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Iran vows revenge for attack that killed powerful general

BAGHDAD — Iran promised to seek revenge for a U.S. airstrike near Baghdad’s airport that killed the mastermind of its interventions across the Middle East, and the U.S. said Friday it was sending thousands more troops to the region as tensions soared in the wake of the targeted killing.

The death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, marks a major escalation in the standoff between Washington and Iran, which has careened from one crisis to another since President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed crippling sanctions.

In more violence, another airstrike almost exactly 24 hours after the one that targeted Soleimani killed five members of an Iran-backed militia north of Baghdad, an Iraqi security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters. The Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces confirmed the strike, saying it hit one of its medical convoys near the stadium in Taji, north of Baghdad. The group said none of its top leaders were killed. A U.S. official said the attack was not an American military attack. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

The targeted strike against Soleimani and any retaliation by Iran could ignite a conflict that engulfs the whole region, endangering U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and beyond. Over the past two decades, Soleimani had assembled a network of heavily armed allies stretching all the way to southern Lebanon, on Israel’s doorstep.

“We take comfort in knowing that his reign of terror is over,” Trump said of Soleimani.

Still, the United States said it was sending nearly 3,000 more Army troops to the Middle East, reflecting concern about potential Iranian retaliation for the killing. The U.S. also urged American citizens to leave Iraq “immediately” following the early morning airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport that Iran’s state TV said killed Soleimani and nine others. The State Department said the embassy in Baghdad, which was attacked by Iran-backed militiamen and their supporters earlier this week, is closed and all consular services have been suspended.

Around 5,200 American troops are based in Iraq to train Iraqi forces and help in the fight against Islamic State group militants. Defense officials who discussed the new troop movements spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a decision not yet announced by the Pentagon. A Pentagon official who was not authorized to be identified said the U.S. also had placed an Army brigade on alert to fly into Lebanon to protect the American Embassy. U.S. embassies also issued a security alert for Americans in Bahrain, Kuwait and Nigeria.

The U.S. announcement about sending more troops came as Trump said Soleimani’s killing was not an effort to begin a conflict with Iran. “We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war,” Trump said, adding that he does not seek regime change in Iran.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed “harsh retaliation” after the airstrike, calling Soleimani the “international face of resistance.” Khamenei declared three days of public mourning and appointed Maj. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani’s deputy, to replace him as head of the Quds Force.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the killing a “heinous crime” and said his country would “take revenge.” Iran twice summoned the Swiss envoy, the first time delivering a letter to pass onto Washington.

Iranian Foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the U.S. attack a “cowardly terrorist action” and said Iran has the right to respond “in any method and any time.”

Thousands of worshipers in Tehran took to the streets after Friday prayers to condemn the killing, waving posters of Soleimani and chanting, “Death to deceitful America.”

However, the attack could act as a deterrent for Iran and its allies to delay or restrain any potential response. Trump said possible targets had been identified and the U.S. was prepared. Oil prices surged on news of the airstrike and markets were mixed.

The killing promised to further strain relations with Iraq’s government, which is allied with both Washington and Tehran and has been deeply worried about becoming a battleground in their rivalry. Iraqi politicians close to Iran called for the country to order U.S. forces out.

The Defense Department said it killed the 62-year-old Soleimani because he “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” It also accused Soleimani of approving orchestrated violent protests at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

The strike, on an access road near Baghdad’s airport, was carried out early Friday by an American drone, according to a U.S. official.

Soleimani had just disembarked from a plane arriving from either Syria or Lebanon, a senior Iraqi security official said. The blast tore his body to pieces along with that of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces. A senior politician said Soleimani’s body was identified by the ring he wore. Iran’s state TV said Friday 10 people were killed, including five Revolutionary Guard members and Soleimani’s son-in-law.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

The attack comes at the start of a year in which Trump faces both a Senate trial following his impeachment by Congress and a re-election campaign. It marks a potential turning point in the Middle East and represents a drastic change for American policy toward Iran after months of tensions.

The tensions are rooted in Trump’s decision in May 2018 to withdraw the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, struck under his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Since then, Tehran shot down a U.S. military surveillance drone and seized oil tankers. The U.S. also blames Iran for other attacks targeting tankers and a September assault on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry that temporarily halved its production.

Supporters of the strike against Soleimani said it restored U.S. deterrence power against Iran, and Trump allies were quick to praise the action. “To the Iranian government: if you want more, you will get more,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham tweeted.

“Hope this is the first step to regime change in Tehran,” Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, wrote in a tweet.

Others, including Democratic White House hopefuls, criticized Trump’s order. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said Trump had “tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox,” saying it could leave the U.S. “on the brink of a major conflict across the Middle East.”

