What is Kataeb Hezbollah, the militia accused of killing American soldiers in Jordan?

The United States launched air strikes against Iranian forces and allied militias in Iraq and Syria on Friday, with President Joe Biden vowing more to come in retaliation for a deadly drone attack on a US base in Jordan. The Pentagon particularly has its sights on Kataeb Hezbollah, one of the main militias responsable for attacking US troops. 

The United States blamed a January 28 drone attack on forces backed by Iran, but did not strike inside the country’s territory when retaliating on Friday, with both Washington and Tehran seemingly keen to avoid an all-out war.

Attacks on US troops in the Middle East have reached an unprecedented level since the October 7 attack by Hamas in southern Israel and the ensuing war in Gaza between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist movement.

There have been at least 165 drone strikes and rocket attacks since mid-October against the positions of US forces and those of the anti-Islamic State (IS) group coalition in Iraq and Syria. Yet no human losses had been reported until the latest attack on January 28, when a drone attack at the Tour 22 logistics base in Jordan near the Syrian border killed three American soldiers and injured 40 others.

This had been unheard of since the beginning of the war between Israel and Hamas, said David Rigoulet-Roze, a researcher at the French Institute for Strategic Analysis (IFAS) think-tank, for whom “a red line has been potentially crossed”. US President Joe Biden vowed the evening of the attack that the US “shall respond”. Biden later said in a written statement that the United States “will hold all those responsible to account at a time and in a manner (of) our choosing”.

Iran has denied it was behind the drone attack. But Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh said the attack has “the footprints of Kataeb Hezbollah” – an Iran-backed militant group in Iraq which the Pentagon has blamed for previous violence.

The White House proffered a similar accusation, with spokesperson John Kirby during a press conference attributing the drone attack to the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella group of Iran-backed militias. This grouping “includes” the militant group Kataeb Hezbollah, he noted, while specifying that the deadly attack “certainly bore the mark” of this influential pro-Iran armed group in Iraq.

At the orders of Iran’s Supreme Leader

The Iraqi militia Kataeb Hezbollah – not to be confused with Lebanon’s Hezbollah – is one of the Iraqi militias “closest to Iran”, said Rigoulet-Roze. “They follow the principle of ‘velayat-e faqih’, which means they recognise the Iranian Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] as their supreme commander.”

The former leader of Kataeb Hezbollah, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, previously the right-hand man of the powerful Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, died alongside his boss in 2020 in a US strike on their convoy in Baghdad.

A member of the Hashed al-Shaabi, an Iraqi paramilitary network dominated by Iran-backed factions, carries a portrait of slain Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Iraq’s central holy city of Karbala on December 29, 2020, during a symbolic funeral ceremony on the anniversary of the air strikes by US planes on several bases belonging to the Hezbollah brigades near Al-Qaim. © AFP, Mohammed Sawaf

Classified as a “terrorist” group by Washington and targeted by sanctions, the Kataeb Hezbollah faction has been hit in recent weeks by US strikes in Iraq, along with Harakat al-Nujaba, another fiercely anti-US faction.

Most of the attacks targeting Americans in recent months have been claimed by the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, which includes Kataeb Hezbollah and Harakat al-Nujaba. This nebulous group of fighters from pro-Iran armed militias says they are acting in solidarity with the Palestinians. Yet above all they seek the departure of some 2,500 American soldiers deployed in Iraq as part of the international coalition fighting against the IS group. Their demand has been heard: in the volatile context, the US and Iraq recently announced they would begin talks about formulating “a specific and clear timeline” for the future of US and other foreign troops in Iraq, with a timeline for reducing their presence.

Washington’s former allies 

Among the insurgent groups which compose the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, Kataeb Hezbollah is undoubtedly the most influential. It is also affiliated with the Hashed al-Shaabi faction, which is made up of former Iraqi paramilitaries affiliated with Iran and “has a major role” within Kataeb Hezbollah, said Rigoulet-Roze. The current leader of Kataeb Hezbollah, Abu Fadak al-Muhammadawi, is also Hashed al-Shaabi’s chief of staff.

Hashed al-Shaabi was launched in June 2014 to support Iraqi forces against the IS group. Together, alongside the anti-IS group coalition led by Washington, they contributed to the defeat inflicted on the IS group in 2017 by Iraq.

“There was an objective alliance between the coalition, therefore the Americans, and the Hashed militias against Daesh [the IS group]. The two fought on the same side, with some on the ground and others in the air. After 2017, these groups found their Iranian- and therefore anti-American- DNA,” said Rigoulet-Roze.

Hashed al-Shaabi is currently composed of dozens of groups and has more than 160,000 members, according to estimates by the AFP. The US think tank The Washington Institute estimated that the militia has around 230,000 members. Yet neither the Iraqi authorities nor the organisation communicates on the numbers of its forces.

The exact number of militiamen in Kataeb Hezbollah remains unknown. According to Rigoulet-Roze, the figure ranges from 3,000 to 30,000, since some of its forces are mobilized only occasionally.

