Archive for February, 2020

Iran uses violence, politics to try to push US out of Iraq

January 23, 2020

BEIRUT (AP) — Iran has long sought the withdrawal of American forces from neighboring Iraq, but the U.S. killing of an Iranian general and an Iraqi militia commander in Baghdad has added new impetus to the effort, stoking anti-American feelings that Tehran hopes to exploit to help realize the goal.

The Jan. 3 killing has led Iraq’s parliament to call for the ouster of U.S. troops, but there are many lingering questions over whether Iran will be able to capitalize on the sentiment. An early test will be a “million-man” demonstration against the American presence, called for by influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and scheduled for Friday.

It is not clear whether the protesters will try to recreate a New Year’s Eve attack on the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad by Iran-supported militias in the wake of U.S. airstrikes that killed 25 militiamen along the border with Syria. Iran might simply try to use the march to telegraph its intention to keep up the pressure on U.S. troops in Iraq.

But experts say Iran can be counted on to try to seize what it sees as an opportunity to push its agenda in Iraq, despite an ongoing mass uprising that is targeting government corruption as well as Iranian influence in the country.

“Iran is unconstrained by considerations of Iraqi sovereignty, domestic public opinion, or legality when compared to the Western democracies,” said David Des Roches, an expert with The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “This is Iran’s strategic advantage; they should be expected to press it.”

A withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq would be a victory for Iran, and Tehran has long pursued a two-pronged strategy of supporting anti-U.S. militias that carry out attacks, as well as exerting political pressure on Iraqi lawmakers sympathetic to its cause.

Despite usually trying to keep attacks at a level below what might provoke an American response, Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah fired a barrage of rockets at a military base in Kirkuk in December, killing a U.S. contractor and wounding several U.S. and Iraqi troops. The U.S. responded first with deadly airstrikes on Iran-affiliated militia bases in western Iraq and Syria, then followed with the Jan. 3 drone attack that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military officer, along with Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis as they left Baghdad’s airport.

The severity of the U.S. response surprised Iran and others, and it had the unanticipated result of bolstering Tehran’s political approach by prompting the Iraqi parliament to pass the nonbinding resolution pushed by pro-Iran political factions calling for the expulsion of all foreign troops from the country. In response, President Donald Trump has threatened sanctions on Iraq.

“What they want to do is get rid of U.S. troops in what they see as a legitimate political manner,” said Dina Esfandiary, a London-based expert with The Century Foundation think tank. “If Iraqis themselves are voting out U.S. troops, it looks a lot better for Iran than if Iran is a puppet master in Iraq trying to get rid of them — and on top of that it would be a more lasting decision.”

The legitimacy of the resolution is a matter of dispute. Not only was the session boycotted by Kurdish lawmakers and many Sunnis, but there also are questions of whether Prime Minister Abdel Abdul-Mahdi has the ability to carry it out. Abdul-Mahdi resigned in November amid mass anti-government protests but remains in a caretaker role.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo bluntly rejected the call for the troops’ removal, instead saying Washington would “continue the conversation with the Iraqis about what the right structure is.” Abdul-Mahdi strongly supported the resolution, but since then has said it will be up to the next government to deal with the issue, and there are indications he has been working behind the scenes to help keep foreign troops in the country.

After closed-door meetings with German diplomats last week, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the prime minister had assured them that he had “great interest” in keeping the Bundeswehr military contingent and others part of the anti-Islamic State coalition in Iraq.

The U.S., meantime, said it had resumed joint operations with Iraqi forces, albeit on a more limited basis than before. Trump met Iraqi President Barham Saleh on Wednesday on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland, and said Washington and Baghdad have had “a very good relationship” and that the two countries had a “host of very difficult things to discuss.” Saleh said they have shared common interests including the fight against extremism, regional stability and an independent Iraq.

Asked about the plan for U.S. troops in Iraq, Trump said, “We’ll see what happens.” In a sign that bodes well for NATO’s continuing mission in the country, Iraq’s deputy foreign minister went to Brussels last week for talks with Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on the alliance’s presence in Iraq.

The mixed message of publicly calling for the troops to go but privately wanting them to stay is an indication of Iran’s strong influence, particularly among its fellow Shiite Muslims, Des Roches said.

