No US airstrikes in Iraq without national unity government

(By Deutsche Welle) The United States has refused to launch airstrikes against Sunni Islamist militants in Iraq, if Baghdad does not form an inclusive government. Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s days could be numbered.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has ruled out airstrikes against the rapidly advancing Islamist State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) unless Baghdad forms a more inclusive government, upping the political pressure on Nouri al-Maliki to work with the Sunnis and Kurds, or step aside as prime minister.

“It would be a complete and total act of irresponsibility for the president to just order a few strikes,” Kerry told CBS News on Tuesday. “But there’s no government, there’s no backup, there’s no military – there’s nothing there that provides the capacity for success.”

“The president reserves the right to use force as he does anywhere in the world, if it is necessary,” Kerry said. “But he wants to do so … with knowledge that there’s a government in place that can actually follow through and guarantee that what the United States is working toward can actually be achieved.”

But Prime Minister al-Maliki, a Shiite, rejected calls on Wednesday for a national unity government with Sunnis and Kurds, saying such a step would amount to a coup. Maliki’s State of Law alliance won the most seats in parliamentary elections last April, but fell short of the majority needed to form a government without help from rival parties.

“The call to form a national salvation government constitutes a coup against the constitution and the political process,” Maliki said in a televised address.

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EU, US unlikely to intervene on Ukraine’s behalf in Crimea

(By Deutsche Welle) With the immediate threat of a civil conflict in Kyiv averted, Ukraine’s crisis has now shifted to the Russian-majority region of Crimea. The region could become a flashpoint between Moscow and the West.

President Vladimir Putin placed combat troops in western Russia on alert Wednesday (26.02.2014), amid rising tensions between pro- and anti-Kremlin protesters in Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, where Moscow stations its Black Sea naval fleet.

Meanwhile, NATO defense ministers have reiterated their commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence.

“NATO allies will continue to support Ukrainian sovereignty and independence, territorial integrity, democratic development, and the principle of inviolability of frontiers, as key factors of stability and security in central and eastern Europe and on the continent as a whole,” the defense ministers said in a joint statement after their meeting in Brussels on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that the US did not view the volatile political situation in Ukraine as a Cold War-style confrontation with Russia.

“This is not a zero-sum game, it is not a West versus East…,” Kerry said after meeting with British Foreign Secretary William Hague in Washington. “This is about the people of Ukraine and Ukrainians making their choice about their future,” Kerry added.

But there’s very little that the US and EU can actually do to help maintain Ukraine’s territorial integrity, according to Joerg Forbrig, an Eastern Europe expert with the German Marshall Fund. He cites the war between Georgia and Russia in 2008, in which Moscow’s military intervention led to the secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Tbilisi’s control. While the West engaged diplomatically, it was unable to prevent the division of Georgia.

“The West has very limited means of enforcing this message,” Forbrig told DW. “What we can clearly rule out is that the West would rush to the help of the Ukrainian government to safeguard this integrity.”

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US circumvents law to transfer aid to Egypt

(By Deutsche Welle) The US Congress has passed legislation that allows the White House to transfer more than $1 billion in aid money to Egypt. Experts say that Washington is prioritizing Mubarak-era security arrangements over democracy.

As Egypt’s controversial political transition moves forward under the watchful eye of a military-backed interim government, the United States faces a dilemma over whether to embrace General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi or risk jeopardizing its relations with Cairo, a key strategic ally in the Middle East.

So far, the White House has declined to label General el-Sissi’s overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi – Egypt’s first democratically elected leader – as a military coup. That’s because the US Foreign Assistance Act bars Washington from providing aid money to “any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.”

By calling Morsi’s ouster a coup, the Obama administration would have been obligated to cut $1.5 billion (1.1 billion euros) in aid money to Egypt. A significant portion of that money goes directly to US defense contractors which manufacture weapons systems for Cairo. The money also helps to maintain the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace agreement.

In January, the US Congress passed a spending bill that effectively allows the Obama administration to circumvent the Foreign Assistance Act and transfer aid money to Egypt under the condition that the country makes progress toward democratic governance.

“It’s an attempt by the Congress to give more space and freedom to the administration to deal with a government that came to power by a coup,” Khalil al-Anani, an Egypt expert with the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., told DW.

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Karzai passes the buck on US troop immunity

(By Deutsche Welle) Afghan President Hamid Karzai has called for the Loya Jirga to decide whether US forces should receive immunity from local prosecution. Washington has threatened to pull out all of its troops if immunity is not granted.

For almost a year now, Washington and Kabul have butted heads over the details of a bilateral security agreement, which will govern a potential US troop presence in Afghanistan after NATO withdraws its combat forces in December, 2014.

