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Three Senior ISIS Leaders Killed in US Airstrikes in Iraq

Stocktrek Images/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Three senior ISIS leaders have been killed in recent weeks by U.S. airstrikes inside Iraq, including the terror group’s right-hand man, the Pentagon confirmed.

The news comes as the American commander leading the U.S. effort against ISIS in Iraq and Syria says coalition efforts are having a “significant impact” on the terror group’s operations.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, disclosed the strikes against the ISIS leaders in an interview Thursday with the Wall Street Journal.

“It is disruptive to their planning and command and control,” Gen. Dempsey said. “These are high-value targets, senior leadership.”

“I can confirm that since mid-November, targeted coalition airstrikes successfully killed multiple senior and mid-level leaders within the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL),” said Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby, who used another name for ISIS.

“We believe that the loss of these key leaders degrades ISIL's ability to command and control current operations against Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), including Kurdish and other local forces in Iraq,” said Kirby.

U.S. officials said that among the two ISIS leaders killed in early December was Haji Mutazz, who is described as a “deputy wali” or “governor.” They describe Mutazz as being the right-hand man to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS.

Also killed in December was Abd al Basit, whom the officials described as the head of ISIS military operations in Iraq.

Another strike in late November also resulted in the death of Radwin Talib, who is described as having been the wali, or governor, in Mosul.

One official said that the targeting of senior-level leaders is being done to set the conditions for an eventual Iraqi military offensive into Mosul. U.S. officials have said that the Mosul offensive could occur late in 2015, though the Iraqi military seems intent on a faster timeline.

Lt. Gen. James Terry, the commander of the Combined Joint Task Force, Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters at a Pentagon briefing that the U.S. and its coalition partners have conducted 1,361 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.

“Combined efforts like these are having a significant effect on Daesh's ability to command and control, to resupply, and to conduct maneuvering,” said Terry.

Terry said that ISIS “has been halted and transitioned to the defense and is attempting to hold what they currently have.” He would not provide a timeline for a potential Iraqi counterattack in Mosul, but said in the meantime Iraq’s military will conduct local counteroffensives.

On Tuesday, the Kurdish Peshmerga launched a counteroffensive in northwestern Iraq to retake areas near Sinjar and Zumar. The coalition has launched 53 airstrikes since Tuesday night in support of the Kurdish operation that Terry said had led to the seizure of 100 square kilometers of territory.

The U.S and five Arab nations have also conducted hundreds of airstrikes inside Syria, namely the city of Kobani along the border with Turkey. The airstrikes in that city have blunted an ISIS offensive against Syrian Kurdish fighters.

At a congressional hearing last week, Brett McGurk, one of the administration’s point men in building the coalition against ISIS, said the airstrikes there have “resulted in nearly 1,000 ISIL fighters killed, including many leaders.”

“We will continue to be persistent in this regard and we will strike Daesh at every possible opportunity,” said Terry, who used the Arabic term to describe the ISIS acronym.

Terry explained that Gulf allies have asked the United States to refer to the group by this Arabic term because the English variant legitimizes “a self-declared caliphate." The general said “Daesh” also sounds like another word “that means to crush underneath the foot.”

Terry said there have now been 53 airstrikes since Tuesday to support the Peshmerga effort to retake Sinjar and Zumar, with Kurdish forces having retaken 100 square kilometers of territory.

He said that so far his forces have not had to investigate reports of civilian casualties from the airstrikes. He noted that targeting from the air requires a lot of work because of the negative impact a strike on civilian casualties could have on the operation.

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Pope Francis Congratulates Developments in US-Cuba Relations

iStock Editorial/Thinkstock(ROME) -- Pope Francis congratulated the United States and Cuba on Thursday for agreeing to establish diplomatic ties after more than half a century of frozen relations.

The historic thaw in relations between the two countries came about after a year of secret talks in Canada that directly involved the pope.

The Vatican says Pope Francis wrote letters to Cuban President Raúl Castro and President Obama to urge them to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest. Those included the situation of certain prisoners.

The Vatican said it received American and Cuban delegations to the Vatican in October, providing space for the two sides to negotiate diplomatic solutions to the decades-long stand off.

The Vatican added that it will continue to provide support for both countries as they move toward strengthening their ties.

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Watch Vladimir Putin Mistake Stroke Survivor for 'Drunk' Journalist

Sean Gallup/Getty Images(MOSCOW) —  During his annual marathon news conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin Thursday mistook a stroke victim for a drunk.

