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Pentagon officials say the military muscle-flexing is meant to warn Tehran off attacking American interests or personnel in the days surrounding the January 3 anniversary of the Trump administration’s assassination of the powerful Iranian leader Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

At the same time, acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller decided Wednesday against a push to extend the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz’s deployment to the Persian Gulf, sending it out of the region in an explicit de-escalation signal to Iran, according to a senior defense official.

The conflicting messages could reflect divisions within the Pentagon, where a second senior defense official tells CNN that the current threat level from Iran is the most concerning they have seen since Soleimani’s death. Officials cite new intelligence that Iran and allied militias in Iraq may be plotting attacks against US forces in the Middle East. For example, Iran has been moving short range ballistic missiles into Iraq, prompting the US to deploy additional military assets to the region.

Yet others in the Pentagon contend that the threat is being exaggerated, with the first senior defense official — who is directly involved in discussions — telling CNN that there is “not a single piece of corroborating intel” suggesting an attack by Iran may be imminent.

Asked about push back on the threat, another senior military official told CNN, “The intelligence isn’t perfect as you know, it never is, but we do see several planning efforts underway and if even some of them are true and they execute they could kill several Americans.”
This official went on to say that while nothing is 100%, there are some indications that the posture and messaging by the US has changed Iran’s calculus.

“It’s all very uncertain right now but we want the Iranians to know that they should not miscalculate and that we are not trying to provoke them and they should not provoke us,” the official said.

Military options

Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif charged Thursday morning that the US was creating a pretext for war.

“Instead of fighting Covid in US, @realDonaldTrump & cohorts waste billions to fly B52s & send armadas to OUR region,” Zarif said in a tweet. “Intelligence from Iraq indicate plot to FABRICATE pretext for war. Iran doesn’t seek war but will OPENLY & DIRECTLY defend its people, security & vital interests.”

Later Thursday, Maj. Gen. Hossein Dehghan, the military adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader, addressed President Donald Trump directly in a tweet, warning him “not to turn the New Year into a mourning for Americans” following the flights.

Trump has fueled some of the uncertainty, reportedly asking in a mid-November meeting for military options he could use against Iran. He then threatened Iran after a December 21 attack on the US embassy in Baghdad that senior US officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, attributed to Iraqi militias affiliated with Tehran.

“Our embassy in Baghdad got hit Sunday by several rockets,” Trump tweeted from aboard Air Force One after a December 23 White House meeting on Iranian threats. “Three rockets failed to launch. Guess where they were from: IRAN.”

Trump then offered “some friendly health advice to Iran: If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over.”

A defense official tells CNN that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley “is paying extremely close attention to the situation. The military doesn’t believe an attack is imminent but is taking all precautions to ensure they deter Iran while protecting US forces.”

The B-52 flight was the second time this month the Pentagon has sent the nuclear-capable bombers to the region. It follows the Navy’s rare December 21 announcement that it had sent a nuclear-powered submarine through the Persian Gulf, accompanied by guided-missile cruisers.

US Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, said in a statement that Wednesday’s B-52 flight was meant “to underscore the US military’s commitment to regional security and demonstrate a unique ability to rapidly deploy overwhelming combat power on short notice.”

Before Miller called back the USS Nimitz, which had been due to leave the Gulf, CENTCOM Commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie had been pushing to extend the warship’s deployment there, in what might have been the longest aircraft carrier deployment in many years, the first senior defense official told CNN.

This official expressed concern that some within the government are painting the situation with Iran as more dire than it actually is and are preoccupied with the potential for retaliatory attacks by Iran to mark the anniversary of Soleimani’s assassination.

After Soleimani was killed in Iraq by an American drone strike in January, Iran responded with a major missile attack on US military bases in the region.

Now, intelligence gathered by the US is indicating a “possibly imminent attack” by Iranian-backed militias on US forces in Iraq, although there is no certainty, a defense official tells CNN.

Nonetheless the concern is significant enough that additional protective measures for US troops have been taken, this official and a second defense official tell CNN. Both declined to specify the measures being taken.

Three US defense officials tell CNN that Iran has been moving additional weaponry into Iraq, including short range ballistic missiles, an arsenal that officials believe could be used to strike American targets.

The second senior military official said that the US has intelligence indicating that militia groups have been meeting with elements of Iran’s Quds Force, an expeditionary military force that Soleimani previously led, later adding that the US had evidence of militias planning for complex attacks in Iraq that would require Iranian assistance to be successful.

“There has been a number of troubling indications of advanced planning and preparation for attacks in Iraq that appear aimed at US military and US interests,” one US defense official said.

Officials stress that there are no plans or any preparations being taken for any offensive action directed at Iran and efforts to reinforce US troops in the region are about deterring attacks, not about conducting a preemptive strike.

This story has been updated with tweets from Maj. Gen. Hossein Dehghan and Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and comments from a senior US military official.

