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US confronts dangers from ‘not very good’ Iran-backed militants

US confronts dangers from ‘not very good’ Iran-backed militants

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US confronts dangers from 'not very good' Iran-backed militants

More than a month before a deadly drone strike that killed three U.S. soldiers in Jordan, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin sought to reassure US troops about the military’s ability to withstand attacks by Iran-backed militants.

Austin, in previously unpublished remarks to sailors aboard the Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier on Dec 20, said the number one reason the militants had failed to that point was that “they’re not very good at what they do.”

“Every day, Iranian proxies are shooting at our troops that are in Iraq and Syria. They haven’t been effective at all because (of) two reasons: Number one, they’re not very good at what they do,” Austin told the crew.

“But number two, we’ve done a lot of things to ensure that we have the adequate force protection … Eventually, as we all know, they may get lucky one day and cause injury to one of our troops. But we will stay on the balls of our feet and make sure that that doesn’t happen.”

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In the wake of the drone attack, President Joe Biden’s administration is vowing to do whatever it takes to protect US troops from an escalating cycle of violence in the Middle East, where Iran-aligned militants are firing at them in Iraq, Syria, Jordan and off the coast of Yemen in the Red Sea.

But current and former US officials tell Reuters the militants’ periodic success in attacks may be unavoidable, given the sheer number of drones, rockets and missiles fired at U.S. troops and the fact that base defenses cannot realistically be completely effective 100% of the time.

Experts also caution against underestimating the Iran-backed militants, even if most of their attacks fail.

Charles Lister of the Washington-based Middle East Institute recalled former President Barack Obama’s description of Islamic State as a junior varsity team in 2014 even as the group was gathering strength.

“To suggest, Obama-style, that ‘well, they’re just a J.V. team’ and we can chuckle along and take the hits and know that nothing serious is happening is just profoundly naive,” Lister said. “These groups have conducted sophisticated transnational strikes, and they have a very deadly history against American troops.”

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Still, U.S. commanders have a long history of putting on a brave face before their troops. Austin is a retired four star general who served on the ground in Iraq, himself coming under fire.

Asked for comment, Pentagon spokesperson Major General Patrick Ryder said Austin was outraged and deeply saddened by the soldiers’ deaths in Jordan and had “no higher priority than protecting our forces and taking care of our people.”

TRAGIC, BUT PREDICTABLE

As of Feb. 7, there have been more than 168 attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and Jordan since Middle East tensions surged in October with the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war. That has caused injuries among 143 U.S. service members, with two sustaining very serious injuries and nine suffering serious injuries.

The worst attack occurred on Jan. 28, when a drone slammed into a U.S. base called Tower 22 on Jordan’s border with Syria, killing Sergeant William Jerome Rivers, Specialist Kennedy Ladon Sanders and Specialist Breonna Alexsondria Moffett.

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One senior U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, called that attack “tragic, unlucky – but predictable.”
“Because that’s the nature of combat. It’s not an antiseptic environment where you can attain perfection” in defending yourself, the former official said.

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US Coast Guard boards Chinese fishing boats near Kiribati, official says

US Coast Guard boards Chinese fishing boats near Kiribati, official says

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US Coast Guard boards Chinese fishing boats near Kiribati, official says

The US Coast Guard and Kiribati police boarded two Chinese fishing boats during a patrol against illegal fishing in the Pacific Islands nation’s vast exclusive economic zone this month but found no issues aboard, a coast guard official said.

The United States is seeking a bigger role for its coast guard in helping remote Pacific Islands nations monitor millions of kilometres of ocean – a rich tuna fishing ground – a move that also boosts surveillance as a rivalry with China over security ties in the region intensifies.

Reuters reported on Friday that Chinese police are working in Kiribati, with uniformed officers involved in community policing and a crime database program.

Kiribati, a nation of 115,000 residents, is considered strategic despite being small, as it is relatively close to Hawaii and controls a 3.5 million square kilometre (1.35 million square mile) exclusive economic zone. It is also host to a Japanese satellite tracking station.

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Washington has flagged plans to build an embassy in Kiribati to compete with China, but has not yet done so.

Kiribati police officers were on patrol with the US Coast Guard as “ship riders” for the first time in almost a decade, between Feb. 11-16, a US Coast Guard Guam spokeswoman said.

