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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Former top general calls on Obama to wipe out Isis in wake of Foley killing” was written by Spencer Ackerman in New York and Dan Roberts in Washington, for The Guardian on Thursday 21st August 2014 17.42 UTC

An influential retired US general has called on Barack Obama to order the destruction the militant group responsible for murdering American journalist James Foley amid conflicting views in the administration on how to respond to the atrocity.

As Obama’s foreign policy team debates expanding its renewed air war in Iraq after the killing of Foley by the Islamic State (Isis), John Allen, a retired marine general who commanded the Afghanistan war from 2011 to 2013, urged Obama to “move quickly to pressure its entire ‘nervous system’, break it up, and destroy its pieces.”

Allen’s argument, presented in an op-ed for the DefenseOne website, echoes remarks by secretary of state John Kerry and comes amid internal dispute in the Obama administration over the future course of its two-week air war in Iraq. Much diplomatic effort is said to be spent broadening and hardening a region-wide effort against Isis, something Allen endorsed, with Turkey and Qatar being a particular near-term focus for Kerry.

The debate is said to be fluid. At present, a US official anticipated more continuity than change in future military operations against Isis, but said: “It may ultimately evolve.”

On Wednesday, six new airstrikes continued to hit Isis positions near the Mosul Dam, three days after Obama declared that it was no longer under Isis control. Nearly two-thirds of the 90 US strikes since 8 August have taken place near the critical dam.

In a grisly video produced by Foley’s captors, his killer says Foley’s death came as revenge for US airstrikes in Iraq. Soon after the video was released, the US confirmed that it had recently mounted a failed rescue bid for Foley. Elite US military forces secretly invaded Syria earlier this summer in a mission that involved dozens of special operations forces from all US military services, including the 160th special operations aviation regiment.

US forces flew into Syria in defiance of air defence batteries that senior military officials have described as highly threatening to pilots. Modified Black Hawk helicopters were involved, and “armed fixed-wing aircraft and drones” provided cover to forces on the ground, said an administration official. No hostages were found at the targeted location.

It emerged on Thursday that Foley’s family received a message from Foley’s captors on 13 August, warning them that he would be killed. They passed the message on to the US government, which helped with a response. Phil Balboni, chief executive of GlobalPost, the Boston-based online news publication that had published work by Foley, told Reuters: “It was an appeal for mercy. It was a statement that Jim was an innocent journalist,” and that he respected the people of Syria, where he was held.

Foley’s family and friends hoped the militants were bluffing and wanted a ransom, he said. The group had last year demanded a ransom of 2m for his rescue, Balboni said.

Wary of overcommitment to a new Iraq war, the Obama administration has sent mixed signals about how far it is willing to go against Isis. Kerry, who has been hawkish against Isis, said the jihadist organization “must be destroyed/will be crushed”, a goal beyond the one Obama has thus far set.

Allen proposed attacking Isis in Syria as well as Iraq “across its entire depth”, an option the Pentagon has studied after the group overran Iraq’s second largest city in June but is yet to implement.

In an interview on Thursday with National Public Radio, one of Obama’s closest advisers opened the door for attacking Isis in Syria, which would represent a significant expansion of a bombing effort whose missions have slowly evolved.

“We would not restrict ourselves by geographic boundaries,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. “We haven’t made decisions to take additional actions at this time.”

Rhodes indicated that the administration believes that the incoming government of Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad will aid US efforts in assembling and deepening an anti-Isis coalition. Rejecting a recent suggestion, Rhodes ruled out a rapprochement with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to confront a mutual foe.

Writing for the DefenseOne website, Allen conspicuously praised Obama, who is wary of expansive promises made by the military. He did not propose a return to ground combat, but urged a “focused advise and assist” mission to bolster Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers and non-jihadist Syrian rebels, a commitment that would require a reintroduction of significantly more US military advisers.

Obama has ruled out US ground combat, preferring to rely on proxies, something his critics have not challenged, with memories of a bloody US occupation still fresh. The US official said working through vetted Syrian opposition groups and Iraqi and Kurdish forces “will continue to be the foundation of the US approach going forward”.

Though entire divisions of the Iraqi army fled from Isis in June, “they’ve shown a lot more capability in the last two weeks than in the previous two months,” the official said.

At the State Department, officials said the US is pressuring Qatar and Turkey to help cut off flows of financing and foreign fighters to Isis, even as they cautioned that they did not see evidence of either government supporting the extremist group officially.