‘The executive branch has no control’

Faced with the increase in attacks against US troops in recent weeks, the Iraqi government feels caught in the crossfire. It was brought to power by a coalition of pro-Iran Shiite parties and a parliamentary majority including Hashed al-Shaabi, whose deputies have held seats in Iraq’s parliament since 2018.

Theoretically, Hashed al-Shaabi and its components, including Kataeb Hezbollah, are part of the country’s regular forces, according to a law passed in 2016. “This is largely a procedural question. In reality, the executive branch has no control over these militias. These groups benefit from a large margin of autonomy, and this is a problem for the executive power of [Iraqi Prime Minister] Mohamed Chia al-Soudani,” said Rigoulet-Roze.

Faced with the increase in attacks against US troops in recent weeks, the Iraqi government feels caught in the crossfire. It was brought to power by a coalition of pro-Iran Shiite parties and a parliamentary majority including Hashed al-Shaabi, whose deputies had sat in Iraq’s parliament since 2018.

After the threats of the US president, who said he held Iran “responsible” for having provided the weapons for the strike that killed the American soldiers, Kataeb Hezbollah announced on January 30, “the suspension of military and security operations against the occupation forces in order to prevent embarrassing the Iraqi government”.

The statement, signed by the group’s Secretary General Abou Hussein al-Hamidawi, mentioned the Iraqi government purely as a matter of form. Iran most likely intervened behind the scenes to calm the situation, knowing that there was now the risk of uncontrolled escalation with the White House. Yet the US reprisals on January 2 against Iran-linked factions could prompt them to reconsider their decision. 

(With AFP)

This article was translated from the original in French.

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US says Islamic Resistance in Iraq group carried out attack on base in Jordan

The United States on Wednesday attributed the drone attack that killed three U.S. service members in Jordan to the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella group of Iran-backed militias, as President Joe Biden weighs his response options to the strike.

The attribution comes as Iran threatened on Wednesday to “decisively respond” to any U.S. attack on the Islamic Republic after the U.S. said it holds Tehran responsible. The U.S. has signaled it is preparing for retaliatory strikes in the Mideast in the wake of the Sunday drone attack that also wounded at least 40 troops at Tower 22, a secretive base in northeastern Jordan that’s been crucial to the American presence in neighboring Syria.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday the U.S. believes the attack was planned, resourced and facilitated by the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella group that includes the militant group Kataib Hezbollah. He said Biden “believes that it is important to respond in an appropriate way.”

Kirby said Biden was continuing to weigh retaliation options to the attack but said “the first thing you see won’t be the last thing,” adding it “won’t be a one-off.”

Kirby dismissed a statement by Iraqi militia Kataib Hezbollah announcing “the suspension of military and security operations against the occupation forces in order to prevent embarrassment to the Iraqi government.” He said that the group can’t be taken at face value, and he added, “they’re not the only group that has been attacking us.”

Biden, meanwhile, is set to attend the somber return of the fallen troops to U.S. soil on Friday at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, known as a dignified transfer, the White House announced.

Any additional American strikes could further inflame a region already roiled by Israel’s ongoing war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The war began with Hamas attacking Israel on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people and taking about 250 hostage. Since then, Israeli strikes have killed more than 26,000 Palestinians and displaced nearly 2 million others from their homes, arousing anger throughout the Muslim world.

Violence has erupted across the Mideast, with Iran striking targets in Iraq, Pakistan and Syria, and the U.S. carrying out airstrikes targeting Yemen’s Houthi rebels over their attacks shipping in the Red Sea. Some observers fear a new round of strikes targeting Iran could tip the region into a wider war.

A U.S. Navy destroyer in the waterway shot down an anti-ship cruise missile launched by the Houthis late Tuesday, the latest attack targeting American forces patrolling the key maritime trade route, officials said. The U.S. later launched a new round of airstrikes targeting the Houthis.

The Iranian warnings first came from Amir Saeid Iravani, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York. He gave a briefing to Iranian journalists late Tuesday, according to the state-run IRNA news agency.

“The Islamic Republic would decisively respond to any attack on the county, its interests and nationals under any pretexts,” IRNA quoted Iravani as saying. He described any possible Iranian retaliation as a “strong response,” without elaborating.

The Iranian mission to the U.N. did not respond to requests for comment or elaboration Wednesday on Iravani’s remarks.

Iravani also denied that Iran and the U.S. had exchanged any messages over the last few days, either through intermediaries or directly. The pan-Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera, which is based in and funded by Qatar, reported earlier that such communication had taken place. Qatar often serves as an intermediary between Washington and Tehran.

“Such messages have not been exchanged,” Iravani said.

But Iran’s government has taken note of the U.S. threats of retaliation for the attack on the base in Jordan.

