Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in Kyiv, Ukraine.

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin[1] made an unannounced visit to Kyiv on Monday in a high-profile push to keep money and weapons flowing to Ukraine even as U.S. and international resources are stretched by the new global risks raised by the Israel-Hamas conflict[2].

Austin, who traveled to Kyiv by train from Poland, met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy[3], Defense Minister Rustem Umerov and was scheduled to meet with Chief of Staff Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi.

In Kyiv, Austin said Ukraine's effort to defeat Russia's invasion “matters to the rest of the world" and that U.S. support would continue “for the long haul."

Zelenskyy said Austin's visit was “a very important signal for Ukraine.”

“We count on your support,“ Zelenskyy said, thanking Congress as well as the American people for their backing.

This is Austin’s second trip to Kyiv, but he’s making it under far different circumstances, as the world’s attention is drawn to the Middle East and signs of fatigue[4] set in with the almost 21-month Russia-Ukraine war[5].

Austin's first visit[6] occurred in April 2022, just two months after the start of the war. At the time, Ukraine was riding a wave of global rage at Moscow’s invasion[7], and Austin launched an international effort that now sees 50 countries meet monthly to coordinate on what weapons, training and other support could be pushed to Kyiv.

But the conflict in Gaza could pull attention and resources[8] from the Ukraine fight. The U.S. has worked feverishly since the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas on Israel, and the weeks of devastating bombardment on Gaza by Israel that has followed, killing more than 10,000 civilians, to keep those attacks from turning into a regional war.

The U.S. has already committed two carrier strike groups, scores of fighter jets and thousands of U.S. personnel to the Middle East, and has had to shift its force posture and conduct airstrikes against Iranian-backed militant groups that are now hitting U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria on a regular basis.

To date, Ukraine has received more than $44 billion from the U.S. and more than $35 billion from other allies in weapons, ranging from millions of bullets to air defense systems, advanced European and U.S. battle tanks and, finally, pledges for F-16 fighter jets[9].

But Ukraine still needs more, and after almost 20 months of shipping arms to Ukraine, cracks are beginning to show. Some European countries such as Poland have scaled back support,[10] noting their need to maintain adequate fighting ability to defend themselves.

Ukrainian officials have strongly pushed back on suggestions they are in a stalemate with Russia after a long-awaited counteroffensive over the summer did not radically change the battle lines on the ground. In a visit to Washington last week, Andriy Yermak, head of the president’s office, provided no details but confirmed that Ukrainian forces had finally pushed through[11] to the east bank of the Dnieper River, which has essentially served as the immovable front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces for months.

However, as winter sets in it will become more difficult for either side to make large gains due to ground conditions. That could further work against Ukraine if U.S. lawmakers perceive there’s time to wait before more funds are needed. Ukraine and the U.S. expect that this winter Russia will go after Ukraine's infrastructure again, like the power grid, making air defenses critical.

Fred Kagan, a senior resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said it would be a mistake to think there is time to wait.

“If we stop providing aid to Ukraine, it’s not that the stalemate continues. The aid is actually essential to preventing the Russians from beginning to maneuver again in ways that can allow them to defeat Ukraine,” Kagan said. “So the cost of cutting off aid is that Russia wins and Ukraine loses and NATO loses.”

Further complicating the support is that the Pentagon has only a dwindling amount of money left in this year’s budget to keep sending weapons to Ukraine, and Congress is months late on getting a new budget passed and has not taken up a supplemental spending package that would include Ukraine aid.

Since the war began in February 2022, the U.S. has provided more than $44.2 billion in weapons to Ukraine, but the funding is nearly gone. The Pentagon can send about $5 billion more in weapons and equipment from its own stocks. But it only has about $1 billion in funding to replace those stocks. As a result, recent announcements of weapons support have been of much smaller dollar amounts than in months past.

“You have seen smaller packages, because we need to parse these out,” Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said Thursday. “Because we don’t know when Congress is going to pass our supplemental package.”