“We are working with governments in the region where we believe there are private citizens funding [Isis] to get them to clamp down even further to cut off those sources of funding,” said spokeswoman Marie Harf.

“We need to attack [Isis] on a variety of fronts, one of which is the bombs that the Pentagon folks are dropping on them right now. One of them is not letting them have access to resources.”

Kerry also spoke directly to the Qatari foreign minister on Wednesday, during which Foley’s death was “likely” to have come up, according to US officials, although the call was primarily about Gaza.

Asked whether Qatar, Turkey or Saudi Arabia – another alleged source of funding – were “fully on board”, Harf responded: ”Well, look, we’re talking to them every day about what more we can all do. We know there’s more that needs to be done. We know this is a long-term fight, and we know it’s a tough one. So we’re having those conversations.”

Allen said Foley’s killing “embodies” the threat from Isis, which he called “an entity beyond the pale of humanity”. The US official said Allen’s article “serves a purpose in helping explain to the American people how dire it is”.

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “How common are plane crashes?” was written by Aisha Gani, for The Guardian on Thursday 24th July 2014 16.20 UTC

There have been three aviation disasters in the last week: the shooting down last Thursday of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew, the crashing of TransAsia Airways flight GE222 while trying to land at a Taiwanese airport on Wednesday, killing 48 and injuring 10, and the crashing today of Air Algérie flight AH5017‬ from Burkino Faso to Algiers, which was carrying 110 passengers and six crew members.

It seems as though such crashes are happening very frequently at present – but, statistically, how common are plane crashes?

Last year, while more than 3 billion people flew safely on 36.4 million flights, there were 81 aviation accidents, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). That was below the five-year average of 86 accidents per year, and the equivalent of one accident per 2.4 million flights.

Last year, while more than 3 billion people flew safely on 36.4 million flights, there were 81 aviation accidents, according to the International Air Transport Association (Iata). That was below the five-year average of 86 accidents per year. (Iata says that for western-built jet aircraft, there were 0.41 "hull loss" accidents per million flights in 2013, equivalent to one such accident per 2.4m flights; a "hull loss" is an accident in which the aircraft is destroyed or substantially damaged and not subsequently repaired).

Only 20% of the 81 accidents recorded by Iata last year caused fatalities; there were 210 fatalities from commercial aviation accidents in 2013, a reduction from the 414 people who lost their lives in 2012 – despite there being a record low of 75 accidents that year.

There were 490 deaths in 2011 and a total of 92 accidents. There was a much higher figure of 786 fatalities in 2010, and 94 accidents. In 2009, there were 685 fatalities and 90 accidents.

This year's high-profile disasters have put the number of fatalities for 2014 at above 700 already – indicating that this is a particularly bad year for air crashes.

Nevertheless, flying has become safer over the last two decades. Between 2001 and 2010 the accident rate was cut by 42%, and two decades ago there were around 2,000 deaths and 250 crashes per year.

The single worst aviation disaster in history before 9/11 was the 1977 Tenerife airport disaster, in which 583 people were killed in a runway collision between two Boeing 747s at Los Rodeos Airport.

• This article was amended on 25 July 2014. An earlier version suggested that the 81 accidents recorded by Iata in 2013 were the equivalent of one accident per 2.4 million flights.

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The Guardian view on America’s botched executions” was written by Editorial, for The Guardian on Thursday 24th July 2014 18.37 UTC

On Wednesday, Arizona took an hour and 58 minutes to execute Joseph Wood, a convicted murderer. Injected with a lethal mix of sedatives and painkillers, Wood was seen to be “gasping and snorting” for more than an hour and was confirmed to be still alive after 70 minutes. One eyewitness counted 660 gasps. Another said Wood was “like a fish on shore gulping for air”. Wood’s death took so long that his lawyers had time to file an emergency appeal while the procedure was taking place.

The eighth amendment to the US constitution outlaws the use of cruel and unusual punishment, but the US supreme court has ruled that the death penalty does not violate that ban. Many would disagree. Penal Reform International classes the death penalty as the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment and more than two-thirds of the world’s nations have now abolished it either in law or in practice, as have 18 US states. Whatever one’s opinion in principle about capital punishment, it is hard not to see Wood’s killing as anything other than needlessly cruel and unusual punishment. It was a shameful act for a civilised country.

Yet it was not exceptional. The Wood execution has many echoes of the botched execution by injection of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma in April. Similar distress marked the execution of Dennis McGuire in Ohio in January. There have been several other cases – including of botched electrocutions and asphyxiations – since the US restarted executions in 1977.

