Iraqi Forces Repel ISIS Counterattacks

Marcio Silva/iStock/Thinkstock(BAGHDAD) -- Iraqi forces were able to repel a number of ISIS attacks this week, despite the fact that much of the attention has been on the Iraqi attempt to retake the city of Tikrit from ISIS militants.

The U.S.-led coalition said Thursday that Iraqi Security Forces defeated four separate ISIS attacks on March 24. The attacks took place near Kisik, Kirkuk, Bayji and Habbaniyah. In the attack on Habbaniyah, the coalition says ISIS "unsuccessfully employed two vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices and 12 suicide bombers." They were believe to have been attempting to retake a bridge.

The coalition says that ISIS gained no ground in their attacks. "The tables are turning," Col. Wayne Marotto, coalition spokesman, said. "ISF is gaining ground and their capabilities continue to improve."

On Wednesday, the U.S. agreed to begin offering support to Iraqi Security Forces in an effort to reclaim Tikrit from ISIS.

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Germanwings Co-Pilot Appeared to Want to ‘Destroy the Plane,’ Prosecutor Says

F. Balsamo - Gendarmerie nationale / Ministere de l'Interieur via Getty Images(MARSEILLES, France) — The co-pilot of the Germanwings plane that crashed in the French Alps this week appeared to want to "destroy the plane," Brice Robin, public prosecutor of Marseille, said Thursday.

"The intention was to destroy the plane," he said, later adding: "Death was instantaneous."

Speaking at a news conference conducted mostly in French, Robin confirmed reports about the pilot being heard on the voice recorder asking co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, a German citizen, to take over the controls, with a chair heard being moved and door heard closing.

The co-pilot, 27, took control, Robin said, and the accelerated descent was made manually.

Whatever the cause, Germanwings initially took exception to the prosecutor's comments, tweeting this morning, "We are shocked by the statements from French authorities that the co-pilot deliberately crashed the aircraft."

But at a news conference later in Cologne, Carsten Spohr, CEO of Lufthansa, which owns Germanwings, said, “We have to accept that the plane was crashed on purpose.” He added, “It seems to be true that the co-pilot denied the pilot access to the cockpit.”

He asked people not to rush to judgment, however, which he called "speculation" about the co-pilot's intentions, adding, "the motivation could be of various nature."

He stressed that the co-pilot, who had 630 hours of flying time, had undergone extensive psychological and aviation review since beginning training in 2008 and joining the company as a first officer in 2013, though his training was interrupted six years ago for an unspecified reason.

"In our worst nightmare, we could not have imagined that such a tragedy could take place at our company," Spohr said, speaking in German and agreeing with French authorities that terrorism was not involved.

He declined to characterize the crash as a suicide, saying there has to be something else involved. "It is a puzzle for us," he said.

As for the chain of events, prosecutor Robin said all had seemed normal as the pilots communicated in a "amicable" way for the first 20 minutes of the flight.

But later, the captain can be heard on the voice recording knocking on the door and asking over the speaker to re-enter the cockpit, but there was no response from the co-pilot, Robin said.

The co-pilot can be heard breathing until the moment of impact, Robin said, so officials believe he was alive until the crash in which all 150 people on board are presumed to have died.

Air traffic control can also be heard calling, with no response from the cockpit.

Lubitz, who lived in Montabaur, Germany, had no reason to lock the pilot out of the cabin, no reason not to respond to air traffic control and no reason to disable the plane's ability to maintain contact with other plans in the area, Robin said.

Toward the end of the descent, investigators can hear "violent" banging on door as the pilot tries to get in, Robin added.

Lufthansa CEO Spohr said pilots are able to enter a code to re-enter the cockpit but that the pilot inside is able to disable the system electronically. So either the captain did not enter the code or Lubitz blocked his entry, he said.

"We have total confidence in our pilots and co-pilots," he said.

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Pope Francis Surprises Homeless Visitors During Private Vatican Tour

neneos/iStock Editorial/Thinkstock(VATICAN CITY) -- The Vatican opened its doors Thursday to the homeless of St. Peter's Square, allowing the people who usually only see its steps outside to observe its beauty inside, and be greeted by Pope Francis himself.

