Lost sailors did not activate emergency beacon

The U.S. Coast Guard said Monday that the two Hawaii women who were lost at sea for five months had an emergency beacon aboard their sailboat that was never activated.

U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Scott Carr told The Associated Press that their review of the incident and subsequent interviews with the survivors revealed that they had the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) aboard but never turned it on.

When asked if the two had the radio beacon aboard, the women told the AP on Friday they had a number of other communications devices, but they didn’t mention the EPIRB.

The device communicates with satellites and sends locations to authorities. It’s activated when it’s submerged in water or turned on manually.

During the post-incident debriefing by the Coast Guard, Jennifer Appel, who was on the sailboat with Tasha Fuiava, was asked if she had the emergency beacon on board. Appel replied she did, and that it was properly registered.

“We asked why during this course of time did they not activate the EPIRB. She had stated they never felt like they were truly in distress, like in a 24-hour period they were going to die,” said Coast Guard spokeswoman Petty Officer 2nd Class Tara Molle, who was on the call to the AP with Carr.

Carr also said the Coast Guard made radio contact with a vessel that identified itself as the Sea Nymph in June near Tahiti, and the captain said they were not in distress and expected to make land the next morning. That was after the women reportedly lost their engines and sustained damage to their rigging and mast.

Experts say some of the details of the women’s story do not add up.

A retired Coast Guard officer who was responsible for search and rescue operations said that if the women used the emergency beacon, they would have been found.

“If the thing was operational and it was turned on, a signal should have been received very, very quickly that this vessel was in distress,” Phillip R. Johnson said Monday in a telephone interview from Washington state.

Emergency Position Indication Radio Beacons, or EPIRBS, activate when they are submerged in water or turned on manually and send a location to rescuers within minutes.

The beacons are solid and built to be suddenly dropped in the ocean. “Failures are really rare,” Johnson said, but added that old and weak batteries also could cause a unit not to work.

It’s not clear if the pair had tested it before the journey.

The women also said they had six forms of communication that all went dead. “There’s something wrong there,” Johnson said.

He knows of cases in remote Alaska where a ship in distress just using one form of beacon brought a fairly quick response from nearby fishing boats and the Coast Guard.

“I’ve never heard of all that stuff going out at the same time,” he said.

And there’s more that doesn’t add up.

Key elements of the women’s account are contradicted by authorities, weather reports and the basic geography of the Pacific Ocean. The discrepancies raised questions about whether Appel and her sailing companion, Tasha Fuiava, remember the ordeal accurately or could have avoided disaster.

The Hawaii residents reported that their sailing equipment and engine failed and said they were close to giving up when the U.S. Navy rescued them last week, thousands of miles off course. They were taken to Japan, where they didn’t immediately respond to an email and call seeking comment Monday.

The Navy said they do not investigate incidents like this and they were only there to render assistance. The Coast Guard said its review of the case is ongoing, but that there is no criminal investigation at this time.

The two women met in late 2016, and within a week of knowing each other decided to take the trip together. Fuiava had never sailed a day in her life. They planned to take 18 days to get to Tahiti, then travel the South Pacific and return to Hawaii in October.

On their first day at sea, May 3, the two U.S. women described running into a fearsome storm that tossed their vessel with 60 mph (97 kph) winds and 30-foot (9-meter) seas for three days, but meteorologists say there was no severe weather anywhere along their route during that time.

After leaving “we got into a Force 11 storm, and it lasted for two nights and three days,” Appel said of the storm they encountered off Oahu. In one of the first signs of trouble, she said she lost her cellphone overboard.

“We were empowered to know that we could withstand the forces of nature,” Appel said. “The boat could withstand the forces of nature.”

But the National Weather Service in Honolulu said no organized storm systems were in or near Hawaii on May 3 or in the days afterward. Archived NASA satellite images confirm there were no tropical storms around Hawaii that day.

The pair said they thought about turning back, but the islands of Maui and Lanai didn’t have harbors deep enough to accommodate their sailboat. At 50 feet (15 meters) long, the vessel is relatively small, and both islands have harbors that would have accommodated them. Plus, the Big Island — the southernmost island in state — has several places to dock.