“Sometime, our enemies raise the threat, and nowadays we hear some threats in between words by American officials,” Revolutionary Guard commander Gen. Hossein Salami, who answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said at an event Wednesday. “We tell them that you have experienced us, and we know each other. We do not leave any threat without an answer.”

“We are not after war, but we have no fear of war,” he added, according to IRNA.

Kirby, for his part, said the U.S. doesn’t “seek a war with Iran. We’re not looking for a broader conflict.”

On Saturday, a general in charge of Iran’s air defenses described them as being at their “highest defensive readiness.” That raises concerns for commercial aviation traveling through and over Iran as well. After a U.S. drone strike killed a top general in 2020, Iranian air defenses mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane, killing all 176 people on board.

Meanwhile, attacks by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels continue in the Red Sea, most recently targeting a U.S. warship. The missile launched Tuesday night targeted the USS Gravely, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, the U.S. military’s Central Command said in a statement. No injuries or damage were reported.

A Houthi military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yahya Saree, claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement Wednesday morning, calling it “a victory for the oppression of the Palestinian people and a response to the American-British aggression against our country.”

Saree claimed the Houthis fired “several” missiles, something not acknowledged by the U.S. Navy. Houthi claims have been exaggerated in the past, and their missiles sometimes crash on land and fail to reach their targets.

The Houthis claimed without evidence on Monday to have targeted the USS Lewis B. Puller, a floating landing base used by the Navy SEALs and others. The U.S. said there had been no attack.

On Wednesday, a U.S. military jet struck a surface-to-air missile that was about to launch from Houthi-controlled Yemen, a U.S. official said. The missile was deemed an immediate threat and destroyed. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide details ahead of a public announcement.

Since November, the rebels have repeatedly targeted ships in the Red Sea over Israel’s offensive against Hamas in Gaza. But they have frequently targeted vessels with tenuous or no clear links to Israel, imperiling shipping in a key route for global trade between Asia, the Mideast and Europe.

The Houthis hit a commercial vessel with a missile on Friday, sparking a fire that burned for hours.

The U.S. and the United Kingdom have launched multiple rounds of airstrikes targeting the Houthis as allied warships patrol the waterways affected by the attacks. The European Union also plans to launch a naval mission in the Red Sea within three weeks to help defend cargo ships against the Houthi attacks, the bloc’s top diplomat said Wednesday.


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The longer Israel thinks, the more time Washington has to calm its wrath

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe. 

BEIRUT — “Once you break it, you are going to own it,” General Colin Powell warned former United States President George W. Bush when he was considering invading Iraq in the wake of 9/11.

And as the invasion plan came together, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld blocked any serious postwar planning for how Iraq would be run once the country’s ruler Saddam Hussein had gone. As far as he was concerned, once “shock and awe” had smashed Iraq, others could pick up the pieces.

British generals fumed at this. And General Mike Jackson, head of the British army during the invasion, later described Rumsfeld’s approach as “intellectually bankrupt.”

That history is now worth recalling — and was likely on U.S. President Joe Biden’s mind when he urged the Israeli war cabinet last week not to “repeat mistakes” made by the U.S. after 9/11.

Despite Biden’s prompt, however, Israel still doesn’t appear to have a definitive plan for what to do with the Gaza Strip once it has pulverized the enclave and inflicted lasting damage on Hamas for the heinous October 7 attacks.

Setting aside just how difficult a military task Israel will face undertaking its avowed aim of ending Hamas as an organization — former U.S. General David Petraeus told POLITICO last week that a Gaza ground war could be “Mogadishu on steroids” — the lack of endgame here suggests a lack of intellectual rigor that disturbingly echoes Rumsfeld’s.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told lawmakers Friday that the country didn’t have plans to maintain control over Gaza after its war against Hamas had concluded, saying Israel would end its “responsibility for life in the Gaza Strip.” Among other minor matters, this raises the issue of where the coastal enclave of 2.3 million people will get life-sustaining energy and water, as Israel supplies most utility needs.

Israeli and Western officials say the most likely option would be to hand responsibility to the West Bank-based Palestinian National Authority, which oversaw the enclave until Hamas violently grabbed control in 2007. “I think in the end the best thing is that the Palestinian Authority goes back into Gaza,” Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid said last week.

But it isn’t clear whether Mahmoud Abbas — the Palestinian Authority president and head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is dominated by his Fatah party — would want Gaza on those terms, or whether he has the power to do much of anything with the enclave in the first place.

Abbas is already struggling to maintain his authority over the West Bank. He’s an unpopular leader, and his government is seen to be not only appallingly venal, but is perceived by many as ceding to the demands of the Israeli authorities too easily. 

Israel now controls 60 percent of the West Bank, and its encroaching settlements in the area — which are illegal under international law — haven’t helped Abbas. Nor have Israeli efforts to hold back the West Bank from developing — a process dubbed “de-developing” by critics and aimed, they say, at restricting growth and strangling Palestinian self-determination.

