Archive for January, 2020

Iran vows revenge for US attack that killed powerful general

January 04, 2020

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iran promised to seek revenge for a U.S. airstrike near Baghdad’s airport that killed the mastermind of its interventions across the Middle East, and the U.S. said Friday that it was sending thousands more troops to the region as tensions soared in the wake of the targeted killing.

The death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, marks a major escalation in the standoff between Washington and Tehran, which has careened from one crisis to another since U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed crippling sanctions.

Almost 24 hours after the attack on Soleimani, Iraqi officials and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq reported another deadly airstrike. An Iraqi government official reported a strike on two vehicles north of Baghdad but had no information on casualties. Another security official who witnessed the aftermath described charred vehicles and said five people were killed. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Iraqi state television and the media arm of the Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces also reported the strike. The group said its medics were targeted. An American official who spoke on the condition on anonymity denied the U.S. was behind the reported attack.

The targeted strike against Soleimani and any retaliation by Iran could ignite a conflict that engulfs the whole region, endangering U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and beyond. Over the last two decades, Soleimani had assembled a network of heavily armed allies stretching all the way to southern Lebanon, on Israel’s doorstep.

“We take comfort in knowing that his reign of terror is over,” Trump said of Soleimani. The United States said it was sending nearly 3,000 more troops to the Middle East, reflecting concern about potential Iranian retaliation. The U.S. also urged Americans to leave Iraq immediately following the airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport that Iran’s state TV said killed Soleimani and nine others.

The State Department said the embassy in Baghdad, which was attacked by Iran-backed militiamen and their supporters earlier this week, is closed and all consular services have been suspended. Around 5,200 American troops are based in Iraq to train Iraqi forces and help in the fight against Islamic State militants. Defense officials who discussed the new troop movements spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a decision not yet announced by the Pentagon.

A Pentagon official who was not authorized to speak publicly said the U.S. also had placed an Army brigade on alert to fly into Lebanon to protect the American Embassy. U.S. embassies also issued a security alert for Americans in Bahrain, Kuwait and Nigeria.

The announcement about sending more troops came as Trump said Soleimani’s killing was not an effort to begin a conflict with Iran. “We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war,” Trump said, adding that he does not seek regime change in Iran.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vowed “harsh retaliation” after the airstrike, calling Soleimani the “international face of resistance.” Khamenei declared three days of public mourning and appointed Maj. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani’s deputy, to replace him as head of the Quds Force.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the killing a “heinous crime” and said his country would “take revenge.” Iran twice summoned the Swiss envoy, the first time delivering a letter to pass to Washington.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the U.S. attack a “cowardly terrorist action” and said Iran has the right to respond “in any method and any time.“ Thousands of worshipers in Tehran took to the streets after Friday prayers to condemn the killing, waving posters of Soleimani and chanting “Death to deceitful America.”

However, the attack could act as a deterrent for Iran and its allies to delay or restrain any potential response. Trump said possible targets had been identified and the U.S. was prepared. Oil prices surged on news of the airstrike, and markets were mixed.

The killing promised to further strain relations with Iraq’s government, which is allied with both Washington and Tehran and has been deeply worried about becoming a battleground in their rivalry. Iraqi politicians close to Iran called for the country to order U.S. forces out.

The U.S. Defense Department said it killed the 62-year-old Soleimani because he “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” It also accused Soleimani of approving orchestrated violent protests at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

The strike, on an access road near Baghdad’s airport, was carried out early Friday by an American drone, according to a U.S. official. Soleimani had just disembarked from a plane arriving from either Syria or Lebanon, a senior Iraqi security official said. The blast tore apart his body and that of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces. A senior politician said Soleimani’s body was identified by the ring he wore.

Others killed include five members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard and Soleimani’s son-in-law, Iranian state TV said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

The attack comes at the start of a year in which Trump faces both a Senate trial following his impeachment and a re-election campaign. It marks a potential turning point in the Middle East and represents a drastic change for American policy toward Iran after months of tensions.