“I had no idea that we were going to be in this thing for 80 solid hours,” Appel said of the storm of which there is no record.

Still, they pressed on.

Days later, after parts of their mast and rigging failed, they sailed up to another small island, still with a working motor, but decided against trying to land, believing the island was mostly uninhabited with no protected waters.

“It is uninhabited. They only have habitation on the northwest corner and their reef was too shallow for us to cross in order to get into the lagoon,” Appel said.

But Christmas Island, part of the island nation of Kiribati, is home to more than 2,000 people and has a port that routinely welcomes huge commercial ships.

“We could probably nurse it down to the next major island in Kiribati,” Appel said. Then we’ll be able to stop there and seek safe haven and get up on the mast and fix it.”

The island has at least two airfields, and women had flares aboard to alert people on land. Plus, its widest point spans about 30 miles (48 kilometers), a day’s hike to safety from even the most remote area.

When asked if the small island would have been a good place to land and repair their sails, Appel said no. “Kiribati, um, one whole half of the island is called shipwreck beach for a reason.”

Christmas Island has a place called Bay of Wrecks on its northeast side.

So, instead of stopping for help, they say they set a new destination about 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) away and a few hundred miles beyond their original target of Tahiti. They were headed to the Cook Islands.

“We really did think we could make it to the next spot,” Appel said.

Then, they say, another storm killed their engine at the end of May. More than five months after they departed, they were picked up in the western Pacific about 900 miles (1,448 kilometers) southeast of Japan and thousands of miles off course. The two women and their dogs were all in good health when picked up by the U.S. Navy.

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Palestinian 'Pompeii' in Jerusalem could face demolition

A 10-minute walk from the bustle of Jerusalem’s central bus station, Lifta’s crumbling remains are a sanctuary of silence.

Residents of the former Palestinian village on the western edge of the city fled during the war surrounding Israel’s independence in 1948, and today it is one of the few depopulated Palestinian villages that was neither demolished nor re-inhabited. Now, the overgrown skeletons of buildings face a new threat: luxury apartments. Opponents want to preserve the town as an historic site.

Until 1948, Lifta was an affluent Muslim Palestinian village of around 2,500 abutting the main road connecting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Fighting between Jewish and Palestinian militias took place in and around Lifta in December 1947, including an attack on a cafe that left seven dead, prompting its residents to flee, according to historical accounts.

After the war, the village was incorporated into the state of Israel, and the residents were not allowed to return.

Mohammed Abu Eleil, 78, grew up in Lifta, though his family moved elsewhere in Jerusalem a year before hostilities broke out. As he wandered through the remnants of his home village with his 55-year-old son Nasir on a recent day, he recalled the “peaceful and good life” in the Lifta of his childhood.

“Nothing is more precious for the Arab man than his house,” Abu Eleil said. “It is true that death is a disaster, but leaving or being expelled from your house is the biggest calamity for the Arab man.”

For reasons that remain unclear, Lifta was never demolished. After the war it briefly housed Jewish refugees, but most of its houses were abandoned again in the late 1960s. The roofs of the houses were blown open to prevent squatters from moving in.

The village and its natural spring were later declared a nature reserve, and the rocky slope is covered in vegetation. Trees grow through some of the 55 remaining houses built before the 1948 war.

But in 2011 a redevelopment plan was advanced to bulldoze the village ruins and the nature reserve— which today are part of one of the largest undeveloped tracts of land in the Jerusalem municipal area — into luxury residences, a hotel and shops. A group of Israeli and Palestinian activists, including descendants of the village’s former inhabitants, pushed back against the plan, arguing Lifta should be preserved as a living monument.

The Abu Eleils are involved with “Save Lifta,” a coalition of Israeli and Palestinian environmentalists, political activists and researchers that has battled the development plan in Israeli courts for the past several years. Ilan Shtayer, the organization’s coordinator, likened Lifta to Pompeii — “frozen in time.”

