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Iran’s Rouhani begins official visit to Iraq, hopes for better trade ties

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DUBAI (Reuters) – Shi’ite Iran is determined to strengthen its brotherly ties with neighboring Iraq, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Monday before his “historic” first visit to the country, state television said on Monday.

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani exits following a news conference on the sidelines of the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 26, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid/File Photo

The visit is a strong message to the United States and its regional allies that Iran still dominates Baghdad, a key arena for rising tension between Washington and Tehran.

“We are very much interested to expand our ties with Iraq, particularly our transport cooperation,” Rouhani said at Tehran’s Mehrabad airport. “We have important projects that will be discussed during this visit.”

During the three-day visit a series of agreements will be signed in fields such as energy, transport, agriculture, industry and health Iran’s state news agency IRNA said.

“Iraq is another channel for Iran to bypass America’s unjust sanctions imposed on Iran. This trip will provide opportunities for Iran’s economy,” a senior Iranian official, who is accompanying Rouhani, told Reuters.

The parlous state of Iran’s economy since U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision last May to pull out of a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six major powers has pushed the country’s leaders to try to expand trade ties with neighbors.

The agreement lifted in 2016 sanctions that had been imposed by the United States, European Union and United Nations in return for Iran’s curbs on its sensitive nuclear program.

The Trump administration, which said the accord was too generous and failed to rein in Iran’s ballistic missile program and its involvement in regional conflicts such as Syria and Yemen, reimposed sanctions on Tehran.

Other signatories to the deal have been trying to salvage the pact after the U.S. exit, but U.S. sanctions have largely scared off European companies from doing business with Iran.

The Europeans have promised to help firms do business with Iran as long as it abides by the deal. Iran has itself threatened to pull out of the 2015 deal unless EU powers demonstrably protect its economic benefits.

Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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U.S. whiskey exports dry up as tariffs bite

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(Reuters) – American whiskey exports slumped in the second half of 2018, taking a blow from higher duties by the country’s trading partners following President Donald Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, an industry group said on Thursday.

A man drinks American whiskey at a bar in Shanghai, China, April 6, 2018. Picture taken April 6, 2018. REUTERS/Aly Song

Canada, China, Mexico and the European Union slapped import duties ranging from 10 percent to 25 percent on U.S whiskey and bourbon last year, resulting in a 11 percent drop in U.S. whiskey exports in the second half, according to a report from the Distilled Spirits Council.

For the first six months of 2018, whiskey exports grew 28 percent compared to the same period in 2017, partly helped by companies like Jack Daniels maker Brown-Forman Corp, fast-tracking shipments overseas, especially to Europe, before the tariffs kicked in.

Overall for the full-year 2018, whiskey exports rose 5.1 percent to $1.18 billion, a significant drop from the 16 percent rise seen in 2017.

Exports to the European Union fell 13.4 percent in the second half of the year, after rising 33 percent during the first six months.

The European Union, which imposed a 25 tariff on American whiskey, is the largest market for the liquor, accounting for nearly 60 percent of total exports, according to the Council.

Earlier in March, Brown-Forman said absorbing the costs of tariffs in key European markets was the primary reason for the decline in its third-quarter gross profit margin.

The company also said its sales would take a hit in 2019 if the tariffs were to remain in place.

“The damage to American whiskey exports is now accelerating, and this is collateral damage from ongoing global trade disputes,” Distilled Spirits Council Chief Executive Officer Chris Swonger said.

Total U.S. spirits exports rose 9.5 percent to $1.8 billion in 2018, but also slowed from 2017, the report showed.

Reporting by Uday Sampath in Bengaluru; Editing by Shailesh Kuber

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Exclusive: Ethiopian crash captain untrained on 737 MAX simulator

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ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – The captain of a doomed Ethiopian Airlines flight was unable to practice on a new simulator for the Boeing 737 MAX 8 before he died in a crash with 157 others, a pilot colleague said.

Yared Getachew, 29, was due for refresher training at the end of March, his colleague told Reuters, two months after Ethiopian Airlines had received the simulator.

The March 10 disaster, following another MAX 8 crash in Indonesia in October, has set off one of the biggest inquiries in aviation history, focused on whether pilots were sufficiently versed on a new automated system.

In both cases, the pilots lost control soon after take-off and fought a losing battle to stop their jets plunging down.

In the Ethiopian crash, it was not clear if Yared’s colleague – First Officer Ahmednur Mohammed, 25, who also died in the crash – had practiced on the new MAX simulator.

Globally, most commercial airline pilots refresh training in simulators every six months. It was not clear if Yared or Ahmednur would have been trained on the new simulator or an older one for 737s that their airline also owned.

The MAX, which came into service two years ago, has a new automated system called MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System). It is meant to prevent a loss of lift which can cause an aerodynamic stall sending the plane downwards in an uncontrolled way.

“Boeing did not send manuals on MCAS,” the Ethiopian Airlines pilot told Reuters in a hotel lobby, declining to give his name as staff have been told not to speak in public.

“Actually we know more about the MCAS system from the media than from Boeing.”

Under unprecedented scrutiny and with its MAX fleet grounded worldwide, the world’s largest planemaker has said airlines were given guidance on how to respond to the activation of MCAS software. It is also promising a swift update to the system.

Ethiopian Airlines declined to comment on the remarks of its pilot to Reuters about the simulator and MCAS system.

Additional reporting by Allison Lampert in Montreal and Tracy Rucinski in Chicago; Writing by Jamie Freed and Katharine Houreld; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne

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U.S.-backed fighters say operation at last Islamic State enclave not over

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DEIR AL-ZOR, Syria (Reuters) – U.S.-backed Syrian fighters said they were still searching territory captured from Islamic State at its final enclave in eastern Syria on Thursday and denied a report the jihadists had been finally defeated.

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises from the last besieged neighborhood in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria, March 18, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

The final capture of the Baghouz enclave at the Iraqi border will mark the end of Islamic State territorial rule that once spanned a third of Syria and Iraq after years of military campaigns by a range of international and local forces.

After weeks of fighting, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) took a big step towards capturing the besieged area on Tuesday when they seized an encampment where the jihadists had been mounting a last defense of the area.

“Combing continues in the Baghouz camp,” an SDF media official said, citing commanders of the operation on Thursday, after the Syrian Kurdish news outlet Hawar reported that the entire enclave had been captured and IS defeated.

“There is no truth (to the report of) the complete liberation of the village,” the official said.

The report on Hawar News, which is close to the Kurdish-led administration that runs much of northern Syria, was later removed from its website.

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday that a “tiny spot” of remaining IS territory would be “gone by tonight”.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, whose country has participated in the campaign, said on Wednesday he expected the announcement of the “final territorial defeat” to be made in the “next few days”.

Though the defeat of IS at Baghouz ends its grip over territory, it remains a threat, with fighters operating in remote territory elsewhere and capable of mounting insurgent attacks.

The U.S. military has warned that Islamic State may still count tens of thousands of fighters, dispersed throughout Iraq and Syria, with enough leaders and resources to present a menacing insurgency.

The Pentagon’s internal watchdog released a report last month saying Islamic State remained an active insurgent group and was regenerating functions and capabilities more quickly in Iraq than in Syria.

It warned the group could resurge in Syria within six to 12 months and regain limited territory without sustained pressure.

The United States believes Iraq is the location of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who stood at the pulpit of the great medieval mosque in Mosul in 2014 to declare himself caliph, sovereign over all Muslims.

GRAPHIC – How Islamic State lost Syria: tmsnrt.rs/2O7l4mN

Additional reporting by Rodi Said in Qamishli, Syria; Writing by Tom Perry in Beirut; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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