Middle East

Kevin Roche

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst has backed off  a new policy  that banned Iranian nationals from some engineering and science programs.

The school had said the ban was tied to federal sanctions designed to discourage Iranian citizens from entering the U.S. to prepare for careers in the energy sector of Iran, or in nuclear science or engineering.  In a statement released Wednesday, the school says after consulting with the State Department and outside counsel,  it will accept Iranian students into science and engineering programs and will develop individualized study plans based on a student's projected coursework and research. 

White House

President Barack Obama is asking Congress to formally authorize war against Islamic State militants.

The request is limited to three years, with no restriction as to where U.S. forces could pursue the threat.

Obama's proposal bans "enduring offensive combat operations," an ambiguous term intended as compromise between lawmakers who want authority for ground troops and those who don't. In a statement delivered Wednesday, Obama said his request "does not call for the deployment of U.S. ground forces to Iraq or Syria." He said local forces are in the best position to fight a ground war.

Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy is one of those opponents to ground forces.

"We’ve got to be smart about this fight," he said. "A smart strategy recognizes that combat troops, in the end, are just going to become bulletin board material for terrorists to bring even more forces to the fight in the Middle East, and across the globe."

In a move that is sure to set off a new round of debate over how the U.S. should fight ISIS, the Obama administration has sent Congress a request for formal authorization to use military force against the extremist group.

Updated at 4:19 p.m.

Kayla Mueller, the American woman taken hostage by the self-declared Islamic State, has died, her family and the White House said in separate statements.

Updated at 10:50 p.m. ET

A video from the self-declared Islamic State militant group shows Jordanian pilot Lt. Muath Kaseasbeh, who had been held by the group since his capture in December, being burned alive.

Reporter Alison Meuse tells our Newscast unit about the video. Please note that the description is graphic. Meuse says:

Peter Greste went out for a run at his Egyptian prison Sunday when the warden called him over.

He "told me that, you know, it's time to pack your stuff," Greste, an Australian who spent more than a year in an Egyptian prison, told his employer, Al-Jazeera. "I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'You're going.' I said, 'Well, where? To another prison?' He said, 'No, no, no. The embassy is coming. They'll be here in an hour. Get your stuff and go.' "

That's how Greste learned that he would be returning home to Australia.

King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia has died. He was 90 and had been hospitalized for a lung infection.

Abdullah was born before Saudi Arabia was even a country. It was the early 1920s, and his father, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, set out to conquer the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. In one famous battle, ibn Saud surrounded the capital of a rival tribe.

"Famously, instead of executing everybody, he invited them to be his guests," says Robert Lacey, author of two books on Saudi Arabia.

During a joint press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron, President Obama warned Congress that if it passed further sanctions against Iran, he would veto them.

The two leaders, speaking to the press after a series of bilateral meetings, stood shoulder to shoulder on all the issues that came before them. Cameron said that on Iran, he had been calling U.S. senators to tell them he didn't think new sanctions would work against Iran.

Al-Qaida in Yemen has taken responsibility for the attack on a satirical magazine in Paris that left 12 people dead.

In a YouTube video, Nasr al-Ansi, a top commander of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, said the attack was in vengeance for the Prophet Muhammad.

In a graphic released on Twitter by the group, they say the leadership of AQAP planned and financed the operation against Charlie Hebdo, which printed cartoon depictions of the prophet, despite threats.

Update at 5:10 p.m. ET

President Obama's remarks on Iran in an interview with NPR are being labeled "one of the most conciliatory" ever on the Islamic republic by a modern U.S. president, and excoriated as "naive."

Here is some of what Obama told Steve Inskeep, host of Morning Edition, about Iran.

-- On the possibility of reopening the U.S. Embassy in Tehran: "I never say never, but I think these things have to go in steps."

(This post was last updated at 2:07 p.m. ET.)

Taliban militants stormed a school in northwest Pakistan on Tuesday, leaving scores of students dead.

Quoting Pakistani officials, multiple media outlets say the death toll is at least 140, including at least 80 students in grades 1 through 10.

A little before 8 p.m. local time, police announced that the operation had ended after the gunmen were killed. Security personnel, police official Abdullah Khan told the AFP, were now in the process of sweeping the rest of the building.

It's been a violent 24 hours in Afghanistan:

-- 12 workers clearing mines on Saturday were attacked by Taliban militants and another dozen were wounded, a police spokesman said.

Outgoing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel landed in Iraq this morning. Hagel is scheduled to meet with Iraqi officials and U.S. commanders about the U.S.-led war against the so-called Islamic State.

This visit is of note because Hagel is the first secretary of defense to visit the country since President Obama ended American combat involvement in Iraq in 2011.

Since then, the U.S. has beefed up its military presence in Iraq to combat ISIS, which started an assault on the country over the summer.

