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Acting Pentagon chief visits Baghdad to support Iraqi sovereignty, discuss Syria withdrawal

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FILE PHOTO – Acting U.S. defense secretary Patrick Shanahan arrives in Kabul, Afghanistan February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Idrees Ali

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan arrived in Baghdad on Tuesday for an unannounced trip that he said would emphasize the importance of Iraqi sovereignty and broach the issue of the future of U.S. troops there.

The visit comes after President Donald Trump said this month that a U.S. presence was needed to observe Iran.

In his first trip to Iraq, Shanahan is set to meet with Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.

“We are in Iraq at the invitation of the government and our interests are to build Iraqi security capability,” Shanahan told reporters traveling with him. 

    “I want to hear first-hand from them about concerns, the political dynamics that they are facing and then based on that we will obviously factor that into our planning.”

Shanahan will also discuss the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria with U.S. commanders.

Trump caused anger in Baghdad this month when he said it was important to keep a U.S. military presence in Iraq so that Washington could keep a close eye on Iran “because Iran is a real problem.”

    Trump’s comments prompted almost universal criticism from Iraq’s leaders, including from the president and prime minister, and raised questions about the long-term presence of U.S. troops in the country 16 years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Reporting by Idrees Ali; editing by John Stonestreet

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Indonesian presidential hopefuls vow energy self-sufficiency via palm

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JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesia’s two presidential candidates pledged to achieve energy self-sufficiency by boosting the use of bioenergy, particularly fueled by palm oil, to cut costly oil imports by Southeast Asia’s biggest economy.

Indonesia’s presidential candidate Joko Widodo (L) shakes hands with his opponent Prabowo Subianto after the second debate between presidential candidates ahead of the next general election in Jakarta, Indonesia, February 17, 2019. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

Indonesia, the world’s biggest palm oil producer, has been pushing for all diesel fuel used in the country to contain biodiesel to boost palm consumption, slash fuel imports, and narrow a yawning current account gap.

In a televised election debate, President Joko Widodo said if he won a second term the government planned to implement a B100 program, referring to fuel made entirely from palm oil, after last year making it mandatory to use biodiesel containing 20 percent bio-content (B20).

“We hope 30 percent of total palm production will go to biofuel. The plan is clear, so we will not rely on imported oil,” Widodo said, adding that Indonesia’s crude palm oil production had reached 46 million tonnes a year.

Agreeing on the importance of bioenergy for self-sufficiency, his opponent Prabowo Subianto said if elected he would also “boost the use of palm oil, palm sugar, cassava and ethanol from sugar (cane)”.

The challenger did not elaborate on his bioenergy plan, but his campaign team has proposed using millions of hectares of degraded land to cultivate palm sugar to produce energy.

Widodo’s government has previously said it would offer incentives for developers of B100, which the net oil importer hopes can replace fuel imports within three years.

Oil imports have contributed to Indonesia’s widening current account deficit and the volatility of the rupiah currency. The government claimed that its biodiesel program would save billions of dollars in diesel fuel imports.

Although retired general Prabowo agreed with Widodo on several points during the debate, he said Indonesia’s “land and water, and the resources within” must be controlled by the government.

“We are of the view that the government must be present in detail, thoroughly, firmly and actively to correct inequalities in wealth,” he said.

The challenger said the proportion of small farmers’ holdings in the country’s palm plantations should also be larger. Smallholders currently account for roughly 40 percent of Indonesia’s 12 million hectares of palm oil plantations.

Farmers currently do not require larger plots of land, but instead, they need a program to boost yield from their current farm, Mansuetus Darto of Palm Farmers Union said.

He added that farmers wanted more clarity on Widodo’s B100 program and have asked to ensure that small holders play a greater role in the biodiesel supply chain.

“This is an important task for Jokowi on how to prevent big palm companies to be the only main suppliers and not farmers,” Darto said, referring to the president’s nickname.

Meanwhile, environmental group Greenpeace criticized both candidates for failing to ensure that the biofuel programs they promised will not cause further erosion of forests, peatlands and mangrove, due to potentially higher demand for palm oil that is mixed with the fuel.

Slideshow (2 Images)

By 2030, the global demand for biofuels would reach 67 million tonnes from the current 10.7 million tonnes, which could potentially result in 4.5 million hectares of deforestation and 2.9 million hectares of mangrove disappearance, Greenpeace said.

Both candidates expressed support for greater control of Indonesian natural resources.

President Widodo highlighted Pertamina’s takeover of stewardship of major oil and gas blocks from foreign operators, and an agreement for a state company to purchase a 51 percent stake in the giant Grasberg copper mine from Freeport McMoRan.

Reporting by Fransiska Nangoy and Tabita Diela,; Additional reporting Bernadette Christina Munthe,; Editing by Ed Davies, Jan Harvey and Sherry Jacob-Phillips

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Indonesian presidential hopefuls vow energy self-sufficiency through palm

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JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesia’s two presidential candidates pledged on Sunday to achieve energy self-sufficiency by boosting the use of bioenergy, particularly fueled by palm oil, to cut costly oil imports by Southeast Asia’s biggest economy.

Indonesia’s presidential candidate Joko Widodo (L) shakes hands with his opponent Prabowo Subianto after the second debate between presidential candidates ahead of the next general election in Jakarta, Indonesia, February 17, 2019. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

Indonesia, the world’s biggest palm oil producer, has been pushing for all diesel fuel used in the country to contain biodiesel to boost palm consumption, slash fuel imports, and narrow a yawning current account gap.

In a televised election debate, President Joko Widodo said if he won a second term the government planned to implement a B100 program, referring to fuel made entirely from palm oil, after last year making it mandatory to use biodiesel containing 20 percent bio-content (B20).

