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Iran strikes back at U.S. with missile attack at bases in Iraq

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran struck back at the United States for the killing of a top Iranian general early today, firing a series of ballistic missiles at two Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops in a major escalation that brought the two longtime foes closer to war.

Iranian state TV said it was in revenge for the U.S. killing of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, whose death last week in an American drone strike near Baghdad prompted angry calls to avenge his slaying. A U.S. official said there were no immediate reports of American casualties, though buildings were still being searched.

‘All is well!’ President Donald Trump tweeted shortly after the missile attacks, adding, ‘So far, so good’ regarding casualties.

Soleimani’s killing and the strikes by Iran came as tensions have been rising steadily across the Mideast after President Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw America from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers. They also marked the first time in recent years that Washington and Tehran have attacked each other directly rather than through proxies in the region. It raised the chances of open conflict erupting between the two enemies, which have been at odds since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

But in a tweet shortly after the missile launches, Iran’s foreign minister called a ballistic missile attack a “proportionate measures in self-defense” and said it was not seeking to escalate the situation but would defend itself against any aggression.

Iran initially announced only one strike, but U.S. officials confirmed both. U.S. defense officials were at the White House, likely to discuss options with Trump, who launched the strike on Soleimani while facing an upcoming impeachment trial in the Senate,

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard warned the U.S. and its regional allies against retaliating over the missile attack against the Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq’s western Anbar province. The Guard issued the warning via a statement carried by Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency.

“We are warning all American allies, who gave their bases to its terrorist army, that any territory that is the starting point of aggressive acts against Iran will be targeted,” The Guard said. It also threatened Israel.

After the strikes, a former Iranian nuclear negotiator posted a picture of the Islamic Republic’s flag on Twitter, appearing to mimic Trump who posted an American flag following the killing of Soleimani and others Friday in a drone strike in Baghdad.

Ain al-Asad air base was first used by American forces after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, and later saw American troops stationed there amid the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. It houses about 1,500 U.S. and coalition forces.

Two Iraqi security officials said at least one of the missiles appeared to have struck a plane at the base, igniting a fire. It was not immediately clear whether it was an Iraqi or U.S. jet. There were no immediate reports of casualties from the attacks, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity as they had no permission to brief journalists.

About 70 Norwegian troops also were on the air base but no injuries were reported, Brynjar Stordal, a spokesperson for the Norwegian Armed Forces told The Associated Press.

Trump visited the sprawling Ain al-Asad air base, about 100 miles west of Baghdad, in December 2018, making his first presidential visit to troops in the region. He did not meet with any Iraqi officials at the time, and his visit inflamed sensitivities about the continued presence of U.S. forces in Iraq. Vice President Mike Pence also has visited the base.

Iranian state TV said the Guard’s aerospace division that controls Iran’s missile program launched the attack, which it said was part of an operation dubbed “Martyr Soleimani.” Iran said it would release more information later.

The U.S. also acknowledged another missile attack on a base in Irbil in Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region.

“As we evaluate the situation and our response, we will take all necessary measures to protect and defend U.S. personnel, partners and allies in the region,” said Jonathan Hoffman, an assistant to the U.S. defense secretary.

Today’s revenge attack happened a mere few hours after crowds in Iran mourned Soleimani at his funeral. It also came the U.S. continued to reinforce its own positions in the region and warned of an unspecified threat to shipping from Iran in the region’s waterways, crucial routes for global energy supplies. U.S. embassies and consulates from Asia to Africa and Europe issued security alerts for Americans. The FAA also warned of a “potential for miscalculation or mis-identification” for civilian aircraft in the Persian Gulf amid in an emergency flight restriction.

A stampede broke out Tuesday at Soleimani’s funeral, and at least 56 people were killed and more than 200 were injured as thousands thronged the procession, Iranian news reports said. Shortly after Iran’s revenge missile launches early today, Soleimani’s shroud-wrapped remains were lowered into the ground as mourners wailed at the grave site.

Tuesday’s deadly stampede took place in Soleimani’s hometown of Kerman as his coffin was being borne through the city in southeastern Iran, said Pirhossein Koulivand, head of Iran’s emergency medical services.

