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Iran-backed Shiite paramilitary establishes foothold in Iraq’s Ninevah

As the battle for Mosel rages on, Iranian-backed Shiites are taking key positions outside the city which could prove useful to prevent a unified Sunni.

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FILE: In Mosul, Iraqi forces are steadily closing in on remaining pockets of territory held by IS, but unlike past urban battles against them in Iraq, the militants still hunkered down in the city are mounting a stiff resistance, and the more the battle stretches out, the greater the risk for civilians remaining behind. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, File)

BAGHDAD — While Iraq’s conventional military has been slowly clearing the Islamic State group from inside Mosul’s complex urban terrain, Iraq’s Iran-backed Shiite paramilitary forces have been working their way through less glamorous territory: vast deserts west and south of the city that run along and across Iraq’s border with Syria.

The territory, dotted with small villages and dusty roads, is home to key supply lines into neighboring Syria and connecting Iraq’s north to the capital Baghdad. Control of the Iraqi-Syrian border would be a key strategic prize for the mostly Shiite paramilitary forces and their backer Iran, who also supports the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

One division of the Iraqi government-sanctioned paramilitary group known as the Popular Mobilization Forces first reached Iraq’s border with Syria on Monday after securing a string of small villages west of Mosul and south of Sinjar, according to Ahmed al-Asadi, the group’s spokesman.

“This will be the first step to the liberation of the entire border,” he said.

The PMF began Monday’s operation by pushing IS militants out of the center of the town of Baaj, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Syrian border. Once the town was retaken a unit was dispatched to secure the village of Um Jrais along the border.

“This victory will also be an important incentive for the Syrian Arab Army to secure the entire border from the Syrian side,” al-Asadi said, referring the Assad’s government forces.

As the PMF secure more of the border region, they plan to “erect a dirt barricade and dig a trench,” said Sheikh Sami al-Masoudi, a paramilitary group leader. Iraq’s border with Syria has long been a haven for smugglers and insurgent activity.

The Nineveh foothold would give the paramilitary forces considerable leverage politically and militarily in Iraq after the fight against IS is concluded, according to Maria Fantappie, the senior Iraq researcher for the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental research firm.

“The Iranians have been prioritizing something that the U.S. has overlooked: control over strategic roads, rather than control of the Sunni communities,” Fantappie said explaining that the U.S.-led coalition’s fight against IS has largely focused on retaking cities while the PMF have instead focused on transit and supply lines.

Control of roads and borders also allows the paramilitary forces to divide Iraq’s Sunni community geographically and politically, Fantappie said.

“They have been trying to bisect Iraq and prevent a unified Sunni block from emerging,” she said.

More than 150 kilometers (93 miles) away from the PMF’s border advance, Iraqi military and police forces are slowly closing in on the last pockets of IS control in Mosul’s Old City. Iraqi commanders say the grueling fight that is now in its eighth month is in the final stage, an operation that the United Nations warns will likely put the more than 100,000 civilians still trapped by IS inside Mosul at severe risk.

In Syria, Assad’s forces and their allies have also been on the offensive, moving toward the Iraqi and Jordanian border, but are still far from reaching it. U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, IS militants and Syrian rebels are also fighting for territory in an increasingly messy battle space.

On May 18, a U.S. airstrike hit pro-Syrian government forces that the U.S.-led coalition said posed a threat to American troops and allied rebels operating near the border with Jordan. The attack was the first such close confrontation between America troops and fighters backing Assad.

The Islamic State group traces its roots to the insurgency that grew in Iraq after the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein, but the group rose to power under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria following the 2011 uprising against Assad. In early 2014, IS began driving Iraqi government forces out of the country’s western Anbar province and that summer overran Mosul and large swaths of Iraq’s north. At the height of the group’s power IS controlled nearly a third of Iraq, but with aid, training and weapons from Iran and then the U.S.-led coalition, Iraqi forces have retaken more than half of the land the extremists once held.

