Judge in Michigan blocks deportation of 100 Iraqis

Protesters rally outside the federal court just before a hearing to consider a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of Iraqi nationals facing deportation, in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

By Dan Levine

(Reuters) – A U.S. judge on Thursday temporarily blocked the deportation of about 100 Iraqi nationals rounded up in Michigan in recent weeks who argued that they could face persecution or torture in Iraq because they are religious minorities.

U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith in Michigan issued an order staying the deportation of the Iraqis for at least two weeks as he decides whether he has jurisdiction over the matter. Goldsmith said it was unclear whether the Iraqis would ultimately succeed.

The arrests shocked the close-knit Iraqi community in Michigan. Six Michigan lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives urged the government to hold off on the removals until Congress can be given assurances about the deportees’ safety.

The Michigan arrests were part of a coordinated sweep in recent weeks by immigration authorities who detained about 199 Iraqi immigrants around the country. They had final deportation orders and convictions for serious crimes.

The roundup followed Iraq’s agreement to accept deportees as part of a deal that removed the country from President Donald Trump’s revised temporary travel ban.

Some of those affected came to the United States as children and committed their crimes decades ago, but they had been allowed to stay because Iraq previously declined to issue travel documents for them. That changed after the two governments came to the agreement in March.

A U.S. Department of Justice spokeswoman could not immediately be reached for comment on the ruling.

Lee Gelernt, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union representing the Iraqis in Michigan, said: “The court’s action today was legally correct and may very well have saved numerous people from abuse and possible death.”

The U.S. government has argued that the district court does not have jurisdiction over the case. Only immigration courts can decide deportation issues, which can then only be reviewed by an appeals court, it said.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has said that people with convictions for murder, rape, assault, kidnapping, burglary and drugs and weapons charges were among the Iraqis arrested nationwide.

The ACLU argued that many of those affected in Michigan are Chaldean Catholics who are “widely recognized as targets of brutal persecution in Iraq.”

Some Kurdish Iraqis were also picked up in Nashville, Tennessee. In a letter on Thursday, Tennessee Representative Jim Cooper, a Democrat, asked the Iraqi ambassador whether Iraq would be able to ensure safe passage for them if they were returned.

(Reporting by Dan Levine in San Francisco and Eric Walsh in Washington; Editing by David Alexander and Cynthia Osterman)

Trump denies obstructing FBI probe, says has no tapes of talks with Comey

U.S. President Donald Trump takes the stage for a rally at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, U.S. June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Scott Morgan

By Amanda Becker and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday he had not obstructed the FBI’s probe into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and had not recorded his conversations with former FBI chief James Comey.

Comey was leading the investigation into allegations Russia tried to sway the election toward Trump and the possibility Trump associates colluded with Moscow when the president fired him on May 9, sparking a political firestorm.

“Look there has been no obstruction, there has been no collusion,” Trump told Fox News Channel in an interview set to air on Friday. Fox released a partial transcript of the interview on Thursday.

The former head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation testified before a Senate committee that Trump had asked him to drop a probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s alleged ties to Russia.

Earlier on Thursday, Trump said he did not make and does not possess any tapes of his conversations with Comey, after suggesting last month he might have recordings that could undercut Comey’s description of events.

“I have no idea whether there are ‘tapes’ or recordings of my conversations with James Comey, but I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

Lawmakers investigating allegations of Russian interference in the U.S. election had asked the White House for any such recordings.

Shortly after dismissing Comey, Trump mentioned the possibility of tapes in a Twitter post.

“James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” Trump tweeted on May 12.

Allegations of ties to Russia have cast a shadow over Trump’s first five months in office, distracting from attempts by his fellow Republicans in Congress to overhaul the U.S. healthcare and tax systems.

Trump has privately told aides that the threat of the existence of tapes forced Comey to tell the truth in his recent testimony, a source familiar with the situation said.

Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said Trump still had questions to answer about possible tapes.

“If the president had no tapes, why did he suggest otherwise? Did he seek to mislead the public? Was he trying to intimidate or silence James Comey? And if so, did he take other steps to discourage potential witnesses from speaking out?” Schiff said in a statement.

