U.S. fallout over Kabul drone strike grows with plans for multiple probes

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A senior U.S. Democrat said on Thursday that multiple congressional committees will investigate a drone strike that killed 10 Afghan civilians last month, to determine what went wrong and answer questions about future counterterrorism strategy.

“This is an issue that several committees are going to look at, and we’ve already started to do that,” Representative Adam Schiff, chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, told reporters.

The U.S. military apologized on Friday for the Aug. 29 drone strike in Kabul that killed as many as 10 civilians, including seven children, calling it a “tragic mistake.”

The Pentagon had said the strike targeted an Islamic State suicide bomber who posed an imminent threat to U.S.-led troops as they completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The intelligence failure raised hard questions about future risks, particularly whether the United States can keep track of threats from Afghanistan without a presence in the country.

“Particularly as we are going to be moving to an over-the-horizon strategy, we need to understand exactly what went wrong and what that means in terms of the limits of what we are able to do,” Schiff told a meeting with journalists sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.

“Over-the-horizon” refers to counterterrorism efforts from outside Afghanistan, such as drone strikes from bases located 1,000 miles from their targets.

The confirmation of civilian deaths provided further fuel to critics of the chaotic U.S. withdrawal, which generated the biggest foreign policy crisis yet for President Joe Biden’s administration.

Many of Biden’s fellow Democrats, as well as Republicans, have criticized the conduct of the withdrawal. Congressional committees have scheduled hearings with top administration officials.

Schiff said he backed the withdrawal. “We can’t occupy everywhere,” he said. “Today there is a greater risk in other parts of the world than there is in Afghanistan.”

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

Iranian missiles target U.S. troops in Iraq, Trump to make statement

By Ahmed Aboulenein, Phil Stewart and Parisa Hafezi

BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON/DUBAI (Reuters) – Iranian forces fired missiles at military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq on Wednesday in retaliation for the U.S. killing of an Iranian general, raising the stakes in its conflict with Washington amid concern of a wider war in the Middle East.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, addressing a gathering of Iranians chanting “Death to America”, said the attacks were a “slap on the face” of the United States and said U.S. troops should leave the region.

Tehran’s foreign minister said Iran took “proportionate measures” in self-defense and did not seek to escalate the confrontation.

The next move appeared to lie with Washington.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who ordered the drone strike that killed General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on Friday, gave an initial response on Twitter: “All is well!”.

Trump said casualties and damage from the missile attacks were being assessed. The White House said the president would make a statement at 11 a.m. (1600 GMT).

Trump, who was impeached last month and faces an election this year, at the weekend threatened to target 52 Iranian sites if Iran retaliated for Soleimani’s killing.

TARGETS

Iranian state television said Iran had fired 15 ballistic missiles from its territory at U.S. targets in its neighbor Iraq early on Wednesday. The Pentagon said al-Asad air base and another facility in Erbil were targeted.

The United States did not announce any casualties.

Iranian state television said 80 “American terrorists” had been killed and U.S. helicopters and military equipment damaged. It did not say how it obtained that information.

Germany, Denmark, Norway and Poland said none of their troops in Iraq were hurt. Britain, which also has personnel in Iraq, condemned the Iranian action and said Tehran “should not repeat these reckless and dangerous attacks”.

Iraq said its forces did not suffer casualties. The U.N. mission in Iraq called for restraint, saying: “Iraq should not pay the price for external rivalries.” Graphic: Iran fires missiles at U.S bases in Iraq – https://tmsnrt.rs/35DS8dy

More than 5,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq along with the other foreign forces in a coalition that has trained and backed Iraqis against the threat of Islamic State militants.

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

In Tehran, Khamenei said in a televised speech: “Military action like this is not sufficient. What is important is ending the corrupting presence of America in the region,” renewing Tehran’s long-standing demand for Washington to withdraw its forces.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the strikes “concluded” Tehran’s response to the killing of Soleimani, who had been responsible for building up Iran’s network of proxy armies across the Middle East. He was buried in his hometown Kerman on Monday after days of national mourning.

“We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression,” he wrote on Twitter.

Iranian television reported an official in the supreme leader’s office as saying the missile attacks were the “weakest” of several retaliation scenarios. It quoted another source saying Iran had lined up 100 other potential targets.

State media also showed footage of what it said were the missiles being fired into the night sky. In the background, voices shouted “God is greatest”. It also showed purported images of the blasts where they struck. It was not possible to verify the images’ authenticity.

WAY OUT?

Airlines canceled Iran and Iraq flights and re-routed others away from both countries’ airspace after the attacks.

Oil prices, which jumped in frenzied early trading after the missile attack, slipped later on as alarm faded..

Analysts said market tension could ease as long as oil production facilities remain unaffected. They also saw Trump and Zarif’s comments as signaling calm, at least for now.

Iran is likely to want to avoid any conventional military conflict with superior U.S. forces, other analysts say. In the past, it has focused on asymmetric strikes, such as sabotage or other military action via proxies, they say.

U.S. officials said Soleimani was killed because forces under his command planned attacks on U.S. targets. They have not provided evidence.

