Powerless Puerto Rico’s storm crisis deepens with dam threat

Puerto Rican officials could not communicate with more than half the towns in the U.S. territory as they rushed to evacuate tens of thousands of people downstream of a failing dam and the massive scale of the disaster wrought by Hurricane Maria started to become clear.

Authorities launched an evacuation of the 70,000 people living downstream from the Guajataca Dam in northwest Puerto Rico, sending buses to move people away Friday and posting frantic warnings on Twitter that went unseen by many in the blacked-out coastal area.

“This is an EXTREMELY DANGEROUS SITUATION,” the National Weather Service wrote. “All the areas around the Guajataca River must evacuate NOW. Your lives are in DANGER.”

The 345-yard (316-meter) dam, which was built around 1928, holds back a man-made lake covering about 2 square miles (5 square kilometers). More than 15 inches (nearly 40 centimeters) of rain fell on the surrounding mountains after the Category 4 Maria left the island Wednesday afternoon, swelling the reservoir behind the nearly 90-year-old dam.

An engineer inspecting the dam reported a “contained breach” that officials quickly realized was a crack that could be the first sign of total failure of the dam, U.S. National Weather Service meteorologist Anthony Reynes said.

“There’s no clue as to how long or how this can evolve. That is why the authorities are moving so fast because they also have the challenges of all the debris. It is a really, really dire situation,” Reynes said.

Government spokesman Carlos Bermudez said that officials could not reach 40 of the 78 municipalities on the island more than two days after the hurricane crossed the island, toppling power lines and cellphone towers and sending floodwaters cascading through city streets.

Officials said 1,360 of the island’s 1,600 cellphone towers had been downed, and 85 percent of above-ground and underground phone and internet cables were knocked out. With roads blocked and phones dead, officials said, the situation may be worse than they know.

“We haven’t seen the extent of the damage,” Gov. Ricardo Rossello told reporters in the capital. Rossello couldn’t say when power might be restored.

Maj. Gen. Derek P. Rydholm, deputy to the chief of the Air Force Reserve, said at the Pentagon that it was impossible to say when communication and power would be restored. He said mobile communications systems are being flown in.

But Rydholm acknowledged “it’s going to take a while” before people in Puerto Rico will be able to communicate with their families outside the island. Until Friday, he said, “there was no real understanding at all of the gravity of the situation.”

The island’s electric grid was in sorry shape long before Maria struck. The territory’s $73 billion debt crisis has left agencies like the state power company broke. It abandoned most basic maintenance in recent years, leaving the island subject to regular blackouts.

“Some transmission structures collapsed,” Rossello said, adding that there was no severe damage to electric plants.

He said he was distributing 250 satellite phones from FEMA to mayors across the island to re-establish contact.

The death toll from Maria stood at six, but was likely to rise.

At least 27 lives in all have been lost around the Caribbean, including at least 15 on hard-hit Dominica. Haiti reported three deaths; Guadeloupe, two; and the Dominican Republic, one.

Across Puerto Rico, more than 15,000 people are in shelters, including some 2,000 rescued from the north coastal town of Toa Baja.

Some of the island’s 3.4 million people planned to head to the U.S. to temporarily escape the devastation. At least in the short term, though, the soggy misery will continue: Additional rain — up to 6 inches (15 centimeters) — is expected through Saturday.

In San Juan, Neida Febus wandered around her neighborhood with bowls of cooked rice, ground meat and avocado, offering food to the hungry. The damage was so extensive, the 64-year-old retiree said, that she didn’t think the power would be turned back on until Christmas.

“This storm crushed us from one end of the island to the other,” she said.

Secretary of State Luis Marin said he expects gasoline supplies to be at 80 percent of capacity because the port in the southeastern town of Yabucoa that receives fuel shipments received minor damage.

Hour-long lines formed at the few gas stations that reopened on Friday and anxious residents feared power could be out for weeks — or even months — and wondered how they would cope.

“I’m from here. I believe we have to step up to the task. If everyone leaves, what are we going to do? With all the pros and the cons, I will stay here,” Israel Molina, 68, who lost roofing from his San Juan mini-market to the storm, said, and then paused. “I might have a different response tomorrow.”


US seizes control of Russian posts as diplomatic row deepens

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States seized control Saturday of three Russian diplomatic posts in the US after confirming the Russians had complied with the Trump administration’s order to get out within two days, officials said.

As the Kremlin cried foul, accusing Washington of bullying tactics, the US disputed Moscow’s claims that American officials had threatened to “break down the entrance door” to one of the facilities, and that the FBI was “clearing the premises.”

Not true, said a senior State Department official, adding that US officials had joined Russian Embassy personnel for walkthroughs of the three buildings.

“These inspections were carried out to secure and protect the facilities and to confirm the Russian government had vacated the premises,” the official said in a statement emailed Saturday to reporters by the State Department on condition the official not be named.

Russia has been incensed by the move to shutter Russia’s consulate in San Francisco and trade offices in Washington and New York, actions the US took in retaliation for Moscow’s decision last month to force the US to cut its diplomatic personnel in Russia to 455. Moscow has accused the US of violating international law by shuttering the facilities, a charge the US disputes.

On Saturday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it had summoned the US deputy chief of mission in Moscow, Anthony Godfrey, to deliver a formal protest note calling the purported trade office search an “unprecedented aggressive action.”

The Foreign Ministry also posted video on Facebook that it said showed FBI agents inspecting the consulate general building in San Francisco. In the video, a man in a tie knocks on several numbered doors and enters what appears to be apartment units, taking a quick glance inside before declaring everything in order.

