U.S. carries out air strike on Taliban, calls for halt to ‘needless attacks’

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Charlotte Greenfield

KABUL (Reuters) – The United States on Wednesday carried out its first air strike on Taliban fighters in Afghanistan since the two sides signed a troop withdrawal agreement on Saturday.

A U.S. forces spokesman confirmed the incident in southern Helmand province, hours after President Donald Trump spoke by phone with chief Taliban negotiator Mullah Baradar Akhund on Tuesday, the first known conversation between a U.S. leader and a top Taliban official.

The Taliban fighters “were actively attacking an (Afghan National Security Forces) checkpoint. This was a defensive strike to disrupt the attack,” said Colonel Sonny Leggett, a spokesman for the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan in a tweet.

He said Washington was committed to peace but would defend Afghan forces if needed.

“Taliban leadership promised the (international) community they would reduce violence and not increase attacks. We call on the Taliban to stop needless attacks and uphold their commitments,” he said.

The air strike was the first by the United States against the Taliban in 11 days, when a reduction in violence agreement had begun between the sides in the lead up to Saturday’s pact.

Since the signing, the Taliban had decided on Monday to resume normal operations against Afghan forces, though sources have said they will continue to hold back on attacks on foreign forces.

The Taliban has declined to confirm or deny responsibility for any of the attacks.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said in a Tweet that “according to the plan (the Taliban) is implementing all parts of the agreement one after another in order to keep the fighting reduced.”

A Taliban senior commander in Helmand who declined to be named said that a drone had targeted their position.

“As far as I know we didn’t suffer any human losses but we are working on it and sent our team to the area,” he told Reuters, adding that the group’s senior leadership in Afghanistan had called an emergency meeting to discuss what he described as a “major violation” of the agreement.

“THINGS COULD SPIRAL”

Experts said the public agreement was vague on details around ongoing violence in the country, but that the air strike and comments from U.S. officials suggested the United States had a plan to ensure reduced violence against Afghan forces and civilians.

“It is significant. I don’t think it signals the collapse of the whole U.S.-Taliban agreement…(but) you can easily see how things could spiral,” said Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst covering Afghanistan at International Crisis Group.

A spokesman for Helmand’s provincial governor said the Taliban had attacked a security checkpoint in Washer district – a different district to the one in which the U.S. carried out its air strike – on Tuesday evening, killing two police officers.

An interior ministry spokesman, Nasrat Rahimi, said on Wednesday the Taliban had conducted 30 attacks in 15 provinces in the previous 24 hours, killing four civilians and 11 security and defense force members. Seventeen Taliban members had been killed, he said.

The weekend agreement envisages a full withdrawal of all U.S. and coalition forces within 14 months, dependent on security guarantees by the Taliban, but faces a number of hurdles as the United States tries to shepherd the Taliban and Afghan government toward talks.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Charlotte Greenfield in Kabul; additional reporting by Zainullah Stanekzai in Helmand, Sardar Razmal in Kunduz, Orooj Hakimi in Kabul and Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar; editing by John Stonestreet, William Maclean and Timothy Heritage)

Russia, Turkey may have committed war crimes in Syria, U.N. says

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Russia killed civilians in air strikes in Syria last year while rebels allied to Turkey carried out murder and pillage in Kurdish areas, U.N. investigators said on Monday – actions it said could amount to war crimes by both Moscow and Ankara.

A report by a U.N. commission found that Russia – the Syrian government’s main ally against rebels and militants – conducted air strikes on a popular market and a camp for displaced people that killed dozens of civilians in July and August.

“In both incidents, the Russian Air Force did not direct the attacks at a specific military objective, amounting to the war crime of launching indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas,” the report said.

It also described abuses by rebels allied to Turkey during an assault on Kurdish-held areas, and said that if the rebels were acting under the control of Turkish military forces, those commanders may be liable for war crimes.

