Swiss prosecutor cleared in FIFA probe, to leave job

ZURICH (Reuters) – A top Swiss federal prosecutor has been cleared of wrongdoing after being suspended amid questions about his conduct during investigations into suspected corruption surrounding world soccer body FIFA, a special prosecutor in Zurich said on Friday.

Olivier Thormann will nevertheless leave his job as head of the Office of the Attorney General’s (OAG) white-collar crimes unit, the OAG said.

Ulrich Weder, a Zurich prosecutor who had been appointed to investigate, confirmed that his probe into Thormann’s behavior had been dropped.

Since taking up his investigation, Weder had looked into possible secrecy violations, favoritism, bribery and accepting benefits, but found Thormann had done nothing wrong.

“The initial suspicion was undermined by the investigation, rather than being substantiated,” Weder said, adding his probe against Thormann has been “completely closed”.

In a subsequent statement, the OAG said Attorney General Michael Lauber and Thormann had agreed Thormann would leave. It thanked him for his work in helping his unit fight international corruption, money laundering and other economic crime.

Thormann had been suspended after Lauber in late September received allegations against him involving the OAG’s criminal proceedings in the field of soccer and its governing body FIFA.

Initially, Lauber’s office raised concern that the allegations “may be of criminal relevance”, but Weder said that was not the case.

So far, more than 40 entities and individuals have been charged by U.S. prosecutors in connection with the FIFA investigation. The Swiss OAG has filed no charges in its investigations to date.

Thormann’s suspension was not linked to two meetings between leaders of the OAG and FIFA that became public following publication of the so-called “Football Leaks” earlier this month, the OAG has said.

Thormann’s economic crimes division has been investigating many high-profile cases, including scandals surrounding Malaysian state fund 1MDB and Brazilian energy group Petrobras.

Reporting by John Miller; Editing by John O’Brien and Toby Davis

Golf: Wallace takes narrow lead in Dubai, Fleetwood stays in contention

(Reuters) – England’s Matt Wallace carded a blemish-free seven-under-par 65 to take a one-shot lead into the weekend at the season-ending DP World Tour Championship on Friday, while Tommy Fleetwood improved his hopes of winning the Race to Dubai title.

Wallace, chasing a fourth European Tour title victory of a remarkable season, started the day with back-to-back birdies to grab a share of the lead alongside overnight pace setters Adrian Otaegui and Jordan Smith.

The Made in Denmark champion looked in complete control when he sank three birdies in four holes from the 11th to set the clubhouse target at 11-under overall at the halfway stage.

A win on Sunday could make Wallace the 14th player to win four events in a single European Tour season and the first since Alex Noren in 2016.

“I’m playing with freedom now and trying to place as high as I possibly can come the back nine holes on Sunday,” Wallace said.

“That’s when I normally will try and kick in and want to win a tournament, depending on where I am.

“I’ve been in this situation before, just not in this sort of tournament. The best players are out there in the world and I just want to compete and see where my game is at against them.”

Fleetwood’s hopes of finishing at the top of the European Tour’s money list were bolstered with a round of 67, which saw him move up to tied sixth on the leaderboard alongside former world number one Rory McIlroy.

Race To Dubai leader Francesco Molinari stumbled home with three bogeys on the back nine to sign for a 73, leaving the Italian eight shots off the lead.

British Open champion Molinari will secure the Race to Dubai title if he finishes in a two-way tie for fifth or better this weekend, while Fleetwood must win the title to have any chance of defending his season-long European crown.

England’s Danny Willett started the day with a dropped shot but four straight birdies from the sixth ensured he finished with 67 to move up to second spot at 10-under alongside compatriot Smith and Spaniard Otaegui.

Otaegui was another player to start with a bogey but recovered well for his 68, which was matched by Smith following a mixed round.

Reporting by Hardik Vyas in Bengaluru; Editing by Toby Davis

Ramsey expresses loyalty to Jaguars

Outspoken defensive back Jalen Ramsey offended some Jacksonville Jaguars fans with a tweet earlier this week suggesting he was looking ahead to playing for a different team down the road.

On Thursday, he addressed the comments and insisted he hopes to stay in Jacksonville for the long haul.

“When I’m gone from here, y’all gone miss me. I ain’t even trippin lol,” he tweeted Monday.

Ramsey said that comment was meant for “fake fans” and said his position with the team and his future hadn’t changed.

“I’ve said multiple times, over and over and over and over and over and over and over again that I want to play for one team my whole career,” he said, per the team’s website.