CNN reported on Thursday that two top U.S. intelligence officials told investigators Trump suggested they publicly deny any collusion between his campaign and Russia, but that they did not feel he had ordered them to do so.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Admiral Mike Rogers met separately last week with investigators for special counsel Robert Mueller and the Senate Intelligence Committee, according to CNN.

The two officials said they were surprised at Trump’s suggestion and found their interactions with him odd and uncomfortable, but they did not act on the president’s requests, CNN reported, citing sources familiar with their accounts.

Reuters was unable to verify the CNN report.

In his interview with Fox, Trump expressed concern about what he described as the close relationship between Comey and Mueller, who was appointed to take over the investigation after Comey was fired.

“Well he’s very, very good friends with Comey, which is very bothersome,” Trump said, according to the Fox transcript.

The Kremlin has denied U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Moscow tried to tilt the election in Trump’s favor, using such means as hacking into the emails of senior Democrats.

Trump has repeatedly denied any collusion.

(Additional reporting by Tim Ahmann, Steve Holland, Patricia Zengerle and Susan Heavey; Writing by Alistair Bell and Tim Ahmann; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Peter Cooney and Paul Tait)

Tough-talking Trump defense lawyer says he’s no ‘snowflake’

FILE PHOTO: Lawyer John Dowd exits Manhattan Federal Court in New York May 11, 2011. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File photo

By Karen Freifeld

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The latest lawyer hired to represent U.S. President Donald Trump in the federal investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election is an ex-Marine who likens some cases to war.

“I fight hard,” John Dowd said in an interview. “I believe that’s what I’m supposed to do. I am not a snowflake, I can tell you that.”

“Snowflake” is a disparaging term for people considered overly sensitive and fragile that has been adopted by some Trump supporters to mock liberals.

Dowd, who spoke with Reuters on Wednesday, is a mirror of his client in many ways. He has a no-holds-barred, hyperbolic style and a history of attacking prosecutors, congressional Democrats and the media.

The 76-year-old Washington lawyer, who retired from the firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in 2014, brings criminal defense and government investigation experience to Trump’s legal team.

The team, led by New York lawyer Marc Kasowitz, is tasked with responding to Robert Mueller, the special counsel named by the Justice Department to probe whether anyone associated with Trump or his campaign had any illegal dealings with Russian officials or others with ties to the Kremlin.

Russian officials have denied meddling in the U.S. election, and Trump denies any collusion by his campaign.

In what Dowd said would be his last major trial, he defended billionaire hedge fund founder Raj Rajaratnam in one of the biggest insider trading cases of all time.

Rajaratnam was convicted of all 14 insider trading counts and sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2011.

Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Reed Brodsky, who prosecuted the case, said Dowd put on a strong defense in the face of overwhelming evidence. “This is war, and I will defeat you,” Brodsky recalled Dowd declaring in one phone conversation.

Dowd confirmed the sentiment on Wednesday. “It is a war,” he said of such cases.

His tactics in the Rajaratnam case reflected that belief. Dowd aggressively challenged the prosecution’s stance on what constituted insider trading. He also fought the government’s wiretaps of his client’s cell phone, claiming investigators “gamed the system.”

Brodsky said he believed the physically commanding 6-foot-4-inch-tall Dowd would be a “ferocious defender of the president.”

In a manner similar to Trump, Dowd lashed out at what he perceived to be improper leaks by prosecutors and the Federal Bureau of Investigation during the Rajaratnam case, singling out then-Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in particular.

“He sat in the back of the courtroom with his press dogs,” Dowd said. “It was the most atrocious thing I’ve ever seen.”

Dowd also went after reporters. Bharara, who declined to comment on Wednesday, last weekend retweeted an intemperate 2011 email the defense lawyer sent to a Wall Street Journal reporter he accused of “whoring” for the prosecution.

In another encounter with the press caught on camera, Dowd swore at and gave the middle finger to a CNBC reporter.

Like Trump, Dowd has a tendency to put his own spin on adverse news. After the Rajaratnam verdict, Dowd argued “the defense is winning” because the prosecution chose not to pursue 23 other allegations of insider trading. “The score is 23-14,” he told reporters.

In a 2007 congressional probe of politically motivated firings of U.S. Attorneys, Dowd complained of McCarthyism when his client, former Justice Department official Monica Goodling, was criticized by Democrats for invoking the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination.