In West Bank refugee camps, Abbas’ security forces have now lost authority to armed groups — including disgruntled Fatah fighters. “It is unclear whether Abbas would be prepared to play such an obvious role subcontracting for Israel in Gaza. This would further erode whatever domestic standing the PA has left,” assessed Hugh Lovatt, a Middle East analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

But it isn’t only Gaza — or the West Bank — that risks breaking in the coming weeks.

Neighboring countries are watching events unfold with growing alarm, and they fear that if more thought isn’t given to Israel’s response to the savage Hamas attacks, and it isn’t developed in consultation with them, they’ll be crushed in the process. If Israel wants the support of these countries — or their help even — in calming the inevitable anger of their populations once a military campaign is launched, it needs their buy-in and agreement on the future of Gaza and Palestinians, and to stop using the language of collective punishment.

Lebanon, where the Iran-backed Hezbollah — Hamas’ ally — has been intensifying its skirmishes along the border with Israel, is currently the most vulnerable. And Lebanese politicians are complaining they’re being disregarded by all key protagonists — Israel, the U.S. and Iran — in a tragedy they wish to have no part in.

Already on its knees from an economic crisis that plunged an estimated 85 percent of its population into poverty, and with a barely functioning caretaker government, the Lebanese are desperate not to become the second front in Iran’s war with Israel. Lebanon “could fall apart completely,” Minister of Economy and Trade Amin Salam said.

But the leaders of Egypt and Jordan share Lebanon’s frustrations, arguing that the potential repercussions for them are being overlooked. This is why Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi called Saturday’s Cairo summit of regional and international leaders.

El-Sisi focused the conference on a longer-term political solution, hopefully a serious effort to make good on the 2007 Annapolis Conference’s resolution to set up a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Egypt has much to lose if the war escalates — and the country’s officials are fuming at what they see as a careless attitude from Israel toward what happens to Gaza after Hamas is subjugated, potentially leaving a cash-strapped Egypt to pick up some of the pieces.

More than that, Egypt and Jordan harbor deep suspicions — as do many other Arab leaders and politicians — that as the conflict unfolds, Israel’s war aims will shift. They worry that under pressure from the country’s messianic hard-right parties, Israel will end up annexing north Gaza, or maybe all of Gaza, permanently uprooting a large proportion of its population, echoing past displacements of Palestinians — including the nakba (catastrophe), the flight and expulsion of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians in 1948.

This is why both el-Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah II are resisting the “humanitarian” calls for displaced Gazans to find refuge in their countries. They suspect it won’t be temporary and will add to their own security risks, as Gazans would likely have to be accommodated in the Sinai — where Egyptian security forces are already engaged in a long-standing counterinsurgency against Islamist militant groups.

And both countries do have grounds for concern about Israel’s intentions.

Some columnists for Israel Hayom —a newspaper owned by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s close friend, American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson — are already calling for annexation. “My hope is that the enemy population residing there now will be expelled and that the Strip will be annexed and repopulated by Israel,” wrote Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. intelligence analyst who served 30 years in prison for spying for Israel before emigrating.

And last week, Gideon Sa’ar, the newly appointed minister in Netanyahu’s wartime government, said that Gaza “must be smaller at the end of the war . . . Whoever starts a war against Israel must lose territory.”

Given all this, there are now signs the Biden administration is starting to take the risks of the Gaza crisis breaking things far and wide fully on board — despite widespread Arab fears that it still isn’t. By not being fast enough to express sympathy for ordinary Gazans’ suffering as Israel pummels the enclave, Biden’s aides initially fumbled. And while that can easily be blamed on Hamas, it needs to be expressed by American officials loudly and often.

In the meantime, the unexplained delay of Israel’s ground attack is being seen by some analysts as a sign that Washington is playing for time, hoping to persuade the country to rethink how it will go about attacking Hamas, prodding Israel to define a realistic endgame that can secure buy-in from Arab leaders and help combat the propaganda of Jew-hatred.

Meanwhile, hostage negotiations now appear to be progressing via Qatar, after two American captives were freed Friday. There have also been reports of top Biden aides back-channeling Iran via Oman.

So, despite Arab condemnation, the Biden administration’s approach may be more subtle than many realize — at least according to Michael Young, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center. He said it was always inevitable that Washington would publicly back Israel but that a primary aim has been to “contain Israel’s reaction” to the Hamas attacks, while seemingly deferring to the country.

And time will help. The longer Israel thinks, the more opportunity Washington has to reason, to calm, and to explain the trail of cascading wreckage Israel risks leaving behind if it is unrestrained and fails to answer — as Biden put it — “very hard questions.”

But that might not be sufficient to prevent everything spinning out of control. Israel morally and legally has the right to defend itself from barbaric attacks that were more a pogrom, and it must ensure the safety of its citizens. There are also others — notably Iran — that want the destruction of the Jewish state, and even a scaled down response from Israel may trigger the escalation most in the region fear.