Ramsey is in the final year of his rookie contract and the Jaguars hold a fifth-year option.

“If they wanted, they could extend me,” said Ramsey. “And if it’s right, then we’ll get that done and I’ll be here for a number of years. If not, I have a fifth-year option they can pick up and they can franchise me. I mean, I could be here for a while.”

The Jaguars (3-6) have lost five straight games and face the 6-2-1 Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.

—Field Level Media

World Series hero Pearce re-signs with Red Sox

World Series MVP Steve Pearce is returning to the Boston Red Sox after signing a one-year contract, the team announced Friday.

The deal is worth $6.25 million, according to multiple reports.

“We’re thrilled to have Steve back with us for another year as we think he’s a great fit for our club,” Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said in a statement. “Obviously, we all saw what kind of impact he can have on the field, especially with the postseason that he had. He also provides good depth and balance from the right side for us.”

Pearce batted .284 with 11 homers and 42 RBIs in 215 at-bats with the Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays last season.

Pearce, who plays first base and the outfield, was acquired by Boston on June 28 and emerged as a big contributor in the postseason. He had four homers and 11 RBIs in 38 at-bats in the playoffs.

Pearce batted smacked three homers and eight RBIs in the World Series as Boston won the crown in five games over the Los Angeles Dodgers. He hit one homer in Game 4 and two in the decisive Game 5.

The 35-year-old Pearce has a .257 career average with 90 homers and 294 RBIs in 737 games over 12 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates (2007-11), Baltimore Orioles (2012, 2013-15, 2016), Houston Astros (2012), New York Yankees (2012), Tampa Bay Rays (2016), Toronto (2017-18) and Boston.

—Field Level Media

NBA roundup: Irving nets 43, leads Celtics past Raptors in OT

Kyrie Irving scored a season-best 43 points, including four in overtime, and added 11 assists as the Boston Celtics came back to defeat the visiting Toronto Raptors 123-116 on Friday night.

The Celtics, who had lost four of their previous six games, handed the Raptors their third straight loss after a 12-1 start. The teams have split their first two games this season. Jayson Tatum added 21 points, Gordon Hayward had 15 and Marcus Morris and Al Horford had 11 each for the Celtics.

Kawhi Leonard led the Raptors with 31 points and 15 rebounds. Serge Ibaka added 21 points, Pascal Siakam 16, Kyle Lowry 14 while Jonas Valanciunas and Danny Green each had 11 for the Raptors.

The Raptors, who led by as many as 10 points in the third quarter, took a four-point edge into the fourth before Irving took over, scoring 19 in the period to help the Celtics take the game into overtime.

76ers 113, Jazz 107

Jimmy Butler scored 28 points in his home debut to lead Philadelphia past Utah.

Butler was 12 of 15 from the field and the Sixers improved to 8-0 at home this season while extending their home winning streak to 18 dating to last season. Joel Embiid added 23 points, JJ Redick had 16 and Amir Johnson 11 for the Sixers.

Donovan Mitchell led the Jazz with 31 points but shot 13-for-35 from the field and 1-for-11 from 3-point range. Joe Ingles added 14 while Derrick Favors and Ricky Rubio had 13 apiece. Rudy Gobert contributed 12 points and 10 rebounds.

Timberwolves 112, Trail Blazers 96

Andrew Wiggins led six Minnesota players in double figures with 23 points in a romp past visiting Portland.

Derrick Rose scored 17 points, Robert Covington and Karl-Anthony Towns added 14 each, Jeff Teague had 13 and Taj Gibson contributed 12 for the Timberwolves, who won their third straight game and avenged a 111-81 defeat at Portland on Nov. 4.

CJ McCollum scored 18 points, Damian Lillard added 16 and Jusuf Nurkic contributed 13 points and 11 rebounds for the Blazers, who have lost two in a row. Portland made only 8 of 29 shots from 3-point range and had 18 turnovers.

Bucks 123, Bulls 104

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 23 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, and Milwaukee erased an 18-point halftime deficit in the blink of an eye to beat visiting Chicago.

Milwaukee turned up the defensive intensity to start the third quarter and outscored Chicago 46-17 to take control and cruise to the easy win. Milwaukee outscored Chicago 78-41 in the second half and every member of the starting unit for the Bucks scored in double figures.

