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Threat to evacuate US diplomats from Iraq raises fear of war

Washington has made preparations to withdraw diplomats from Iraq after warning Baghdad it could shut its embassy, two Iraqi officials and two Western diplomats said, a step Iraqis fear could turn their country into a battle zone.

Any move by the United States to reduce its diplomatic presence in a country where it has up to 5,000 troops would be widely seen in the region as an escalation of its confrontation with Iran, which Washington blames for missile and bomb attacks.

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That in turn would open the possibility of military action, with just weeks to go before an election in which President Donald Trump has campaigned on a hard line towards Tehran and its proxies.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to close the embassy in a phone call a week ago to President Barham Salih, two Iraqi government sources said. The conversation was initially reported by an Iraqi news website.

By Sunday, Washington had begun preparations to withdraw diplomatic staff if such a decision is taken, those sources and the two Western diplomats said.

The concern among the Iraqis is that withdrawing diplomats would be followed quickly by military action against forces Washington blamed for attacks.

Populist Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who commands a following of millions of Iraqis, last week pleaded for groups to avoid aggravation that would turn Iraq into a battleground.

One of the Western diplomats said the US administration did not “want to be limited in their options” to weaken Iran or pro-Iranian militias in Iraq. Asked whether he expected Washington to respond with economic or military measures, the diplomat replied: “Strikes.”

The US State Department, asked about plans to withdraw from Iraq, said: “We never comment on the Secretary’s private diplomatic conversations with foreign leaders … Iran-backed groups launching rockets at our Embassy are a danger not only to us but to the Government of Iraq.”

Earlier this month, the United States military said it would reduce its presence in Iraq to 3,000 troops from 5,200.

The Pentagon said on Monday it was committed to supporting Iraq’s long-term “security, stability, and prosperity” and US military operations against Islamic State continued.

Perennial risk

In a region polarized between allies of Iran and the United States, Iraq is the rare exception: a country that has close ties with both. But that has left it open to a perennial risk of becoming a battleground in a proxy war.

That risk was hammered home in January this year, when Washington killed Iran’s most important military commander, Qassem Soleimani, with a drone strike at Baghdad airport. Iran responded with missiles fired at US bases in Iraq.

Since then, a new prime minister has taken power in Iraq, supported by the United States, while Tehran still maintains close links to powerful Shia armed movements.

Rockets regularly fly across the Tigris towards the heavily fortified US diplomatic compound, constructed to be the biggest US embassy in the world in central Baghdad’s so-called Green Zone during the US occupation after a 2003 invasion.

In recent weeks rocket attacks near the embassy have increased and roadside bombs targeted convoys carrying equipment to the US-led military coalition. One roadside attack hit a British convoy in Baghdad, the first of its kind against Western diplomats in Iraq for years.

On Monday three children and two women were killed when two militia rockets hit a family home, the Iraqi military said. Police sources said Baghdad airport was the intended target.

Two Iraqi intelligence sources suggested plans to withdraw American diplomats were not yet in motion, and would depend on whether Iraqi security forces were able to do a better job of halting attacks. They said they had received orders to prevent attacks on US sites, and had been told that US evacuations would begin only if that effort failed.

Double-edged sword

Iraqis are concerned about the impact of November’s presidential election on the Trump administration’s decision-making.

While Trump has boasted of his hard line against Iran, he has also long promised to withdraw US troops from engagements in the Middle East. The United States is already drawing down its force sent to help defeat Islamic State fighters in Iraq from 2014-2017.

Some Iraqi officials dismissed Pompeo’s threat to pull out diplomats as bluster, designed to scare armed groups into stopping attacks. But they said it could backfire by provoking the militias instead, if they sense an opportunity to push Washington to retreat.

“The American threat to close their embassy is merely a pressure tactic, but is a double-edged sword,” said Gati Rikabi, a member of Iraq’s parliamentary security committee.

