Signs of Intra-Sunni Crisis in Iraq’s Western Provinces

Iraqi demonstrators stand outside the parliament building in the Green Zone in the capital, Baghdad (AFP)
Iraqi demonstrators stand outside the parliament building in the Green Zone in the capital, Baghdad (AFP)
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Signs of Intra-Sunni Crisis in Iraq’s Western Provinces

Iraqi demonstrators stand outside the parliament building in the Green Zone in the capital, Baghdad (AFP)
Iraqi demonstrators stand outside the parliament building in the Green Zone in the capital, Baghdad (AFP)

Amid internal disputes between Shiite forces, represented by the Sadrist Movement and the Coordination Framework, and disagreements between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a new intra-Sunni crisis is looming in Iraq’s western provinces.

While the Shiites are fighting over the eligibility of any of the two majority forces to form a new government, the crisis between the two Kurdish parties revolves around the right of either of them to take over the presidency. But the matter for the western regions of Iraq with a Sunni majority seems different this time, even if it involves the monopoly of Sunni representation.

The Sunni Arabs chose the leader of the Takadum Party, Muhammad al-Halbousi, as head of parliament. He was re-elected with a large majority of 200 votes. In order to resolve the issue of Sunni representation, Halbousi made an alliance with the leader of the Azm Movement, businessman Khamis al-Khanjar. The two formed the Sovereignty Alliance, with 65 deputies in the Iraqi parliament.

Subsequently, a number of deputies from the Azm Alliance broke away due to their differences with Halbousi, forming a political group called the Azm Alliance, led by MP Muthanna al-Samarrai.

In the context of the political alliances that followed the early elections in late 2021, the Sunni Sovereignty Alliance led by Muhammad al-Halbousi and Khamis al-Khanjar became part of the “Saving the Homeland” coalition, formed by the leader of the Sadrist movement Muqtada al-Sadr and which included the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by Massoud Barzani.

On the other hand, the Azm Alliance joined the Coordination Framework and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

However, this alliance was unable to pass its candidate for the presidency to pave the way for the formation of the government, while the Coordination Framework, along with their Kurdish and Sunni allies, formed the vetoing third that forced al-Sadr to withdraw his deputies from Parliament.

In this context, the Sunni representation or its monopoly by one party comes back to the fore. Well-informed sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that preparations were underway to hold a gathering in the province that would include about a thousand political and clan figures, to announce a new political group in Anbar.

“The leadership of this alliance is yet to be determined… but the most prominent figures who attended the preliminary meeting are Qassem Al-Fahdawi, the former Minister of Electricity, Suhaib Al-Rawi, the former Governor of Anbar, Salman Al-Jumaili and Nuri Al-Dulaimi, the former ministers of planning, the leader of the Al-Hal (Solution) Party Jamal Al-Karbouli and the head of the National Project, Jamal Al-Dhari,” the sources said.

In this regard, Sunni politician Yazan al-Jubouri told Asharq Al-Awsat that the formation of such a gathering was a natural consequence of the political reality in the liberated western provinces.

He noted that it was not normal for the Sunni representation to be limited to two camps, either al-Halbousi or the Sunni framework.

“The upcoming elections will likely witness the emergence of a fourth, civilian Sunni front, in addition to the return of the Iraqi Islamic Party,” he remarked.



Iran Sends Russia Hundreds of Ballistic Missiles, Sources Say

Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of Aerospace Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu tour an Iranian missile and drone display on September 20. (IRNA)
Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of Aerospace Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu tour an Iranian missile and drone display on September 20. (IRNA)
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Iran Sends Russia Hundreds of Ballistic Missiles, Sources Say

Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of Aerospace Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu tour an Iranian missile and drone display on September 20. (IRNA)
Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of Aerospace Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu tour an Iranian missile and drone display on September 20. (IRNA)

Iran has provided Russia with a large number of powerful surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, six sources told Reuters, deepening the military cooperation between the two US-sanctioned countries.