Eric Bledsoe sparked the Milwaukee third-period onslaught by scoring 14 points in the period. Bledsoe finished with 25 points, six assists, four rebounds and three steals. Khris Middleton nearly recorded a triple-double with 23 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

Pelicans 129, Knicks 124

Anthony Davis had 43 points and 17 rebounds as host New Orleans overcame an 11-point deficit midway through the fourth quarter to defeat New York.

Jrue Holiday had 24 points and 10 assists, Julius Randle came off the bench to score 19 with 11 rebounds, E’Twaun Moore scored 13 and Nikola Mirotic added 12 points and 10 rebounds for New Orleans, which trailed by as many as 19 points as it began a stretch of three homes games in four days.

Tim Hardaway Jr. scored 30 points, Trey Burke came off the bench to score 24, Emmanuel Mudiay scored 19 and Kevin Knox and Allonzo Trier had 11 each for the Knicks, who lost their fourth straight and sixth in their last seven.

Pacers 99, Heat 91

Tyreke Evans, Domantas Sabonis and Cory Joseph led a dominant bench effort as host Indiana defeated Miami.

Evans scored 23 points and added 10 rebounds, both season highs. Sabonis added 15 points and 12 rebounds, and Joseph had 12 points, five assists and three steals. Sabonis has six double-doubles this season — two of them against Miami.

Indiana’s reserves outscored Miami’s bench 53-27, which helped the Pacers overcome an off night by All-Star shooting guard Victor Oladipo, who was held to a season-low eight points on 3-for-12 shooting. His 13-game streak of scoring 20 or more points was snapped.

Grizzlies 112, Kings 104

Jaren Jackson Jr. scored a season-high 27 points to lead host Memphis over Sacramento.

Jackson, whose previous high was 24 against Atlanta last month, combined with Garrett Temple for all the Memphis scoring in a game-opening, 15-2 burst. Jackson had four hoops in the run, including a 3-pointer. Jackson added six rebounds, four steals and two blocked shots.

Marc Gasol and Mike Conley each contributed 19 points to the win, which improved Memphis’ home record to 6-1. Temple (14 points) and Wayne Selden (10) also scored in double figures for the Grizzlies. De’Aaron Fox totaled team highs in points (23) and assists (10) points for the Kings.

Nets 115, Wizards 104

Slideshow (8 Images)

Spencer Dinwiddie scored 25 points off the bench, D’Angelo Russell added 23 and visiting Brooklyn defeated Washington to end a three-game losing streak.

The Nets broke open a close game in the third quarter and led by as many as 19 in the fourth. Brooklyn center Jarrett Allen, who missed the Nets’ previous game due to illness, finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds.

Dwight Howard led the Wizards with 25 points and 17 rebounds despite playing only 27 minutes before fouling out in the fourth quarter. Bradley Beal scored 20 points and reserve Kelly Oubre Jr. added 18 for the Wizards, who saw their three-game winning streak end.

Field Level Media

Supreme Court to hear census citizenship question dispute

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday said it would hear oral arguments in February concerning a challenge by a group of states to the contentious decision by President Donald Trump’s administration to ask people taking part in the 2020 national census whether they are citizens.

The legal question concerns the scope of evidence that a New York-based federal judge can consider at a trial in the case, which has almost concluded. The Supreme Court said in a brief order that it will hear arguments on Feb. 19.

Eighteen U.S. states, 15 cities and a handful of civil rights groups are asking U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in New York to remove the citizenship question, saying it will frighten immigrants into abstaining from the 2020 census, costing their communities political representation and access to federal aid due to a population undercount.

The justices on Nov. 2 allowed the trial to go ahead but blocked the deposition of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department oversees the U.S. Census Bureau.

“The Trump administration is terrified of having to explain on the record why it added a census citizenship question, and has repeatedly tried to shield Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross from answering questions under oath. All relevant evidence should be considered,” Dale Ho, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.

The Trump administration argues that the case should be decided purely on the government’s official reasoning for adding the question. The challengers have said they need further evidence from Ross and other officials about whether there was an unlawful political motivation behind the decision.

Opponents of the citizenship question have said it would disproportionately affect Democratic-leaning states’ electoral representation and federal funding. The administration has said more precise citizenship data is needed to better enforce a voting rights law in order to protect minorities.

Trump, a Republican, has pursued hardline immigration policies seeking to limit legal and illegal immigration. He has sought to portray immigrants who enter the United States illegally across the border with Mexico as a national security threat.

It was unclear if the high court’s decision to hear the case will affect how Furman handles the trial, which began on Nov. 5 and has closing arguments scheduled for Nov. 27.