Dowd represented U.S. Senator John McCain on congressional ethics charges in the 1980s “Keating Five” banking scandal and conducted the Major League Baseball investigation that led to former Hall of Famer Pete Rose being banned from the sport for betting on games while he was manager of the Cincinnati Reds.

Dowd would not discuss legal strategy for Trump but said the team the president had assembled was great. “We’re all fighters,” he said.

Though his hiring was first reported Friday, a person familiar with the matter said Dowd has been working with the team for weeks. Dowd said he knew Kasowitz partner Michael Bowe, who is also representing Trump, and met with Kasowitz at the end of May. Jay Sekulow, another member of the team, has been appearing on television on Trump’s behalf.

Dowd also said he talked with the president but declined to describe their conversation. He called Trump “a fighter for the people” and said the president had done nothing wrong.

A onetime military lawyer with the U.S. Marine Corps, Dowd noted his shared service in declining to criticize Mueller, a Marine platoon leader during the Vietnam War.

“Bobby is doing what he has to do and he’ll do a good job,” said Dowd. “He’s a fellow Marine and he’s a good man.”

(Reporting By Karen Freifeld; Editing by Anthony Lin and Tom Brown)

Three arrested at Trump inauguration sue DC over ‘police abuse’

File Photo - Protesters demonstrating against U.S. President Donald Trump take cover as they are hit by pepper spray by police on the sidelines of the inauguration in Washington, DC, U.S. on January 20, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif/File Photo

(Reuters) – The American Civil Liberties Union sued police in the nation’s capital on Wednesday on behalf of three people detained during the U.S. presidential inauguration, claiming they were subjected to unconstitutional arrests, excessive force and police abuse.

More than 200 people were arrested in Washington in January after some black-clad activists among those protesting Donald Trump’s swearing-in clashed with police a few blocks from the White House, in an outburst of violence rare for an inauguration.

The lawsuit against the Metropolitan Police Department, the District of Columbia and individual officers claims the plaintiffs broke no laws at the protests and endured abuses including being pepper-sprayed and denied food and water for hours.

The plaintiffs include two individuals who came to the District of Columbia to express their views concerning the inauguration and a photojournalist who covered the demonstrations.

“The MPD’s extreme tactics against members of the public, including journalists, demonstrators, and observers, were unjustifiable and unconstitutional,” Scott Michelman, senior staff attorney for the ACLU-DC, said in a statement.

Since Trump’s election win, a number of demonstrations in U.S. cities have highlighted strong discontent over his comments and policy positions toward a wide range of groups, including Mexican immigrants, Muslims, the disabled and environmentalists.

Washington’s police department said in a statement “all instances of use of force by officers and allegations of misconduct at the inauguration will be fully investigated,” and that it will support the legal process.

It added officers worked diligently to protect the rights of thousands who came to the inauguration to peacefully express their views.

“Unfortunately, there was another group of individuals who chose to engage in criminal acts, destroying property and hurling projectiles, injuring at least six officers. These individuals were ultimately arrested for their criminal actions,” it said.

The lawsuit says photojournalist Shay Horse was pepper-sprayed while taking photographs and subjected to unjustified, invasive body probes.

It also said demonstrator Elizabeth Lagesse was peacefully protesting when she was arrested and handcuffed so tightly that her wrists bled.

(This story corrects number of people suing Washington D.C. in headline and paragraphs 1 and 4.)

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Matthew Lewis)

Trump’s son-in-law launches Middle East peace effort

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets with White House senior advisor Jared Kushner in the West Bank City of Ramallah June 21, 2017. Thaer Ghanaim/PPO/Handout via REUTERS

By Luke Baker

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, met Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Wednesday to try to revive long-fractured Middle East peacemaking that Washington acknowledged will take some time.

Kushner, a 36-year-old real estate developer with little experience of international diplomacy or political negotiation, arrived in Israel on Wednesday morning and was due to spend barely 20 hours on the ground.

Video showed him giving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a friend of Kushner’s father, a handshake and a hug as they prepared to sit down with the Israeli ambassador to Washington, the U.S. ambassador to Israel and other senior officials for preliminary discussions.

“This is an opportunity to pursue our common goals of security, prosperity and peace,” Netanyahu said. “Jared, I welcome you here in that spirit. I know of your efforts, the president’s efforts, and I look forward to working with you to achieve these common goals.”

