Death toll from storms lashing central U.S. rises to seven

A member of the Jefferson City Fire Department checks houses for people on Woodland Avenue following a tornado touchdown overnight in Jefferson City, Missouri, U.S. May 23, 2019. REUTERS/Antranik Tavitian

By Antranik Tavitian

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (Reuters) – The latest in a line of destructive storms pounding the central United States killed at least three people as tornadoes raked across Missouri while heavy rain flooded rivers in Oklahoma, authorities said on Thursday.

The three deaths and several injuries were recorded in and around Golden City, Missouri, some 30 miles (48 km) northeast of Joplin where a tornado touched down on Wednesday evening, the Missouri Department of Public Safety said on Twitter.

A damaged car is parked on Woodlawn Avenue following a tornado touchdown overnight in Jefferson City, Missouri, U.S. May 23, 2019. REUTERS/Antranik Tavitian

A damaged car is parked on Woodlawn Avenue following a tornado touchdown overnight in Jefferson City, Missouri, U.S. May 23, 2019. REUTERS/Antranik Tavitian

The casualties brought the week’s weather-related death toll to at least seven, as forecasters said the rain and threat of damaging winds were not expected to let up.

“It looks to stay quite wet over the next week across the central portion of the country,” said meteorologist Mark Chenard of the National Weather Service (NWS) Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.

A system of showers stretched from the Texas Panhandle and western Oklahoma north to Nebraska on Thursday, threatening to bring more flooding, Chenard said. A diminished threat of tornadoes will persist from the Texas Panhandle through Kansas, he said.

In Jefferson City, the state capital of Missouri, officials said a “massive” twister caused widespread damage but no fatalities.

“Many, many buildings have significant damage, and there’s a lot of them that just have small damage as well, so it’s just very widespread,” Jefferson City Mayor Carrie Tergin told CNN.

Missouri Governor Mike Parson said at least 20 people were treated at hospitals but that most had been released.

A firefighter and FEMA employee survey damage on Woodlawn Avenue following a tornado touchdown overnight in Jefferson City, Missouri, U.S. May 23, 2019. REUTERS/Antranik Tavitian

A firefighter and FEMA employee survey damage on Woodlawn Avenue following a tornado touchdown overnight in Jefferson City, Missouri, U.S. May 23, 2019. REUTERS/Antranik Tavitian

“The damage tornadoes & severe storms cause is devastating, but I am encouraged & inspired by storm survivors. In a time of tragedy, Missourians came together and cared for their neighbors, and our first responders acted with speed & skill to rescue survivors,” Parson wrote on Twitter.

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Twitter that his heart went out to the people of Missouri.

“You are strong and resilient, and we are here to assist,” he wrote.

Trump also urged Oklahomans to stay safe and listen to the warnings of local officials. “We are with you!” he tweeted.

Earlier this week, a tornado killed at least one person in Iowa, while two people in Oklahoma died in accidents on rain-slicked roads and a third in flooding.

The Arkansas River town of Webbers Falls was ordered evacuated on Thursday, while residents of several other communities were advised to leave, Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman Keli Caine said by phone.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Tom Brown)

U.S. charges WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange with espionage

FILE PHOTO: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leaves Southwark Crown Court after being sentenced in London, Britain, May 1, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls/File Photo

By Sarah N. Lynch and Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department unveiled 17 new criminal charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Thursday, saying he unlawfully published the names of classified sources and conspired with and assisted ex-Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in obtaining access to classified information.

The superseding indictment comes a little more than a month after the Justice Department unsealed a narrower criminal case against Assange.

Assange was initially charged with conspiring with Manning to gain access to a government computer as part of a 2010 leak by WikiLeaks of hundreds of thousands of U.S. military reports about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

He now faces a total of 18 criminal counts and could face many decades in prison if convicted.

“These unprecedented charges demonstrate the gravity of the threat the criminal prosecution of Julian Assange poses to all journalists in their endeavor to inform the public about actions that have been taken by the U.S. government,” said Barry Pollack, an American attorney for Assange.