“For any Iraqi politician in Baghdad — particularly a Shia politician — to defy Iran openly is to risk political as well as physical death,” he said. “So we shouldn’t be surprised if the public and the private lines espoused by Iraqi politicians differ.”

American forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011 but returned in 2014 at the invitation of the government to help battle the Islamic State after the extremist group seized vast areas in the north and west of the country. A U.S.-led coalition provided crucial air support as Iraqi forces, including Iran-backed militias, regrouped and drove IS out in a costly three-year campaign. There are currently some 5,200 American troops in the country.

Even before the drone strike, there were growing calls in nationwide protests across sectarian lines, which started in October centered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, for the end of all foreign influence in the country. The demonstrations also targeted government corruption and poor public services.

The rejection of Iranian influence over Iraqi state affairs has been a core component of the movement, and pro-Iranian militias have targeted those demonstrations along with Iraqi security forces, killing hundreds and injuring thousands. Protesters fear that with the focus on the push for the U.S. troop withdrawal in response to the attack that killed Soleimani, they may be even easier targets for those forces and that their message will be lost.

“I think Iraq has had enough of having to deal with the Americans and the Iranians alike,” Esfandiary said. “But the assassination of al-Muhandis, almost more so than Solemani, was such a glaring oversight of sovereignty and of all agreements they had signed on to with the U.S. in terms of the U.S. presence in Iraq, that it has kind of taken some of the attention away from Iran, to Tehran’s delight.”

Friday’s march called for by al-Sadr is expected to redirect the focus onto the U.S. troops. The cleric, who also leads the Sairoon bloc in parliament, derives much of his political capital through grassroots mobilization.

The Tahrir Square protesters initially rejected that call, saying they want the escalating conflict between Iran and the U.S. off of Iraqi soil. Since then, al-Sadr has reached out to them directly, saying the demonstrations against the government and against the American troops are “two lights from a single lamp,” and it is not yet clear whether that might convince them to participate in the march.

Associated Press writers Darlene Superville in Davos, Switzerland, and Samya Kullab in Baghdad contributed to this story.

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Iran crash and missile claims put Ukraine president in bind

January 10, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — As allegations swirl and denials clash over what caused the fatal crash of a Ukrainian airliner in Iran this week, Ukraine’s president is caught in the middle. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Friday appealed to Western countries to present evidence for their claims a day earlier that an Iranian anti-aircraft missile downed the plane, killing all 176 people on board.

If that made Zelenskiy sound uninformed amid strident claims from all sides, he also appeared to be following an astute strategy for damage control. Ukraine knows all too well how an air catastrophe can stir up a maelstrom of rumors and disinformation.

The plane crash Wednesday near Tehran is the third time in 20 years that Ukraine has been linked to the violent destruction of a civilian plane, allegedly or demonstrably due to a missile strike. In each case, denials, unfounded speculation and political posturing clouded the search for the truth.

And the crisis has erupted as Ukraine — under the new leadership of a man with no political experience — is already entangled in other international and U.S. political disputes. Zelenskiy has found himself mired in the turmoil around President Donald Trump’s impeachment, which is based on allegations that Trump tried to pressure Ukraine into investigating Democratic opponent Joe Biden. Trump and his Republican political allies have pushed an opposing narrative that he wanted to investigate corruption in Ukraine, and by extension, that Ukraine, not just Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections.

The first airline disaster to ensnare Ukraine was on Oct. 4, 2001, when a Russian airliner disappeared over the Black Sea en route from Israel carrying 78 people. Coming just a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks in the United States, speculation on the cause initially focused on terrorism.

Within a day, U.S. officials said the plane likely was hit accidentally by a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile fired during military exercises. Both Ukraine and Russia initially rejected that claim. But the rejection by Russian President Vladimir Putin was based on what he had been told by Ukraine — at that time a Russian ally — and Ukraine several weeks later acknowledged that it was at fault.

The incident, and Ukraine’s denials and incorrect claims, were a significant embarrassment to the country, which fired its air defense chief and paid more than $15 million in compensation to victims’ families.

