Pyongyang Wields ‘Nuclear’ in the Face of Washington

US

Pyongyang, Washington – In an indirect response to US President Donald Trump, North Korea warned on Saturday to use its nuclear weapons in countering any similar attack that might target its territories.

“We will respond to an all-out war with an all-out war and a nuclear war with our style of a nuclear attack,” said Choe Ryong-hae, a close aide to Kim Jong Un, during a speech delivered ahead of a giant military parade at Pyongyang’s main Kim II-sung Square.

During the parade, North Korea displayed 60 new long-range and submarine-based missiles. Four huge green ballistic missiles, rolled out on articulated trailers in increasing order of range also caught the attention of military specialists.

Yonhap news agency quoted an unidentified South Korean military official as saying: “This appears to be a new intercontinental ballistic missile,” adding that they appeared longer than the country’s existing KN-08 or KN-14 missiles.

Chad O’Carroll, managing director of specialist service NK News, said the new rockets could be liquid-fuelled intercontinental ballistic missiles, or an early prototype.

Also on display was the Pukkuksong, a white-painted device on a blue trailer, which is claimed to be a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).

Lee II-Woo, a senior analyst at the private Korea Defence Network, told AFP: “I suspect they all might be mock-ups aimed to impress the outside world.”

Meanwhile, US Vice President Mike Pence left Washington on Saturday to South Korea in a tour involving the Asian Pacific region. Pence’ trip involves Seoul, Tokyo, Jakarta, and Sydney, and is expected to last 10 days.

As Pence lands in South Korea where he would confirm the US fully commitment to its security alliances, especially in the face of the US evolving security challenges, an American aircraft carrier and other warships would be steaming toward the Korean Peninsula.

White House: Syrian Regime Should Abide by Accords Prohibiting Chemical Weapons

Washington- The White House said on Friday that strikes on a Syrian airfield authorized by United States President Donald Trump send a strong signal to the world, but declined to say whether Trump would approve additional strikes or actions against the Assad regime.

“I think that the president’s actions were very decisive last night and were clear about what he thinks needs to get done,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters at a briefing.

First and foremost, President Trump believes the Syrian regime, the Assad regime, should at the minimum agree to abide by the agreements they’ve made not to use chemical weapons, Spicer said.

“I think that should be a minimum standard set around the world,” Spicer added.

Winged Bull… from Mosul to Trafalgar Square

Bull

London – The Iraqi wars and the damage left behind will be highlighted at the Trafalgar square’s Fourth Plinth in London in 2018. The work by US artist Michael Rakowitz has been announced the winner, featuring an ancient Assyrian winged bull sculpture destroyed by ISIS in 2015.

Rakowitz named his project “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist”, which will be revealed to the public in 2018.

Rakowitz, who was born in Chicago from an Iraqi mother, said that one of his uncles left Iraq in 1940 to settle in London. Rakowitz stated that he started working in 2007 on a project in which he used recycled Middle Eastern food cans to recreate some damaged artifacts of Iraq’s Museum in Baghdad.

The original winged bull, a protective deity known as the Lamassu, stood from about 700 BC at a gate of the ancient city of Nineveh on the outskirts of the modern-day Iraqi city of Mosul, a former ISIS stronghold.

“It’s the first time this project has been situated in a public space, and it’s happening when we are witnessing a massive migration of people fleeing Iraq and Syria,” said Rakowitz in a statement.

“It’s devastating what’s happened,” he told the Guardian. “Creating these apparitions of the originals has been a very meaningful work but it’s also become very clear to me how impossible it is to reconstruct history. Regardless of what our technologies are, the DNA of the societies can’t be put back together.”

The artist said he visited the Edgware Road and went by these stores called Bahgdad and Babylon Grocery and he recognized just how much of Iraq is here as well.

It’s one of the pleasures of being able to do a project in a place like this where there are different generations of Iraqis who left at different times, said Rakowitz.