The Justice Department said that not only did Assange aid and encourage Manning with the theft of classified materials, but he jeopardized the lives of human sources that included Afghans, Iraqis, journalists, religious leaders, human rights advocates and political dissidents from repressive regimes by publishing their identities.

Law enforcement officials said on Thursday that the State Department had pleaded with Assange not to reveal the identities of such sources, but Wikileaks ignored the warning.

Manning was arrested in May 2010 and convicted by court-martial in 2013 of espionage in connection with the 2010 Wikileaks disclosures.

President Barack Obama reduced Manning’s sentence to 7 years from 35 years, but she is now in jail after repeatedly refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating Assange.

Wikileaks describes itself as specializing in the publication of “censored or otherwise restricted official materials involving war, spying and corruption.”

Assange is now fighting extradition to the United States, after Ecuador in April revoked his seven-year asylum in the country’s London embassy. He was arrested that day, April 11, by British police as he left the embassy.

He is now serving a 50-week sentence in a London jail for skipping bail when he fled to the Ecuadorean embassy in 2012.

The decision to charge Assange with espionage crimes is notable and unusual. Most cases involving the theft of classified information have targeted government employees, like Manning, and not the people who publish the information itself.

In the wake of Assange’s arrest, prosecutors in Sweden re-opened a criminal investigation into allegations that Assange sexually assaulted a woman during a visit to Sweden.

Swedish authorities recently indicated they may send British authorities a fresh request for Assange’s extradition.

The decision regarding which country should have its chance to prosecute him first is now in the hands of Home Secretary Sajid Javid, Britain’s interior security minister.

The Justice Department’s quick turnaround with the filing of a more substantial indictment against Assange is not surprising.

Under extradition rules, the United States had only a 60-day window from the date of Assange’s arrest in London to add more charges. After that, foreign governments do not generally accept superseding charges.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Leslie Adler and Phil Berlowitz)

Trump will send 1,500 troops to Middle East

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks to U.S. troops in an unannounced visit to Al Asad Air Base, Iraq December 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday he will send about 1,500 American troops to the Middle East, mostly as a protective measure, amid heightened tensions with Iran.

He said the deployment involved a relatively small number of troops.

The forces would help strengthen American defenses in the region, two sources told Reuters earlier on condition of anonymity. They said the forces included engineers.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Phil Stewart; Writing by Doina Chiacu; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

ACLU, Planned Parenthood sue over Alabama abortion ban

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Flag and Alabama State Flag fly over the Alabama Governor's Mansion as the state Senate votes on the strictest anti-abortion bill in the United States at the Alabama Legislature in Montgomery, Alabama, U.S. May 14, 2019. REUTERS/Chris Aluka Berry

By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) – The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Planned Parenthood filed a lawsuit on Friday challenging a law enacted by Alabama last week that bans nearly all abortions and makes performing the procedure a felony punishable by up to 99 years in prison.

The lawsuit is one of several the groups have filed or are preparing to file against states that recently passed strict anti-abortion measures in an effort to prompt the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark case that guarantees a woman’s constitutional right to abortion.

“This dangerous, immoral, and unconstitutional ban threatens people’s lives and well-being and we are suing to protect our patients’ rights,” Leana Wen, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement.

The ACLU’s Alabama chapter and Planned Parenthood of America filed their complaint in federal court in Alabama on behalf of the Southern state’s three abortion clinics and Planned Parenthood Southeast.

Anti-abortion advocates expected legal challenges to Alabama’s new law, which will be the most restrictive in the nation when it takes effect in November, and say they welcome the chance to have a court test their conviction that a fetus’ right to life is paramount.

Also on Friday, Missouri Governor Mike Parson signed a bill into law that bans abortion beginning in the eighth week of pregnancy.

Earlier this year, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio outlawed abortion after a doctor can detect an embryonic heartbeat, which can occur at six weeks, often before a woman knows she is pregnant.

The wave of anti-abortion legislation reflects a boost of confidence among anti-abortion advocates after Republican President Donald Trump nominated two conservative judges, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, to the U.S. Supreme Court, tilting the court’s political balance to the right.

Alabama state Senator Clyde Chambliss, a Republican, supports his state’s new law and said the whole point of the ban was “so that we can go directly to the Supreme Court to challenge Roe versus Wade.”

