliban were occupying civilian homes and using human shields.

“We cannot destroy the houses of the poor civilians when the Taliban are inside so we cannot use our heavy artillery against the enemy,” he said.

In the city itself life has largely returned to normal, but the scorched remains of the fighting are visible on its outskirts, where officials and residents say the Taliban torched homes and other buildings as they retreated. U.N. agencies say 18,000 families, or around 100,000 people, were displaced by the fighting.

In the village of Talawka, around 8 kilometers from the city, Commander Assadullah led 30 men armed with their own assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns on a recent patrol past mud-brick compounds, many of them reduced to rubble and occupied only by ducks and donkeys.

The men arrived here on May 13 from a nearby district, and are among 1,000 militiamen called up by provincial authorities and given monthly stipends. Assadullah, 50, who fought the Soviets in the 1980s, said Afghanistan’s security forces are no match for the Taliban’s “professional fighters.”

The insurgents “have strong front lines, they are using anti-personnel and anti-tank mines. They use the houses and the basements for cover,” he said. He added that his men would be unable to drive them out without better air and ground support from the military.

Safi said the insurgents are determined to carve out a new safe haven after being driven out of Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region by a military offensive launched nearly a year ago.

The Kunduz province, a relatively wealthy region of grain and cotton fields, sits astride the old Silk Road and would provide access to neighboring Central Asian countries as well as China, all of which have grappled with Islamic militancy. Safi said the Taliban are already forcing farmers to hand over 10 percent of their crops to the group as a tithe.

“They are fighting very hard to have a safe place in northern Afghanistan,” Safi said.

Iraq launches operation to drive IS from Anbar

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BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq on Tuesday announced the launch of a military operation to drive the Islamic State group out of the western Anbar province, where the extremists captured the provincial capital, Ramadi, earlier this month.

Iraqi state TV declared the start of the operation, in which troops will be backed by Shiite and Sunni paramilitary forces, but did not provide further details.

A spokesman for Iraq’s Shiite militias said the operation will “not last for a long time” and that Iraqi forces have surrounded the provincial capital, Ramadi, from three sides.

Ahmed al-Assadi, who is also a member of parliament, told reporters that new weapons are being used in the battle “that will surprise the enemy.”

The Islamic State group seized large parts of Anbar starting in early 2014 and captured Ramadi earlier this month. The fall of the city marked a major defeat for Iraqi forces, which had been making steady progress against the extremists over the past year with the help of U.S.-led airstrikes.

Security forces and Sunni militiamen who had been battling the extremists in Ramadi for months collapsed as IS fighters overran the city. The militants gained not only new territory 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, but also large stocks of weapons abandoned by government forces as they fled.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Sunday that Iraqi forces had “vastly outnumbered” the IS militants in Ramadi but “showed no will to fight.”

Saad al-Hadithi, a spokesman for Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, said the government was surprised by Carter’s remarks, and that the defense secretary “was likely given incorrect information.”

Al-Abadi has called on Shiite militias to help Iraqi troops retake the Sunni province. The militiamen have played a key role in clawing back territory from the IS group elsewhere in Iraq, but rights groups accuse them of looting, destroying property and carrying out revenge attacks. Militia leaders deny the allegations.

Business: European stocks fall as Greek debt plight looms

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TOKYO (AP) — European shares fell Tuesday as markets reopened after holidays in several countries, as concerns over Greece’s debt crisis overshadowed news from China of support for new infrastructure projects.

KEEPING SCORE: Germany’s DAX sank 0.8 percent to 11,720.64 and France’s CAC 40 dropped 0.6 percent to 5,085.84. Britain’s FTSE 100 lost 0.6 percent to 6,986.48. Wall Street was poised for a weak post-Memorial Day holiday start. Dow futures were down 0.3 percent at 18,168.00. S&P 500 futures fell 0.4 percent to 2,117.20.

EUROPEAN WOES: Worries persist that Greece might miss looming IMF repayments if it fails to receive bailout funds from creditors demanding it outline reforms and promise to meet cost-cutting targets. Athens is struggling to achieve greater austerity and clean up its finances without risking a relapse into recession. Meanwhile, the weak showing in local elections of Spain’s ruling Popular Party, especially in its traditional power bases of Madrid and Valencia, highlighted voter displeasure with the government’s handling of the eight-year economic crisis and the country’s 24 percent unemployment rate.