Former Lifta residents petitioned an Israeli court to halt the project, and in 2012 the court ordered the Israel Lands Authority to freeze the plan and carry out an extensive archaeological survey to map its historic remains.

The survey was completed last December, and opponents of the development plan argue that the discovery of remains dating back thousands of years will force the state to scrap the project altogether. The Israel Lands Authority canceled a conference scheduled last Thursday to present the survey results.

In a statement, the Lands Authority said the Lifta development plan would be advanced in the coming months, and that the plan would “place an emphasis on the preservation of antiquities in conjunction with the Jerusalem Municipality, the Israel Antiquities Authority and the relevant authorities.”

This month, the World Monuments Fund, a U.S.-based nonprofit working to conserve heritage sites around the globe, added Lifta to its watch list, warning that the redevelopment plan endangers the preservation of the site as “a rare place of heritage, recreation, and memory for the benefit of all citizens of Jerusalem.”

Shtayer envisions Lifta kept in stasis as “a memorial place to the catastrophe of ’48, this catastrophe that is common to Israelis and Palestinians,” a reference to the mass displacement of Palestinians as a result of the war and the decades of bloodshed that have continued on both sides since then.

“Both of us 70 years after (are) still suffering from what happened here in ’48, and Lifta is the only place around that can tell the story of what happened here, the civilization that happened here before, and to let us think about a different, better future,” he said.

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Putin challenger defends herself against claims she is a Kremlin plant

In the early 1990s, when Russian presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak was 11 years old, she said she would open the front door for Vladimir Putin when he came to her home. Putin was there to see her late father, Anatoly Sobchak, who served as the mayor of Saint Petersburg during the troubled years after Soviet Union’s fall. The elder Sobchak became Putin’s boss after appointing him deputy mayor; later, he would become Putin’s mentor, setting the ex-KGB agent on his path to the Kremlin. 

Now, Ksenia Sobchak, 35, has formally launched a presidential campaign to challenge Putin in the election next spring. Running under a slogan of “Against Everyone,” Sobchak has described her bid as a protest vote for Russia’s marginalized opposition to rally around in an election whose outcome will all but certainly be in Putin’s favor. 

A top journalist at one of Russia’s only liberal television stations, Sobchak has long been a fixture in Russian media. But for many years, she was better known as a reality TV star, hosting the sex-fueled Russian version of “Big Brother” and her own show that followed her party-girl lifestyle and earned her the nickname “Russia’s Paris Hilton” in the Western press. Her family ties to Putin were such that she has had to deny rumors she was his goddaughter.

Her presidential campaign, however, has caused a rift in the anti-Putin opposition, sparking allegations that she is a Kremlin Trojan Horse, a stage-managed candidate meant to defang a sharper challenge from another leader, anti-corruption campaigner Aleksey Navalny.

Critics have alleged her run must have been approved, if not proposed, by Putin’s government. Those suspicions were fueled in the weeks leading up to her announcement by leaks to newspapers alleging the Kremlin was looking for a woman to run against Putin and considered her “an ideal candidate.” Since making her announcement, she has been barraged by criticism that she is — willingly or not — a prop in the Kremlin’s latest political show. 

Ksenia Sobchak met with ABC News in a makeup room backstage after appearing on a popular talk show on a state TV channel Wednesday. She had been on to speak about her campaign, a scenario that would be unthinkable to others in Russia’s opposition, who have long been barred from state television. 

For months, state media avoided even mentioning Navalny’s name, and some viewers of Sobchak’s talk show appearance noted that the host, Andrey Malakhov, seemed to do just that, skipping over any mention of Navalny.

Sobchak explained that her access to state TV is a sign that the Kremlin “underestimates” her. She denied the Kremlin encouraged her to run, saying she decided to do so after talking with friends, particularly some businessmen she won’t name, who committed to fund her. 

A week into her campaign, she told ABC News that she is using the Kremlin’s approval to her advantage. 

