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Trump stirs Mideast tensions despite talk of 'endless wars'


With a single drone strike, President Donald Trump did more than just take out an avowed enemy of the United States. He might have also upended a central element of his foreign policy.

The Friday strike that killed the most prominent Iranian general could have ended any chance Trump would get the United States out of the “endless wars” in the Middle East that he has railed against since taking office.

The killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad has the world bracing for a possible retaliation, with many fearing it could lead to a wider conflict.

“It is probably the most profound escalation that the United States could have taken,” said Ned Price, who served on the National Security Council under President Barack Obama.

Trump has been on a confrontational path with Iran since even before he took office, when he pledged to end the Iran nuclear deal signed by Obama. He insisted he doesn’t want war and the killing of Soleimani wasn’t meant to provoke the Islamic Republic.

“We took action last night to stop a war,” Trump sad. “We did not take action to start a war.”

Nonetheless, the targeting of Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, was arguably the most provocative military action in the Middle East since President George W. Bush launched the 2003 Iraq war to topple Saddam Hussein.

The killing of Soleimani, regarded as the second most powerful official in Iran, came as Trump has sought to apply increased pressure on Iran through economic sanctions to abandon its nuclear weapons program, while Iran has countered with provocative attacks on U.S. military and oil facilities in region.

By taking out Soleimani, Trump signaled to Iran that his patience has worn thin over the long, simmering conflagration.

The shadowy general who was in command of Iran’s proxy forces was responsible, according to the Pentagon, for the deaths of hundreds of American troops in Iraq during the height of the war there. White House officials said Trump decided to take action because Soleimani was plotting unspecified future attacks targeting Americans as tensions between the U.S. and Iran have reached a boil.

Trump said Friday he wasn’t interested in further escalating the conflict but warned the regime that his military advisers have already drawn up plans to retaliate should Iran attack.

“If Americans anywhere are threatened, we have all of those targets already fully identified, and I am ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary, and that in particular refers to Iran,” Trump said.

Trump’s aggressive approach with Iran is remarkable considering his oft-repeated desire to avoid expensive military entanglements. His aversion to long-term military presence has led to him butting heads with his top advisers as he has sought to end the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Syria.

Yet for much of his nearly three years in office, Trump has buffeted between demonstrating restraint and sending warning flares to Iran that the U.S. is prepared for military confrontation.

In June, after Iran shot down a U.S. drone, Trump said he gave top Pentagon officials permission to carry out military strikes against Iran before changing his mind 10 minutes before the operation was to be carried out.

Trump said he had a change of heart after being told by a general that the strikes would cause up to 150 Iranian casualties.

In September, with French President Emmanuel Macron serving as a go-between, Trump reportedly made an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Iran President Hassan Rouhani to speak with him by phone from the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.

The next month the Pentagon announced it was deploying 3,000 U.S. troops to protect Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon on Friday announced following Soleimani’s killing that it would boost its presence in the region with an additional 3,500 U.S. troops.

The October boost in forces came after a drone attack on a Saudi oilfield. Iranian-backed Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the attack, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of being behind “unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply.”

The tit-for-tat between the U.S. and Iran rose to a whole new level in recent weeks.

Last week, after months of massive street protests in Baghdad by demonstrators urging both Iran and the U.S. to cease interfering in Iraqi affairs, the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah group fired a barrage of rockets at a military base in Kirkuk, killing a U.S. contractor and wounding several U.S. and Iraqi troops.

On Sunday, Trump struck back with airstrikes on Iran-affiliated militia bases in western Iraq and Syria.

Then on Tuesday pro-Iranian militia members marched on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, leading to diplomats holing up in the sprawling compound as protesters burned the embassy’s reception.

Still, before attending a New Year’s Eve party at his Mar-a-Lago resort, Trump told reporters that he didn’t see war coming and that he wanted peace with Iran. The president, however, warned that if the U.S. were to go to war with Iran, it “wouldn’t last very long.”

Less than 48 hours later, Trump ordered the strike that took out Soleimani.

“President Trump may be genuine in not wanting war with Iran,” Price said. “At the same, it is fair to say that he doesn’t seem to understand the implication that an action like this could foretell.”