Amnesty International classes the United States as one of the world’s nine “persistent executioner” states – those which have executed criminals in each of the past five years. The others are Bangladesh, China (which is estimated to execute more prisoners than the whole of the rest of the world put together – all in secret, unlike those in the US), Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen. Executions in the US have fallen by half in the past 15 years and the US kills far fewer prisoners than China, Iran and Iraq in particular. But this is not a club to which America should be comfortable belonging. It does massive international damage to the US’s reputation.

Capital punishment remains destructively entangled in America’s culture wars. If it is to continue, the US will have to devise a swifter form of licensed execution. The current shambles, much of it the result of desperation in the face of welcome global campaigns against the suppliers of lethal drugs, has created an intolerable situation for prisoners and the nation alike. Until it is fixed, US states should suspend the death penalty. What the US really needs, though, is to find dignified ways to face up to, as a nation, the failure and damage that are associated with a punishment that is now so clearly, in and of itself, both cruel and unusual.

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Air Algérie flight AH5017 wreckage ‘found in Mali'” was written by Kim Willsher in Paris and Monica Mark, west Africa correspondent, for theguardian.com on Thursday 24th July 2014 15.07 UTC

The wreckage of Air Algérie flight AH5017 from Burkina Faso to Algeria, which disappeared from radar with 116 people on board, has been discovered in Tilemsi, Mali, it was claimed on Thursday. However, searches were later said to be continuing.

The French media is quoting Zoheir Houaoui of Air Algérie as saying the plane was carrying 50 French passengers, six Algerians, one Malian, one Belgian, two from Luxembourg, five Canadians, one from Cameroon, four Germans, one Nigerian, eight Lebanese, one Romanian, 24 from Burkino Faso and six so far unidentified passengers. The six crew members – two pilots and four stewards – were all Spanish.

The French president, François Hollande, has called an emergency meeting with the prime minister, Manuel Valls, foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, as well as the interior and the transport ministers, for 5pm French time.

Air traffic controllers lost contact with the Swiftair-owned MD-83 about 50 minutes after takeoff at 1.17am local time (0117 GMT), said an Algerian aviation official. The news was not made public until several hours after the flight's scheduled 5.10am arrival in Algiers, by which time officials from Algeria, Burkina Faso and France had issued conflicting details.

algeria plane missing3

The flight path of the plane from Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou, was not immediately clear. The city is in a nearly straight line south of Algiers, passing over Mali, where unrest continues. Rebels who have seized the northern fringe of Mali do not have weapons capable of bringing down a commercial jet at cruising altitude, a Malian official told the Guardian. "What they have is shoulder-fired weapons, and rocket-propelled grenades."

The flight had asked to change route at 1.38am because of a storm, Burkina Faso's transport authorities said. Powerful sandstorms are frequent throughout the Sahara's northern belt around this time of year. Aviation officials in Burkina said they had handed the flight to a control tower in Niger's capital, Niamey, at 1.38am, and that last contact was at about 4.30am. That contradicted an Algerian aviation official, who said the last contact was at 0155 GMT when the plane was flying over Gao, Mali.

Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, the president of Mali, said on Thursday night that the wreckage had been spotted between Aguelhoc and Kidal but did not give details. Two French Mirage-2000 planes were searching the largely inaccessible region of Gao in northern Mali.

Hollande said: "The search will go on for as long as necessary and everything will be done to find this aircraft."

According to the Spanish sports daily Marca, the SwiftAir aircraft was used as the official aircraft for Real Madrid FC between 2007 and 2009.

The French radio station Europe 1 suggested it had been told the number of French on board could be as high as 80. The French transport ministry would only confirm "a number" of French people were on the plane. Of the French passengers, 22 were due to transfer to flights to Paris or Marseilles after landing at Algiers.

French troops are in Mali as part of the ongoing Operation Serval, which started at the beginning of last year and is aimed at ousting Islamist militants in the north of the country.

Hollande was due to fly to the French Indian Ocean island of Réunion on Thursday afternoon, but delayed his flight to follow developments.

• This article was amended on 24 July 2014 to reflect the fact that the claim that the plane's wreckage had been discovered was later cast into doubt.

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Supreme court debates ‘Obamacare’ and Republican campaign – live” was written by Jim Newell, for guardian.co.uk on Monday 26th March 2012 16.55 UTC

12.54pm: Day One of the Case of the Century has already concluded, and the chamber is clearing out. Here’s CNN/New Yorker legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin‘s insta-reaction from the press bench:

Jamie Dupree of WBS radio had a bit more to offer, suggesting that there was still plenty of intra-justice sparring during these early, procedural hours:

While the U.S. Supreme Court set aside 90 minutes for argument on the first day of its review of the Obama health reform law, it did not seem like there was an appetite among the Justices to side step the essential question of the constitutionality of the law itself.

