Samarra (Iraq) (AFP) - Militants were gathering Friday for a new attempt to take the Iraqi city of Samarra, home to a revered Shiite shrine whose 2006 bombing sparked a sectarian war, witnesses said. A major offensive launched by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and its allies late Monday has overrun second city Mosul and a swathe of northern and north-central Iraq. Witnesses in the Dur area, between militant-held Tikrit and Samarra, said they saw "countless" vehicles carrying militants south during the night. And witnesses in Samarra, just 110 kilometres (70 miles) north of Baghdad, said gunmen were gathering to the north, east and southeast of the city.
Jihadists pushed towards Baghdad on Friday as President Barack Obama said he was exploring all options to save Iraq's security forces from collapse and US companies evacuated hundreds from a major air base. With militants closing in on the capital, forces from Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region took control of a swathe of territory they have sought to rule for decades against the objections of successive governments in Baghdad. Foreign Minister Hosyhar Zebari acknowledged that the security forces Washington invested billions of dollars in training and equipping before withdrawing its own troops in 2011 had simply melted away. Obama said Iraq was going to need "more help from the United States and from the international community."
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye revamped her cabinet Friday, replacing seven ministers in response to intense criticism over her administration's handling of April's ferry disaster. It was Park's first major cabinet shake-up since taking office in February last year and came as the mother of one disaster victim filed a damages suit against the government, as well as the ferry operator. The most high-profile change will see Choi Kyoung-Hwan, a ruling party lawmaker, replacing Hyun Oh-Seok as finance minister in charge of the economy, the presidential Blue House said. Chong Jong-Sup, a Seoul National University law professor, is to head the ministry of security and public administration, which will take the lead in implementing promised reforms following the Sewol disaster, which claimed nearly 300 lives, mostly schoolchildren.
China's industrial output growth accelerated to 8.8 percent year-on-year in May, official data showed Friday, while retail sales hit their highest level since December in signs of renewed strength in the world's second-largest economy. The industrial production figure was stronger than the 8.7 percent recorded a month earlier and matched the median forecast of 8.8 percent in a poll of 15 economists by the Wall Street Journal. Retail sales, a key gauge of consumer spending, increased 12.5 percent last month from a year ago, the National Bureau of Statistics said, up from a gain of 11.9 percent in April and the highest since 13.6 percent at the end of last year. Fixed-asset investment, a main measure of government spending on infrastructure projects, rose by 17.2 percent year-on-year in the January-May period, slowing from a 17.3 percent rise in the first four months of the year.
Narendra Modi will step up a charm offensive with India's neighbours in the hope of stopping them falling into China's embrace when he travels next week to Bhutan on his first foreign trip since becoming prime minister. A month after his election, the Hindu nationalist premier will pay a two-day visit to the tiny Buddhist kingdom from Sunday when he will meet his counterpart Tshering Tobgay and King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. "We're honoured to have him choose Bhutan as the first country he's visiting," Tobgay said in comments published by the local Kuensel daily. Tobgay was one of seven regional leaders invited to Modi's inauguration and analysts say the decision to make Bhutan his first port of call is designed to underline the importance he attaches to neighbourly relations, which suffered under the last government.
Afghans head to the polls Saturday for a second-round election to choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai, with the threat of Taliban attacks and fraud looming over the country's first democratic transfer of power. The vote pits former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah against ex-World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani in a head-to-head contest to lead Afghanistan as US-led troops withdraw after 13 years of fighting Taliban insurgents. But Saturday presents another major challenge in the prolonged election process, which began with campaigning in early February and will end when the final result is announced on July 22. "We have been conducting missions all over Afghanistan for election security for the past two months."
By Nick Carey JACKSON Tenn. (Reuters) - The shock defeat of Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary in Virginia this week has fueled hopes among Tea Party activists in Tennessee that they can stage a similar upset against Senator Lamar Alexander in August. But the Cantor loss, while enough to shake Washington and the Republican establishment, may not be a sign of things to come as the Tea Party movement has yet to show this year it can find a consistent winning formula against Republican incumbents. In Tennessee, Alexander’s challenger - Tea Party state representative Joe Carr – is regarded by many political experts as unqualified for a Senate race and he is trailing by up to 40 points in the polls. He is also up against a lawmaker who is well prepared and a statewide Republican Party that is pushing to thwart the Tea Party. "It's important not to rule out an upset after Cantor's upset," said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
The Bank of Japan on Friday held off expanding its stimulus programme and said the world's number three economy was recovering, despite fears a sales tax rise will dent growth. Investors are now awaiting a press briefing by BoJ governor Haruhiko Kuroda at about 3:30 pm local time (0630 GMT) for clues about future measures. The yen barely moved after the widely expected decision, which comes as the US Federal Reserve winds down its own stimulus and just over a week after the European Central Bank launched unprecedented easing to counter the threat of deflation in the eurozone. On Friday, the BoJ acknowledged that consumer demand and factory output had taken a hit after the April 1 tax hike, prior to which millions of shoppers went on a nationwide buying spree.
The US is reluctantly being dragged back into the smouldering ashes of the Iraq War amid accusations that its failure to intervene in Syria aided the rise of jihadists now closing in on Baghdad. More than a decade after the invasion and almost three years since the last US troops pulled out, Washington has been relegated to the sidelines as it watched Iraqi forces collapse in face of this week's surprise onslaught by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. The US has poured more than $25 billion into training and equipping the Iraqi army since 2003, and even State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki admitted there had been "a clear structural breakdown" among the security forces. With Baghdad now in ISIL's sights as it seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate stretching from Lebanon to Iran's Zagros Mountains, Washington is vowing to ramp up military aid.
Hillary Clinton's book launch looks undeniably like the prelude to a presidential campaign, but despite growing buzz, Democrats are scraping together Plans B, C and D in case she doesn't run. "If Hillary doesn't run, it's an open free-for-all," former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who ran for president 10 years ago and headed the Democratic National Committee from 2005 to 2009, told AFP in a telephone interview. Clinton, who narrowly lost the 2008 Democratic nomination to Barack Obama, has said she will likely decide after November's mid-term elections. A handful of Democratic alternatives are already being floated, including Vice President Joe Biden, who has acknowledged mulling another White House campaign.