He and another committee member said US moves were designed to scare Iraqi leaders into supporting Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who has tried to check the power of Iran-aligned militia groups, with scant success.

Hawks on both sides

The militias are under public pressure to rein in supporters who might provoke Washington. Since last year, public opinion in Iraq has turned sharply against political groups seen as fomenting violence on behalf of Iran.

Publicly, the powerful Iran-backed Shia militia groups which control large factions in parliament have tried to distance themselves from attacks on Western targets.

US officials say they think the Shia militias or their Iranian backers have created splinter offshoots to carry out such attacks, allowing the main organisations to evade blame.

A senior figure in a Shia Muslim political party said he thought Trump might want to pull out diplomats to keep them out of harm’s way and avoid an embarrassing pre-election incident.

Militia attacks were not necessarily under Tehran’s control, he said, noting that Iran’s foreign ministry had publicly called for a halt to attacks on diplomatic missions in Iraq.

“Iran wants to boot the Americans out, but not at any cost. It doesn’t want instability on its Western border,” the Shia leader said. “Just like there are hawks in the US, there are hawks in Iran who have contact with the groups carrying out attacks, who aren’t necessarily following state policy.”

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Last Update: Tuesday, 29 September 2020 KSA 23:13 – GMT 20:13

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Nancy Pelosi rallies US House Democrats on possible presidential election decision

US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi is rallying Democrats to prepare for a once in-a-century election scenario requiring Congress to decide the outcome of the presidential race if neither Democrat Joe Biden nor President Donald Trump wins outright.

In a campaign letter to colleagues, Pelosi told her fellow House Democrats that recent comments by Trump demonstrate that he could ask the House to decide the race if it is not clear which of the two candidates had received the minimum 270 Electoral College votes in the Nov. 3 presidential election needed to gain office.

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Trump repeatedly has questioned the security of mail-in ballots, which could take a while to tabulate given the high number of voters likely to use them this year due to the pandemic.

Democrats fear that the president could attempt to have the count of those votes cut short in an attempt to have the election outcome determined by the House.

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Under the US Constitution, the House would vote by state delegation to settle such a contest, with each state casting a single vote. While Democrats control the chamber by 232 seats to 198, Republicans control a majority of 26 state delegations versus 22 for Democrats. Pennsylvania’s delegation is tied, while Michigan has a 7-6 split between Democrats and Republicans and an additional seat held by a Libertarian.

The House has not determined the outcome of a presidential election since 1876.

Pelosi called on Democrats for “an all out effort” to capture additional Republican-held House seats, which they might need if a decision on the presidential election spills over into next year. She also urged Democrats to marshal resources to support the House Majority PAC, a political action committee committed to promoting Democratic candidates for the House.

“Because we cannot leave anything to chance, House Majority PAC is doing everything it can to win more delegations for Democrats,” Pelosi wrote.

A spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), the campaign arm of the House Republican caucus, said Pelosi was trying to “meddle” in the presidential election.

“We welcome any opportunity to highlight San Franciscoliberal Nancy Pelosi’s efforts to meddle in elections. Pelosi is the most unpopular politician in America,” NRCC spokesmanMichael McAdams said in a statement.

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Last Update: Monday, 28 September 2020 KSA 22:42 – GMT 19:42

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More polarization or coming to the center? The other US elections in November

All eyes are on the US presidential election in November that is gearing up to be one of the most divisive in recent history, pitting incumbent President Donald Trump against Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

There will be other voting taking place on the same day, however, and the results of the Senate race will be just as important, analysts say.

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In the latest example of the Senate’s importance, the Republican party is poised to push ahead and fill the Supreme Court seat vacated by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Democrats in the Senate and Congress are unable to do much to stop this. In 2016, the Republican-led Senate refused to push through former President Barack Obama’s nominee after Justice Antonin Scalia passed away.

Why it matters?

In the US, the bicameral legislature system means two different chambers for legislation: the House of Representatives and Senate.

