Iraqis want crackdown on 'sleeper cells' after huge Baghdad bomb

2016-07-04 19:09:12

BAGHDAD The death toll from a suicide bombing in a Baghdad shopping district rose above 150 on Monday, fueling calls for security forces to crack down on Islamic State sleeper cells blamed for one of the worst ever single bombings in Iraq.Numbers rose as bodies were recovered from the rubble in the Karrada area of Baghdad, where a refrigerator truck packed with explosives blew up on Saturday night when people were out celebrating the holy month of Ramadan.By Monday afternoon the toll in Karrada stood at 151 killed and 200 wounded, according to police and medical sources. Rescuers and families were still looking for 35 missing people.Islamic State claimed the bombing, its deadliest in Iraq, saying it was a suicide attack. Another explosion struck in the same night, when a roadside bomb blew up in popular market of al-Shaab, a Shi'ite district in north Baghdad, killing two people.The attacks showed Islamic State can still strike in the heart of the Iraqi capital despite recent military losses, undermining Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's declaration of victory last month when Iraqi forces dislodged the hardline Sunni insurgents from the nearby city of Falluja.Abadi's Shi'ite-led government ordered the offensive on Falluja in May after a series of deadly bombings in Shi'ite areas of Baghdad that it said originated from the Sunni Muslim city, about 50 km (30 miles) west of the capital.Falluja was the first Iraqi city captured by Islamic State in 2014, six months before it declared a caliphate over parts of Iraq and Syria. Since last year the insurgents have been losing ground to U.S.-backed Iraqi government forces and Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias. "Abadi has to have a meeting with the heads of national security, intelligence, the interior ministry and all sides responsible for security and ask them just one question: How can we infiltrate these groups?" said Abdul Kareem Khalaf, a former police Major General who advises the Netherlands-based European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies think tank. He said Islamic State, or Daesh, "has supporters or members everywhere - in Baghdad, Basra and Kurdistan. All it takes is for one house to have at least one man and you have a planning base and launch site for attacks of this type."In a sign of public outrage at the failure of the security services, Abadi was given an angry reception on Sunday when he toured Karrada, the district where he grew up, with residents throwing stones, empty buckets and even slippers at his convoy in gestures of contempt.He ordered new measures to protect Baghdad, starting with the withdrawal of fake bomb detectors that police have continued to use despite a scandal that broke out in 2011 about their sale to Iraq under his predecessor, Nuri al-Maliki.The hand-held devices were initially developed to find lost golf balls, and the British businessman who sold them to Iraq for $40 million was jailed in Britain in 2013. Abadi ordered that the fake devices be replaced by efficient detectors at the entrances to Baghdad and Iraq's provinces. Karrada, a largely Shi'ite district with a small Christian community and a few Sunni mosques, was busy at the time of the blast as people were eating out and shopping late during Ramadan, which ends this week with the Eid al-Fitr festival.As Iraq started observing three days of national mourning, rescuers continued digging through the rubble of a shopping mall believed to be the main target of the bombing, searching for bodies or possible survivors.Three bodies were pulled out in the morning from the basement of the three-story Al-Laith mall, which was reduced to a skeleton of charred steel and concrete by the blast. Its glass facades were blown out and its internal divider walls collapsed. Dozens of people gathered outside, many of them friends or relatives of missing. "I know my nephew is here because he called me to say he can't leave because of the fire in the building," said Mohammed al-Tai watching the rescuers at work."As Daesh retreats, it will shrink from so-called state and terrorist group to just terrorist group," said Baghdad-based security analyst Hisham al-Hashimi, author of "The World of Daesh".That will require an increased response from intelligence and security services, he said, as well as cooperation from Iraq's Sunni Muslims who have complained of marginalisation since the 2003 U.S. invasion to topple Saddam Hussein."Their input would be of utmost importance to unmask sleeper cells that could be operating from their areas," Hashimi said.Iraqi intelligence services announced on Monday the arrest of 40 "terrorists" suspected of forming a group to carry out attacks in Baghdad and the eastern Diyala province. (Writing by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Dominic Evans)