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The dogs of war are howling in the Middle East

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

BEIRUT — Against a dawning day, just hours after the fatal Gaza hospital explosion that killed hundreds, Israel’s border with Lebanon crackled with shelling and fighter jet strikes as Israeli warplanes responded to an uptick in shelling from Hezbollah.

Regardless of who struck the al-Ahli Arab Hospital, the needle is now rapidly shifting in a dangerous direction. And hopes are being pinned on United States President Joe Biden and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who is set to host an emergency summit in Cairo on Saturday. But the chances of a wider war engulfing Lebanon and the entire region being hurled into violent chaos once more are growing by the hour.

As Hezbollah announced “a day of rage” against Israel, protests have targeted U.S. missions in the region, more embassies in Beirut have started sending off non-essentials staff, and security teams are being flown in to protect diplomatic missions and European NGOs, preparing contingency plans for staff evacuation. An ever-growing sense of dread and foreboding is now gripping the Levant.

Currently, Israel insists the hospital explosion was caused by an errant rocket fired by Islamic Jihad — and the White House agrees. But the Palestinian militant group, which is aligned with Hamas, says this is a “lie and fabrication,” insisting Israel was responsible. Regardless of where the responsibility lies, however, the blast at the hospital — where hundreds of Palestinian civilians were sheltering from days of Israeli airstrikes on the coastal enclave of Gaza — is sending shock waves far and wide.

It has already blown Biden’s trip to the region off course, as his planned Wednesday meeting with Arab leaders in Jordan had to be axed. The meeting was meant to take place after his visit to Israel, where Biden had the tricky task of showing solidarity, while also pressing the country’s reluctant Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza.

A statement from the White House said the the decision to cancel the meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Egypt’s El-Sisi and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had been jointly made in light of the hospital strike.

But Arab leaders have made clear they had no hope the meeting would be productive. Abbas pulled out first, before Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi suggested a meeting would be pointless. “There is no use in talking now about anything except stopping the war,” he said, referencing Israel’s near-constant bombardment of Gaza.

Scrapping the Jordan stop lost the U.S. leader a major face-to-face opportunity to navigate the crisis, leaving American efforts to stave off a wider conflict in disarray.

The U.S. was already facing tough criticism in the region for being too far in Israel’s corner and failing to condemn the country for civilian deaths in Gaza. Meanwhile, Arab leaders have shrugged off U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s efforts to get them to denounce Hamas — they refuse to label the organization as a terror group, seeing the October 7 attacks as the inevitable consequence of the failure to deliver a two-state solution for Palestinians and lift Israel’s 17-year blockade on Gaza.

Whether anyone can now stop a bigger war is highly uncertain. But there was one word that stood out in Biden’s immediate remarks after the Hamas attacks, and that was “don’t.” “To any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of the situation, I have one word,” he said. “Don’t.”

However, this is now being drowned out by furious cries for revenge. Wrath has its grip on all parties in the region, as old hatreds and grievances play out and the tit-for-tat blows accelerate. Much like Mark Antony’s exhortation in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” “Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war” is now the sentiment being heard here, obscuring reason and leaving diplomacy struggling in its wake.

In the immediate aftermath of last week’s slaughter, righteous fury had understandably gripped Israelis. Netanyahu channeled that rage, vowing “mighty vengeance” against Hamas for the surprise attacks, pledging to destroy the Iran-backed Palestinian militant group. “Every Hamas terrorist is a dead man,” he said days later.

However, Israel hasn’t officially announced it will launch a ground mission — something it has refrained from doing in recent years due to the risk of losing a high number of soldiers. But it has massed troops and armor along the border, drafted 300,000 reservists — the biggest call-up in decades — and two days after the Hamas attacks, Netanyahu reportedly told Biden that Israel had no choice but to launch a ground operation. Publicly, he warned Israelis the country faced a “long and difficult war.”

The one hope that havoc won’t be unleashed in the region now rests partly — but largely — upon Israel reducing its military goals and deciding not to launch a ground offensive on Gaza, which would be the most likely trigger for Hezbollah and its allies to commence a full-scale attack, either across the southern border or on the Golan Heights.

That was certainly the message from Ahmed Abdul-Hadi, Hamas’ chief representative in Lebanon. He told POLITICO that an Israeli ground offensive in Gaza would be one of the key triggers that could bring Hezbollah fully into the conflict, and that Hamas and Hezbollah are now closely coordinating their responses.

“Hezbollah will pay no attention to threats from anyone against it entering the war; it will ignore warnings to stay out of it. The timing of when Hezbollah wants to enter the war or not will relate to Israeli escalation and incidents on the ground, and especially if Israel tries to enter Gaza on the ground,” he said.

Lebanese politicians are now pinning their hopes on Israel not opting to mount a ground offensive on the densely populated enclave — an operation that would almost certainly lead to a high number of civilian casualties and spark further Arab outrage, in addition to a likely Hezbollah intervention. They see some possibility in Biden’s warning that any move by Israel to reoccupy Gaza would be a “big mistake” — a belated sign that Washington is now trying to impose a limit on Israel’s actions in retaliation for the Hamas attacks.