“In the eyes of the authorities, in Putin’s eyes — and this is even what I am counting on — maybe this situation even seems useful to them and that they can use me,” Ksenia Sobchak said. “But I believe we must use this situation ourselves.”

In a political system heavily controlled by the Kremlin, where even the second-most popular candidate, communist Zennady Zyuganov, polls at under 2 percent of the vote compared to Putin’s 53 percent, this does not mean winning.

“Let’s not make out as though I will be the winner. I won’t be,” Ksenia Sobchak said. “Putin will run and he will win.”

The idea, she said, is to instead use her candidacy to show how Russians are unhappy with Putin’s rule and to muster opposition forces for future battles. She first has to get on the ballot though, by collecting at least 100,000 signatures, or 300,000 if she runs without a party backing. 

Like much of the anti-Putin opposition, her campaign’s aesthetic recalls that of an American tech start-up. The makeup room is full of Sobchak’s young aides, dressed in sneakers and hipster T-shirts. She portrays her bid as a selfless, kamikaze run to ensure the anti-Putin opposition is represented this spring and to push Russia toward a more democratic path. 

“Ask me if this is the best way? No. It’s what we have, for now,” she said. “It’s not very much.” 

But, she added, “I am ready to bring myself as a sacrifice to this situation.”

But Sobchak’s liberal critics feel that by running, she is not sacrificing her own future but rather Navalny’s. 

Navalny, an anti-corruption activist who made his name exposing officials’ alleged ill-gotten wealth, has become Russia’s most dynamic opposition leader. For months, he has been breathing life into the country’s smothered political scene, occasionally bringing thousands onto the streets in the largest anti-government protests in years. Using social media and grassroots organizing, he has built a movement of 170,000 volunteers in 80 cities, mobilized around his attacks on official corruption and demands for real political competition.

Russian authorities have responded by disrupting his rallies and repeatedly arresting him. Navalny has been jailed seven times since December for calling unauthorized demonstrations. He was finishing his latest 20-day stint in jail when Sobchak announced she was entering the presidential race.

Navalny is formally barred from running by a fraud conviction he said is politically motivated, but is running what he calls a “presidential campaign” in any case, demanding to be allowed onto the ballot. Whether the Kremlin will ultimately allow him to run for president was set to become a defining issue in the election.  

Ksenia Sobchak’s announcement, however, changes that. Navalny’s supporters have accused Sobchak of being a spoiler for him, meant to dampen the inevitable controversy if the Kremlin blocks him and to siphon off some of the popular dissatisfaction he is channeling.  

But Sobchak insists she has no interest in blocking Navalny and has said she will withdraw her candidacy if he is allowed on the ballot. Navalny “deserves” to be the opposition’s lead candidate, she told ABC News. But, she said, the opposition needs to be ready in case he is not allowed to run. 

“If they unfairly deprive him of that opportunity, we have to be in a state to accept that as a fact and all the same act, and not sit at home,” she said. 

After making a career around her personal brand, she now argues she can be a blank figurehead just to get the opposition through the door. “What difference does it make if it’s me?” she said.

Many in the close-knit opposition have scoffed at that, while others have parodied Sobchak. Zoya Tsvetova, a well-known political analyst and critic of Putin, asked in a blog post Open Russia whether Ksenia Sobchak is “ashamed” to run, given that she must know she is playing by the Kremlin’s rules. 

And on Monday, another well-known female journalist and singer-songwriter, Ekaterina Gordon, announced she would also run for the presidency, in an acerbic challenge to Sobchak. “I am not a representative of glamor, I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth,” Gordon said in video launching her campaign.

Even the wife of her campaign manager, a liberal journalist, published a post on Facebook saying she was shocked her husband had agreed to work with Ksenia Sobchak. One of Sobchak’s chief advisors quit on Tuesday, according to the newspaper RBC, taking part of his team with him, saying the campaign was in chaos and ill-conceived.    Most other opposition leaders though, including the exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, have so far largely rallied around her run or avoided directly criticizing it. 

Navalny, speaking on his weekly Youtube show, said he prefers to say as little as possible about her bid, arguing that a public quarrel among the opposition is exactly what the Kremlin wants.

