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A senior American diplomat met with his Iranian counterpart in Vienna on Monday to explore whether the United States and Iran could work together to create a more stable Iraqi government and ease the threat from Sunni militants.

The initial meeting took place after Secretary of State John Kerry signaled that the Obama administration was open to cooperating with Iran on Iraq, raising the possibility of seeking help from a country that the United States has often described as a state sponsor of terrorism that must be prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

The incentive for the United States is clear. Iran also has the ability to frustrate the Obama administration’s strategy of pressuring Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, and his Shiite-dominated government to reach out to Sunnis and Kurds. President Obama made clear last week that no American military aid would be forthcoming unless that effort was made.

The meetings would also provide an opportunity for American officials to compare notes with Iran over the Sunni militant group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, which last week made startling military gains, routing the Iraqi Army and even threatening Baghdad.

Mr. Kerry said in an interview with Yahoo! News on Monday morning that the United States was “open to discussions if there’s something constructive that can be contributed by Iran.”

“I think we need to go step by step and see what, in fact, might be a reality, but I wouldn’t rule out anything that would be constructive,” he said.

The New York Times, "U.S. Is Exploring Talks With Iran on Crisis In Iraq"

Sunni militants consolidated and extended their control over northern Iraq on Wednesday, seizing Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein, threatening the strategic oil refining town of Baiji and pushing south toward Baghdad, their ultimate target, Iraqi sources said.

As the dimensions of the assault began to become clear, it was evident that a number of militant groups had joined forces, including Baathist military commanders from the Hussein era, whose goal is to rout the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. One of the Baathists, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, was a top military commander and a vice president in the Hussein government and one of the few prominent Baathists to evade capture by the Americans throughout the occupation.

“These groups were unified by the same goal, which is getting rid of this sectarian government, ending this corrupt army and negotiating to form the Sunni Region,” said Abu Karam, a senior Baathist leader and a former high-ranking army officer, who said planning for the offensive had begun two years ago. “The decisive battle will be in northern Baghdad. These groups will not stop in Tikrit and will keep moving toward Baghdad.”

The sudden successes of the militant forces sent hundreds of thousands of people running, some literally, from the new outbursts of violence, panicked leaders in Turkey and Syria and revived memories of bloody American struggles to wrest the same places — Mosul and Tikrit — from jihadist fighters a decade ago.

By late Wednesday, the Sunni militants, many aligned with the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, were battling loyalist forces at the northern entrance to the city of Samarra, about 70 miles north of Baghdad. The city is known for a sacred Shiite shrine that was bombed in 2006, during the height of the American-led occupation, touching off a sectarian civil war between the Sunni minority and Shiite majority.

Militant commanders were reportedly threatening to destroy the shrine if its defenders refused to lay down their arms, while hundreds of Shiite fighters were said to be heading north from Baghdad to confront the attackers.

As Iraqi government forces crumbled in disarray before the assault, there was speculation that they may have been ordered by their superiors to give up without a fight. One local commander in Salahuddin Province, where Tikrit is located, said in an interview Wednesday: “We received phone calls from high-ranking commanders asking us to give up. I questioned them on this, and they said, ‘This is an order.’ ”

The New York Times, "Iraq Militants, Pushing South, Aim at Capital."

George W. Bush’s legacy.  Terrifying, and sad, but not totally unexpected.

A woman comforted her baby Sunday at a hospital in the Sakhour district of Aleppo, Syria, after both were injured by what activists said was a barrel bomb.  From the New York Times: 

The Syrian civil war’s impact on the health of Syria’s children is far more insidious than has been widely understood, a leading children’s advocacy group reported Sunday, with large numbers dying or at risk from chronic and preventable diseases that have flourished because the country’s public health system has basically collapsed.
In a report timed to coincide with the start of the fourth year of the conflict, the group, Save the Children, said the effects of untreated illnesses on Syrian children were only partly reflected in the documented statistics. They show that at least 1.2 million children have fled to neighboring countries, that 4.3 million in Syria need humanitarian assistance and that more than 10,000 have died in the violence.
“It is not just the bullets and the shells that are killing and maiming children,” said the report, “A Devastating Toll.” The conflict, which began in March 2011, has left a “shattered health system resulting in brutal medical practices that have left millions of children suffering,” the report said.
The report asserted that “several thousands of children” had died because of greatly reduced access to treatment for diseases including cancer, epilepsy, asthma, diabetes, hypertension and kidney failure.
The basic lack of medical care, including routine vaccinations, the report said, means “increasing numbers of children are suffering and dying from diseases that would previously either have been treated or prevented from taking hold in the first place.”
The report is based partly on conclusions drawn from data that has been issued by other organizations, including the United Nations and the World Health Organization, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, Doctors Without Borders, and other medical research, as well as from the Syrian government.
But the report also draws on Save the Children’s own research, including interviews with Syrian children, parents and medical providers who painted what amounted to a portrait of medieval health conditions.

(Photo: Hosam Katan / Reuters via NYT)

A woman comforted her baby Sunday at a hospital in the Sakhour district of Aleppo, Syria, after both were injured by what activists said was a barrel bomb.  From the New York Times: 

The Syrian civil war’s impact on the health of Syria’s children is far more insidious than has been widely understood, a leading children’s advocacy group reported Sunday, with large numbers dying or at risk from chronic and preventable diseases that have flourished because the country’s public health system has basically collapsed.

In a report timed to coincide with the start of the fourth year of the conflict, the group, Save the Children, said the effects of untreated illnesses on Syrian children were only partly reflected in the documented statistics. They show that at least 1.2 million children have fled to neighboring countries, that 4.3 million in Syria need humanitarian assistance and that more than 10,000 have died in the violence.

“It is not just the bullets and the shells that are killing and maiming children,” said the report, “A Devastating Toll.” The conflict, which began in March 2011, has left a “shattered health system resulting in brutal medical practices that have left millions of children suffering,” the report said.

The report asserted that “several thousands of children” had died because of greatly reduced access to treatment for diseases including cancer, epilepsy, asthma, diabetes, hypertension and kidney failure.

The basic lack of medical care, including routine vaccinations, the report said, means “increasing numbers of children are suffering and dying from diseases that would previously either have been treated or prevented from taking hold in the first place.”

The report is based partly on conclusions drawn from data that has been issued by other organizations, including the United Nations and the World Health Organization, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, Doctors Without Borders, and other medical research, as well as from the Syrian government.

But the report also draws on Save the Children’s own research, including interviews with Syrian children, parents and medical providers who painted what amounted to a portrait of medieval health conditions.

(Photo: Hosam Katan / Reuters via NYT)

BVT News Roundup 20 January 2014.

(Photo: Robert Michael / AFP-Getty via NY Daily News)

BVT News Roundup 5 January 2014.

BVT News Roundup 4 January 2014.

Evening News Wrap 17 December 2013.

Evening News Wrap 16 December 2013.

(*Just kidding.  Photo illustration: The Atlantic)

Afternoon News Read 11 December 2013.

(File photo: Baz Ratner / Reuters via Newsweek)

Evening News Wrap 3 December 2013.

Weekend News Read 9 November 2013.

Morning News Read 31 October 2013.

Happy Halloween!

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Morning News Read 29 October 2013.

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Morning News Read 28 October 2013.