The next disaster killed far more people and sparked far more contention, pitting Ukraine against Russia with competing claims of responsibility. A Malaysian Airlines jet was shot down on July 17, 2014, over eastern Ukraine where Ukrainian forces were at war with Russian-backed separatists. All 298 people aboard died.

Although much suspicion initially fell on the separatists, bolstered by a reported claim by a rebel commander that a Ukrainian plane was shot down at the same time, Russian officials and Russian news media quickly launched an array of competing theories.

One of them focused on a man who supposedly was a Spanish air traffic controller at Kyiv’s Boryspil airport who said on Twitter that his radar screen had spotted two Ukrainian military jets near the Malaysian plane shortly before it went down. That dovetailed with an alleged theory that Ukrainian forces had mistaken the airliner for one carrying Putin.

The most vividly gruesome of the reports was a claim that the Malaysian plane had been filled with corpses before takeoff, then sent to its doom. On-the-ground investigative work to establish what happened was obstructed by the rebels, who did not give investigators full access to the crash site for days. Experts later abandoned the on-site work for several weeks because of concerns about their safety.

Nearly a year later, Russian arms-maker Almaz-Antey confirmed that the plane had been shot down by a Soviet-designed surface-to-air missile, but claimed that particular model was used only by the Ukrainian military.

Investigations led by the Netherlands — the flight originated in Amsterdam and more than half the victims were Dutch — concluded that the plane was shot down from rebel-controlled territory and that the mobile missile launcher used had been brought into Ukraine from Russia on the day of the attack.

Russia and the rebels continue to deny involvement in the downing. A trial is scheduled to start in March in the Netherlands of four suspects — three Russians and one Ukrainian — in the MH-17 downing, although none is expected to be handed over to face the court.

The Iran crash this week took place amid fears of imminent war between the United States and Iran after a U.S. drone strike killed an Iranian military mastermind and Iran launched retaliatory missile strikes.

Zelenskiy and Ukraine may be facing a country just as sensitive and obstinate as Russia was over the 2014 crash. Although Ukrainian investigators are in Iran, their access to the crash site was delayed until Friday. Iran is promising cooperation but still rejects reports that one of its missiles hit the plane.

Russia, which has close relations with Iran, appears to be taking a cautious stance. Russian officials have refrained from commenting on the claims that Iran was responsible, and pro-Kremlin lawmakers have been divided on the issue.

“There are no grounds for making vociferous statements at this stage,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Friday. “It is important to allow specialists to analyze the situation and make conclusions. Starting some kind of game is, at the very least, indecent.”

The catastrophe is a complex stew for Zelenskiy, who took office less than eight months ago with no prior political experience. His call for evidence in the plane crash and avoidance of strong claims could be the hesitancy of a novice, but it has so far prevented a smoldering crisis from bursting into open flames.

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US, Iran step back from the brink; region still on edge

January 09, 2020

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. and Iran stepped back from the brink of possible war on Wednesday as President Donald Trump signaled he would not retaliate militarily for Iran’s missile strikes on Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops. No one was harmed in the strikes, but U.S. forces in the region remained on high alert.

Speaking from the White House, Trump seemed intent on deescalating the crisis, which spiraled after he authorized the targeted killing last week of Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani. Iran responded overnight with its most direct assault on America since the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, firing more than a dozen missiles at two installations in Iraq. The Pentagon said Wednesday that it believed Iran fired with the intent to kill.

Even so, Trump’s takeaway was that “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world.” Despite such conciliatory talk, the region remained on edge, and American troops including a quick-reaction force dispatched over the weekend, were on high alert. Last week Iranian-backed militia besieged the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and Tehran’s proxies in the region remain able to carry out attacks such as the one on Dec. 27 that killed a U.S. contractor and set off the most recent round of hostilities.

Hours after Trump spoke, an ‘incoming’ siren went off in Baghdad’s Green Zone after what seemed to be small rockets “impacted” the diplomatic area, a Western official said. There were no reports of casualties.

Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that it was “perhaps too early to tell” if Iran will be satisfied that the missile strikes were sufficient to avenge the Soleimani killing.

“We should have some expectation,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper added in a Wednesday briefing, “that Shiite militia groups, either directed or not directed by Iran, will continue in some way, shape or form to try and undermine our presence there,” either politically or militarily.