THE QUOTE: “There will be a couple of dominant themes with Greece developments remaining at the forefront while political developments in Spain also deserve some attention,” market strategist Stan Shamu of IG said in commentary.

CHINA BOOST: China’s economic planning agency announced Monday that it wanted to attract private investment to more than 1,000 local public-private projects for ports and other transport facilities, the environment, and public services. Altogether, the projects could be worth 2 trillion yuan ($318 billion). The government also announced it would halve import taxes on clothing, cosmetics and some other goods by half in a new tactic to stimulate consumer spending and economic growth.

ASIA’S DAY: Japan’s Nikkei 225 rose 0.1 percent to 20,437.48 and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng gained 0.9 percent to 28,249.86. The Shanghai Composite rose 2 percent to 4,910.90; the index is up 141 percent over the past year. Australia’s S&P ASX/200 climbed 0.9 percent to 5,773.40, but South Korea’s Kospi slipped 0.1 percent to 2,143.50. Shares in New Zealand rose and Southeast Asian shares were mixed.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. oil fell 29 cents to $59.43 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract shed $1 on Friday to $59.72. Brent crude, used to price international oils, dropped 37 cents to $65.16 per barrel.

CURRENCIES: The dollar gained to 122.79 yen from Monday’s 121.55 yen. The euro fell to $1.0887 from $1.0980.

Get ready for an exciting day!

Here are the four things you need to know before the opening bell rings in New York:

1. Merger mania: Shares in Time Warner Cable (TWC) are up about 11% premarket after Charter Communications (CHTR) confirmed plans to buy the firm as part of a three-way merger.

The deal could affect one in six American households since Charter is the third biggest cable television provider in the U.S., and Time Warner Cable is the second largest.

Shares in Time Warner (TWX), a completely different company with a similar name, are also surging premarket as some investors mistakenly bid on the wrong shares. Time Warner owns CNN, HBO, Warner Bros. and other media and entertainment brands.

 

2. Global overview: U.S. stock futures are in negative territory following the long weekend, though the move down isn’t dramatic.

Most European markets are also weaker in early trading.

Over in Asia, Chinese markets notched some serious gains.

China’s Shenzhen Composite rallied 3.6%, putting gains so far this year at over 100% — easily making it the world’s top performing stock market.

Stocks in Shanghai and Hong Kong also jumped following a Friday announcement that mutual funds could start trading through a pilot program that connects the two markets.

Chinese markets have surged this year as policymakers continue to introduce efforts to support the economy.

Looking back to Friday, the Dow Jones industrial average dipped 0.3%, the S&P 500 shed 0.2%, and the Nasdaq held steady.

 

3. Stock market movers — Etsy, Shake Shack, Transocean: A few companies are sinking ahead of the open.

Shares in Etsy (ETSY) are off by about 4%, while Shake Shack (SHAK) and Transocean (RIG) shares are both down around 2%.

4. Economic updates: There’s a bunch of economic releases to watch Tuesday.

The Census Bureau reports data on April durable goods orders at 8:30 a.m. ET. The influential Case-Shiller real estate index will be released at 9 a.m.

At 10 a.m., the government releases new home sales figures, and the Conference Board reports consumer confidence data for May.

Negotiator: Iran agrees ‘managed access’ to military sites

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TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran has agreed to grant United Nations inspectors “managed access” to military sites as part of a future deal over its contested nuclear program, a negotiator said Sunday, apparently contradicting earlier comments by the nation’s supreme leader.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi’s comments, carried by state television, came after he and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attended a reportedly stormy closed session of parliament.

“Iran has agreed to grant managed access to military sites,” state TV quoted Araghchi as saying Sunday.

Lawmaker Ahmad Shoohani, a member of parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee who attended the closed-door session, said restricted inspections of military sites will be carried out under strict control and specific circumstances.

“Managed access will be in a shape where U.N. inspectors will have the possibility of taking environmental samples from the vicinity of military sites,” Shoohani said.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vowed Wednesday to not allow international inspection of Iran’s military sites or access to Iranian scientists under any nuclear agreement. Iran’s military leaders also angrily have refused such demands. The state TV report did not elaborate on Araghchi’s comments apparently contradicting those two powerful forces in the Iranian government.