Officials have been urging Congress to provide additional money, but a growing number of Senate Republicans have opposed additional Ukraine aid without securing support for other unrelated provisions, such as stricter immigration laws and additional funding for border control. A stopgap spending bill passed last week to avoid a government shutdown during the holidays did not include any money for Ukraine. 

Copp reported from Washington.

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Palestinians search for survivors after an Israeli strike on the Gaza Strip.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal government workers from the State Department to NASA are circulating open letters demanding that President Joe Biden pursue a cease-fire in Israel’s war against Hamas.[1] Congressional staffers are picking up microphones in front of the Capitol, speaking out to condemn what they say is the silence of lawmakers about the toll[2] on Palestinian civilians.

As the deaths soar in Gaza, Biden and Congress are facing unusually public challenges from the inside over their support for Israel’s offensive. Hundreds of staffers in the administration and on Capitol Hill are signing on to open letters, speaking to reporters and holding vigils, all in an effort to shift U.S. policy toward more urgent action to stem Palestinian casualties.

“Most of our bosses on Capitol Hill are not listening to the people they represent,” one of the congressional staffers told the crowd at a protest this month. Wearing medical masks that obscured their faces, the roughly 100 congressional aides heaped flowers in front of Congress to honor the civilians killed in the conflict.

The objections coming from federal employees over the United States' military and other backing for Israel's Gaza campaign is partly an outgrowth of the changes happening more broadly across American society. As the United States becomes more diverse, so does the federal workforce, including more appointees of Muslim and Arab heritage. And surveys show public opinion shifting regarding U.S. ally Israel, with more people expressing unhappiness[3] over the hard-right government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu[4].

After weeks of seeing images of bloodied children and fleeing families in Gaza, a significant number of Americans, including from Biden’s Democratic Party, [5] disagree with his support of Israel’s military campaign. A poll by The Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research in early November found 40% of the U.S. public[6] believed Israel’s response in Gaza had gone too far. The war has roiled college campuses and set off nationwide protests.

As of late this past week, one open letter had been endorsed by 650 staffers of diverse religious backgrounds from more than 30 federal agencies, organizers said. The agencies range from the Executive Office of the President to the Census Bureau and include the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of Defense.

A Biden political appointee who helped organize the multiagency open letter said the president's rejection of appeals to push Netanyahu for a long-term cease-fire had left some federal staffers feeling “dismissed, in a way.”

“That’s why people are using all sorts of dissent cables and open letters. Because we’ve already gone through the channels of trying to do it internally,” this person said.

The letter condemns both the Hamas killings of about 1,200 people in Israel in the militants' Oct. 7 incursion and the Israeli military campaign, which has killed more than 11,500 Palestinians in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. The letter calls for the U.S. to push for a cease-fire and a release of hostages held by Hamas and of Palestinians that the signers say are unjustly detained by Israel, as well as greater action overall on behalf of Gaza’s civilians.

The organizers of the executive branch and congressional protests all spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity, citing fear of professional and other repercussions. The federal employees speaking up in opposition to the U.S. policy appear to be seeking a balance, raising their objections in a way that doesn't deprive them of a seat at the table and risk their careers.

Some current and former officials and staffers said it’s the public nature of some of the challenges from federal employees that is unusual. It worries some, as a potential threat to government function and to cohesion within agencies.

The State Department has an honored tradition of allowing formal, structured statements of dissent to U.S. policy. It dates to 1970, when U.S. diplomats resisted President Richard Nixon’s demands to fire foreign service officers and other State Department employees who signed an internal letter protesting the U.S. carpet-bombing of Cambodia.

Ever since, foreign service officers and civil servants have used what is known as the dissent channel at moments of intense policy debate. That includes criticism of the George W. Bush administration’s prosecution of the war in Iraq, the Obama administration’s policies in Syria, the Trump administration’s immigration restrictions on mainly Muslim countries and the Biden administration's handling of the 2021 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But dissent cables, which are signed, are classified and not for public release.