Kushner replied: “The president sends his best regards and it’s an honor to be here with you.”

Kushner did not speak to the media or take questions, maintaining the circumspect profile he has established since Trump took office in January.

U.S. officials and Israeli leaders “underscored that forging peace will take time and stressed the importance of doing everything possible to create an environment conducive to peacemaking,” the White House later said in a statement.

Kushner traveled to Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, for two hours of talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after iftar, the evening meal that breaks the daily Ramadan fast.

Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah said all major issues at the heart of the conflict were discussed.

U.S. officials called the trip part of an effort to keep the conversation going rather than the launching of a new phase in the peace process, saying that Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, the president’s special representative for international negotiations, are likely to return often.

Trump has described peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians as “the ultimate deal” and made it a priority. As well as receiving both Netanyahu and Abbas in the White House, he visited the region last month.

But it remains unclear what approach Trump, via Kushner and Greenblatt, plans to take on resolving one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.

For at least two decades, the goal of U.S.-led diplomacy has been a “two-state solution”, meaning an independent Palestinian state living side-by-side and at peace with Israel.

But when Trump met Netanyahu in Washington in February, he said he was not fixed on two states saying, “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like”.

12 ‘BULLET POINTS’

Netanyahu has in the past given conditional backing to two states. But ahead of his last election victory in 2015, he promised there would never be a Palestinian state on his watch, a remark seen as an attempt to shore up right-wing support.

In discussions with Greenblatt before Kushner’s visit, Palestinian sources said the phrase “two-state solution” had not been used.

Palestinian sources said that ahead of Kushner’s meeting with Abbas, they had been asked to draw up a list of 12 “bullet point” demands they would want met in any negotiations.

They saw it as a helpful exercise in focusing on core elements rather than an oversimplification of a complex issue.

Trump administration officials have said that if they are going to make progress on peace, they do not want to get bogged down in process but to move rapidly on tackling what are known as “final status” issues, the complexities around Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, water resources, security and borders.

Those have long been thorny problems in the multiple rounds of peace negotiations launched by both Republican and Democratic presidents since the mid-1990s. It remains unclear what new approach Trump’s administration may have to untangling disputes that blend politics, land, religion and ethnicity and have defied resolution for 70 years.

(Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Ali Sawafta; Editing by Howard Goller)

Trump says China tried but failed to help on North Korea

U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and China's President Xi Jinping walk along the front patio of the Mar-a-Lago estate after a bilateral meeting in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., April 7, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Steve Holland and Michael Martina

WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese efforts to persuade North Korea to rein in its nuclear program have failed, President Donald Trump said on Tuesday, ratcheting up the rhetoric over the death of an American student who had been detained by Pyongyang.

Trump has held high hopes for greater cooperation from China to exert influence over North Korea, leaning heavily on Chinese President Xi Jinping for his assistance. The two leaders had a high-profile summit in Florida in April and Trump has frequently praised Xi while resisting criticizing Chinese trade practices.

“While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!” Trump wrote on Twitter.

It was unclear whether his remark represented a significant shift in his thinking in the U.S. struggle to stop North Korea’s nuclear program and its test launching of missiles or a change in U.S. policy toward China.

“I think the president is signaling some frustration,” Christopher Hill, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, told MSNBC. “He’s signaling to others that he understands this isn’t working, and he’s trying to defend himself, or justify himself, by saying that at least they tried as opposed to others who didn’t even try.”

China’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that China had made “unremitting efforts” to resolve tensions on the Korean peninsula, and that it had “always played and important and constructive role”.

“China’s efforts to resolve the peninsula nuclear issue is not due to any external pressure, but because China is a member of the region and a responsible member of the international community, and because resolving the peninsula nuclear issue is in China’s interests,” ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a daily news briefing.

On Tuesday, a U.S. official, who did not want to be identified, said U.S. spy satellites had detected movements recently at North Korea’s nuclear test site near a tunnel entrance, but it was unclear if these were preparations for a new nuclear test – perhaps to coincide with high-level talks between the United States and China in Washington on Wednesday.