There was no additional comment from the US about whether the FBI was involved in the inspections. The State Department declined to answer additional questions about whether the premises might be searched for intelligence-gathering purposes now that the Russians have left.

A day earlier, black smoke was seen billowing from the chimney at the consulate as the Russians rushed to meet the Saturday deadline, and workers could be seen hauling boxes out of the stately building.

The US did appear to bow to one Russian complaint — that they were given a mere 48 hours to vacate homes used by diplomats and their families. Softening the original order, the US said it had made “separate arrangements” to give families “sufficient time” to pack their belongings and vacate apartments on the consulate grounds.

The US wouldn’t disclose how long the Russians would have to move out of the residential part of the consulate, other than to say that Moscow had been informed of the new deadline. In the meantime, the State Department will control all access to the properties, along with the responsibility for securing and maintaining them, the official said.

The closures on both US coasts mark perhaps the most drastic diplomatic measure by the United States against Russia since 1986, near the end of the Cold War, when the nuclear-armed powers expelled dozens of each other’s diplomats.

And it comes amid some of the broadest strains in their relationship ever since. The two countries have clashed over the wars in Ukraine and Syria, but most significantly over American allegations that Russia meddled in the 2016 US election to boost President Donald Trump’s chances of victory. Investigations continue into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow.

Stalled Over Gulf, Harvey Deepens Texans’ Soggy Misery

HOUSTON — Five days after the pummeling began — a time when big storms have usually blown through, the sun has come out, and evacuees have returned home — Tropical Storm Harvey refused to go away, battering southeast Texas even more on Tuesday, spreading the destruction into Louisiana and shattering records for rainfall and flooding.

Along 300 miles of Gulf Coast, people poured into shelters by the thousands, straining their capacity; as heavy rain kept falling, some rivers were still rising and floodwater in some areas had not crested yet; and with whole neighborhoods flooded, others were covered in water for the first time. Officials cautioned that the full-fledged rescue-and-escape phase of the crisis, usually finished by now, would continue, and that they still had no way to gauge the scale of the catastrophe — how many dead, how many survivors taking shelter inland or still hunkered down in flooded communities, and how many homes destroyed.

For everybody, it was another head-shaking 24 hours:

• The storm made its second landfall early Wednesday morning in Louisiana, just west of the town of Cameron, the National Hurricane Center announced at 4 a.m. As Harvey moves northeast through the state scoured by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, forecasters expect it to gradually weaken and become a tropical depression by Wednesday night.

• Local officials in Texas said at least 30 deaths were believed to have been caused by the storm through Tuesday, up from eight a day earlier. The dead included a Houston police officer, Sgt. Steve Perez, 60, who was caught in flooding on Sunday while trying to report for duty. “I expect that number to be significantly higher once the roads become passable,” said Erin Barnhart, the chief medical examiner for Galveston County.

• The city of Houston imposed a curfew from midnight to 5 a.m., starting Tuesday night and continuing until further notice. The curfew was requested by the Houston Police Department, partly in response to reports of “small-scale looting” and other crimes, Chief Art Acevedo said at a news conference Tuesday evening. He added that the curfew would help search and rescue teams get around without interference.

• Parts of the Houston area broke the record for rainfall from a single storm anywhere in the continental United States, with a top reading on Tuesday afternoon, since the storm began, of 51.88 inches in Cedar Bayou, east of Houston, the National Weather Service reported. The previous record was 48 inches in Medina, Tex., from Tropical Storm Amelia in 1978, and with the rain still falling along the Gulf Coast, Harvey could top the 52 inches recorded in Kauai, Hawaii in 1950 from Hurricane Hiki.

National Guard soldiers slept at Gallery Furniture in the Houston suburb of Richmond.CreditAlyssa Schukar for The New York Times

• Houston officials had at first limited the city’s main shelter, the George R. Brown Convention Center, to 5,000 evacuees, but by Tuesday morning it had swelled to more than 9,000, with more arriving by the hour, Mayor Sylvester Turner said. By the evening, evacuated residents were setting up cots in corridors because they said the main dormitories were uncomfortably crowded.

One of the people bunking at the convention center, Keimaine Percel, a mechanic, had not seen his home since it flooded, but he was trying not to think about it. “I heard it was real bad,” said Mr. Percel, 35. “I don’t know unless I get back.”

The Red Cross said that in Houston alone, 17,000 people began their day Tuesday in shelters, and the numbers were rising there and in inland cities that had taken evacuees such as Dallas, San Antonio and Austin. Mr. Turner said Houston would create new shelters, Dallas opened its convention center on Tuesday as a shelter for 5,000 people, and Fort Worth said it would open shelters, as well.

In the Kingwood neighborhood of Houston, people waved towels from apartment windows and yelled “we’re here” and “family of three needs help,” hoping to draw one of the volunteers piloting fishing boats, inflatable rafts and kayaks. Seeming shellshocked, evacuees climbed into boats clutching plastic bags of clothes, cat carriers and children; Kyle Hawthorne of Baton Rouge, La., at the helm of his fishing boat, said he and his friends had pulled three people from a tree, and transported a 6-year-old who was separated from his parents.

Bennie Hooper, 20, and his dog sat on a curb, both shivering, as he searched for a sign of his husband, Cody Cress-Likes, who was left behind in their apartment by the boat that rescued Mr. Hooper. “I’m waiting for him,” he said.

Dan Diaz, 84, was rescued from his girlfriend’s house, which normally sits 30 feet above Buffalo Bayou in Houston. On Tuesday morning, water was approaching the front door, and on the other side of the house, Memorial Drive was a raging river.