Ekow Eshun, chair of the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group congratulated Michael Rakowitz and Heather Phillipson on winning the commission, and said that they were selected among five projects participating in the contest.

The new commissions will proudly continue the legacy of the Fourth Plinth in putting world-class contemporary sculpture at the heart of London, he added.

Libya: U.S.-Russian Military Confrontation over Haftar’s Role

Libya

Cairo – Military competition between the US and Russia reemerged on Saturday to win over Libyan renegade General Khalifa Haftar and benefit from his weight for building a new government in the country.

Speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee, head of US Africa Command General Thomas Waldhauser said it was necessary that Haftar and the Libyan parliament play a “constructive role” in forming a national unity government.

In return, Oleg Krinitsyn, owner of private Russian firm RSB-group uncovered on Saturday the presence of Russian military contractors in eastern Libya as part of commercial arrangement.

Krinitsyn told Reuters that a force of several dozen armed private security contractors from Russia operated until last month in a part of Libya that is under the control of regional leader Khalifa Haftar.

His comments were the clearest sign that Moscow is publicly supporting Haftar.

Security sources in Russia asserted that such arrangement would not be feasible without Moscow’s permission. Although Krinitsyn said his firm did not work with the Russian defense ministry, he admitted his firm was “consulting” with the Russian foreign ministry.

Meanwhile, conflicting reports reemerged in Libya on Saturday concerning the fate of Seif al-Islam Qaddafi, the second son of Moammar Qaddafi.

In a surprising development, the Zintan Military Council, which had captured Qaddafi in 2011, said that Seif al-Islam was transferred from his existing place to another secure area under the supervision of a committee of Zintan militants and residents.

Last week, al-Ajami aL-Etairi, commander of Abu Bakr al-Siddiq Brigade, which is detaining Seif al-Islam, confirmed that Seif was released in line with the general amnesty issued by the Tobruk-based House of Representatives.

Last year, Seif al-Islam has been sentenced to death by a court in Tripoli in a mass trial of former regime figures. However, the Zintan militia has refused to hand him over to Tripoli.

Raqqa Isolated, Manbij a U.S.-Protected Area

Syria

Beirut – Syria’s Democratic Forces (SDF) supported by the warplanes of the international coalition forces, seized on Monday the main supply route used by ISIS to travel between the city of Raqqa and the Deir Ezzor province, which the organization controls in the east of the country.

A Kurdish military source said the advancement achieved by the U.S.-backed SDF means that the entire route used to exit from Raqqa is currently cut off, and only one road remains open through the south of the Euphrates River.

“This is a big achievement, but there is still so much to do,” the source said.

The military development came as the Manbij Military Council announced on Monday that the city is currently under the protection of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS after an increase in “Turkish threats” against the city.

Manbij Military Council spokesman Sharfan Darwish told Reuters that the U.S.-led alliance “intensified their patrols and brought in armored vehicles,” adding that fighting between Turkish-backed forces and Manbij fighters continued to the west of the city on Monday.

Russia Today reported on Monday that the Manbij Military Council officially turned over 6 villages in the Aleppo suburbs to the Syrian regime army.

In Homs, a meeting held between the negotiations committee of al- Wa’er neighborhood and a Russian military delegation failed to reach any agreement that would stop the military campaign launched by the Syrian regime on the besieged area.

Instead, al-Wa’er witnessed on Monday intense aerial assaults, killing 4 people and injuring 25.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that following the aerial attack against the city of al-Wa’er, missiles were launched on some areas where fighting had escalated in the past three weeks.

Russia also failed to reach any ceasefire in the East Goutha region of east Damascus where Assad forces continue their escalatory military campaign. On Monday, Jaysh al-Islam launched what they called the “missiles campaign” against regime positions as a response to the attacks on East Goutha.