In State Department tradition, at least, if “for whatever reason a criticism or complaint were not taken into account or were not believed to be sufficient to change policy, well, then, it was time to move on. It was done,'' said Thomas Shannon, a retired career foreign service officer who served in senior positions at the State Department. "It was time to salute, and execute."

Shannon was briefly interim secretary of state in the Trump administration. There, he fended off a recommendation from White House spokesman Sean Spicer that State Department staffers who signed a dissent cable against President Donald Trump’s so-called Muslim ban should quit.

Growing diversity of the State Department’s workforce is a positive, Shannon said. But “in the foreign service as in military service, discipline is real and it’s important,” he said, citing the need for consistent, cohesive foreign policy.

“I guess I’m just saying I’m not a fan of open letters,” Shannon said.

State Department officials say several expressions of dissent have made their way through the formal channels to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

One State Department official, 11-year veteran Josh Paul, quit[7] late last month to protest the administration's rush to provide arms to Israel.

Blinken addressed internal opposition to the administration's handling of the Gaza crisis in a departmentwide email to staffers this past Monday. “We’re listening: what you share is informing our policy and our messages,” he wrote.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the dissent was welcome. “One of the strengths of this department is that we do have people with different opinions,” he said.

Unlike the dissent cables, the multiagency open letter and another endorsed by more than 1,000 employees of the U.S. Agency for International Development have been made public. They also are anonymous, with no names of signers publicly attached to them.

The USAID letter with 1,000 staffers backing it, which was given to The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and others, calls for an immediate cease-fire. But one longtime USAID staffer said it distressed some of the agency's staffers, including some who are Jewish, by not addressing the Hamas killings of civilians in Israel. The delivery of the letter to news organizations also seemed outside the agency's tradition of handling matters internally in a consultative way, the staffer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

In comparison, an internal State Department memorial for all civilians killed since Oct. 7, organized by Muslim, Christian and Jewish employee organizations, brought more solace, and seemed to bring colleagues of diverse outlooks and backgrounds closer together, that USAID staffer said.

The organizers of the multiagency open letter said they acted out of frustration after other efforts, particularly a tense meeting between White House officials and Muslim and Arab political appointees, seemed to have no effect.

Staying silent, or resigning, would shirk their responsibility to the public, the staffer said. “If we just leave, there's never going to be any change."


Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten in Geneva and AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.


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U.S. airstrike on a weapons warehouse in eastern Syria.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Iranian-backed militants in Iraq and Syria have long battled with U.S. and coalition forces, launching sporadic attacks against bases in the region where troops are deployed to fight Islamic State group insurgents.

But since Oct. 17, as civilian deaths in Israel's war against Hamas began to skyrocket, there has been a dramatic spike in attacks[1] by Iran's proxies, operating under the umbrella name of the Islamic Resistance in Iraq.

While most of the more than five dozen attacks have been largely ineffective, at least 60 U.S. personnel have reported minor injuries. Most often those have been traumatic brain injuries from the explosions, and all troops have returned to duty, according to the Pentagon.

In response to the attacks, the U.S. has walked a delicate line. The U.S. military has struck back just three times as the Biden administration balances efforts to deter the militants without triggering a broader Middle East conflict.

A look at the attacks and the U.S. response:


According to the Pentagon, Iranian-backed militants have launched 61 attacks on bases[2] and facilities housing U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria since Oct. 17. Of those, 29 have been in Iraq and 32 in Syria.

The U.S. has about 2,000 U.S. forces in Iraq, under an agreement with the Baghdad government, and about 900 in Syria, mainly to counter IS but also using the al-Tanf garrison farther south to keep tabs on Iranian proxies moving weapons across the border.

The latest jump in attacks began 10 days after Hamas' Oct. 7 incursion into Israel, where at least 1,200 people were killed. Israel’s blistering military response has killed thousands of civilians trapped in Gaza and fueled threats of retaliation by a range of Iran-backed groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Yemen-based Houthis, and militants in Iraq and Syria. Those threats escalated after an Oct. 17 blast at a Gaza hospital killed hundreds of civilians. Hamas blamed Israel for the explosion, but Israel has denied it, and both Israeli and U.S. officials have blamed it on a missile misfire by Islamic Jihad.

