The World Today for October 18, 2016


Mosul, and Iraq, in the Balance

It has begun.

More than two years after Islamic State militants sent the Iraqi army running and conquered Mosul, Iraqi forces launched their offensive to retake their country’s second-largest city.

The legitimacy of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi – and American support of his government – hangs in the balance.

On Monday, Kurdish troops took villages on the eastern outskirts of the city while central government troops and militias – sometimes backed by Iran – advanced on the city’s southern edges, forming a noose around the jihadists. American and allied warplanes, meanwhile, pounded the Islamic State’s positions.

The Islamic State wasn’t folding easily, however. CNN reported that suicide bombers in cars rushed the advancing Kurdish fighters, a tactic the militants have used often to stymie their rivals in the past.

Inside the city, the jihadists doubled down on their reign of terror.

“They are very tense, and they carry out executions against anyone they feel is not loyal to them,” Mosul resident Kamal Ahmad told USA Today in a phone interview. “The sky in the city is black and polluted because [the Islamic State] has burned crude oil in the trenches they dug in the past few days to prevent airplanes from spotting them.”

Iraqi forces have recaptured the formerly Islamic State-held cities of Tikrit and Fallujah in the past year using similar tactics. Analysts say those victories have demonstrated that Iraq again has a viable fighting force following the foolish disbanding of the country’s army by the United States after the 2003 invasion.

But those campaigns were only test runs for the fight for Mosul. For Islamic State, losing the city would represent the terror group’s biggest setback to date, reducing their footprint of governance in the Middle East to sections of war-torn Syria.

For Iraq’s prime minister, a victory in Mosul would also demonstrate that, unlike his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki, al-Abadi can lead an organized force of soldiers who believe in Iraq enough to die in battle against a sizable force of entrenched messianic fanatics. The battle could take weeks or longer – plenty of time for the Iraqi army to buckle if it is prone to do so.

In a television appearance on Monday to announce the offensive, the prime minister explicitly appealed to Iraqi nationalism. “The Iraqi flag will be raised in the middle of Mosul, and in each village and corner very soon,” he said.

But some noted that the battle for Mosul was already becoming a crucible of nationalism for a nation other than the one led from Baghdad.

“Only the tricolor flag of the Kurdish semiautonomous region could be seen during the assault,” the New York Times wrote.


Oh, Canada

Two unlikely headliners take center stage this week.

Belgium’s government is working on an eleventh hour deal to overcome a political split that threatens to derail a proposed free-trade agreement between the European Union and Canada, Bloomberg reports.

The French-speaking Belgian province of Wallonia, seeking tougher terms, refused to drop its opposition to the pact over the weekend. And it could spoil Tuesday’s meeting of EU trade ministers, which is meant to be the first step in the ratification of the deal – the EU’s first commercial agreement with a fellow member of the Group of Seven leading industrialized countries.

Known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA, the proposed deal took five years to negotiate, and the EU says it will boost its economic output by about $13 billion a year. Moreover, if it fails, that would likely sour separate free-trade talks that the bloc is pursuing with the US, Japan and other countries.

Erasing History

Though his villainy must never be forgotten, one landmark of Adolph Hitler’s vile legacy must be erased, the Austrian government has decided.

Fearing the growth of a pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis, Austria has confirmed it will tear down the house in which Hitler was born and replace it with an unrelated building, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“The foundation can stay, but there will be a new building built,” Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka told Austrian newspaper Die Presse. “The house will then be put to charity or official use.”

Before tearing down the three-story, yellow house in the town of Braunau, on Austria’s border with Germany, the Austrian government will have to take possession from its owner, a woman named Gerlinde Pommer. After years of fighting with Pommer, Austria expects to pass a bill facilitating the seizure of the building before the end of this year.

Afterward, officials say they may use the site for a maternity hospital, a refugee shelter, or a center for scholarship.

Philippine Pivot

A visit by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to Beijing this week should provide more signals of just how far he’s willing to go to “pivot” toward China and away from his country’s longstanding alliance with the United States.

China is looking to use the visit to walk back or further undermine the decision by an international tribunal that ruled in favor of the Philippines in the two countries’ dispute over territory in the South China Sea, the New York Times reported.

While the tribunal’s ruling won’t likely find a place in any official joint statement, the text of a draft proposed by the Philippine side suggests Duterte is looking for China to legitimize his brutal anti-drug campaign, as well as some concessions on agricultural exports, in exchange for ignoring the decision.

In other words, one key component may well be aimed at Washington.


Along came a spider

When Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet to eat her curds and whey, the spider that sat down beside her might have heard her coming before making its move.

A new study published in Current Biology suggests that one species of jumping spider can actually detect sound from up to 10 feet away.

Scientists have known for some time that arachnids can “hear” by catching vibrations from changing air pressure in specialized sensory hairs on their bodies.

Previous estimates placed the range of this sense at about three feet.

But the study’s first author, Paul Shamble, a biologist at Harvard University, told the Christian Science Monitor, “It seems that they can actually hear over much larger ranges.”

Shamble and his team happened upon the premise of their study while analyzing jumping spiders’ brains. A machine measuring neurons in the spiders’ brains sounded when his rolling chair squeaked.

Curiosity led researchers to probe further into what they knew about spider hearing. Through a series of tests, they discovered that the spider could detect sounds ranging at around 65 decibels from up to 10 feet away.

For a visual break down of the study’s findings, take a look here.

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