There was no information about what set off the crush in the packed streets, and online videos showed only its aftermath: people lying apparently lifeless, their faces covered by clothing, emergency crews performing CPR on the fallen, and onlookers wailing and crying out to God.

“Unfortunately as a result of the stampede, some of our compatriots have been injured and some have been killed during the funeral processions,” Koulivand said, and state TV quoted him as saying that 56 had died and 213 had been injured.

Soleimani’s burial was delayed, with no new time given, because of concerns about the huge crowd at the cemetery, the semi-official ISNA news agency said.

A procession in Tehran on Monday drew over 1 million people in the Iranian capital, crowding both main avenues and side streets in Tehran. Such mass crowds can prove dangerous. A smaller stampede at the 1989 funeral for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini killed at least eight people and injured hundreds.

Hossein Salami, Soleimani’s successor as leader of the Revolutionary Guard, addressed a crowd of supporters gathered at the coffin in a central square in Kernan. He vowed to avenge Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike Friday near Baghdad’s airport.

The U.S. blames Soleimani for killing U.S. troops in Iraq and accused him of plotting new attacks just before he was killed. Soleimani also led forces supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad in that country’s civil war, and he also served as the point man for Iranian proxies in countries like Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Assad in Syria on Tuesday amid the tensions between Washington and Tehran.

Soleimani’s slaying already has led Tehran to abandon the remaining limits of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers as his successor and others vow to take revenge.

In Iraq, pro-Iranian factions in parliament have pushed to oust American troops from Iraqi soil following Soleimani’s killing. Germany and Canada announced plans to move some of their soldiers in Iraq to neighboring countries.

The FAA warning barred U.S. pilots and carriers from flying over areas of Iraqi, Iranian and some Persian Gulf airspace. The region is a major East-West travel hub and home to Emirates airline and Dubai International Airport, the world’s busiest for international travel.

Hanes Mall Macy's to close. Second major store closing at mall in the past year

Macy’s Inc. said Tuesday it is closing its Hanes Mall store, the second of five anchor tenants to depart in the past year.

A clearance sale will begin this month and run about eight to 12 weeks. The company said an exact closing date has not been set and will depend mostly on the success of the clearance sale.

The three-level Macy’s store is 151,415 square feet, with the overall property contains 9.68 acres when including its parking lot.

Macy’s owns the property.

The anchor space was added to Hanes Mall in 1990 — the same year as the Dillard’s anchor store — and was originally owned by the Thalhimers department store chain. Thalhimers stores were converted to Hecht’s in 1992 after a sale to the May Company. Hecht’s became Macy’s in 2006 after the merger of May and Federated Department Stores.

As for the closure, “Macy’s previously shared this information with our valued colleagues,” said Julianne Olivo, a media-relations manager for Macy’s. “Regular, nonseasonal colleagues who we are unable to place at nearby Macy’s stores will be eligible for severance, including outplacement resources.”

Olivo said the decision to close a store “is always a difficult one.”

“Macy’s is proud to have served the Winston Salem community, and we look forward to continuing to do so at Macy’s Friendly Center (in Greensboro) and online at macys.com,” she said.

Sears, an original Hanes Mall anchor from 1975, closed in January 2019. The Sears property is owned by the real-estate arm of Novant Health Inc.

Hanes Mall officials deferred comment on the Macy’s closure to its corporate owner and operator, CBL Properties.

Stacey Keating, CBL’s senior director of public relations and corporate communications, said the company was recently made aware of Macy’s plans.

Based on news reports, Macy’s is closing at least 15 stores in early 2020. It announced plans in August 2016 to close at least 100 stores nationwide.

Olivo said Macy’s doesn’t yet know the total number of stores that will be closed but will have more information on Feb. 5, the company’s investor day.

The Hanes Mall Macy’s appears to be the only one closing in North Carolina. In addition to Macy’s Friendly Center, the retailer retains two stores in both Charlotte and Raleigh and one each in Durham and Fayetteville.

“We’ve not been made aware of any other closures in our (CBL) portfolio,” Keating said.

Keating declined to comment when asked how CBL would work with Macy’s to find retailers or others willing to buy the vacated space and parking lot.