“We hope 30 percent of total palm production will go to biofuel. The plan is clear, so we will not rely on imported oil,” Widodo said, adding that Indonesia’s crude palm oil production had reached 46 million tonnes a year.

Agreeing on the importance of bioenergy for self-sufficiency, his opponent Prabowo Subianto said if elected he would also “boost the use of palm oil, palm sugar, cassava and ethanol from sugar (cane)”.

The challenger did not elaborate on his bioenergy plan, but his campaign team has proposed using millions of hectares of degraded land to cultivate palm sugar to produce energy.

Widodo’s government has previously said it would offer incentives for developers of B100, which the net oil importer hopes can replace fuel imports within three years.

Indonesia’s state energy company PT Pertamina has signed an agreement with Italian oil company Eni to develop a refinery in Indonesia that would produce fuel completely derived from crude palm oil (CPO).

Oil imports have contributed to Indonesia’s widening current account deficit and the volatility of the rupiah currency. The government claimed that its biodiesel program would save billions of dollars in diesel fuel imports.

Although retired general Prabowo agreed with Widodo on several points during the debate, he said Indonesia’s “land and water, and the resources within” must be controlled by the government.

“We are of the view that the government must be present in detail, thoroughly, firmly and actively to correct inequalities in wealth,” he said.

The challenger said the proportion of small farmers’ holdings in the country’s palm plantations should also be larger. Smallholders currently account for roughly 40 percent of Indonesia’s 12 million hectares of palm oil plantations.

Farmers currently do not require larger plots of land, but instead, they need a program to boost yield from their current farm, Mansuetus Darto of Palm Farmers Union said.

He added that farmers wanted more clarity on Widodo’s B100 program and have asked to ensure that small holders play a greater role in the biodiesel supply chain.

Slideshow (2 Images)

“This is an important task for Jokowi on how to prevent big palm companies to be the only main suppliers and not farmers,” Darto said, referring to the president’s nickname.

Both candidates expressed support for greater control of Indonesian natural resources.

President Widodo highlighted Pertamina’s takeover of stewardship of major oil and gas blocks from foreign operators, and an agreement for a state company to purchase a 51 percent stake in the giant Grasberg copper mine from Freeport McMoRan.

Reporting by Fransiska Nangoy and Tabita Diela,; Additional reporting Bernadette Christina Munthe,; Editing by Ed Davies, Jan Harvey and Sherry Jacob-Phillips

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Asia shares bounce on trade talk, stimulus wagers

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SYDNEY (Reuters) – Asian share markets bounced broadly on Monday as investors dared to hope for both progress at Sino-U.S. trade talks in Washington this week and more policy stimulus from major central banks.

A man looks on in front of an electronic board showing stock information at a brokerage house in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, China February 13, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer ATTENTION EDITORS – THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. CHINA OUT.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan rose 0.9 percent, largely recovering from a sharp fall last Friday.

Japan’s Nikkei climbed 1.8 percent to its highest level of the year so far, while Shanghai blue chips rallied 2.1 percent.

E-Mini futures for the S&P 500 were flat as trade was thinned by a holiday in U.S. markets, while spreadbetters pointed to a firmer opening for European bourses.

The Dow and the Nasdaq had boasted their eighth consecutive weekly gains on wagers the United States and China would hammer out an agreement resolving their protracted trade war.[.N]

The two sides will resume negotiations this week, with U.S. President Donald Trump saying he may extend a March 1 deadline for a deal. Both reported progress in five days of talks in Beijing last week.

“That does not rule out a setback or two between now and the start of March,” said analysts at CBA in a note.

“Even so, we still think that both sides have good reasons to want to get to an agreement. And, so motivated, it makes an agreement more likely than not.”

There are also growing expectations of more reflationary policies from some of the world’s more powerful central banks.

The need for stimulus was highlighted on Monday by data showing a sharp slide in Singapore exports and a big drop in foreign orders for Japanese machinery goods.

Beijing is already taking action with China’s banks making the most new loans on record in January in an attempt to jumpstart sluggish investment.

Minutes of the Federal Reserve’s last policy meeting are due on Wednesday and should provide more guidance on the likelihood or not for rate hikes this year. There is also talk the bank will keep a much larger balance sheet than previously planned.

“Given the range of speakers since the January meeting who support “patience,” the Fed minutes should reiterate a dovish message overall,” said analysts at TD Securities in a note.

A roll call of Fed officials are speaking at various events this week including a round table on Friday covering the future of its balance sheet. [FED/DIARY]

EYEING THE ECB

The European Central Bank’s Olli Rehn told a German newspaper on Sunday that recent data point to a weakening euro zone economy and interest rates would remain at the current level until monetary policy goals have been met.

That came amid much speculation the ECB would launch another round of Targeted Long-Term Refinancing Operations (TLTRO) to support bank lending.

The risk of an easy ECB saw the euro touch a three-month low on Friday before then bouncing on dovish comments from Fed officials.

The single currency edged up 0.2 percent on Monday to $1.1312, though that was still well within the $1.1213/1.1570 trading range that has held since mid-October.

The dollar was steady on the yen at 110.53, having backed away from a two-month top of 111.12.

Sterling was a shade firmer at $1.2913 ahead of Brexit talks between British Prime Minister Theresa May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker this week.

All of which left the dollar down at 96.765 on a basket of currencies and away from last week’s top of 97.368.

In commodity markets, the drift in the dollar helped spot gold firm 0.2 percent to $1,323.56 per ounce.

Oil prices reached their highest for the year so far, buoyed by OPEC-led supply cuts and U.S. sanctions on Iran and Venezuela. [O/R]

U.S. crude was last up 25 cents at $55.84 a barrel, while Brent crude futures rose 5 cents to $66.30.

Editing by Sam Holmes & Kim Coghill

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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