After securing the Iraqi side of the border with Syria, Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces are ready to move inside Syrian territories to assist Assad, said Hashim al-Mousawi, a leader with the powerful al-Nujaba militia that falls under the PMF umbrella. Before the PMF was sanctioned by the Iraqi government al-Nujaba fighters openly fought inside Syria, helping prop up the Assad regime during the early days of the uprising against his government.

But, now al-Mousawi said crossing into Syria to fight would require the approval of the Iraqi government in Baghdad.

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Experts: North Korea latest ICBM test puts much of US in range

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PYONGYANG, North Korea — North Korea on Friday test-fired its second intercontinental ballistic missile, which flew longer and higher than the first according to its wary neighbors, leading analysts to conclude that a wide swath of the U.S., including Los Angeles and Chicago, is now within range of Pyongyang’s weapons.

Japanese government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said the missile, launched late Friday night, flew for about 45 minutes — about five minutes longer than the ICBM North Korea test-fired on July 4. The missile was launched on very high trajectory, which limited the distance it traveled, and landed west of Japan’s island of Hokkaido.

“We assess that this missile was an intercontinental ballistic missile, as had been expected,” Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said in Washington.

Analysts had estimated that the North’s first ICBM could have reached Alaska, and said Friday that the latest missile appeared to extend that range significantly.

David Wright, a physicist and co-director of the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in Washington that if reports of the missile’s maximum altitude and flight time are correct, it would have a theoretical range of at least 10,400 kilometers (about 6,500 miles). That means it could have reached Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago, depending on variables such as the size and weight of the warhead that would be carried atop such a missile in an actual attack.

Bruce Klingner, a Korean and Japanese affairs specialist at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, said, “It now appears that a significant portion of the continental United States is within range” of North Korean missiles. Klingner recently met with North Korean officials to discuss denuclearization, the think tank said.

Washington and its allies have watched with growing concern as Pyongyang has made significant progress toward its goal of having all of the U.S. within range of its missiles to counter what it labels as U.S. aggression. There are other hurdles, including building nuclear warheads to fit on those missiles and ensuring reliability. But many analysts have been surprised by how quickly leader Kim Jong Un has developed North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs despite several rounds of U.N. Security Council sanctions that have squeezed the impoverished country’s economy.

President Donald Trump has said he will not allow North Korea to obtain an ICBM that can deliver a nuclear warhead. But this week, the Defense Intelligence Agency reportedly concluded that the North will have a reliable ICBM capable of carrying a nuclear weapon as early as next year, in an assessment that trimmed two years from the agency’s earlier estimate.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the launch a “serious and real threat” to the country’s security.

Suga, the Japanese spokesman, said Japan has lodged a strong protest with North Korea.
“North Korea’s repeated provocative acts absolutely cannot be accepted,” he said.

A spokesman for Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday that Dunford met at the Pentagon with the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Adm. Harry Harris, to discuss U.S. military options in light of North Korea’s missile test.

The spokesman, Navy Capt. Greg Hicks, said Dunford and Harris placed a phone call to Dunford’s South Korean counterpart, Gen. Lee Sun Jin. Dunford and Harris “expressed the ironclad commitment to the U.S.-Republic of Korea alliance,” Hicks said, referring to the U.S. defense treaty that obliges the U.S. to defend South Korea.

Prime Minister Abe said Japan would cooperate closely with the U.S., South Korea and other nations to step up pressure on North Korea to halt its missile programs.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missile reached an estimated height of 3,700 kilometers (2,300 miles) before landing at sea about 1,000 kilometers (625 miles) away. It appeared to be more advanced than the ICBM North Korea previously launched, it said.

The “Hwasong 14” ICBM test-fired earlier this month was also launched at a very steep angle, a technique called lofting, and reached a height of more than 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) before splashing down in the ocean 930 kilometers (580 miles) away. Analysts said that missile could be capable of reaching most of Alaska or possibly Hawaii if fired in an attacking trajectory.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missile was launched from North Korea’s northern Jagang province near the border with China. President Moon Jae-in presided over an emergency meeting of the National Security Council, which called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council and stronger sanctions on North Korea.