“I used to worry about fire,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Two flood control basins on the western edge of Houston, Addicks and Barker reservoirs, reached their capacity on Tuesday, and spilled into adjoining neighborhoods that had not previously been under water, flooding more than 3,000 homes. Water also began pouring over Addicks Reservoir’s emergency spillway, a flow that will increase to 4,500 cubic feet per second by Thursday, flooding streets in another neighborhood, said Edmond Russo Jr., deputy district engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Lt. Zach West, center, and Specialist Jaxen Halicke evacuated Frank Weido, 69, from his home in Katy, Tex. “I’ve been watching the front stoop,” Mr. Weido said. “The rain just kept coming and coming and coming.”CreditAlyssa Schukar for The New York Times

Engineers did a controlled release of 8,000 cubic feet of water per second through the dams that hold back the reservoirs, but it was not enough to keep up with the rainfall and runoff pouring in. The reservoirs are intended to prevent flooding on the Buffalo Bayou, which runs through central Houston, but the bayou has spread far above and beyond its banks, and the discharge from the reservoirs will add to that flooding.

The Houston police and fire departments, and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, reported that they had rescued about 7,000 people since the storm began, many of them from the tops of houses and cars, in addition to those taken by volunteer boaters.

President Trump visited the southern edge of the storm-affected area, arriving at a Corpus Christi firehouse and then traveling to Austin for a meeting with officials involved in the disaster response.

“It’s a real team, and we want to do it better than ever before,” Mr. Trump said to state and federal officials in Corpus Christi. “We want to be looked at in five years, in 10 years from now as, this is the way to do it.”

The severity and scope of the emergency daunted aid efforts. Houston’s fire chief, Samuel Peña, said Tuesday that the water was so high around some fire stations that firefighters had been unable to leave for days, either to go home or to help others. Federal Emergency Management Agency trucks full of supplies and provisions left from a staging area near San Antonio, but some of the hardest-hit areas remained unreachable, their roads under water, washed-out, or blocked by abandoned vehicles.

“Normally we plan response for that first 72 hours, 96 hours,” Maj. Gen. James C. Witham, director of domestic operations for the federal National Guard Bureau, said at a news conference. But because of the rare intensity and duration of Harvey, “we will be doing lifesaving, life-support efforts for a much longer period,” he said, and it will be “days, if not weeks, before we’re into the recovery mode.”

Gov. Greg Abbott has mobilized Texas’ entire available National Guard force, some 12,000 people, for storm response, and General Witham said that with help from other states, the Guard strength involved could reach 30,000 troops.

Harvey made landfall on Friday near Corpus Christi as a Category 4 hurricane, the most powerful storm to strike the United States in over a decade, then weakened to a tropical storm and headed back out to sea. Late Tuesday, it was centered about 30 miles east-southeast of Galveston, with sustained winds of 50 miles per hour, and heading north.

Trump Is Reportedly ‘Struggling to Stay Calm’ as the Russia Investigation Deepens

So are we as a nation still just going to not talk about how freaking nuts this is.

President Trump has a new morning ritual. Around 6:30 a.m. on many days — before all the network news shows have come on the air — he gets on the phone with a member of his outside legal team to chew over all things Russia.

Trump now has a dedicated morning phone call for the Russia investigation. It’s like the presidential daily intelligence briefing—but for what people have been saying about him and Russia, and nothing else. It is now a scheduled part of the White House day. It specifically targets, among others, the special counsel leading that investigation.

The calls — detailed by three senior White House officials — are part strategy consultation and part presidential venting session, during which Trump’s lawyers and public-relations gurus take turns reviewing the latest headlines with him. They also devise their plan for battling his avowed enemies: the special counsel leading the Russia investigation; the “fake news” media chronicling it; and, in some instances, the president’s own Justice Department overseeing the probe.

Oh, thank goodness. A dedicated morning call so that his team can battle his avowed enemies: anyone who talks about Russian election hacking and the specific investigators investigating it. That is a brilliant idea that is no way a symptom of a deranged narcissist losing his everloving s—t while his entire team watches.

His advisers have encouraged the calls — which the early-to-rise Trump takes from his private quarters in the White House residence — in hopes that he can compartmentalize the widening Russia investigation. By the time the president arrives for work in the Oval Office, the thinking goes, he will no longer be consumed by the Russia probe that he complains hangs over his presidency like a darkening cloud.

Spoiler alert: It hasn’t been working. Another spoiler alert: Anyone who thought it would work hasn’t been paying attention to just how bottomless this man’s need for ego-fueled vengeance against his invisible enemies has always been.

And so we’re treated to stories like “Trump is struggling to stay calm on Russia, one morning call at a time” which is a headline you would expect to see written about a celebrity battling their rampant drug usage, not a sitting president battling an investigation which he insists will find nothing and is completely meaningless except as vehicle for making him, ensconced in the most powerful office in the nation, feel bad.

Michael Lazzaro, aka Hunter, is a Daily Kos Contributing Editor. 

Samsung chief Lee arrested as South Korean corruption probe deepens

Samsung Group chief Jay Y. Lee was arrested early on Friday over his alleged role in a corruption scandal rocking the highest levels of power in South Korea, dealing a fresh blow to the world’s biggest maker of smartphones and memory chips.

The 48-year-old Lee, scion of the country’s richest family, was taken into custody at the Seoul Detention Centre after waiting there overnight for the decision. He was being held in a single cell with a TV and desk, a jail official said.

Lee is a suspect in the influence-peddling scandal that led parliament to impeach President Park Geun-hye in December, a decision that if upheld by the Constitutional Court would make her the country’s first democratically elected leader forced from office.