They are rooted in Trump’s decision in May 2018 to withdraw the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, struck under Barack Obama. Since then, Tehran shot down a U.S. military surveillance drone and seized oil tankers. The U.S. also blames Iran for other attacks targeting tankers and a September assault on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry that temporarily halved its production.

Supporters of the strike against Soleimani said it restored U.S. deterrence power against Iran, and Trump allies were quick to praise the action. “To the Iranian government: if you want more, you will get more,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham tweeted.

“Hope this is the first step to regime change in Tehran,” Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, wrote in a tweet. Others, including Democratic presidential hopefuls, criticized Trump’s order. Joe Biden said Trump had “tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox,” saying it could leave the U.S. “on the brink of a major conflict across the Middle East.”

Trump, who was vacationing at his private club in Palm Beach, Florida, said he ordered the airstrike because Soleimani had killed and wounded many Americans over the years and was plotting to kill many more.

“He should have been taken out many years ago,” Trump added. The potential for a spiraling escalation alarmed U.S. allies and rivals alike. “We are waking up in a more dangerous world,” France’s deputy minister for foreign affairs, Amelie de Montchalin, told RTL radio.

The European Union warned against a “generalized flare-up of violence.” Russia condemned the killing, and fellow Security Council member China said it was “highly concerned.” Britain and Germany noted that Iran also bore some responsibility for escalating tensions.

Even so, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed frustration at the European reaction. “Frankly, the Europeans haven’t been as helpful as I wish that they could be. The Brits, the French, the Germans all need to understand that what we did, what the Americans did, saved lives in Europe as well,” he said on the Fox News “Hannity” program.

While Iran’s conventional military has faced 40 years of American sanctions, Iran can strike in the region through its allied forces like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraqi militias and Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called on “the resistance the world over” to avenge Soleimani’s killing. Frictions over oil shipments in the Gulf also could increase, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has built up a ballistic missile program.

Iran’s Supreme National Security Council said in a statement Friday that it had held a special session and made “appropriate decisions” on how to respond but didn’t elaborate. Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett held a meeting with top security officials Friday, but the Israeli military said it was not taking any extraordinary action on its northern front, other than closing a ski resort in the Golan Heights near Lebanon and Syria as a precaution.

The most immediate impact could be in Iraq. Funerals for al-Muhandis and the other slain Iraqis were set for Saturday. Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi condemned the strike as an “aggression against Iraq.” An emergency session of parliament was called for Sunday, which the deputy speaker, Hassan al-Kaabi, said would take “decisions that put an end to the U.S. presence in Iraq.”

Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Robert Burns, Lolita C. Baldor and Zeke Miller in Washington; Jon Gambrell and Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Nasser Karimi and Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran; Bassem Mroue and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut; and Joseph Krauss and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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Soleimani, a general who became Iran icon by targeting US

January 03, 2020

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — For Iranians whose icons since the Islamic Revolution have been stern-faced clergy, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani widely represented a figure of national resilience in the face of four decades of U.S. pressure.

For the U.S. and Israel, he was a shadowy figure in command of Iran’s proxy forces, responsible for fighters in Syria backing President Bashar Assad and for the deaths of American troops in Iraq. Solemani survived the horror of Iran’s long war in the 1980s with Iraq to take control of the Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force, responsible for the Islamic Republic’s foreign campaigns.

Relatively unknown in Iran until the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Soleimani’s popularity and mystique grew out American officials calling for his killing. By the time it came a decade and a half later, Soleimani had become Iran’s most recognizable battlefield commander, ignoring calls to enter politics but becoming as powerful, if not more, than its civilian leadership.

“The warfront is mankind’s lost paradise,” Soleimani recounted in a 2009 interview. “One type of paradise that is portrayed for mankind is streams, beautiful nymphs and greeneries. But there is another kind of paradise. … The warfront was the lost paradise of the human beings, indeed.”