Iran's provision of around 400 missiles includes many from the Fateh-110 family of short-range ballistic weapons, such as the Zolfaghar, three Iranian sources said. This road-mobile missile is capable of striking targets at a distance of between 300 and 700 km (186 and 435 miles), experts say.

Iran's defense ministry and the Revolutionary Guards - an elite force that oversees Iran's ballistic missile program - declined to comment. Russia's defense ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The shipments began in early January after a deal was finalized in meetings late last year between Iranian and Russian military and security officials that took place in Tehran and Moscow, one of the Iranian sources said.

An Iranian military official - who, like the other sources, asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the information - said there had been at least four shipments of missiles and there would be more in the coming weeks. He declined to provide further details.

Another senior Iranian official said some of the missiles were sent to Russia by ship via the Caspian Sea, while others were transported by plane.

"There will be more shipments," the second Iranian official said. "There is no reason to hide it. We are allowed to export weapons to any country that we wish to."

UN Security Council restrictions on Iran's export of some missiles, drones and other technologies expired in October. However, the United States and European Union retained sanctions on Iran's ballistic missile program amid concerns over exports of weapons to its proxies in the Middle East and to Russia.

A fourth source, familiar with the matter, confirmed that Russia had received a large number of missiles from Iran recently, without providing further details.

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said in early January the United States was concerned that Russia was close to acquiring short-range ballistic weapons from Iran, in addition to missiles already sourced from North Korea.

A US official told Reuters that Washington had seen evidence of talks actively advancing but no indication yet of deliveries having taken place.

The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the missile deliveries.

Ukraine's top prosecutor said on Friday the ballistic missiles supplied by North Korea to Russia had proven unreliable on the battlefield, with only two of 24 hitting their targets. Moscow and Pyongyang have both denied that North Korea has provided Russia with munitions used in Ukraine.

By contrast, Jeffrey Lewis, an expert with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said the Fateh-110 family of missiles and the Zolfaghar were precision weapons.

"They are used to point at things that are high value and need precise damage," said Lewis, adding that 400 munitions could inflict considerable harm if used in Ukraine. He noted, however, that Russian bombardments were already "pretty brutal".

US AID DELAY WEAKENS UKRAINE'S DEFENSES

A Ukrainian military source told Reuters that Kyiv had not registered any use of Iranian ballistic missiles by Russian forces in the conflict. The Ukrainian defense ministry did not immediately reply to Reuters' request for comment.

Following the publication of this story, a spokesperson for Ukraine's Air Force told national television that it had no official information on Russia obtaining such missiles. He said that ballistic missiles would pose a serious threat to Ukraine.

Former Ukrainian defense minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk said that Russia wanted to supplement its missile arsenal at a time when delays in approving a major package of US military aid in Congress has left Ukraine short of ammunition and other material.

"The lack of US support means shortages of ground-based air defense in Ukraine. So they want to accumulate a mass of rockets and break through Ukrainian air defense," said Zagorodnyuk, who chairs the Kyiv-based Center for Defense Strategies, a security think tank, and advises the government.

Kyiv has repeatedly asked Tehran to stop supplying Shahed drones to Russia, which have become a staple of Moscow's long-range assaults on Ukrainian cities and infrastructure, alongside an array of missiles.

Ukraine's air force said in December that Russia had launched 3,700 Shahed drones during the war, which can fly hundreds of kilometers and explode on impact. Ukrainians call them "mopeds" because of the distinctive sound of their engines; air defenses down dozens of them each week.

Iran initially denied supplying drones to Russia but months later said it had provided a small number before Moscow launched the war on Ukraine in 2022.

"Those who accuse Iran of providing weapons to one of the sides in the Ukraine war are doing so for political purposes," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said on Monday, when asked about Tehran's delivery of drones to Russia. "We have not given any drones to take part in that war."

Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a Philadelphia-based think tank, said a supply of Fateh-100 and Zolfaghar missiles from Iran would hand Russia an even greater advantage on the battlefield.

"They could be used to strike military targets at operational depths, and ballistic missiles are more difficult for Ukrainian air defenses to intercept," Lee said.