Trump, who was vacationing at his private club in Palm Beach, Florida, said he ordered the airstrike because Soleimani had killed and wounded many Americans over the years and was plotting to kill many more. “He should have been taken out many years ago,” he added.

The potential for a spiraling escalation alarmed U.S. allies and rivals alike.

“We are waking up in a more dangerous world,” France’s deputy minister for foreign affairs, Amelie de Montchalin, told RTL radio. The European Union warned against a “generalized flare-up of violence.” Russia condemned the killing, and fellow Security Council member China said it was “highly concerned.” Britain and Germany noted that Iran also bore some responsibility for escalating tensions.

While Iran’s conventional military has suffered under 40 years of American sanctions, Iran can strike in the region through its allied forces like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraqi militias and Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called on “the resistance the world over” to avenge Soleimani’s killing. Frictions over oil shipments in the Gulf could also increase, and Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard has built up a ballistic missile program.

Iran’s Supreme National Security Council said in a statement Friday that it had held a special session and made “appropriate decisions” on how to respond, but didn’t elaborate.

Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett held a meeting with top security officials Friday, but the Israeli military said it was not taking any extraordinary action on its northern front, other than closing a ski resort in the Golan Heights near Lebanon and Syria as a precaution.

The most immediate impact could be in Iraq. Funerals for al-Muhandis and the other slain Iraqis were set for Saturday.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi condemned the strike as an “aggression against Iraq.” An emergency session of parliament was called for Sunday, which the deputy speaker, Hassan al-Kaabi, said would take “decisions that put an end to the U.S. presence in Iraq.”

Ashland celebrates massive works of art on city’s riverfront

ASHLAND — Ashland is now home to the tallest series of classical mythology and contemporary art sculptures in one place in the nation, according to world-renowned artist Gines Serran-Pagan.

Three 32- to 35-foot sculptures named Vulcan, Venus and Genesis were crafted by Serran-Pagan, who was born in Spain but has spent most of his life in New York City. They sit on 10-foot-high pylons on Ashland’s riverfront.

“I was aware that when I was creating them that they were going to be the largest group of these types of sculptures in the United States,” Serran-Pagan said. “I was also aware that ‘Venus of Ashland’ was going to be the largest female classical mythology statue in the world.”

Hundreds gathered in Ashland on Friday for a presentation by Serran-Pagan at the historic Paramount Arts Center to learn about the artist, his vision for the sculptures and to see videos showing how each was created. The presentation was followed by a lighting ceremony at the Port of Ashland where the three sculptures were placed at Ashland’s Riverfront Park.

Jane Layman, of Ashland, said the sculptures are a beautiful addition to the city.

“In my opinion, these sculptures do stand for many of the things Ashland is known for,” she said.

Greg Newkirk, of Cincinnati, Ohio, said he drove more than two hours to attend the festivities and see the massive works of art in person.

“When I heard the three largest statues of this kind were going to be in Ashland, Kentucky, I couldn’t resist coming to the presentation and dedication ceremonies,” he said. “This is pretty amazing.”

Ashland Mayor Steve Gilmore called the placement of the sculptures and dedication ceremonies a historic day for the city.

“In addition to being the tallest series of sculptures in one place, they are the first to mix traditional and contemporary styles in America,” he said. “This is a great day not only for Ashland, but the entire Tri-State region.”

A humble Serran-Pagan said he fell in love with Ashland while visiting a friend.

“We were talking about the history of Ashland and I was impressed by the amazing energy in this area and region,” he said. “We drove down Winchester Avenue and then made our way to the riverfront, and I loved the landscape of the riverfront.”

Serran-Pagan says his Ashland friend showed him a Paul G. Blazer High School yearbook and he saw some architectural images and geometrical designs that caught his attention.

“I was familiar with some of the designs from artwork done by Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael who used that similar design in some of their artwork,” he said. “I could interpret them and they represented the elements of life, which include air, water, fire and God.”

Serran-Pagan and Gilmore said the project started about two years ago after the two met at a birthday party that the anonymous donor was having for his father, who was turning 100 years old.

The project is totally funded by the anonymous benefactor.

“This project isn’t costing the city anything,” Gilmore said. “I can’t thank our anonymous donor and artist Gines Serran-Pagan enough for this wonderful gift to Ashland.”

Gilmore said the anonymous donor is a native of Ashland whom he has known his entire life.

“I don’t know the exact amount of this gift, but I would estimate it to be in the millions of dollars,” he said. “He still has a home in Ashland but doesn’t want to be identified at this time.”

Gilmore said the donor is a humble person.

The largest of the three sculptures is Genesis. Gilmore said the Genesis sculpture has a spiritual significance and represents the strength of Ashland’s faith community.

“It will be up more in the front of the other two sculptures, and it will rotate and the rods will be lighted as it rotates,” he said. “The lights will automatically come on at dusk and then go off at dawn.”