Paulo Pinheiro, the commission’s chairman, said it had added names linked to the latest crimes to its confidential list of suspected perpetrators. It has received 200 requests from judicial authorities worldwide for information on crimes committed during Syria’s nine-year war, he told a news briefing.

In the report, which covered the period from July 2019 to February 2020, investigators denounced “deliberate” attacks by the Syrian government and allied forces on protected civilian sites, including hospitals and schools.

“There is a war crime of intentionally terrorizing a population to force it to move. We are seeing that picture emerging very clearly for example in Idlib where, because these places are being bombed, people are having to move out,” said panel member Hanny Megally.

Russian-backed Syrian government forces have thrust deep into Idlib province in the far northwest in a campaign to retake the last country’s significant rebel pocket. The onslaught has forced around one million civilians to flee.

Up to 10 children have died from the cold in the last weeks due to living in the open at the Turkish border, Megally said.

The U.N. report blamed Russia for an air strike in the city of Maarat al-Numan on July 22 when at least 43 civilians were killed. Two residential buildings and 25 shops were destroyed after at least two Russian planes left Hmeimim air base and circled the area, it said.

Weeks later, an attack on the Haas compound for displaced killed at least 20 people, including eight women and six children, and injured 40 others, the report said.

It also called on Turkey to investigate whether it was responsible for an air strike on a civilian convoy near Ras al Ain that killed 11 people last October. Turkey has denied a role in the strike, which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said was conducted by Turkish aircraft.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

As Syrian forces advance on Idlib, families fear being trapped at Turkish border

By Khalil Ashawi

ATMEH, Syria (Reuters) – Syrian government forces are advancing closer to the displaced persons camp where Adnan Abdelkarim and his family have taken shelter along the Turkish border after being uprooted multiple times, and he fears there is nowhere left to go.

“Today the regime is advancing from everywhere and we are trapped along the border,” said 30-year-old Abdelkarim.

At the Atmeh camp on the northern edge of Idlib province, uprooted families are arriving in droves as they flee bombardment from air strikes and artillery shelling.

They fear being trapped between the fighting and the closed-off Turkish border. About 50 meters from the camp an imposing gray concrete wall is crowned with barbed wire, blocking their entry to Turkey.

“In the event the regime advances…, either we will die storming the Turkish wall and fleeing with our families…or slaughter ourselves by turning ourselves over,” said Abdelkarim.

Backed by heavy Russian air power, Syrian government forces have stepped up a campaign to retake the last rebel stronghold in the northwestern regions of Aleppo and Idlib, sparking an exodus of nearly a million people toward a shrinking pocket along the Turkish frontier.

On Monday, Russian and Syrian warplanes continued to pound eastern and southern areas of Idlib province, according to the Syrian Observatory, a war monitor, and witnesses.

The Observatory said on Monday that pro-Damascus forces had seized control of 10 more towns in southern areas of Idlib province in less than 24 hours. It said fighting continued meanwhile around the Idlib town of Neirab between government forces and rebels backed by Turkish artillery.

“People here have little hope and everyone has started to head toward the border, fearful of the (government) advance,” said Ismail Shahine, 37, originally displaced six years earlier from the Hama countryside.

Shahine on Monday prepared a tent to accommodate the rest of his family, which he said would soon arrive from the western countryside of Aleppo, where government forces have retaken large swathes of land from rebels at a rapid clip in recent weeks.

Fearing a fresh refugee crisis, Turkey has poured thousands of troops into Idlib in the last few weeks and President Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to use military force to drive back Syrian forces unless they pull back by the end of the month.

Turkey hosts about 3.7 million Syrians and says it cannot absorb any more.

As Turkish military convoys continue to enter northern Syria, Shahine and others near the border have pinned their hopes on Erdogan’s pledge to force Damascus to retreat.

“Everyone today is waiting for the start of the coming month, for the deadline that Erdogan gave the regime to withdraw,” said Shahine. “I am expecting that they will make a move and not leave the Syrian people to fend for themselves.”