The Senate is made up of 100 members, with two from each state. Currently controlled by the Republicans with a 53 – 47 majority, 35 seats are up for grabs in November. Out of the 35 seats, 23 are held by Republicans.

“The thing to know about the Senate race is that Republicans, this year, are defending more seats than Democrats,” John Halpin from the Washington-based Center for American Progress said.

Democrats would need to net at least three seats for a 50-50 split in the Senate “in addition to winning the presidency, in order to break a tie in the Senate,” Halpin said.

The vice president steps in to break any ties on voting.

“They need to net four seats overall to have an outright majority of 51,” Halpin said of the Democrats.

In the House of Representatives, Democrats have a 232 – 198 majority, making it nearly impossible for Republicans to take control of the Congress.

Members of Congress are up for election every two years, and Senators elected for six-year terms.

One-third of the Senate is up for elections in November. Democrats, according to public opinion polls, believe they have a strong shot at winning the presidency.

“The thing to know about the Senate race is that Republicans, this year, are defending more seats than Democrats,” John Halpin from the Washington-based Center for American Progress said.

For Democrats to take control, they will have to net at least three seats and win the presidency, to break a tie in the Senate. This would mean a 50-50 split in the Senate, and then the vice president would step in to break any ties on voting.

Democrats would need to gain four seats overall to have an outright majority of 51.

“Right now, most of the big, battleground Senate seats are a tossup, as we call them,” he said. “We don’t know who’s going to win. They’re very close.”

Further divisions or coming to the center?

Nevertheless, Halpin stopped short of predicting the outcome of the elections.

“It’s quite possible that either Biden or Trump wins the presidency, and the Senate is in the hands of the opposite party.”

If this happens, Halpin said the US would be in for another era of divided government.

Given the nature of legislation in the United States … there will have to be compromises made in the Senate,” Halpin said if opposite parties control the presidency and the Senate.

David Ramadan of the Schar School of Government at George Mason University said the elections would be one of the most important elections “of our lifetime.”

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According to today’s polls, Biden and the Democrats would win the presidency and take control of the Senate. However, if this happens, there will be a “huge shift” in US politics from right to left, Ramadan said.

In this case, Biden and the Democrats would have no choice but to move even further to the left “to make the left-base, Bernie Sanders social and Democratic base happy. There is no excuse at that point,” Ramadan, also a former member of the Virginia House, told Al Arabiya English.

However, Ramadan believes that a Biden victory with the Republicans keeping control of the Senate would force all sides to “come to the middle” and make the country function in a less polarized manner.

“The elections are truly shaping up to make a difference that could last for a couple of generations on the trajectory of American politics.”

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Last Update: Monday, 28 September 2020 KSA 22:19 – GMT 19:19

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Saudi Arabia takes down terrorist cell trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards

Saudi Arabia took down this month a terrorist cell that received training by the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) in Iran, arrested 10 individuals and seized weapons and explosives, the spokesman for the presidency of the State Security said on Monday.

Developing

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Last Update: Monday, 28 September 2020 KSA 22:03 – GMT 19:03

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Coronavirus: UK reports 4,044 new cases of COVID-19, 13 deaths

The United Kingdom reported 4,044 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, raising the total number of cases to 439,013, government data showed. The daily cases figure was down from 5,693 on Sunday.

The United Kingdom also recorded 13 new deaths from the virus, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 42,001.

For more coronavirus news, visit our dedicated page.

COVID-19 restrictions in northeast England

Meanwhile, the British government tightened restrictions on socializing in parts of northeast England on Monday, in response to high and increasing COVID-19 infection rates in the region.

From Wednesday, residents in seven areas including urban centers such as Newcastle, Gateshead, Sunderland and Durham will be barred from socializing indoors with people from outside their household or strictly defined social bubble.

The restrictions will apply in homes, pubs and restaurants, and people who fail to comply will face fines enforceable by law, the health ministry said in a statement.