The bulk of the attacks on bases and facilities have been with one-way suicide drones or rockets, and in most cases there were no injuries and only minor damage. A significant number of the injuries, particularly the traumatic brain injuries, were in the initial attacks between Oct. 17 and 21 at al-Asad air base in Iraq and al-Tanf. One U.S. contractor suffered a cardiac arrest and died while seeking shelter from a possible drone attack.


With a power vacuum and years of civil conflict following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, militias grew and multiplied in Iraq, some supported by Iran. A decade later, as the Islamic State extremist group swept across Iraq, a number of Iran-backed militias came together under the Popular Mobilization Forces umbrella group and fought IS.

The groups included the Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Badr Brigades and Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades — a separate group from the Lebanese Hezbollah. A number of the Iraqi militias also operate in Syria, where Iran supports the government of Bashar Assad against opposition groups in the uprising-turned-civil-war that began in 2011.

After the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, a group of the Iran-backed factions branded itself under the new Islamic Resistance in Iraq name, and began the latest spate of attacks on bases housing U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria.

The attacks put Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani in a difficult position. While he came to power with the Iranian-backed groups' support, he also wants continued good relations with the U.S. and has backed the ongoing presence of American troops in his country.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a meeting with al-Sudani this month, warned of consequences if Iranian-backed militias continued to attack U.S. facilities in Iraq and Syria. Al-Sudani then traveled to Tehran and met with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a meeting U.S. officials suggested was a positive development.

An official with one of the Iranian-backed militias said al-Sudani put “great pressure” on the militias not to carry out attacks during Blinken's visit. In return, he said, al-Sudani promised to push the Americans not to retaliate aggressively against militias that have carried out the strikes. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly.


Since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, the Biden administration has moved warships, fighter jets, air defense systems and more troops into the Middle East in a campaign to discourage militant groups from widening the conflict.

But the U.S. military response to the attacks on its forces has been minimal. On Oct. 27, U.S. fighter jets struck two weapons and ammunition[3] storage sites in eastern Syria near Boukamal that were used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iranian-backed groups. On Nov. 8, fighter jets dropped bombs[4] on an IRGC weapons storage facility near Maysulun in Deir el-Zour. And on Nov. 12, U.S. airstrikes targeted a training facility[5] and a safe house in the Bulbul district of Mayadin. U.S. officials said IRGC-related personnel were there and likely struck, but provided no details.

There are concerns within the administration that more substantial retaliation could escalate the violence and trigger more deadly attacks. The Pentagon says the strikes have degraded the group's military stockpiles and made the sites unusable.

But critics argue that the U.S. response pales in comparison with the 60 attacks and American injuries, and — more importantly — has obviously failed to deter the groups.


Though nearly half of the attacks have been on U.S. bases in Iraq, the U.S. has conducted retaliatory airstrikes only against locations in Syria.

The Pentagon defends the strike decisions by saying the U.S. is hitting Iranian Revolutionary Guard sites, which has a more direct impact on Tehran. Officials say the goal is to pressure Iran to tell the militia groups to stop the attacks. They also say the sites are chosen because they are weapons warehouses and logistical hubs used by the Iran-linked militias, and taking them out erodes the insurgents' attack capabilities.

A key reason the U.S. is concentrating on Syria, however, is that the U.S. doesn't want to risk alienating the Iraqi government by striking within its borders — potentially killing or wounding Iraqis.

In early January 2020, the U.S. launched an airstrike in Baghdad, killing Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq. The strike frayed relations with the Iraqi government and spawned demands for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from the country.

The U.S. considers its presence in Iraq as critical to the fight against IS, its ability to support forces in Syria and its ongoing influence in the region. Military leaders have worked to restore good relations with Baghdad, including providing ongoing support for Iraqi forces.


Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.


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