James Carafano, a national security analyst at the conservative Washington think tank Heritage Foundation, argues that that there’s no disconnect between Trump’s disdain for endless wars and his efforts to increase pressure on Iran.

“This is clearly not an escalation; this is clearly an act of self-defense,” Carafano said. “The president has also never said we’re walking away from the Middle East. What he says he wants is a sustainable security architecture in place, which means we’re going to protect our interests and we’re going to expect others to do more to protect theirs.”

Iran says it is already plotting revenge.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that “harsh retaliation is waiting” for the U.S. after the airstrike and called Soleimani the “international face of resistance.”

As thousands of worshipers in the Tehran took to streets after Friday prayers to condemn the killing and chant “Death to deceitful America,” the State Department issued an alert urging American citizens to leave Iraq “immediately.”

Over the course of his presidency, Trump’s hawkishness on Iran has lacked coherence and has, in no small part, been informed by his desire to do away with the fragile peace brokered by Obama, said Abbas Kadhim, a Middle East analyst at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

Trump won the White House after pledging as a candidate to undo the Obama-administration brokered agreement to limit Iran’s uranium enrichment program in exchange for an easing of sanctions. He and other critics felt the deal gave too many economic benefits without doing enough to prevent Iran from eventually developing a nuclear weapon.

Trump followed through on his campaign vow in May 2018 by officially withdrawing from the treaty and reimposing crippling sanctions on Tehran.

Angela Major 

Craig’s Claudia Fieiras (20), left, salutes teammate Jessa Alderman (32), right, before the Cougars’ game against Middleton on Friday, Jan. 3, 2020, at Craig High School in Janesville.

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5-year-old fatal crash case ends with apology, 5-year prison sentence


When finally given his chance Friday, Aaron M. Gillett turned to the victim’s side of the courtroom after waiting to do so for five years.

He was “so sorry” for the fatal crash in the town of Delavan that killed Clarence Watson, 86, of Elkhorn, and injured Watson’s wife, Yuka, on Jan. 22, 2015.

The case dragged on through various appeals until both sides reached a deal Nov. 13 to have Gillett plead guilty to homicide by negligent operation of a vehicle and operating with a restricted controlled substance in his system as a second offense.

The saga reached its conclusion Friday with Gillett’s sentencing, and when it was his turn to speak to the judge, Gillett took his chance to show the Watson family the remorse that his lawyer said was apparent every time the two spoke about the case.

“There is no excuse for what happened that day, and there never will be,” he said. “And if I could trade places with him, I would. And if I could find a way to bring him back, I would bring him back.

“But I can’t.”

Lawyers for both sides said they worked hard to reach a fair resolution to the case, which included a mutual recommendation for five years in prison and five more of extended supervision. Judge Kristine Drettwan accepted that sentence.

It all could have been avoided, however. Dennis Melowski, Gillett’s lawyer, said his client was supposed to be receiving inpatient care through Veterans Affairs, but he was released six days before the crash because the facility where Gillett was staying didn’t have enough beds to keep him.

Gillett’s military service was key to his defense in the case, too.

Although test results showed he had traces of marijuana and difluoroethane, a chemical found in compressed-air household cleaners, in his system, Gillett had argued to an appeals court that a siren caused him to have a “flashback” and lose consciousness.

The defense maintained that the flashback and loss of consciousness stemmed from Gillett’s service with the U.S. Navy in Iraq and Afghanistan, after which he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks and generalized anxiety disorder.

Gillett was at a family dinner one summer evening when the 6 p.m. whistle went off, said his aunt, Rebecca Baertschi. The sound was similar to that of an air raid system.

Gillett jumped out of his chair, went under the table and yelled for everyone to “get down.”

“The room went silent,” she said. “None of us knew what to do. We just sat there looking at each other. Sadness took over.”

Both Baertschi and Gillett’s mom, Deanna, gave their condolences to the Watson family.

Diane Donohoo, who left the Walworth County District Attorney’s Office to join the one in Racine County but kept this case, said while this incident was a tragedy, it was still a crime. She said Gillett will be able to find therapy while he is incarcerated and under supervision.