DEEPENING TIES WITH MOSCOW

Iran's hardline clerical rulers have steadily sought to deepen ties with Russia and China, betting that would help Tehran to resist US sanctions and to end its political isolation.

Defense cooperation between Iran and Russia has intensified since Moscow sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine in February 2022.

Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu met the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Aerospace Force, Amirali Hajizadeh, in Tehran in September, when Iran's drones, missiles and air defense systems were displayed for him, Iranian state media reported.

And last month, Russia's foreign ministry said it expected President Vladimir Putin and his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi to sign a broad new cooperation treaty soon, following talks in Moscow in December.

"This military partnership with Russia has shown the world Iran's defense capabilities," said the military official. "It does not mean we are taking sides with Russia in the Ukraine conflict."

The stakes are high for Iran's clerical rulers amid the war between Israel and Palestinian group Hamas that erupted after Oct. 7. They also face growing dissent at home over economic woes and social restrictions.

While Tehran tries to avoid a direct confrontation with Israel that could draw in the United States, its Axis of Resistance allies - including Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen - have attacked Israeli and US targets.

A Western diplomat briefed on the matter confirmed the delivery of Iranian ballistic missiles to Russia in the recent weeks, without providing more details.

He said Western nations were concerned that Russia's reciprocal transfer of weapons to Iran could strengthen its position in any possible conflict with the United States and Israel.

Iran said in November it had finalized arrangements for Russia to provide it with Su-35 fighter jets, Mi-28 attack helicopters and Yak-130 pilot training aircraft.

Analyst Gregory Brew at Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, said Russia is an ally of convenience for Iran.

"The relationship is transactional: in exchange for drones, Iran expects more security cooperation and advanced weaponry, particularly modern aircraft," he said.


Israeli War Cabinet Member Gantz Says ‘Promising Early Signs’ on New Hostage Deal

 An Israeli tank fires into the Gaza Strip from Israel, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, as seen from Israel, February 21, 2024. (Reuters)
An Israeli tank fires into the Gaza Strip from Israel, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, as seen from Israel, February 21, 2024. (Reuters)
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Israeli War Cabinet Member Gantz Says ‘Promising Early Signs’ on New Hostage Deal

 An Israeli tank fires into the Gaza Strip from Israel, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, as seen from Israel, February 21, 2024. (Reuters)
An Israeli tank fires into the Gaza Strip from Israel, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, as seen from Israel, February 21, 2024. (Reuters)

Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz said on Wednesday there were "promising early signs of progress" on a new deal to release hostages from Gaza amid regional talks to secure a pause in the war.

"There are ongoing attempts to promote a new hostage deal and there are promising early signs of possible progress," Gantz said in a televised press briefing.

"We will not stop looking for a way and we will not miss any opportunity to bring our girls and boys home."

But he added that if no new deal were struck, the Israeli military would keep fighting in Gaza even into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins next month.

"If a new hostage deal is not achieved, we will continue operating also during Ramadan," he said.


Saudi FM Arrives in Brazil to Attend G20 Meeting

Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Faisal bin Farhan bin Abdullah. (AP file photo)
Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Faisal bin Farhan bin Abdullah. (AP file photo)
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Saudi FM Arrives in Brazil to Attend G20 Meeting

Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Faisal bin Farhan bin Abdullah. (AP file photo)
Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Faisal bin Farhan bin Abdullah. (AP file photo)

Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Faisal bin Farhan bin Abdullah arrived in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday to take part in the G20 foreign ministers' meeting.

Prince Faisal is slated to tackle the most prominent international challenges and ways of strengthening multilateral action to achieve prosperity.

He will also hold meetings with counterparts attending the meeting.


FII Institute PRIORITY Summit to Be Held in US on February 22-23

FII Institute PRIORITY Summit to Be Held in US on February 22-23
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FII Institute PRIORITY Summit to Be Held in US on February 22-23

FII Institute PRIORITY Summit to Be Held in US on February 22-23

Leaders from across the world, and across the political spectrum will gather in Miami for the Future Investment Initiative PRIORITY Summit on February 22 and 23.