Shares in flagship Samsung Electronics Co Ltd (005930.KS) fell 1.4 percent, while shares in Samsung C&T Corp (028260.KS), the de facto holding company of Samsung Group, were down 2.8 percent compared with the wider market’s .KS11 drop of 0.2 percent.

Prosecutors have up to 10 days to indict Lee, Samsung’s third-generation leader, although they can seek an extension. After indictment, a court would be required to make a ruling within three months.

No decision had been made on whether Lee’s arrest would be contested or whether bail would be sought, a spokeswoman for Samsung Group [SARG.UL] said.

Samsung and Lee have denied wrongdoing in the case.

“We will do our best to ensure that the truth is revealed in future court proceedings,” the Samsung Group said in a brief statement after Lee’s arrest.

The same court had rejected a request last month to arrest Lee, but prosecutors on Tuesday brought additional accusations against Lee, seeking his arrest on bribery and other charges.

“We acknowledge the cause and necessity of the arrest,” a judge said in his ruling.

The judge rejected the prosecution’s request to arrest Samsung Electronics president Park Sang-jin.


While Lee’s detention is not expected to hamper day-to-day operation of Samsung firms, which are run by professional managers, experts said it could hinder strategic decision-making at South Korea’s biggest conglomerate, or chaebol.

Samsung has been in the midst of an ongoing restructuring to clear a succession path for Lee to assume control after his father was incapacitated by a heart attack in 2014.

Decisions that could be complicated by Lee’s arrest include deliberations over whether to reorganize the group under a holding company structure, as well as its plan to abandon its future strategy office, a central decision-making body that came in for criticism during the scandal.

Staff moves have also been in limbo. Samsung, which employs more than 250,000 people, has yet to announce annual personnel promotions and changes, which it typically does in December.

One employee at Samsung Electronics’ chip division said colleagues were unsettled that prosecutors had singled-out Samsung.

“The mood is that people are worried,” said the employee.

However, another Samsung Electronics employee described the situation as business as usual.

“It wouldn’t make sense for a company of that size to not function properly just because the owner is away.”

Both declined to be identified, given the sensitivity of the matter.

Lee’s incarceration comes as Samsung Electronics tries to get past the disastrous rollout last year of its Galaxy Note 7 smartphones, which were prone to fires. It is under pressure for the upcoming launch of its next flagship phone, the Galaxy S8, to be a success.

Some worried about the impact on Samsung, a flag-bearer for South Korea’s technological and manufacturing prowess.

“We express concern and regret that South Korea’s leading company, which is at the forefront of global competition, faces a management vacuum,” the Korea Chamber of Commerce & Industry said.


Lee’s arrest gives a boost to prosecutors who have zeroed-in on Samsung Group to build their case against President Park and her close friend Choi Soon-sil, who is in detention and faces charges of abuse of power and attempted fraud.

Both Park and Choi have denied wrongdoing.

Prosecutors have focused on Samsung’s relationship with Park, 65, accusing the group of paying bribes totaling 43 billion won ($37.74 million) to organizations linked to Choi to secure government backing for the 2015 merger of two Samsung units.

If parliament’s impeachment is upheld, an election would be held in two months. In the meantime, Park remains in office but stripped of her powers.

Her would-be successors praised the decision to arrest Lee.

“We hope it marks a beginning to end our society’s evil practice of cozy ties between government and corporations and move toward a fair country,” said Kim Kyoung-soo, a spokesman for Moon Jae-in, a member of the liberal opposition Democratic Party who is leading opinion polls in the presidential race.

With plenty of help from Hamas, IS deepens its war against Egypt

Despite an apparent thaw in relations between Egypt and Gaza and the expected opening of the Rafah Border Crossing in the coming week, Hamas is still allowing the transfer of injured Islamic State fighters to the Gaza Strip, while also ignoring the smuggling of weapons to the Sinai Peninsula destined for the extremist organization’s local branch, according to Arab sources.

This cooperation is taking place despite the Islamic State’s claim of responsibility for last week’s major terrorist attack at a Coptic church in Cairo.

The smuggling is also being conducted while heavy fighting continues in the Sinai and elsewhere in Egypt between the Egyptian Army and Islamic State supporters. It has recently become clear to the Egyptians that one of the main smuggling tunnels being used by Islamic State is operating under the protection of Hamas and belongs to a smuggler who works with the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing.

The bombing at the church last Sunday was one of the worst terrorist attacks to take place in Cairo in the past year. At least 25 people were counted among the dead and almost 40 injured after an explosive device went office in the women’s section of the church. The Egyptian regime rushed to blame the Muslim Brotherhood, but Islamic State soon after claimed responsibility for the bombing.

The attack, it turns out, has not slowed down the pace of entry of injured fighters from the Islamic State’s Sinai Province to the Gaza Strip. Egypt knows at which hospital the injured are being treated (Khan Younis) and who the main point men for Hamas are. One of the few tunnels that the Egyptians have not succeeded in destroying, which belongs to a famous smuggler by the name of Mohammad Shaar, is the primary route by which injured IS fighters enter Gaza. Shaar, the Egyptians have learned, operates under the protection of Hamas and with its support acts as “contractor” for smuggling operations.

Hamas has also been allowing the transfer of a great deal of armaments to the Sinai, in particular anti-tank missiles and improvised roadside bombs. These roadside bombs are a major challenge to the Egyptian Army; every week they inflict heavy casualties. The Egyptians are using various advanced technological means in an effort to solve the problem but have not yet succeeded in completely overcoming it. Some of these roadside bombs come from Gaza; others are assembled in the Sinai. Explosives experts from Hamas’s military wing have arrived in the Sinai to assist with the assembly of the devices.