The ACLU and Planned Parenthood obtained an injunction from a judge in Kentucky in March, blocking that state’s abortion ban. The organizations have filed lawsuits in Ohio and are preparing to do so in Georgia, they said in a statement on Friday.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. House fails to pass disaster aid bill; second attempt likely next month

FILE PHOTO: Tom Geisler surveys damaged to his farm, following flooding in Winslow, outside Omaha, Nebraska, U.S., March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Humeyra Pamuk/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday failed to pass a $19.1 billion disaster aid bill supported by President Donald Trump, but is expected to try again early next month.

Following Senate passage of the legislation on Thursday by a vote of 85-8, House leaders had hoped to win quick, unanimous approval of the bill and send it to Trump for his expected signature.

FILE PHOTO: Flood damage is shown in this earial photo in Percival, Iowa, U.S., March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Tom Polansek/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Flood damage is shown in this earial photo in Percival, Iowa, U.S., March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Tom Polansek/File Photo

But since the House did not go through regular, more time-consuming procedures, it needed the consent of all of its current 432 members to approve the bill.

For months, lawmakers have been haggling behind the scenes over the disaster aid bill in response to hurricanes in the southeastern U.S., severe flooding in the Midwest, devastating wildfires in California and other events.

The $19.1 billion in the bill is intended to help farmers cover their crop losses and rebuild infrastructure hit by disasters, including repairs to U.S. military bases.

Representative Chip Roy, a first-term Republican, objected to holding the vote, citing concerns that the legislation did not include $4.5 billion Trump had requested to deal with a surge of Central American immigrants on the southwestern border.

Roy also complained that the cost of the bill was not offset by savings to other government programs.

“This is a $19-billion bill that is not paid for when we are racking up $100 million of debt per hour,” Roy complained.

Congress regularly approves “emergency” disaster aid bills without any cuts to other programs, despite objections from some conservative lawmakers.

When the House returns from a week-long Memorial Day recess it is expected to bring the legislation back to the House floor for likely passage.

Friday’s action played out in a nearly empty House chamber as most of its members have left Washington for a week-long Memorial Day holiday recess.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Nick Zieminski)

In western France, a village remembers D-Day’s ‘secret massacre’

A general view shows remains of the former church at the memorial of Graignes, in Graignes, France May 15, 2019. Picture taken May 15, 2019. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

By Richard Lough

GRAIGNES, France (Reuters) – The lost U.S. paratrooper tapped on the door of the Rigault family’s farmhouse in Normandy, France in the early hours of June 6, 1944, miles south of his intended drop zone and soaking from his landing in the surrounding marshland.

After four years under German occupation, 12-year-old Marthe Rigault, awoken by the roar of aircraft overhead, watched as her parents warmed the foreign soldier with a flask of coffee.

By dawn, dozens of men from the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment had hunkered down on the Rigault farm outside the village of Graignes. As they did, the distant boom of heavy artillery carried inland as allied forces invaded Europe on the Normandy beaches to drive the Nazis from France.

“They said, ‘Don’t be afraid, we’re you’re friends, the Tommies,'” Rigault, now 86, recalled. “We thought we’d been liberated. We were overjoyed. We didn’t know it that morning, but it would be a month before Graignes was set free.”

Some 170 paratroopers had been involved in one of the worst misdrops of any airborne unit on D-Day. Separated from their comrades in German-occupied territory, the troops dug in.

Marthe Rigault, 87 years old, from Graignes in the Normandy region poses as she attends an interview with Reuters in Graignes, France May 15, 2019. Picture taken May 15, 2019. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

Marthe Rigault, 87 years old, from Graignes in the Normandy region poses as she attends an interview with Reuters in Graignes, France May 15, 2019. Picture taken May 15, 2019. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

The inhabitants of Graignes were swift to help, feeding the U.S. troops, relaying intelligence and retrieving their equipment from the marshland. The village would pay a heavy price for offering assistance. It would lead to what they now call the “secret massacre” of D-Day.

“For two or three days, my father, sister and I, and others too, rowed out with the soldiers to recover their munitions and parachutes from the marshes,” Rigault said.