Supreme Court firmly backs abortion rights, tosses Texas law

2016-06-28 13:05:00

WASHINGTON The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday struck down a Texas abortion law imposing strict regulations on doctors and facilities in the strongest endorsement of abortion rights in America in more than two decades.The 5-3 ruling held that the Republican-backed 2013 Texas law placed an undue burden on women exercising their right under the U.S. Constitution to end a pregnancy, established in the court's landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.The abortion providers who challenged the law said it was medically unnecessary and specifically intended to shut clinics. Texas officials said it was intended to protect women's health. The ruling means similar laws in other states are probably unconstitutional and could put in jeopardy other types of abortion restrictions enacted in various conservative states."The decision should send a loud signal to politicians that they can no longer hide behind sham rationales to shut down clinics and prevent a woman who has decided to end a pregnancy from getting the care she needs," said Jennifer Dalven, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union.President Barack Obama, whose administration backed the abortion providers in the court challenge, said in a statement he was "pleased to see the Supreme Court protect women's rights and health" and that restrictions like those in Texas "harm women's health and place an unconstitutional obstacle in the path of a woman's reproductive freedom."Conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the court's four liberal members in the ruling, with the remaining three conservatives dissenting. The court declared that both key provisions of the law - requiring abortion doctors to have difficult-to-obtain "admitting privileges" at a local hospital and requiring clinics to have costly hospital-grade facilities - violated a woman's right to an abortion.Writing for the court, liberal Justice Stephen Breyer said, "We conclude that neither of these provisions offers medical benefits sufficient to justify the burdens upon access that each imposes.""Each places a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a pre-viability abortion, each constitutes an undue burden on abortion access, and each violates the federal Constitution," Breyer added.Deferring to state legislatures over "questions of medical uncertainty is also inconsistent with this court's case law," Breyer added. The ruling in the case, Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, represented the most vigorous affirmation of abortion rights in the United States since a 1992 ruling affirmed a woman's right to have the procedure.On a warm sunny summer day, hundreds of people on both sides of the issue converged on the Supreme Court building, with abortion rights advocates dancing and celebrating after the ruling. "We're ecstatic. The reality is today women won," abortion rights activist Marcela Howell said.The law was passed by a Republican-led legislature and signed by a Republican governor in 2013. Ten states currently have admitting privileges requirements on the books while six have laws requiring hospital-grade facilities. Lower courts have blocked admitting privileges provisions in five states and halted facilities regulations in two states. "The decision erodes states’ lawmaking authority to safeguard the health and safety of women and subjects more innocent life to being lost. Texas' goal is to protect innocent life, while ensuring the highest health and safety standards for women," Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott said.Since the law was passed, the number of abortion clinics in Texas, the second-most-populous U.S. state with about 27 million people, had dropped from 41 to 19.The Supreme Court has appeals pending in two cases involving admitting privilege laws in Mississippi and Wisconsin on which it could act as soon as Tuesday.     The Texas law required abortion doctors to have "admitting privileges," a type of formal affiliation, at a hospital within 30 miles (48 km) of the clinic so they can treat patients needing surgery or other critical care.The law also required clinic buildings to possess costly, hospital-grade facilities. These regulations covered numerous building features such as corridor width, the swinging motion of doors, floor tiles, parking spaces, elevator size, ventilation, electrical wiring, plumbing, floor tiling and even the angle that water flows from drinking fountains.PUBLIC OPINION SPLITAmericans remain closely divided over whether abortion should be legal. In a Reuters/Ipsos online poll involving 6,769 U.S. adults conducted from June 3 to June 22, 47 percent of respondents said abortion generally should be legal and 42 percent said it generally should be illegal. Views on abortion in the United States have changed very little over the decades, according to historical polling data.The last time the justices decided a major abortion case was nine years ago when they ruled 5-4 to uphold a federal law banning a late-term abortion procedure.Amy Hagstrom Miller, founder and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, which led the challenge to the Texas law, said, "Every day Whole Woman’s Health treats our patients with compassion, respect and dignity - and today the Supreme Court did the same. We’re thrilled that today justice was served and our clinics stay open."Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton on Twitter called the ruling "a victory for women in Texas and across America.""This fight isn't over: The next president has to protect women's health. Women won't be 'punished' for exercising their basic rights," she said, a dig at presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who once suggested women who get illegal abortions should face "some sort of punishment." The presidential election is Nov. 8.Some U.S. states have pursued a variety of restrictions on abortion, including banning certain types of procedures, prohibiting it after a certain number of weeks of gestation, requiring parental permission for girls until a certain age, imposing waiting periods or mandatory counseling, and others."It's exceedingly unfortunate that the court has taken the ability to protect women’s health out of the hands of Texas citizens and their duly-elected representatives," Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, said in a statement.Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito dissented. The normally nine-justice court was one member short after the Feb. 13 death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who consistently opposed abortion in past rulings. (Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Adam DeRose, Jon Herskovitz and David Ingram; Editing by Will Dunham)

