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Blowback: Iran abandons nuclear limits after US killing

TEHRAN, Iran — The blowback over the U.S. killing of a top Iranian general mounted Sunday as Iran announced it will no longer abide by the limits contained in the 2015 nuclear deal and Iraq’s Parliament called for the expulsion of all American troops from Iraqi soil.

The twin developments could bring Iran closer to building an atomic bomb and enable the Islamic State group to stage a comeback in Iraq, making the Middle East a far more dangerous and unstable place.

Iranian state television cited a statement by President Hassan Rouhani’s administration saying the country would not observe the deal’s restrictions on fuel enrichment, on the size of its enriched uranium stockpile and on its research and development activities.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran no longer faces any limitations in operations,” a state TV broadcaster said.

In Iraq, meanwhile, lawmakers voted in favor of a resolution calling for an end to the foreign military presence in the country, including the estimated 5,200 U.S. troops stationed to help fight Islamic State extremists. The bill is subject to approval by the Iraqi government but has the backing of the outgoing prime minister.

In yet another sign of rising tensions and threats of retaliation over the deadly airstrike, the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq said it is putting the battle against IS on hold to focus on protecting its own troops and bases.

The string of developments capped a day of mass mourning over Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad on Friday. Hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets in the cities of Ahvaz and Mashhad to walk alongside the casket of Soleimani, who was the architect of Iran’s proxy wars across the Mideast and was blamed for the deaths of hundreds of Americans in suicide bombings and other attacks.

The U.S. State Department had no immediate comment on Iran’s announcement.

As for the troop-withdrawal vote in Iraq, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said the U.S. is awaiting clarification on its legal meaning but was “disappointed” by the move and strongly urged Iraq to reconsider.

“We believe it is in the shared interests of the United States and Iraq to continue fighting ISIS together,” Ortagus said.

Iran insisted that it remains open to negotiations with European partners over its nuclear program. And it did not back off from earlier promises that it wouldn’t seek a nuclear weapon.

However, the announcement represents the clearest nuclear proliferation threat yet made by Iran since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the accord in 2018 and reimposed sanctions. It further raises regional tensions, as Iran’s longtime foe Israel has promised never to allow Iran to produce an atomic bomb.

Iran did not elaborate on what levels it would immediately reach in its program. Tehran has already broken some of the deal’s limits as part of a step-by-step pressure campaign to get sanctions relief. It has increased its production, begun enriching uranium to 5% and restarted enrichment at an underground facility.

While it does not possess uranium enriched to weapons-grade levels of 90%, any push forward narrows the estimated one-year “breakout time” needed for it to have enough material to build a nuclear weapon if it chose to do so.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations watchdog observing Iran’s program, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, Iran said that its cooperation with the IAEA “will continue as before.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi earlier told journalists that Soleimani’s killing would prompt Iranian officials to take a bigger step away from the nuclear deal.

“In the world of politics, all developments are interconnected,” Mousavi said.

In Iraq, where the airstrike has been denounced as a violation of the country’s sovereignty, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said that the government has two choices: End the presence of foreign troops or restrict their mission to training Iraqi forces. He called for the first option.

The majority of about 180 legislators present in Parliament voted in favor of the troop-removal resolution. It was backed by most Shiite members of Parliament, who hold a majority of seats. Many Sunni and Kurdish legislators did not show up for the session, apparently because they oppose abolishing the deal.

A U.S. pullout could not only undermine the fight against the Islamic State but could also enable Iran to increase its influence in Iraq, which like Iran is a majority-Shiite country.

Soleimani’s killing has escalated the crisis between Tehran and Washington after months of back-and-forth attacks and threats that have put the wider Middle East on edge. Iran has promised “harsh revenge” for the U.S. attack, while Trump has vowed on Twitter that the U.S. will strike back at 52 targets “VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.

The U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia warned Americans “of the heightened risk of missile and drone attacks.” In Lebanon, the leader of the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah said Soleimani’s killing made U.S. military bases, warships and service members across the region fair game for attacks. A former Iranian Revolutionary Guard leader suggested the Israeli city of Haifa and centers like Tel Aviv could be targeted should the U.S. attack Iran.