“North Korea remains prepared to conduct a sixth nuclear test at any time when there is an order from leadership but there are no new unusual indications that can be shared,” a South Korean Defense Ministry official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Seoul was in close consultation with Washington over the matter, the official added.

North Korea last tested a nuclear bomb in September, but it has conducted repeated missile test since and vowed to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland, putting it at the forefront of Trump’s security worries.

U.S.-CHINA DIALOGUE

The Trump statement about China was likely to increase pressure on Beijing ahead of Wednesday’s Diplomatic and Security Dialogue, which will pair U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis with China’s top diplomat, State Councilor Yang Jiechi, and General Fang Fenghui, chief of joint staff of the People’s Liberation Army.

The State Department says the dialogue will focus on ways to increase pressure on North Korea, but also cover such areas as counter-terrorism and territorial rivalries in the South China Sea.

The U.S. side is expected to press China to cooperate on a further toughening of international sanctions on North Korea. The United States and its allies would like to see an oil embargo and bans on the North Korean airline and guest workers among other moves, steps diplomats say have been resisted by China and Russia.

In a sign that U.S.-Chinese relations remain stable, a White House aide said Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, were invited by the Chinese government to visit the country later this year.

Trump has hardened his rhetoric against North Korea following the death of Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who died on Monday in the United States after returning from captivity in North Korea in a coma.

“A DISGRACE”

In a White House meeting with visiting Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko, Trump criticized the way Warmbier’s case was handled in the year since his arrest, appearing to assail both North Korea and his predecessor, President Barack Obama.

“What happened to Otto is a disgrace. And I spoke with his family. His family is incredible … but he should have been brought home a long time ago,” Trump said.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the United States holds North Korea accountable for Warmbier’s “unjust imprisonment” and urged Pyongyang to release three other Americans who are detained.

Chinese state-run newspaper the Global Times, published by the official People’s Daily, said Chinese officials must be wary that Warmbier’s death might push Washington to put greater pressure on Beijing.

“China has made the utmost efforts to help break the stalemate in the North Korean nuclear issue. But by no means will China, nor will Chinese society permit it to, act as a ‘U.S. ally’ in pressuring North Korea,” the Global Times said in an editorial.

If Washington imposes sanctions on Chinese enterprises, it would lead to “grave friction” between the two countries, said the paper, which does not represent Chinese government policy.

Trump’s tweet about China took some advisers by surprise. A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States had limited options to rein in North Korea without Chinese assistance.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said a meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is less likely following Warmbier’s death.

Spicer said Trump would be willing to meet Kim under the right conditions, but “clearly we’re moving further away, not closer to those conditions.”

For graphic on Americans detained by North Korea, click: http://tmsnrt.rs/2r5xYpB

(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom, David Alexander and John Walcott in Washington and Jack Kim in Seoul; Editing by Howard Goller, Leslie Adler and Lincoln Feast)

Republican avoids upset in costly Georgia congressional race

Karen Handel, Republican candidate for Georgia's 6th Congressional District, makes an appearance before supporters prior to giving her acceptance speech at her election night party at the Hyatt Regency at Villa Christina in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., June 20, 2017. REUTERS/Bita Honarvar

By Andy Sullivan

SANDY SPRINGS, Ga. (Reuters) – Georgia Republican Karen Handel won the most expensive congressional race in history on Tuesday, avoiding a Democratic upset in a race that was widely seen as a referendum on President Donald Trump.

By a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent, the former Georgia secretary of state defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff, a political newcomer who sought to wrest control of a suburban Atlanta district that has elected Republicans to Congress since the 1970s.

The election will not significantly change the balance of power in Washington, where Republicans control the White House and both chambers of Congress.

But it could give Republicans a boost in confidence as they struggle to advance health and tax legislation that has been bogged down by infighting and investigations into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia in last year’s presidential election.

Handel said at her victory rally that she knew it was going to “require all hands on deck” for Republicans to hold on to the district.

“Tonight I stand before you, extraordinarily humbled and honored at the tremendous privilege and high responsibility that you … have given me,” Handel told a boisterous crowd that chanted Trump’s name.

Ossoff and Handel both tried to focus on local issues and avoided mentioning Trump, whose approval rating sits at 37 percent, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling.

But that did not stop Trump from weighing in on Twitter, urging voters to support Handel before the election and celebrating her victory afterward.