The event will bring together 1,000 investors, business leaders and policy experts at a time of heightened global tensions.

With the world experiencing an array of immediate and long-term risks, including geopolitical tension, contested elections, polarized discourse, climate concerns, AI threats and economic headwinds, the FII Institute is convening an international summit to encourage the mobilization of investment as a force for good.

The summit, held under the theme “On the Edge of a New Frontier”, will address the changing economic, social and political realities, and the issues that are of concern to citizens the world over. Discussions will include the digitization of every economic sector, investor outlook, climate tech, the new AI ecosystem, innovations for better urban environments, and the forthcoming US elections.

Over one hundred luminaries from finance, business and government are due to speak, including Michael Dell, Founder, Chairman, & CEO, Dell Technologies; Larry Summers, President Emeritus, Harvard University & Board Member at OpenAI; Jennifer Johnson, President & CEO, Franklin Templeton; Pamela Liebman, President and CEO, The Corcoran Group; Julie Sweet, Chair and CEO, Accenture; Tom Vice, CEO, Sierra Space; Magda Wierzycka, Sygnia Ltd; Josh Harris, Founder, 26North and Managing Partner, Washington Commanders; Dr Chloé Bakalar, Chief Ethicist, Responsible AI, Meta; Caroline Yap, Managing Director, Global AI Business, Google; and Todd Boehly, Co-Founder, Chairman & CEO, Eldridge Industries

The Future Investment Initiative’s (FII) Founding Partner, the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, will be joined by 25 Strategic Partners, including international companies Pepsico, Franklin Templeton, HSBC, Softbank Vision Fund, Standard Chartered, Straight Street, and GFH Financial Group. Strategic Partners support the ongoing work of the institute.

The FII Institute conducts ongoing research to identify the issues that matter to citizens worldwide. This year’s polling sampled 50,000 people from 23 countries to identify humanity’s priorities. The findings are used to shape FII’s policy agenda and program of summits.

This year’s research revealed a dramatic global drop of 20% in satisfaction levels, and discontent across a range of issues, including cost of living, loneliness, technology, and climate concerns. Meanwhile, 62% of respondents in the United States say their government is not doing enough to regulate the impact of emerging technology on society.

FII PRIORITY Summit Miami continues conversations held in Hong Kong and Riyadh in fall 2023. It is part of an ongoing global program of summits held next in forward looking global cities throughout the year, with summits coming up in Rio de Janeiro and Nairobi in the spring and summer.

Miami has been chosen for its vibrancy, diversity, economic significance, and its role as a vital link between continents, economies, and societies.

Richard Attias, CEO of the Future Investment Initiative Institute said: “This year marks an historic moment with nearly half of the world’s population participating in national elections in 2024, underscoring the significance of citizen priorities and leaders’ effective responses to them.”

“The choices made by leaders in government and investment during this period will have far-reaching consequences for global peace, prosperity, and stability and I am delighted that over 1,000 leaders will spend time in Miami deliberating on those issues that matter to the world,” he added.


Lula Meets Blinken after Gaza Comments Spark Diplomatic Rift

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (R) receives US Secretary of State Antony Blinken for a meeting at Planalto Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, 21 February 2024. (EPA)
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (R) receives US Secretary of State Antony Blinken for a meeting at Planalto Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, 21 February 2024. (EPA)
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Lula Meets Blinken after Gaza Comments Spark Diplomatic Rift

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (R) receives US Secretary of State Antony Blinken for a meeting at Planalto Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, 21 February 2024. (EPA)
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (R) receives US Secretary of State Antony Blinken for a meeting at Planalto Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, 21 February 2024. (EPA)

US top diplomat Antony Blinken met President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Wednesday, as the Brazilian leader was in the middle of a diplomatic spat with Israel over comments in which Lula likened that country's war in Gaza to the Nazi genocide during World War Two.

In brief remarks in front of reporters as they met at Brasilia's presidential palace, Lula remarked that US presidential elections are coming up in November.