A group of 150 homeless men and women took a guided tour of the museum and gardens and received dinner in the Vatican Museum’s cafeteria. They also were invited to pray in the Sistine Chapel, where the pope made an unannounced visit.

“This is everyone’s house: it’s your house. The door is always open for all,” Francis reportedly said as he shook their hands.

The Vatican says the pontiff spent 20 minutes with the visitors, meeting each one individually. He asked them to pray for him, saying, “I need prayers from people like you."

“It was a great surprise meeting him,” said Graziella, one of the homeless visitors, to the Italian news agency ANSA. "The pope was smiling a lot but above all I was struck by his humility. Who else would have done this? Nobody. I always go to church but I have never experienced such humanity and humility."

The tour passed the Casa Santa Marta, where Pope Francis chose to live instead of the stately Papal apartment, and included a stop at a recently opened room in the museum that houses the pope’s historical carriages.

The invitation is just one of a string of actions taken by the pontiff to reach out to the poor. To mark his birthday in December, Pope Francis had sleeping bags distributed to the homeless in and around St. Peter’s Square. In February, the Vatican built showers and hired barbers for the homeless around the square.

And in mid-June, Francis will lunch with some of Turin’s homeless on a visit there, the Vatican announced Wednesday.

Pope Francis’ outreach to the poor echoes one of the central messages of his papacy. "Do not be afraid to go and to bring Christ into every area of life, to the fringes of society, even to those who seem farthest away, most indifferent," Francis said in 2013.

The Vatican has called on the homeless to help distribute gospels or prayer booklets to the faithful in the square on Sundays during the Pope’s noontime prayer.

The tour and dinner was organized by the Office of Papal Charities, which regularly distributes meals to the homeless who live in Rome.

The Vatican said Francis did not want any official photos or videos taken of the event.

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US Drops Anti-ISIS Leaflets over Syria

US Dept of Defense(DAMASCUS, Syria) -- The Pentagon has released a copy of a leaflet that was dropped over ISIS' defacto capital in Syria earlier this month.

The leaflet drop is part of the U.S. military’s psychological operations to show potential ISIS recruits that they are part of a losing effort.

Some 60,000 of the leaflets were dropped over Ar Raqqa, Syria early on the morning of March 16, officials said.

The leaflets were dropped by a single U.S. Air Force F-15E fighter aircraft carrying a PDU-5B leaflet canister, according to the Pentagon.

Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Thursday that the drop was intended to dissuade potential ISIS recruits from joining the group.

"The message of this leaflet is if you allow yourself to be recruited by Daesh you will find yourself in a meat grinder,” said Warren, using the Islamic acronym for the group.

The leaflet shows a room identified by a sign with the arrow as a "Daesh Recruiting Office," and the meat grinder is labelled "Daesh."

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Tikrit Offensive: Iranian General Steps Out, US Steps In

iStock/Thinkstock(TIKRIT, Iraq) -- The U.S. agreement to conduct airstrikes to support the Iraqi offensive to retake Tikrit was contingent on Iranian-backed militias pulling out of the operation, the commander of U.S. Central Command said Thursday.

Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Lloyd Austin said the Shia militias, led by Iranian Quds Commander Gen. Qassem Suleimani, had left the area around Tikrit before U.S. forces provided air support in the mostly-stalled offensive against Islamic State forces holding the city. U.S. officials had estimated that as many as 18,000 of the 23,000 Iraqi forces in the offensive were Shiite militia fighters.

Austin said the clearing of ISIS fighters in Tikrit would be left to 4,000 Iraqi Security Forces, mostly special operations troops and federal police who would be supported by U.S. airstrikes.

The Pentagon announced Thursday morning that U.S. forces had launched 17 airstrikes near Tikrit, destroying various ISIS positions at the request of the Iraqi government.

Speaking from his personal experience in Iraq, Austin explained why he would never work with Shia militias.

“I’d just like to highlight sir, after three tours in Iraq commanding troops in Iraq who were brutalized by some of these Shia militias I will not and I hope we never coordinate or cooperate with the Shia militias,” Austin said.