A U.S. airstrike killed Soleimani, 62, and others as they traveled from Baghdad’s international airport early Friday morning. The Pentagon said President Donald Trump ordered the U.S. military to take “decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing” a man once referred to by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a “living martyr of the revolution.”

Soleimani’s luck ran out after being rumored dead several times in his life. Those incidents included a 2006 airplane crash that killed other military officials in northwestern Iran and a 2012 bombing in Damascus that killed top aides of Assad. More recently, rumors circulated in November 2015 that Soleimani was killed or seriously wounded leading forces loyal to Assad as they fought around Syria’s Aleppo.

Iranian officials quickly vowed to take revenge amid months of tensions between Iran and the U.S. following Trump pulling out of Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers. While Soleimani was the Guard’s most prominent general, many others in its ranks have experience in waging the asymmetrical, proxy attacks for which Iran has become known.

“Trump through his gamble has dragged the U.S. into the most dangerous situation in the region,” Hessameddin Ashena, an adviser to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, wrote on the social media app Telegram. “Whoever put his foot beyond the red line should be ready to face its consequences.”

Born March 11, 1957, Soleimani was said in his homeland to have grown up near the mountainous and the historic Iranian town of Rabor, famous for its forests, its apricot, walnut and peach harvests and its brave soldiers. The U.S. State Department has said he was born in the Iranian religious capital of Qom.

Little is known about his childhood, though Iranian accounts suggest Soleimani’s father was a peasant who received a piece of land under the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, but later became encumbered by debts.

By the time he was 13, Soleimani began working in construction, later as an employee of the Kerman Water Organization. Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution swept the shah from power and Soleimani joined the Revolutionary Guard in its wake. He deployed to Iran’s northwest with forces that put down Kurdish unrest following the revolution.

Soon after, Iraq invaded Iran and began the two countries long, bloody eight-year war. The fighting killed more than 1 million people and saw Iran send waves of lightly armed troops into minefields and the fire of Iraqi forces, including teenage soldiers. Solemani’s unit and others came under attack by Iraqi chemical weapons as well.

Amid the carnage, Soleimani became known for his opposition to “meaningless deaths” on the battlefield, while still weeping at times with fervor when exhorting his men into combat, embracing each individually.

After the Iraq-Iran war, Soleimani largely disappeared from public view for several years, something analysts attribute to his wartime disagreements with Hashemi Rafsanjani, who would serve as Iran’s president from 1989 to 1997. But after Rafsanjani, Soleimani became head of the Quds force. He also grew so close to Khamenei that the Supreme Leader officiated the wedding of the general’s daughter.

As chief of the Quds — or Jerusalem — Force, Solemani oversaw the Guard’s foreign operations and soon would come to the attention of Americans following the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

In secret U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, U.S. officials openly discussed Iraqi efforts to reach out to Soleimani to stop rocket attacks on the highly secured Green Zone in Baghdad in 2009. Another cable in 2007 outlines then-Iraqi President Jalal Talabani offering a U.S. official a message from Soleimani acknowledging having “hundreds” of agents in the country while pledging, “I swear on the grave of (the late Ayatollah Ruhollah) Khomeini I haven’t authorized a bullet against the U.S.”

U.S. officials at the time dismissed Soleimani’s claim as they saw Iran as both an arsonist and a fireman in Iraq, controlling some Shiite militias while simultaneously stirring dissent and launching attacks. U.S. forces would blame the Quds Force for an attack in Karbala that killed five American troops, as well as for training and supplying the bomb makers whose improvised explosive devices made IED — improvised explosive device — a dreaded acronym among soldiers.

In a 2010 speech, U.S. Gen. David Petreaus recounted a message from Soleimani he said explained the scope of Iranian’s powers. “He said, ‘Gen. Petreaus, you should know that I, Qassem Soleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan,’” Petraeus said.

The U.S. and the United Nations put Soleimani on sanctions lists in 2007, though his travels continued. In 2011, U.S. officials also named him as a defendant in an outlandish Quds Force plot to allegedly hire a purported Mexican drug cartel assassin to kill a Saudi diplomat.