US Congressional Delegation Visits Israel to Study Moving the Embassy

Israel

Tel Aviv – A US Congressional delegation will visit Israel on Saturday to look into the possibility of relocating the American embassy to Jerusalem.

Local Israeli news agencies said that the delegation was on behalf of the Subcommittee on National Security of the House of Representatives, and it was expected to “closely examine the issue of moving the embassy, both from a practical standpoint as well as from a political standpoint.”

The members of the delegation would include the Chairman of the Subcommittee, Rep. Ron DeSantis and Rep. Dennis Ross.

The Israeli media added that the delegation would “meet with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and other leaders on the issue of Jerusalem, visit potential sites for the location of the embassy and return to the United States with an accurate analysis.”

US President Donald Trump has previously said he would “love” to see the embassy moved from its current location in Tel Aviv.

His comments came during Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, and added: “We’re looking at that very, very strongly, we’re looking at that with great care, and we’ll see what happens.”

Trump Delivers Conciliatory Speech…without Compromises

Trump

Washington – “Thank you”, tweeted US President Donald Trump in his first remark following a pacifying address to the Congress on Tuesday – a message intended to express the president’s appreciation to positive coverage by US and international media of his first official Congress speech.

Trump addressed the Congress for the first time on Tuesday in a conciliatory and calm rhetoric, presenting his vision on the country’s political, economic and foreign affairs, while maintaining firm stance on issues that have sparked public controversy since he took office in January.

During an hour-long discourse, which was interrupted by more than 96 rounds of applauses, the US president vehemently defended his decision to ban the entry of refugees and citizens of seven countries of Muslim majority, an executive order that was halted by the federal court.

“We cannot allow a beachhead of terrorism to form inside America. We cannot allow our nation to become a sanctuary for extremists,” Trump stated.

“That is why my administration has been working on improved vetting procedures, and we will shortly take new steps to keep our nation safe and to keep out those out who will do us harm,” he added.

The US president talked concisely about diplomatic and defense policies, but warned that he would prioritize his country’s interests above all other matters.

“My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America,” he said, sparking a wave of applause.

On the other hand, Trump acknowledged US support to the international community.

“Our foreign policy calls for a direct, robust and meaningful engagement with the world. It is American leadership based on vital security interests that we share with our allies all across the globe,” he stated.

Seeking to reassure long-time allies, Trump said Washington would continue to “strongly support NATO, an alliance forged through the bonds of two world wars that dethroned fascism, and a Cold War, and defeated communism.”

He also stressed the need for US allies to increase their defense spending to guarantee a unified defense strategy.

“Our partners must meet their financial obligations. And now, based on our very strong and frank discussions, they are beginning to do just that. In fact, I can tell you, the money is pouring in,” he stated, adding: “We expect our partners — whether in NATO, the Middle East, or in the Pacific — to take a direct and meaningful role in both strategic and military operations, and pay their fair share of the cost.”

On terrorism, the US president pledged to work with America’s friends to fight ISIS and combat all forms of terrorism.

“As promised, I directed the Department of Defense to develop a plan to demolish and destroy ISIS — a network of lawless savages that have slaughtered Muslims and Christians, men, women, and children of all faiths and all beliefs. We will work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy from our planet,” he said.

Divisions in Tehran over Rapprochement with Gulf States

London- Leaked information uncovered a dispute between members of the Iranian regime on issues related to reviving diplomatic ties with Gulf States and the position from Syria.

According to the leaks, there is also a controversy on letters exchanged between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in which the Iranian minister suggested holding a secret meeting in Istanbul and opening direct channels between the administrations of both countries.

On Monday, member of Iran’s Parliament Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy Karimi Ghoddousi accused Zarif of secretly communicating with Tillerson. He also said the government of President Hassan Rouhani had sought to ink seven agreements – similar to the Nuclear Deal signed with the West – with GCC States and the U.S.

Daneshjoo news agency quoted Ghoddousi as saying that those agreements included issues related to Iran’s missile program, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and opening an office for the European Union in Tehran.