Austin took a dig at the Shia militia themselves, noting that the offensive to retake Tikrit had stalled specifically because they were poorly led.

“It’s the way the forces went about trying to do this,” Austin said. “The forces were not controlled by the government of Iraq, there was no coherent scheme of maneuvers, command and control, and didn’t have precision fires to support this effort.”

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, commander of the anti-ISIS coalition Gen. John Allen explained to lawmakers in the House Foreign Affairs committee that the U.S. only came to aid as a result of the Iraqi government’s request.

“I don’t believe at all that we’re, in our efforts, at this moment, saving or attempting to salvage a failed Iranian strategy,” Allen said. “As the operation unfolded, [Iraqi] Prime Minister [Haider al] Abadi and members of the Iraqi security forces requested U.S. and coalition support for the final phase of the operation ultimately to liberate the city of Tikrit."

Allen was then asked to answer why Iran’s Quds Force commander, who directed Shia militias during the Iraq War responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops, wasn’t himself targeted in the airstrikes.

“My question is, is if we were conducting air operations, would somebody like Qassem Suleimani be a target?” asked Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Florida.

Allen told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee the U.S. had no intention of targeting Suleimani.

“We're in this to assist the Iraqi government in dealing with Daesh,” Allen said. “That's the reason that we're there, not to go to war with Iran.” Daesh is the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

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Third American Victim in Germanwings Crash Identified

ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- The third American victim who died in the Germanwings plane crash has been identified as Robert Oliver.

Oliver, 37, was an American citizen born in Barcelona, Spain.

He worked as a real estate coordinator for the Spanish-based fashion company Desigual, a company spokeswoman told ABC News. Oliver covered German real estate for the company and was headed to Dusseldorf on a business trip with a Spanish colleague called Laura Altamira at the time of his death, according to the Desigual spokeswoman.

The first two Americans on board were named on Wednesday as mother-daughter pair Yvonne and Emily Selke.

Yvonne Selke lived in Virginia and worked at consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, largely working with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Emily Selke graduated from Drexel University in 2013 as a music industry major.

Among the 144 passengers on board were 16 German high school students and their two teachers who were traveling back from a language exchange trip in Spain.

Six crew members were also on board, including co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, who investigators believe kept his captain outside of the cockpit as he deliberately forced the plane to descend into the French Alps.

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What We Know About Germanwings Flight's Final 10 Minutes

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Details about the final 10 minutes of the Germanwings flight that crashed Tuesday in the French Alps are becoming a bit clearer Thursday.

Audio from inside the cockpit indicates co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, a 27-year-old German citizen, was in control of the Airbus A320. That's according to Brice Robin, public prosecutor of Marseille, who spoke at a news conference Thursday.

"The intention was to destroy the plane," Robin said.

Here's a breakdown of what we know about Flight 9525's last moments, based on information released by authorities:

At 10:30 a.m., the plane is flying at 38,000 feet.

At some point around this time, the pilot is heard asking the co-pilot to take over the controls. A chair is heard moving and a door is heard closing.

At 10:31 a.m., the plane starts losing altitude.

The co-pilot is alone at the controls, and the accelerated descent is made manually. The pilot is heard knocking on the door and asking over the speaker to enter the cockpit. There is no response from the co-pilot.

The plane’s altitude drops down to roughly 6,000 feet.

Air traffic control can be heard calling, but there is no response. The pilot is heard “violently” banging on the door, as he tries to get back into the cockpit, according to Robin. The co-pilot is heard breathing until the final moment of impact, leading officials to believe he was alive until the crash.

At 10:40 a.m., the plane crashes, and the radar contact is lost.

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Andreas Lubitz, Germanwings Co-Pilot, Received Training in Arizona

Sascha Steinbach/Getty Images(NEW YORK) — The co-pilot who was at the controls when the Germanwings flight crashed this week received some of his training in America, the airline's CEO revealed Thursday.

Andreas Lubitz, 27, was a German citizen and started working for Germanwings' parent company Lufthansa at a flight training center outside of Phoenix in 2008, company officials said.