Secretary of State Blinken responded that politics in the US were "so polarized" and the election would come down to six or seven battleground states including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nevada.

"There are fewer and fewer undecided voters," Blinken said. "There's a battle for a very thin segment of the electorate."

In a statement after the meeting, which lasted almost two hours, the Brazilian presidential office said that Lula and Blinken had discussed several topics ranging from the G20 summit to peace efforts in Gaza and Ukraine.

"President Lula reaffirmed his wish for peace and an end to the conflicts in Ukraine and the Gaza Strip," the Brazilian government said. "Both agreed on the need for the creation of a Palestinian State."

US officials had previously said they expected Lula and Blinken to have a robust conversation on issues of global security, including the conflict in Gaza sparked by attacks in southern Israel by Hamas militants on Oct. 7.

Israel said on Monday that Lula is not welcome in Israel until he takes back the comments.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said on Tuesday that Washington disagreed with Lula's comments, but declined to preview what Blinken would say in the meeting on the issue.

Lula's comments came after he visited the Middle East last week and just ahead of a meeting of foreign ministers in Rio de Janeiro as part of Brazil's presidency of the G20 group of advanced economies.

Washington, which provides Israel with military and diplomatic support, has urged Israel to protect civilians but defended Israel's right to target Hamas militants in the Gaza strip.

Ahead of Blinken's travel to South America, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols told reporters that sharing ideas on the conflict in Gaza would be "crucial to the conversation" between Lula and Blinken.


A Beloved Fantasy Franchise Is Revived with Netflix’s Live-Action ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’

(L-R) Actors Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Daniel Dae Kim, Ken Leung, Kiawentiio Tarbell, Gordon Cormier, Ian Ousley, Dallas Liu and Elizabeth Yu attends Netflix' "Avatar: The Last Airbender" premiere at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, California, February 15, 2024. (AFP)
(L-R) Actors Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Daniel Dae Kim, Ken Leung, Kiawentiio Tarbell, Gordon Cormier, Ian Ousley, Dallas Liu and Elizabeth Yu attends Netflix' "Avatar: The Last Airbender" premiere at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, California, February 15, 2024. (AFP)
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A Beloved Fantasy Franchise Is Revived with Netflix’s Live-Action ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’

(L-R) Actors Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Daniel Dae Kim, Ken Leung, Kiawentiio Tarbell, Gordon Cormier, Ian Ousley, Dallas Liu and Elizabeth Yu attends Netflix' "Avatar: The Last Airbender" premiere at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, California, February 15, 2024. (AFP)
(L-R) Actors Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Daniel Dae Kim, Ken Leung, Kiawentiio Tarbell, Gordon Cormier, Ian Ousley, Dallas Liu and Elizabeth Yu attends Netflix' "Avatar: The Last Airbender" premiere at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, California, February 15, 2024. (AFP)

A new entry in the "Avatar" franchise is about to soar and James Cameron has no part in it.

"Avatar: The Last Airbender" is a completely different fictional world from Cameron's Pandora but the two similarly named dueling sci-fi fantasy properties have kept throwing out new entries over the decades.

On Thursday — two years after the debut of "Avatar: The Way of Water" — Netflix offers "Avatar: The Last Airbender," a multi-part, lush live-action adaptation that mixes adventure and friendship, martial arts and philosophy, all through an Asian lens.

It’s a potentially fraught step because fans of this universe are very protective of the franchise, which began as a beloved cartoon series in the anime style airing on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008.

"When you have an opportunity to be part of a world that is beloved by generations of people, it can be daunting sometimes because it’s a big responsibility," says actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee. "But, at the same time, as performers, you don’t often get chances to sort of dive into worlds like that and to be part of gigantic productions."

"Avatar: The Last Airbender" is centered on a world with four tribes — air, water, earth and fire. Some can manipulate or "bend" their respective elements: hurl giant blobs of water, raise up rocks or zap someone with a wave of flames.