Iran and six world powers — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — hope to work out terms of a final nuclear deal before a June 30 deadline. Inspection of military sites suspected to be taking part in the nuclear program is a top priority of the U.S.

The West fears Iran’s program could allow it to build a nuclear weapon. Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes.

The broadcast also quoted Araghchi as saying Iranian negotiators rejected demands that its scientists be interviewed.

“Americans are after interviewing our nuclear scientists. We didn’t accept it,” state TV quoted him as saying.

Iran’s nuclear scientists have been the targets of attacks before both inside the Islamic Republic and elsewhere. The country also views the interviews as tantamount to a criminal interrogation.

US Defense Secretary: Iraq’s ‘will to fight’ at issue after Ramadi defeat

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Islamic State group’s takeover of the Iraqi provincial capital Ramadi has prompted criticism from Defense Secretary Ash Carter and raised new questions about the Obama administration’s strategy to defeat the extremist group.

The Islamic State group, which had already seized a strategically important swath of the Middle East, seized Ramadi in central Iraq a week ago, which has revived concerns about U.S. efforts to fight the group.

The Obama administration’s approach in Iraq is a blend of retraining and rebuilding the Iraqi army, prodding the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad to reconcile with the nation’s Sunnis and bombing Islamic State group targets from the air without committing American ground combat troops.

President Barack Obama’s strategy is predicated on Baghdad granting political concessions to the country’s alienated Sunnis, who are a source of personnel and money for the Islamic State group. But there has been little visible progress on that front. Baghdad has continued to work closely with Shiite militias backed by Iran, which have been accused of atrocities against Sunnis, a religious minority in Iraq that ruled until Saddam Hussein fell from power.

The U.S. has sought to reach out on its own to Sunni tribes and is training some Sunni fighters, but those efforts have been limited by the small number of American troops on the ground.

Carter said in an interview aired Sunday that Shiite-led Iraqi forces did not show a “will to fight” in the battle for Ramadi, a Sunni city.

Although Iraqi soldiers “vastly outnumbered” their opposition in the capital of Anbar province, they quickly withdrew a week ago without putting up much resistance from the city in Iraq’s Sunni heartland, Carter said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

The Iraqis left behind large numbers of U.S.-supplied vehicles, including several tanks, now presumed to be in Islamic State hands.

“What apparently happened is the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight,” Carter said. “They were not outnumbered; in fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force. That says to me, and I think to most of us, that we have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight ISIL and defend themselves.”

The White House declined to comment on Sunday.

A spokesman for the Iraqi government said Monday that Carter’s remarks were surprising and that the U.S. defense chief had been given “incorrect information.” In a statement, Saad al-Hadithi said the fall of Ramadi was due to mismanagement and poor planning by some senior military commanders in charge of Ramadi.

Iraqi lawmaker Hakim al-Zamili, the head of the parliamentary defense and security committee, called Carter’s comments “unrealistic and baseless,” in an interview Sunday with The Associated Press.

“The Iraqi army and police did have the will to fight IS group in Ramadi, but these forces lack good equipment, weapons and aerial support,” said al-Zamili, a member of the political party headed by radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is stridently anti-American.

American officials say they are sending anti-tank weapons to the Iraqi military. But they also noted that Iraqi forces were not routed from Ramadi— they left of their own accord, frightened in part by a powerful wave of Islamic State group suicide truck bombs, some the size of the one that destroyed the federal building in Oklahoma City two decades ago, said a senior State Department official who spoke to reporters last week under ground rules he not be named.

A senior defense official said that the troops who fled Ramadi had not been trained by the U.S. or its coalition partners. The official was not authorized to address the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Carter defended the use of U.S. airstrikes, but he said they are not a replacement for Iraqi ground forces willing to defend their country.

American intelligence officials have assessed for some time that Iraq is unlikely ever again to function as the multi-ethnic nation-state it once was, and that any future political arrangement would have to grant significant local autonomy to the three main groups— Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. But the Obama administration has continued to pursue a “one Iraq” policy, routing all assistance through Baghdad.