The Obama administration reportedly wants to maintain between 5,000 – 10,000 troops and nine bases in Afghanistan to advise and train security forces and conduct counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al Qaeda.

In early October, US Secretary of State John Kerry met with President Karzai in Kabul, where the two men said they’d hammered out a basic draft agreement. But the issue of US troop immunity remained unresolved.

Despite Washington’s call for an agreement to be concluded as quickly as possible, Karzai has opted to convene a Loya Jirga, or grand council, to vote on the draft in November and decide whether or not US troops should enjoy legal immunity from the Afghan judicial system.

“The Afghan constitution says that in questions of immense national important a Loya Jirga can be called and that’s what Karzai is doing,” Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, told DW. “The Loya Jirga usually is doing what the current rulers want from them – that’s the experience from history.”

“The thing is there’s always a margin of error, of uncertainty in it,” Ruttig said. “So it can of course happen that – particularly if there’s an incident briefly before – the mood swings and the agreement falls through.”

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UN treaty sparks backlash over US gun rights

(By Deutsche Welle) US Secretary of State John Kerry has signed the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty. But the treaty will face fierce opposition in the Senate, where concerns over Americans’ gun rights predominate.

With the stroke of a pen, the world’s largest arms exporter signed the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) at the United Nations this week amid widespread international praise. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the United States accounts for approximately 30 percent of the world’s arms deliveries, making its participation critical to the agreement’s success.

“Today’s signing of the Arms Trade Treaty by the United States is a significant victory for human rights and development,” Oxfam America President Raymond Offenheiser said on Wednesday.

“The US is the world’s foremost arms exporter, and US signature is a powerful step demonstrating the United States’ commitment to preventing mass atrocities and protecting civilians from armed conflict,” Offenheiser added.

But Secretary of State Kerry’s signature is not the final say on whether or not Washington will actually join the agreement. The US Senate still has to ratify the ATT. Senators from both parties have voiced concern that the treaty could infringe on Americans’ second amendment right to bear arms. Many have vowed to vote against the agreement.

“This treaty is already dead in the water in the Senate, and they know it,” said Senator James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee. “The administration is wasting precious time trying to sign away our laws to the global community and unelected UN bureaucrats.”

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US-sponsored Mideast peace talks facing failure?

(By Deutsche Welle) US Secretary of State John Kerry has forged a tentative agreement between Israelis and Palestinians on renewed peace talks. But the two sides still face fundamental disagreements about the preconditions for negotiations.

Three years after US President Barack Obama’s failed foray into the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his secretary of state returned to Washington over the weekend with an apparent pledge by the two sides to restart negotiations aimed at a peace accord.

“I’m pleased to announce that we’ve reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming final status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis,” Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters last Friday in Jordan’s capital, Amman.

But both the Israelis and Palestinians have remained mum over the details of the prospective talks, delegating the public relations job to Kerry. And the US secretary of state has told the press only that the two sides have agreed to sit down with each other at the negotiating table.

The chief Israeli and Palestinian negotiators – Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat – would begin preliminary talks in Washington “within the next week or so,” according to Kerry.

“Neither side wants to be blamed for a collapse of Kerry’s efforts, and both sides are in fact nervous that without some process the situation will deteriorate and produce a worse outcome,” Aaron Miller, a vice president of the Woodrow Wilson Center and a former advisor to Democrat and Republican secretaries of state, told DW.

“The question that remains to be seen is whether or not both Netanyahu and Abbas have made private commitments to Kerry on the parameters that guide the negotiations,” Miller said.

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Egypt opposition wary of US financial overtures

(Deutsche Welle) As Egypt heads toward economic crisis, Washington has begun releasing long-stalled financial aid. But members of the secular opposition are concerned that the US may be getting too cozy with the Islamist incumbents.

US Secretary of State John Kerry announced last weekend that Washington would disburse some $190 million (145 million euros) to help Egypt close its gaping budget deficit, raising concern among secular and liberal opposition groups that the Obama administration is cultivating closer ties with Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

Kerry also pledged another $60 million to help set up a joint Egyptian-American Enterprise Fund to support small businesses. The total $250 million in aid money would be the first installment of a one-billion-dollar package pledged by US President Barack Obama to Egypt in May 2011.

Up until now, the disbursement of that money has been delayed due to concerns in Washington about Egypt’s volatile transition to a more democratic system. Members of Congress in particular have been worried about Morsi’s commitment to peace with Israel, Egyptian security forces raiding NGOs, and anti-American protests at the US embassy in Cairo last September.

“[The US] wanted to make sure power is transferred meaningfully from the military to an elected president,” Yasser El-Shimy, an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Cairo, told DW. “Now that Egypt has a president, a constitution and parliamentary elections, the US feels much more comfortable giving that money.”

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