The eight-part saga starts with this world unbalanced — there has been a war for nearly 100 years as the Fire Nation tries to take over the planet, pretty much wiping out the airbenders along the way.

Then a young waterbender named Katara and her older brother, Sokka, discover a 12-year-old airbender named Aang, who has been frozen for a century. They realize that he may be the prophesied Avatar who can control all four elements and unite all four nations.

"I never asked to be special," Aang says early in the first episode. "The world needs you, Aang," he is told by an elder. "I don’t want this power," replies Aang. The elder counters: "Which is why you will make a great Avatar."

"It’s Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey," says Daniel Dae Kim, who plays the leader of the Fire Nation, connecting the series to such franchises as "Star Wars" and "The Matrix". "It makes it relatable to any kid or anyone to say, ‘I don’t have to be born with a sense of destiny.’ Anyone can have that destiny thrust upon them."

Netflix has created a lusciously crafted universe, where our heroes soar over roiling seas aboard bison that fly and armies battle with staffs, mid-air flips and power blasts. Port cities teem with elegant sailing ships, costumes are colorful and pockets of humor and romance leaven the action sequences.

"It’s such a deep show," says Gordon Cormier, born just a year after the original animated show ended its run and who now plays Aang. "Like the cartoon, it has so many character arcs and just amazing stories."

Aang teams up with Katara and Sokka to travel around their world, looking for clues for a way to channel his inner Avatar. There are plenty of slo-mo martial arts face-offs and mind-blowing manipulations of the elements.

Cast members were quick to give credit to showrunner and executive producer Albert Kim for being true to the beloved animated series while developing elements and crafting it for a live-action audience.

"I’m a fan of the original animated series myself and we wanted to do it justice," says Lee. "We wanted to make sure that the OG fans were happy with it, but at the same time, we’re not just giving them beat by beat the exact same thing because it already exists."

Dallas Liu, whose credits include "PEN15" and "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," plays the Fire Nation's crown prince and says Albert Kim helped them give the Netflix series its own identity.

"I think we found a very nice balance of staying faithful, but also allowing people who have never seen the show to watch a similar journey that still holds the essence of the original series."

The show is riding a wave of new TV series that embrace Asian culture, including Max’s "Warrior," Paramount+’s "The Tiger’s Apprentice," FX's "Shogun" and "House of Ninjas" at Netflix.

The world of "Avatar: The Last Airbender" has had a live-action treatment before — M. Night Shyamalan's film adaptation in 2010 that many fans deride. An animated sequel, "The Legend of Korra," aired from 2005 to 2008.

In addition to the new Netflix series, an animated "Airbender" theatrical film trilogy and an animated TV series are planned, with the first film of the expected trilogy set to hit theaters late next year. (That could be just in time to compete with Cameron's "Avatar 3.")

But first up is the Netflix series, which has some big issues for parents and their kids to chew on: destiny, growing up fast, whether to hide from danger and challenging yourself. And, of course, the notion of hope.

"We have to give people something to live for," Kitara says at one point. "That’s what the Avatar is — hope. And we need that just as much as we need food and shelter."

That's something Daniel Dae Kim thinks is a notion we can all relate to: "In times like we live in today, hope is a pretty good thing to have. And I think that analogy is something that makes it appropriate for right here and right now."


US Smartphone Sales Slump in January on Fewer Device Upgrades, Counterpoint Finds

Logo of an Apple store is seen as Apple Inc. reports fourth quarter earnings in Washington, US, January 27, 2022. (Reuters)
Logo of an Apple store is seen as Apple Inc. reports fourth quarter earnings in Washington, US, January 27, 2022. (Reuters)
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US Smartphone Sales Slump in January on Fewer Device Upgrades, Counterpoint Finds

Logo of an Apple store is seen as Apple Inc. reports fourth quarter earnings in Washington, US, January 27, 2022. (Reuters)
Logo of an Apple store is seen as Apple Inc. reports fourth quarter earnings in Washington, US, January 27, 2022. (Reuters)

US smartphone sales plunged 10% in January on weak demand for cheaper Android devices and as customers delayed upgrades ahead of the launch of Samsung Electronics' Galaxy S24 series, according to data from Counterpoint Research.