Instead, the Justices started skirmishing in advance of what will be the main event on Tuesday, when the Supreme Court takes two hours to review the individual mandate.

Jess Bravin at the Wall Street Journal felt a similar vibe – that the justices seem quite eager to fight this out instead of making an anticlimactic punt:

From what we’ve seen today, most of the justices appeared ready to get to the core of this case now, without waiting until 2014. Overall, the justices didn’t seem receptive to the argument that the Anti-Injunction Act bars a suit until 2014 or after because they didn’t see the insurance-mandate penalty as the kind of tax envisioned by the act.

For further insta-reactions, read any news website. Or stay here all day! You should stay here.

12.31pm: Actor Martin Sheen, who played President Jed Bartlett on The West Wing, has lent his fictional presidential voice to this new ad for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee:

“The same Republicans in Congress who obstructed Mr. Obama every step on the road back,” he says, “now want to end Medicare, eliminate it altogether.” Watch out, Martin Sheen! PolitiFact is going to shake a fist in your direction, any second now.

12.14pm: Today’s hearing at the Supreme court has now finished for the day.

12.10pm: Why can’t the Supreme Court justices simply decided this case with a game of paintball between the liberals and conservatives? You can learn so much from a game of paintball, according to these Western journalists who played with Hezbollah members.

11.56am: Aaaaand here’s the long-awaited video footage of Rick Santorum calling “bullshit” on Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times. Yes, it looks worse on video. Meaning it’s hilarious! He is quite the angry fellow.

 

11.44am: It wasn’t the big name lawyers for either side – profiles here and here – who opened the proceedings, the Wall Street Journal writes:

In a twist, the first lawyer set to stand up before the court Monday morning wasn’t Donald Verrilli or Paul Clement, the powerhouse advocates leading each side. Instead it’s Robert Long, a Covington & Burling partner who is arguing that the case isn’t ripe for adjudication. Long was hired by the Supreme Court to make that argument because both of the litigants – in a rare point of agreement – say the case is ready to be decided.

And the Associated Press reports on what sounds like a very… exciting… opening…

Eight of nine justices fired two dozen questions in less than half hour at Washington attorney Robert Long. He was appointed by the justices to argue that the case has been brought prematurely because a law bars tax disputes from being heard in the courts before the taxes have been paid.

Under the new law, taxpayers who don’t purchase health insurance will have to report that omission on tax returns for 2014 and will pay a penalty along with federal income tax. At issue is whether that penalty is a tax.

The “good stuff” comes tomorrow, when the individual mandate will be up for question-firing.

11.32am: Here’s our latest commentary on the issue, in which Jason Farago argues that Justices Roberts and Kennedy are all too aware of how overturning the PPACA would reflect on the Court’s reputation:

John Roberts surely wants to see the president lose this election as much as any establishment conservative, but it may be the election of 2000, rather than 2012, that really forces the chief justice’s hand. Whether he believes the zany arguments of the act’s opponents have worth is not the central question – because, to be frank, he has more to lose than Barack Obama, if he strikes it down. Obama may get a second chance, but for Roberts, the entire legitimacy of his court is as stake.

I wouldn’t go before a “death panel” to say so, but it seems a safe bet that Roberts and Kennedy will back the administration, if on narrow terms. But in the unlikely event that the justices kill part or all of the Affordable Care Act, it will at least remind us of one unspoken issue in this presidential race: that when we choose a president for four years, we’re also getting supreme court justices for decades more.

 

11.19am: Evan McMorris-Santoro of Talking Points Memo is also outside the Supreme Court, and notes that the atmosphere closely resembles those last days of protests outside the Capitol two years ago when the House was passing the health care law – specifically, tea partiers and liberal supporters shouting past each other with cheap sloganeering:

11.08am: Spotted amid the throngs of activists and angry journalists who couldn’t procure seating to today’s Supreme Court hearing: Rick Santorum, whining (appropriately) about how Mitt Romney basically invented the dreaded legislation being discussed indoors.

10.45am: Rick Santorum is standing by his hurling of a curse word – oh my! – at a New York Times reporter, telling Fox & Friends this morning, “If you haven’t cursed out a New York Times reporter during the course of a campaign, you’re not really a real Republican.” A new public litmus test! Romney? Gingrich? When will you curse out a Timesman in public?