Iranian state TV estimated that millions of mourners came out in Ahvaz and Mashhad to pay their respects to Soleimani.

The casket moved slowly through streets choked with mourners wearing black, beating their chests and carrying posters with Soleimani’s portrait. Demonstrators also carried red Shiite flags, which traditionally symbolize both the spilled blood of someone unjustly killed and a call for vengeance.

The processions marked the first time Iran honored a single man with a multi-city ceremony. Not even Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who founded the Islamic Republic, received such a processional with his death in 1989. Soleimani on Monday will lie in state at Tehran’s famed Musalla mosque as the revolutionary leader did before him.

Soleimani’s remains will go to Tehran and Qom on Monday for public mourning processions. He will be buried in his hometown of Kerman.

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Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates and Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Dubai, Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad, Sarah El Deeb in Beirut and Kelvin Chan in London contributed to this report.


News
Animals get chance at new life in the new year

HUNTINGTON — As dog barks echoed off the walls of the Mountain Health Network Arena lobby in downtown Huntington Sunday afternoon, several cats — and some dogs, too — cowered at the craziness around them.

One orange and white fluffy kitten, however, was as cool as a cucumber.

Wizard laid belly-up in Jaedon Kinser’s arms for at least 30 minutes as Kinser and Candyce Craft decided whether he was the one they wanted to take home forever. Wizard’s chill attitude quickly won them over.

“He’s going to be a great cuddle buddy,” Craft said, smiling wide as she looked at Wizard lounging in his new carrier.

Wizard was among the animals up for adoption Sunday at the Huntington Cabell Wayne Animal Shelter’s New Year/New Life event in the civic arena. Partnering with Advocates Saving Adoptable Pets, or ASAP, the day included a Huntington Police Department K9 demonstration, a dog showcase by MickSparkins Petcare, music, a quilt raffle and a cake walk.

Between the shelter and ASAP, there were more than 50 dogs and cats in the arena for adoption.

It was the first year of the arena adoption event where, for the most part, no one actually left with a pet in hand, or on leash in this case.

The shelter now requires adoption applications to help match pets with the right owner.

This means there is a wait time between application acceptance and leaving with your new pet, which is also now spayed/neutered before they are free to go.

Dog adoptions are now $125 and include spay or neuter services, rabies, distemper, parvo and Bordetella vaccines, flea and tick prevention, dewormer and heartworm testing for animals over 6 months old. Cat adoptions are $65 and include spay and neuter services, rabies and FVRCP vaccines, feline leukemia and FIV testing, flea prevention and dewormer.

Adoption fees also include a wellness visit with a local veterinarian.

Courtney Proctor Cross, executive director at the shelter, said she has heard only positive feedback to the changes.

“People are really appreciative of the changes and appreciate the waiting period,” Cross said. “It removes impulsive decision-making. It gives people some time to think about what all it means to adopt a pet and removes the chance of buyer’s remorse.”

Ensuring the pets that enter the shelter find good homes is critical to stop the cycle of unwanted pets ending up on the street and back in the shelter.

The need to end that cycle was clear this weekend. Cross said the shelter took in 17 dogs and 13 cats Saturday alone, pushing the shelter to capacity.

Cross said the shelter’s new website will launch in the next few weeks. She hopes it will encourage more people to adopt and speed up the adoption process by allowing people to fill out the adoption application ahead of time.


News
'A bottleneck in the system': Food banks have excess of food, but not a way to get it to rural communities in need

The warehouse at Mountaineer Food Bank was stacked high with pallets of food.

Chad Morrison, who oversees the organization, described it as an “excess of food” for much of 2019. The overstock was thanks, in part, to a Trump trade program that bulked up federal food items flowing to food banks.

But around West Virginia, isolated and rural food banks struggled to keep their shelves stocked amid the growing need. More people were going hungry because of a lack of jobs and shuttered grocery stores, pantry organizers said.

The disconnect, according to Morrison, was largely due to a lack of transportation.

Many food charities in the state, often times run by aging volunteers with thin monetary donations, don’t own or have access to large, refrigerated trucks to pick up food from Mountaineer Food Bank in Gassaway.