Over the past year defeated Iraq security forces have repeatedly left U.S.-supplied military equipment on the battlefield, which the U.S. has targeted in subsequent airstrikes against Islamic State forces. The Pentagon this past week estimated that when Iraqi troops abandoned Ramadi, they left behind a half-dozen tanks, a similar number of artillery pieces, a larger number of armored personnel carriers and about 100 wheeled vehicles like Humvees.

Politicians from both parties criticized the administration’s strategy Sunday and urged a more aggressive posture.

Republican Sen. John McCain, who chairs the Armed Services Committee, called for thousands of U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq, including spotters who can better direct air strikes.

Even Obama administration allies were urging the president to do more.

“I think there is a major hesitation to get too deeply involved in Iraq again,” said Michele Flournoy, a former senior Obama administration defense official. But, she said, “this is a terrorist problem that affects us and we have to take a more forward-leaning posture.”

Flournoy spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union”; McCain appeared on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

___

Associated Press writers Sameer Yacoub in Baghdad and Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.

NSA winds down once-secret phone-records collection program

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The National Security Agency has begun winding down its collection and storage of American phone records after the Senate failed to agree on a path forward to change or extend the once-secret program ahead of its expiration at the end of the month.

Barring an 11th hour compromise when the Senate returns to session May 31, a much-debated provision of the Patriot Act — and some other lesser known surveillance tools — will sunset at midnight that day. The change also would have a major impact on the FBI, which uses the Patriot Act and the other provisions to gather records in investigations of suspected spies and terrorists.

In a chaotic scene during the wee hours of Saturday, Senate Republicans blocked a bill known as the USA Freedom Act, which would have ended the NSA’s bulk collection but preserved its ability to search the records held by the phone companies on a case-by-case basis. The bill was backed by President Barack Obama, House Republicans and the nation’s top law enforcement and intelligence officials.

It fell just three votes short of the 60 needed for passage. All the “no” votes but one were cast by Republicans, some of whom said they thought the USA Freedom Act didn’t go far enough to help the NSA maintain its capabilities.

If Senate Republican leaders were counting on extending current law and continuing the negotiations, they miscalculated. Democrats and libertarian-minded Republicans refused to go along. A bill to grant a two-month extension of the law failed, and senators objected to each attempt by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky offer up a short term extension.

The failure to act means the NSA will immediately begin curtailing its searches of domestic phone records for connections to international terrorists. The Justice Department said in a statement that it will take time to taper off the collection process from the phone companies. That process began Friday, said an administration official who would not be identified because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

While the phone records program has never been credited with thwarting a terrorist plot, the Senate failure also imperils other tools that the FBI has been using to hunt for suspected spies and terrorists.

The FBI uses Section 215 of the Patriot Act to gather financial and other types of records in national security cases. Another expiring provision makes it easier for the bureau to track “lone wolf” terrorism suspects who have no connection to a foreign power, and another allows the government to eavesdrop on suspects who continuously discard their cellphones in an effort to avoid surveillance.

Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky’s other senator and a Republican presidential candidate, called the Senate’s failure to allow an extension of the surveillance programs a victory for privacy rights.

“We should never give up our rights for a false sense of security,” Paul said in a statement.

Some civil liberties groups joined Paul in praising the result, saying they would rather see the Patriot Act provision authorizing NSA phone collection expire altogether.

“For the first time, a majority of senators took a stand against simply rubber-stamping provisions of the Patriot Act that have been used to spy on Americans,” said Michael Macleod-Ball, acting director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office.

But Nuala O’Connor, CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology, called the Senate’s inaction “inexcusable after two years of debate and bipartisan compromise.”

And a presumed GOP presidential candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, took a veiled swipe at Paul by blaming the failure to extend the Patriot Act on “misguided ideologues who have no real world experience in fighting terrorism.”

Section 215 of the Patriot Act is used by the government to justify collecting the “to and from” information about nearly every American landline telephone call.

When former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the program in 2013, many Americans were outraged that NSA had their calling records. Obama ultimately announced a plan similar to the USA Freedom Act and asked Congress to pass it. He said the plan would preserve the NSA’s ability to hunt for domestic connections to international plots without having an intelligence agency hold millions of Americans’ private records.