And how that dovetails with Netanyahu’s stated aim to “demolish Hamas”and “defeat the bloodthirsty monsters who have risen against us to destroy us” is another one of the major uncertainties that will determine if the dogs of war will be fully unleashed.

At the moment, however, an apparent pause in Israeli ground operations is giving some a reason to hope. While assembled units are on standby and awaiting orders, on Tuesday an Israel military spokesman suggested a full-scale ground assault might not be what’s being prepared.

Michael Young, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, suspects a “rethink” is underway, likely prompted by Israeli military chiefs’ realization that a ground offensive wouldn’t just be bloody, it wouldn’t rid Gaza of Hamas either. “When the PLO was forced out of Lebanon by Israel in 1982, it still was able to maintain a presence in the country and Yasser Arafat was back within a year in Lebanon,” he said.

Likewise, lawmaker Ashraf Rifi — a former director of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces — told POLITICO he thinks Israeli generals are likely just as behind the apparent hold as their Western allies. “Military commanders are always less enthusiastic about going to war than politicians, and Israeli military commanders are always cautious,” he said.

“Let’s hope so, otherwise we will all be thrown into hell.”

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These high school sweethearts have visited 112 countries. Here’s how they pay for it on a budget

Most people have a travel bucket list, perhaps with 10 to 15 countries.

For this couple, it’s all 195 — and they’re more than halfway there.

Hudson and Emily Crider have visited 112 countries, but their journey together began long before that. Both are from the “same small town” of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. They met in fifth grade and started dating in high school, the couple said.

Speaking to CNBC via video from Chiang Mai, Thailand, the couple explained that their goal in college was to buy an RV and travel to all 50 states in the United States.

Hudson and Emily Crider in high school.

Hudson and Emily Crider

They began to save for that goal after getting married in 2012, but just a few years later, Hudson’s father died of a heart attack. “It was a reminder to us that we’re not guaranteed another day,” said Hudson, 32.

That motivated them to “sell everything and buy this old RV,” said Hudson. The couple left their jobs — Emily as a marketing manager in an agency, Hudson as a financial planner — in the Washington D.C.-Baltimore area, said Emily, 31. Just two years later, they accomplished their goal of traveling to all 50 states.

So they set their sights higher.

Now, as the couple pursue their goal of traveling to every country in the world, they spend less than when they lived in D.C., said Emily. “The thing we found most helpful is eliminating expenses,” said Hudson. “We don’t have a house, car, kids and also make sure to budget.”

The couple have met people on the road who have children, or a home that they’re renting out to travel long term, said Emily. “We really believe there’s not a right or wrong way to travel,” she said.

Hudson and Emily Crider on a safari in Kenya, Africa.

Hudson and Emily Crider

The couple work remotely while on the road to support their travels, said Hudson. They teach English online, create content on YouTube and Instagram, and sell products like clip-on hand sanitizer holders on Amazon.

Although every traveler has different circumstances, being able to research and read reviews on the internet makes travel “the most open that it’s ever been,” said Hudson.

The couple’s own style of traveling helps them save on food, attractions and local culture in countries they visit, no matter how expensive.

Least to most expensive regions

The Criders have traveled to every continent except Antarctica, they said. The following is their ranking of the world’s major regions based on the cost of travel — from the least to most expensive:

  1. Asia
  2. South America
  3. Africa
  4. Middle East
  5. Australia
  6. Europe
  7. North America


Food is one of the categories of travel that “people plan the least for,” yet it’s the cost that is “easiest to add up,” the couple told CNBC. In Bali, Indonesia, they kept those costs low by eating street food like nasi goreng, spending as little as $1 per meal.

Trying street food is a “great way to taste local food and culture,” said Emily. Their favorite Asian cuisines include pad Thai and khao soi from Thailand and Vietnamese banh mi, she said.

The couple save on housing, their second biggest expense, by doing homestays with locals. In Bali, they stayed with the “sweetest family” for just $4 per night, said Emily.

Hudson trying an organ sandwich in Marrakech, Morocco.

Hudson and Emily Crider

The couple also use Couchsurfing.com, a site where travelers can find locals offering free housing. In Switzerland, they stayed with another couple who made them raclette, a traditional Swiss dish, and took them paragliding, said Emily.

Homestays are a great way to connect with local people, said Emily. “When you’re quickly going to a place and taking pictures of tourist sites, you don’t always get the full picture.”

South America

South America was the third cheapest for activities, at an average of $15.00 per experience, the couple told CNBC. Many activities were free, they added.

The couple research and budget for the main activities they want to do before visiting any country, they said.

Hudson and Emily Crider on a hike in Patagonia, South America.