“Fantastic job, we are all very proud of you!” he posted Tuesday night.

Spending on the race reached at least $57 million, nearly twice the previous record, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group. The special election was held to fill the seat vacated by Tom Price after Trump appointed him as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Democrats celebrated the fact that they had turned a conservative stronghold into a competitive district.

“We showed the world that in places where no one thought it was even possible we could fight (that) we could fight,” Ossoff told supporters.

But the defeat was sure to prompt soul-searching in a party that is shut out of power in Washington and has steadily lost influence at the state level in recent years. Despite spending more than $30 million, Ossoff lost the district by a wider margin than Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

Democrats also lost a special election in neighboring South Carolina on Tuesday, where Republican Ralph Norman easily prevailed over Democrat Archie Parnell in a seat formerly held by Republican Mick Mulvaney, who is now serving as Trump’s budget director.

Democrats are 0 for 4 in congressional elections this year, having earlier lost races to fill vacant seats in Kansas and Montana.

“All the Fake News, all the money spent = 0,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

Republicans, meanwhile, can now breathe a sigh of relief with the knowledge that they can still win in the kind of affluent, educated districts that often favor Democrats – even with a president who has divided voters in their own party.

“Do I agree 100 percent with what he does? God, no. But I believe he has the country’s best interests at heart,” said Jessica Podalsky, who voted for Handel on Tuesday morning.

(Additional reporting by Amanda Becker in Washington; Editing by Leslie Adler, Peter Cooney and Paul Tait)

Trump’s son-in-law Kushner begins peace push with Middle East talks

FILE PHOTO: White House senior adviser Jared Kushner at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, U.S. June 19, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

By Luke Baker

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, will meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday, beginning a new U.S. effort to revive Middle East peace efforts.

Kushner, a 36-year-old real estate developer with little experience of international diplomacy and peace negotiations, arrived in Israel early on Wednesday and will spend barely 20 hours on the ground – he departs shortly after midnight.

During his stopover, he will meet Netanyahu for their first formal discussions on peace, before traveling to Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, for talks with Abbas after Iftar, the evening meal that breaks the Ramadan fast.

U.S. officials are calling the trip part of an effort to keep the conversation going rather than the launching of a new phase in the peace process, saying that Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, the president’s special representative for international negotiations, are likely to return repeatedly.

Greenblatt arrived in Israel on Monday for preliminary discussions in both Jerusalem and Ramallah, and will remain for follow-up talks after Kushner has departed, officials said.

Trump has described a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians as “the ultimate deal” and made it a priority since taking office: he’s received both Netanyahu and Abbas in the White House and visited the region last month.

But it remains unclear what approach Trump, via Kushner and Greenblatt, plans to take on resolving one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.

For at least two decades, the goal of U.S.-led diplomacy has been a “two-state solution”, meaning an independent Palestinian state living side-by-side and at peace with Israel.

But when he met Netanyahu in Washington in February, Trump said he was not fixed on two states saying, “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like”.

Netanyahu has in the past given his conditional backing to two states. But ahead of his last election victory in 2015, he promised there would never be a Palestinian state on his watch, a remark seen as an attempt to shore up support on the right.

In preliminary discussions before Kushner’s visit, Palestinian sources said the phrase “two state solution” had not been used.

SETTLEMENT DISPUTE

On Tuesday, hours before Kushner’s arrival, Netanyahu announced the beginning of work on a new settlement in the West Bank, and has talked of thousands more settlement homes, ramping up a policy that has long been a major obstacle to peace.

The Palestinians have in the past called for a freeze on settlement building before any negotiations can take place. Most of the world considers settlements built on occupied land illegal under international law, a position Israel disputes.

Palestinian sources said that ahead of Kushner’s meeting with Abbas, they had been asked to draw up a list of 12 ‘bullet point’ demands they have in any negotiations.

They saw it as a helpful exercise in focusing on core elements rather than an oversimplification of a complex issue.

Trump administration officials have said that if they are going to make progress on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, they do not want to get bogged down in process but to move more rapidly toward resolving what are known as “final status” issues, the complexities around Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, water resources, security and borders.

(Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Iran’s supreme leader criticizes U.S. policies toward Tehran

FILE PHOTO: Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech during a ceremony marking the death anniversary of the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in Tehran, Iran, June 4, 2017. TIMA via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei lashed out on Sunday at U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration and what he characterized as its hostility to the Islamic Republic.

“This inexperienced group has not recognized the people and leaders of Iran,” he said, according to the website for state TV. “When they get hit in the mouth, at that time they’ll know what’s going on.”

Khamenei and other senior Iranian officials have ramped up their criticism of the United States in recent weeks after Trump went on an official visit last month to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional rival.

During that visit, Trump singled out Iran as a key source of funding and support for militant groups. He has also criticized the nuclear deal between Iran and six major powers, including the United States, that led to the lifting of most sanctions against Iran, in return for curbs on its nuclear programme. Trump has said Washington would review the deal but stopped short of pledging to scrap it.

Iran and the United States cut diplomatic ties shortly after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution and enmity to Washington has long been a rallying point for hardline supporters of Khamenei in Iran.

Khamenei has accused the United States and its regional ally Saudi Arabia of funding hardline Sunni militants, including Islamic State, which carried out its first attack in Iran earlier this month, killing 17 people.

Riyadh has denied involvement in the suicide bombings and gun attacks on Iran’s parliament and the mausoleum of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Khamenei said in his speech on Sunday that any efforts to destabilize the Islamic Republic would not succeed.

“In the past 38 years, when has there been a time when you haven’t wanted to change the Islamic system?” Khamenei said, according to Fars News. “Your head has hit the rock each time and always will.”

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Exclusive: Trump seen hardening line toward Pakistan after Afghan war review

U.S. President Donald Trump walks to the White House in Washington, U.S. following his arrival from Camp David June 18, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s administration appears ready to harden its approach toward Pakistan to crack down on Pakistan-based militants launching attacks in neighboring Afghanistan, U.S. officials tell Reuters.

Potential Trump administration responses being discussed include expanding U.S. drone strikes, redirecting or withholding some aid to Pakistan and perhaps eventually downgrading Pakistan’s status as a major non-NATO ally, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Some U.S. officials, however, are skeptical of the prospects for success, arguing that years of previous U.S. efforts to curb Pakistan’s support for militant groups have failed, and that already strengthening U.S. ties to India, Pakistan’s arch-enemy, undermine chances of a breakthrough with Islamabad.

U.S. officials say they seek greater cooperation with Pakistan, not a rupture in ties, once the administration finishes a regional review of the strategy guiding the 16-year-old war in Afghanistan.

Precise actions have yet to be decided.

The White House and Pentagon declined to comment on the review before its completion. Pakistan’s embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“The United States and Pakistan continue to partner on a range of national security issues,” Pentagon spokesman Adam Stump said.

But the discussions alone suggest a shift toward a more assertive approach to address safe havens in Pakistan that have been blamed for in part helping turn Afghanistan’s war into an intractable conflict.

Experts on America’s longest war argue that militant safe havens in Pakistan have allowed Taliban-linked insurgents a place to plot deadly strikes in Afghanistan and regroup after ground offensives.

Although long mindful of Pakistan, the Trump administration in recent weeks has put more emphasis on the relationship with Islamabad in discussions as it hammers out a the regional strategy to be presented to Trump by mid-July, nearly six months after he took office, one official said.

“We’ve never really fully articulated what our strategy towards Pakistan is. The strategy will more clearly say what we want from Pakistan specifically,” the U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Other U.S. officials warn of divisions within the government about the right approach and question whether any mix of carrots and sticks can get Islamabad to change its behavior. At the end of the day, Washington needs a partner, even if an imperfect one, in nuclear-armed Pakistan, they say.

The United States is again poised to deploy thousands more troops in Afghanistan, an acknowledgment that U.S.-backed forces are not winning and Taliban militants are resurgent.

Without more pressure on militants within Pakistan who target Afghanistan, experts say additional U.S. troop deployments will fail to meet their ultimate objective: to pressure the Taliban to eventually negotiate peace.

“I believe there will be a much harder U.S. line on Pakistan going forward than there has been in the past,” Hamdullah Mohib, the Afghan ambassador to the United States, told Reuters, without citing specific measures under review.

Kabul has long been critical of Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan.

