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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's what the United States does and does not want to do after an attack in the Middle East.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The U.S. does want to respond to a drone attack that killed three U.S. soldiers. It does not want flare-ups in the Middle East to grow into a low-level regional war. The U.S. blames a group backed by Iran. Iran, in turn, has been supporting Hamas in its war against Israel.

INSKEEP: Pretty complicated, but NPR's Jane Arraf has been following it all from Jordan, which is the country where this attack took place, we are told. Hey there, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What exactly happened?

ARRAF: Well, according to the Pentagon, an explosive drone struck a support base on the Jordanian side of its border with Syria, killing three service people and wounding at least 34 others. Eight of them were wounded seriously enough to be medevaced for treatment. And, Steve, many of those injured sustained traumatic brain injuries, so the number of wounded might rise as personnel are evaluated. Iran, by the way, denies being involved in attacks on U.S. forces, saying that was between what it calls resistance groups, militias that have escalated attacks on the U.S. military since the war in Gaza began.

INSKEEP: And there certainly have been attacks in multiple countries in recent months by groups that the U.S. says are supported by Iran. But let me ask about this specific attack and the background. What are U.S. forces doing in Jordan?

ARRAF: Well, the Pentagon said the base that was hit was a logistic support base. It's known as Tower 22 of the Jordanian support network. That said, there were about 350 U.S. Army and Air Force personnel there. A Defense Department statement said they're supporting anti-ISIS operations. But that support base is just across from al-Tanf, a U.S. base in Syria, which also monitors activity by Iran-backed groups. So U.S. forces here, including special forces operators, maintain low-profile bases in Jordan and across the border in Syria, where they're partnering with local security forces in fighting ISIS. But here's an interesting wrinkle. Since the rise of ISIS in 2014, Kataib Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militia, has also operated in that border area.

INSKEEP: Oh, interesting. So we've got ISIS to look at. We've got Iran to look at in this area that I think Americans don't think about very much and, if it's low-profile bases, we're kind of encouraged not to think about very much. But U.S. troops are there on both sides of that border. So how might the U.S. respond now that they've been attacked in this effective way?

ARRAF: Well, President Biden has made clear that he blames Iran-backed groups despite that denial. And he says the U.S. will retaliate, but that's the dilemma. Since the Gaza war started in October, there have been fears that this could flare into a wider regional war if Iran is brought into it. And that's potentially what we're looking at. Military analysts are expecting the U.S. to retaliate directly against Iranian forces in the region now. So far, Iran has not directly confronted the U.S.

And, Steve, we have to keep in mind that the U.S. already faces threats on several fronts sparked by the war in Gaza. There are attacks by Yemen's Houthis, attacks by Iran-backed militias. And this week, the U.S. began talks with Iraq on withdrawing all of their troops. And that, too, has an Iran link, pressure from Iran-backed militias that are a key part of Iraqi security and politics.

INSKEEP: Jane, thanks for the insights. Really appreciate it.

ARRAF: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Jane Arraf in Amman.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: A deal is said to be in the works to release Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza in exchange for a pause in the fighting.

MARTÍNEZ: The thing is, though, Israel says there are still differences between the sides on what the deal should look like nearly four months into the war, and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza keeps getting worse. And now the U.S. and other countries are suspending their funding to the U.N.'s main humanitarian agency in Gaza.

INSKEEP: NPR's Daniel Estrin is following all of this from Tel Aviv. Hi there, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How does it even work when they're trying to figure out some kind of agreement between Israel and Hamas?

ESTRIN: Well, the CIA chief is involved, William Burns. Also, Israel's top Intel chiefs, top officials from Qatar and Egypt, who are the main mediators between Israel and Hamas, they all have been meeting in Paris. And an Egyptian source with direct knowledge of the talks spoke to NPR. They're trying to strike a deal for a prolonged pause in fighting and to exchange Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners. This would be similar to an exchange in late November where about half of the Israeli hostages were released in exchange for Palestinian detainees. And this deal is going to be done - if it does come through, it would be done in phases over several months. And then in parallel, there are other talks about trying to allow Palestinians who fled their homes to return to north Gaza, talks about the future Palestinian leadership as well.

But the main sticking point here, Steve, is about the end of the war. Hamas wants this deal to lead to the end of the war. And Israel is OK with a significant pause in fighting, but not the permanent end in fighting. And you have to understand the domestic politics in Israel. Israel's leadership is under a lot of pressure from its hard-right flank. Senior ministers even took part in an event yesterday for resettling Gazans outside Gaza and moving Israeli settlers into Gaza, and there have been Israeli activists blocking aid trucks to Gaza in recent days. So it just shows the hard-line domestic pressure on the Israeli government about Gaza. But the government in Israel says these talks were constructive so far, still significant gaps, and more talks to be held this week.

INSKEEP: With all that - I'm listening closely to what you're saying - the last pause in fighting was a few days. But you're saying prolonged, several months. This could be a big deal even if it's not a formal end to the war.