(Reporting by Khalil Ashawi; Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Israeli jets strike Islamic Jihad targets in Syria and Gaza: Israeli military

By Ari Rabinovitch and Nidal al-Mughrabi

JERUSALEM/GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli fighter jets launched air strikes on suspected Islamic Jihad positions in Syria, the Israeli military said on Monday, after the militant group and Israel exchanged rockets and air strikes around Gaza.

An Israeli military statement said its forces had “struck Islamic Jihad terror targets south of Damascus” in addition to “dozens” of Islamic Jihad targets throughout the Gaza Strip.

The air strike in the Adeliyah region outside Damascus targeted what the Israeli military called “a hub of Islamic Jihad’s activity in Syria,” including the research and development of weapons.

A Palestinian militant holds a weapon as he surveys an Islamic Jihad site that was targeted in an Israeli air strike in the southern Gaza Strip February 24, 2020. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

The Israeli announcement came shortly after Syrian state media said its air defenses had intercepted “hostile targets” over the Syrian capital, Damascus.

The strike escalated the latest round of hostilities, which began around dawn on Sunday, when, Israel said, its troops killed an Islamic Jihad member who was trying to plant explosives near Israel’s border fence with the Gaza Strip.

Video footage shot by a Gaza photographer and widely posted on social media showed what appeared to be the lifeless body of an Islamic Jihad militant dangling from an Israeli military bulldozer as it removed the corpse.

Palestinian health officials and other onlookers said two other Palestinians were wounded by Israeli gunfire directed at a group of people who had approached the area and tried to recover the body.

The images caused an uproar in Gaza, with many social media commentators calling for retaliation.

Islamic Jihad fired a barrage of rockets from Gaza into Israel, setting off air-raid sirens in communities such as Ashkelon. Israel hit back with a series of air strikes in Gaza.

The rockets sent residents of southern Israel running for shelters. Some of the rocket fire was intercepted by Israeli aerial missile defenses, and there were no reports of any Israelis injured.

The Israeli military said that among the “dozens” of targets struck in Gaza were underground infrastructure and compounds in Rafah that had been used to store raw material used for manufacturing rockets.

Flame and smoke are seen during Israeli air strikes in the southern Gaza Strip February 23, 2020. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Shortly before midnight on Sunday, the Syrian state news agency SANA quoted a military source saying that Israeli planes had entered Syrian airspace and targeted areas around Damascus with a wave of guided missiles.

Syrian state-run al-Ikhbariya TV aired footage of what it said were explosions set off in the Damascus night sky by the air defenses system shooting down missiles.

The Syrian military source said most missiles were destroyed before reaching their targets and that the aftermath of the strike was being examined.

Israel says it has carried out hundreds of strikes against targets in Syria in recent years.

In November, Islamic Jihad said Israel had targeted the house of one of its officials in Damascus, killing one of his sons.

(Reporting by Nidal Almughrabi in Gaza, Kinda Makieh in Damascus and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Editing by Peter Cooney)

No place to go: Syrian families fleeing Idlib stranded on the roads

By Khalil Ashawi

AZAZ, Syria (Reuters) – Abu Abdallah has been on the road for days. After his family fled the air strikes pounding Idlib, they moved from one village to another in northwest Syria but have yet to find refuge.

“I don’t know where to take them,” the 49-year-old farmer said from his tractor on the side of a road in Azaz town, where he is stranded with his wife, four children and 20 other relatives. “This is the first time I flee my hometown. God knows where we will go.”

The family is part of the biggest exodus of Syria’s nine-year war.

Nearly a million people, mostly women and children, are trying to escape the latest wave of violence in the Idlib region, overwhelming aid agencies.

Many have nowhere to go, trapped between the fighting and the closed-off Turkish border. Families sleep outside in streets and olive groves, burning garbage to stay warm. Some children have died from the cold.