On Tuesday, Iran’s foreign ministry issued a statement strongly rejecting his accusations.

“The depth of maliciousness in Mr. Ghoddousi’s character and his sheer intransigence in his unfounded allegations against the highest-ranking foreign policy official is unfortunate,” the statement said.

Ghoddousi also said Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis had visited Tehran mid-January, days after Rouhani ordered to stop exporting 100,000 barrels of oil to Syria, adding that an urgent decision later allowed sending the oil shipment.

Separately, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced that Iran’s economy was threatened of “renewed uncertainty” linked to Tehran’s relations with the U.S. administration of Donald Trump and the threat of enforcing new sanctions on Iran.

In its annual report issued Tuesday, the IMF wrote that uncertainty regarding the fate of the nuclear deal and relations with the U.S. threaten to undermine the Iranian economy, which had an “impressive recovery” following sanctions relief last year.

A Divided White House Still Offers Little Guidance on Replacing Obamacare

White House

A meeting Friday afternoon between President Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, his former rival in the GOP primaries, had no set agenda. But Kasich came armed with one anyway: his hope to blunt drastic changes to the nation’s health-care system envisioned by some conservatives in Washington.

Over the next 45 minutes, according to Kasich and others briefed on the session, the governor made his pitch while the president eagerly called in several top aides and then got Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price on the phone. At one point, senior adviser Jared Kushner reminded his father-in-law that House Republicans are sketching out a different approach to providing access to coverage. “Well, I like this better,” Trump replied, according to a Kasich adviser.

The freewheeling session, which concluded with the president instructing Price and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus to meet with Kasich the next day, underscores the un­or­tho­dox way the White House is proceeding as Republicans work to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and replace it with something else. The day after Kasich delivered his impromptu tutorial, Trump spent lunch discussing the same topic with two other GOP governors with a very different vision — Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Rick Scott of Florida.

Scott said Sunday that he used the lunch to press for principles he has pushed publicly, such as financial compensation for states that did not expand Medicaid under the ACA and the importance of providing competition and cutting required benefits to allow people to “buy insurance that fits them.”

While leaving most of the detail work to lawmakers, top White House aides are divided on how dramatic an overhaul effort the party should pursue. And the biggest wild card remains the president himself, who has devoted only a modest amount of time to the grinding task of mastering health-care policy but has repeatedly suggested that his sweeping new plan is nearly complete.

This conundrum will be on full display Monday, when Trump meets at the White House with some of the nation’s largest health insurers. The session, which will include top executives from Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Cigna and Humana, is not expected to produce a major policy announcement. But it will provide an opportunity for one more important constituency to lobby the nation’s leader on an issue he has said is at the top of his agenda.

Democrats and their allies are already mobilizing supporters to hammer lawmakers about the possible impact of rolling back the ACA, holding more than 100 rallies across the country Saturday. And a new analysis for the National Governors Association that modeled the effect of imposing a cap on Medicaid spending — a key component of House Republicans’ strategy — provided Democrats with fresh ammunition because of its finding that the number of insured Americans could fall significantly.

Trump, for his part, continues to express confidence about his administration’s ostensible plan. He suggested Wednesday that it would be out within a few weeks.

“So we’re doing the health care — again, moving along very well — sometime during the month of March, maybe mid- to early March, we’ll be submitting something that I think people will be very impressed by,” he told reporters during a budget meeting in the Roosevelt Room.

Yet some lawmakers, state leaders and policy experts who have discussed the matter with either Trump or his top aides say the administration is largely delegating the development of an ACA substitute to Capitol Hill. The president, who attended part of a lengthy health-care policy session his aides held at Mar-a-Lago a week ago, appears more interested in brokering specific questions, such as how to negotiate drug prices, than in steering the plan’s drafting.