There is no obvious path to diplomatic engagement, as Trump pledged to add to his “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions. He said the new, unspecified sanctions would remain in place “until Iran changes its behavior.”

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the overnight strike was not necessarily the totality of Iran’s response. “Last night they received a slap,” Khamenei said. “These military actions are not sufficient (for revenge). What is important is that the corrupt presence of America in this region comes to an end.”

Trump, facing perhaps the biggest test of his presidency, credited the minimized damage to an early warning system “that worked very well” and said Americans should be “extremely grateful and happy” with the outcome.

The strikes had pushed Tehran and Washington perilously close to all-out conflict and left the world waiting to see whether the American president would respond with more military force. Trump, in his nine-minute, televised address, spoke of a robust U.S. military with missiles that are “big, powerful, accurate, lethal and fast.” But then he added: “We do not want to use it.”

Iran for days had been promising to respond forcefully to Soleimani’s killing, but its limited strike on two bases — one in the northern Iraqi city in Irbil and the other at Ain al-Asad in western Iraq — appeared to signal that it, too, was uninterested in a wider clash with the U.S. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that the country had “concluded proportionate measures in self-defense.”

Trump, who is facing reelection in November, campaigned for president on a promise to extract the United States from “endless wars.” On Wednesday, he said the United States was “ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.” That marked a sharp change in tone from his warning a day earlier that “if Iran does anything that they shouldn’t be doing, they’re going to be suffering the consequences, and very strongly.”

Members of Congress were briefed on the Iran situation Wednesday afternoon in closed-door sessions on Capitol Hill, where Democrats and some Republicans expressed dissatisfaction with the administration’s justifications for the drone strike on Soleimani.

Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah said it was “probably the worst briefing I’ve seen, at least on a military issue, in the nine years I’ve served in the United States Senate.” He said it was “distressing” that officials suggested it would only embolden Iran if lawmakers debated the merits of further military action. He and Sen. Rand Paul announced their support of a largely symbolic war powers resolution to limit Trump’s military action regarding Iran.

Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced after the briefing that the House would vote Thursday on a war powers resolution of its own. Trump opened his remarks at the White House by reiterating his promise that “Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.” Iran had announced in the wake of Soleimani’s killing that it would no longer comply with any of the limits on uranium enrichment in the 2015 nuclear deal crafted to keep it from building a nuclear device.

The president, who had earlier pulled the U.S. out of the deal, seized on the moment of calm to call for negotiations toward a new agreement that would do more to limit Iran’s ballistic missile programs and constrain regional proxy campaigns like those led by Soleimani.

Trump also announced he would ask NATO to become “much more involved in the Middle East process.” While he has frequently criticized NATO as obsolete and has encouraged participants to increase their military spending, Trump has tried to push the military alliance to refocus its efforts on modern threats.

Like the U.S. troops in the region, NATO forces have temporarily halted their training of Iraqi forces and their work to combat the Islamic State. Soleimani’s death last week in an American drone strike in Baghdad prompted angry calls for vengeance and drew massive crowds of Iranians to the streets to mourn him. Khamenei himself wept at the funeral in a sign of his bond with the commander.

Milley and Esper told reporters that a total of 16 missiles were fired from three locations in Iran. Eleven hit the Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq’s western Anbar province and one targeted a base in Irbil in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region. The missiles were described as likely short-range with 1,000- to 2,000-pound warheads. Four failed to detonate, they said.

Milley added that the Pentagon believes that Iran fired the missiles with the intent “to kill personnel.” He praised early warning systems, which detected the incoming ballistic missiles well in advance, providing U.S. and coalition forces adequate time to take shelter at both bases. He described the damage to tents, parking lots and a helicopter, among other things, as “nothing major.”

Officials also said that the U.S. was aware of preparations for the attack. It’s unclear if any intelligence identified specific targets or was more general. Ain al-Asad was first used by American forces after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, and it later was used by American troops in the fight against the Islamic State group. It houses about 1,500 U.S. and coalition forces. Trump visited it in December 2018, making his first presidential visit to troops in the region. Vice President Mike Pence visited both Ain al-Asad and Irbil in November.