Some of the people fleeing Idlib have already been displaced more than once, after fleeing battles in other parts of Syria earlier in the conflict.

The United Nations said on Tuesday that government warplanes had struck hospitals and refugee camps as the Syrian army, with Russian backing, gains ground in the northwest, the country’s last rebel stronghold.

Before she escaped Idlib in recent days, Aziza Hadaja, 70, locked her front door.

It is the third time she has been uprooted, but in the past, she would go back home. This time, after government forces marched into her village, she does not know when or if she will return.

Along with her children and grandchildren, Hadaja is now sheltering in a makeshift tent in a field on the road out of Azaz further north.

“We came out with the clothes on our backs,” she said. “We didn’t bring a thing.”

(Reporting by Khalil Ashawi in Syria; Writing by Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Syrian forces consolidate control of Aleppo, air strikes under way

BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) – The Syrian army said on Monday it had taken full control of dozens of towns in Aleppo’s northwestern countryside and it would press on with its campaign to wipe out militant groups “wherever they are found”.

The advances were made after President Bashar al-Assad’s forces drove insurgents from the M5 highway linking Aleppo to Damascus, reopening the fastest route between Syria’s two biggest cities for the first time in years in a big strategic gain for Assad.

Assad said on Monday his forces’ rapid recent gains presaged the eventual defeat of the nine-year insurgency that sought to oust him from power. But in an appearance televised by state media, he also cautioned that the conflict was not yet over.

“We know this liberation does not mean the end of the war or the crushing of all plots or the end of terror or the surrender of the enemy, but it definitely rubs their noses in the dirt,” Assad said. “This is a prelude to their (opposition forces’) final defeat, sooner or later.”

Backed by heavy Russian air strikes and aided by pro-Iranian militias, government forces have intensified since the start of the year their campaign to recapture the Aleppo countryside and parts of neighboring Idlib province in the far northwest of Syria where anti-Assad insurgents hold their last strongholds.

Russian and government air strikes on Monday hit Darat Izza, near the Turkish border about 30 km (20 miles) north of Aleppo city, wounding several civilians and forcing two hospitals to close, according to hospital staff.

Witnesses also reported air strikes in southern areas of Idlib province in what the opposition said was a “scorched earth policy” that has left dozens of towns and villages in ruins.

The advances sent hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians fleeing towards the border with Turkey in the biggest single displacement of the nine-year-old war.

The United Nations said on Monday that over 875,000 Syrians, mostly children and women, have now fled towns and villages targeted by the heavy aerial bombing campaign since Dec. 1.

More than 40,000 have been displaced in the last four days alone from western Aleppo province, the scene of heavy fighting, said David Swanson, a U.N. spokesman.

The offensive has also upset the fragile cooperation between Ankara and Moscow, which back opposing factions in the conflict.

Turkey and Russia began a new round of talks in Moscow on Monday after several demands by Ankara that Assad’s forces should back down and a ceasefire be put in place.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Islamist militant attacks on Russian bases and Syrian positions have continued and “it is not possible to leave this unanswered”.

“Troops from Russia and Turkey on the ground in Syria, in Idlib, are in constant contact with each other, looking at changes in the conditions. They have a full understanding of each other,” said Lavrov.

However, the Syrian armed forces said they would push on with what they called their “sacred and noble task to rid what remains of terrorist organizations wherever on Syria’s geography they are found”.

Syrian forces had taken full control of dozens of towns in Aleppo’s northwestern countryside, they said in a statement.

Syrian Transport Minister Ali Hammoud announced on Monday the reopening of Aleppo international airport with the first flight, from Damascus to Aleppo, scheduled for Wednesday and flights to Cairo to be announced within days, state news agency SANA reported.

The pro-Damascus Al-Watan newspaper said the M5 highway, a vital artery in northern Syria, would be ready for civilian use by the end of the week. Aleppo city, once Syria’s economic hub, was the scene of some of the most vicious fighting of the war between 2012 and 2016.