Coronavirus incidence rates were above 100 per 100,000 in six of the seven areas last week, the ministry said.

Schools and workplaces will not be affected by the restrictions.

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Large swathes of the United Kingdom and millions of citizens are subject to local restrictions brought in to try to slow a second wave of COVID-19 infections. The country has the highest death toll from the virus in Europe, at 42,000.

Northeast and northwest England have been badly hit. Greater Manchester, the main urban center in the northwest, is also subject to local measures, as are the major cities of Glasgow in Scotland and Cardiff in Wales.

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Last Update: Monday, 28 September 2020 KSA 21:43 – GMT 18:43

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China committed to building an open global economy, says top diplomat Wang Yi

China will keep opening up its economy to the wider world and is committed to building an open global economy, the government’s senior diplomat said on Monday.

China has expanded access for foreign investors, State Councillor Wang Yi said in a forum organized by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It has taken steps such as shortening its Negative List which detail sectors and industries that are restricted or prohibited to foreign firms, he said.

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Wang also made repeated veiled attacks on the United States in his speech, without naming the country or President Donald Trump.

He contrasted China’s pledges to uphold multilateralism with “some countries” which he said had turned the United Nations General Assembly into a “theater for self-serving political shows and an arena to provoke conflict and confrontation and to divide the whole world.”

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Relations between China and the United States are tense overa number of issues from trade to the situation in Hong Kong. At the United Nations last week, Trump repeated his accusation that China was responsible for the coronavirus pandemic.

Wang also said China would take part in multilateral cooperation on coronavirus vaccine research for the world’s benefit.

“China will contribute to the accessibility and affordability of vaccines in all developing countries,” he said.

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Last Update: Monday, 28 September 2020 KSA 21:23 – GMT 18:23

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Pompeo seeks to use US influence to ease Greece-Turkey dispute

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday that Washington will use its diplomatic and military influence in the region to try to ease a volatile dispute between NATO allies Greece and Turkey over energy rights in the eastern Mediterranean.

Pompeo began a five-day regional tour in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, days after Greece and Turkey committed to restarting a diplomatic dialogue on the dispute that triggered a dangerous military build-up — and fears of military conflict — in the disputed maritime area over the summer.

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“The United States and Greece shared views on the eastern Mediterranean and reaffirmed their belief that maritime delimitation issues should be resolved peacefully,” the two countries said in a joint statement after Pompeo met with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias.

The two countries, it said, “reiterated their dedication to enhancing their close cooperation as NATO allies, using all appropriate means at their disposal, in order to safeguard stability and security in the wider region.” Relations between Greece and neighboring Turkey deteriorated sharply this year over disputed maritime boundaries and exploration rights in the eastern Mediterranean.

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Turkey sent a research vessel, accompanied by warships, to prospect for energy resources in an area Greece claims is on its own continental shelf and where it claims exclusive economic rights. Athens sent warships of its own to the area.

European Union members later this week are to discuss imposing sanctions on Turkey for its actions.

In Istanbul, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan voiced support for the peaceful resolution of disputes and renewed a call for solutions that would protect everyone’s rights.

“I invite all countries in the Mediterranean that are our neighbors, and especially Greece, to stop viewing the eastern Mediterranean as a zero-sum game. Come, let’s together turn the Mediterranean into a basin of peace once again … let’s make energy a matter for cooperation, not conflict,” Erdogan said.

Pompeo had discussed the situation in the eastern Mediterranean late on Sunday with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg as he headed to Greece.

Pompeo’s regional tour will also include Italy, the Vatican and Croatia.

Later Monday, he will depart to the Greek island of Crete where he is scheduled to meet with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and visit a US naval base at Souda Bay.

Last October, Pompeo visited Athens and signed a revised defense cooperation agreement with Greece that provided for increasing joint US-Greece and NATO activity at three locations in Greece as well as infrastructure and other improvements at Souda Bay.