Exclusive: Analysis suggests Anthem deal could raise health costs

2016-06-23 14:11:39

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON As questions mount over whether health insurer Anthem Inc's (ANTM.N) proposed $48 billion purchase of Cigna Corp (CI.N) will win U.S. antitrust approval, an exclusive analysis produced for Reuters suggests the merger could lead to higher costs for large companies offering workplace medical benefits.More than 154 million people receive health benefits through employers, many of them large national corporations. The large employer market is a top concern for U.S. Department of Justice regulators reviewing the Anthem deal, company officials say. The government could block a deal if it finds evidence it would drive up the cost of such coverage.Anthem and Cigna, the nation's No. 2 and No. 5 health insurers, are among a handful of carriers selling national coverage plans to employers with thousands of workers across many states.Anthem has said the added heft will work for employers, not against them. A bigger Anthem, it emphasizes, could drive better deals from doctors and hospitals and pass savings onto these customers.In addition, Anthem has argued that there still will be plenty of competition: large employers pit smaller, local insurers' bids against those of large national carriers in regional markets. Anthem officials told an investor conference last month that many employers include health plans from several smaller insurers to cover far-flung employees. But an Aon Hewitt analysis of benefits data for Reuters found that a majority of large employers buy worker health benefits from just one or two insurers.Among 75 companies representing a cross-section of industries, 54 percent used a single insurer and 26 percent used two, the analysis found. Aon Hewitt, a unit of Aon Plc (AON.N) which helps employers select their benefit plans, based its analysis on data from over 400 customers that participate in healthcare cost research. The companies cited in the analysis for Reuters are all self-insured and have more than 10,000 employees. It is not known how the Justice Department will define the large employer market.Spokeswoman Maurissa Kanter said Aon Hewitt did not conclude "whether or not carrier consolidation would be a competitive issue that could lead to higher prices for employers." She also said that the data did not "support an argument for or against market consolidation."Several human resources directors from large corporations also told Reuters they review potential benefits contracts from only the biggest insurers, rather than regional players. UnitedHealth Group (UNH.N), Anthem, Aetna Inc (AET.N) and Cigna are the only national players in the employer health insurance market. It is less efficient for companies to hire multiple regional insurers, and the merger could allow the few remaining national insurers to raise their rates, said Peter Carstensen, an antitrust expert and professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin Law School. "The Aon Hewitt data on its face is bad for the deal and hurts their chances of getting approval," Carstensen said. A Justice Department official declined to comment on its review of the deal. It is also considering Aetna's proposed $34 billion purchase of Humana Inc (HUM.N). If both acquisitions were approved, it would result in an unprecedented consolidation of the top insurers, from five to three. Thomson Reuters Corp has benefits contracts with Cigna and Aetna. A company spokesman declined to comment on the merger.LOWER ODDS OF A DEAL Anthem has said that buying Cigna would help it drive deeper discounts from hospitals and doctors, holding down the price of medical coverage. "What the Department of Justice will see is that we are going to bring a better focus on managing the cost of care," Anthem Chief Executive Joseph Swedish told an investor conference last month. But at least some large U.S. employers fear they will face higher prices if the deal goes through, according to Wall Street analysts. Concerned employers include Detroit automakers, according to a person familiar with the industry's position.Other employers found merit in Anthem's assertion that the deal could benefit customers by eliminating overhead."There is some chance that consolidation could lower some of those costs," said Michael D'Ambrose, chief human resources officer for Archer Daniels Midland Co (ADM.N), which buys coverage from Anthem and other Blue Cross Blue Shield plans. The deal has raised opposition from leading medical groups, California's insurance commissioner and Democratic lawmakers. Leerink Partners analyst Ana Gupte recently lowered the odds of deal approval to below 50 percent. Cigna shares were trading at a 33 percent discount to the offer price, reflecting investor skepticism that it will close.If the Anthem deal goes through, its share of the entire market for employer self-insured health coverage would reach 25 percent, up from 15 percent, according to healthcare analytics firm Mark Farrah Associates. That would push it beyond the current No. 1 UnitedHealth, which has a 16 percent share.David Fortosis, a senior vice president at Aon Hewitt, said when employers compare insurers, they do find regional and local companies can offer discounts and lower fees based on their relationships with local hospitals and doctor's offices. But employers often find the hassle of managing multiple insurance plans is greater than any discounts such insurers offer, he said. "They trade that modest loss of savings in favor of administrative streamlining and simplicity," Fortosis said. (Reporting by Caroline Humer in New York and Diane Bartz in Washington; Additional reporting by Joseph White in Detroit; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Lisa Girion)

