Islamabad, Feb 16 (AP/UNB) — Pakistani officials said Saturday a visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Islamabad has been delayed by a day, a sudden announcement that surprised many Pakistanis, who were preparing to welcome the Saudi delegation amid extraordinary security in the capital.
Without giving any explanation, the Foreign Ministry said Prince Mohammad will now arrive in Islamabad on a two-day visit Sunday and that his program remains unchanged. It will be the crown prince's first visit to Pakistan since he was appointed heir to the throne in 2017.
The prince was originally scheduled to come to Pakistan later Saturday along with a delegation of businessmen. But Pakistani officials confirmed Saturday that an upcoming conference of Pakistani and Saudi business leaders was postponed "due to unavoidable circumstances." It suggested that Prince Mohammad will now visit Pakistan with a reduced number of business officials.
Pakistan expects a $7 billion Saudi investment over the next two years after Prince Mohammad's visit
The prince will also travel to neighboring India amid heightened tension between Islamabad and New Delhi over this week's attack on a paramilitary convoy in Indian-controlled Kashmir that killed 41 people. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi blamed Pakistan for Thursday's bombing. Pakistan rejected the allegation. Saudi Arabia has also strongly condemned the attack in Kashmir.
Last year, Pakistan voiced its support for the prince when he faced international outrage following the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents. The kingdom quickly signed an agreement for a $6 billion assistance package after Khan attended an investment conference in October that saw a wave of cancellations linked to the Khashoggi killing.
Khashoggi, who had written critically about the prince, went missing on Oct. 2 after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. After denying any knowledge of his death for weeks, Saudi authorities eventually settled on the explanation that he was killed in an operation aimed at forcibly bringing the writer back to the kingdom. Saudi prosecutors say the plan was masterminded by two former advisers to the crown prince. The kingdom denies the crown prince knew of the plot.
Baghdad, Feb 12 (AP/UNB)— The top Pentagon official has arrived in Baghdad to consult with American military commanders and Iraqi government leaders on the future U.S. troop presence.
Pat Shanahan, the acting secretary of defense, said before his unannounced arrival on Tuesday that he wanted to hear first-hand about the state of Iraq's fight against remnants of the Islamic State group.
It's Shanahan's first visit to Iraq.
The U.S. has about 5,200 troops in Iraq to train and advise Iraqi security forces, 16 years after the U.S. invaded to topple Saddam Hussein.
President Donald Trump upset Iraqis by saying earlier this month that U.S. forces should use their Iraqi positions to keep an eye on neighboring Iran. That's not the stated U.S. mission, and Iraqi officials have said Trump's proposal would violate Iraq's constitution.
Beirut, Feb 12 (AP/UNB) — Islamic State group militants cornered in their last foothold in eastern Syria fought back with suicide car bombs, snipers and booby traps Monday, slowing Kurdish fighters advancing under the cover of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, Kurdish news agencies and a Syrian war monitor said.
An Italian photographer was wounded in the clashes between the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and the militants holed up in the village of Baghouz, near the border with Iraq, an Italian news agency said.
No one knows exactly how many Islamic State fighters are still holding out in the sliver of territory under attack, although they are estimated to be in the hundreds, most of them foreign fighters. It is also unclear if civilians are still inside, caught under heavy bombardment.
The SDF on Saturday launched its final push to clear the area from IS, after months of fighting that saw 20,000 civilians fleeing just in the past few weeks. The numbers have overwhelmed Kurdish-run camps in northeastern Syria, where humanitarian conditions are already dire amid a cold winter and meager resources.
The capture of the IS-held village of Baghouz and nearby areas would mark the end of a devastating four-year global war to end the IS extremists' territorial hold over large parts of Syria and Iraq, where the group established its self-proclaimed "caliphate" in 2014. That in turn, would open the way for U.S. President Donald Trump to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from northern Syria as he has promised to do once the Islamic State group has been defeated.
"The U.S. will soon control 100% of ISIS territory in Syria," Trump tweeted Sunday. He has said repeatedly that he doesn't want the U.S. to be the world's policeman and that he intends to bring the 2,000 U.S. troops home.