Nonetheless, on Tuesday he told British newspaper The Independent that if he is blocked from running, he will not tell his supporters to vote for Ksenia Sobchak.

“If I’m not allowed to run, the elections would not be elections. Of course we’d have to boycott them,” he told The Independent.

Ksenia Sobchak argues that a boycott would be more damaging and that Navalny’s politics of street protest also don’t appeal to many of those who are otherwise opposed to Putin. 

“People can’t go into the street endlessly,” she said. “My friends get asked why aren’t they going to the next protest? They answer, ‘Because we’re tired of being thousands. I’m ready to become the 100,000th person at a rally, but I don’t want to be the 10,000th. Because it’s pointless.'”

Even if far from ideal, the legal protest vote is the alternative, she said. But her critics warn that they have seen this before. 

In 2012, billionaire oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov ran on a similarly loose liberal platform, again allegedly at the Kremlin’s encouragement. He won 8 percent of the vote. 

Maksim Katz, an opposition commentator and activist, has said the seriousness of Ksenia Sobchak’s bid should be judged on how tough she is on Putin. 

In 2012, Prokhorov avoided criticizing Putin personally. In her interview with ABC News, Sobchak was also mild in her critique of the current administration. 

“I believe that he possesses his own perception about what really is good for our country,” she said of Putin. “I don’t believe that he is doing what he does exclusively from some kind of greed. I don’t believe that a person in power for so many years can be as concerned as before with just how he can make it so he can steal more money.”

That contrasts starkly with Navalny, who refers to Putin as a “thief” and has pledged to put him and his circle on trial.

Some also question just how tough Ksenia Sobchak can be on Putin, given her family’s history. In the 1990s, when Anatoly Sobchak was under investigation for corruption, he was hospitalized following a heart attack. When warrants were issued for his arrest, Putin arranged for him to travel to Paris. Anatoly Sobchak, who died in 2000, later campaigned for Putin. 

Ksenia Sobchak has said she believes Putin saved her father’s life, but that doesn’t blind her to his current political shortcomings. 

“Even if he was an ideal president,” which he is far from, she said, “he is all the same still a person who has been in power a very long time. And that shouldn’t be.”

She offers up a family comparison. 

“I don’t know. I have my mother. I love her very much, but on many issues, we will never find a common language, because she simply doesn’t understand many things. Vladimir Putin is a person from a different generation,” Sobchak said. 

She said she won’t call for Putin to leave power, saying it’s not realistic. The opposition’s role now is to try to influence the Kremlin, she said, and to prepare for what comes next when Putin leaves power. 

Sobchak said she believes Putin will not run for another term in 2024, but will pick a successor. That is what the opposition should be preparing for now, she said.

“Our most important elections aren’t now. The most important elections will be in six years, when he won’t run,” she said of Putin. “I am also sure of that.” 

Her current campaign has signalled she is preparing for that possibility — the domain name for one of her campaign sites is sobchak2024.ru.

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Japanese PM Abe appears headed to impressive election win

Japan’s ruling coalition appeared headed to an impressive win in national elections on Sunday, in what would represent at least a partial comeback for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

A victory would boost Abe’s chances of winning another three-year term next September as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party. That could extend his premiership to 2021, giving him more time to try to win a reluctant public over to his longtime goal of revising Japan’s postwar pacifist constitution.

In the immediate term, a victory likely means a continuation of the policies Abe has pursued in the nearly five years since he took office in December 2012 — a hard line on North Korea, close ties with Washington, including defense, as well as a super-loose monetary policy and push for nuclear energy.

Japanese media projected shortly after polls closed that Abe’s LDP and its junior partner Komeito would win a clear majority and might even retain their two-thirds majority in the lower house of parliament.

In early results, the ruling coalition had won 224 seats in the 465-seat lower house, and other parties had 91 seats, Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported. Complete results may not be tallied until Monday.

Abe’s support ratings had fallen to around 30 percent in the summer, sparking talk that he might be vulnerable as leader of his party and prime minister.