Refrigerated trucks or vans can cost $50,000 and up. The food bank requires some type of refrigeration if the pantry is more than 30 minutes away.

There are currently no state dollars allocated to the more than 500 food relief agencies around West Virginia that are lifelines for 300,000 people a month.

Food pantries in the state, on average, operate on a budget of less than $1,300 a month to pay for food, deliveries and more, according to research from the Food Justice Lab at West Virginia University.

Some pantries have no operating budget at all.

Volunteers are often hauling food from food banks or other donation ports — like Walmart and grocers donating past sell date goods — in their own vehicles.

“The majority of our agencies work with volunteers and volunteer vehicles,” Morrison said. Mountaineer Food Bank serves 48 counties in the state.

“About 20 percent have an enclosed trailer they can use for storage that can haul a good amount of food, maybe six pallets. But the majority of them are using private vehicles and cargo vans that really limit what they can do at one time.”

Pantries reliant on truck deliveries from Mountain Food Bank often pay a delivery fee, eating into their food purchasing budgets and limiting what they can take to feed their communities.

The food bank, a nonprofit, charges a delivery fee on donated items to offset its own storage and transportation costs, according to Morrison.

‘A truck is a big dream’

Rebecca Campbell, who oversees the Harvest House Food Pantry at the Pocahontas County Family Resource Network, uses her own car to pick up a few boxes of donated food from a local grocer.

Around 600 to 700 people — typically single moms with children and elderly persons — visit the rural pantry a month, she said.

There’s a lack of jobs in the area as Snowshoe Ski Resort is the largest local employer, Campbell explained. When the snow season is cut short or lackluster, more people show up at the pantry in need of food.

The pantry, in Marlinton, has been steadily funded by grants, but even its healthy budget doesn’t have funds to purchase a refrigerated vehicle to pick up food.

Campbell mainly relied on regular food deliveries from Mountaineer Food Bank — things like fresh fruit, rice, potatoes and peanut butter — to stock the pantry shelves.

She paid a $500 delivery fee for a $2,000 food order from the food bank.

“If it wasn’t for Mountaineer Food Bank, we wouldn’t have a food pantry. There would be no way for us to go and pick up food on a regular basis and help our families,” Campbell said.

“A truck is a big dream right now,” she added.

The pantry recently secured additional grant funding and added a staff person, but Campbell said she’s leery about spending money on a refrigerated vehicle.

“I would rather be able to feed people and continue to feed people the way I am,” she said.

In Wyoming County, Arnold Simonse and his wife run the Itmann Food Pantry, which serves about 500 families a month out of Mullens.

“We’re dealing with the hardcore poor,” he said, noting the closure of nearby Pinnacle Mine, in 2018, that put hundreds of miners out of work. “The problem down here is certainly not laziness, but it’s that these people feel hopeless.”

The pantry relies on in-state and out-of-state donations for its $85,000 annual budget, he said, and some of that money goes to the Mountaineer Food Bank delivery fee because he doesn’t have a refrigerated truck.

“I could get a grant to get a truck, but the insurance for it would put me out of business,” Simonse said.

“Fundraising is getting more and more difficult,” he added.

There have been times the Facing Hunger Food Bank, in Huntington, had excess food they were trying to move, but Simonse, 81, explained that by the time he could rent a truck and get there, the food would be gone.

He’d also like a large van or truck to haul furniture and household goods — things his pantry provides community members for free.

“I could go and pick it up,” he said.

McKinley’s legislation aims to help

Hunger relief organizations could get a financial boost for delivery trucks thanks to a piece of federal legislation, sponsored, in part, by Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va.

The bipartisan Food Recovery Transportation Act, introduced in September, would establish a grant program through the Department of Agriculture to give hunger relief organizations funds to purchase or lease vehicles to pick up donated food.

The money could also be used to help reimburse volunteers for travel costs related to picking up and delivering donated goods.

McKinley said in a news release that a trip to Mountaineer Food Bank inspired the legislation.

“While there, I was told that their number one issue is transporting donated food,” he said. “The funds from these grants can help to not only feed those in need but also prevent food from being wasted.”

Volunteer pantries have limits

But would a fleet of food trucks solve the pantries’ stocking troubles?