Vulcan is the mythical god of metalworking and is depicted hammering on a forge.

“He represents all of the hardworking people of Ashland and the city’s history with metal and steel,” Serran-Pagan said.

The third sculpture is of Venus, Vulcan’s wife, the mythical god of love and beauty. She is depicted offering an ash tree.

“She symbolizes the city’s natural beauty and love,” Gilmore said. “She has an ash tree in the palm of her hand with the roots hanging down. She represents the natural beauty of our area and how we have taken care of our environment.”

Serran-Pagan said the three structures were molded with clay, then coated in fiberglass. They were then bronzed and placed in open containers to allow the material to weather on their trip from China where they were created.

“It took 40 days to transport them to America, and they were picked up in Norfolk, Virginia,” the mayor said. “Then they were brought by truck to Ashland.”

Gilmore said these works of art will advance an already strong arts community in Ashland and the entire Tri-State region.

“We believe these artworks advance the city’s artistic offerings and will bring in folks from across the country, and maybe even around the world, to Ashland,” he said.

Gilmore said the reaction from the community has been overwhelmingly positive.

“We now have a major installment from a world-renowned artist right here in Ashland,” he said.

“Motorists will be able to see these sculptures as they get close to Ashland from Huntington on U.S. 52 in Ohio. We believe this is going to be a one-of-a-kind tourist attraction that will draw folks from across the country and around the world to Ashland.”

Legislative Lookahead: W.Va. lawmakers continue focus on addiction

CHARLESTON — Lawmakers discussed several policies they believe are the key to moving the state forward Friday during the West Virginia Press Association’s Legislative Lookahead, but without solving the ever-looming and complex problem of substance use disorder and its hold over thousands of West Virginians, some lawmakers believe those paths forward may not be as bright.

“Our economic survival is at stake,” said Del. Matt Rohrbach, R-Cabell, chairman of the House Committee on the Treatment and Prevention of Substance Abuse and a physician, during his opening remarks during a panel on drug abuse and foster care. “If a potential employer is doing a Google search of where to locate, when they type in West Virginia what do they see? Our opioid epidemic.”

But as Rohrbach and his fellow officials agreed, it’s not just opioids anymore. Just as when the country cracked down on prescription drug abuse — which forced those addicted to the pain pills to switch to heroin — the crackdown on opioids is seeing a resurgence of the next readily available substance, methamphetamine.

“Traditionally (in treating an opioid addiction), we would cover the opioid receptor, just like we would cover an insulin receptor,” said Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, a physician. “But if it’s meth, it’s a different ballgame. There’s not an antidote to meth … . Our centers of higher education should be researching ways to treat different types of drug use.”

Rohrbach and Stollings were joined by Sen. Mark Maynard, R-Wayne, and Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch in discussing their plans for the upcoming legislative session in regards to substance use disorder and the foster care system, which has exploded in recent years mainly due to the opioid epidemic. Crouch said 51% of child removals in the state are related to substance use disorder.

Rohrbach said last session his committee passed 10 significant bills. He said his priority was getting people back to work and this session he is ready to push it further.

Among the bills Rohrbach will put before his committee this session is one that will require any funds acquired by the attorney general in statewide opioid manufacturer and distributor lawsuits be given to the Legislature to allocate toward substance use disorder treatment, recovery and prevention.

Other lawmakers are thinking of health funding, as well. Earlier in the day, on a panel on the state’s budget, Del. Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, said he would like to utilize the Medicaid surplus toward the state’s health concerns, which could possibly include substance use disorder.

Stollings, who is also running for governor as a Democrat, said he wants to see more financial support of foster and kinship caregivers, and expansion of the West Virginia State University Healthy Grandfamilies program.

“It’s the early strategic investment,” he said. “Healthy Grandfamilies, Birth to Three, educational wrap-around services … . We have to focus on the first 1,000 days of a child’s life.”

West Virginia also needs to invest in more mental health services, Stollings said, which can help the foster care crisis by enabling more parents to be healthy enough to parent.

“These people with these diseases, particularly bipolar disorder, they aren’t going to be good parents unless their disease state is in treatment,” he said. “We’ve been pretty stingy with mental health services. And when I say stingy, it’s not for lack of effort.”

Rohrbach agreed with Stollings and said he hopes a bill passed last session that permits student loan forgiveness for mental health professionals in underserved parts of that state will help increase mental health service access.

As for more specific legislation, Maynard said he supports a bill being worked on by the House that would speed up the application time for new foster parents.

And with the fight to raise the smoking age limit to 21 over thanks to the federal government, Rohrbach and Stollings will pivot to reducing the number of teenagers who use electronic cigarettes, or vapes. Rohrbach said he wants to return funding to Raze, a school-based tobacco prevention program run by students.