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Iran vows revenge for U.S. attack that killed powerful general

BAGHDAD — Iran promised to seek revenge for a U.S. airstrike that killed the mastermind of its interventions across the Middle East, and the U.S. said Friday that it is sending thousands more troops to the region as tensions soared in the wake of the targeted killing.

The death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, marks a major escalation in the standoff between Washington and Tehran, which has careened from one crisis to another since U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed crippling sanctions on Iran.

The targeted strike against Soleimani and any retaliation by Iran could ignite a conflict that engulfs the whole region, endangering U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and beyond. Over the last two decades, Soleimani had assembled a network of heavily armed allies stretching all the way to southern Lebanon, on Israel’s doorstep.

“We take comfort in knowing that his reign of terror is over,” Trump said of Soleimani.

Trump said Soleimani’s killing was not an effort to begin a conflict with Iran.

“We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war,” Trump said, adding that he does not seek regime change in Iran.

The United States said it was sending nearly 3,000 more troops to the Middle East, reflecting concern about potential Iranian retaliation. The U.S. also urged American civilians to leave Iraq immediately following the airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport that Iran’s state TV said killed Soleimani and nine others.

The State Department said the embassy in Baghdad, which was attacked by Iran-backed militiamen and their supporters earlier this week, is closed and that all consular services have been suspended.

Around 5,200 American troops are based in Iraq to train Iraqi forces and help in the fight against Islamic State militants. Defense officials who discussed the new troop movements spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a decision not yet announced by the Pentagon.

A Pentagon official who was not authorized to speak publicly said the U.S. also had placed an Army brigade on alert to fly into Lebanon to protect the American Embassy there. U.S. embassies also issued a security alert for Americans in Bahrain, Kuwait and Nigeria.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vowed “harsh retaliation” after the airstrike, calling Soleimani the “international face of resistance.” Khamenei declared three days of public mourning and appointed Maj. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani’s deputy, to replace him as head of the Quds Force.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the killing a “heinous crime” and said his country would “take revenge.” Iran twice summoned the Swiss envoy, the first time delivering a letter to pass to Washington.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the U.S. attack a “cowardly terrorist action” and said Iran has the right to respond “in any method and any time.”

Thousands of worshipers in Tehran took to the streets after Friday prayers to condemn the killing, waving posters of Soleimani and chanting “Death to deceitful America.”

However, the attack could act as a deterrent for Iran and its allies to delay or restrain any potential response. Trump said possible targets had been identified and that the U.S. was prepared.

Oil prices surged on news of the airstrike, and markets were mixed.

The killing also promised to further strain relations with Iraq’s government, which is allied with both Washington and Tehran and has been deeply worried about becoming a battleground in their rivalry. Iraqi politicians close to Iran called for the country to order U.S. forces out.

The U.S. Defense Department said it killed the 62-year-old Soleimani because he “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” It also accused Soleimani of approving orchestrated the violent protests at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

The strike, on an access road near Baghdad’s airport, was carried out early Friday by an American drone, according to a U.S. official.

Soleimani had just disembarked from a plane arriving from either Syria or Lebanon, a senior Iraqi security official said.

Others killed include five members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard and Soleimani’s son-in-law, Iranian state TV said.

Supporters of the strike against Soleimani said it restored U.S. deterrence power against Iran, and Trump allies were quick to praise the action.

“To the Iranian government: if you want more, you will get more,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham tweeted.

“Hope this is the first step to regime change in Tehran,” Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, wrote in a tweet.

Others, including Democratic presidential hopefuls, criticized Trump’s order. Joe Biden said Trump had “tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox,” saying it could leave the U.S. “on the brink of a major conflict across the Middle East.”

Trump, who was vacationing at his private club in Palm Beach, Florida, said he ordered the airstrike because Soleimani had killed and wounded many Americans over the years and was plotting to kill many more.

“He should have been taken out many years ago,” Trump added.

The potential for a spiraling escalation alarmed U.S. allies and rivals alike.

“We are waking up in a more dangerous world,” France’s deputy minister for foreign affairs, Amelie de Montchalin, told RTL radio.