There was no immediate confirmation of the launch by North Korea. The day’s broadcast on state-run television had already ended when the news broke at around midnight Pyongyang time.
July 27 is a major national holiday in North Korea called Victory in the Fatherland Liberation War Day, marking the day when the armistice was signed ending the 1950-53 Korean War. That armistice is yet to be replaced with a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula technically in a state of war.

North Korea generally waits hours or sometimes a day or more before announcing launches, often with a raft of photos in the ruling party newspaper or on the television news. Kim Jong Un is usually shown at the site to observe and supervise major launches.

Late night launches are rare. North Korea usually conducts its missile and underground nuclear tests in the morning. It’s likely the North launched the missile at night and from the remote province of Jagang to demonstrate its operational versatility. To have a real deterrent, it’s important for North Korea to prove it can launch whenever and wherever it chooses, making it harder for foreign military observers trying to detect their activities ahead of time.
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Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo. Associated Press writers Robert Burns in Washington, Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, and Eric Talmadge in Pyongyang, North Korea, contributed to this report.

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Shell is preparing for life after oil

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LONDON — Royal Dutch Shell is planning for the day when demand for oil starts fading as major economies move away from oil and increasingly turn to electric-powered cars, Chief Executive Ben van Beurden said Thursday.

Van Beurden welcomed recent proposals to phase out passenger vehicles powered by fossil fuels in Britain and France, saying they are needed to combat global warming. Shell is looking at “very aggressive scenarios” as it makes plans to remain competitive in a world that gets more of its energy from renewable sources and less from crude oil, or “liquids,” he said.

“The most aggressive scenario – much more aggressive than what we are seeing at the moment, by the way – with maximum policy effect, with maximum innovation effect, can see us peaking in liquids consumption somewhere in the early thirties,” he said as Shell reported second-quarter earnings. “If there are a lot of biofuels in the mix, that may mean that oil will peak in the late twenties, but then everything has to work up.”

Van Beurden’s comments come amid increased focus on the future of the industry after the Paris climate agreement saw governments commit to tougher action on emissions and shareholders push for more long-term plans.

Britain this week pledged to ban the sale of new cars and vans using diesel and gasoline starting in 2040 as part of a sweeping plan to tackle air pollution. France announced a similar initiative earlier this month.

Car makers are also moving in this direction. Volvo says that by 2019 all of its cars will be powered by electricity or hybrid engines.

“It’s not a surprise that the international super-majors are starting to accept a future with the question of just how much oil and gas is needed,” said David Elmes, an energy industry expert at Warwick Business School. “They realize that is now in their planning horizons and therefore needs to be discussed with shareholders because it is influencing the decisions today, and one might argue that has been prompted by shareholder activism.”

Shell has already begun to respond to changing energy demand by increasing its focus on natural gas, van Beurden said. But the company also needs to get involved in electricity and renewable energy and expand its petrochemicals business, he said.

Van Beurden also stressed that while developed nations are moving away from gasoline- and diesel-powered passenger vehicles, the world will continue to depend on these fuels for many years.
Developing nations don’t yet have the money or electricity networks needed to shift away from fossil fuels, and aviation, shipping and trucking can’t easily shift to non-hydrocarbon energy sources, he said.

“As far as oil and gas are concerned, and certainly as far as oil is concerned, you have to bear in mind that if we have a peak and then go into decline, this doesn’t mean that it is game over straight away,” van Beurden said.

Shell’s discussion of the future came as it said second-quarter earnings more than tripled due to cost cuts and recovering oil prices.

The Anglo-Dutch energy giant said profit adjusted for changes in the value of inventories and excluding one-time items rose to $3.60 billion from $1.05 billion in the same period last year. Net income rose 31 percent to $1.55 billion.

The earnings reflect efforts to restructure the business to cope with lower oil prices and the purchase of natural gas producer BG Group. Shell’s oil price averaged $45.62 a barrel for the quarter, up 16 percent from a year earlier. Prices were above $100 a barrel as recently as 2014.

“The external price environment and energy sector developments mean we will remain very disciplined, with an absolute focus on the four levers within our control, namely capital efficiency, costs, new project delivery, and divestments,” van Beurden said.