Time is an issue as the final census forms are due to be printed by spring 2019.

There has not been a census question about citizenship status since 1950. The plaintiffs have said that in recent decades Census Bureau officials have opposed adding a citizenship question because of the risk of driving down response rates and undercounting the U.S. population.

The U.S. Constitution mandates a census every 10 years.

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional report by Andrew Chung and Nick Brown; Editing by Will Dunham

U.S.-China discord dominates APEC summit in Papua New Guinea

PORT MORESBY (Reuters) – The United States and China swapped barbs over trade, investment and regional security at an Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit on Saturday, as growing fault lines among members suggested little prospect of consensus at the weekend meeting.

Speaking in the Papua New Guinean capital, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said there would be no end to American tariffs until China changed its ways, after its president, Xi Jinping, warned that the shadow of protectionism and unilateralism was hanging over global growth.

Illustrating the impasse between the world’s two largest economies, a diplomat involved in negotiating an APEC leaders’ declaration told Reuters trade was a sticking point, and the host nation was having trouble finding language acceptable to all.

Pence took direct aim at Xi’s flagship Belt and Road program, which China has been promoting to Pacific nations at APEC, saying countries should not accept debt that compromised their sovereignty.

“We do not offer constricting belt or a one-way road,” Pence told the APEC CEO summit, a precursor to the official leaders’ meeting, held on a cruise liner tethered in Port Moresby’s Fairfax Harbour.

China’s efforts to win friends in the resource-rich Pacific have been watched warily by the traditionally influential powers in the region – Australia and the United States.

U.S. President Donald Trump is not attending the APEC meeting, nor is his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

Xi, who is staying in Port Moresby, has been feted by PNG officials and stoked Western concern on Friday when he held a meeting with Pacific island leaders, in which he pitched the Belt and Road initiative.

Speaking before Pence, Xi said there was no geopolitical agenda behind the project, which was unveiled in 2013 and aims to bolster a network of land and sea links with Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

“It does not exclude anyone. It is not an exclusive club closed to non-members, nor is it a trap as some people have labeled it.”

There have been concerns that small countries that sign up for infrastructure projects will be left with debt burdens they cannot service, something Pence highlighted.

“Do not accept foreign debt that could compromise your sovereignty. Protect your interest. Preserve your independence. And just like America, always put your country first,” he said.

Sri Lanka formally handed over commercial activities in its main southern port of Hambantota to a Chinese company last December as part of a plan to convert $6 billion of loans that Sri Lanka owed China into equity.

Soon after Pence spoke, Australia said it was joining the United States and Japan in a partnership that would help countries in the region develop infrastructure priorities, a possible alternative to China’s Belt and Road.

REGIONAL SECURITY

Pence also said the United States would join Australia to help Papua New Guinea build a navy base on its Manus Island, which was a U.S. base in World War Two.

The plan comes after China emerged as a possible developer of the deep-water port, which analysts say could impact the West’s ability to navigate in the Pacific while offering China a site close to U.S. bases in Guam.

“The United States of America will continue to uphold the freedom of the seas and the skies, which are so essential to our prosperity,” Pence said.

In a meeting that could irritate Beijing, Pence had talks with Taiwan’s envoy to APEC, Morris Chang.

Beijing considers Taiwan a wayward province of “one China”, ineligible for state-to-state relations, and has never renounced the use of force to bring the island under its control.

Despite Taiwan’s lack of diplomatic recognition by the majority of countries, APEC allows it to participate as an economic, rather than political, entity.

Pence later told reporters traveling with him he would “carry back” a Taiwan proposal for a free trade agreement.

DOUBLE TARIFFS?

There were differences between other APEC members, with some calling for radical change to trade systems while others argued for a return to the status quo on globalization.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad warned globalization was leaving some people behind and fuelling inequality.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison mounted a defense of free trade, saying a billion people had been lifted out of extreme poverty since 1991 because of the jobs and cheaper goods that free trade brought.

Xi told delegates that the shadow of “protectionism and unilateralism” hung over global growth and erecting barriers and cutting ties was short-sighted and doomed to fail.

But Pence made it clear that the United States would not back down, saying it could more than double the $250 billion of Chinese goods subject to tariffs.

“The United States though will not change course until China changes its ways,” Pence said.

Trump and Xi are due to meet at a G20 meeting in Argentina late this month, raising some hope that trade tension could ease.

Trump is pressing China to reduce its huge bilateral trade surplus and make sweeping changes to its policies on trade, technology transfers and high-tech industrial subsidies.