“The legislative branch, the House first and foremost, is providing the policy,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who noted that the White House lacks “a big policy shop” and that Price and some key principals just recently got in place. Seema Verma, whom Trump has nominated to head the Centers for Medicare and Medi­caid Services, should play a key role in any reform effort if she is confirmed.

In the current process, the White House becomes “the political sounding board” in altering Obamacare, as the 2010 law is known, “and the final voice of reason is what the Senate can accept,” Cole said.

Within the administration, aides are debating how far and fast Republicans can afford to move when it comes to undoing key aspects of the ACA. White House officials declined to comment for this story.

Several people in Trump’s orbit are eager to make bold changes to reduce the government’s role in the health-care system. That camp includes Vice President Pence, who told conservative activists last week that “America’s Obamacare nightmare is about to end,” as well as Domestic Policy Council aides Andrew Bremberg and Katy Talento and National Economic Council aide Brian ­Blase.

Blase, who most recently worked as a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, published a paper in December titled “Replacing the Affordable Care Act the Right Way.” Its conservative blueprint emphasized the “need to reduce government bias towards comprehensive coverage” for all Americans and a revamping of Medicaid, which was expanded under the ACA and added 11 million Americans to the rolls.

“Medicaid needs fundamental reform with the goals of dramatically reducing the number of people enrolled in the program and providing a higher-quality program for remaining enrollees,” Blase wrote.

Other White House advisers, according to multiple individuals who asked for anonymity to describe private discussions, have emphasized the potential political costs to moving aggressively. That group includes Kushner, NEC Director Gary Cohn, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller and chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon.

Asked by George Stephanopoulos, host of ABC’s “This Week,” whether Trump “won’t touch Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid,” White House principal deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “Look, the president is committed to doing that. . . . And I don’t see any reason to start thinking differently.”

Where Trump will end up remains unclear, although in both public and private settings he has tended to stress the importance of providing health coverage “for everybody” while lowering its cost. However, Price testified during his recent confirmation hearings that the administration would seek to give Americans access to, not guaranteed, coverage.

The policy proposal Trump has embraced most forcefully, albeit not always consistently, is to pressure pharmaceutical firms to lower their prices by negotiating government drug purchases through Medicare. The idea has considerable support among Democrats and from some Republicans but is currently prohibited under law.

Kasich has proposed paring back some of the ACA’s more generous aspects, such as reducing the number of benefits insurers are required to offer and potentially cutting the eligibility level for Medicaid recipients from 138 percent of the poverty level to 100 percent if there is a stable marketplace with adequate subsidies they can join. He also wants states to have more flexibility in how they manage their Medicaid programs, as well as aspects of the private insurance market.

But he has expressed skepticism about turning Medicaid funding into a block grant and opposes any move that would eliminate the coverage many adults in his state now have without a clear path to transition them to new plans.

“Frankly the reason why people are on Medicaid is because they don’t have any money,” he said Friday. “So what are we supposed to say, ‘Work harder?’ ”

Asked to describe Trump’s reaction to his overall approach, the Ohio governor replied, “What he said is, he found it interesting. . . . It takes time, so you have to explain it, and explain it again.”

Washington Post

Immigration Agents Discover New Freedom to Deport Under Trump

Virginia- In Virginia, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents waited outside a church shelter where undocumented immigrants had gone to stay warm. In Texas and in Colorado, agents went into courthouses, looking for foreigners who had arrived for hearings on other matters.

At Kennedy International Airport in New York, passengers arriving after a five-hour flight from San Francisco were asked to show their documents before they were allowed to get off the plane.

The Trump administration’s far-reaching plan to arrest and deport vast numbers of undocumented immigrants has been introduced in dramatic fashion over the past month. And much of that task has fallen to thousands of ICE officers who are newly emboldened, newly empowered and already getting to work.

Gone are the Obama-era rules that required them to focus only on serious criminals. In Southern California, in one of the first major roundups during the Trump administration, officers detained 161 people with a wide range of felony and misdemeanor convictions, and 10 who had no criminal history at all.