The European Union warned against a “generalized flare-up of violence.” Russia condemned the killing, and fellow Security Council member China said it was “highly concerned.”

Britain and Germany noted that Iran also bore some responsibility for escalating tensions.

While Iran’s conventional military has faced 40 years of American sanctions, Iran can strike in the region through its allied forces such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraqi militias and Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called on “the resistance the world over” to avenge Soleimani’s killing. Frictions over oil shipments in the Persian Gulf also could increase, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has built up a ballistic missile program.

Iran’s Supreme National Security Council said in a statement Friday that it had held a special session and made “appropriate decisions” on how to respond but didn’t elaborate.

Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett held a meeting with top security officials Friday, but the Israeli military said it was not taking any extraordinary action on its northern front, other than closing a ski resort in the Golan Heights near Lebanon and Syria as a precaution.

The most immediate impact could be in Iraq. Funerals for al-Muhandis and the other slain Iraqis were set for Saturday.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi condemned the strike as an “aggression against Iraq.” An emergency session of parliament was called for Sunday, which the deputy speaker, Hassan al-Kaabi, said would make “decisions that put an end to the U.S. presence in Iraq.”

Almost 24 hours after the attack on Soleimani, Iraqi officials and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq reported another deadly airstrike.

An Iraqi government official reported a strike on two vehicles north of Baghdad but had no information on casualties. Another security official who witnessed the aftermath described charred vehicles and said five people were killed. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Iraqi state television and the media arm of the Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces also reported the strike. The group said its medics were targeted.

An American official who spoke on condition on anonymity denied that the U.S. was behind that reported attack.

Inhofe, Lankford back killing of Iranian general

Killing one of Iran’s top military leaders in an early morning drone attack does not put the United States at war with its long-time adversary, U.S. Sen. James Lankford said Friday.

“We are not at war with Iran,” Lankford said in a telephone interview. “Nor do I want a war with Iran, nor do I think the president does.”

Ordered by President Donald Trump, the death of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani has elicited reactions ranging from outrage to congratulations to concern that the U.S. will be drawn even deeper into Middle East conflicts.

In written statements Thursday night, Lankford and U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe said Trump was justified in ordering the attack, given recent provocations such as rocket attacks by Iranian-backed militia on sectors of Baghdad.

Lankford, though, said he doesn’t know how Iranian leadership will respond to the U.S. strike.

“I hope a strong response sends the message to stop trying to provoke the United States,” Lankford said Friday afternoon.

“They’re not responding to sanctions,” he said.

In his written statement, Inhofe said, “America does not and should not seek war but it will respond in kind to those who threaten our citizens, soldiers and friends. De-escalation is preferable and possible — but only if our adversaries choose it.

“President Trump has been clear all along — the United States will not tolerate Iran spilling American blood, and tonight he followed his words with action,” said Inhofe. “The Quds Force, under the direction of Soleimani, is responsible for attacks that have killed hundreds of American and coalition service members.”

“No one wants a war with Iran or with the millions of peaceful Iranian people,” said Lankford. “Unfortunately, the Iranian regime has impoverished its people while pursuing brutal aggression throughout the Middle East.”

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Gov. Kevin Stitt hires outside law firm to handle tribal gaming compact dispute

OKLAHOMA CITY – Gov. Kevin Stitt on Friday announced he has hired the Seattle-based law firm Perkins Coie to represent the state in a dispute with tribes over gaming compacts.

Three tribes on Tuesday sued the state, asking a court for an order declaring the tribal compacts automatically renewed on Wednesday.

Stitt and the tribes are at an impasse on the compacts. Stitt believes they expired Wednesday and that Class III gaming is illegal without a new agreement. He is seeking higher fees.

Currently, the tribes pay the state between 4 percent and 10 percent in exchange for exclusivity rights to operate Class III games, which include slot machines, roulette and craps.

The tribes believe the compacts automatically renewed, but they are willing to discuss higher rates in exchange for something of value if Stitt acknowledges automatic renewal. The tribes continued Class III gaming operations at their casinos despite Stitt’s contention that it was illegal.

