The World Today for January 21, 2019

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NIMBY Geopolitics

After President Donald Trump’s surprise visit to Iraq on the day after Christmas last year, Iraqi lawmakers called for a vote to expel American troops from their troubled country.

“Parliament must clearly and urgently express its view about the ongoing American violations of Iraqi sovereignty,” said Salam al-Shimiri, an ally of Muqtada al-Sadr, the cleric who led an insurrection against US troops after the 2003 invasion that ousted ex-dictator Saddam Hussein, in an interview with the Associated Press.

A US withdrawal is unlikely to happen soon, however, because Iraq is arguably central to future American plans for the region.

“If the US is pulling out troops from Syria, it means that the push against ISIS has to come from somewhere,” NPR journalist Jane Arraf said from Baghdad. “And there’s a lot of talk here among diplomats, among military people, that that’s going to have to be based at least partly in Iraq.”

American commanders in Iraq are already coordinating the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. A Reuters scoop found those on-the-ground officers were central to slowing Trump’s initial 30-day withdrawal from Syria, for example.

Syria isn’t the only hot zone that American officials will oversee from Iraq, however.

Speaking in Egypt recently, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for containment of Iran in the Middle East, the New York Times reported. “Countries increasingly understand that we must confront the ayatollahs, not coddle them,” said Pompeo.

Accordingly, analysts at the International Crisis Group, a think tank dedicated to avoiding conflict, predicted that Iraq could become a proxy battlefield in the event of escalating tensions between the US and Iran, Agence France-Presse reported.

The Iranians are preparing.

“Iraq is where we have experience, plausible deniability and the requisite capability to hit the US below the threshold that would prompt a direct retaliation,” an anonymous senior Iranian official told the group.

Iranian officials are also cementing trade ties with Iraq, the Wall Street Journal wrote. Iran already exports natural gas that generates 40 percent of Iraq’s electricity as well as foodstuffs and other goods worth a total of $9 billion to Iraq. American sanctions have expanded that trade by weakening Iran’s currency, making its exports cheaper.

Writing in Politico, Ray Takeyh, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argued an aggressive American stance toward Iran would be more likely to curb the country’s sponsorship of militants in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and elsewhere.

The Iraqis might agree, just so long as it doesn’t happen in their backyard.



Bad Omen

The Saudi-led coalition backing Yemen’s government launched as many as 24 airstrikes on the Houthi-held city of Sanaa over the weekend in a bad omen for the United Nations’ ongoing efforts to negotiate a deal to end the country’s four-year civil war.

A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition said it hit seven Houthi military facilities used for drone operations, Reuters reported. “The raids were very violent, the likes of which we have not seen for a year,” a local resident told the news agency.

Following a deadly drone attack by the Iran-backed Houthis on a Yemeni government military parade last week, the airstrikes come amid preparations for the second round of UN-brokered peace talks later this month and continued UN efforts to implement a ceasefire and troop withdrawals in the port city of Hodeidah.

That truce has mainly held up, Reuters said, noting that a ceasefire in Hodeidah is vital to facilitate the entry of medicines and other relief supplies. But troop withdrawals have stalled.


Rubber Stamp

A constitutional court in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Sunday validated the election of opposition candidate Felix Tshisekedi as the country’s next president, rejecting contentions that the election commission had illegally disqualified more than a million voters from casting ballots in regions stricken by the Ebola virus and ethnic conflict.

Rival opposition leader Martin Fayulu immediately declared himself president and called the ruling “a constitutional coup,” the Washington Post reported. But the apparent support of regional power brokers and the absence of major street protests (so far) “all but ensures Tshisekedi’s victory,” the paper said.

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, representing two of the region’s most influential countries, sent Tshisekedi their congratulations. Ramaphosa asked the rival stakeholders “to respect the decision of the constitutional court and commit to continue with a journey of consolidating peace,” the BBC reported.

The southern African regional group, SADC, also welcomed the decision. The African Union, which had earlier questioned the results, canceled plans to send a delegation of leaders to Kinshasa.


I, Spy

The Latvian Parliament’s decision to post online the contents of secret files left behind by Soviet secret police when Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania emerged as independent nations in 1991 has opened as many mysteries as it has solved.

The documents have outed more than 4,000 purported agents who spied on their neighbors on behalf of the Cheka, which later became known as the K.G.B., the New York Times reported.

But as some of those named in the files insist on their innocence, Latvians are wondering whether leaving the names behind was itself part of a K.G.B. plot to discredit key Latvian political elites like Rolands Tjarve, the former director of Latvia’s post-independence national broadcaster and now a professor at the University of Latvia.

Insisting on his innocence, Tjarve called the files part of a disinformation campaign, saying, “It is impossible that the K.G.B. would leave behind a real list of agents in what it considered enemy territory.”

Others named in the files include a two-time former prime minister, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, a onetime foreign minister, leaders of the Catholic and Orthodox churches and other important cultural figures.


Face Value

Patients may not have to undergo extensive clinical tests to diagnose some genetic disorders in the near future.

US company FDNA has developed facial recognition software that quickly identifies genetic syndromes by scanning a person’s face, the Verge reported.

In a recent study, researchers described how they trained the software – known as DeepGestalt – by feeding it 17,000 images of 200 different syndromes.

During tests, DeepGestalt’s algorithms accurately spotted specific disorders more than 90 percent of the time, such as the Cornelia de Lange syndrome and Angelman syndrome, both of which affect intellectual development and mobility. Medical experts got it right 70 percent of the time.

In another experiment, the software tried to identify the specific mutation causing a particular syndrome. This time, it was less accurate, with a hit rate of 64 percent.

Bruce Gelb, a medical professor who was not involved in the study, called the findings impressive but said traditional testing was still needed to identify specific mutations.

“It’s inconceivable to me that one wouldn’t send off the panel testing and figure out which one it actually is,” said Gelb.

FDNA seems aware of the software’s limitations, saying it can serve as “a reference tool” rather than replace medical tests.

“We showed that this system can be used in clinical settings,” Yaron Gurovich, chief technology officer at FDNA, told CNN.

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