Trump spoke of new sanctions on Iran, but it was not immediately clear what those would be. The primary agencies involved in implementing such penalties – the departments of Commerce, State and Treasury – do not preview those actions to prevent evasion.

Since withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal, the administration had already imposed harsh sanctions on nearly every significant portion of Iran’s economic, energy, shipping and military sectors. Wednesday’s effort to deescalate the conflict came after world leaders, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, appealed for restraint.

The fallout for Trump’s order to kill Soleimani had been swift. Iraq’s Parliament voted to expel U.S. troops from Iraq, though Trump said they would not be leaving. Trump and top national security officials have justified the Soleimani drone strike with general statements about the threat posed by the general, who commanded proxy forces outside Iran and was responsible for the deaths of American troops in Iraq.

Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann, Robert Burns, Kevin Freking, Lolita Baldor, Darlene Superville, Alan Fram and Padmananda Rama in Washington and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.

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Stampede kills 56 at funeral for Iranian general slain by US

January 07, 2020

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — A stampede broke out Tuesday at a funeral for a top Iranian general killed in a U.S. airstrike, and at least 56 people were killed and more than 200 were injured as thousands thronged the procession, Iranian news reports said.

The stampede took place in Kerman, the hometown of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, as the procession began, said the semi-official Fars and ISNA news agencies, citing Pirhossein Koulivand, head of Iran’s emergency medical services.

There was no information as to what had set off the stampede. Online videos showed people lying apparently lifeless, their faces covered by clothing. Emergency crews performed CPR on others as people wailed in the background, 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. State TV reported the death toll of 56, with 213 injured, citing Koulivand,

Soleimani’s burial was later delayed, with no new time given. Authorities cited concerns about the massive crowd that had gathered as a reason for the delay, 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 thoroughfares and side streets in Tehran. Such mass crowds can prove dangerous. A smaller stampede struck the 1989 funeral for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, killing at least eight people and injuring hundreds.

Soleimani’s death in a drone strike on Friday has sparked calls across Iran for revenge against America, drastically raising tensions across the Middle East. The U.S. government warned ships of an unspecified threat from Iran across the region’s waterways, crucial routes for global energy supplies. Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force launched a drill with 52 fighter jets in Utah, just days after President Donald Trump threatened to hit 52 sites in Iran.

Earlier in the day, Hossein Salami, the new leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, vowed to avenge Soleimani’s death as he addressed a crowd of supporters gathered at the coffin in a central square in Kernan.

“We tell our enemies that we will retaliate but if they take another action we will set ablaze the places that they like and are passionate about,” Salami said. “Death to Israel!” the crowd shouted in response. Israel is a longtime regional foe of Iran.

The funeral processions in major cities over three days have been an unprecedented honor for Soleimani, viewed by Iranians as a national hero for his work leading the Guard’s expeditionary Quds Force.

The U.S. blames him for killing U.S. troops in Iraq and accused him of plotting new attacks just before he was killed in the drone strike near Baghdad’s airport. 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.

The U.S. is continuing to reinforce its own positions in the region, including repositioning some forces. Soleimani’s slaying already has pushed 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 at the Baghdad airport.

In his eulogy to the crowd, Salami praised Soleimani’s work, describing him as essential to backing Palestinian groups, Yemen’s Houthi rebels and Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria. As a martyr, Soleimani represented an even greater threat to Iran’s enemies, Salami said.

According to a report on Tuesday by the semi-official Tasnim news agency, Iran has worked up 13 sets of plans for revenge for Soleimani’s killing. The report quoted Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, as saying that even the weakest among them would be a “historic nightmare” for the U.S. He declined to elaborate,

“If the U.S. troops do not leave our region voluntarily and upright, we will do something to carry their bodies horizontally out,” Shamkhani said. The U.S. Maritime Administration warned ships across the Mideast, citing the rising threats. “The Iranian response to this action, if any, is unknown, but there remains the possibility of Iranian action against U.S. maritime interests in the region,” it said.

Oil tankers were targeted in mine attacks last year that the U.S. blamed on Iran. Tehran denied responsibility, although it did seize oil tankers around the crucial Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of the world’s crude oil travels.

The U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet said it would work with shippers in the region to minimize any possible threat. The 5th Fleet “has and will continue to provide advice to merchant shipping as appropriate regarding recommended security precautions in light of the heightened tensions and threats in the region,” 5th Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Joshua Frey told The Associated Press.