CNN’s Jonny Hallam contributed to this report.



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Pelosi to move forward with impeachment if Pence doesn’t act to remove Trump

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“In protecting our Constitution and our Democracy, we will act with urgency, because this President represents an imminent threat to both,” Pelosi said in the letter to Democrats on Sunday night laying out next steps.

The House will try to pass a measure on Monday imploring Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment, through which he and the Cabinet declare Trump “incapable of executing the duties of his office, after which the Vice President would immediately exercise powers as acting president.” If Republicans object, as is virtually certain, Democrats will pass the bill via a roll call vote on Tuesday.

“We are calling on the Vice President to respond within 24 hours,” Pelosi wrote. “Next, we will proceed with bringing impeachment legislation to the Floor.”

But it’s not clear when exactly the Senate will take up the House’s measure. The Senate isn’t scheduled to return until Jan. 19, but will hold pro forma sessions on Tuesday and Friday. In theory, a senator could try to pass the House resolution by unanimous consent, but as of now it appears unlikely that it would pass.

On Monday, multiple House Democrats plan to introduce impeachment resolutions that would become the basis of any impeachment article considered by the House later this week.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who will introduce an article of impeachment against Trump on Monday, said on Sunday that roughly 200 Democrats have co-sponsored the measure.

Currently, 211 voting members (plus three nonvoting members) support Cicilline’s legislation, and they are hoping to reach 217 voting members by Monday morning, enough for the House to impeach Trump, one Democratic source familiar with the matter told POLITICO.

A small number of Democrats have opted not to co-sign the bill, but privately say they will vote to support the resolution on the floor, the source added.

The impeachment effort in the House is likely to be bipartisan, with Democrats expecting at least one GOP lawmaker — Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — to sign on. A handful of other House Republicans are seriously weighing it, according to several sources, though those lawmakers are waiting to see how Democrats proceed, and some are concerned about dividing the country even further.

Among the GOP members whom Democrats are keeping an eye on are Reps. John Katko of New York, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Fred Upton of Michigan, Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington.

Across the Capitol, at least two Republicans — Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — have called on Trump to resign. On Saturday, Toomey told Fox News, “I do think the president committed impeachable offenses,” but told CNN the next day that he does not believe there is enough time to impeach.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has also said he would consider articles of impeachment.

Another option has emerged among some Republican and moderate Democratic circles — censuring Trump — though it remains highly unlikely to advance.

A censure resolution would gain far more support in the GOP than impeachment. Some Republicans have privately been pushing for that route and are trying to get Biden on board, according to GOP sources. That group of Republicans is also warning that impeachment could destroy Biden’s reputation with Republicans.

But censure is considered a nonstarter in an incensed House Democratic Caucus, where members see it as a slap on the wrist that gives Republicans an easy out.

The Democrats’ enormous step toward impeachment on Sunday comes after Pelosi and other top Democrats held a private call on Saturday night in which they discussed the potential ramifications that a lengthy impeachment trial could have on Biden’s presidency.

Democratic leaders discussed several options to limit the political effects on Biden’s first 100 days, with one option — floated by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) — for the House to delay the start of an impeachment trial in the Senate by holding on to the article of impeachment.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has sent out a memo to senators explaining that the Senate could not take up impeachment until Jan. 19 at the earliest, absent unanimous consent.

A final decision has not been made, and House Democrats will discuss the matter on a 2 p.m. caucus call on Monday.

Lawmakers are already privately expressing concerns about returning to the Capitol for multiple days this week, worried about both a potential coronavirus outbreak and whether the building is secure, given how easily an armed pro-Trump mob invaded on Wednesday.

The Capitol physician urged House lawmakers and staff to get tested in a memo Sunday, saying they might have been exposed to someone who had the virus while huddling for safety in a large committee room for hours on Wednesday. During the hourslong lockdown, several Republican members refused to wear masks despite being offered them by Democrats worried about the spread of the deadly virus.

Melanie Zanona, Olivia Beavers and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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Matt Hancock Scraps “Unnecessary Training Modules” Blamed For Slowing Vaccine Rollout

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Matt Hancock has agreed to remove some of the training modules required for volunteers to sign up to deliver the Covid-19 vaccine (PA)


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Matt Hancock said people will no longer need to undertake training including an anti-terrorism course to give the coronavirus jab after MPs said “bureaucratic rubbish” was delaying mass vaccination.

It comes as MPs called for the government to produce targets for the number of people given immunity before lockdown can be lifted.

The health secretary said a series of “unnecessary training modules” are being scrapped to speed up the process of getting people qualified to deliver the jab.

Speaking in the Commons, Sir Edward Leigh said he was shown by his fellow the Tory MP, a qualified GP, the “ridiculous form” he had filled out to start delivering the vaccine.