Abe dissolved the lower house less than a month ago, forcing the snap election. The lower house chooses the prime minister and is the more powerful of the two chambers of parliament.

Analysts saw Abe’s move as an attempt to solidify his political standing at a time when the opposition was in disarray and his support ratings had improved somewhat.

His plan was briefly upstaged by the launch of a new opposition party by populist Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, but initial excitement faded and Koike herself decided not to run for parliament.

NHK projected that her Party of Hope would win just 38 to 59 seats.

Koike called the results “very severe” in a televised interview from Paris, where she is attending a conference of mayors. She said some of her remarks might have been taken negatively by voters, and that she would take the blame.

Projections indicated that another new party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, could outpoll the Party of Hope and become the biggest opposition grouping. The Constitutional Democrats are liberal-leaning, while both the Party of Hope and Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party are more conservative.

Abe’s party and its nationalist supporters have advocated constitutional revisions for years. They view the 1947 constitution as the legacy of Japan’s defeat in World War II and an imposition of the victor’s world order and values. The charter renounces the use of force in international conflicts and limits Japan’s troops to self-defense, although Japan has a well-equipped modern military that works closely with the U.S.

Any change to Japan’s constitution, which has never been amended, requires approval first by two-thirds of parliament, and then in a public referendum. Polls indicate that the Japanese public remains opposed to amendment.


Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi contributed to this report.

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US pushes Saudi Arabia, Iraq on united front to counter Iran

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Sunday pressed the Trump administration’s case for isolating and containing Iran in the Middle East and beyond as he pushed for Saudi Arabia and Iraq to unite in common cause to counter growing Iranian assertiveness. He called for the removal of Iranian and Iranian-supported militias from Iraq and urged other countries, particularly in Europe, to halt any business they do with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

Speaking after participating in the inaugural meeting of the Saudi Arabia-Iraq Coordination Committee with Saudi King Salman and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Tillerson told reporters that an independent and prosperous Iraq would be a foil to Iran’s “malign behavior.”

“We believe this will in some ways counter some of the unproductive influences of Iran inside of Iraq,” he said at a news conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir shortly before leaving Riyadh to fly to Qatar. Referring to Shiite militia in Iraq that are backed by Iran he said: “Those fighters need to go home. Any foreign fighters need to go home.”

Tillerson said countries outside of the region could also play a role, primarily by shunning the powerful Revolutionary Guards, which play a major role in Iran’s economy and were added to a U.S. terrorism blacklist earlier this month. Companies and countries that do business with the guards “really do so at great risk,” he said.

“We are hoping European companies, countries and others around the world will join the U.S. as we put in place a sanctions structure to prohibit certain activities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards that foment instability in the region,” Tillerson said.

Earlier, at the coordination committee meeting, Tillerson told the Saudi king and Abadi, that the event highlighted the improving ties between the longtime rivals and showed “the great potential” for further cooperation. He noted the August reopening of a major border crossing and the resumption of direct flights between Riyadh and Baghdad.

“Both represent the beginning of what we hope will be a series of even more tangible actions to improve relations and strengthen cooperation on a host of issues,” he said. “Your growing relationship between the kingdom and Iraq is vital to bolstering our collective security and prosperity and we take great interest in it.”

His participation in the meeting comes as U.S. officials step up encouragement of a new axis that unites Saudi Arabia and Iraq as a bulwark against Iran’s growing influence from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. Amid the push for that alliance, the Iraqi government is struggling to rebuild recently liberated Islamic State strongholds and confronts a newly assertive Kurdish independence movement.

History, religion and lots of politics stand in Tillerson’s way, but both the Saudi king and the Iraqi prime minister appeared optimistic about the prospects.

“We are facing in our region serious challenges in the form of extremism, terrorism as well as attempts to destabilize our countries,” Salman said. “These attempts require our full attention. … We reaffirm our support for the unity and stability of our brother country of Iraq.”

Abadi expressed pleasure with “the thriving relations between our two brotherly countries.”