U.S. officials and Trump's own military advisers, however, have warned that losing its territorial hold does not mean that the Islamic State group is defeated, warning that IS could stage a comeback in Syria within six months to a year if the military and counterterrorism pressure on it is eased. Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, estimated there are between 1,000 and 1,500 IS fighters in the small area they still control, but he said others have "dispersed" and "gone to ground."
In recent weeks, U.S. officials have said IS has lost 99.5 percent of its territory and is holding on to under 5 square kilometers (under 2 square miles), where most of the fighters are concentrated in Syria. But activists and residents say IS still has sleeper cells in Syria and Iraq and is laying the groundwork for an insurgency.
Assad Bechara, a Lebanese political analyst, said the Islamic State group is an ideology, not just a military structure, and it cannot be defeated simply by reclaiming territory from the group.
"This (American) pullout will leave a huge vacuum despite the allegations of defeating the last pockets of ISIS. This vacuum will increase the international and regional struggle for power and influence in Syria," he said, which in turn may make it easier for the militant group to return.
It is not clear how long the final push to free Baghouz from IS will take. Trump said last week he had been told that the full territorial conquest to defeat the Islamic State could be completed in the coming week.
But progress appears to be slower than what SDF officials had initially estimated. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said SDF were moving very slowly due to land mines and sniper fire, as well as the extremists' use of tunnels and suicide car bombs. IS also is using civilians as human shields, the Observatory said.
On Monday, the Observatory said 13 IS militants, including five suicide attackers, were killed as well as six SDF fighters. The Kurdish Hawar news agency also reported heavy fighting in Baghouz.
IS said in a statement posted late Sunday that two of its "martyrdom-seekers" attacked SDF fighters in Baghouz with their explosive-laden car.
Syrian state media claimed a U.S.-led coalition airstrike near Baghouz killed two women and two children. More than 20,000 civilians have left the IS-held area in recent weeks.
The Italian news agency ANSA said Milan-born Gabriele Micalizzi, 34, was injured in the face by splinters of a rocket-propelled grenade, adding that his life was not in danger. It said he was being airlifted by the coalition to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.
Dubai, , Feb 7 (AP/UNB)— Iran appears to have attempted a second satellite launch despite U.S. criticism that its space program helps it develop ballistic missiles, satellite images released Thursday suggest. Iran has not acknowledged conducting such a launch.
Images released by the Colorado-based company DigitalGlobe show a rocket at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in Iran's Semnan province on Tuesday. Images from Wednesday show the rocket was gone with what appears to be burn marks on its launch pad.
Iranian state media did not immediately report on the rocket launch, though such delays have happened in previous launches.
Iran has said it would launch its Doosti, or "Friendship," satellite. A launch in January failed to put another satellite, Payam or "Message," into orbit.
The U.S. alleges such launches defy a U.N. Security Council resolution calling on Iran to undertake no activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
Iran, which long has said it does not seek nuclear weapons, maintains its satellite launches and rocket tests do not have a military component. Tehran also says they don't violate a United Nations resolution that only "called upon" it not to conduct such tests.
Over the past decade, Iran has sent several short-lived satellites into orbit and in 2013 launched a monkey into space.
Iran usually displays space achievements in February during the anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution. This year will mark the 40th anniversary of the revolution amid Iran facing increasing pressure from the U.S. under the administration of President Donald Trump.
Tehran, Feb 6 (AP/UNB) — The halls of the former prison in the heart of Iran's capital now are hushed, befitting the sounds of the museum that it has become. Wax mannequins silently portray the horrific acts of torture that once were carried out within its walls.
But the surviving inmates still remember the screams.
Exhibits in the former Anti-Sabotage Joint Committee Prison that was run under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi include a frightened man trapped in a small metal cage as a cigarette-smoking interrogator shouts above him.
In a circular courtyard, a snarling interrogator is depicted forcing a prisoner's head under water while another inmate above hangs from his wrists.