The Americans converted the village boys school into a command center, mined access roads and turned the belfry of Graignes’ 12th century church into an observation post.

Only the church bell tower stands today, a memorial to the U.S. soldiers and civilians killed during the battle for Graignes. The Germans launched their assault on June 11, as Marthe Rigault and her elder sister, Odette, attended mass.

“A woman ran in and told us to hide because the Germans were nearby,” said Rigault. Panic swept through the nave as gunfire erupted outside.

REVENGE

The village has invited both U.S. and German troops to attend a dinner to mark the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings and the battle for Graignes. President Donald Trump will attend a ceremony at a nearby U.S. war cemetery to honor his country’s forces who took part in the D-Day landings.

In Graignes, the U.S. paratrooopers were outnumbered and outgunned.

For nine hours, Rigault sat huddled with her sister against the church’s stone walls as wounded soldiers and civilians were brought in. As dusk fell and their defenses crumbled, the American soldiers were forced to retreat from Graignes.

The Germans were brutal in their reprisals against the village, Rigault recalled.

Marthe Rigault, 87 years old, from Graignes in the Normandy region poses holding a copy of a photograph taken couple of weeks after the D-Day and showing herself among relatives and U.S. soldiers as she attends an interview with Reuters in Graignes, France May 15, 2019. Picture taken May 15, 2019. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

Marthe Rigault, 87 years old, from Graignes in the Normandy region poses holding a copy of a photograph taken couple of weeks after the D-Day and showing herself among relatives and U.S. soldiers as she attends an interview with Reuters in Graignes, France May 15, 2019. Picture taken May 15, 2019. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

The village priest, Father Albert Leblastier, and a Franciscan priest were shot dead and their bodies burned. Homesteads were torched. The maimed paratroopers left behind were split into two groups: some were marched down the road and executed, others were “thrown into the marshes and bayoneted,” Rigault recalled. “We weren’t allowed to pull them out for several days.”

For four decades, Rigault had no news of the U.S. troops she had helped, although word of the villagers’ bravery reached Washington.

Rigault treasures a battered certificate signed by Dwight Eisenhower, in his capacity as the commanding U.S. general in Europe, on behalf of the U.S. president expressing thanks to her father, Gustave, for helping the paratroopers.

Then, in 1984, a small number of U.S. soldiers whose lives had been saved by the villagers returned to Graignes.

“It was tough for them to come back because they felt that in some way they had abandoned the villagers, left them to face the Germans’ revenge,” said Denis Small, mayor of Graignes for the past 22 years. “But the village received them for the liberators that they were.”

Two years later, in 1986, the U.S. government recognized Rigault for her courage in aiding the troops as a young girl with an Award for Distinguished Civilian Service.

Graignes was liberated from the Germans on July 12, 1944.

(Reporting by Richard Lough; Editing by Edmund Blair)

Instructions from headquarters: Islamic State’s new guerrilla manual

FILE PHOTO: Police officers work at the scene at St. Sebastian Catholic Church, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha/File Photo

By Lena Masri and Ali Abdelaty

CAIRO (Reuters) – After losing territory, Islamic State fighters are turning to guerrilla war – and the group’s newspaper is telling them exactly how to do it.

In recent weeks, IS’s al-Naba online newspaper has encouraged followers to adopt guerrilla tactics and published detailed instructions on how to carry out hit-and-run operations.

The group is using such tactics in places where it aims to expand beyond Iraq and Syria. While IS has tried this approach before, the guidelines make clear the group is adopting it as standard operating procedure.

    At the height of its power IS ruled over millions in large parts of Syria and Iraq.

    But in March it lost its last significant piece of territory, the Syrian village of Baghouz, and the group has been forced to return to its roots: a style of fighting that avoids direct confrontation, weakening the enemy by attrition and winning popular support.

This attempt to revive Islamic State has so far been successful, analysts say, with many global attacks in recent weeks, including in places never before targeted by the group.

“The sad reality is that ISIS is still very dangerous,” said Rita Katz, executive director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks extremists. “It has the tools and foundations needed to build insurgencies across the world.”

