Baghdad, Dec 28 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump's surprise trip to Iraq may have quieted criticism at home that he had yet to visit troops in a combat zone, but it has infuriated Iraqi politicians who on Thursday demanded the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
"Arrogant" and "a violation of national sovereignty" were but a few examples of the disapproval emanating from Baghdad following Trump's meeting Wednesday with U.S. servicemen and women at the al-Asad Airbase.
Trips by U.S. presidents to conflict zones are typically shrouded in secrecy and subject to strict security measures, and Trump's was no exception. Few in Iraq or elsewhere knew the U.S. president was in the country until minutes before he left.
But this trip came as curbing foreign influence in Iraqi affairs has become a hot-button political issue in Baghdad, and Trump's perceived presidential faux-pas was failing to meet with the prime minister in a break with diplomatic custom for any visiting head of state.
On the ground for only about three hours, the American president told the men and women with the U.S. military that Islamic State forces have been vanquished, and he defended his decision against all advice to withdraw U.S. troops from neighboring Syria, He said the U.S. was once again respected as a nation, and declared: "We're no longer the suckers, folks."
The abruptness of his visit left lawmakers in Baghdad smarting and drawing unfavorable comparisons to the occupation of Iraq after the 2003 invasion.
"Trump needs to know his limits. The American occupation of Iraq is over," said Sabah al-Saidi, the head of one of two main blocs in Iraq's parliament.
Trump, he said, had slipped into Iraq, "as though Iraq is a state of the United States."
While Trump didn't meet with any officials, he spoke with Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi by phone. A planned meeting between the two leaders was canceled over a "difference in points of view" over arrangements, according to the prime minister's office.
The visit could have unintended consequences for American policy, with officials from both sides of Iraq's political divide calling for a vote in Parliament to expel U.S. forces from the country.
The president, who kept to the U.S. air base approximately 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of Baghdad, said he had no plans to withdraw the 5,200 troops in the country. He said Ain al-Asad could be used for U.S. air strikes inside Syria.
The suggestion ran counter to the current sentiment of Iraqi politics, which favors claiming sovereignty over foreign and domestic policy and staying above the fray in regional conflicts.
"Iraq should not be a platform for the Americans to settle their accounts with either the Russians or the Iranians in the region," said Hakim al-Zamili, a senior lawmaker in al-Saidi's Islah bloc in Parliament.
U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq as part of the coalition against the Islamic State group. American forces withdrew in 2011 after invading in 2003 but returned in 2014 at the invitation of the Iraqi government to help fight the jihadist group. Trump's visit was the first by a U.S. president since Barack Obama met with then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at a U.S. base outside Baghdad in 2009.
After defeating IS militants in their last urban bastions last year, Iraqi politicians and militia leaders are speaking out against the continued presence of U.S. forces on Iraqi soil.
Supporters of the populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr won big in national elections in May, campaigning on a platform to curb U.S. and rival Iranian involvement in Iraqi affairs. Al-Sadr's lawmakers now form the core of the Islah bloc, which is headed by al-Saidi in Parliament.
The rival Binaa bloc, commanded by politicians and militia leaders close to Iran, also does not favor the U.S.
Qais Khazali, the head of the Iran-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia that fought key battles against IS in northern Iraq, promised on Twitter that Parliament would vote to expel U.S. forces from Iraq, or the militias would force them out by "other means."
Khazali was jailed by British and U.S. forces from 2007 to 2010 for managing sections of the Shia insurgency against the occupation during those years.
Trump's visit would be a "great moral boost to the political parties, armed factions, and others who oppose the American presence in Iraq," Iraqi political analyst Ziad al-Arar said.
Still, the U.S. and Iraq developed considerable military and intelligence ties in the war against IS, and they continue to pay off in operations against militants gone into hiding.
Earlier in the month, Iraqi forces called in an airstrike by U.S.-coalition forces to destroy a tunnel used by IS militants in the Atshanah mountains in north Iraq. Four militants were killed, according to the coalition.
A hasty departure of U.S. forces would jeopardize such arrangements, said Iraqi analyst Hamza Mustafa.
Relations between the U.S. and Iraq also extend beyond military ties. U.S. companies have considerable interests in Iraq's petrochemical industry, and American diplomats are often brokers between Iraq's fractious political elite.