As Iran this month marks the 40th anniversary of its Islamic Revolution and the overthrow of the shah, the surviving inmates who suffered torture at the hands of the country's police and dreaded SAVAK intelligence service still bear both visible and hidden scars. Even today, United Nations investigators and rights group say Iran tortures and arbitrarily detains prisoners.
"We are far from where we must be as far as the justice is concerned," said Ahmad Sheikhi, a 63-year-old former revolutionary once tortured at the prison. "Justice has yet to be spread in the society, and we are definitely very far from the sacred goals of the martyrs and their imam," Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The SAVAK, a Farsi acronym for the Organization of Intelligence and Security of the Nation, was formed in 1957. The agency, created with the help of the CIA and Israel's Mossad, initially targeted communists and leftists in the wake of the 1953 CIA-backed coup that overthrew elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh.
Over time, however, its scope was widened drastically. Torture became widespread, as shown in the museum's exhibits. Interrogators all wear ties, a nod to their Western connections. Portraits of the shah, Queen Farah and his son, Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, who now lives in exile in the U.S., hang above one torture scene.
"Following the coup, the shah's regime sank into a legitimacy crisis and it failed to get rid of the crisis until the end of its life," said Hashem Aghajari, who teaches history at Tehran's Tarbiat Modares University. "The coup mobilized all progressive political forces against the regime."
Sheikhi walked with Associated Press journalists through the prison that once held him, built in the 1930s by German engineers. Black-and-white photographs of its 8,500 prisoners from over the years line the walls. They include current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the late President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Sheikhi, then 19, spent about three months in the prison and 11 months in another after being detained for distributing anti-shah statements from Khomeini, then in exile.
"Four times I was tortured in two consecutive days, every time about 10 minutes," he recounted. "They used electric cables and wires for flogging my (feet) while I was blindfolded. The first hit was very effective; you felt your heart and brain were exploding."
Even more frightening was the torture device interrogators and prisoners referred to as the Apollo, named after the U.S. lunar program. Those tortured sat in a chair and had a metal bucket strapped over their head, like a space helmet, that intensified their screams.
"They put my fingers and toes between the jaws of the vises firmly, whipped the soles of my feet with cables and put a metal bucket over head," Sheikhi said. "My own cries would twirl around inside the bucket and made me delirious and gave me headaches. They would hit the bucket with those cables as well."
Ezzat Shahi, another former prisoner who planted bombs targeting state buildings, recounted having pins hammered under his nails that would be heated by candles.
"Hanging from the wrists while your hands were handcuffed crossed behind was the most intolerable torture," Shahi said.
The horror of the torture shocked 20-year-old museumgoer Ameneh Khavari.
"I did not know that the torture might have been this agonizing, such as with the metal cage torture device," she said. "I had known that there was torture then from movies about the pre-revolution times, but would not have imagined that they looked like this."
As the revolution took hold, protesters overran the prison. Then Iran's Islamic government began using it as a prison as well, calling it Tohid. Human Rights Watch has accused Iran of using both Tohid and Evin prisons for detaining political prisoners. Tohid, then run by Iran's Intelligence Ministry, closed in 2000 under reformist President Mohammad Khatami after lawmakers sought to close prisons not under the control of the judiciary.
Today, Iran's government faces widespread international criticism from the U.N. and others over its detention of activists and those with ties to the West.
"Iranian authorities use vaguely worded and overly broad national security-related charges to criminalize peaceful or legitimate activities in defense of human rights," according to a report released in March 2018 by the office of the U.N.'s special rapporteur on human rights in Iran.
Iran has criticized the U.N.'s creation of the special rapporteur's position and called its findings "psychological and propagandist pressures."
A series of Westerners, including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, were held at Evin Prison. Rezaian is suing Iran in U.S. federal court over his detention, alleging he faced such "physical mistreatment and severe psychological abuse in Evin Prison that he will never be the same."
Since the revolution, several former prisons from the shah's time have closed, becoming museums and shopping malls, although new ones were built. A former mayor of Tehran even planned to make Evin Prison a park at one point. Funding never came through, however, and the site remains a prison today.