Lifting U.S. curbs on gay blood donors seen years away: experts

2016-06-17 15:27:39

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON U.S. health regulators are under increasing pressure to remove restrictions keeping most gay and bisexual men from donating blood, but experts say any change would require years of research to guarantee the safety of the blood supply.The U.S. Food and Drug Administration enacted a lifetime ban for gay and bisexual men in the 1980s to protect against transmitting the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS. The agency reduced the ban in December to a 12-month wait since a man's last sexual encounter with another man.Following Sunday's mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, more than a dozen Democratic Party lawmakers called on the FDA to move toward lifting the ban altogether. They argued that it wrongly discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation, rather than determining whether a donor's actual behavior puts them at risk of HIV. Their call came after members of the gay community tried to donate blood in the aftermath of the Orlando attack but were turned away based on their recent sexual history."We're still in an inherently contradictory posture of straight men who are having unsafe sex with multiple partners being allowed to give blood. A gay man in a 30-year monogamous relationship, who practices safe sex, is not," Representative Mike Quigley, an Illinois Democrat who serves as vice chair of the congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, told Reuters. The FDA maintains there is not enough scientific evidence to remove the restrictions. "We empathize with those who might wish to donate, but reiterate that at this time no one who needs blood is doing without it," spokeswoman Tara Goodin said in a statement. "That being said, the FDA is committed to continuing to reevaluate its blood donor deferral policies as new scientific information becomes available."  Blood supply experts say the FDA will need to determine whether the move to a one-year waiting period for gay and bisexual men made the blood supply less, more or just as safe. That effort will take several years, and only then would the agency be able to consider relaxing its restrictions further, said Brian Custer, who has led a number of studies on the nation's blood supply and is associate director of the Blood Systems Research Institute (BSRI) in San Francisco.Removing the waiting period altogether would also likely require a large-scale study that tested blood samples of people who would be banned under current criteria, said Dr. Michael Busch, a co-director of BSRI. Busch helped discover in the 1980s that HIV could be transmitted through blood transfusions."Those are difficult to design and execute," he said. EXISTING RISKHIV disproportionately affects gay and bisexual men. While only about 4 percent of U.S. men have sex with other men, they represent about two-thirds of the country's new infections, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.All blood donated in the United States is screened for HIV, as well as other transmissible diseases such as Hepatitis C and syphilis. Blood supply experts note that such testing cannot detect HIV within the earliest window of exposure, nine to 14 days. In the past 12 years, as many as six people have been infected with HIV through blood transfusion in the United States, according to Dr. Richard Benjamin, a former chief medical officer of the American Red Cross."That risk is always going to be there. People who donate blood within two weeks of exposure always will be missed by testing," said Benjamin, now an executive at Cerus Corp, whose technology kills pathogens in blood plasma and blood platelets.One study by FDA researchers published in January suggested that dropping all donor restrictions on men who have sex with men would result in 31 more units of HIV-infected blood being missed by screening tests and entering the blood supply each year. Nearly 16 million blood donations are collected in the United States each year, according to the American Red Cross.Groups representing the nation's largest blood centers, including the American Red Cross and America's Blood Centers, said they support the FDA's current rules, which are in line with policies in the UK, France, Australia and the Netherlands. "Policy at this level moves at a slower pace than people would prefer, but it is years, not decades away," said Custer, one of the blood supply experts, referring to the FDA. (Additional reporting by Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Ross Colvin)