The facility, called Airline Training Center Arizona, was owned by Lufthansa and is used by its pilots in addition to other training locations in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, officials said.

A spokeswoman for Germanwings told ABC News that he also received some of his training in Bremen, Germany.

In spite of undergoing some of his training in 2008, he reportedly took breaks during the process and only became an official Germanwings pilot in 2013.

"Six years ago there had been an interruption to his training," Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr said at a news conference Thursday. "We checked his skills and his competence and then he went back to training school. After that he was successful."

He went on to explain that the interruption lasted for a few months but he did not elaborate on the reason and said it was something that could happen regularly in their program.

Spohr said Lubitz passed training school "with flying colors."

"He was fit in all areas, 100 percent," Spohr said.

He had 630 hours of flying experience by the time he was at the controls during Tuesday's fatal crash into the French Alps, only 100 hours of which were on the same model plane, the Airbus A320, officials said.

U.S. law enforcement officials have offered cooperation on the investigation.

"The FBI has offered assistance to our French partners, who are leading the investigation into the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525," the agency said in a statement Thursday. "We stand ready to fulfill any requests for information or assistance by crash investigators, as we work with partner nations whose citizens were impacted by this tragedy."

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Germanwings Crash: How Co-Pilot Kept Captain Out of the Cockpit

iStock/Thinkstock(COLOGNE, Germany) -- The protocols that were put in place to stop an attacker from taking control of a plane were used against a captain by his co-pilot that resulted in the Germanwings crash in the French Alps, the airline's CEO suggested Thursday.

The CEO of Lufthansa, which owns Germanwings, spoke on Thursday about the safeguards in place to separate the cockpit from the rest of the plane, saying that the co-pilot appears to have purposefully locked his colleague out in the minutes leading up to the fatal crash.

CEO Carsten Spohr said that the Airbus A320 in question has a code on the outside of the door that will open it "electrically and automatically" but it can be stopped by whoever remains in the cockpit.

"This can be impeded by those in the cockpit by pressing a lever that says lock and the door will be closed for five minutes," Spohr said.

The cockpit voice recorder was found in the wreckage and investigators have reportedly been able to hear the captain exiting the cockpit, leaving 27-year-old co-pilot Andreas Lubitz at the controls.

Tapping can be heard on the audio recording, progressing into louder banging, which is believed to be the captain trying to get back into the cockpit, Spohr said, noting that the company's planes had the doors to the cockpit reinforced so that access is not possible using force or weapons.

"Since the eleventh of September, the access to a cockpit has changed," Spohr said, referring to the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001.

Pilots and crew members know the code to get into the cockpit "by heart," Spohr said, suggesting that the co-pilot purposefully prevented the captain to get back inside.

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Germanwings Crash: What We Know About the Co-Pilot

iStock Editorial/Thinkstock(MARSEILLE, France) -- The co-pilot who was at the controls of the Germanwings plane that crashed in the French Alps this week had logged relatively few hours, at least by U.S. standards, prior to the fatal flight.

He has been identified by French authorities as German citizen Andreas Lubitz, 27, and his actions in the final minutes of the flight are believed to have caused the crash, Brice Robin, public prosecutor of Marseille, said Thursday at a news conference.

“The intention was to destroy the plane," Robin said, speaking mostly in French.

An airline spokeswoman said Lubitz had 630 hours of flight experience and only 100 of those hours were on this particular model of plane, an Airbus A320. By comparison, a U.S. first officer would be required to have at least 1,500 hours of experience to get hired by an airline.

Investigators have been able to listen to the audio recording from inside the cockpit and the captain can be heard leaving the cockpit and then tapping on the door to re-enter but being denied, Robin said.

The banging on the door grows louder while the co-pilot can be heard breathing throughout, he added, suggesting he was not incapacitated before the Tuesday crash that left 150 people dead.

Robin said the co-pilot had no reason not to allow the captain back into the cockpit and he should not have gone silent on the radio to air traffic control.

"When you commit suicide, you die alone,” Robin said in response to a question. “With 150 on the plane, I wouldn't call that suicide.”

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