In a rare video published by IS’s Al Furqan network in April, the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi encouraged followers to fight on and weaken the enemy by attrition, stressing that waging war is more important than winning.

“It was more downbeat than his only other video appearance from the pulpit of the Grand al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul in 2014, when he was dressed all in black and sporting a fancy watch.

“In the new video, he sat cross-legged on a mattress as he spoke to three aides. A Kalashnikov rifle rested against the wall behind him — the same type of weapon that appeared in videos of Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and Baghdadi’s predecessor Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who both adopted the guerrilla warfare tactic.

“He appeared as a commander of hardened mujahideen, of an insurgency group, not the pampered leader of a well-off caliphate,” said Katz. “His appearance totally mobilized Islamic State’s supporters all over the world.”

ORGANIZED TACTIC

Hassan Abu Hanieh, a Jordanian expert on Islamists, said IS has used guerrilla tactics to temporarily seize towns in order to attract media coverage but also as part of a new strategic approach.

“This kind of war has turned into a strategy for the group,” he said. “At this stage they are using it as a war of attrition, like Baghdadi said in his latest speech.”

In April, IS claimed it had attacked the town of Fuqaha in Libya, killing the head of the town council and setting fire to the municipal guard headquarters. “They seized control of the town for several hours and then returned to their bases safely,” the claim said of the IS fighters.

In recent weeks, al-Naba newspaper, one of IS’s most important media outlets, has published a four-part series titled “The Temporary Fall of Cities as a Working Method for the Mujahideen”.

In the articles, IS urged fighters to avoid face-to-face clashes with the enemy — something the group had previously encouraged.

The series explained how guerrilla fighters can weaken the enemy without taking losses. It urged the jihadists to seize weapons from victims and grab or burn their valuables.

“Among the goals of hit-and-run attacks,” the series said, was to take hostages, release prisoners and seize cash from the enemy.

Other goals were to “secure the needs of fighters” by collecting money, food, medicine and weapons “particularly when it is difficult to secure these needs because (the fighters) are in a weak position,” one of the articles said.

AL QAEDA TACTICS

” These guerrilla warfare manuals are the most detailed IS has published yet,” Katz said.

“The language is similar to the one used in manuals published years ago by Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia via its al-Battar electronic magazine, which provided military instructions to supporters and cells around the world,” she said.

IS’s new manuals show that the group is short on fighters and finances, she added.

“When it lost its territory, IS also lost an important source of income, mainly taxes and oil revenue.”

“Financially, territorially and militarily speaking, the group is very weak,” said Katz. “That said, ISIS leadership seeks to revive its so-called caliphate, with special attention on areas outside of Iraq and Syria.”

Although not all of the group’s claims can be confirmed, it has announced some wide-ranging operations.

On April 18, IS claimed its first attack in Democratic Republic of Congo and announced the creation of a “Central Africa Province” of the “Caliphate”. Since then the group has claimed several more attacks in Congo.

On May 10, IS claimed it had established a province in India. It also said IS fighters had inflicted casualties on Indian soldiers in Kashmir.

The same day, militants on motorbikes stormed a town in northeastern Nigeria and opened fire on residents and soldiers in an attack later claimed by Islamic State.

IS has claimed more operations in Nigeria and dozens of similar attacks in recent weeks in Afghanistan, Niger, Somalia, Egypt, Pakistan, Chechnya, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. In several cases, the group published pictures of bullets, rifles and other weapons it said it had collected from soldiers.

“By striking in a wide range of places, IS is promoting itself and proving it can reorganize and modify its strategy,” said Laith Alkhouri, co-founder and senior director at Flashpoint, which monitors militants’ activity online.

“ISIS super-temporarily seizes areas, flexes its muscles, subdues locals, even recruits from amongst them, and taunts governments by exposing security flaws or weaknesses,” he said. “This is a considerably important avenue for ISIS’s growth.”

“Guerrilla war is a less costly way to inflict damage and the group is using the tactic where it wants to expand, such as eastern Afghanistan, northeastern Nigeria, Somalia, North Africa, the Indian subcontinent and central Africa, he said.