But his greatest notoriety would arise from the Syrian civil war and the rapid expansion of the Islamic State group. Iran, a major backer of Assad, sent Soleimani into Syria several times to lead attacks against IS and others opposing Assad’s rule. While a U.S.-led coalition focused on airstrikes, several ground victories for Iraqi forces came with photographs emerging of Soleimani leading, never wearing a flak jacket.

“Soleimani has taught us that death is the beginning of life, not the end of life,” one Iraqi militia commander said.

Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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US kills Iran’s most powerful general in Baghdad airstrike

January 03, 2020

BAGHDAD (AP) — The United States killed Iran’s top general and the architect of Tehran’s proxy wars in the Middle East in an airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport early on Friday, an attack that threatens to dramatically ratchet up tensions in the region.

The targeted killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, could draw forceful Iranian retaliation against American interests in the region and spiral into a far larger conflict between the U.S. and Iran, endangering U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and beyond.

The Defense Department said it killed Soleimani because he “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” It also accused Soleimani of approving the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad earlier this week.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that a “harsh retaliation is waiting” for the U.S. Iranian state TV carried a statement by Khamenei also calling Soleimani “the international face of resistance.” Khamenei declared three days of public mourning for the general’s death.

Also, an adviser to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani warned President Donald Trump of retaliation from Tehran. “Trump through his gamble has dragged the U.S. into the most dangerous situation in the region,” Hessameddin Ashena wrote on the social media app Telegram. “Whoever put his foot beyond the red line should be ready to face its consequences.”

Iranian state television later in a commentary called Trump’s order to kill Soleimani “the biggest miscalculation by the U.S.” in the years since World War II. “The people of the region will no longer allow Americans to stay,” the TV said.

The airport strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, and five others, including the PMF’s airport protocol officer, Mohammed Reda, Iraqi officials said.

Trump was vacationing on his estate in Palm Beach, Florida, but sent out a tweet of an American flag. The dramatic attack comes at the start of a year in which Trump faces both a Senate trial following his impeachment by the U.S. House and a re-election campaign. It marks a potential turning point in the Middle East and represents a drastic change for American policy toward Iran after months of tensions.

Tehran shot down a U.S. military surveillance drone and seized oil tankers. The U.S. also blames Iran for a series of attacks targeting tankers, as well as a September assault on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry that temporarily halved its production.

The tensions take root in Trump’s decision in May 2018 to withdraw the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, struck under his predecessor, Barack Obama. The 62-year-old Soleimani was the target of Friday’s U.S. attack, which was conducted by an armed American drone, according to a U.S. official. His vehicle was struck on an access road near the Baghdad airport.

A senior Iraqi security official said the airstrike took place near the cargo area after Soleimani left his plane and joined al-Muhandis and others in a car. The official said the plane had arrived from either Lebanon or Syria.

Two officials from the PMF said Suleimani’s body was torn to pieces in the attack, while they did not find the body of al-Muhandis. A senior politician said Soleimani’s body was identified by the ring he wore.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to give official statements. It’s unclear what legal authority the U.S. relied on to carry out the attack. American presidents claim broad authority to act without the approval of the Congress when U.S. personnel or interests are facing an imminent threat. The Pentagon did not provide evidence to back up its assertion that Soleimani was planning new attacks against Americans.

Democratic Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Trump owes a full explanation to Congress and the American people. “The present authorizations for use of military force in no way cover starting a possible new war. This step could bring the most consequential military confrontation in decades,” Blumenthal said.

But Trump allies were quick to praise the action. “To the Iranian government: if you want more, you will get more,” tweeted South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. For Iran, the killing represents more than just the loss of a battlefield commander, but also a cultural icon who represented national pride and resilience while facing U.S. sanctions. While careful to avoid involving himself in politics, Soleimani’s profile rose sharply as U.S. and Israeli officials blamed him for Iranian proxy attacks abroad.