Norman Eckstaedt spoke in court Friday for the Watson family. He worked with Watson, affectionately referred to as “Doc,” whom he viewed as much more than a co-worker—he saw him as his friend, adoptive father and mentor of nearly 40 years.

Watson started out as a simple guy from a farm in upstate New York who turned into a success in the hospitality industry, Eckstaedt said.

Watson would talk to a company’s busboy the same way he would the CEO, his friend said, and throughout his career he remained humble.

Eckstaedt called Watson selfless, charismatic and vibrant. He misses his daily phone calls with Doc.

“I don’t get to pick that phone up anymore,” he said. “I don’t get to spend Thanksgiving with him anymore. I don’t get to see him for Christmas, for his birthday, for his anniversary.”

Even though the crash was five years ago, Eckstaedt said he is not convinced the sentencing will mean closure—especially as he shared his remarks with a photo of Watson displayed for the court looking back at him.

Gillett said taking someone’s life is never OK.

“The way you talk about him, he sounds like a great man,” he told the Watson family. “And I can’t believe I took him from you guys. I’ll never forgive myself for this. And I don’t expect you guys to, either.

“Maybe someday.”

Scope of state's fight with PFAS pollutants grows

Wisconsin is grappling with a growing number of pollution cases involving widely used, largely unregulated chemicals that are contaminating water across the state.

The Department of Natural Resources has ordered an assessment and cleanup of 31 sites for a vast assortment of compounds known as perfluorinated chemicals, or PFAS.

In the last two years alone, the DNR has mandated 19 new investigations.

Often called “forever” chemicals because they do not break down in the environment, the substances have been used for decades in such products as stain-resistant fabrics, nonstick cookware and firefighting foam. The chemicals have proven to be especially adept at smothering petroleum blazes and have been used extensively at airports and military bases.

In practice, PFAS compounds have highly desirable traits, including the ability to repel both water and oil.

“They can move freely in the environment, and that’s why they end up everywhere,” said Christy Remucal, an aquatic chemist at UW-Madison. “We are going to be dealing with them for a really long time.”

They figure prominently in several pollution cases, including in Marinette, Madison and a cleanup project getting underway at Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee.

Epidemiology studies suggest some PFAS compounds are associated with increased risk of pregnancy-induced hypertension, liver damage, thyroid disease, asthma, decreased fertility, some cancers and a decline in response to vaccines.

The Department of Health Services told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week it is considering conducting a cancer cluster assessment in the Marinette and Peshtigo areas after residents reported their stories of having cancer and other serious illnesses at a public meeting Dec. 18.

Hundreds of people attended afternoon and evening listening sessions in Marinette, and some questioned whether PFAS contamination in the soil and the water was the cause of their problems. Marinette has the largest PFAS contamination in the state.

The DNR has named Johnson Controls International and business unit Tyco Fire Products as responsible parties in the pollution case. Chemicals in Tyco’s firefighting foam are contaminating soil, groundwater and ditches flowing to Lake Michigan.

At the meetings, a farmer stood and spoke solemnly of having to kill hundreds of his cattle that were mysteriously dying. A mother said her 32-year-old daughter was seriously ill from thyroid cancer.

Pam Goes had breast cancer in 2006 at the age of 44. Until the age of 20, she lived on property where her parents still reside and where Johnson Controls has installed a system to remove elevated levels of PFAS in the family well.

“I’m not saying Tyco caused it,” Goes said in an interview about her own cancer.

“I had to make major life changes, so I could survive, move on and have a better life,” she said. “Never did I have to think that I had to worry about my drinking water.”

Also in attendance: Robert Bilott, an Ohio lawyer portrayed in this year’s movie “Dark Waters,” which is about his 20-year court fight with chemical company DuPont over PFAS.

Bilott represents some Marinette residents who have, so far, not filed a suit against Johnson Controls, which already is a defendant in multiple lawsuits involving PFAS.

“(We) have been working over the past 18 months with citizens affected by the contamination in Marinette,” said Milwaukee attorney Ralph Weber, who is working with Bilott in Wisconsin. “The next step is still up in the air.”