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Report: Scaramucci has more than $50m in assets

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NEW YORK  — He vows to be a fresh voice in the Trump administration, but in one way he is like many of the others: He is wealthy, with a vast and complicated array of assets.

New White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci owns property and businesses worth more than $50 million, according to a financial disclosure report filed with the government’s chief ethics agency. The biggest source of his wealth is an ownership stake in an investment fund he founded, SkyBridge Capital.

The fund is in the process of being sold to a division of Chinese company HNA Group, a deal that has drawn scrutiny and dashed Scaramucci’s hopes to move to the White House much earlier in the year. He was turned down as chief liaison to the business community in February.

“In any administration there are always some really extraordinary wealthy individuals, but in this White House, there are so many,” said Don Fox, who stepped down as general counsel at the Office of Government Ethics in 2013. “Their finances, their potential conflicts, become exponentially more complicated to manage.”

Scaramucci joins a long list of former Goldman Sachs employees in the administration, including economic adviser Gary Cohn, chief strategist Steve Bannon and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

SkyBridge accounted for a bulk of his income. In the nearly 18 months from the start of last year through June 27, Scaramucci took in about $10 million in salary and other income from the investment fund.

The financial disclosure also shows Scaramucci earned $88,461 as a contributor to Fox Business News.

Scaramucci expressed frustration on Thursday with the scrutiny of his personal holdings, and the conflict they may pose.

“I sold SkyBridge. I don’t work there anymore,” he told CNN’s “New Day” on Thursday morning.

“There’s residual profits that once the sale occurs I am going to receive, but I am not on salary. I do not have a W2 there. What do you want me to tell you?”

SkyBridge announced it struck a deal to sell to HNA Capital and RON Transatlantic in January. A call to SkyBridge’s spokesperson was not immediately returned.

Another issue raised by Scaramucci’s holdings involves the treatment of taxes on gains from the SkyBridge sale. Federal officials are allowed to file a so-called certificate of divestiture to defer paying taxes if they are being forced to sell an asset because of potential conflicts with their public job.

Since Scaramucci announced the SkyBridge sale long before he took his job, that raises the possibility he will fail to qualify, putting in doubt perhaps millions of dollars of profit for him.

Walter Shaub, the former head of the Office of Government Ethics and a big critic of the Trump administration, has tweeted that Scaramucci should have waited for a ruling about whether he needed to sell before entering into a deal to do so.

He tweeted on Tuesday, “U don’t qualify for employee tax relief by entering into a deal & then go looking for a job that may or may not necessitate closing the deal.”

But Richard Painter, former chief White House ethics lawyer to President George W. Bush, isn’t so sure. He said that Scaramucci may be able to qualify if owning SkyBridge is deemed a conflict before the sale is complete.

“They don’t take away the certificate of divestiture because you thought about selling before,” Painter said.

Scaramucci’s lawyer, Elliot Berke, said in an email Thursday that his client had been advised to sell SkyBridge to avoid conflicts before he stuck a deal to do so. “Throughout the review, career nonpartisan officials have recommended he be granted a certificate of divestiture, as has the White House Counsel’s office,” Berke wrote.

Scaramucci has vowed to shake up the administration in part by rooting out those who leak information to press, and the release of his personal finance report on Politico on Wednesday stoked his anger.

He took the Twitter with a vow to contact investigators.

“In light of the leak of my financial disclosure info which is a felony,” he tweeted, “I will be contacting @FBI and the @JusticeDept #swamp @Reince45.”

In fact, the report wasn’t leaked. It was released after a public records request by a Politico reporter to the Export-Import Bank, where Scaramucci had been employed at a senior level since mid-June.

The Associated Press subsequently obtained the same financial disclosure Thursday. A reporter filled out a publicly available form, turned it in at the bank’s office and was emailed a copy of Scaramucci’s financial disclosure about 30 minutes later.

The report shows that Scaramucci owns several residential properties and businesses. A stake in the New York Mets and property in the Hamptons on Long Island are each worth at least $1 million.
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AP writer Daniel Trielli contributed to this report from Washington.

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