“Before, we used to be told, ‘You can’t arrest those people,’ and we’d be disciplined for being insubordinate if we did,” said a 10-year veteran of the agency who took part in the operation. “Now those people are priorities again. And there are a lot of them here.”

Interviews with 17 agents and officials across the country, including in Florida, Alabama, Texas, Arizona, Washington and California, demonstrated how quickly a new atmosphere in the agency had taken hold. Since they are forbidden to talk to the press, they requested anonymity out of concern for losing their jobs.

The White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, said on Tuesday that the president wanted to “take the shackles off” of agents, an expression the officers themselves used time and again in interviews to describe their newfound freedom.

“Morale amongst our agents and officers has increased exponentially since the signing of the orders,” the unions representing ICE and Border Patrol agents said in a joint statement after President Trump issued the executive orders on immigration late last month.

Two memos released this past week by the Department of Homeland Security, the parent agency of ICE and the Border Patrol, provided more details about how it would carry out its plan, which includes Mr. Trump’s signature campaign pledge — a wall along the entire southern border — as well as speedier deportations and greater reliance on local police officers.

But for those with ICE badges, perhaps the biggest change was the erasing of the Obama administration’s hierarchy of priorities, which forced agents to concentrate on deporting gang members and other violent and serious criminals, and mostly leave everyone else alone.

A whirlwind of activity has overtaken ICE headquarters in Washington in recent weeks, with employees attending back-to-back meetings about how to quickly carry out President Trump’s plans. “Some people are like: ‘This is great. Let’s give them all the tools they need,’” said a senior staff member at headquarters, who joined the department under the administration of George W. Bush.

But, the official added, “other people are a little bit more hesitant and fearful about how quickly things are moving.”

Two officials in Washington said that the shift — and the new enthusiasm that has come with it — seems to have encouraged pro-Trump political comments and banter that struck the officials as brazen or gung-ho, like remarks about their jobs becoming “fun.” Those who take less of a hard line on unauthorized immigrants feel silenced, the officials said.

ICE has more than 20,000 employees, spread across 400 offices in the United States and 46 foreign countries, and the Trump administration has called for the hiring of 10,000 more. ICE officers see themselves as protecting the country and enforcing its laws, but also, several agents said, defending the legal immigration system, with its yearslong waits to enter the country, from people who skip the line.

John F. Kelly, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said in a statement after the first large-scale roundups of the Trump administration: “President Trump has been clear in affirming the critical mission of D.H.S. in protecting the nation.”

“There is no greater calling than to serve and protect our nation,” he added, “a mission that the men and women of ICE perform with professionalism and courage every single day.”

Agents are, in fact, predominantly male and have often served in the military, with a police department or both. New agents take a five-week Spanish language program as well as firearms training; they also learn driving maneuvers and have to pass seven written examinations and a physical-fitness test that includes an obstacle course.

The element of surprise is central to their work, and the sight of even a single white van emblazoned with the words Department of Homeland Security can create fear and cause people to flee. To minimize public contact, the arrests are frequently made in the early morning hours.

A supervisor in Northern California described a typical operation, with teams of at least five members rising before dawn, meeting as early as 4 a.m. to make arrests before their targets depart for work. To avoid distressing families and children, the agents prefer to apprehend people outside their homes, approaching them as soon as they step onto a public sidewalk and, once identified, placing them in handcuffs.

But arrests can appear dramatic, as agents arrive in large numbers, armed with semiautomatic handguns and wearing dark bulletproof vests with ICE in bright white letters on them. When they do have to enter a home, officers knock loudly and announce themselves as the police, a term they can legally use. Many times, children are awakened in the process, and watch as a parent is taken away.

Officers said their work had become more political than ever, and they bristled at what they considered stereotypes of indiscriminate enforcers who want to sweep grandmothers off the street or separate families.

New York Times