ESTRIN: That's right. And then there's this whole other crisis, which is the United Nations humanitarian agency. The - Israel has presented evidence that 12 Palestinian employees for the U.N. in Gaza were directly involved in the Hamas attack that started this whole war on October 7. And so the U.S., the U.K., other countries have suspended aid to that agency. The U.N. has fired staff who faced those allegations. But now the U.N. is calling for countries like the U.S. to renew the funding to the U.N. We're talking about the U.N. agency that provides services for most Gazans now who are in desperate need of food and shelter. These are allegations Israel had against 12 employees out of the 13,000 who work for the U.N. in Gaza. The odds are, I think, that the U.S. will resume funding to this agency.

INSKEEP: How much worse are things getting in Gaza?

ESTRIN: There is heavy fighting in the city of Khan Younis near two main hospitals there. Doctors Without Borders says one of the hospitals is now nearly unable to perform surgeries. We spoke with Nebal Farsakh, a spokeswoman of the Palestine Red Crescent Society, a main medical organization. We spoke about another hospital in the area, Al-Amal Hospital.

NEBAL FARSAKH: The situation there is catastrophic. There is ongoing bombardments that is happening day and night along with gunfire. The medical teams are working in horrific and dangerous conditions.

ESTRIN: And the Israeli military has called on Palestinians to evacuate this area. But we're seeing more and more Palestinians evacuate further south, just adding to the masses of displaced people in this last sliver of territory in Gaza that Israeli troops have not invaded.

INSKEEP: NPR's Daniel Estrin. Thanks so much.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK, in this country, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas faces two articles of impeachment from House Republicans who want to oust him over immigration enforcement.

MARTÍNEZ: The lawmakers say Mayorkas is not enforcing laws at the border with Mexico. All this as a bipartisan deal to address the border crisis may come together in the Senate also this week, but former President Donald Trump is lobbying against that deal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: I'd rather have no bill than a bad bill.

INSKEEP: This has dismayed some Republican lawmakers who were hoping for an immigration agreement. NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh is covering all this. Good morning.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Can we begin with these articles of impeachment? What is the specific allegation against Mayorkas, what did he supposedly do?

WALSH: Right. The House Republican resolution charges Mayorkas with two articles of impeachment. They say he willfully ignored the law and breached public trust. The top Democrat on the panel, Bennie Thompson, says this is all about scoring political points. There's no evidence of any high crime or misdemeanor. The resolution singles Mayorkas out as responsible for the situation right now at the border. For example, Republicans say he implemented a system to parole migrants, release them after they file asylum claims. But this is a similar system that previous administrations have implemented for processing migrants at the border.

The committee is expected to pass this resolution tomorrow and likely along party lines. And it could be a matter of days before the full House passes it. But if the Republican House passes any articles of impeachment, the Senate is not likely to convict or remove Mayorkas. Even some Senate Republicans say it's really the president, not the secretary, who's responsible for immigration policy.

INSKEEP: OK. And senators from both parties were in the middle of negotiating an agreement on at least some immigration policies. What do they want?

WALSH: Right, this is not any kind of comprehensive immigration reform. It's really a narrow plan designed to reduce the record numbers of migrants we've seen crossing the southwest border. Chris Murphy, who's the top Democrat negotiating this plan, talked about the new power it would give the president.

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CHRIS MURPHY: This bill will include an ability for the president to shut down the border in between the ports of entry when crossings reach catastrophically high levels, not permanently, but until we are able to be able to better process people who are crossing the border.

WALSH: The plan would also include work permits for migrants who are allowed to enter the U.S. and are waiting for their asylum cases to be heard, and it tries to shorten the period for those court cases to as short as six months.

INSKEEP: OK, this is something that Republicans want, at least some of them, that at least some Democrats want that could plausibly pass. But Donald Trump has turned against it.

WALSH: Right.

INSKEEP: And some are obeying him. So what does that mean?

WALSH: There are some Republicans on the Hill, like House speaker Mike Johnson, who say President Biden has the authority to shut down the border on his own. But the top Republican negotiator working on this border deal, Oklahoma Senator Jim Lankford, said yesterday on Fox that it was actually Republicans who insisted on linking border policy changes to a bill funding Ukraine. And Republicans shouldn't set that aside because it's an election year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES LANKFORD: We've got to do something now to be able to stop it and then to be able to put new tools that even the Trump administration was looking for when they were president, put those tools in place for every president from here on out.

WALSH: Republicans who support the border deal and money for Ukraine say this is the moment in divided government to actually get something done. But they admit former President Trump's opposition to a border deal means it's that much harder to get done. If they scuttle this border deal over politics, it means that the money for Ukraine probably won't get passed this year at all.

INSKEEP: Oh, my goodness. Very complicated. Deirdre, thanks so much.

WALSH: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Deirdre Walsh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK, I went to bed early last night at halftime of one of pro football's conference championship games. The Detroit Lions were ahead by 17 points.

MARTÍNEZ: The second half that you missed turned out differently. That's because the San Francisco 49ers came back to win 34-31, which means they go to the Super Bowl.

INSKEEP: San Francisco will play the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs. They beat Baltimore 17-10 in the other conference championship.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, all these sports terms are just an excuse for us to talk about Taylor Swift because her boyfriend is back in the big game. That's Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. We don't know yet if Taylor will be there since she performs the night before in Tokyo. Though, with the time difference and her resources, she can probably shake it off and be there for kickoff. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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