While Iran’s conventional military has suffered under 40 years of American sanctions, the Guard has built up a ballistic missile program. It also can strike asymmetrically in the region through forces like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The U.S. long has blamed Iran for car bombings and kidnappings it never claimed.

As the head of the Quds, or Jersualem, Force of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, Soleimani led all of its expeditionary forces and frequently shuttled between Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Quds Force members have deployed into Syria’s long war to support President Bashar Assad, as well as into Iraq in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, a longtime foe of Tehran.

Soleimani rose to prominence by advising forces fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and in Syria on behalf of the embattled Assad. U.S. officials say the Guard under Soleimani taught Iraqi militants how to manufacture and use especially deadly roadside bombs against U.S. troops after the invasion of Iraq. Iran has denied that. Soleimani himself remains popular among many Iranians, who see him as a selfless hero fighting Iran’s enemies abroad.

Soleimani had been rumored dead several times, including in a 2006 airplane crash that killed other military officials in northwestern Iran and following a 2012 bombing in Damascus that killed top aides of Assad. Rumors circulated in November 2015 that Soleimani was killed or seriously wounded leading forces loyal to Assad as they fought around Syria’s Aleppo.

Soleimani’s killing follows the New Year’s Eve attack by Iran-backed militias on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The two-day embassy attack, which ended Wednesday, prompted Trump to order about 750 U.S. soldiers deployed to the Middle East.

It also prompted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to postpone his trip to Ukraine and four other countries “to continue monitoring the ongoing situation in Iraq and ensure the safety and security of Americans in the Middle East,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Wednesday.

The breach at the embassy followed U.S. airstrikes Sunday that killed 25 fighters of the Iran-backed militia in Iraq, the Kataeb Hezbollah. The U.S. military said the strikes were in retaliation for last week’s killing of an American contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that the U.S. blamed on the militia.

U.S. officials have suggested they were prepared to engage in further retaliatory attacks in Iraq. “The game has changed,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Thursday, telling reporters that violent acts by Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq — including the Dec. 27 rocket attack that killed one American — will be met with U.S. military force.

Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Zeke Miller in Washington, Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed reporting.

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Iran rejects ‘conditional release’ for Iranian-British woman

December 22, 2019

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — The lawyer of an Iranian-British woman convicted on spying charges in Iran has asked that she be released after serving half of her sentence, a request that was immediately rejected by the Tehran prosecutors’office, the state IRNA news agency reported Sunday.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who works for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was sentenced to five years for allegedly planning the “soft toppling” of Iran’s government while traveling with her young daughter in Iran at the time. She was arrested in April 2016. Her sentence has been widely criticized and her family has denied all the allegations against her.

The report by IRNA quoted her lawyer, Mahmoud Behzadi Rad, as saying that he had submitted a request for what Iran’s judiciary calls “conditional release” — when a convict has served half his or her sentence, the person can apply for such a release and the courts have the power to grant it for “good behavior”.

“According to the law, she is entitled to apply for a conditional release,” the lawyer said. IRNA did not say why the request was denied. Behzadi Rad said he had applied for a conditional release for another of his clients, prominent Iranian human rights activist Narges Mohammadi who is serving a 10-year sentence. Behzadi Rad is her lawyer, too. The request for her release was also denied, he said.

The lawyer also said that Zaghari-Ratcliffe has had several psychiatric evaluations recently while in prison but did not elaborate on her condition or the state of her health. In England, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, has been leading a campaign to try to win his wife’s release from prison. British officials are also calling for her release.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe went on a 15-day hunger strike in June, to call attention to her plight. In July, she was moved to the mental health ward of Imam Khomeini hospital under the control of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

The Free Nazanin Campaign said in a statement at the time that it does not know what treatment she is receiving or how long she is expected to remain in the hospital. Iran has also detained at least one other Iranian-British national, anthropologist Kameel Ahmady, who has been accused of spying and of links to foreign intelligence agencies.

Iran does not recognize dual nationality for its citizens.

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