Middle East

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani tells NPR that most people in his country want a continued U.S. troop presence and that his government is determined to make sure that the self-declared Islamic State does not gain a foothold.

Ghani, on an official visit to the United States, spoke in a wide-ranging interview with Morning Edition host Renee Montagne to be broadcast on Monday.

He says the perception that Afghans are eager for U.S. troops to leave the country is simply untrue. "They see the United States as critical to their future," he says.

House Speaker John Boehner plans to travel to Israel at the end of the month, close on the heels of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's re-election and the Israeli leader's controversial address to Congress.

Although there are no details on who he might meet in Israel, Boehner "looks forward to visiting the country, discussing our shared priorities for peace and security in the region, and further strengthening the bond between the United States and Israel," his spokesman, Kevin Smith, said in a statement.

Updated at 5:50 p.m. ET

Suicide bombers in Yemen attacked two mosques during Friday prayers in the capital, Sanaa, killing at least 137 people and wounding hundreds more.

Updated at 5:15 p.m. ET.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, fresh from victory in parliamentary elections this week, says he wants to clarify remarks he made on the campaign trail that appeared to write off any possibility of a Palestinian state on his watch.

"What I said was that under the present circumstances, today, it is unachievable," Netanyahu says in an interview with Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep to be aired Friday. "I said that the conditions have to change."

With nearly all votes counted in elections for the Knesset, Israel's parliament, Benjamin Netanyahu's center-right Likud party has won at least a five-seat victory over its principal rival, the center-left Zionist Union.

Israeli media report Likud has 29 or 30 seats in the 120-member Knesset to the Zionist Union's 24 seats.

Updated at 6:52 p.m.

Exit polls released after the close of voting in Israel's national election show that the race is too close to call.

Israel's Channel 1 and Channel 10 both said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party and Isaac Herzog's Zionist Union secured 27 seats each in the 120-seat Knesset. Channel 2, meanwhile, have Likud 28 seats and the Zionist Union 27. The numbers were published by Haaretz.

The U.S. returned dozens of artifacts to the Iraqi government Monday. The cultural treasures, some dating back more than 4,000 years, were looted from Iraq and smuggled into the United States.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says while there has been some progress in talks with Iran over its nuclear program, "important gaps" need to be overcome before a deal can be reached by a late March deadline.

"We have made some progress but there are still gaps, important gaps, and important choices that need to be made by Iran in order to move forward," Kerry said.

Chion Wolf / WNPR

Senator Chris Murphy said this week that as long as he's been in the Senate, he's never seen anything like the letter that Republicans recently wrote to Iranian leaders. He called the move by 47 GOP lawmakers "unprecedented."

IsraelinUSA / Creative Commons

Earlier this week, 47 GOP senators signed a letter to Iranian leaders warning against a nuclear agreement. The letter comes less than a month before the Obama administration is scheduled to complete a draft deal on Iran’s nuclear programs, and just a week after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial speech before the U.S. Congress. 

Updated at 5:15 p.m. ET.

It may have been politically rude, but was the open letter 47 Republican senators sent to Iran this week illegal?

Republican senators' letter to Iran about ongoing nuclear talks has prompted a lengthy response from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who delivered an overview of international law as he critiqued the letter.

Peter Stevens/Flickr

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked the United States and President Barack Obama for aiding Israel during a speech to Congress on Tuesday. He also warned of the threat that Iran poses to Israel’s survival.

The world must unite in order to “stop Iran’s march of conquest, subjugation, and terror,” Netanyahu said.

Updated at 2:09 p.m. ET

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a deal the U.S. and its allies are pursuing with Iran over its nuclear program is "very bad" because, according to him, it doesn't take away the Islamic republic's ability to ultimately obtain nuclear weapons.

"This is a bad deal — a very bad deal," Netanyahu told a joint meeting of Congress today. "We're better off without it."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that while the U.S. and Israel agree that Iran should not get nuclear weapons, they disagree about how to stop the Islamic republic. But, he tells the 2015 American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference in Washington, reports of a decline in U.S.-Israeli relations are "not only premature, they're just wrong."

Netanyahu says his planned speech to Congress on Tuesday is not intended to be a slight to President Obama. "I have great respect for both" Obama and the office that he holds," he says.

Updated at 5:45 p.m.

Secretary of State John Kerry sharply criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's "judgment" on talks with Iran on its nuclear program — the latest Obama administration official wading into the controversy stirred by the Israeli leader's planned talk to Congress on March 3 on the dangers posed by the Islamic republic.

Extremist fighters from the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS, have kidnapped "at least" 90 Assyrian Christians in northeastern Syria, according to a monitoring group. The claim emerges from an area recently targeted by coalition attacks.

Looking to take back a city that has high strategic and symbolic value, the Iraqi military will launch an offensive against fighters from the self-proclaimed Islamic State in the coming months, a senior U.S. military official says.

NPR's Tom Bowman reports:

"A U.S. Central Command official told reporters at the Pentagon that the military operation to retake Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, will be in the April-May timeframe, and this operation will involve an estimated 20,000-25,000 Iraqi soldiers.

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.