Falluja is a 'tough nut to crack': Iraqi finance minister

2016-06-03 15:18:14

BAGHDAD Islamic State is putting up a tough fight in Falluja and its recapture by the Iraqi army could take time, said Iraqi Finance Minister Hoshiyar Zebari.Falluja, located 50 kilometers (32 miles) west of Baghdad, has been a bastion of the Sunni insurgency that fought both the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the Shi'ite-led Baghdad government.Islamic State fighters raised their flag there in January 2014 before sweeping through much of Iraq's north and west, declaring a caliphate several months later, from Mosul."Falluja is a tough nut to crack," he told Reuters in an interview on Thursday evening. "Daesh are holding the population as hostages, not allowing them to escape, and they are putting up a tough fight there," he added, referring to the militant group by one of its Arabic acronyms."Nobody can give you a definitive time when Falluja will be cleared of Daesh. Mainly because of the resistance, because of the IEDs (improvised explosive devices), because of the tunnels" the militants have dug to move without being detected, he added.The army started the offensive on May 23, with the backing of Shi'ite militias known as Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and air support from the U.S.-led coalition. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Wednesday the army had slowed the pace of its offensive because of fears for the safety of tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the city with limited access to water, food and healthcare. "The security forces, the PMF have made significant progress but really to storm the center of Falluja I think will take time," Zebari said. "We should not declare victory prematurely."SHI'ITE APPEAL A spokesman for one of the main Shi'ite paramilitary groups taking part in the offensive on Falluja said the operations have come to a near standstill in the past three days and asked Abadi to order the attacks to continue."We demand that Prime Minister Abadi continues the operation to free Falluja and not to submit to American and Western pressure to halt the operation," said Jawad al-Talabawi, a spokesman of the Iran-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq. "We say ... freeing Falluja is needed to protect Baghdad."Abadi ordered the offensive on Falluja after a series of bombings claimed by Islamic State hit Shi'ite districts of Baghdad, causing the worst death toll this year. Falluja would be the third major city in Iraq recaptured by the government after former dictator Saddam Hussein's home town Tikrit and Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's vast western Anbar province. Abadi has expressed hope that 2016 will be the year of "final victory" over Islamic State, with the capture of Mosul, their de facto capital in northern Iraq.Baghdad-based political analysts said the battle for Falluja would be harder than Tikrit and Ramadi because of the symbolism of the city for the militants and because they cannot retreat to other places, as the whole area is under siege by the army and Shi'ite militias."In Falluja, Daesh has die-hard fighters defending a city they consider as a symbol for Jihad," said analyst and former army general Jasim al-Bahadili.Political analyst Ali Hashim said that even if the government managed to retake Falluja, it would continue to face the problem of winning over the Sunni population, some of whom feel marginalized by the Shi’ite-led government. (Editing by Toby Chopra and Gareth Jones)

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