“The group’s media realizes the importance of highlighting this, not only for boosting the morale of the support base,” Alkhouri said. “But just as importantly for expanding its footprint geographically and effectively setting up and expanding unrest zones around the world.”

(Reporting by Lena Masri and Ali Abdelaty; Additional reporting by Maiduguri newsroom; Writing by Lena Masri; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Why U.S.-Iran tensions could quickly escalate into a crisis

FILE PHOTO: A Iranian Revolutionary Guard boat is seen near the U.S. aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush in the Strait of Hormuz as U.S. Navy helicopters hover nearby on March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed/File Photo/File Photo

By Phil Stewart and Michelle Nichols

WASHINGTON/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – Three years ago, when Iran’s military captured 10 U.S.sailors after they mistakenly strayed into Iranian waters, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif jumped on the phone in minutes and worked out the sailors’ release in hours.

Could a similar crisis be so quickly resolved today?

“No, Zarif said in a recent interview with Reuters. “How could it be averted?”

Zarif and the current Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, have never spoken directly, according to Iran’s mission at the United Nations. They instead tend to communicate through name-calling on Twitter or through the media.

“Pompeo makes sure that every time he talks about Iran, he insults me,” Zarif said.  “Why should I even answer his phone call?”

The open rancor between the nations’ two top diplomats underscores growing concern that the lack of any established channel for direct negotiation makes a military confrontation more likely in the event of a misunderstanding or a mishap, according to current and former U.S. officials, foreign diplomats, U.S. lawmakers and foreign policy experts.

The Trump administration this month ordered the deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group, bombers and Patriot missiles to the Middle East, citing intelligence about possible Iranian preparations to attack U.S. forces or interests.

“The danger of an accidental conflict seems to be increasing over each day,” U.S. Senator Angus King, a political independent from Maine, told Reuters as he called for direct dialogue between the United States and Iran.

A senior European diplomat said it was vital for top U.S. and Iranian officials to be on “speaking terms” to prevent an incident from mushrooming into a crisis.

“I hope that there are some channels still existing so we don’t sleepwalk into a situation that nobody wants,” said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The rhetoric that we have is alarming.”

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus declined to address how the administration would communicate with Iran in a crisis similar to the 2016 incident, but said:  “When the time to talk comes, we are confident we will have every means to do so.”

The administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran, she said, aims to force its leaders to the negotiating table.

“If the Iranians are willing to engage on changing their ways to behave like a normal nation,” Ortagus said, “we are willing to talk to them.”

TWITTER DIPLOMACY

In 2016, Kerry and Zarif knew one another well from the complex negotiations to reach a 2015 pact to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

Three years later, top-level diplomatic relations have all but disintegrated in the wake of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear pact, its tightening of sanctions on Iranian oil, and its recent move to designate part of Iran’s military as a terrorist group.

U.S. military officials cite growing concern about Iran’s development of precise missiles and its support for proxy forces in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and beyond.

In the absence of direct talks, Twitter has become a common forum for U.S. and Iranian officials to trade biting barbs. On Wednesday, an advisor to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani fired off a tweet at Pompeo castigating him for provoking Iran with military deployments.

“You @SecPompeo do not bring warships to our region and call it deterrence. That’s called provocation,” the advisor, Hesameddin Ashena, tweeted in English. “It compels Iran to illustrate its own deterrence, which you call provocation. You see the cycle?”

That followed a Trump tweet on Sunday threatening to “end” Iran if it sought a fight, and a long history of bitter insults traded by Pompeo and Zarif.

Pompeo in February called Zarif and Iran’s president “front men for a corrupt religious mafia” in a tweet. That same month, another official at Pompeo’s State Department tweeted: “How do you know @JZarif is lying? His lips are moving.”

Zarif, in turn, has used the social media platform to condemn Pompeo and White House National Security Adviser John Bolton’s “pure obsession with Iran,” calling it “the behavior of persistently failing psychotic stalkers.”

‘AMERICANS HAVE OPTIONS’

U.S. officials, diplomats and lawmakers said they doubted Zarif would refuse to take a call from Pompeo in a crisis, given the risks for Iran in any conflict with the U.S. military.