The Syrian army has also opened the international roadway from northern Aleppo to the towns of Zahraa and Nubl toward the Turkish border, a military news service run by Lebanon’s Assad-allied pro-Damascus Hezbollah group said.

The insurgent forces arrayed against Assad include Western-backed rebels and jihadist militants.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said his military will drive back Syrian forces if they do not withdraw from Idlib by the end of the month. On Saturday, he appeared to move that date forward, saying Turkey would “handle it” before the end of the month if there was no pullback.

Alarmed by the new refugee crisis on its border, Turkey has sent thousands of troops and hundreds of convoys of military equipment to reinforce its observation posts in Idlib, established under a 2018 de-escalation agreement with Russia.

(Reporting by Eric Knecht, Tom Perry, Khalil Ashawi and Suleiman Khalidi, additional reporting by Alexander Marrow in Moscow; Editing by Angus MacSwan/Mark Heinrich)

Shelterless Syrians burn refuse for warmth in bitter Idlib winter

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Emma Farge

AMMAN/GENEVA (Reuters) – Families fleeing air strikes and advancing troops in Syria’s Idlib province are sleeping rough in streets and olive groves, and burning toxic bundles of rubbish to stay warm in the biting winter weather, aid workers say.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been uprooted by a Syrian government assault which has corralled ever growing numbers of people into a shrinking pocket of land near the Turkish border.

Humanitarian agency officials say it is the biggest single displacement of civilians in the nine-year-old war. But they lack the shelter and supplies to support them.

Relief workers say 10 children have died in the last week alone in makeshift camps that now dot the border area. A seemingly endless flow of cars and vehicles packed with belongings of fleeing civilians jam the roads. Some have also fled on foot.

In one camp in northern Idlib, a family of four died of suffocation on Tuesday after inhaling fumes from a fire they had made from shoes, old clothing and cardboard, their neighbor in the camp, known as Dia3, said.

“Most people are bringing bundles of shoes or clothing and burning it,” Adnan al Tayeb told Reuters by phone. “The family were sleeping and suffocated.”

The father, mother and their two children were among tens of thousands of people who had driven north to escape the Russian-backed Syrian government offensive.

Up to three million civilians are stuck between the advancing Syrian government troops and the closed-off border with Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees and says it cannot take more.

Storms which blanketed much of northwest Syria in snow this week has worsened the plight of the displaced. Shelter is scarce, with houses and tents already packed with dozens of people. Many who have become destitute have little money to buy fuel or heaters.

“People are burning anything they have available to them, things that are often dangerous to inhale just to stay warm,” said Rachel Sider of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Mark Cutts, United Nations Deputy Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis, said the situation in Idlib was catastrophic.

“We keep hearing stories of babies and people dying as a result of cold weather and the inability to stay warm,” he said.

With the Syrian army on the outskirts of Idlib city, currently home to an estimated 1 million people, a full military assault there could lead to even greater upheaval.

“NO PLACE LEFT”

International humanitarian agencies say the number of people on the move has swamped existing camps in northern Idlib, set up to shelter families displaced by earlier fighting, and people were being turned away.

“We are seeing people who simply have nowhere else left to go. They are being squeezed into a smaller and smaller area and are feeling very abandoned by the whole world and that the world is just failing them,” Cutts said.

The once agricultural rural terrain of Idlib province, Syria’s main olive growing district, now resembles the shanty towns on the edges of large congested cities.

“Families are sharing tents with up to 30 to 35 other people so there is very little space for people to seek refuge in northern Idlib at this stage,” Sider said.

A resident from the once sleepy border town of Atma said the many people in the human wave pouring north are now sleeping in cars and under olive trees along congested routes.

Some families, with relatives further east, are able to cross from Idlib into areas of northern Syria controlled by Turkish troops. For most, there is no escape.