He called on a reporter, thinking he was from Turkey, but who was instead from the Russian region of Kirov. The lively reporter, identified as Vladimir Mamatova, wanted to ask about why the traditional Russian drink, kvas, can’t compete with Coca-Cola and Pepsi for shelf space in stores.

Kirov is famous for its production of kvas, a lightly alcoholic beverage of fermented bread.

“Kvas?” Putin asked. “I feel you’ve already drank kvas.”

As the audience roared with laughter, Mamatova explained that he wanted to bring some in for Putin to taste, but that security would not allow it.

“I got it. You do not have a taster,” Mamatova said. “My question is this. We make a lot of this kvas, we make it well and for long time.”

“Yes, I see this,” Putin said, chuckling.

But Mamatova had apparently suffered two strokes and was not drunk, according to Kremlin-friendly LifeNews.

After the news conference, Mamatova stood outside the conference center that hosted the event smoking a cigarette and sipping a bottle of kvas.


Outside I found the kvas guy... sipping kvas

— Kirit Radia (@KiritRadia) December 18, 2014

Watch the ABC News report below for more on Putin's news conference:

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What It Takes to Set Up a New Embassy in Cuba

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- So what does the United States have to do in order to officially establish an embassy somewhere?

Not much more than change the sign on the door, even in Cuba.

There are few legal requirements for a U.S. mission or other diplomatic building to become an embassy. Countries just have to exchange letters or notes saying they want to establish ties. And in this case, the United States has to end its agreement with the Swiss government, which has protected U.S. officials in Cuba for 53 years.

“That will be done as soon as possible, whereupon we would transition to becoming an embassy and we would change the sign on our mission,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs Roberta Jacobson said Thursday.

But just because establishing an embassy is so casual doesn’t mean it will happen quickly. All the changes that go into normalizing relations, like expanding travel licenses, take a while to be implemented and put in the Federal Register.

So Americans looking to get their first legal Cohibas back to the states will still have to wait a few weeks.

“Days or weeks, certainly not months,” Jacobson said.

Once that happens, the building and personnel are already there. Jacobson noted that the United States already has more officials in Cuba than many other countries that have full relations with Havana, and the United States Interest Section there -- built in 1953 by the U.S. firm Harrison & Abramovitz and now led by career foreign service offer Jeffrey DeLaurentis -- regularly hosts Thanksgiving dinners, Fourth of July parties and other events.

But while the building and the people are already there, it will still be a while until an ambassador calls the new embassy home. There has to be an official embassy before an ambassador can be appointed, and then the waiting game for Senate confirmation, which has sometimes taken more than a year recently, begins.

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Here's What Happened the Last Time a US President Visited Cuba

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- When President Obama told ABC News on Wednesday that he has not ruled out visiting Cuba in the future, it opened the doors for the first presidential visit to the island nation since 1928.

The last American president to visit Cuba while in office was Calvin Coolidge, who traveled there in January 1928.

The world was a different place.

The Holland Tunnel opened only two months earlier under the Hudson River, linking New Jersey with New York City, and the first air-conditioned office building opened in San Antonio.

Coolidge traveled to Cuba to address the Sixth Annual International Conference of American States in Havana on Jan. 16, 1928. Coolidge and his wife met with Cuban President, Gerardo Machado, who was in office from 1925 to 1933 until he was forced into exile.

Cuba was the only foreign country Coolidge visited while in the White House. At the time, Benito Mussolini ruled Italy. Two months before Coolidge's visit to Cuba, Leon Trotsky was expelled from the Soviet Communist Party, leaving Joseph Stalin in control. About a month after that, Iraq had gained independence from Britain.

Coolidge rode a presidential rail car without air-conditioning to Key West, then boarded the U.S.S. Texas battleship for the overnight trip to Havana, 100 miles away.

"The thirty-two-hour trip down to the tip of Florida was decorous and dull," Saturday Evening Post reporter Beverly Smith Jr. recalled in a 1958 article, "To Cuba With Cal." "Cal was granting no press conferences."

After the boat arrived in Havana, "The crowds were tremendous and enthusiastic," Smith wrote. "They cheered themselves hoarse for Presidente Coolidge. They pushed close to his car, blowing kisses and throwing flowers. Cal, seemingly touched by this unaccustomed Latin warmth, showed more animation than usual. He bowed, he smiled, he took off his silk hat."