Amid the tension with Turkey, Greece has announced major arms purchases, including fighter jets from France, as well as warships, helicopters and weapons systems.

Pompeo is the first US Secretary of State to visit Greece’s second-largest city of Thessaloniki. Security was tight in the port city, with the venue of Pompeo’s meeting with Dendias changing from the originally planned location, a local ministry, to a hotel for security reasons, authorities said.

Two separate protests against his visit were planned by left-wing groups for Monday evening.

During his visit to Thessaloniki, Pompeo signed a bilateral science and technology agreement, and hosted energy sector business leaders for a discussion to highlight energy diversification and infrastructure projects in Greece.

He also joined members of Thessaloniki’s Jewish community to commemorate Yom Kippur at the local Jewish Museum, as police cordoned off a large section of the city center. No date has yet been set for the start of the Greek-Turkish exploratory talks.

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Last Update: Monday, 28 September 2020 KSA 21:04 – GMT 18:04

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Two women who filmed Dubai police officer on duty arrested

Two women were arrested in Dubai for recording and publishing a video on social media of a police officer while he was arresting a suspect in the emirate, an official said.

Brigadier Jamal al-Jallaf, Director of Criminal Investigation Department in Dubai Police, said the women breached “the Decree-Law No. 5 of 2012 on combating information technology crimes” for violating the privacy of others, especially a policeman while on duty, said al-Jallaf, according to a statement issued by Dubai Police.

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The statement added that the two women may face jail “for no less than six months” and a fine between 150,000 dirhams to 500,000 dirhams as per article 21 of UAE cybercrime law.

While the statement did not mention when the incident took place, and the nationalities of the two women, al-Jallaf urged the public to respect the privacy of others and not to publish pictures or videos of others on social media platforms, as well as not to record police security operations.

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Last Update: Monday, 28 September 2020 KSA 20:56 – GMT 17:56

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US warns Iraq of embassy closure in Baghdad if attacks by Iran-backed groups persist

The Trump administration has warned Iraq that it will close its embassy in Baghdad if the government does not take swift and decisive action to end persistent rocket and other attacks by Iranian-backed militias and rogue armed elements on American and allied interests in the country, US, Iraqi and other officials said Monday.

The warning came as Iraqi security officials said a Katyusha rocket hit near Baghdad airport, killing three Iraqi civilians and severely wounding two others.

A US official said the administration’s warning was clear and given to both Iraq’s president and prime minister but that it was not an imminent ultimatum. There should be “no confusion” among Iraqi leaders about how seriously the US takes the threat to its personnel and property, according to the official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Read more: US threatens Baghdad with sanctions over Iran-backed militia attacks in Iraq: Sources

The warning signals the administration’s increasing frustration and anger with ongoing rocket fire from Iranian-supported groups on or near the vast US Embassy compound in Baghdad as it steps up pressure on Iran with the re-imposition of crippling sanctions.

However, closing the embassy and withdrawing US personnel from Baghdad would signal a significant retreat from a country in which successive administrations have invested massive amounts of money and lives.

The threat to evacuate the embassy, which has stoked concerns in Baghdad of a diplomatic crisis, was first delivered to President Barham Saleh on Tuesday in a phone call with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Iraqi officials said. Pompeo then repeated the warning to Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on Saturday, the officials said.

Pompeo told Saleh that if the US presence continues to be targeted, measures would be taken to close the embassy and a “strong and violent” response would follow against the groups responsible for the attacks, according to three Iraqi officials with knowledge of the call.

Pompeo went further with al-Kadhimi on Saturday, telling the prime minister that the US will initiate plans to withdraw from the embassy, according to the Iraqi officials who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

An official announcement has not been made by the Americans. But the Trump administration has not been shy about expressing its anger and concern about continuing rocket attacks by Iranian-backed groups on or near the embassy compound.