This past week, the IS-affiliated Sinai Province published a message claiming responsibility for firing a grad rocket towards Israel that fell in the Sinai. Islamic State also claimed that the Israeli Air Force targeted the organization on three different occasions in the Sinai Peninsula.

The Sinai Province had put out an unusual announcement a few days earlier, in which it reported the death of a former Hamas operative, Abed al-Hila Qishta, who had teamed up with Islamic State in Sinai the past two years. The terrorist organization did not release details of the circumstances in which Qishta was killed, or if there was any connection to Israel.

Palestinian workers pray inside a smuggling tunnel between Sinai and Rafah, April 3, 2013 (Wissam Nassar/Flash90)

Qishta was formerly a senior operative for Hamas’s military wing and was sent as an emissary for the group to Sinai. In his past work with Hamas, he had been responsible for the operation of anti-tank weapons and for placing assembled explosive devices. After announcing his severance of ties with Hamas he joined the Popular Resistance Committees — another Gaza-based terrorist organization. And in the past year has trained Islamic State fighters in Sinai in the use of advanced anti-tank weapons. Even though he officially broke off all ties with Hamas, he remained in close contact with the group’s commanders in the Gaza Strip.

Despite all the setbacks and challenges, many of them Hamas-inflicted, the Egyptian Army is racking up meaningful accomplishments in its war on Islamist terror in the Sinai, and the security situation has improved substantially in the Sinai Peninsula. The number of casualties is down compared to last year and the Islamic State’s Sinai Province has not been able to carry out any “spectacular operations.”

Sending more troops to Syria, US deepens role in fight against ISIS

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — Drawing the US deeper into the Syria conflict, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced Saturday he is sending 200 more troops to accelerate the push on the Islamic State’s self-declared capital of Raqqa.

The 200, to include special operations troops, are in addition to 300 already authorized for the effort to recruit, organize, train and advise local Syrian Arab and Kurdish forces to fight IS. Carter said the expanded US involvement was approved by President Barack Obama last week.

On his final tour of the Mideast as Pentagon chief, Carter cast the new troop commitment as evidence that the US backs its anti-IS words with military muscle. He offered an extensive defense of the Obama administration’s efforts to defeat the extremists, and he aimed sharp jabs at the region’s Arab powers, saying they need to stop complaining of US shortcomings and do more to protect their own neighborhoods.

“They need to get in the game,” he said.

Speaking at an international security conference known as the Manama Dialogues, Carter also blasted Russia for its role in Syria. He said Moscow had joined the fighting with the stated goals of smoothing the way for a political transition and to combatting the Islamic State group.

“But then it did neither of those things,” he said, “and instead has only inflamed the civil war and prolonged suffering of the Syrian people.”

Western special forces, supporting the US-backed Kurdish-Arab forces, deploy on the frontlines some 50 km north of Raqqa on November 6, 2016, as they launched an offensive on the Islamic State group's de facto Syrian capital. (AFP PHOTO/DELIL SOULEIMAN

Carter said US partners in the Middle East who are serious about fighting extremism over the long term need to build up their ground and naval forces, special operations forces, and defenses against ballistic missiles and cyber threats.

“Given the persistent challenges facing the region – and because the future is always uncertain – developing these core capabilities will be ever more crucial to your security,” he said. “You ignore them at your peril.”

He did not criticize any Arab country by name, but it is well known that the key US partners in the region are led by Saudi Arabia. Carter pointedly mentioned the United Arab Emirates as an example of how military capability should be developed and used.

“The UAE not only acquires effective capabilities, it puts skin in the game,” he said.

In unusually pointed terms, Carter suggested that some Mideast partner nations are disingenuous in their criticisms of US policy.

“I would ask you to imagine what US military and defense leaders think when they have to listen to complaints sometimes that we should do more, when it’s plain to see that all too often, the ones complaining aren’t doing enough themselves,” he said.

He said it is not unreasonable for Washington to expect regional powers who oppose extremism in the Middle East to do more to help fight it, “particularly in the political and economic aspects of the campaign.”

Fighters from the Islamic State group marching in Raqqa, Syria, January 14, 2014. (Militant photo via AP, File)

Carter said the 200 extra troops going to Syria will help local forces in their anticipated push to retake Raqqa, the de facto capital of the extremist group’s self-styled caliphate, and to deny sanctuary to IS after Raqqa is captured.

“These uniquely skilled operators will join the 300 US special operations forces already in Syria, to continue organizing, training, equipping, and otherwise enabling capable, motivated, local forces to take the fight to ISIL,” Carter said. “By combining our capabilities with those of our local partners, we’ve been squeezing ISIL by applying simultaneous pressure from all sides and across domains, through a series of deliberate actions to continue to build momentum,” he said.

The coalition of Syrian Arab and Kurdish fighters that has been working with US trainers and advisers said Saturday it will expand operations against the Islamic State group in northern Syria. The predominantly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, which control most of the frontier with Turkey, announced they were moving to the second phase of their “Wrath of the Euphrates” operations after recapturing dozens of villages from the extremists north of Raqqa.

The coalition said it would now isolate Raqqa from the west.

The military push is complicated by the predominance of local Kurdish fighters, who are the most effective US partner against IS in Syria but are viewed by Turkey — a key US ally — as a terrorist threat.

Fault lines: GOP civil war deepens

Washington (CNN)Donald Trump is poised to breeze through another round of primary contests this week — while the Republican Party splinters around him.