Pakistan fiercely denies allowing any militants safe haven on its territory. It bristles at U.S. claims that Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, has ties to Haqqani network militants blamed for some of the deadliest attacks in Afghanistan.

“What Pakistan says is that we are already doing a lot and that our plate is already full,” a senior Pakistani government source told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The source doubted the Trump administration would press too hard, saying: “They don’t want to push Pakistan to abandon their war against terrorism.”

Pakistani officials point towards the toll militancy has taken on the country. Since 2003, almost 22,000 civilians and nearly 7,000 Pakistani security forces have been killed as a result of militancy, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, which tracks violence.

Experts say Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan is also driven in part by fears that India will gain influence in Afghanistan.

IS PAKISTAN AN ALLY?

Nuclear-armed Pakistan won the status as a major non-NATO ally in 2004 from the George Bush administration, in what was at the time seen in part as recognition of its importance in the U.S. battle against al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents.

The status is mainly symbolic, allowing limited benefits such as giving Pakistan faster access to surplus U.S. military hardware.

Some U.S. officials and experts on the region scoff at the title.

“Pakistan is not an ally. It’s not North Korea or Iran. But it’s not an ally,” said Bruce Riedel, a Pakistan expert at the Brookings Institution.

But yanking the title would be seen by Pakistan as a major blow.

“The Pakistanis would take that very seriously because it would be a slap at their honor,” said a former U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Lisa Curtis, senior director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council, co-authored a report with Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Washington, in which they recommended the Trump administration warn Pakistan the status could be revoked in six months.

“Thinking of Pakistan as an ally will continue to create problems for the next administration as it did for the last one,” said the February report.

It was unclear how seriously the Trump administration was considering the proposal.

The growing danger to Afghanistan from suspected Pakistan-based militants was underscored by a devastating May 31 truck bomb that killed more than 80 people and wounded 460 in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul.

Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency said the attack – one of the deadliest in memory in Kabul – had been carried out by the Haqqani network with assistance from Pakistan, a charge Islamabad denies.

Washington believes the strikes appeared to be the work of the Haqqani network, U.S. officials told Reuters.

U.S. frustration over the Haqqani’s presence in Pakistan has been building for years. The United States designated the Haqqani network as a terrorist organization in 2012. U.S. Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, then the top U.S. military officer, told Congress in 2011 that the Haqqani network was a “veritable arm” of the ISI.

The potential U.S. pivot to a more assertive approach would be sharply different than the approach taken at the start of the Obama administration, when U.S. officials sought to court Pakistani leaders, including Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani.

David Sedney, who served as Obama’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia from 2009 to 2013, said the attempt to turn Islamabad into a strategic partner was a “disaster.”

“It didn’t affect Pakistan’s behavior one bit. In fact, I would argue it made Pakistan’s behavior worse,” Sedney said.

MORE DRONES, CASH CUT-OFF

Pakistan has received more than $33 billion in U.S. assistance since 2002, including more than $14 billion in so-called Coalition Support Funds (CSF), a U.S. Defense Department program to reimburse allies that have incurred costs in supporting counter-insurgency operations.

It is an important form of foreign currency for the nuclear-armed country and one that is getting particularly close scrutiny during the Trump administration review.

Last year, the Pentagon decided not to pay Pakistan $300 million in CSF funding after then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter declined to sign authorization that Pakistan was taking adequate action against the Haqqani network.

U.S. officials said the Trump administration was discussing withholding at least some assistance to Pakistan.

Curtis’ report also singled out the aid as a target.

But U.S. aid cuts could cede even more influence to China, which already has committed nearly $60 billion in investments in Pakistan.

Another option under review is broadening a drone campaign to penetrate deeper into Pakistan to target Haqqani fighters and other militants blamed for attacks in Afghanistan, U.S. officials and a Pakistan expert said.

“Now the Americans (will be) saying, you aren’t taking out our enemies, so therefore we are taking them out ourselves,” the Pakistan expert, who declined to be identified, said.

Pakistan’s army chief of staff last week criticized “unilateral actions” such as drone strikes as “counterproductive and against (the) spirit of ongoing cooperation and intelligence sharing being diligently undertaken by Pakistan”.

(Additional reporting by Josh Smith in Kabul, Drazen Jorgic in Islamabad and John Walcott in Washington; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Howard Goller)