ISLAMABAD (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived in Pakistan Monday for meetings with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the nation's new army chief, hoping to further repair a strained and sputtering relationship between Washington and Islamabad.
His visit comes on the heels of the latest interruption of U.S. military shipments out of Afghanistan through the main border crossings into Pakistan. Anti-American protests along the route in Pakistan prompted the U.S. to stop the shipments from Torkham Gate through Karachi last week, due to worries about the safety of the truckers.
The protests center on the CIA's drone program, which has targeted and killed many terrorists but has also caused civilian casualties. Pakistan has called the drone attacks a violation of the country's sovereignty, but the issue is muddied by the fact that Islamabad and the Pakistani military have supported at least some of the strikes in the past.
Shireen Mazari, the information secretary for the political party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, said in a statement Monday it's time for the government to speak forcefully to the U.S. to demand an end to the drone attacks. The party is leading the protests.
The Pakistani government blocked the routes for seven months following U.S. airstrikes that accidentally killed two dozen soldiers on the Afghan border in November 2011. Pakistan finally reopened the routes after the U.S. apologized.
The rift led the U.S. to sever most aid to Pakistan for some time, but relations were restored in July 2012. Since then, the U.S. has delivered more than $1.15 billion in security assistance to Pakistan, including advanced communications equipment, roadside bomb jammers, night vision goggles and surveillance aircraft.
A senior defense official said these issues will come up in Hagel's meetings, and acknowledged the lingering tensions between the two countries. Over the past year, relations between Washington and Islamabad have been improving, and Sharif met with President Barack Obama and Hagel in late October in Washington.
Hagel is expected to tell Pakistani leaders that the U.S. wants the border crossings to remain open, said the defense official, who was not authorized to discuss the private meeting plans publicly and requested anonymity.
The U.S. has also been frustrated by Pakistan's unwillingness to target the Haqqani terrorist network, which operates along the border and conducts attacks on U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan.
Defense officials said Hagel will be the first high-ranking U.S. official to meet with Gen. Rahaeel Sharil, who took over as head of Pakistan's powerful Army at the end of last month.
Following their meeting in Rawalpindi, Hagel and Sharil echoed each other's desire to work to strengthen the countries' relationship.
The last Pentagon chief to visit Pakistan was Robert Gates in January 2010.
Hagel flew to Pakistan from Afghanistan, where he visited U.S. troops but declined to meet with President Hamid Karzai, who has rankled the U.S. by refusing to sign a security agreement before year's end.
BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon's news agency says 20 people have been killed and 95 wounded in two explosions that struck near the Iranian Embassy in the Lebanese capital of Beirut.
The National News Agency says the dead include two Iranian nationals.
The mid-morning blasts hit Beirut's upscale neighborhood of Janah, a stronghold of the Shiite militant Hezbollah group. One explosion blew out the large black main gate of the Iranian mission, damaging the three-story facility.
Debris was scattered on the street and cars were on fire as people ran away from the chaotic scene.
A Lebanese security official confirmed that the casualty figures. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Attacks have targeted Lebanon's Shiite strongholds recently in what many see as retaliation by extremists for Hezbollah's role in Syria.
WASHINGTON (AP) — The 16 year old Pakistani teen targeted for a Taliban assassination because she championed education for girls has inspired the development of a school curriculum encouraging advocacy.
George Washington University announced Monday that faculty members are creating multimedia curriculum tools to accompany a book recently released by the teen, Malala Yousafzai. Several faculty members will pilot the curriculum early next year for both college and high school instruction. Free of charge, it will focus on themes such as the importance of a woman's voice and political extremism, the university said.
The tools won't just look at the teen's story, but also how the same issues get reflected elsewhere, such as when girls face child marriage and pressures to leave school, said Mary Ellsberg, the director of the university's Global Women's Institute.
"It's going to be really interactive and really encourage students to do ... activities outside of school, it will encourage them to get engaged in the communities and as well to help the Malala Fund directly," Ellsberg said.
The university's Global Women's Institute is partnered with the Malala Fund, a nonprofit that seeks to ensure girls around the world have access to education.
In 2012 when a Taliban gunman walked up to a bus taking Malala and other children home from school in Pakistan's volatile northern Swat Valley and shot Malala in the head and neck. Another girl on the bus was also wounded. Malala now resides in Britain, where she was flown for medical care. Her memoir is "I am Malala."