In a Tuesday briefing with reporters, Pompeo appeared to dismiss concerns about Washington’s ability to communicate and negotiate with Iran.

“There are plenty of ways that we can have a communication channel,” Pompeo said.

Diplomats say Oman, Switzerland and Iraq are nations with ties to both countries that could pass messages.

“It’s a little bit like the Israelis – when they need to get messages to people, they can get messages to people,” said a second senior European diplomat.

Representative Michael Waltz – the first U.S. Army Green Beret elected to Congress, said he favored the diplomatic freeze as a way to force Iran into serious negotiations.

“If you don’t have diplomatic isolation, you’re having one-off talks, that lessens the pressure,” said Waltz, who is also a former Pentagon official.

But indirect message-passing can be too cumbersome in a fast-moving crisis, said Kevin Donegan, a retired vice admiral who oversaw U.S. naval forces in the Middle East as commander of the Fifth Fleet when the U.S. sailors were captured by Iran.

Such dealings through intermediaries “require time and will not allow an opportunity to de-escalate a rapidly unfolding tactical situation,” said Donegan, now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who added that he was not commenting on current U.S. policy.

Donegan and Waltz both said it would be helpful to have some kind of hotline between the U.S. and Iranian militaries, but Donegan and other experts were skeptical Iran would agree to such an arrangement.

BACK CHANNELS THROUGH OMAN, IRAQ & RUSSIA?

On May 3 – after Washington became alarmed by intelligence indicating that Iran might be preparing for an attack on the United States or its interests – it sent messages to Iran via “a third party,” one U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also told Congress on May 8 that messages had been sent to “to make sure that it was clear to Iran that we recognized the threat and we were postured to respond.”

Waltz said Dunford told lawmakers at a closed-door hearing that he had sent a message to Qassem Soleimani – the influential commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force – warning him that Iran would be held directly accountable if one of its proxy forces attacks Americans.

“The message now was: ‘We’re not going to hold your proxies accountable'” if they attack U.S. citizens or forces in the region, he said. “‘We’re going to hold you, the regime, accountable.'”

Another official said the United States had authorized Iraq “to let the Iranians know that there is no plausible deniability about attacks on Americans in Iraq” after U.S. intelligence flagged preparations for a possible attack by Iran-backed militias in Iraq.

Joseph Votel, the now retired four-star general who oversaw U.S. troops in the Middle East until March, noted earlier this year that the U.S. military might be able to indirectly get a message to Iranian forces through an existing hotline with Russia meant to avoid accidental conflicts in Syria.

“The Iranians can talk to the Russians,” he said.  “We have a well-established professional communication channel with the Russians.”

But the prospect of relying on the Russian government to get United States out of a crisis with Iran is hardly reassuring to many current and former officials in the United States.

“That would be a risky choice,” said Wendy Sherman, an undersecretary of state in the Obama administration.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Michelle Nichols; Editing by Brian Thevenot)

Tearful Theresa May resigns, paving way for Brexit confrontation with EU

British Prime Minister Theresa May reacts as she delivers a statement in London, Britain, May 24, 2019. REUTERS/Toby Melville

By Elizabeth Piper, William James and Kylie MacLellan

LONDON (Reuters) – Fighting back tears, Theresa May said on Friday she would quit, setting up a contest that will install a new British prime minister who could pursue a cleaner break with the European Union.

May’s departure deepens the Brexit crisis as a new leader, who should be in place by the end of July, is likely to want a more decisive split, raising the chances of a confrontation with the EU and potentially a snap parliamentary election.

Her voice cracking with emotion, May, who endured crises and humiliation in her failed effort to find a compromise Brexit deal that parliament could ratify, said she would resign on Friday, June 7 with a leadership contest beginning the following week.

“I will shortly leave the job that has been the honor of my life to hold,” May said outside her Downing Street official residence with her husband, Philip, looking on. “The second female prime minister, but certainly not the last.

“I do so with no ill will but with enormous and enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love,” said the usually reserved May as she fought back tears.