Hudson and Emily Crider

They hiked through “amazing” places like Patagonia and Peru without booking a guide, said Hudson. With online resources, “it was so easy to find it ourselves,” he said.

The couple call this “do-it-yourself style travel,” where they find transportation and explore cities without having to book a tour, said Emily.


“Do-it-yourself” travel even extends to safaris, according to the couple.

In East Africa, Hudson and Emily rented a car and drove through the Serengeti on their own.

Hudson and Emily Crider camping during their self-drive safari in the Serengeti in Tanzania.

Hudson and Emily Crider

“It was more of an adventure than we signed up for, but it was a good way to save money,” said Emily.

Middle East

Transportation typically means metros, buses or tuk-tuks instead of taxis and Uber, the couple said.

Hudson and Emily Crider in Petra, Jordan.

Hudson and Emily Crider

But renting a car can also be worth it.

The couple spent the most on transportation in the Middle East, at an average of $14.00 per ride, they told CNBC.

“If anybody’s traveling to Jordan in particular, rent a car — it’s a great way to meet local people,” said Hudson.


The couple spent $85 on a harbor cruise in Sydney that went past the Sydney Opera House. “We prefer to spend a little less money on housing and food and more on experiences,” said Emily.

They spent the most on activities in Australia, with an average of $42.50 per experience. Transportation, however, was the second-least costly, at an average of $3 per ride.

The cruise was also an example of how the couple create content on the road, as they partnered with a company to promote the experience, said Hudson.


By saving a little bit in every category, the couple save a lot of money in the long run, they told CNBC. They did the same in Europe, which was the second-most expensive for housing, food and transportation.

It helps to spend less time staying in the more expensive areas, said Hudson. Compared with Paris, cities like Prague and Budapest are “equally beautiful” but have housing that is “half the cost,” he added.

Hudson and Emily Crider paragliding in Switzerland.

Hudson and Emily Crider

To get around, the couple used the Eurail unlimited pass to travel to as many places as they wanted within a booked time period, said Hudson. Budget airlines like Wow Air and Ryanair were also “amazing” options, he said.

“We would get a €12.00 flight and spend more on getting the Uber to the airport,” he quipped.

They used Google to find accommodations based on budget, then booked using Airbnb or Booking.com for the “best deals,” said Emily. They typically did a “really cheap hotel or motel” in Europe as it was often less expensive than a hostel, she added.

North America

Although New York consistently ranks as the most expensive city in the U.S., it is a popular destination for travelers who visit North America, said Hudson.

The couple got around by walking or riding on New York’s “amazing” subway system for $2.75 per trip, he said. They used Google Maps to access bus and metro times in almost every major city they visited, they said.

They also said they use blogs and Facebook groups to find suggestions for public transportation too.

More tips

Hudson and Emily try to strike a balance between “comfort and cost” when picking accommodations, they told CNBC.

That often leads to a choice between air conditioning and Wi-Fi, said Hudson. (They rarely compromise on the Wi-Fi.)

Reading an accommodation’s newest reviews gives a “current update of someone’s experience staying there,” said Emily.

“We don’t book places without reviews within the past four or five months.

A hostel room where the Criders stayed in Sydney, Australia.

Hudson and Emily Crider

Bonus points on credit cards also help to save money, said Emily. “Chase Sapphire Preferred and Reserve cards are our favorite because those can be transferred to a lot of different hotels and airlines,” she said.

The couple plan for future trips by using Google Flights to notify them if a flight price drops below a certain amount, said Emily. Instead of being fixed on one specific destination, pick five places you want to visit and set notifications for them, she recommended.

As for Hudson and Emily, they have set their sights on more places than that.

They are headed to West Africa next, they said.

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Liam Neeson is back in stylish Hollywood thriller “Marlowe”

Liam Neeson is back in the atmospheric 1930s-set crime caper “Marlowe,” based on the book by John Banville, a screenplay by William Monahan and directed by Neil Jordan (that also stars Colm Meaney).

Talk about an Irish fest – and how refreshing to catch a new movie that reminds us how they used to make them – which “Marlowe” certainly is. 

Set in Tinseltown in the 1930s, the story is based on “The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel” by celebrated Irish writer Banville, with a screenplay by award-winning Irish American screenwriter (of “The Departed”) Monahan and Jordan himself.

“Marlowe” begins with Irish American heiress Clare Cavendish (“Clare like the county,” she says) who is equal parts ravishing and deadly. 

Played by Diane Kruger, it’s clear from her first appearance there is far more to her than meets the eye, which world-weary gumshoe Marlowe (played by Neeson) intuits during their first consultation.

Cavendish reveals she has a no-good paramour named Nico Peterson (played by Francois Arnaud) who has gone missing. She’ll pay Marlowe handsomely to have him found.

What her real interest in this womanizing, ‘evil-incarnate’ player really is isn’t immediately obvious, but that pulls the audience in, as does Kruger’s all-electric screen presence. 