Josh Lohnes, food policy research director at West Virginia University, said the larger, more pressing issue is the state’s reliance on mainly elderly volunteers and wavering donations to feed thousands of West Virginians who visit food charities each month.

He explained that along with the state’s generally older population, younger generations are less inclined to volunteer at food pantries because they’d rather engage in advocacy work in other areas.

That leaves elderly persons, who are typically volunteers, with the work of running pantries — ordering, stocking, driving and more. Only 25 percent of the state’s food pantries employ a paid staff member, according to research from West Virginia Food Link.

“It’s an interesting dilemma for food banks that have an excess food but not an adequate workforce to distribute that food,” Lohnes said.

“Driving an hour to Gassaway to pick up food costs money. You need a truck and someone to drive a truck. That’s a bottleneck in the system.”

The breakdown that occurs between donated food and pantry shelves, Lohnes said, is “ultimately an infrastructure and labor problem.”

Lohnes and others who work on addressing food insecurity issues plan to push state lawmakers in 2020 to allocate state funds to food issues.

Additionally, he wants to work with local-level officials to invest monetarily in their neighborhood food pantry.

The money would enable pantries to pay someone to run the pantry who can healthily manage daily upkeep, and ordering and arranging deliveries.

“We are very much dependent in West Virginia on poor churches to raise money and move federal food,” he said.

“We need to pay people for feeding our neighbors.”


LEFT: The Mingo County Sheriff’s Department and Mingo County Commission recently donated this out-of-service police cruiser to the Mingo Central Law and Public Safety Program.


News
Extending postpartum Medicaid coverage among bills on menu for 2020 session

HUNTINGTON — When lawmakers convene in Charleston Wednesday for the start of the 2020 session, members of the health committee will hit the ground running.

Along with more child welfare reform and legislation targeting substance use disorder, legislators will also consider legislation taking aim at West Virginia’s other health disparities, from postpartum care for new moms to access to doctors.

During the interim meetings in November and December, members of the Joint Health Committee received drafts of several bills to be considered this session.

Among the bills, which are not yet numbered, is one to extend Medicaid coverage to new moms up to one year postpartum.

During the 2019 session, legislators passed a bill that allows women who make up to 185% of the federal poverty level, around $31,000 for a family of two, to use Medicaid. Previously, only pregnant women who made up to 150% of the poverty level could use Medicaid.

Women’s health advocates in the state say expanding coverage for up to a year postpartum is necessary to ensure healthy babies and mothers, who need treatment for conditions like postpartum depression and gestational diabetes longer than 60 days post-birth.

With Medicaid coverage of abortion nixed since the passage of Amendment One in 2018, lawmakers will also continue work to expand birth control access. A bill with bipartisan support to allow people to obtain birth control without a prescription passed last session.

The new bill would expand access to long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) like intrauterine devices (IUDs) or the shot. The Bureau for Medical Services would be required to reimburse physicians for the full cost of the LARC and provide payment for replacement or reinsertion. The Bureau would also have to ensure multiple office visits for women who chose this contraception method are not necessary.

The bill also removes an exemption for state workers from refusing to offer family planning services if it is against their religious beliefs.

Legislators will also continue to build on legislation passed last year to protect those in recovery from substance use disorder from predatory providers.

The new bill will require treatment facilities to provide accurate and complete information in all marketing and advertising materials. It will also make it illegal for treatment facilities and recovery residences to enter into contracts with marketing providers who agree to generate leads or referrals for placement in the facilities.

Treatment facilities will also be prohibited from referring clients to recovery residences that aren’t registered with the state. Legislators also have several bills aimed at making it easier for West Virginians to receive the care they need.

One bill would require managed care organizations contracting with the state to enter into service contracts with any willing qualified provider.

Another would ensure insurance providers have an adequate network of providers. This is paired with a separate bill to try to prevent surprise billing.

Legislators will also consider bills to ban scleral tattooing, which is tattooing the white part of a human eye.


Ryan Fischer/The Herald-Dispatch  

Construction continues on the Fisher House, a place for family members to stay while loved ones are receiving care at the VA Medical Center, on Monday, December 30, 2019, in Huntington.