“With Perkins Coie, the state of Oklahoma is well positioned to work towards a compact that protects core public services and advances the future of our great state, its four million residents and gaming tribes,” Stitt said. “Perkins Coie will also respond to and address the Chickasaw, Cherokee and Choctaw nations’ federal lawsuit filed New Year’s Eve.”

The suit was filed in federal court in Oklahoma City.

Last year, the state received nearly $150 million in exclusivity fees.

“The legal experts at Perkins Coie have successfully represented other states in Indian law controversies, to include the state of New Mexico’s compact dispute in 2015,” Stitt said.

The firm has worked for the Democratic National Committee and for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election cycle, according to news reports.

The firm also hired research firm Fusion GPS, which paid former British spy Christopher Steele to look into connections between then-candidate Donald Trump and Russia, according to news reports.

The DNC and Clinton were not aware that the firm had been hired, according to news reports.

On Dec. 16, Attorney General Mike Hunter notified Stitt in a letter that he was withdrawing from tribal gaming compact negotiations, clearing the way for Stitt to be the state’s lead negotiator.

“I just felt it was best to have one united voice, so I told him I would be the lead negotiator from here on out,” Stitt said last month.

Stitt’s office on Dec. 18 signed the contract with Perkins Coie.

The fees in the contract are not to exceed $300,000, but that figure could increase.

The money will come from the Gaming Compliance Unit in the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, said Donelle Harder, a Stitt spokeswoman.

The firm will represent the state in negotiation and development of legal strategies, including litigation if necessary, concerning the compacts, according to the contract.

It is at least the second law firm the state has engaged to work on the compacts.

In September, the state hired Dykema Gossett of Lansing, Michigan, at a fee not to exceed $250,000.

According to the contract, the firm was hired to represent the state in negotiating compacts and related agreements with tribes, drafting related legislation and regulations, and the prosecution and/or defense of a related proceeding or matter.

The state has not paid Dykema Gossett but recently received an invoice for $238,484.87, which is under review, said Alex Gerszewski, a spokesman for Hunter.

“Dykema served as counsel for the compact negotiations,” Gerszewski said. “The firm helped prepare proposals for compact modifications. They also provided research on legal issues and fiscal analysis dealing with complex compact negotiations.

“Dykema has a proven record of success in dealing with tribal compacts and gaming negotiations in states like Nevada, Mississippi, Indiana and Colorado,” he said.

The firm’s work with the state is complete, Gerszewski said.

He was asked why the state did not keep the same law firm.

“The governor is the lead on the compact negotiations,” Gerszewski said. “Governor Stitt wanted a single voice for the negotiations moving forward. Following the governor’s decision to take the lead, decisions on gaming compacts are his and that of his administration.”

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Local, state United Methodist leaders react to new proposal to split the denomination over differing beliefs about same-sex marriage, LGBTQ clergy

Local United Methodist church leaders said a new proposal announced Friday to split America’s second largest Protestant denomination over opposing views about Scripture and human sexuality may carry more weight than previous ones.

According to the United Methodist Church’s official news agency, a group of 16 bishops and other church leaders from around the globe signed the proposal, titled “Protocol Of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation,” and vowed to work together to support its adoption by the denomination’s top legislative body at its annual conference in May.

“The United Methodist Church and its members aspire to multiply the Methodist mission in the world by restructuring the Church through respectful and dignified separation,” the proposal states. “The undersigned will continue to work together to develop legislation to implement the Protocol, to be voted upon and adopted by the 2020 General Conference of The United Methodist Church.”

The Rev. David Wiggs, senior minister at Boston Avenue United Methodist Church in downtown Tulsa, called the new proposal “a positive step forward” that would remove many of the existing barriers keeping traditionalist congregations from leaving and forming a new denomination as they wish.

“Previously, there were financial penalties in terms of leaving and whether or not you could retain your assets and buildings, so it would be very difficult to leave. This proposal eliminates the financial penalties. I think that makes it a much more likely process that would actually work for churches,” said Wiggs.

He said the fact that a diverse group of bishops came together to make this proposal sets it apart from other proposals that have emerged.