“We are evaluating alternatives and will share more information when plans are finalized,” Keating said.

Mall’s challenges

The pending departure of a second anchor tenant creates replacement challenges for Hanes Mall and CBL.

All five Hanes Mall anchors — counting Belk’s, Dillard’s, J.C. Penney and Sears — own or owned their store properties and parking areas.

The 151,415-square-foot Macy’s store is valued at $2.57 million, according to Forsyth County tax-parcel data, while the 9.68 acres are valued at $6.6 million.

The mall and CBL were fortunate with the Sears nationwide downsizing in that Novant Health’s real-estate arm spent $14.5 million in October 2018 to buy the 175,000-square-foot mall space, the outparcel automotive building and the parking lots — 16.72 acres total. Novant hasn’t made its plans for the space public.

Real estate as an asset

Business Insider reported Tuesday that several of the Macy’s stores were chosen for closing in large part because their leases were expiring.

The Motley Fool financial website said in a May 29 article that between fiscal years 2016 and 2018, Macy’s generated more than $1.5 billion of proceeds from selling real-estate assets.

At that time, Macy’s management told The Motley Fool that the pace of asset sales would moderate in 2019.

Macy’s has discussed partnering with Brookfield Asset Management to pursue potential retailers interested in leasing space in outparcel storefronts built on its parking lots, as well as mixed-use developments that might include multifamily housing, office and hotel space.

For example, Belk’s parking area contains two outparcels owned by a CBL affiliate — Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and Brews at 188 Hanes Mall Circle and BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse at 192 Hanes Mall Circle.

“The upside from these development projects is substantial,” The Motley Fool said. “However, they will take years to pay off, which is why asset sale gains are moderating for now.”

A study by Cowen & Co., a financial-services research firm, put the value of Macy’s real-estate assets at $16 billion as of late 2017.

“The vast majority of Macy’s real estate value will remain ‘trapped’ unless the company decides to sell and downsize, or close, stores,” according to The Motley Fool. “Crucially, if the bears are right and Macy’s plan to reinvigorate sales growth fails, it would probably make sense to downsize the chain, including selling some of the more valuable stores.

“The proceeds could be used to pay down even more debt or could be returned to shareholders.”

Remaking of malls

Michael Walden, a N.C. State University economics professor, said he wouldn’t be surprised if Hanes Mall — and other North Carolina malls — begin losing J.C. Penney as an anchor.

J.C. Penney, an original Hanes Mall anchor, owns its 13.86-acre property and 198,724-square-foot store. Because it has held onto its property since the mall opened, there is no property and building value listed on the county’s tax-parcel website.

“Look for a major re-making of the mall, possibly including offices and residences,” Walden said.

“This transformation is occurring to a couple of malls in Raleigh.

“The location is still valuable — it’s the use of the location that will change.”

Photos: Hanes Mall in recent years

Former Wake Forest Baptist cancer researcher convicted of possessing child porn

A former cancer researcher at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges that he downloaded child pornography that involved girls as young as 9 months old.

Michael James Pennison, 36, pleaded guilty to nine counts of third-degree sex exploitation of a minor in Forsyth Superior Court.

Judge David Hall of Forsyth Superior Court consolidated all nine counts into three judgments. He gave Pennison three consecutive suspended sentences of five months to 15 months in prison. Hall then placed Pennison on five years of supervised probation. If Pennison violates the terms of his probation, he will be arrested, and held on a $100,000 bond and he could be ordered to serve active prison time.

Pennison also will have to register as a sex offender. Pennison’s attorney asked that his probation be transferred to Louisiana, where most of his family members live. Hall said he had concerns about doing that and deferred his decision until he could get more information to ensure that Louisiana probation officials could effectively supervise Pennison. Hall said if he approved the transfer, he would require Pennison to come back to Forsyth County so that he could review Pennison’s compliance with his probation.

Assistant District Attorney Kia Chavious said that Winston-Salem police officers were contacted on Jan. 26, 2019 about allegations involving Pennison. At the time, Pennison was living with his now-ex girlfriend. He had given her a password to his computer so that she could search for refrigerators she was interested in purchasing, Chavious said.