Since it gave the government extraordinary powers, Section 215 of the Patriot Act was designed to expire at midnight on May 31 unless Congress renews it. An appeals court has ruled that the phone collection does not comply with the law, but stayed the ruling while Congress debated.

Under the USA Freedom Act, the government would transition over six months to a system under which it queries the phone companies with known terrorists’ numbers to get back a list of numbers that had been in touch with a terrorist number.

Happy Memorial Day

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(PhatzNewsRoom) – To all of those who serve to keep our great country free, our thanks. To those families who made the ultimate sacrifice,  from a grateful nation – may God be with you.

decoration-dayGen. John A. LoganMemorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in service of the United States of America. Over two dozen cities and towns claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. While Waterloo N.Y. was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966, it’s difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day.

Regardless of the exact date or location of its origins, one thing is clear – Memorial Day was borne out of the Civil War and a desire to honor our dead. It was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11. “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land,” he proclaimed. The date of Decoration Day, as he called it, was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle.

On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.

The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states. The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war).

It is now observed in almost every state on the last Monday in May with Congressional passage of the National Holiday Act of 1971 (P.L. 90 – 363). This helped ensure a three day weekend for Federal holidays, though several southern states have an additional separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead: January 19th in Texas; April 26th in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10th in South Carolina; and June 3rd (Jefferson Davis’ birthday) in Louisiana and Tennessee.

Red Poppies

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In 1915, inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields,” Moina Michael replied with her own poem:

We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.

She then conceived of an idea to wear red poppies on Memorial day in honor of those who died serving the nation during war. She was the first to wear one, and sold poppies to her friends and co-workers with the money going to benefit servicemen in need. Later a Madam Guerin from France was visiting the United States and learned of this new custom started by Ms. Michael. When she returned to France she made artificial red poppies to raise money for war orphaned children and widowed women. This tradition spread to other countries. In 1921, the Franco-American Children’s League sold poppies nationally to benefit war orphans of France and Belgium. The League disbanded a year later and Madam Guerin approached the VFW for help.

Shortly before Memorial Day in 1922 the VFW became the first veterans’ organization to nationally sell poppies. Two years later their “Buddy” Poppy program was selling artificial poppies made by disabled veterans. In 1948 the US Post Office honored Ms. Michael for her role in founding the National Poppy movement by issuing a red 3 cent postage stamp with her likeness on it.

National Moment of Remembrance

The “National Moment of Remembrance” resolution was passed on Dec 2000 which asks that at 3 p.m. local time, for all Americans “To voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to ‘Taps.”

Ohio patrolman acquitted in 2 deaths amid 137-shot barrage

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CLEVELAND (AP) — A white Cleveland patrolman who fired down through the windshield of a suspect’s car at the end of a 137-shot barrage that left the two unarmed black occupants dead was acquitted Saturday of criminal charges by a judge who said he could not determine the officer alone fired the fatal shots.

Michael Brelo, 31, put his head in hands as the judge issued a verdict that prompted an angry response outside the courthouse, including chants of “Hands up! Don’t Shoot!”

The acquittal came at a time of nationwide tension among police and black citizens punctuated by protests over deaths of black suspects at the hands of white officers — and following a determination by the U.S. Department of Justice that city police had a history of using excessive force and violating civil rights.

Before issuing his verdict, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge John P. O’Donnell noted the recent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore over the deaths of black suspects but said he would not “sacrifice” Brelo to an angry public if the evidence did not merit a conviction.

“Guilty or not guilty, the verdict should be no cause for a civilized society to celebrate or riot,” he said.

Brelo — who fired a total of 49 shots, including 15 down through the windshield while standing on the hood of the suspects’ vehicle — faced as many as 22 years in prison had the judge convicted him on two counts of voluntary manslaughter for his role in the end of a chase that began after Timothy Russell’s car backfired.

His sister, Michelle Russell, said she believed Brelo would ultimately face justice, despite the judge’s decision.

“He’s not going to dodge this just because he was acquitted,” she said. “God will have the final say.”

The officers who surrounded the car were angry that the pair didn’t pull over and didn’t give them a chance to surrender, she said.