In his speech, Coolidge said, "Thirty years ago Cuba ranked as a foreign possession, torn by revolution and devastated by hostile forces. Such government as existed rested on military force. Today Cuba is her own sovereign. Her people are independent, free, and prosperous, peaceful, and enjoying the advantages of self-government."

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Miss World Pageant Puts Bikini Ban on Future Competitions

LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Since 1951, the Miss World pageant has been featuring over 120 contestants competing for one title and a crown. Now, for the first time in 63 years, the organization's chairwoman, Julia Morley, has announced that Miss World will no longer feature a swimsuit round in their competition.

"The organization has decided to take itself out of the swimsuit world because it isn't the path they're trying to take," said Chris Wilmer, the national director of Miss World America/Miss United States organization. "It's not just a beauty contest, it's 'beauty with a purpose'. There didn't seem to be a purpose to have the swimsuit."

In recent years, Miss World has emphasized their "beauty with a purpose" round, where contestants carry out charity work and raise awareness to worthy causes.

"Miss World should be a spokesperson who can help a community," Wilmer told ABC News. "She's more of an ambassador, not a beauty queen. It's more about the outreach and what a woman could do with a title like Miss World."

As they try to steer clear of focusing on the physical appeal of their contestants, Miss World plans to feature a beachwear round in competitions, as opposed to bikinis.

"It'll be more of a fashion competition than a bikini show," Wilmer said.

In addition to the swimsuit round, Miss World contestants have competed in challenge events like sports, dance, talent, top model gown, Beauty with a Purpose video, and several interviews.

"I salute the miss world organization for their efforts to try and modernize," Wilmer said. "Pageantry is an age old industry and I think with Julia getting rid of swimsuit and making it more of a lifestyle competition sends a strong message and I applaud her for it."

On Dec. 14, Rolene Strauss of South Africa was crowned the 64th Miss World winner in London. It marked the final event featuring contestants wearing bikinis.

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WATCH: Massive 'Dustnado' Forms in Australia

iStock/Thinkstock(SYDNEY) -- A "dustnado" was captured on tape Thursday in Australia.

Video taken from a vehicle and posted online shows the swirl rising into the air, in the shape of a tornado, near Brisbane.

Dustnadoes, sometimes called dirt devils or gustnadoes, are a weather phenomenon common in desert areas, and happen when wind lifts loose dirt or sand into a vortex.

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The Year 2014 in Space: Out of This World Moments

NASA/Twitter(NEW YORK) — 2014 has been a year of picture-perfect, out-of-this-world moments and incredible firsts in space exploration.

The European Space Agency landed a probe on a speeding comet and NASA celebrated a successful maiden voyage of "America's spacecraft," Orion.

Among the triumphs, there was also tragedy.

Here are seven moments from 2014 that defined the year in space travel, exploration and appreciation.

1. Philae Lands on Comet 67P

It's an image billions of years in the making.

After a decade-long journey spanning nearly 400 million miles, the Philae lander separated from the Rosetta spacecraft and landed on a speeding comet -- not once or twice but three times.

After bouncing twice, the lander came to rest against a walled area, obstructing its solar panels from sunlight, said Philae Lander Manager Stephan Ulamec.

"The not-so-good news is that the anchoring harpoons did not fire, so the lander is not anchored to the surface," Ulamec said.

However, the mission was still a resounding success, transmitting the first-ever photos from the surface of a comet and conducting new experiments that could yield insight about the origins of the solar system.

2. Rosetta Spacecraft's Philae Probe Pulls Off Comet Landing

NASA awarded contracts in September to Boeing and Elon Musk's SpaceX to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, signaling the agency's return to manned spaceflight after the end of the space shuttle program.

The winning designs will end U.S. dependence on the Russian Soyuz for transportation back and forth to the International Space Station.

"This is the fulfillment of the commitment President Obama made to return human space flight launches to U.S. soil and end our reliance on the Russians," NASA administrator Charles Bolden said.

3. Virgin Galactic's Fatal Crash

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo broke up over the Mojave Desert in California after being released from a carrier aircraft at high altitude.

It could be as long as a year before federal investigators have any answers about what caused the Virgin Galactic spacecraft crash, which killed one co-pilot and left another injured.

Among the causes being explored are pilot error, mechanical failure and the design of the spacecraft.

National Transportation Safety Board Acting Chairman Christopher Hart said in a November briefing that investigators found the feathering system that slows the spacecraft's descent was deployed before it reached the appropriate speed, however it was unclear how that factored into the crash.

Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, said "safety has guided every decision" Virgin Galactic has made over the past decade and vowed that the company's dream of commercial space travel would continue.

4. Antares Rocket Explosion

Within seconds of launching, the Antares rocket, which was destined for a supply mission to the International Space Station, exploded into a fireball over Wallops Island, Virginia.

Orbital Sciences, which owned the Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft, cited a "vehicle anomaly" for the failed launch.

5. Orion Blasts Off on Test Mission

We're one step closer to sending a manned mission to Mars.

Orion's maiden voyage on Dec. 4 was picture perfect from the moment it launched from Florida until it splashed down four and a half hours later in the Pacific Ocean.

During its journey, the space capsule passed a series of milestones, flying through the Van Allen radiation belts and even managing to send live video of the entire globe back to Earth -- the first time this has happened since Apollo 17 in 1972.

The spacecraft, which has seats for four astronauts, orbited Earth twice at an altitude of 3,600 miles before splashing down 600 miles off the coast of California, where it was recovered by the U.S. Navy.

6. Astronauts Tweet Stunning Photos from International Space Station

Social media savvy astronauts at the International Space Station shared details of life in microgravity and some incredible snaps taken from their home in low Earth orbit.

During his stay at the International Space Station, astronaut Alexander Gerst tweeted a photo showing what the conflict between Israel and Gaza looked like in July.

"My saddest photo yet. From #ISS we can actually see explosions and rockets flying over #Gaza & #Israel," he wrote.

While Gerst's photo was somber, there were other lighter moments showing life at the ISS. For starters, we learned all about the chores schedule from Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti.

7. Incredible Year for Eclipses

The year brought a calendar packed with gorgeous eclipses -- including two gorgeous blood red moons.

The special lunar eclipse happens when Earth positions itself between the sun and the moon, casting a majestic red hue.

Here's something to look forward to in 2015: You'll have two more chances to catch a blood moon. The next total lunar eclipse will be on April 4, 2015, according to NASA.

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US Says North Korea Responsible for Sony Hack

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Those who hacked Sony Pictures Entertainment - releasing a trove of emails and stealing personal data from company executives - were directed to do so by North Korean officials, a senior administration official told ABC News Wednesday.

The hackers have also threatened to attack theaters screening The Interview - a fictional comedy about two Americans who are asked to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un - leading several major chains to pull the film from their lineups and Sony to cancel its Christmas Day release date.

The U.S. used painstaking cyber-sleuthing to piece together what happened, the official said, noting that the individual or group behind the hack were not in North Korea. The official said U.S. intelligence and the FBI pulled all the stops out given the unprecedented nature of the attack that destroyed files, shut down work stations and exploited company secrets and strategy.

"Sony Pictures has been the victim of an unprecedented criminal assault against our employees, our customers, and our business," Sony said in a statement provided to ABC News. "Those who attacked us stole our intellectual property, private emails, and sensitive and proprietary material, and sought to destroy our spirit and our morale – all apparently to thwart the release of a movie they did not like."

Last week, the FBI held a private meeting in New York with reps from across the entertainment industry to brief them on cyber-related threats against them. The Sony hack was not the only topic discussed, but it was a major one, sources said.

On Tuesday, Guardians of Peace, the group that has claimed responsibility for hacking Sony, posted a warning to theaters showing the movie and for the first time discussed The Interview by name rather than relatively vague references.

"We will clearly show it to you at the very time and places The Interview [will] be shown, including the premier, how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to," the note released by the group of hackers reads. "The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September 2001."

The post adds that people should stay away from places where the movie is shown and "whatever comes… all the world will denounce the SONY."

An official in the Department of Homeland Security said the department is "aware" of the threat.

"We are still analyzing the credibility of these statements, but at this time there is no credible intelligence to indicate an active plot against movie theaters within the United States," the official said.

National Security Council Spokesperson Bernadette Meehan released a statement Wednesday night acknowledging the U.S. government's offer of support and assistance to Sony Pictures Entertainment. "The FBI has the lead for the investigation," Meehan said, adding that "the U.S. government is working tirelessly to bring the perpetrators of this attack to justice, and we are considering a range of options in weighing a potential response."