Alarmed over rising threats in the Middle East and North Africa, the Gulf Cooperation Council is set to launch an unprecedented joint military command, according to regional officials and military analysts.

"At the moment, we are witnessing a new spirit," says Abdulaziz Sager, head of the Gulf Research Center, a think tank that focuses on the GCC, a six-member group of Arab monarchies.

When Ronaldo Mouchawar was working in a Boston engineering firm he dreamed of moving back to the Arab world. Born and raised in Aleppo, Syria, he had come to the U.S. to study, then got a high-paying job, but he believed he "owed something" to his home region.

It turned out his ticket back was a smart idea at the right time.

Meeting with representatives of nations that have joined the United States in its fight against the so-called Islamic State, Secretary of State John Kerry said the offensive was having "significant impact."

Reuters reports:

For the second time in as many days, a foreign guesthouse in the Afghan capital came under attack by Taliban suicide bombers and gunmen.

NPR's Sean Carberry reports that police initially believed two or three militants entered the compound in Kabul's western Karte Seh district. He said one South African woman who was a resident at the house and managed to escape told him that as many as 12 people, including children, were trapped inside. Later, Reuters quoted an Afghan official as saying "all three" attackers were dead.

Chion Wolf / WNPR

Rep. Joe Courtney from Connecticut's second congressional district was the only member of the delegation to vote in favor of arming and training Syrian rebels in the fight against the so-called Islamic State.

(This post was last updated at 5:15 p.m. ET.)

Two assailants, armed with a gun, knives and axes, launched an attack on worshippers at a Jerusalem Synagogue on Tuesday. It left five dead and at least six others wounded.

The U.S. State Department said three of the four killed were dual American and Israeli citizens. A policeman injured in the attack died late Tuesday, Haaretz reported.

American and Iranian negotiators are gathering in Vienna this week for what's expected to be a final push toward a deal over Iran's nuclear program.

The stakes are huge for both countries, and the deal could reshape the Middle East and pave the way for a new relationship between two bitter rivals.

But if you look at the headlines this morning, it'll give you an idea of just how tenuous a deal may be:

Updated at 4:45 p.m. ET

The White House has confirmed that a video released by the self-declared Islamic State that shows the beheading of hostage Peter Kassig, an American aid worker in Syria who was kidnapped in 2013, is authentic.

The radical jihadist group posted the video on social media early Sunday.

President Obama said in a statement that he offered his condolences to the family, describing the beheading as "an act of pure evil."

Muslims call it the Noble Sanctuary. Jews call it the Temple Mount. On the contested hilltop that has been the focus of so much of the unrest in Jerusalem, Muslims who see themselves as "defenders" of the sanctuary raise their voices in a call to God whenever Jewish visitors enter.

Updated at 12:55 pm. EST

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the top U.S. military commander, told lawmakers today that the U.S. would consider sending some U.S. troops to fight alongside Iraqi forces in more complex missions against militants of the Islamic State.

He told the House Armed Services Committee that though Iraqi forces were tackling the militants, operations such as retaking the city of Mosul or restoring the border with Syria could need help.

"I am a United States Army General, and I lost the Global War on Terrorism."

Those are the frank opening words of a new book by retired Army Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger, Why We Lost: A General's Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Bolger continues:

"It's like Alcoholics Anonymous. Step one is admitting you have a problem. Well, I have a problem. So do my peers. And thanks to our problem, now all of America has a problem. To wit: two lost campaigns and a war gone awry."

NPR — along with seven public radio stations around the country — is chronicling the lives of America's troops where they live. We're calling the project "Back at Base." This is the first installment of the ongoing series.

Even 10 years after the battle for Fallujah, it's hard for Marine Master Gunnery Sgt. Torain Kelley to talk about some things that happened.

"We had people shooting at us from up [on] the rooftops, from the houses, from the sewers or wherever they could take a shot at us from," he says.

The new secretary general of NATO and Pakistan's Army chief were in Kabul on Thursday to meet with newly-sworn-in President Ashraf Ghani.

As NPR's Sean Carberry reports the visits mark a continued honeymoon between the international community and Afghanistan's new government. Sean sent this report to our Newscast unit:

"Neither visit resulted in any new policies or initiatives. Rather, they appeared to be about marking a new chapter in Afghanistan's relations with NATO and Pakistan.

The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments Monday for a second time in a case that combines Middle East policy with the dueling foreign policy roles of the president and Congress. It's a political hot potato that asks what U.S. passports should say about the birthplace of American citizens born in Jerusalem.

Yale University

Speaking Tuesday on WNPR's Where We Live, Rami Nakhla, a noted Syrian peace activist, said the Syrian Civil War started as a pro-democracy uprising, but has since changed, facilitating the rise of groups like the so-called Islamic State. 

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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