May, once a reluctant supporter of EU membership who won the top job in the turmoil that followed the 2016 Brexit referendum, steps down with her central pledge – to lead the United Kingdom out of the bloc and heal its divisions – unfulfilled.

“It is, and will always remain, a matter of deep regret to me that I have not been able to deliver Brexit,” May said, adding that her successor would have to find a consensus to honor the 2016 referendum result.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said the new prime minister must hold an election to “let the people decide our country’s future”.

PM BORIS JOHNSON?

May bequeaths a deeply divided country and a political elite that is deadlocked over how, when or whether to leave the EU. The latest deadline for Britain’s departure is Oct. 31.

Most of the leading contenders to succeed May want a tougher divorce deal, although the EU has said it will not renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement it sealed with Britain in November.

Spain said it now seemed almost impossible to avoid a so-called hard Brexit, or clean break from the EU, and the bloc signaled there would be no change on the agreement despite European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker learning of May’s resignation “without personal joy”.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney underlined the bloc’s stance that there would be no better Brexit deal.

“This idea that a new prime minister will be a tougher negotiator and will put it up to the EU and get a much better deal for Britain? That’s not how the EU works,” Coveney told Ireland’s Newstalk radio station.

Sterling swung back and forth on May’s resignation, trading slightly higher on the day, and British government bond yields edged off near-two-year lows struck first thing on Friday. Boris Johnson, the face of the official Brexit campaign in 2016, is the favorite to succeed May and he thanked her for her “stoical service”. Betting markets put a 40% implied probability on Johnson winning the top job.

Others tipped are Dominic Raab, a Brexit supporter and former Brexit secretary, with a 14% implied probability on his chances. Environment Secretary Michael Gove, former House of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt each have a 7% probability, according to betting markets.

Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt and International Development Secretary Rory Stewart each have a 4% chance of the top job while Home Secretary Sajid Javid has a 3% chance.

For many Conservative lawmakers, speed is of the essence to install a new leader to try to break the Brexit impasse.

The governing party said it would move quickly to try to end the leadership contest before parliament breaks for a summer holiday, a so-called recess which usually falls in late July.

“The fight for the heart and soul of the Conservative Party officially starts now,” said Andrew Bridgen, a pro-Brexit lawmaker. “We need a new PM as soon as possible and who that is will decide the future of our democracy, our country and the Conservative Party.”

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Additional reporting by Kate Holton; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

U.S. prosecutors weigh death penalty for accused Pittsburgh synagogue shooter

Police vehicles are deployed near the vicinity of the home of Pittsburgh synagogue shooting suspect Robert Bowers' home in Baldwin borough, suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 27, 2018. REUTERS/John Altdorfer


(Reuters) – The case of Robert Bowers, the man accused of massacring 11 people at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue last year was set to return to a federal courtroom on Thursday, as prosecutors weigh whether to pursue the death penalty against him.

Bowers, 46, is accused of bursting into the synagogue on Oct. 27 with a semi-automatic rifle and three handguns and shouting “all Jews must die” as he fired on congregants gathered for a Sabbath service.

Bowers has pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh to a 63-count indictment. Some of the charges, including murder as a hate crime, can carry the death penalty.

At Thursday’s hearing, prosecutors may discuss whether they will seek the death penalty. The session is a routine hearing to review the status of the case.

The United States is seeing a rise in the number of hate crimes and the number of hate groups, according to separate reports from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

One of Bowers’ attorneys, death penalty specialist Judith Clarke, said at his last hearing that the defense hoped to settle without trial. A negotiated plea deal could allow Bowers to avoid facing the risk of execution.

It was not clear whether Bowers would be present at the hearing.

Prosecutors say Bowers frequently posted anti-Semitic comments on right-wing social-media websites, including a post on the morning of the shooting in which he decried the work of a U.S. Jewish charity, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Among those killed in the attack were a 97-year-old woman, two brothers in their 50s and a married couple in their 80s. Two civilians and five police officers were wounded before the gunman was shot by police and surrendered.

Ahead of Thursday’s hearing, Bowers filed a motion to the court through his lawyers, which Judge Donetta Ambrose allowed to be sealed from public view per Bowers’ request.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Cynthia Osterman)