“When he’s inoculating an old lady, he’s not going to ask her if she’s come into contact with Jihadis or whatever, so the Secretary has got to cut through all this bureaucratic rubbish,” he said.

In response Mr Hancock said: “I am a man after Sir Edward’s heart and I can tell the House that we have removed a series of the unnecessary training modules that had been put in place, including fire safety, terrorism and others.

“I’ll write to him with the full panoply of the training that is not required and we have been able to remove, and we made this change as of this morning and I am glad to say it is enforced.

“I am a fan of busting bureaucracy and in this case I agree with him that it is not necessary to undertake anti-terrorism training in order to inject vaccines.”

Dr Fox had earlier challenged Boris Johnson to drop the “bureaucracy” and “political correctness” of the forms vaccine volunteers must fill out.

He told MPs: “As a qualified but non-practising doctor, I volunteered to help with the scheme and would urge others to do the same. 

“But, can I ask the Prime Minister why I’ve been required to complete courses on conflict resolution, equality, diversity and human rights, moving and handling loads and preventing radicalisation in order to give a simple Covid jab?”

Mr Johnson said he had been “assured by the Health Secretary that all such obstacles, all such pointless pettifoggery has been removed”.

The government has been attempting to recruit thousands of volunteers to help with a mass vaccination programme, and with the recent approval of the more easily deliverable Oxford/AstraZeneca version has today revealed the location of seven mass vaccination centres set to open next week.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told journalists at a briefing they would be at Robertson House in Stevenage, the ExCel Centre in London, the Centre for Life in Newcastle, the Etihad Tennis Centre in Manchester, Epsom Downs Racecourse in Surrey, Ashton Gate Stadium in Bristol and Millennium Point in Birmingham, and it is expected they will be run with a combination of NHS staff and volunteers.

But so far the government has not said how many people need to be inoculated before it has an impact on the coronavirus restrictions.

Mr Hancock was asked by a number of MPs if the measures could be eased once the top few tiers in the vaccine priority list had been clear.

Former Conservative chief whip Mark Harper said once the top four groups, which includes care home residents and staff, frontline NHS workers, the clinically extremely vulnerable and everyone over 70 “we’ve taken care therefore of 80% of the risk of death”.

Adding: “What possible reason is there at that point for not rapidly relaxing the restrictions that are in place on the rest of our country?”

The health secretary replied: “We have to see the impact of that vaccination on the reduction in the number of deaths, which I very much hope that we will see at that point, and so that is why we will take this – an evidence-led move down through the tiers, when we’ve broken the link, I hope, between cases and hospitalisations and deaths.”

The ex-Tory minister and another doctor, Andrew Murrison, said: “The logic of anticipating what is going to happen in two or three or four weeks’ time from the number of cases we are getting at the moment is that we can do the same in reverse.

“That is to say, when we have a sufficient number of people vaccinated up we can anticipate in two or three or four weeks’ time how many deaths have been avoided. 

“That means, since it cuts both ways he will be able to make a decision on when we should end these restrictions.”

Mr Hancock replied: “The logic of the case that Dr Murrison makes is the right logic and we want to see that happen in empirical evidence on the ground.

“This hope for the weeks ahead doesn’t take away, though, from the serious and immediate threat posed now.”

The Cabinet minister said the challenge for the government is to increase the amount of doses available, claiming “the current rate-limiting factor on the vaccine rollout is the supply of approved, tested, safe vaccine”.

He added: ”We are working with both AstraZeneca and Pfizer to increase that supply as fast as possible and they’re doing a brilliant job.”

But Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called for the government to ramp up its vaccination programme to six million doses a week.

He told the Commons: “The Prime Minister has promised almost 14 million will be offered the vaccine by mid-Feb. That depends on around two million doses a week on average.

“Both [Mr Hancock] and the Prime Minister have reassured us in recent days that it’s doable based on orders.

“But in the past ministers have told us that they had agreements for 30 million AstraZeneca doses by September 2020 and 10 million of Pfizer doses by the end of 2020.

“So, I think people just want to understand the figures and want clarity. Can ministers tell us how many of the ordered doses have been manufactured?”

Mr Ashworth added: “Two million a week would be fantastic but it should be the limit of our ambitions, we should be aiming to scale up to three, then five, then six million jabs a week over the coming months.”

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How South African police are tackling pangolin smugglers

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Quiet, solitary and nocturnal, the pangolin has few natural enemies, but researchers believe it is the most trafficked mammal in the world. The tough scales covering its body are sought after for use in Chinese medicine, in the erroneous belief that they have healing properties.

The animal has also been of interest to researchers during the coronavirus pandemic. Related viruses have been found in trafficked pangolins, though there is continued uncertainty around early theories that pangolins were involved in the transmission of the virus from animals to humans.

After South African police seized a pangolin from suspected smugglers, BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding witnessed how vets tried to save the animal’s life.

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