China has denied that U.S. companies are forced to transfer technology and sees U.S. demands on rolling back its industrial policies as an attempt to contain China’s economic rise.

Slideshow (4 Images)

Sebastián Piñera, the president of Chile, which will host next year’s APEC, called on the two powers to find a resolution.

“This is a very good opportunity to ask the U.S. and China to find ways to end their tariff and trade war which benefits no one,” he told the forum.

“Both countries will have to change course.”

Reporting by Tom Westbrook and Charlotte Greenfield; Writing by Colin Packham, Wayne Cole and John Mair; Editing by Himani Sarkar, Robert Birsel

As China-U.S. friction rises, their armies hold joint disaster drills

NANJING, China (Reuters) – Soldiers from China and the United States wrapped up a week of joint disaster relief drills on Saturday, in a display of cooperation against a backdrop of worsening ties between the two countries over trade, the disputed South China Sea and self-ruled Taiwan.

Relations between the world’s two largest economies have plumbed new depths under U.S. President Donald Trump, who is due to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Argentina starting late this month.

The exercise, held in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing, comes a week after Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe and top diplomat Yang Jiechi visited Washington, where U.S. officials urged China to halt militarization of the South China Sea.

But there was no sign of those strains as Chinese and U.S. soldiers simulated plucking people from earthquake-destroyed buildings and treating survivors’ injuries at a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) base on the outskirts of Nanjing.

Troops practiced search and rescue in a small mock-up of a devastated urban area post-earthquake, using sniffer dogs and other gear to search for people buried in the fake rubble.

“Only through more contacts, more exchanges and cooperation in areas of common interest can we effectively increase mutual trust and effectively reduce misjudgments,” Qin Weijiang, deputy commander of the PLA’s eastern theater command, told reporters.

“So I think bilateral exchanges can start from humanitarian and disaster relief exchanges and expand to other areas of common interest.”

Robert Brown, Commanding General of the U.S. Army Pacific, said the exchange was “extremely important”.

“Just as our top leaders work towards building a strong working relationship and understanding, we through confidence-building measures like this DME must also at our level build a strong understanding of each other,” he added, referring to Disaster Management Exchange.

This is the 14th time the joint exchange has been held, which last year took place in the United States.

China’s defense ministry has said it hopes the military relationship can become a “stabiliser” for overall ties with the United States.

All the same, Washington and Beijing swapped barbs over trade, investment and regional security at an Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit on Saturday in Papua New Guinea.

Regular drills and exchanges are helpful to bilateral relations, particularly at a time of increased friction, but they are not going to fundamentally change the direction that ties are headed, said Michael Chase, a specialist in China and Asia-Pacific security at the RAND Corp.

“These exchanges remain important in that respect even if they aren’t going to solve broader problems in the relationship.”

Reporting by John Ruwitch; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Shri Navaratnam

Teams search for 1,000 missing in California’s deadliest wildfire

PARADISE, Calif. (Reuters) – Forensic recovery teams searched for more victims in the charred wreckage of the northern California town of Paradise on Saturday as the number of people listed as missing in the state’s deadliest wildfire topped 1,000.

Remains of at least 71 people have been recovered in and around the small Sierra foothills town 175 miles (280 km) north of San Francisco. It was home to nearly 27,000 residents before it was largely incinerated by the blaze on the night of Nov. 8.

The disaster already ranks among the deadliest U.S. wildfires since the turn of the last century. Eighty-seven people perished in the Big Burn firestorm that swept the Northern Rockies in August of 1910. Minnesota’s Cloquet Fire in October of 1918 killed 450 people.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has blamed the recent spate of fires on forest mismanagement, was due to visit the fire zones on Saturday to meet displaced residents. Governor Jerry Brown and Governor-elect Gavin Newsom planned to join Trump on his tour.

Authorities attribute the high death toll from the blaze – dubbed “Camp Fire” – partly to the speed with which flames raced through the town with little advance warning, driven by howling winds and fueled by drought-desiccated scrub and trees.

More than a week later, firefighters have managed to carve containment lines around 45 percent of the blaze’s perimeter. The fire covered 142,000 acres (57,000 hectares), fire officials said.

Besides the toll on human life, property losses from the blaze make it the most destructive in California history, posing the additional challenge of providing long-term shelter for many thousands of displaced residents.

EVACUEES

With more than 9,800 homes up in smoke, many refugees have taken up temporary residence with friends and family, while others have pitched tents or were camping out of their vehicles.