Iraq's Sunni politicians have been largely quiet about the presidential visit, reflecting the ties they have cultivated with the U.S. to counterbalance the might of the country's Iran-backed and predominantly-Shiite militias.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Abdul-Mahdi accepted Trump's invitation to the White House during their call, though the prime minister's office has so far refused to confirm that.
Indonesia, Dec 28 (AP/UNB) — Indonesia raised the danger level for an island volcano that triggered a tsunami on the weekend, killing at least 430 people in Sumatra and Java, and widened its no-go zone.
The country's volcanology agency on Thursday increased the Anak Krakatau volcano's alert status to the second-highest and more than doubled the exclusion zoneto a 5-kilometer (3-mile) radius. The eruption on Saturday evening caused part of the island in the Sunda Strait to collapse into the sea, apparently generating tsunami waves of more than 2 meters (6 1/2 feet). Most tsunamis are caused by earthquakes.
The government has warned communities in the strait to stay a kilometer (less than a mile) away from the coastline because of the risk of another tsunami triggered by Anak Krakatau's eruptions. A navy vessel was expected to pass by the island, which could give scientists more information about the risks of a second collapse.
"There's still a chance of a landslide, even under the sea level or on the sea level," said Rudy Sunendar, head of the Energy Ministry's Geology Department. "Based on the satellite imagery interpretation, there is collapse of some area of Mount Anak Krakatau," he told The Associated Press at the volcano's monitoring post.
Saturday's disaster struck without warning, surprising people in a country that regularly suffers landslides, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. No earthquake shook the ground beforehand, and the waves surged inland at night on a holiday weekend while people were enjoying concerts and other beachside activities.
Indonesia's tsunami warning system relies on land seismometers and buoys connected to tidal gauges and is not equipped to detect underwater landslides. The system, in any case, has not operated for years because the buoys have been vandalized or not maintained because of low funding.
Heavy rains and high seas have hampered the search for victims. Some bodies were found at sea and at least 159 people are missing.
On Thursday, residents of badly affected Banten province on Java island were searching through the debris of destroyed or damaged homes for anything salvageable.
"I've lost everything I have, my house and all belongings inside it," said farmer Muhamad Sarta.
"I just hope for some help from the government," he said. "Hopefully there will be some repairs. I have nowhere to go. I have no money. Whatever I had was lost in the water."
Radar data from satellites, converted into images, shows Anak Krakatau shrunk dramatically following Saturday's eruption.
Satellite photos aren't available because of cloud cover but radar images from a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency satellite taken before and after the eruption show the volcano's southwestern flank has disappeared.
JAXA's post-eruption image shows concentric waves radiating from the island, which experts say is caused by its ongoing eruptions.
Dave Petley, head of research and innovation at Sheffield University who analyzed similar images from a European Space Agency satellite, said they support the theory that a landslide, most of it undersea, caused the tsunami.
"The challenge now is to interpret what might be happening on the volcano, and what might happen next," he wrote in a blog.
Anak Krakatau, which means Child of Krakatau, is the offspring of the infamous Krakatau volcano that affected the global climate with a massive eruption in 1883.
Anak Krakatau first rose above sea level in 1929, according to Indonesia's volcanology agency, and has been increasing its land mass since then.
Mexico City, Dec 28 (Xinhua/UNB) - Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Thursday unveiled a plan to combat fuel theft "head on."
"The objective of this plan is to end theft and corruption, and I want to call on Mexicans to denounce it," he told the media.
As part of the plan, the government has set up a telephone hotline for anyone with information about the crime, which cost the nation some 60 billion pesos (3 billion U.S. dollars) last year.
"Three years of fuel theft equals a new refinery," said Obrador.
The plan also proposes boosting security at oil facilities and a constitutional reform to classify fuel theft as a serious crime.
According to the government, fuel theft is carried out not only by ordinary criminals and members of organized crime groups, but also by employees of the state-run oil company Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex).
Since some Pemex officials were arrested on Dec. 20, fuel theft has fallen by 17 percent, Obrador added.
Luis Cresencio Sandoval, head of the National Defense Ministry (Sedena), said that security would be stepped up at 58 Pemex facilities by deploying additional troops to better control distribution.
Paris, Dec 28 (AP/UNB) — A 12-year-old boy in the French Alps was found alive and uninjured after being buried under an avalanche for 40 minutes, an event his rescuers are calling a true "miracle."