Shortcomings in cleanup effort

Earlier this year, Johnson Controls increased its environmental reserves, including $140 million for the cost of removing PFAS and other chemicals from soil, surface water and groundwater at Tyco’s fire training center and production plant.

But the DNR has found numerous shortcomings and delays in the early stages of the cleanup, as well as failing to line up a permanent supply of water for residents with tainted wells. Officials ordered the company to attend an all-day meeting in Madison on Jan. 23.

“We want them to put all of the pieces together to tell the whole story of what is happening up there,” said Christine Haag, director of the DNR’s Bureau of Remediation and Redevelopment.

“We have spent millions of dollars and countless person-hours over the last three years to fix the problem,” Fraser Engerman, a spokesman for the company, said in an email.

Among its efforts is the treatment of more than 43 million gallons of water. Tyco and Johnson Controls have sometimes had to prod the DNR to move more quickly, Engerman said.

“We aren’t going anywhere, and we are committed to making things right …” he said.

Chemicals behave differently

Remucal, the UW-Madison researcher, said that depending on the type, PFAS chemicals behave differently in the environment. Sometimes they react in ways they would not in a laboratory, which could complicate a cleanup.

With funding from Wisconsin Sea Grant, she began taking samples in October in the Marinette and Peshtigo rivers and plans to do more sampling in Green Bay and Lake Michigan

One aim is to better understand which compounds stick to sediments, fish or water.

“When we do any sort of remediation or cleanup, we need to know where to focus,” Remucal said. “Is it the fish and water, or do we need to think about the sediments, as well?”

With reports of contamination on the rise, the DNR is using authority under state hazardous spills laws to require cleanups. Most of the cases are in the early stages.

In October, the agency ordered Milwaukee County to investigate PFAS contamination in stormwater.

An earlier study found compounds flowing into Oak Creek and Wilson Park Creek, suggesting they are making their way to Lake Michigan.

Early testing found high PFAS levels at some sites where firefighting foam has been used by the airport, Air National Guard 128th Air Refueling wing and the 440th Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserve.

The 440th left Milwaukee in 2007.

According to the DNR, it is not yet known whether the military, the airport or both are responsible for the contamination.

Separately, the chemicals have been found at low levels in samples of Milwaukee’s drinking water the past three years before and after it was treated.

DNR officials do not consider Milwaukee’s results a significant concern for now but say it’s something to monitor.

“Certainly I would agree with the sentiment that it is something to watch,” said Karen Dettmer, superintendent of Milwaukee Water Works.

In Madison, officials shut down one well on the city’s east side in March. In all, Madison officials report 14 of 23 wells contain some level of PFAS, although they say the water is safe to drink.

On Dec. 19, the DNR reported both foam and water collected in October showed extremely high levels of PFAS in Starkweather Creek near Olbrich Botanical Gardens and a Lake Monona boat launch. Officials warned that people and pets avoid contact with the foam.

The DNR has determined one source of contamination is the Dane County Regional Airport and the Truax Air National Guard base.

“Those were screaming high levels,” said Maria Powell, executive director of the Midwest Environmental Justice Organization, which tracks environmental pollution.

Powell said officials need to roll out a public education campaign to keep people and anglers—particularly subsistence fishermen—from using the creek and other spots where high levels of PFAS turn up.

Wisconsin has no standards

On the federal level, the U.S.Environmental Protection Agency is working on national cleanup standards for contaminated areas and determining a safety limit in drinking water. But the agency has been criticized for its slow pace.

Wisconsin is among a majority of states that have not set enforceable standards for PFAS in water, although Minnesota has limits in place and Michigan officials say new requirements will be in place next year.

Gov. Tony Evers has directed the DNR to propose standards in drinking water, groundwater and surface water—a process that will take two to three years.

The state’s largest business group, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, said it doesn’t oppose standards. But Scott Manley, executive vice president of government relations, testified in November the administration’s proposal was overly broad by lumping in potentially thousands of compounds that have not been studied.

Obituaries and death notices for Jan. 4, 2020

Paul J. Morovits

Carl S. “Steve” Osman