The research firm said U.S. smartphone sales last month were nearly half of the record levels seen in the same period in 2017, underscoring fears that the market may have peaked.

"Tough times in the volume-driven low-end coupled with delayed upgrades in anticipation of new products drove the market lower," said Maurice Klaehne, senior analyst at Counterpoint Research.

Smartphone sales have waned after the pandemic-driven boom, as an uncertain economic outlook and lack of major new features led consumers to stick with their existing devices.

Samsung has tried to drum up interest for its new Galaxy smartphones, which went on sale on Jan. 17, by offering multiple artificial intelligence (AI) functions including a two-way voice translation in real-time.

Counterpoint said the S24 series has performed well in the US market during the initial 1-2 weeks of launch, and that it could spark a rebound in smartphone sales in February.

Apple, meanwhile, continued to gain market share in the US last month, thanks to promotional offers for its iPhone 15 series, and as cost-conscious consumers sought its older iPhone 11 and iPhone 12 devices, whose prices have come down.

"This combination is enabling Apple to maintain stability in a market experiencing double-digit declines," Counterpoint said.


Israeli Parliament Backs Netanyahu’s Rejection of ‘Unilateral’ Recognition of Palestinian State

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the voting session for the impeachment of Hadash-Ta’al party MP Ofer Cassif in Jerusalem, 19 February 2024. (EPA)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the voting session for the impeachment of Hadash-Ta’al party MP Ofer Cassif in Jerusalem, 19 February 2024. (EPA)
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Israeli Parliament Backs Netanyahu’s Rejection of ‘Unilateral’ Recognition of Palestinian State

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the voting session for the impeachment of Hadash-Ta’al party MP Ofer Cassif in Jerusalem, 19 February 2024. (EPA)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the voting session for the impeachment of Hadash-Ta’al party MP Ofer Cassif in Jerusalem, 19 February 2024. (EPA)

Israeli lawmakers voted on Wednesday to back Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rejection of any "unilateral" recognition of a Palestinian state as international calls have grown for the revival of Palestinian statehood negotiations.

Issued amid the war in Gaza between Israel and Palestinian group Hamas, the symbolic declaration also received backing from members of the opposition, with 99 of 120 lawmakers voting in support, the Knesset spokesperson said.

The Israeli position says that any permanent accord with the Palestinians must be reached through direct negotiations between the sides and not by international dictates.

"The Knesset came together in an overwhelming majority against the attempt to impose on us the establishment of a Palestinian state, which would not only fail to bring peace but would endanger the state of Israel," said Netanyahu.

The vote drew condemnation from the Palestinian Foreign Ministry, which accused Israel of holding the rights of the Palestinian people hostage by forceful occupation of territories where Palestinians seek to establish a state.

"The ministry reaffirms that the State of Palestine's full membership in the United Nations and its recognition by other nations does not require permission from Netanyahu," it said in a statement.

Little progress has been made towards achieving a two-state solution - a Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank and in Gaza alongside Israel - since the signing of the interim Oslo Accords in the early 1990s.

Among the obstacles impeding Palestinian statehood are expanding Israeli settlements in territories Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war. Most countries regard the settlements, which in many areas cut Palestinian communities off from each other, as a violation of international law.

The two-state solution has long been a core Western policy in the region. Since the outbreak in October of the Gaza war, the United States has been trying to promote steps toward the creation of a Palestinian state as part of a broader Middle East deal that would include other Arab states officially normalizing relations with Israel.