BANGKOK (AP) — Oil prices, which have shot up in recent days over the threat of a U.S. strike against Syria, fell below $109 a barrel Tuesday after Damascus reacted favorably to a proposal to turn over its chemical weapons.
Benchmark oil for October delivery fell $1.16 per barrel to $108.36 at midday Bangkok time in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract fell $1.01 to close at $109.52 a barrel on the Nymex on Monday.
Oil prices have risen sharply in recent days following President Barack Obama's call for military action against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad in retaliation for what the White House says was a chemical weapons attack against civilians.
But on Monday, there was reason to hope for a diplomatic solution when Syria's foreign minister welcomed a suggestion to move all the country's chemical weapons under international control. Analysts said it could also hurt Obama's attempts at gaining congressional support for military intervention.
"Backed by the U.N., Russia is arranging for Syria to turn over its chemical weapons to avert a confrontation," said Vishnu Varathan of Mizuho Bank Ltd. in Singapore. "By deflecting the approaching strike, Russia has also created greater uncertainty in the U.S. Congress on the vote over Syria though the U.S. is still leaning towards a strike." Obama plans to address the nation from the White House on Tuesday about Syria.
Brent, the benchmark for international crudes, dropped $1.03 to $112.69 per barrel on the ICE Futures exchange in London.
In other energy futures trading on Nymex:
— Wholesale gasoline fell 2.8 cents to $2.774 per gallon.
— Natural gas rose 1 cent to $3.614 per 1,000 cubic feet.
— Heating oil retreated 1.8 cents to $3.0999 per gallon.
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — An Iranian news website reports that the country's foreign minister says he sent a message on Twitter saying "Happy Rosh Hashana."
Mohammad Javad Zarif told tasnimnews.com that he sent the message because Iran has a small Jewish community. But the message comes as Israel and Iran view each other with suspicion and contempt over Iran's nuclear program and former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's denials that the Holocaust took place.
Zarif also wrote on Twitter that Iran did not deny the Holocaust.
The "Happy Rosh Hashana" message, celebrating the Jewish New Year, likely won't change international relations. But Zarif's tweet comes after officials in Iran's presidency denied that President Hasan Rouhani had a Twitter account following a tweet that appeared to be the leader offering his own Rosh Hashana message.
United Nations experts are investigating the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria as the United States and allies prepare for the possibility of a punitive strike against President Bashar Assad's regime, blamed by the Syrian opposition for the attack. The international aid group Doctors Without Borders says at least 355 people were killed in the Aug. 21 attack.
Here's a look at key Syria developments around the world Thursday and Friday amid heightened tensions over potential military action:
Assad said his country "will defend itself against any aggression," signaling defiance to mounting Western warnings of a possible punitive strike. U.N. chemical weapons inspectors toured stricken rebel-held areas near the Syrian capital of Damascus for a third day.
The British Parliament voted down endorsing military action against Syria, despite a strong push by Prime Minister David Cameron to support potential U.S. strikes against Assad. British Defense Minister Philip Hammond confirmed that the country's forces would not be involved in any strike.
The French military is ready to commit forces to an operation in Syria if President Francois Hollande approves it, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said. Hollande, who met with the head of the Syrian opposition, stopped short of announcing a military intervention.
A meeting of the U.N. Security Council's permanent members ended quickly with no sign of progress on an agreement over Syria's crisis. U.N. experts in Syria are expected to leave the country Saturday.
Thousands of Israelis crowded gas-mask distribution facilities to get free masks, fearing Israel could be targeted in retaliation by Syria if it is attacked. A mob forcibly took gas masks from a distribution center in Jerusalem on Wednesday. Officers were deployed to maintain order Thursday in Haifa, where more than 5,000 people waited for protective kits.
Officials placed Turkey on alert against possible chemical attacks from Syria and stocked food and gas masks along their shared border. Bunkers were designated in seven border areas to protect people in the area.
President Hassan Rouhani said his country will press forward with efforts to ward off military action by the U.S. and its allies against the Tehran-backed Syrian regime.
White House officials said President Barack Obama was preparing for the possibility of launching unilateral American military action against Syria within days, after the British Parliament rejected sending that country's forces to support a military strike. Obama also spoke by phone with Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who has asked the president to make a sharper case on the legal justification for any military strike in Syria and its objective. The administration shared intelligence with lawmakers aimed at convincing them Syria's government used chemical weapons in last week's attack.