Trump’s ascent to the top of the GOP, which was capped last week with Ted Cruz’s devastating loss in the Indiana primary, happened so fast that even the billionaire himself was surprised. And the whipsawed party establishment now faces immediate choices — none of which particularly appeal to them.

‘Just not ready’ for Trump

Will they unite behind their party’s standard-bearer? Will they sit out the 2016 campaign? Or will they fight on, in a quixotic quest to undermine Trump?
Trump’s opponents are still sorting through the wreckage of the GOP primary season for a path forward. But it has become painfully clear over the past five days that party unification will be tough to come by, if it happens at all.
Past presidents, party leaders and prominent Republicans are all choosing sides, from unenthusiastic acceptance (Bob Dole) to pledges not to vote for either party in November (former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Lindsey Graham) to musings about a third-party bid (Bill Kristol).
Trump himself enters his first full week as the presumptive nominee by signaling that he has limited patience for or interest in the establishment’s rebellion. Though the election is six months away, he announced Monday that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will lead his transition team.
And Trump will meet Thursday with Paul Ryan, after the House speaker’s extraordinary announcement to CNN’s Jake Tapper that he’s “just not ready” to support Trump.
But when CNN’s Chris Cuomo gave Trump a chance to take on Ryan and the GOP establishment during a “New Day” interview Monday, Trump demurred. His response: “We’ll see what happens.”
He used the interview to offer fresh evidence of his willingness to thwart tradition. Trump, who is building his presidential bid around his business acumen and knowledge of the economy, told Cuomo the U.S. should take the unprecedented step of defaulting on the debt “because you print the money.”

Trump’s provocative style

Trump is making quite clear he doesn’t intend to cast off the provocative style on the campaign trail that alarmed the Republican establishment and resonated so deeply with primary voters. After spending days on the receiving end of criticism from the likes of Ryan, Romney and Graham, Trump and his supporters hit back — hard.
Sarah Palin, a key Trump surrogate and 2008 vice presidential nominee, took the unusual step of backing the little-known Republican businessman challenging Ryan for his Wisconsin seat.
“Paul Ryan is soon to be Cantored,” Palin told Tapper Sunday on “State of the Union,” referring to Eric Cantor, the former Republican House majority leader who was shockingly ousted by a primary challenger in 2014.
“His political career is over but for a miracle because he has so disrespected the will of the people, and as the leader of the GOP, the convention, certainly he is to remain neutral,” Palin said. “And for him to already come out and say who he will not support is not a wise decision of his.”
For his part, Trump didn’t seem too worried about the talk of the GOP disintegrating because of his nomination. Speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” Trump questioned the need for party unity, arguing that his campaign is unlike any before and won’t rely on the same political calculations.
“Does it have to be unified?” he asked. “I’m very different than everybody else, perhaps that’s ever run for office. I actually don’t think so.”
He went on: “I think it would be better if it were unified. I think … there would be something good about it. But I don’t think it actually has to be unified in the traditional sense.”
Those comments underscore the growing debate over whether Trump’s unorthodox candidacy will doom the GOP in the fall or whether the anxious party leadership has grown so out of touch with the electorate that it’s missing the genuine anger fueling Trump’s rise.


“You have to draw the conclusion that there is some distance, if not a disconnect, between party leaders and members of Congress and the many voters who have selected Donald Trump to be the nominee of the party,” John McCain, the GOP’s 2008 nominee, told CNN’s Manu Raju Sunday on “State of the Union. “You have to listen to the people that have chosen the nominee of our Republican Party.”
Trump, meanwhile, is shifting his gaze to the general election by trying to undercut Clinton’s advantage with women.
Facing the likelihood of running against the first female nominee of a major party, Trump sought to recast Clinton’s image by reviving the impeachment saga of the 1990s and arguing that she was dismissive of women who had extramarital affairs with her husband.
“Hillary was an enabler and she treated these women horribly,” Trump said Saturday in Spokane, Washington.
“And some of those women were destroyed, not by (Bill Clinton), but by the way Hillary Clinton treated them after it went down.”
Trump is taking a risk with such comments, and even Palin seemed to question their effectiveness.
When asked by Tapper about Trump’s critique of Clinton, Palin said, “a lot of people may be obsessed with a public figure’s personal life, and they’re going to get all entangled in, you know, past indiscretions or whatever.”
“But I think, for the most part,” she went on, “Americans are concerned about things like who will be able to appoint the next Supreme Court justices, which will affect an entire generation coming up. I think that’s what people are concerned about, much more so than Bill Clinton’s obvious indiscretions, and Donald Trump having been divorced a couple of times, but owning up to it.”

Shifting positions

Trump also caused some confusion over the weekend by taking positions on the minimum wage and taxes that are not only out of step with GOP tradition but also his own stances during the primary.
On taxes, he said levies on the wealthy would go up under his administration. He argued that while he supports across-the-board tax cuts, he would likely bargain away cuts for top earners during negotiations with Congress.
“On my plan, they’re doing down,” he said on “This Week.” “But by the time it’s negotiated, they’ll go up.”
He added: “We’re going to submit the optimum … That’s what I’d like to get and we’ll fight for it. But from a practical standpoint, it’s going to get renegotiated. And in my opinion, the taxes for the rich will go up somewhat.”

Raising the minimum wage?