“The two People’s Republic of China (PRC) flagged fishing vessels were boarded as part of routine maritime law enforcement activities to ensure compliance with regulations within the Kiribati Exclusive Economic Zone,” the spokeswoman said in an emailed comments.

No concerns were reported during the boardings, she said.

“Both Kiribati officers from the Kiribati Police Maritime Unit and US Coast Guard officers were involved in the boarding operations. This collaboration underscores the partnership between the two nations in upholding maritime law and good governance,” she added.

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The Kiribati president’s office and Chinese embassy did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Kiribati’s acting police commissioner, Eeri Aritiera, told Reuters last week that Chinese police on the island work with local police.

China built a large embassy on the main island, Tarawa, after Kiribati switched ties from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019. 

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Ukraine downs nine Russian drones, three missiles, air force says

Ukraine downs nine Russian drones, three missiles, air force says

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Ukraine downs nine Russian drones, three missiles, air force says

Russia launched 14 attack drones and a barrage of missiles at Ukraine overnight, with air defence systems destroying nine drones as well as three guided missiles over the Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk regions, Ukraine’s air force said on Monday.

Russia also launched two S-300 missiles from anti-aircraft missile systems and one air-to-surface Kh-31P missile, the air force said on the Telegram messaging app.

It was not clear what happened to the missiles and drones that were not downed. 

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Taiwan ally Tuvalu names Feleti Teo as new prime minister

Taiwan ally Tuvalu names Feleti Teo as new prime minister

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Taiwan ally Tuvalu names Feleti Teo as new prime minister

Tuvalu on Monday announced former attorney general and fisheries official Feleti Teo as its new prime minister, after he was elected unopposed by lawmakers in the Pacific Islands nation, officials said.

Former Prime Minister Kausea Natano lost his seat in a general election on Jan. 26 closely watched by Taiwan, China, the US and Australia, amid a geopolitical tussle for influence in the South Pacific.

Tuvalu, with a population of about 11,200 spread across nine islands, is one of three remaining Pacific allies of Taiwan, after Nauru cut ties last month and switched to Beijing, which had promised more development help.

Teo received unanimous support from the 16 lawmakers, two lawmakers told Reuters on Monday.

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Teo, who was educated in New Zealand and Australia, was Tuvalu’s first attorney general. He has decades of experience as a senior official in the regional fisheries organisation and has worked with the Pacific Islands Forum, the region’s major political and economic group. Fishing is a major source of revenue in the Pacific islands.

“Feleti Teo was declared by the Governor General as Prime Minister for Tuvalu,” Tuvalu’s government secretary, Tufoua Panapa, said in an emailed statement.

Tuvalu lawmaker Simon Kofe congratulated Teo in a social media post.

“It is the first time in our history that a Prime Minister has been nominated unopposed,” he said.

The election result in Tuvalu had been delayed by a month as dangerous weather stopped boats from bringing new lawmakers to the capital to vote for prime minister, highlighting why climate change is the top political issue in the Pacific Islands nation.

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Taiwan’s foreign ministry said its ambassador to Tuvalu, Andrew Lin, expressed Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s congratulations to Teo, adding that deputy foreign minister Tien Chung-kwang will visit Tuvalu in the near future.

Teo is a friend of Taiwan’s and has visited many times, and has said relations are stable and that maintaining ties is the widespread consensus in Tuvalu, the ministry added.

Taiwan previously said it was paying close attention to the election after Tuvalu’s finance minister in the previous government, Seve Paeniu, said the issue of diplomatic recognition of Taiwan or China should be debated by the new government.

There had also been calls by some lawmakers to review a wide-ranging deal signed with Australia in November, that allows Canberra to vet Tuvalu’s police, port and telecommunication cooperation with other nations, in return for a defence guarantee and allowing citizens threatened by rising seas to migrate.

The deal was seen as an effort to curb China’s rising influence as an infrastructure provider in the Pacific Islands.

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Teo’s position on Taiwan ties, and the Australian security and migration pact, have not been made public.

Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on social media he looked forward to working with Teo.

“Australia deeply values our relationship with Tuvalu, in the spirit of the Falepili Union,” he wrote, referring to the migration pact.

Tuvalu’s ministry would be announced at an oath taking ceremony for the new government later this week, Panapa said.

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