French police in the town of Bourg Saint-Maurice said the boy was skiing off piste at the La Plagne ski resort in a group of seven skiers Wednesday when he was swept away.
The boy started going down ahead of the others and was the only one caught when a large section of snow detached and roared down the mountain, police said. He was dragged at least 100 meters (110 yards) by the force of the avalanche.
Rescue workers flew in a helicopter to the avalanche scene, which was at 2,400 meters (7,875 feet) altitude. A sniffer dog found the boy, whose winter jacket was not equipped with an avalanche detector.
Rescue workers described the operation as "miraculous" because they said chances of survival are minuscule after 15 minutes under the snow. Police said among the reasons the boy survived is that his airways were not blocked by snow.
"We can call it a miracle. A day after Christmas, there was another gift in store," Captain Patrice Ribes said.
The boy was still sent to a local hospital for a checkup.
Dubai, Dec 28 (AP/UNB) — Saudi Arabia's King Salman issued a wide-ranging overhaul of top government posts on Thursday, including naming a new foreign minister, following international fallout from the killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi nearly three months ago.
He also ordered a shakeup of the kingdom's supreme council that oversees matters related to security. The council is headed by the king's son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose powers including roles as deputy prime minister and defense minister, were untouched in the overhaul.
The changes appear to further consolidate the crown prince's grip on power by appointing to key posts advisers and members of the royal family seen as close to him.
It may also signal further efforts to show that changes are being made after the U.S. Senate passed a resolution saying it believes the crown prince is to blame for Khashoggi's grisly murder inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
As the crown prince struggles to convince many in Washington and other Western capitals that he had nothing to do with Khashoggi's killing, the soft-spoken Adel al-Jubeir was replaced as foreign minister by Ibrahim al-Assaf, a longtime former finance minister. Al-Jubeir was appointed to minister of state for foreign affairs at the Foreign Ministry.
Al-Assaf is well known to international investors, having led several Saudi delegations to the World Economic Forum in Davos. He served as finance minister under King Fahd and King Abdullah.
Al-Assaf sits on the boards of oil-giant Saudi Aramco and the kingdom's sovereign wealth fund. The crown prince oversees both entities. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Colorado State University and a master's degree from the University of Denver, according to his biography on Aramco's website.
Al-Assaf had been serving as a minister of state last year when he was reportedly detained at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh along with dozens of high-ranking officials and princes in an anti-corruption sweep led by the crown prince. Shortly after, al-Assaf appeared back at a Cabinet meeting to the surprise of many.
The government did not name those detained nor disclose what crimes they were suspected of committing. The Associated Press could not independently confirm reports of al-Assaf's arrest. The opaque anti-corruption sweep helped Prince Mohammed consolidate power and net the government more than $13 billion in settlements.
The changes announced Thursday include aides to the crown prince, including Musaed al-Aiban as national security adviser — in addition to other positions he holds — and former media minister Awwad al-Awwad as adviser to the royal court. Khalid al-Harbi was named as head of general security.
Turki al-Sheikh, a confidant of the crown prince, was removed as head of the Sports Authority and replaced by Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki al-Faisal. This means al-Sheikh no longer oversees a cybersecurity and programming body that was led by Saud al-Qahtani, a close aide to the crown prince who was fired from his post and sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for helping to mastermind the plot that led to Khashoggi's killing.
Khashoggi wrote critically of the crown prince in columns for The Washington Post before he was killed. After denying any knowledge of Khashoggi's death for weeks, Saudi authorities eventually settled on the explanation that he was killed in an operation masterminded by former advisers to Prince Mohammed. The kingdom denies the crown prince had any involvement.
Al-Sheikh will now lead the General Entertainment Authority, a body created in recent years to help organize and promote concerts and other events that had long been banned in the conservative country.
Turki Shabbaneh, who has held positions in privately owned Saudi TV channels, was named minister of media. Hamad al-Sheikh, a royal court adviser and former college dean who studied in the U.S., was appointed minister of education.
The king's eldest son, Prince Sultan bin Salman, was removed as head of the tourism authority. He will lead a new national space agency. In 1985, he became the first Arab and Muslim astronaut to fly in space.
Prince Abdullah bin Bandar was named head of the National Guard. The force is tasked primarily with the protection of the Al Saud ruling family. Prince Abdullah had been deputy governor of Mecca.