The girlfriend suspected that Pennison was cheating on her and clicked on several folders to see if there was evidence. She opened a folder and found videos of girls ages 8-10 and younger engaging in various sexual acts with men, Chavious said.

Chavious said an officer interviewed the girlfriend and later talked to Pennison while the investigation was in its early stages.

When the officer asked Pennison about the videos on his computer, Pennison said, “Oh my God! I forgot about all that,” according to Chavious.

Pennison told the officer that he had been doing research about the “dark web,” which is encrypted content that cannot be found by conventional search engines such as Google. Chavious said Pennison acknowledged that the content of the videos was “messed up” and that the girls depicted in the videos were in a “messed-up place.”

The case was eventually assigned to the Winston-Salem Police Department’s Internet Crimes Against Children unit. Pennison initially consented to a search of the computer, then became reluctant. Eventually, he agreed to police detectives searching his computer, Chavious said.

Detectives found nine videos on Pennison’s computer that depicted child pornography. The videos showed girls as young as 9 months and as old as 10 being sexually abused by men, Chavious said.

Dylan Greenwood, Pennison’s attorney, said Pennison appeared to have downloaded the child pornography in 2015 and that he only did it twice. In 2015, Pennison was severely depressed, Greenwood said. That depression was partially caused by the intense pressure he was under as a cancer researcher whose focus was on finding ways to diagnose colon cancer as early as possible to guarantee patients the best treatment.

Pennison began this research while in graduate school at Northwestern University, where he met his mentor, Greenwood said. Pennison followed the mentor to Birmingham, Ala., and finally to Winston-Salem, where he began working at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center as a researcher.

Wake Forest Baptist said Tuesday that Pennison worked as a researcher from 2014 to December 2019 when he resigned. He was not involved in patient care.

Greenwood said that the pressures from work collided with personal issues, especially when Pennison suddenly became a single father after the mother of his child left him with sole parenting responsibilities. That led to depression so severe that he was found at the top of the parking lot at Wake Forest Baptist, contemplating killing himself, Greenwood said.

Pennison also became an alcoholic, Greenwood said.

“We were concerned that every meeting we had with him was going to be his last,” Greenwood said, describing his client’s mental state.

Greenwood said his client has turned a corner, dealing with his alcoholism and his depression, and is sorry for his actions.

Winston-Salem man indicted for murder of cab driver in 2018.

A Winston-Salem man has been indicted for fatally shooting a cab driver in March 2018.

Calvin Lee Moore Jr., 27, of the 4200 block of Whitfield Road was indicted Monday for first-degree murder in the death of Richard Dorman Webb, 49. The indictment moves the case from district court to superior court, where either a plea arrangement is made or a trial is scheduled.

Webb’s body was found after Winston-Salem police officers responded at 3:50 a.m. March 8, 2018, to a report that a Classic Cab was parked near Forest Park Elementary School with the door open. Officers said Webb’s body was in the driver’s seat.

Winston-Salem police would later say that Webb had been shot in the back. According to search warrants, Moore told Winston-Salem police detectives in an interview that he shot Webb with a handgun that police recovered from the house where Moore was found after the shooting.

Moore had called for a cab at 2 a.m. the morning of March 8, 2018. His sister told police, according to search warrants, that he routinely called for a cab from a house on Whitfield Road to go to a house in the 1700 block of Peachtree Street. The house on Peachtree Street is about a block away from where Webb’s body was found, according to the search warrants.

Police found various items scattered in the cab, including Webb’s cell phone. Winston-Salem police believed that a possible robbery had occurred, the search warrants said. Police have not publicly released a possible motive in the shooting.

Barry Abdul, the manager of the Classic Cab Co., told the Winston-Salem Journal in 2018 that Webb had been driving for the company for three years. He said Webb worked during the day but had volunteered to work the night of the shooting because the company didn’t have enough drivers.

Abdul said that Webb was always willing to help out and took breaks only to eat, rest and feed his pets. According to his Facebook page, Webb had a dog and two pythons.

Webb graduated from Perquimans County High School in Hertford, his Facebook page said.

Moore is being held in the Forsyth County Jail with no bond allowed.