At least 1,100 evacuees were being housed in 14 emergency shelters set up in churches, schools and community centers around the region, with a total of more than 47,000 people remaining under evacuation orders, authorities said.

Search teams with cadaver dogs combed through rubble-strewn expanses of burned-out neighborhoods looking for bodies.

On Friday night, Butte County Sheriff Korea Honea said the remains of eight more fire victims were recovered during the day, bringing the death toll to 71. That surpasses the previous fatality record from a single California wildfire – 29 in the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles.

Honea said the total roster of people unaccounted for had swelled to 1,011 – up from the 630 names posted Thursday night and well more than triple the number counted as missing on Thursday afternoon.

“This is a dynamic list,” Honea told reporters, saying it was compiled from “raw data” that likely included some duplications or multiple spellings of names.

Honea bristled when asked whether many of those listed at this point, more than a week after the disaster, were expected to end up either deceased or declared missing and presumed dead.

DROUGHT

    “I don’t think it’s appropriate for any of us to sit and speculate about what the future holds,” he said. As of Friday, he said, 329 individuals previously reported missing had turned up alive.

The names were being compiled from information received from a special hotline, along with email reports and a review of emergency-911 calls that came in on the first night of the fire, Honea said.

Some listed have likely survived but not yet notified family or authorities. Others may not have been immediately listed because of delays in reporting them.

Weather conditions have since turned more to firefighters’ favor, though strong, gusty winds and lower humidity were expected to return late Saturday through early Sunday, ahead of rain showers forecast for mid-week.

Slideshow (11 Images)

The outbreak of Camp Fire coincided with a series of smaller blazes in Southern California, most notably the Woolsey Fire, which is linked to three fatalities and has destroyed at least 500 structures near the Malibu coast west of Los Angeles. It was 78 percent contained on Friday night.

Scientists have said the growing frequency and intensity of wildfires in California and elsewhere across the West are largely attributable to prolonged drought that is symptomatic of climate change.

The precise causes of the Camp and Woolsey Fires were under investigation, but electric utilities have reported equipment problems in the vicinity of both blazes around the time they erupted.

Reporting by Terray Sylvester; additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Jonathan Allen in New York; Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago; Writing by Nick Carey, Bill Trott and Steve Gorman; editing by Grant McCool, Clive McKeef, Shri Navaratnam and Andrew Heavens

Rouhani sees Iran, Iraq expanding trade despite U.S. sanctions

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran and Iraq could raise their annual bilateral trade to $20 billion from the current level of $12 billion, President Hassan Rouhani said on Saturday, amid concerns in Tehran over the economic impact of renewed U.S. sanctions.

Rouhani’s remarks, made after a meeting with visiting Iraqi President Barham Salih, came about two weeks after the United States restored sanctions targeting Iran’s key oil industry as well as its banking and transportation sectors.

“… through bilateral efforts, we can raise this figure (for bilateral trade) to $20 billion in the near future,” Rouhani said in comments broadcast live on Iranian state television.

“We held talks on trade in electricity, gas, petroleum products and activities … in the field of oil exploration and extraction,” Rouhani said.

Iraqi officials told Reuters last week that Iraq had agreed to trade Iraqi food items in return for Iranian gas and energy supplies.

Baghdad is seeking U.S. approval to allow it to import Iranian gas for its power stations. Iraqi officials say they needs more time to find an alternative source than a 45-day waiver granted to it by the United States.

“It will be important to create free trade zones at our shared border and to connect the two countries’ railways,” Salih said.

“We will not forget your support for the Iraqi people in the fight against (Iraqi dictator) Saddam (Hussein). Neither do we forget Iran’s stand in the recent fight against terrorism,” added Salih, an Iraqi Kurd.

Iran wields wide influence in Iraq, its smaller Arab neighbor, where its Revolutionary Guards played a key role in training and arming the mainly Shi’ite militias that helped defeat Islamic State.

Iraq imports a wide range of goods from Iran, including food, agricultural products, home appliances, air conditioners and spare car parts. The goods element of Iranian imports to Iraq was worth about $6 billion in the 12 months ending March 2018, or about 15 percent of Iraq’s total imports for 2017.

Energy contracts also contribute to the total volume of bilateral trade.

Iraqi central bank officials said in August that their country’s economy was closely linked to non-Arab Iran, which is engaged in several proxy wars with Saudi Arabia in the region.

Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Gareth Jones