Santorum – like any good Catholic boy – is even turning his vulgarity into a fundraising opportunity, emailing his supporters this morning:

Earlier today, while campaigning in Wisconsin, I criticized Romney and Obama for their outrageous healthcare legislation. Predictably, I was aggressively attacked by a New York Times reporter all too ready to defend the two of them, and all too ready to distort my words. Let me assure you, I didn’t back down, and I didn’t let him bully me. I think it is high time that conservatives find the courage to expose the liberal press for what they are, a defender and enabler of Romney’s and Obama’s liberal agendas.

This will probably reap great rewards.

10.35am: Let’s say there are two ways to evaluate the likelihood of the Supreme Court overturning, or at least mortally wounding, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act: (1) Read every explainer – or really the entirety of every legal blog over the past two years – to arrive at a conclusion based on justices’ previous rulings, overturn rates, or even (god forbid) the case’s merits, or (2) notice that there are five conservatives on the court as opposed to four liberals and just assume they’ll overturn it. The American public, according to The Hill’s latest poll, seem to be thinking more along the lines of (2):

Although voters want the court to strike the law, they don’t necessarily trust the justices’ motivations. Fifty-six percent of likely voters believe the justices are swayed by their own political beliefs, while just 27 percent believe they “make impartial decisions based on their reading of the Constitution.”

Skepticism about the justices relying on their political beliefs ran consistently among age, racial and philosophical categories, with a majority of whites (54 percent), blacks (59 percent), Republicans (56 percent), Democrats (59 percent), conservatives (54 percent), centrists (56 percent) and liberals (59 percent) expressing the same viewpoint.

10.17am: Not that he matters in any way whatsoever, but here is a new ad from Herman Cain in which a bunny is launched from a catapult and then shot in mid-air.

You’ll recall that Herman Cain led a major party’s race for its presidential nomination for several whole weeks last fall.

10.13am: President Obama, as ABC’s Jake Tapper reports, got himself into a bit of hot mic trouble near the end of his 90-minute meeting with Russian president Dmitri Medvedev this morning. Here’s the eerie transcript, in which Obama pleads for “space” on missile defense until his would-be reelection is out of the way:

Obama: On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space.

Medvedev: Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you…

Obama: This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.

Medvedev: I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.

The White House has responded that with Russia having only recently resolved (in its own special way) its “election,” and the United States still having eight more months until its election that’s already been under way for a year, it’s true that neither side expects to get much done in the near term.

10.00am: Good morning and welcome to your Monday politics liveblog. This is Jim Newell writing from Washington. While you can usually find me at Wonkette these days, I’ll be substituting this week to bring you all the freshest political misery.

Most of today’s focus will be on the Supreme Court health care reform hearing, as Ryan Devereaux writes in our briefing of the morning’s events, but sadly the Supreme Court can’t fit us all as spectators. So we’ll have plenty of time to cover the other stuff – what mean things Rick Santorum said about Obama, or Mitt Romney said about Santorum, and so on, forever.

The main focus of political news comes away from the campaign trail today as 26 states challenge the constitutionality of the Obama administration’s signature health care legislation in the Supreme Court. A new CBS News/New York Times poll finds more Americans continue to disapprove of the president’s federal health care law than support it. According to the poll, 47% of Americans disapprove of the Affordable Care act while 36% approve, 16% don’t have an opinion. The issue has been prominent on the campaign trail: last week the Obama administration decided to embrace the term “Obamacare”, a phrase often used pejoratively by the president’s challengers.

Rick Santorum took a swing at Mitt Romney on Sunday, calling him “the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama.” Speaking in Wisconsin over the weekend, Santorum added that the former Massachusetts governor was “uniquely disqualified” to serve as the GOP’s presidential candidate. “Pick any other Republican in the country. He is the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama,” Santorum said. When pressed about his comments by a reporter, Santorum responded with obscenities. “Quit distorting my words. It’s bullshit.” Both the Obama and Romney camps have capitalized on Santorum’s outburst to cast him as a panicky and unhinged candidate in the final days of a failing campaign. It’s also earned him the nickname, “Tantorum”.

A senior White House adviser, David Plouffe, hit back at Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich for their “reprehensible” comments on the Trayvon Martin shooting. On Friday President Obama expressed his sympathy for the Martin family, saying: “If had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” Gingrich said the comments were divisive, and Santorum said the president was “politicizing” the issue. Plouffe said the comments were “reprehensible” and appealing to voters’ “worst instincts”.

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