Taylor Swift Named IFPI 2023 Global Recording Artist of the Year

US singer-songwriter Taylor Swift performs during the first night of the The Eras Tour in Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in Melbourne, Australia, 16 February 2024. (EPA)
US singer-songwriter Taylor Swift performs during the first night of the The Eras Tour in Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in Melbourne, Australia, 16 February 2024. (EPA)
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Taylor Swift Named IFPI 2023 Global Recording Artist of the Year

US singer-songwriter Taylor Swift performs during the first night of the The Eras Tour in Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in Melbourne, Australia, 16 February 2024. (EPA)
US singer-songwriter Taylor Swift performs during the first night of the The Eras Tour in Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in Melbourne, Australia, 16 February 2024. (EPA)

Pop superstar Taylor Swift added another honor to her long list of accolades on Wednesday, winning the global recording artist of the year award for the fourth time from the IFPI, the organization that represents the recorded music industry.

The "Anti-Hero" singer scooped the award for the second year running, and has previously won it 2014 and 2019. The latest is for 2023.

The prize is calculated by looking at an artist’s or group’s worldwide sales for streaming, download and physical music formats during the calendar year and covers their whole body of work, according to the IFPI.

It is presented to the artist who tops the IFPI Global Artist Chart, which Swift has done more than any other artist since its introduction 11 years ago.

"She continues to redefine the limits of global success. Taylor is a singular talent and her commitment to her craft and her fans is truly phenomenal," Lewis Morrison, director of charts and certifications at IFPI, said in a statement.

K-Pop stars SEVENTEEN and Stray Kids came second and third respectively in the chart in what IFPI described as a "record year for Korean artists".

Four K-Pop acts made the top 10 with TOMORROW X TOGETHER at no.7 and NewJeans at no.8.

Other artists to feature in the top 10 include Drake at no. 4, The Weeknd at no.5.

Earlier this month, Swift, 34, set another record at the Grammy Awards, winning the prize for album of the year for an unprecedented fourth time.


Israeli Strike Kills Woman and Child in South Lebanon

Smoke billows from the site of an Israeli airstrike on the southern Lebanese village of Khiam near the border with Israel on February 21, 2024, amid ongoing cross-border tensions as fighting continues between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza. (AFP)
Smoke billows from the site of an Israeli airstrike on the southern Lebanese village of Khiam near the border with Israel on February 21, 2024, amid ongoing cross-border tensions as fighting continues between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza. (AFP)
TT

Israeli Strike Kills Woman and Child in South Lebanon

Smoke billows from the site of an Israeli airstrike on the southern Lebanese village of Khiam near the border with Israel on February 21, 2024, amid ongoing cross-border tensions as fighting continues between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza. (AFP)
Smoke billows from the site of an Israeli airstrike on the southern Lebanese village of Khiam near the border with Israel on February 21, 2024, amid ongoing cross-border tensions as fighting continues between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza. (AFP)

An Israeli air strike killed a woman and a child in south Lebanon on Wednesday, sources in Lebanon said, days after Hezbollah said it would inflict a price on Israel for killing civilians in the conflict across the Israeli-Lebanese border.

The woman and girl were killed in the strike near Majdal Zoun, a village some 6 km (4 miles) from the border, according to two security sources and a medical source.

The father of the six-year-old girl killed said she had asked to visit her village, which they had fled from after the eruption of hostilities last year, in comments broadcast by al-Akhbar newspaper.

The Iran-backed Hezbollah movement has been trading fire with Israel since the Oct. 7 attack by its Palestinian ally Hamas on southern Israel in a campaign Hezbollah says aims to support Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli army said its warplanes had struck three Hezbollah operational command centers in southern Lebanon.

It said Israeli army artillery had also fired "to remove a threat" in the areas of Alma al-Shaab and Dhayra, both villages at the border.

The Israeli army did not respond to a request for comment about reports of the strike in Majdal Zoun.

Hezbollah signaled on Friday it would escalate attacks on Israel in response to the deaths of 10 Lebanese civilians in Israeli attacks last week.

Hezbollah announced more than half a dozen attacks on Israeli positions on Wednesday.

Israeli strikes since Oct. 8 have killed some 50 civilians in Lebanon, in addition to nearly 200 Hezbollah fighters.

Attacks from Lebanon into Israel have killed a dozen Israeli soldiers and five civilians.

The violence has uprooted tens of thousands of people on both sides of the border.