In a tangible sign of a strain in US-Iraq relations, the State Department shortened an Iran sanctions waiver deadline by 60 days last week. The previous waiver, crucial for Iraq to import badly needed Iranian gas to meet power demands, gave the government 120 days.

Without the waiver, Iraq would suffer crippling sanctions barring it access to US dollars.

Despite comments from US officials that a deadline on closing the embassy is not in place, Iraqi officials appeared to be under the impression they have until the waiver expires in two months’ time to take action.

“America will observe what measures the government of Iraq takes within two months,” one senior Iraqi official said. During this time, al-Kadhimi’s administration must halt the targeting of foreign missions, military installations and logistics convoys destined for the US-led coalition or else, “aggressive” action would follow, the official said.

Iraq’s leadership is feeling the heat.

Al-Kadhimi, Saleh and Parliament Speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi held a meeting late Sunday in which all three leaders said they supported measures to bring arms under the authority of the state and to prevent the targeting of diplomatic missions.

So far, Iraqi authorities have redistributed some security forces inside the Green Zone.

The Iraqi officials also said two factors might determine whether Iraq’s leadership can walk back from an impending diplomatic crisis: Security fallout from protests planned in the coming weeks to mark one year since mass anti-government demonstrations began, and domestic politics inside the US ahead of the November federal election.

“We expect large crowds,” said one official of the protests. “And we expect it will impact American thinking.”

Two Western diplomats said they had been informed that the US has started the process of closing its sprawling facility inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, but could not provide details. The US Embassy declined to comment.

Closing the facility, which is by physical size the largest US diplomatic mission in the world, is expected to be a complex and time-consuming process. The embassy was already functioning at minimum levels since March due to the coronavirus and ongoing security threats.

Diplomats were told the US had already started the process of closing but would “re-evaluate while progressing,” one Western official said, suggesting the decision was reversible if security inside the Green Zone improved.

In 2018, Pompeo ordered the closure of the US consulate in the southern Iraqi city of Basra due to attacks by Iranian-backed militias.

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Last Update: Monday, 28 September 2020 KSA 19:51 – GMT 16:51

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Head of Afghanistan peace process visits Pakistan as talks continue

The Afghan official overseeing Kabul’s efforts to forge a deal with the Taliban arrived Monday for a three-day visit to Pakistan, the influential neighbor considered vital to the peace process.

Abdullah Abdullah, previously Afghanistan’s chief executive, was meeting senior officials in Islamabad for the first time as chair of his country’s High Council for National Reconciliation.

Islamabad denies such support, but has said its influence over the Taliban encouraged the insurgents to hold talks with Washington that led to a February deal paving the way for a US military withdrawal and current peace talks.

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“Abdullah’s visit will greatly help to strengthen relations with Afghanistan and forge a common understanding on the Afghan peace process,” Pakistan’s foreign ministry said in a statement after Abdullah met Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi.

“Qureshi underlined the high importance Pakistan attached to its brotherly relations with Afghanistan,” the statement read, adding that the return of millions of Afghan refugees currently residing in Pakistan must be included in peace talks.

Negotiations in Doha started September 12 but have slowed as the two sides grapple with several foundational issues, including which interpretation of Islam should be used to frame Afghanistan’s future.

“Definitely things take time,” Khairullah Khairkhaw, a senior member of the Taliban negotiating team, told reporters in Doha.

“There are many issues, 20 or more, that need clarity.”

Nader Naderi, a member of Kabul’s negotiating team, said both sides would meet later Monday to discuss several pressing topics including a ceasefire.

“The key issue for us is a ceasefire and we are still talking about it (with the Taliban),” Naderi said.

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, when it was ousted by a US-led invasion.

It has fought the government in Kabul for nearly two decades in a conflict that has left tens of thousands of people dead.

Violence has continued unabated across Afghanistan even during the talks.

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Last Update: Monday, 28 September 2020 KSA 19:08 – GMT 16:08