Pompeo urges Lebanon to move away from Iran and Hezbollah’s ‘dark ambitions’
BEIRUT: On the last leg of his Middle East tour in Beirut, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Lebanon to stand up to Iran and Hezbollah, whom he accused of “criminality, terror and threats”.
Pompeo met with President Michel Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, all political allies of Hezbollah. The said they had told him the group was part and parcel of Lebanese politics.
But Pompeo said Hezbollah and Iran have nothing positive to offer to Lebanon.
“What did Hezbollah and Iran offer Lebanon but coffins and weapons? Qassem Soleimani (senior Iranian military commander) continues to undermine the legitimate institutions and the Lebanese people,” he said after meeting with Lebanon’s political leaders.
“How can storing thousands of missiles on Lebanese territory strengthen this country?” said Pompeo, who was on tour in the Middle East to drum up support for Washington’s harder line against Iran.
Pompeo said he believes that Iran does not want the situation in Lebanon to change because change is a threat to Iran’s ambitions to dominate the country.
He spoke of Iran’s criminal networks of drugs and money laundering that place Lebanon under international monitoring, and he said: “The Lebanese people should not be forced to suffer because of an illegal and terrorist group.”
Pompeo noted that US sanctions on Iran and Hezbollah are working, citing a speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah this month asking the group’s supporters for funds as evidence US pressure was working.
“Our pressure on Iran is simple. It’s aimed at cutting off the funding for terrorists and it’s working,” he said standing alongside Bassil after their meeting. “We believe that our work is already constraining Hezbollah’s activities.”
Pompeo said Iran gave Hezbollah as much as $700 million a year.
The heavily armed Hezbollah has a large militia that has taken part in Syria’s civil war alongside President Bashar Al-Assad’s government, but it also has elected members of parliament and positions in the national unity government.
The group’s influence over Lebanese state institutions has expanded in the last year. Together with allies that view its arsenal as an asset to Lebanon, it won more than 70 of parliament’s 128 seats in an election last year.
The group has taken three of the 30 portfolios in the government formed by the Western-backed Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri in January, including the health ministry – the first time it has held a ministry with a significant budget.
Pompeo said he shared concerns about “external and internal pressures on the government, including coming from some of its own members, which do not serve an independent thriving Lebanon”.
The United States would continue to use “all peaceful means” to choke off financing that “feeds Iran and Hezbollah terror operations”, he said, pointing to “smuggling, criminal networks and the missue of government positions”.
“Lebanon faces a choice: bravely move forward as an independent and proud nation, or allow the dark ambitions of Iran and Hezbollah to dictate your future,” he said.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun earlier told Pompeo that Hezbollah was a Lebanese party with popular support, the Lebanese presidency said.
“Preserving national unity and civil peace is a priority for us,” Aoun told Pompeo, the presidency said on its Twitter feed.
Speaker Berri said earlier in a statement that he had told Pompeo that Hezbollah’s “resistance” against Israel was a result of continuing Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory.
Israel, the closest US ally in the Middle East, regards Iran as its biggest threat and Hezbollah as the main danger on its borders.
German far-right holds congress with COVID ‘hotspot potential’
About 600 members of AfD due to meet Saturday at an unused nuclear plant in Kalkar city defying pandemic warnings.Hundreds of AfD delegates will gather Saturday for a congress that authorities have warned could become a coronavirus hotspot, as the German far-right party increasingly aligns itself with activists protesting coronavirus restrictions. Six hundred members of…
About 600 members of AfD due to meet Saturday at an unused nuclear plant in Kalkar city defying pandemic warnings.Hundreds of AfD delegates will gather Saturday for a congress that authorities have warned could become a coronavirus hotspot, as the German far-right party increasingly aligns itself with activists protesting coronavirus restrictions.
Six hundred members of the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant party are due to meet at an unused nuclear plant in western Germany’s Kalkar city to draw up their first concept on pensions.
To win approval for the huge gathering at a time when Germans are asked to limit their contacts to just two households at a time, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) had signed up to stringent rules including compulsory mask-wearing and distancing in the huge hall.
The party’s own security officers are due to ensure that the rules are met, alongside officials from Kalkar city.
Hundreds of police officers will also be deployed to ward off any unruly scenes, as anti-AfD protesters have also announced plans to demonstrate outside.
The event can “become a hotspot,” warned Kalkar’s mayor Britta Schulz, adding that, while it was “irresponsible” to hold such a big event, the political gathering could not be prohibited.
Because new appointments are also due to be made to the AfD’s board during the meeting, the congress is exempted from rules banning large gatherings in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
More than 15,000 COVID deaths
In contrast, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party has twice postponed its congress to elect a new leader because of the risks of coronavirus contagion. The Greens held their meeting online last weekend.
Shrugging off possible risks, the AfD’s health policy spokesman Detlev Spangenberg claimed, “The coronavirus is comparable to the influenza in terms of the course taken by the illness as well as in terms of its lethality. So the serious measures [taken to fight it] are not proportionate.”
Germany has recorded more than a million coronavirus infections. A total of 15,586 people have died from the illness, according to official data.
The AfD has been the focus of repeated controversies since it began life as a eurosceptic outfit seven years ago.
In 2015, as public opinion soured against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to keep Germany’s borders open to hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war in Iraq and Syria, the AfD morphed into an anti-immigration party.
It was rewarded for its Islamophobic positioning at elections in 2017, when voters sent it into the Bundestag for the first time to become the biggest opposition group in parliament.