And after he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer last week that he was “looking at” raising the minimum wage, he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulous that he hasn’t “decided in terms of numbers.”
“But I think people have to get more,” he said, while acknowledging the shift.
“I’m allowed to change,” he said. “You need flexibility, George, whether it’s a tax plan where you’re going to — where you know you’re going to negotiate. But we’re going to come up with something.”
Such shifts, however, are deeply unnerving to many of Trump’s opponents.
They have argued that he effectively fooled many primary voters into supporting him and will change his tune once he has to appeal to a broader electorate ahead of the general election.
That fear is partly what’s fueling speculation over a potential third-party run from someone like Romney, who met privately with Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, last week to discuss how to get an independent candidate into the race.
Romney has been publicly mum about the prospect. But he clearly telegraphed his concerns about Trump in a commencement speech Saturday at Trine University in Angola, Indiana, in which he warned of “demagogues.”
“Profiteers tempt and endeavor to hook us with compulsive addictions,” Romney said. “Entertainment media distracts us from the things that bring enduring achievements and happiness.”

Greek forces to train in Israel as Syriza-led government deepens alliance

Greek, along with Italian, military forces are soon to train in Israel.

This is the latest indicator of the deepening military alliance being forged between Israel and Greece’sgovernment led by the leftist Syriza party.

Last month, Israeli helicopter pilots completed an unprecedented 11-day combat training exercise near Greece’s Mount Olympus.

In May, the Syriza-led government also signed amilitary accord with Israel, matched only by a similar one between Israel and the US, granting legal immunities to each other’s military personnel while training in the other’s territory.

The military deal was signed on behalf of the government by Panagiotis Kammenos, the defense minister from Independent Greeks, Syriza’s rightwing, junior coalition partner. But there is no doubt that Syriza is giving its full backing: in July, the Syriza-nominated Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias traveled to Jerusalem for high-level talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “strengthen bilateral ties between the two countries.”

Earlier this year Israeli warplanes carried out extensive training missions in Greece, experience that will undoubtedly be used to attack the Gaza Strip in future Israeli military assaults.

Israeli helicopters in Greece

According to an Israeli air force press release, “Israeli-Greek cooperation is gaining momentum over the last years and in light of the success of recent deployments, the mutual flights will probably continue in 2016.”

“We understand the great importance of the joint activity with the State of Israel, which contributes to the security of both countries,” Greece’s Colonel Dormitis Stephzanki, the commander of Larissa Airbase where the Israeli helicopters were based during the exercises, is quoted as saying.

“Over the past few days we have been working together in a special way,” Dormitis added. “The common language, the deep friendship and the things we’ve learnt together have contributed to the enhancement of cooperation between the forces.”

Dormitis said he believes that the training in Greece had improved the Israelis’ “capability to deal with flying wherever needed.”

An image posted by the Israeli air force shows Israeli warplanes at the Larissa Airbase in Greece.

“We flew over mountainous areas that do not exist in Israel and practiced long-distance flights from the airbase in Israel to Greece,” Israel’s Lt. Col. Matan, a commander of a squadron of US-built Apache helicopters said. (Israeli forces only supply first names, likely to protect personnel from potential war crimes charges.)

The Apache – named after Native American peoples targeted by genocidal colonial expansion in North America – has been extensively used by Israel to carry out extrajudicial executions of Palestinians.

It was used during massacres of civilians in Gaza last summer.

Col. Y, a commander of an Israeli reconnaissance unit, described Israel’s participation in the exercise as “historic,” adding that “it was the first time the intelligence-gathering aircraft had worked with foreign aircraft in challenging, unknown terrain.”

Supporting war crimes

According to The Jerusalem Post, Greek helicopter pilots will train in Israel in coming months.

Greek fighter jets “will also arrive as part of the multinational Blue Flag exercise, to be held over southern Israel,” the newspaper reports.

A report in Haaretz in June reveals that Italian, Greek and US air forces will take part in the exercise.

The military cooperation between Israel, Italy and Greece continues despite the fact that a recently publishedindependent inquiry commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council found massive evidence of war crimes by Israel during its attack on Gaza last summer that killed more than 2,200 Palestinians.

Amnesty International last month published its own inquiry into Israel’s attack on the southern Gaza town of Rafah – again concluding that hundreds of civilians were killed as Israel committed grave war crimes.

“Public statements by Israeli army commanders and soldiers after the conflict provide compelling reasons to conclude that some attacks that killed civilians and destroyed homes and property were intentionally carried out and motivated by a desire for revenge – to teach a lesson to, or punish, the population of Rafah,” Amnesty found.

Inam Ouda Ayed bin Hammad, quoted in the Amnesty report, recalled the shelling and bombing that took place near her home in the al-Tannur neighborhood of Rafah: “The minute I left the house, an Apache … started shooting at us.”

Perhaps some of the same Apaches and their pilots were sharing moments of camaraderie in Greece.

The UN report and Amnesty called for accountability for the war crimes committed in Gaza and the occupied West Bank.

Instead, Greece’s and Italy’s ostensibly left-wing governments, and of course the US administration of President Barack Obama, only offer Israel complicity and rewards.

World markets plunge, bank lines grow as Greece financial crisis deepens

Long lines formed at ATMs and bank branches across Greece Monday as the nation’s financial crisis worsened, limiting cash withdrawals and causing global markets to plunge.

Greek citizens looking to collect pensions swarmed closed bank branches Monday in the hope of getting their checks, and lines formed at ATMs as they gradually began dispensing cash again following the imposition of strict controls on capital.

Greece has imposed restrictions on money withdrawals and banking transactions to keep its financial system from collapsing due to a run on the banks.