“Along the border area in northern Idlib it’s overcrowded and the situation is much more difficult,” said local aid worker Adi Satouf.

Despite the turmoil and constant upheaval in the shrinking area of rebel rule, few people say they would return to areas now under the control of President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

“People are no longer thinking of returning as long as Assad is there. They are ready to put up with every injustice and hardship here but not go back to the regime,” said Ibrahim Islam, a rescue worker now struggling with his family in a camp on the outskirts of Idlib.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Emma Farge; Editing by Dominic Evans and Angus MacSwan)

Iran says no limits on enrichment, stepping further from 2015 deal: TV

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran announced on Sunday it would abandon limitations on enriching uranium, taking a further step back from commitments to a 2015 nuclear deal with six major powers, but it would continue to cooperate with the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

Iran had been expected to announce its latest stance on the deal this weekend. But its announcement coincided with a major escalation of hostilities with Washington following the U.S. killing of top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike on Friday in Baghdad.

State television said Iran would not respect any limits set down in the pact on the country’s nuclear work: whether the limit on its number of uranium enrichment centrifuges to its enrichment capacity, the level to which uranium could be enriched, the amount of stockpiled enriched uranium or Iran’s nuclear Research and Development activities.

“Iran will continue its nuclear enrichment with no restrictions …. and based on its technical needs,” a government statement cited by television said.

Iran has steadily overstepped the deal’s limits on its nuclear activities in response to the United States’ withdrawal from the accord in 2018 and Washington’s reimposition of sanctions that have crippled Iran’s oil trade.

Under the nuclear deal, Tehran agreed to curb its nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of most international sanctions.

Relations between Tehran and Washington sharply deteriorated after President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the deal. Iran has criticized European powers for failing to salvage the pact by shielding its economy from U.S. sanctions.

Sunday’s statement said Tehran can quickly reverse its steps if U.S. sanctions are removed.

“This step is within JCPOA (deal) & all 5 steps are reversible upon EFFECTIVE implementation of reciprocal obligations,” tweeted Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif referencing the acronym that stands for the deal’s official name, “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.”

A European Diplomat, who declined to be named, said the “deal is all but dead,” but said that Europe would do everything possible to slow proliferation and “try and save what can be saved.”

Mark Fitzpatrick, associate fellow and nuclear non-proliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Iran’s latest step left room for diplomacy.

“They are not saying how far they will push the enrichment or the number of centrifuges they’ll operate,” Fitzpatrick told Reuters. “I think they have reserved a lot of room for negotiation and for taking further steps if they need to.”

‘MAXIMUM PRESSURE’

Washington says the “maximum pressure” campaign it started after withdrawing from the nuclear agreement will force Iran to negotiate a more sweeping deal, covering its ballistic missile program and its role in Middle Eastern conflicts. Iran says it will not negotiate a new deal.

Tehran has rejected Western assertions that it has sought to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran has already breached many of the deal’s restrictions on its nuclear activities, including on the purity to which it enriches uranium, its stock of enriched uranium, which models of centrifuge it enriches uranium with and where it enriches uranium.

It has, however, not gone far over the purity allowed – the deal sets a limit of 3.67% and Iran has stayed around 4.5% in recent months, well below the 20% it reached before the deal and the roughly 90% that is weapons-grade.

The deal as a whole was designed to increase the time Iran would need to obtain enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb if it wanted one – the main obstacle to producing a nuclear weapon – from around two or three months.

(Additional reporting by Luke Baker in Brussels and Francois Murphy in Vienna and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Kevin Liffey, Frances Kerry and Chris Reese)

Iran’s Soleimani and Iraq’s Muhandis killed in U.S. air strike: militia spokesman

By Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed early on Friday in an air strike on their convoy at Baghdad airport, an Iraqi militia spokesman told Reuters.

“The American and Israeli enemy is responsible for killing the mujahideen Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Qassem Soleimani,” said Ahmed al-Assadi, a spokesman for Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces umbrella grouping of Iran-backed militias.