A year before national elections, the party is once again positioning itself at the side of groups railing against the government – this time over curbs imposed to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.
Party co-chief Alexander Gauland recently accused the government of using “war propaganda” to champion its “corona-dictatorship”.
AfD politicians are now also regularly marching side by side demonstrators against coronavirus curbs.
During the latest round of protests in central Berlin, when violence reached a level that the capital’s police chief said had been unseen in decades, an AfD politician was charged for using a forged medical certificate to claim he could not wear the required nose and mouth covering.
In a separate incident recently, Gauland was forced to apologise after two of the party’s legislators invited to parliament two far-right YouTubers who went on to harass politicians in the building.
Nevertheless, the AfD’s ratings have held at about 10 percent, compared with highs of 15-16 percent at the height of the refugee crisis.
In 2017, German voters sent AfD into the Bundestag for the first time to become the biggest opposition group in parliament [File: Fabian Bimmer/Reuters]Toxic infighting between ultra-conservatives and others in the party has weakened the AfD. Some voters are also turned off by association with neo-Nazi skinheads, as the AfD’s most radical faction “Fluegel” is now the object of official surveillance by Germany’s intelligence agency.
Instead, approval ratings for Merkel – who is due to retire from politics next year – have soared to new heights, as the vast majority of the population voiced satisfaction at her handling of the pandemic.
Saudi Aramco says customers unaffected by Houthi attack on Jeddah
Monday’s attack knocked out a tank that contained 10 percent of all fuel stored a the Jeddah plant, Saudi Aramco official says.Oil giant Saudi Aramco says customers were unaffected by an attack by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on a petroleum products distribution plant in Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea city of Jeddah. One of the facility’s tanks…
Monday’s attack knocked out a tank that contained 10 percent of all fuel stored a the Jeddah plant, Saudi Aramco official says.Oil giant Saudi Aramco says customers were unaffected by an attack by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on a petroleum products distribution plant in Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea city of Jeddah.
One of the facility’s tanks was hit by a missile in early on Monday.
The attack knocked out 10 percent of all fuel that was stored at the plant, a Saudi Aramco official said on Tuesday, adding that the tank – one of 13 at the facility – is currently out of action.
The official described the site as a “critical facility” that distributes more than 120,000 barrels of products per day.
A fire caused by the attack was extinguished in about 40 minutes with no casualties, he said.
The attack was confirmed by a Saudi official who told the Saudi state news agency (SPA) it was a “terrorist attack with a projectile”.
The oil company’s production and export facilities are mostly in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province, more than 1,000km (621 miles) away from Jeddah, across the country.
Announcing the attack, a military spokesman for the Houthis warned that “operations will continue”.
Yahya Sarea said the attack was carried out with a Quds-2 type winged missile. He also posted a satellite image with the label: “North Jeddah bulk plant-Saudi Aramco”.
“The strike was very accurate, and ambulances and fire engines rushed to the target,” Sarea said.
That facility is just southeast of Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport, an important site that handles incoming Muslim pilgrims en route to nearby Mecca.
Yemen has been mired in conflict since a Saudi-led coalition intervened in March 2015 to restore the Yemeni government, which had been removed from power in the capital Sanaa by Houthi forces in late 2014.
Cross-border attacks by Houthi forces have escalated since late May when a truce prompted by the novel coronavirus pandemic expired. The Saudi-led coalition has responded with air raids on Houthi-held territory.
The Houthis control most of north Yemen and most large urban areas. They say they are fighting a corrupt system.
Sarea said the attack was carried out in response to the Saudi-led coalition’s actions in Yemen.
The claimed attack came just after a visit by outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Saudi Arabia to see Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The kingdom also just hosted the annual G20 summit, which concluded on Sunday.
US appoints first Venezuela ambassador in a decade amid tensions
The two nations have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010 when relations began to fray under late President Hugo Chávez.The United States has its first ambassador for Venezuela in 10 years despite Washington having no diplomats at its Caracas embassy amid a breakdown in relations. James Story’s nomination as ambassador was confirmed on Wednesday by a…
The two nations have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010 when relations began to fray under late President Hugo Chávez.The United States has its first ambassador for Venezuela in 10 years despite Washington having no diplomats at its Caracas embassy amid a breakdown in relations.
James Story’s nomination as ambassador was confirmed on Wednesday by a US Senate voice vote.
The South Carolina native takes the job that he will carry out from the capital of neighbouring Colombia as Venezuela endures an historic economic and political crisis.
The US and Venezuela have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010 when relations first started to fray under late President Hugo Chávez.
The two nations totally broke diplomatic ties last year, each withdrawing its diplomats shortly after Washington backed Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s leader.
Story, 50, will likely play a key role in helping guide US policy on Venezuela during the transition of President-elect Joe Biden.
Biden’s win has sparked debate among those who back President Donald Trump’s hardline approach of isolating his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro and others who say it is time for a new course.
The critics say heavy sanctions have failed to remove Maduro from power, opening Venezuela to US competitors such as China, Russia and Iran, while making life harder on millions of residents of the South American nation.
The US leads a coalition of dozens of nations that rejected Maduro following his election in 2018 to a second term in a vote Washington called fraudulent.
The US has since heavily sanctioned Maduro, his inner circle and the state-run oil firm, attempting to isolate them.
The Trump administration offered a $15m reward for Maduro’s arrest after a US court indicted him on drug charges.