Meanwhile, Iranian Gen. Alireza Tabgsiri, the chief of the Guard’s navy, issued his own warning. “Our message to the enemies is to leave the region,” Tabgsiri said, according to ISNA. The Guard routinely has tense encounters with the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf.

Iran’s parliament, meanwhile, has passed an urgent bill declaring the U.S. military’s command at the Pentagon and those acting on its behalf in Soleimani’s killing as “terrorists,” subject to Iranian sanctions. The measure appears to be an attempt to mirror a decision by Trump in April to declare the Revolutionary Guard a “terrorist organization.”

The U.S. Defense Department used the Guard’s designation as a terror organization in the U.S. to support the strike that killed Soleimani. The decision by Iran’s parliament, done by a special procedure to speed the bill to law, comes as officials across the country threaten to retaliate for Soleimani’s killing.

The vote also saw lawmakers approve funding for the Quds Force with an additional 200 million euros, or about $224 million. Also Tuesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the U.S. had declined to issue him a visa to travel to New York for upcoming meetings at the United Nations. As the host of the U.N. headquarters, the U.S. is supposed to allow foreign officials to attend such meetings.

“This is because they fear someone will go there and tell the truth to the American people,” Zarif said. “But they are mistaken. The world is not limited to New York. You can speak with American people from Tehran too and we will do that.”

The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Solemani will ultimately be laid to rest between the graves of Enayatollah Talebizadeh and Mohammad Hossein Yousef Elahi, two former Guard comrades. The two died in Operation Dawn 8 in Iran’s 1980s war with Iraq in which Soleimani also took part, a 1986 amphibious assault that cut Iraq off from the Persian Gulf and led to the end of the bloody war that killed 1 million people.

Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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Iran supreme leader weeps for general killed by US airstrike

January 06, 2020

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s supreme leader wept Monday over the casket of a top general killed in a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad, his prayers joining the wails of mourners who flooded the streets of Tehran demanding retaliation against America for a slaying that’s drastically raised tensions across the Middle East.

The funeral for Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani drew a crowd said by police to be in the millions in the Iranian capital, filling thoroughfares and side streets as far as the eye could see. Although there was no independent estimate, aerial footage and Associated Press journalists suggested a turnout of at least a million.

Authorities later brought his remains and others to Iran’s holy city of Qom, turning out another massive crowd. It was an unprecedented honor for a man viewed by Iranians as a national hero for his work leading the Guard’s expeditionary Quds Force. The U.S. blames him for the killing of American troops in Iraq and accused him of plotting new attacks just before his death Friday. Soleimani also led forces in Syria backing President Bashar Assad in a long war.

His death already has pushed Tehran to abandon the remaining limits of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers as his successor and others vow to take revenge. In Baghdad, the parliament has called for the expulsion of all American troops from Iraqi soil, something analysts fear could allow Islamic State militants to mount a comeback.

Soleimani’s daughter, Zeinab, directly threatened an attack on the U.S. military in the Mideast while also warning President Donald Trump, whom she called “crazy.” “The families of the American soldiers … will spend their days waiting for the death of their children,” she said to cheers.

Her language mirrored warnings by other Iranian officials who say an attack on U.S. military interests in the Middle East looms.Iranian state television and others online shared a video that showed Trump’s American flag tweet following Soleimani’s killing turn into a coffin, the “likes” of the tweet replaced by over 143,000 “killed.”

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei prayed over the caskets of Soleimani and others at Tehran University after a brief mourning period at the capital’s famed Musalla mosque, The mosque was where prayers were said over the body of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, after his death in 1989.

Khamenei, who had a close relationship with Soleimani and referred to him as a “living martyr,” broke down four times in tears while offering traditional Muslim prayers for the dead. “Oh God, you took their spirits out of their bodies as they were rolling in their blood for you and were martyred in your way,” Khamenei said as the crowd wailed. Soleimani will be buried Tuesday in his hometown of Kerman.