Russia's foreign ministry asked the U.N. to continue its inspection of places where chemical weapons might have been used in Syria. A foreign minister spokesman said the team should inspect three other locations, including a suburb of Aleppo, where the government in Damascus alleges the rebels have used poisoned gas.
A poll by ZDF television found that a majority of Germans oppose Western military intervention in Syria and don't want their country to provide backing for any U.S.-led strike.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour said any international military action against Syria would pose a "serious threat" to the security and stability of the region, particularly Lebanon.
Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Fahmy said his country strongly opposes military action against Syria and would not support possible punitive strikes by the U.S. and its allies.
Romania's foreign ministry told its citizens in Syria to leave the country "as soon as possible." They were told to get out via Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration is laying the groundwork for potential military action in Syria in the coming days, with intelligence agencies readying additional evidence about last week's alleged chemical weapons attack and high-ranking U.S. officials declaring there was "no doubt" that Bashar Assad's government was to blame.
Administration officials also said Assad's actions posed a direct threat to U.S. national security, providing President Barack Obama with a potential legal justification for launching a strike without authorization from the United Nations or Congress. However, officials did not detail how the U.S. was directly threatened by an attack contained within Syria's borders. Nor did they present concrete proof that Assad was responsible.
"Allowing the use of chemical weapons on a significant scale to take place without a response would present a significant challenge to, threat to the United States' national security," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday.
The U.S. and international partners were unlikely to undertake military action before Thursday. That's when British Prime Minister David Cameron will convene an emergency meeting of Parliament, where lawmakers were expected to vote on a motion clearing the way for a British response.
Obama and Cameron spoke Tuesday, their second known conversation since the weekend. A Cameron spokesman said the two leaders agreed that a chemical attack had taken place, and that the Assad regime was responsible. Cameron "confirmed that the government had not yet taken a decision on the specific nature of our response, but that it would be legal and specific to the chemical weapons attack," the spokesman said.
Also Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden became the highest-ranking U.S. official to charge that Assad's government fired chemical weapons last week near Damascus. Assad has denied using chemical weapons, calling the allegations "preposterous."
"There's no doubt who is responsible for this heinous use of chemical weapons in Syria: the Syrian regime," Biden said.
Obama is weighing a response focused narrowly on punishing Assad for violating international agreements that ban the use of chemical weapons, an act the president repeatedly has said would cross a "red line." Officials said the goal was not to drive the Syrian leader from power nor affect the broader trajectory of Syria's bloody civil war, which is now in its third year.
"The options we are considering are not about regime change," Carney told reporters.
According to U.S. officials, the most likely military operation would be largely sea-based, with the strikes coming primarily from Navy warships in the Mediterranean Sea. Fighter jets often are deployed to monitor the area and protect the ships, but Syria's robust air defense system makes airstrikes more difficult and risky.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said military forces stood ready to strike Syria immediately if the commander in chief gave the order. The Navy has four destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean within range of targets inside Syria and also has warplanes in the region.
"We are ready to go," Hagel said in a BBC television interview Tuesday while traveling in Asia.
Ahead of any strike, the U.S. also planned to release additional intelligence it said would directly link Assad to the Aug. 21 attack in the Damascus suburbs. Syrian activists said hundreds of people were killed in the attack. A U.S. official said the intelligence report was expected to include "signals intelligence" — information gathered from intercepted communications.
All of the officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the internal deliberations.
Even before releasing that information, U.S. officials said they had very little doubt that Assad was culpable in the attack, based on witness reports, information on the number of victims and the symptoms of those killed or injured, and intelligence showing the Syrian government has not lost control of its chemical weapons stockpiles.
Other administration officials echoed Biden's comments, which marked a subtle shift in the administration's rhetoric on who bears responsibility for the attack. Earlier in the week officials would say only that there was "very little doubt" Assad was responsible.
BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi officials say a wave of bombings in Shiite Muslim areas in and around the capital Baghdad has left at least 51 people dead and wounded dozens.
Four police officers say Wednesday's attacks by explosives-laden cars, bombs and suicide bombers targeted parking lots, outdoor markets and restaurants in six of Baghdad's predominantly Shiite neighborhoods.
The areas hit included the neighborhoods of Kazimiyah, Sadr City, Shaab, Shula, Jamila and Mahmoudiyah.
Four medical officials confirmed the casualty figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release information.
The attacks are part of a wave of killing that is the country's worst spate of bloodshed since 2008. More than 3,000 people have died in recent months.