“They did not deserve to die for fleeing,” she said.

Michelle Russell urged protesters to be peaceful and work for real solutions.

“We need to organize and figure out a way to stop this from happening again,” she said.

Community and city leaders braced for the possibility of unrest in response to the verdict, which came as investigators work toward making a decision on whether charges will be filed in the death of a black 12-year-old boy carrying a pellet gun who was shot by a white rookie officer late last year.

One activist, Carol Steiner, said the verdict is “a very bad precedent for Cleveland” with a decision still to come in the death of the 12-year-old, Tamir Rice. “Police murder people of color and not have to serve one day in jail.”

The U.S. Justice Department, U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI will begin reviewing the testimony and evidence and review all available legal options, said Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

“We will continue our assessment, review all available legal options, and will collaboratively determine what, if any, additional steps are available and appropriate given the requirements and limitations of the applicable laws in the federal judicial system,” said the joint statement.

After the verdict, about 30 sheriff’s deputies stood in front of the courthouse bearing clear shields as protesters with bullhorns chanted. One demonstrator bowed his head with hands folded in front of the phalanx of deputies, praying in silence.

The deputies then moved inside the entrance of the justice center, and the plaza in front of the building was soon cordoned off.

O’Donnell spent nearly an hour summing up his conclusion, an involved explanation that included mannequins marked with the gunshot wounds that the two motorists suffered on Nov. 29, 2012.

O’Donnell said that while Brelo likely fired fatal shots in the final seconds of the encounter in a school parking lot, other officers fired fatal shots as well. Brelo could have been convicted of lesser charges of felonious assault, but O’Donnell determined his actions were justified in shooting, which included reports of shots being fired from the beat-up Chevy Malibu that Timothy Russell was driving, because they perceived a threat.

Brelo’s lead attorney, Patrick D’Angelo, told reporters after the verdict his team was “humbled by the verdict but not emboldened by it.”

“Officer Brelo risked his life on that night,” D’Angelo said, only to be attacked by prosecutors in a case he called a “blood fight.”

“I’ve never in my 37 years witnessed such a vicious and unprofessional prosecution of a police officer,” he said.

Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty said he respects the judge’s decision and urged others to do so, as well.

Zach Reed, a councilman who represents a black area of southeast Cleveland, said he thought Brelo should have been guilty of felonious assault. “We may not agree with the decision but we will not pillage, loot and burn the city as a result of this verdict,” he said.

Thirteen officers fired at a car with Russell and Malissa Williams inside after a long, high-speed chase, but only Brelo was charged criminally because prosecutors said he waited until the car had stopped and the pair no longer a threat to fire his final 15 shots.

Russell, 43, and Williams, 30, were each shot more than 20 times. While prosecutors argued they were alive until Brelo’s final salvo, medical examiners for both sides testified that they could not determine the order in which the fatal shots were fired.

Brelo has been on unpaid leave since he was indicted May 30, 2014.

The chase began when Russell’s car backfired as he sped past Cleveland police headquarters. Police officers and bystanders thought someone inside had fired a gun. More than 100 Cleveland police officers in 62 marked and unmarked cars got involved in a pursuit that saw speeds reach 100 mph during the 22-mile-long chase.

Authorities never learned why Russell didn’t stop. He had a criminal record including convictions for receiving stolen property and robbery and had been involved in a previous police pursuit. Williams had convictions for drug-related charges and attempted abduction. Both were described as mentally ill, homeless and addicted to drugs. A crack pipe was found in the car.

In addition to the charges against Brelo, a grand jury charged five police supervisors with misdemeanor dereliction of duty for failing to control the chase. All five have pleaded not guilty and no trial date has been set.

The shooting helped prompt a months-long investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, which concluded last December that the Cleveland police department had engaged in a pattern and practice of using excessive force and violating people’s civil rights. The city and DOJ are currently negotiating a reform-minded consent decree that a federal judge will approve and independent monitors will oversee.

Two years after the deaths of Russell and Williams, a white officer fatally shot Rice, the 12-year-old, in a Cleveland park after police received a report of a man with a gun. Surveillance video showed the officer firing on Rice within two seconds of his patrol car skidding to a stop next to him.

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