Soleimani’s successor, Esmail Ghaani, stood near Khamenei’s side as did President Hassan Rouhani and other leaders in the Islamic Republic. While Iran recently faced nationwide protests over government-set gasoline prices that reportedly led to the killing of over 300, Soleimani’s death has brought together people from across the country’s political spectrum, temporarily silencing that anger.

Demonstrators burned Israeli and U.S. flags, carried a flag-draped U.S. coffin or displayed effigies of Trump. Some described Trump himself as a legitimate target. Mohammad Milad Rashidi, a 26-year-old university graduate, predicted more tension ahead.

“Trump demolished the chance for any sort of possible agreement between Tehran and Washington,” Rashidi said. “There will be more conflict in the future for sure.” Another mourner, Azita Mardani, warned that Iran “will retaliate for every drop of his blood.”

“We are even thankful to (Trump) because he made us angry and this fury will lead to shedding of their blood in the Persian Gulf and the region’s countries,” Mardani said. “Here will become their graveyard.”

Ghaani made his own threat in an interview shown Monday on Iranian state television. “God the Almighty has promised to get his revenge, and God is the main avenger. Certainly actions will be taken,” he said.

Markets reacted Monday to the tensions, sending international benchmark Brent crude above $70 a barrel for some of the day and gold to a seven-year high. The Middle East remains a crucial source of oil, and Iran in the past has threatened the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of all the world’s oil traded passes.

Ghaani, a longtime Soleimani deputy, has now taken over as the head of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds, or Jerusalem, Force, answerable only to Khamenei. Ghaani has been sanctioned by the U.S. since 2012 for his work funding its operations around the world, including its work with proxies in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.

Those proxies likely will be involved in any operation targeting U.S. interests in the Middle East or elsewhere. Already, the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia warned Americans “of the heightened risk of missile and drone attacks.” In Lebanon, the leader of the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah said Soleimani’s killing made U.S. military bases, warships and service members across the region fair game for attacks.

“We promise to continue down martyr Soleimani’s path as firmly as before with help of God, and in return for his martyrdom we aim to get rid of America from the region,” Ghaani said. The head of the Guard’s aerospace program, Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, suggested Iran’s response wouldn’t stop with a single attack.

“Firing a couple of missiles, hitting a base or even killing Trump is not valuable enough to compensate for martyr Soleimani’s blood,” Hajizadeh said on state TV. “The only thing that can compensate for his blood is the complete removal of America from the region.”

On the nuclear deal, Iran now says it won’t observe the accord’s restrictions on fuel enrichment, on the size of its enriched uranium stockpile and on its research and development activities. That’s a much-harsher step than they had planned to take before the attack.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have urged Iran to “withdraw all measures” not in line with the deal. Iran insisted it remains open to negotiations with European partners over its nuclear program. And it did not back off from earlier promises that it wouldn’t seek a nuclear weapon.

However, the announcement represents the clearest nuclear proliferation threat yet made by Iran since Trump unilaterally withdrew from the accord in 2018 and reimposed sanctions last year. It further raises regional tensions, as Iran’s longtime foe Israel has promised never to allow Iran to produce an atomic bomb.

Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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Iran general steps out of Soleimani’s shadow to lead proxies

January 05, 2020

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — A new Iranian general has stepped out of the shadows to lead the country’s expeditionary Quds Force, becoming responsible for Tehran’s proxies across the Mideast as the Islamic Republic threatens the U.S. with “harsh revenge” for killing its previous head, Qassem Soleimani.

The Quds Force is part of the 125,000-strong Revolutionary Guard, a paramilitary organization that answers only to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Guard oversees Iran’s ballistic missile program, has its naval forces shadow the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf and includes an all-volunteer Basij force.

Like his predecessor, a young Esmail Ghaani faced the carnage of Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s and later joined the newly founded Quds, or Jerusalem, Force. While much still remains unknown about Ghaani, 62, Western sanctions suggest he’s long been in a position of power in the organization. And likely one of his first duties will be to oversee whatever revenge Iran intends to seek for the U.S. airstrike early Friday that killed his longtime friend Soleimani.

“We are children of war,” Ghaani once said of his relationship with Soleimani, according to Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency. “We are comrades on the battlefield and we have become friends in battle.”

The Guard has seen its influence grow ever-stronger both militarily and politically in recent decades. Iran’s conventional military was decimated by the execution of its old officer class during the 1979 Islamic Revolution and later by sanctions.