Meehan also acknowledged Sony's announcement that it would not release the film on Christmas Day as previously planned. "The United States respects artists' and entertainers' right to produce and distribute content of their choosing," she said. "The U.S. government has no involvement in such decisions. We take very seriously any attempt to threaten to limit artists' freedom of speech or of expression."

Two former high-level government officials also downplayed the threat to ABC News.

"Somebody is playing mind games with [SONY]," said Richard Clarke, cyber security expert, former White House counter-terrorism advisor and ABC News consultant. "I think North Korea has little or no capability to do any physical attacks, commando activity, or terrorism in the U.S. By saying it's coming, however, they hope to keep people from the theaters and, thereby, hurt Sony's revenue."

Matt Olsen, former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center and like Clarke an ABC News consultant, said the threat sounded more like "hooliganism" than anything really serious.

"You have to take these types of threats seriously up to a point, but this sounds more like a hoax," Olsen said.

Another cyber security expert told ABC News that Sony can't rule out cyber-attacks on the locations where the movie will be played, but short of the group having a team on the ground bent on violence, said the wording of the note "sounds like hyperbole."

The threatening note was reportedly included in a new batch of emails pilfered from Sony computers, this time allegedly from the account of Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton. Previous email batches have embarrassed major Sony figures when their personal thoughts, criticisms and jokes about A-list celebrities were publicly leaked.

Earlier this month, a North Korean official called allegations that the government was involved in the hacking "wild speculation" but called it a "righteous deed," according to a North Korean state news agency.

"[W]hat we clearly know is that the SONY Pictures is the very one which was going to produce a film abetting a terrorist act while hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] by taking advantage of the hostile policy of the U.S. administration towards the DPRK," the article said.

Monday the stars of The Interview, Seth Rogen and James Franco, told Good Morning America they never could've predicted the real-world drama surrounding the fictional story.

"I can't definitively say I know the ramifications of the storm. I mean, I don't know if the hacking honestly is because of our movie, definitively or not," Rogen said. "I know that it has been the center of a lot of media attention lately. It is weird because we just wanted to make a really funny, entertaining movie and the movie itself is very silly and wasn't meant to be controversial in any way."

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The Moment Alan Gross Entered US Airspace After 5 Years in Cuban Prison

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ)(NEW YORK) -- ABC News has exclusively obtained video of Alan Gross' reunion with his wife Judy after he was released from five years of imprisonment in Cuba.

The video, shot by Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., shows the Gross couple embracing after Gross was released as part of a historic deal between the United States and Cuba. After greeting his wife, Alan Gross hugs his attorney, Scott Gilbert.

Additional video shot by Flake shows Gross just moments after learning the plane carrying him back to the United States had left Cuban airspace.

Flake traveled to Cuba early this morning with Judy Gross, Gilbert, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., to bring Alan Gross back to the United States.

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EU Removes Hamas from List of Terrorist Organizations on Procedural Grounds

David Silverman/Getty Images(LUXEMBOURG) -- The General Court of the European Union decided on Wednesday to remove Hamas from its list of terrorist organizations.

Hamas was included on the very first iteration of that list, created on Dec. 27, 2001. Hamas had contested their inclusion on the list and on Wednesday, the General Court found that "the contested measures are based not on acts examined and confirmed in decisions of competent authorities but on factual imputations derived from the press and the internet." The General Court's decision is based on the EU requirement that any EU decision to freeze funds be made on concrete examination and confirmation of national authorities and not the press or the Internet.

In the meantime, the General Court says, the funds in question will remain frozen for three months "in order to ensure the effectiveness of any possible future freezing of funds." If an appeal is brought before the Court of Justice, funds will remain frozen until the appeal is closed.

While the decision removes Hamas from the EU's list of terrorist organizations, both the General Court and the EU's spokesperson note that the decision is based on "procedural grounds" and does not represent an assessment of the classification of Hamas as a terrorist group.

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Alan Gross Freed in Exchange for Three Cuban Agents Accused of Espionage

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The United States is releasing three Cuban agents who have been held in the United States for 16 years on controversial grounds as part of the agreement in the release of Alan Gross, a 65-year-old government contractor who left Cuba Wednesday morning after five years in prison.

A senior U.S. official said on Wednesday that the prisoner transfer came up during a phone conversation Tuesday between President Obama and Cuba’s current president, Fidel Castro’s brother Raul Castro.

And technically, the White House says they didn’t trade the three men for Gross, who was released on humanitarian grounds, but actually for a separate U.S. intelligence asset, detained in Cuba for the last 20 years, whom Havana also released Wednesday.