Film noir detective flicks have been a Hollywood staple since the days of Humphrey Bogart and in “Marlowe,” Neeson is a gumshoe for our own fraught times. Sensitive, smart, and impossible to hoodwink, he plays to his screen strengths in this wisecracking and world-weary role. 

Neeson’s Marlowe is an Irish immigrant and former World War One soldier in the Royal Irish Rifles. A former LAPD cop who’s lost his badge and taken up detective work, he has a reputation for solving the toughest crimes.

Diane Kruger as Clare Cavendish and Liam Neeson as hardbitten Irish Phillip Marlowe in “Marlowe.”

As Clare’s brilliant but untrustworthy mother, Jessica Lange plays former Hollywood it-girl Dorothy Cavendish, who is as familiar with the works of James Joyce as she is with the dubious machinations of Hollywood. 

Lange’s character has a toxic competition with her daughter for the attention of her Hollywood producer husband now about to be ambassador to the Court of King James. A former bootlegger who hit the big time, the Kennedy echoes are unmistakable, as is the suspicion of the rough work that undergirds his fortune. 

What director Jordan delivers is a hugely atmospheric and stylish period drama that pulls you in from the first frame. The skillful use of computer animation to bring to life 30’s Hollywood boulevards, the neons and billboards and passing motors, gives this film an authenticity that evokes its era artfully.

But it’s Neeson’s performance as a hardbitten detective that makes the film sing. He knows he’s getting too old for the kind of rough and tumble the job often demands but without his badge and pension what choice does he have? 

The scenes where he takes on the tough guys are convincing and often surprisingly funny. After he knocks one guy out he picks up a chair and shrugs “f—k it,” then breaks it over his back to keep him out cold. This kind of lived-in character note brings his “Marlowe” to life and makes you root for his good guy in a bad world persona.

The plot of the film has other plots concealed within its lines, of course. It turns out that the pronounced dead Nico Peterson is still very much alive, as Clare Cavendish suspects, and that the spider’s web of intrigue only builds from there.

Crime has always been the dark underside of the American Dream and this film takes a deep dive into the compromised lives and actions that support it. No one is a piece of virtue, but almost no one is entirely composed of, as Alan Cumming’s entertaining character Lou Hendricks calls it, “tarantulas.”

Instead, this L.A. is a fallen Eden, a place where innocence and promise curdle faster than milk in the sun and where wisecracking cops like Bernie Ohls (played by Colm Meaney) and Joe Green (played by Ian Hart) have had a belly full of seeing enough.

Liam Neeson as Hollywood Irish detective Phillip Marlowe in Marlowe

Liam Neeson as Hollywood Irish detective Phillip Marlowe in Marlowe

Jordan keeps things loose and funny – as well as unsettling – as the film unspools, focusing on the palm trees and all the neon-lit glory but reminding us how Tinsel town got made. “Why this is hell nor am I out of it,” says the wily ambassador, quoting Doctor Faustus, as Marlowe circles the dark web of deceit and murder that has helped build his empire.

For all its dark themes, the film is an unexpected romp. Yes, it’s assembled some of the most compromised and compromising people you will ever encounter, but there are exchanges between them that light up the screen.

When Marlowe grills country club impresario Floyd Hanson (played by Danny Huston, who is the image of his famous father, Irish American director John Huston) he says it must have been hard for him to witness Peterson’s mutilated body lying in the road. But Hanson replies, “I’ve seen men in more disarray than that in which Mr. Petersen was discovered,” adding that he’s a World War One veteran like Marlowe and says, “Once, after an artillery strike, I found a friend’s tooth in my whiskey glass. I drank the whiskey.”

“You’re a terrible man,” says Marlowe. “I needed the whiskey,” Hanson replies. This is the kind of noir-ish dialogue that we pay the money for and Monahan doesn’t disappoint.

It’s good to see Colm Meaney and Neeson mix it up onscreen again and they are well-met as two seen it all cops who stand on either side of the law but work together. As Bernie Ohls, Meaney quietly looks out for his former college and reminds us of the danger Marlowe puts himself in for a paycheck.

The story changes track multiple times as Marlowe progresses but it’s clear at all times who the most dangerous protagonists are. Some might grouse that the big reveal is undercut by the secondary characters, but that’s to miss the point here. The lines that aren’t ever crossed belong to the quietly un-buyable Irish detective, the one good man in an ocean of the unjust. 

“You’re a long way from Tipperary,” Marlowe says as he watches Dorothy Cavendish move through her unhappy world of great wealth and privilege. It’s a funny line but it’s also a reminder that Marlowe is very far from Ireland now himself, and the two Irish immigrants have taken very different and contrasting paths that tell the story in miniature.

The roles you play offscreen are as important as the ones you play on, “Marlowe” reminds us. So be careful not to get typecast or worse do it to yourself. In this film, the masks that people wear become their prisons. Only Marlowe himself emerges free in the end.

“Marlowe” is in theaters now.

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