A key driver of that influence comes from the elite Quds Force, which works across the region with allied groups to offer an asymmetrical threat to counter the advanced weaponry wielded by the U.S. and its regional allies. Those partners include Iraqi militiamen, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

In announcing Ghaani as Soleimani’s replacement, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the new leader “one of the most prominent commanders” in service to Iran. The Quds Force “will be unchanged from the time of his predecessor,” Khamenei said, according to IRNA.

Soleimani long has been the face of the Quds Force. His fame surged after American officials began blaming him for deadly roadside bombs targeting U.S. troops in Iraq. Images of him, long a feature of hard-line Instagram accounts and mobile phone lockscreens, now plaster billboards calling for Iran to avenge his death.

But while Soleimani’s exploits in Iraq and Syria launched a thousand analyses, Ghaani has remained much more in the shadows of the organization. He has only occasionally come up in the Western or even Iranian media. But his personal story broadly mirrors that of Soleimani.

Born on Aug. 8, 1957 in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad, Ghaani grew up during the last decade of monarchy. He joined the Guard a year after the 1979 revolution. Like Soleimani, he first deployed to put down the Kurdish uprising in Iran that followed the shah’s downfall.

Iraq then invaded Iran, launching an eight-year war that would see 1 million people killed. Many of the dead were lightly armed members of the Guard, some of whom were young boys killed in human-wave assaults on Iraqi positions.

Volunteers “were seeing that all of them are being killed, but when we ordered them to go, would not hesitate,” Ghaani later recounted. “The commander is looking to his soldiers as his children, and in the soldier’s point of view, it seems that he received an order from God and he must to do that.”

He survived the war to join the Quds Force shortly after its creation. He worked with Soleimani, as well as led counterintelligence efforts at the Guard. Western analysts believe while Soleimani focused on nations to Iran’s west, Ghaani’s remit was those to the east like Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, Iranian state media has not elaborated on his time in the Guard.

In 2012, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned Ghaani, describing him as having authority over “financial disbursements” to proxies affiliated with the Quds Force. The sanctions particularly tied Ghaani to an intercepted shipment of weapons seized at a port in 2010 in Nigeria’s most-populous city, Lagos.

Authorities broke into 13 shipping containers labeled as carrying “packages of glass wool and pallets of stone.” They instead found 107 mm Katyusha rockets, rifle rounds and other weapons. The Katyusha remains a favored weapon of Iranian proxy forces, including Iraqi militias and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

An Iranian and his Nigerian partner later received five-year prison sentences over the shipment, which appeared bound for Gambia, then under the rule of dictator Yahya Jammeh. Israeli officials had claimed the rockets would be shipped to militants in the Gaza Strip, while Nigerian authorities alleged that local politicians could use the arms in upcoming elections.

Also in 2012, Ghaani drew criticism from the U.S. State Department after reportedly saying that “if the Islamic Republic was not present in Syria, the massacre of people would have happened on a much larger scale.” That comment came just after gunmen backing Syrian President Bashar Assad killed over 100 people in Houla in the country’s Homs province.

“Over the weekend we had the deputy head of the Quds Force saying publicly that they were proud of the role that they had played in training and assisting the Syrian forces — and look what this has wrought,” then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at the time.

In January 2015, Ghaani indirectly said that Iran sends missiles and weapons to Palestinians to fight Israel. “The U.S. and Israel are too small to consider themselves in line with Iran’s military power,” Ghaani said at the time. “This power has now appeared alongside the oppressed people of Palestine and Gaza in the form of missiles and weapons.”

Now, Ghaani is firmly in control of the Quds Force. While Iran’s leaders say they have a plan to avenge Soleimani’s death, no plan has been announced as the country prepares for funerals for the general starting Sunday.

Whatever that plan for revenge is, Ghaani likely will be involved. “That Qaani survived at such high ranks in the (Guard), and remained Soleimani’s deputy for so long, says a lot about the trust both Khamenei and Soleimani had in him,” said Afshon Ostovar, the author of a book on the Guard. “I suspect he’ll have little difficulty filling Soleimani’s shoes when it comes to operations and strategy.”

Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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