They’re part of what was originally called the “Cuban Five,” a group of agents convicted of espionage in a controversial 2001 trial which found them guilty of spying on anti-Fidel Castro groups but not on the U.S. government itself.

They were sentenced altogether to four life terms plus 77 years, and imprisoned in five separate maximum security prisons throughout the United States. The Cuban government and the Five’s supporters contended they were in Miami conducting anti-terrorism operations.

Two of the five were released in 2011 and 2014, respectively.

On Wednesday, the remaining three -- Hernández Nordelo, Ramón Labañino Salazar, and Antonio Guerrero Rodríguez, who have most recently been imprisoned together in North Carolina -- will also be released.

The agreement was reached following more than a year of secret back-channel talks at the highest levels of both governments.

But not everyone is pleased with the release of the three agents and the moves toward normalized relations between the U.S. and Cuba that the White House also announced Wednesday.

Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J., have long opposed normalizing relations with Cuba.

Rubio told ABC News Wednesday morning that ultimately he wants the U.S. to enjoy full diplomatic relations with the island nation, Rubio’s parents’ home country, but not right now when there is a Communist regime in power with a litany of human rights abuses.

“None of these things are going to lead to democracy in Cuba. The Cuban government will use all of those to their advantage without creating political opening. And you mark my words, five years from now there will be a dictatorship but a much more profitable one,” Rubio said.

Rubio also said later he would do everything he could to block Obama’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba.

Menendez was equally critical of the prisoner transfer.

“There is no equivalence between an international aid worker and convicted spies who were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage against our nation,” he said.

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US Confirms 67 Airstrikes in Iraq, Syria

Michael Fitzsimmons/iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- U.S. forces conducted 67 airstrikes in Syria and Iraq between Monday and Wednesday.

According to U.S. Central Command, six strikes in Syria and 61 in Iraq were conducted in the three-day span. Forty-five of the strikes in Iraq were conducted in support of the Peshmerga and Iraqi security forces operating in the region, targeting approximately 50 targets.

The strikes, led by the U.S., also involved 11 other nations, including the United Kingdom, France, Denmark, Australia, Belgium and Canada.

A defense official confirmed to ABC News that 45 airstrikes were in support of a Peshmerga offensive near Sinjar in northwest Iraq. That area is controlled by ISIS, and a highway in the area is believed to be used by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to supply its forces in Mosul and other areas of Iraq.

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USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah to Step Down

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Rajiv Shah, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, announced on Wednesday that he would step down from his post after five years, effective mid-February 2015.

The announcement comes on the same day that the White House announced it would re-open an embassy in Havana, Cuba, which had been closed when the U.S. cut diplomatic ties with Cuba in 1961.

In a statement, Shah praised President Obama's leadership, calling America "the unquestioned leader in eliminating the scourges of extreme poverty, hunger, and child death worldwide."

Shah and USAID had been involved in projects like "Cuban Twitter" and the more recently-discovered rap music program that got some Cuban artists arrested that appeared to be attempts to subvert the Cuban government. Still, a spokesperson for USAID denied any connection between those projects and Shah's stepping down.

"There is no connection...after six years as part of the president's administration, five of those leading positive transformation at USAID as one of the agency's longest-serving administrators, he is stepping down in mid-February to begin a new chapter in his life and looking forward to spending more time with his young family."

A statement from the president noted the difficult tasks Shah handled with USAID -- "responding to natural disasters, epidemics, and family, to name just a few examples," praising the USAID administrator for "[embodying] America's finest values by proactively advancing our development priorities, including ending global poverty, championing food security, promoting health and nutrition, expanding access to energy sources, and supporting political and economic reform in closed societies."

Secretary of State John Kerry called Shah "an outstanding administrator, a creative innovator, and a dynamic leader."

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US Plans to Re-Establish Embassy in Havana

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- In a true mark of the extent of the policy reversal that President Obama announced on Wednesday, the U.S. will open an embassy in Cuba.

Obama announced that the secretary of state and his department will be tasked with re-establishing an official embassy in Havana.

Secretary of State John Kerry did not specifically address the embassy re-opening when he released a statement about the new policies, but did reiterate plans for American officials, himself included, to travel to the country in the coming months.

"I look forward to being the first Secretary of State in 60 years to visit Cuba," Kerry said.

The first American embassy opened in Havana in 1923, but it was closed when America formally cut diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961.

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