“That will carry a good deal of weight, I believe, above all of the other proposals that have come from other people, because of the fact that it has support from across the theological spectrum. What they are asking is it be given a priority place at the General Council in May, and I believe that will happen.”

Two of Tulsa’s largest and most influential churches have found themselves on opposite sides of the deep divide over the issue of human sexuality.

The Rev. Daniel Dennison, executive pastor at south Tulsa’s Asbury United Methodist Church, issued a written press statement on Friday saying “it is highly likely that at this year’s General Conference our denomination will officially split into two or more denominations.”

“This means that later this year Asbury will most likely be forced to make a decision on which direction we want to go,” Dennison stated. “We are considering several options, the most prominent of which would be to join a new expression of Methodism with other theologically orthodox Methodist churches. Other options include joining another theologically Wesleyan denomination or becoming an independent church. Our hope would be to remain with other Orthodox UMCs, but we plan to be thorough and look at all options.”

In November, Asbury hosted a global meeting of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, the key organization fighting to retain so-called “traditional” values in the church. More than a thousand people attended the daylong gathering simulcast to 86 other sites around the world.

The global United Methodist Church has long struggled with differing views on Scripture and its implications for people of diverse sexual orientation in church leadership roles.

At a special meeting of the church’s top legislative body in February, delegates voted by a narrow margin to approve the “Traditional Plan,” which essentially leaves unchanged the church’s position on sexuality. It states: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”

The Traditional Plan, which took effect Jan. 1, also provides penalties for clergy who perform same-sex wedding ceremonies, including a one-year suspension without pay for the first offense.

Wiggs has spoken out against the Traditional Plan, saying he is not only concerned about its effect on people of diverse sexual orientations but also on church leaders who do not abide by its requirements. He said he thinks the plan’s penalties violate the Methodist tradition of due process and strip pastors of their long-held authority to determine whose wedding ceremony they will conduct.

Boston Avenue has invited its members to attend a special worship session at 5:30 p.m. Sunday at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, 1442 S. Quaker Ave., to “resist the Traditional Plan.”

“There are many things to celebrate and to look forward to in this new year. Unfortunately, as of January 1, we also have a new barrier to full inclusion in the church, as the policies of the Traditional Plan go into effect,” the church’s Facebook post states. “In this year, how will you be a part of resisting the harm of the Traditional Plan? How will you listen to the voices and testimonies of our LGBTQ friends? How will you be open to God’s love and step up in your faith?”

Similar worship sessions are planned for Sunday evening at 5:30 p.m. at Mosaic United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City and at 7 p.m. at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Lawton.

Meanwhile, Bishop James Nunn of the Oklahoma Conference of The United Methodist Church responded to the news Friday by issuing a written statement saying “the local church does not need to worry about division just yet.”

“The agreement itself is not an official plan included among the business of the 2020 General Conference. Several steps need to be taken before it can be considered for a vote,” Nunn said.

The Rev. Jessica Moffatt, lead pastor at downtown’s First United Methodist Church, sent church members a message on Friday echoing Nunn’s sentiments and accusing national and other local news outlets of inaccurately portraying the new proposal.

“‘The church’ did not release any such plan. A group of 16 people did. Only the General Conference of the United Methodist Church can vote on and release plans for the denomination. Our General Conference will not meet until May 2020. The ‘plan’ referred to in the articles has not been presented in any form to the voting body of the General Conference. The plan referred to in these articles and news stories will go through the voting process along with at least nine other suggested plans at General Conference in May. I know that you will keep our United Methodist Church in your prayers.”

In a statement to the Tulsa World, Moffatt, who will be a voting delegate to the General Conference meeting in May, said the proposal released Friday “was written by a small group of diverse people and is one plan among many plans that will be considered.”

“Because it was not submitted by the petition deadline, it will not even be in the pre-printed material sent to delegates,” Moffatt said. “It will have to be introduced to the floor of the General Conference by a parliamentary procedure action.”

She declined to comment about which side of the issue her church might come down on “until after the vote of the General Conference and after any vote is taken by our congregation.”

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