“We are open and we want to move away from the past,” he said. “The region cannot tolerate any further divisions. Interference in the internal affairs of other state should stop.”

Shiite-majority Iraq and Sunni-led Saudi Arabia, estranged for decades after Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, have tried in recent years to bridge their differences. Saudi Arabia reopened its embassy in Baghdad in 2015 after a quarter century. The first visit by a Saudi foreign minister to Baghdad came in February this year, followed by the border crossing reopening in August and resumption of direct flights between the capitals suspended during the Gulf War.

Over the weekend, the Saudi oil minister, Khalid al-Falih, made a high-profile appearance at Baghdad’s International Fair, and held talks with his Iraqi counterpart, Jabar al-Luabi.

Nevertheless, the relationship is plagued by suspicion. Iran’s reported intervention in Iraq’s semiautonomous northern Kurdish region, after last month’s much criticized vote for independence in a referendum, has deepened the unease.

The Sunni-led kingdom, which had opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, has long been anxious about Iran’s footprint in Shiite-majority Iraq and its network of allied militias there. Saudi Arabia has consistently described Iraq as an Arab nation, to differentiate it from Shiite but non-Arab Iran.

The kingdom is also looking to Iraq as a potential trading partner and as a major investment opportunity amid reconstruction efforts in cities such as Mosul, which were devastated by the war against the Islamic State group.


Lee reported from Doha, Qatar. Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

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US Navy prepares to defend allies amid heightened tensions with North Korea

Off the coast of the Korean Peninsula, U.S. and South Korean Navy ships prepared for an event they hope will never happen: a North Korean land and air attack against their neighbors to the south.

The annual bilateral training exercise called Maritime Counter Special Operations Force involved a U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan and a U.S. destroyer, the USS Stethem, as well as South Korean ships.

ABC News’ Martha Raddatz was aboard the Reagan in the Sea of Japan for the exercise this week, as the Trump administration grapples with an increasingly hostile and technologically advanced North Korea.

Rear Adm. Marc Dalton, commander of Navy’s carrier strike group in the Pacific, said the U.S. commitment to defending itself and its allies is “enduring.”

“This exercise is an example of how we train with our allies in order to be ready to respond to a range of crises,” he said.

North Korea’s continued ballistic missile launches (14 this year alone) and a sixth nuclear test in September have instilled in the Reagan’s crew the importance of their mission in bringing peace and stability to the region, Dalton told ABC News.

Interviews with the Reagan’s top officers and pilots revealed the war of words between Kim Jong Un and President Trump, as well as North Korea’s recent military actions, have little effect on the ship.

In the crew’s mind, it’s all about being prepared, which makes exercises like the Maritime Counter Special Operations Force all the more important.

“This is what we have been training for,” said Cmdr. Alex Hampton, who has flown with the U.S. Navy for 16 years. “Are we prepared for war? Absolutely. And I am confident in our abilities to execute anything that our nation command authority gives us to do.”

Over the summer, North Korea demonstrated it has the ability to hit the continental United States with an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Just this week, CIA Director Mike Pompeo told a Washington think-tank that North Korea could be just months away from perfecting the capability to attach a nuclear weapon to an ICBM.

But it’s not just North Korea’s technical advances that have thrust the regime into the international spotlight.

U.S. presidents have spent decades trying to counter North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, but President Trump’s blunt rhetoric toward Pyongyang has — at times — surprised U.S. allies.

In August, Trump said North Korean threats toward the United States would be “met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

North Korea responded, saying the regime had plans to target Guam in “mid-August,” though those plans were never carried out.

As for the 5,000 sailors on board the Reagan, they hope their mere presence off the Korean Peninsula can deter a North Korean strike that would surely escalate to war.

“By demonstrating our ability to defend ourselves, the idea is that we don’t have to,” Dalton said.

Watch ABC News’ “This Week” with Martha Raddatz Sunday for an in-depth look at U.S. Navy operations off the Korean Peninsula.

ABC News’ Steve Turnham, Pat O’Gara and Justin Coleman contributed to this report.

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