The government has imposed a stringent daily limit of 60 euros ($67) on cash withdrawals from ATMs this week. The banks and the country’s stock market have been closed for the week after Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ surprise call for a referendum next Sunday on creditor proposals for reforms Greece should take to gain access to blocked bailout funds.

Tsipras is advocating Greeks reject the creditor proposals, in the popular vote, which increasingly has the look of a vote on euro membership itself.

The referendum asks Greeks to vote on a simple question: “Should the proposal which was submitted by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund at the Eurogroup of June 25, 2015 which consists of two parts that together consist of their comprehensive proposal be accepted?”

Without a deal to extend the bailout program expiring on June 30, Greece will lose access to the remaining 7.2 billion euros ($8.1 billion) of rescue loans, and is unlikely to be able to meet a 1.6 billion-euro debt repayment to the International Monetary Fund due the same day.

The uncertainty drove Greeks to banks and supermarkets Monday as fears of disruptions to gas and medicine supplies grew, Reuters reported.

“I came here at 4 a.m. because I have to get my pension,” said 74-year-old Anastasios Gevelidis, one of about 100 retirees waiting outside the main branch of National Bank of Greece in the country’s second largest city of Thessaloniki.

“I don’t have a card, I don’t know what’s going on, we don’t even have enough money to buy bread,” Gevelidis said.

Global markets plunged following one of the most dramatic weekends in Greece’s five-year financial saga, the country woke up to a changed financial landscape that many in the markets fear could be a prelude to a messy debt default and a damaging Greek exit from the euro.

Investors around the world are worried that should Greece leave the euro and say it can’t pay its debts, which stand at more than 300 billion euros, the global economic recovery could be derailed and questions would grow over the long-term viability of the euro currency itself.

Many elderly Greeks don’t have bank cards and make withdrawals in person at the till, and so find themselves completely cut off from their money. “Nobody knows anything. A bank employee came out at 8 a.m. and told us `you’re not going to get any money,’ but we’re hearing that 70 branches will open,” Gevelidis said.

The finance ministry said the manner in which pensions would be paid would be announced later Monday afternoon. Deputy Minister of State Terence Quick said special arrangements would be made for pensions, telling private Antenna television that pensions would be dispensed in full as many pensioners don’t have bank cards.

The daily withdrawal limit wouldn’t be enough to cover many basic necessities. “What can I do first with 60 euros? I owe 150 just to the pharmacy,” Gevelidis said.

Although credit and cash card transactions have not been restricted, many retailers were not accepting card transactions Monday morning.

Electronic transfers and bill payments are allowed, but only within the country. The government also stressed the controls would not affect foreign tourists, who would have no limits on cash withdrawals with foreign bank cards.

The capital controls are meant to staunch the flow of money out of Greek banks and spur the country’s creditors to offer concessions before Greece’s international bailout program expires Tuesday.

The accelerating crisis has thrown into question Greece’s financial future and continued membership in the 19-nation shared euro currency — and even the 28-country European Union.

The euro hit its weakest level against the pound since 2007 as international markets reacted to the Greek crisis, Sky News reported Monday.

Asia was the first to tumble, with stocks falling more than 3% in Hong Kong and Japan.

European stock markets later dived on opening, with the CAC 40 in Paris and the German DAX both losing 4.3%. Banking stocks in Spain, Italy and Portugal bore the brunt of the sell-offs in their respective countries, as the problems in Greece infected investor confidence for the first time since 2011 – the height of the eurozone debt crisis.

As the FTSE 100 in London fell 2.2%, British Prime Minister David Cameron said he sees Sunday’s referendum in Greece as essentially a vote on remaining in the eurozone — and that it is for the Greek people to decide.

Cameron told the BBC that if the Greeks vote no on budget savings and reforms that the country’s creditors had proposed in exchange for loans, he would “find it hard to see how that is consistent with staying in the euro.”

“The images of queues at ATMs in Greece are stripping traders of what little confidence they have left in the nation, and the financial earthquake that happened in the eurozone over the weekend can be felt around the world,” said David Madden, market analyst at IG.

Among the major markets in Europe, the CAC-40 stock index in France was down 3.6 percent at 4,877 while Germany’s DAX fell 3.5 percent to 11,088.

Tsipras announced the capital controls in a televised address Sunday night, blaming the eurogroup, the gathering of the eurozone’s finance ministers, and its decision to reject an extension request for the bailout program. He has asked again for the extension to allow for the referendum.

French Finance Minister Michel Sapin said talks with Greece could resume at any time, while Pierre Moscovici, the European commissioner for economic affairs, said negotiations were cut off when an agreement seemed within reach.

The situation now largely rests on a `yes’ vote in Greece, Moscovici said.

The referendum decision, ratified by Parliament after a marathon 13-hour session that ended in the early hours of Sunday, shocked and angered Greece’s European partners. The country’s negotiations with its European creditors have been suspended, with both sides accusing each other of being responsible for talks breaking off.

Greece is dividing into two camps ahead of the referendum. A demonstration is planned in Athens later Monday by those against the proposals from the creditors. Another one is planned for Tuesday by those who want to make sure that Greece’s position in Europe is not threatened.

Tsipras also blamed the European Central Bank’s Sunday decision not to increase the amount of emergency liquidity the lenders could access from the central bank — meaning Greece has no way to replenish fast-diminishing deposits.

“It is now more than clear that this decision has no other aim than to blackmail the will of the Greek people and prevent the smooth democratic process of the referendum,” Tsipras said. “They will not succeed.”

“I can’t believe it,” Athens resident Evgenia Gekou, 50, told Reuters on her way to work. “I keep thinking we will wake up tomorrow and everything will be OK. I’m trying hard not to worry.”