Strikes had been carried out against two targets linked to Iran in Baghdad on Thursday, U.S. officials told Reuters. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to give any further details.

Iraqi paramilitary groups said on Friday that three rockets hit Baghdad International Airport, killing five members of Iraqi paramilitary groups and two “guests.”

The rockets landed near the air cargo terminal, burning two vehicles, killing and injuring several people.

Soleimani, who has led the foreign arm of the Revolutionary Guards and has had a key role in fighting in Syria and Iraq, acquired celebrity status at home and abroad.

He was instrumental in the spread of Iranian influence in the Middle East, which the United States and Tehran’s regional foes Saudi Arabia and Israel have struggled to keep in check.

He survived several assassination attempts against him by Western, Israeli and Arab agencies over the past two decades.

Soleimani’s Quds Force, tasked with carrying out operations beyond Iran’s borders, shored up support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad when he looked close to defeat in the civil war raging since 2011 and also helped militiamen defeat Islamic State in Iraq.

Soleimani became head of the Quds Force in 1998, a position in which he kept a low profile for years while he strengthened Iran’s ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and Shi’ite militia groups in Iraq.

(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington; Writing by Ahmed Aboulenein and Samia Nakhoul; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Trump aides call U.S. strikes on Iraq and Syria ‘successful,’ warn of potential further action

By Idrees Ali and Ahmed Rasheed

WASHINGTON/BAGHDAD (Reuters) – U.S. officials said on Sunday that air strikes in Iraq and Syria against an Iran-backed militia group were successful, but warned that “additional actions” may still be taken in the region to defend U.S. interests.

The U.S. military carried out the strikes on Sunday against the Kataib Hezbollah militia group in response to the killing of a U.S. civilian contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base, officials said.

U.S. President Donald Trump was briefed by his top national security advisers following the strikes at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida.

“We will not stand for the Islamic Republic of Iran to take actions that put American men and women in jeopardy,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters after the briefing with Trump.

Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and General Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared briefly in a club ballroom to comment on the airstrikes.

Esper termed the offensive “successful,” but said that Trump was informed that a further military response could be warranted.

“We discussed with him other options that are available,” Esper said. “I would note also that we will take additional actions as necessary to ensure that we act in our own self-defense and we deter further bad behavior from militia groups or from Iran.”

Iraqi security and militia sources said at least 25 militia fighters were killed and at least 55 wounded following three U.S. air strikes in Iraq on Sunday.

At least four local Kataib Hezbollah commanders were among the dead, the sources said, adding that one of the strikes had targeted the militia group’s headquarters near the western Qaim district on the border with Syria.

The Pentagon said it had targeted three locations of the Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim militia group in Iraq and two in Syria. The locations included weapons storage facilities and command and control locations the group had used to plan and execute attacks on coalition forces, it said.

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the strikes were carried out by F-15 fighter jets.

The United States had accused Kataib Hezbollah of carrying out a strike involving more than 30 rockets on Friday which killed the U.S. civilian contractor and injured four U.S. service members and two members of the Iraqi Security Forces near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

“In response to repeated Kata’ib Hizbollah attacks on Iraqi bases that host Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) coalition forces, U.S. forces have conducted precision defensive strikes … that will degrade KH’s ability to conduct future attacks against OIR coalition forces” chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement.

Earlier this month, Pompeo blamed Iranian-backed forces for a series of attacks on bases in Iraq and warned Iran that any attacks by Tehran or proxies that harmed Americans or allies would be “answered with a decisive U.S. response.”

Tensions have heightened between Tehran and Washington since last year when Trump pulled the United States out of Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with six powers and reimposed sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington, Ahmed Rasheed in Iraq and Steve Holland in Palm Beach, Fla; Writing by Lindsay Dunsmuir, Jason Lange and James Oliphant in Washington; Editing by Tom Brown and Diane Craft)