Before Soleimani was buried, his body was taken on a tour of cities in Iraq and Iran, drawing huge crowds. A stampede at his funeral on Tuesday killed at least 56 people.

After the Iranian missile attack, state television showed footage of the burial, with hundreds of people chanting “God is greatest” when the strikes were announced over loudspeakers.

“His revenge was taken and now he can rest in peace,” Iranian television said.

Friction between Iran and the United States rose after Trump withdrew in 2018 from a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, approved by his predecessor Barack Obama, and reimposed sanctions on Tehran slashing its vital oil exports.

Khamenei, in his speech on Wednesday, ruled out any resumption of talks with Washington on the 2015 nuclear pact.

Trump’s U.S. political rivals have challenged his decision to order Soleimani’s killing and questioned its timing in a U.S. election year.

“We must ensure the safety of our service members, including ending needless provocations from the Administration and demanding that Iran cease its violence. America & world cannot afford war,” U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Twitter.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad, Parisa Hafezi and Babak Dehghanpisheh in Dubai, Phil Stewart, Steve Holland and Eric Beech in Washington, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Steve Scherer in Ottawa and Robin Emmott in Brussels; Writing by Edmund Blair and Angus MacSwan; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Trump vows to hit 52 Iranian targets if Iran retaliates after drone strike

By Ahmed Aboulenein, Maha El Dahan and David Shepardson

BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday threatened to hit 52 Iranian sites “very hard” if Iran attacks Americans or U.S. assets after a drone strike that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani and an Iraqi militia leader, as tens of thousands of people marched in Iraq to mourn their deaths.

Showing no signs of seeking to ease tensions raised by the strike he ordered that killed Soleimani and Iranian-backed Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at Baghdad airport on Friday, Trump issued a threat to Iran on Twitter. The strike has raised the specter of wider conflict in the Middle East.

Iran, Trump wrote, “is talking very boldly about targeting certain USA assets” in revenge for Soleimani’s death. Trump said the United States has “targeted 52 Iranian sites” and that some were “at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.”

“The USA wants no more threats!” Trump said, adding that the 52 targets represented the 52 Americans who were held hostage in Iran for 444 days after being seized at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 – an enduring sore spot in U.S.-Iranian relations.

Trump did not identify the sites. The Pentagon referred questions about the matter to the White House, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Among the mourners in Iraq included many militiamen in uniform for whom Muhandis and Soleimani were heroes. They carried portraits of both men and plastered them on walls and armored personnel carriers in the procession. Chants of “Death to America” and “No No Israel” rang out.

On Saturday evening, a rocket fell inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone near the U.S. Embassy, another hit the nearby Jadriya neighborhood and two more were fired at the Balad air base north of the city, but no one was killed, Iraq’s military said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

Trump referenced an unusually specific number of potential Iranian targets after a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander had also mentioned a specific number of American targets – 35 of them – for possible retaliatory attacks in response to Soleimani’s killing.

General Gholamali Abuhamzeh was quoted by Tasnim news agency as saying late on Friday that Iran will punish Americans wherever they are within reach of the Islamic Republic, and raised the prospect of attacks on ships in the Gulf.

“The Strait of Hormuz is a vital point for the West and a large number of American destroyers and warships cross there. … Vital American targets in the region have been identified by Iran since long time ago. … Some 35 U.S. targets in the region as well as Tel Aviv are within our reach,” he was quoted as saying.

Iraq’s Kataib Hezbollah militia warned Iraqi security forces to stay away from U.S. bases in Iraq, “by a distance not less than a thousand meters (six-tenths of a mile) starting Sunday evening,” reported Lebanese al-Mayadeen TV, which is close to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Trump said on Friday Soleimani had been plotting “imminent and sinister” attacks on American diplomats and military personnel. Democratic critics said the Republican president’s action was reckless and risked more bloodshed in a dangerous region.

‘MALIGN INFLUENCE’

Trump’s provocative Twitter posts came only hours after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote on Twitter that he had told Iraq’s president that “the U.S. remains committed to de-escalation.” Pompeo also wrote on Twitter that he had spoken with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about Iran and “underscored the importance of countering Iran’s malign influence and threats to the region.”

The White House on Saturday sent to the U.S. Congress formal notification of the drone strike – as required by law – amid complaints from Democrats that Trump did not notify lawmakers or seek advance approval for the attack. White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien defended the operation’s legality and said Justice Department lawyers had signed off on the plan.

Democrats sounded unswayed. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the notification document raised “serious and urgent questions about the timing, manner and justification” of the strike.

Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a strident Trump critic, wrote on Twitter that his threat to hit Iranian sites “is a war crime.”

“Threatening to target and kill innocent families, women and children – which is what you’re doing by targeting cultural sites – does not make you a ‘tough guy.’ It does not make you ‘strategic.’ It makes you a monster,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote.

With security worries rising after Friday’s strike, the NATO alliance and a separate U.S.-led mission suspended their programs to train Iraqi security and armed forces, officials said.

Soleimani, 62, was Iran’s pre-eminent military leader – head of the Revolutionary Guards’ overseas Quds Force and the architect of Iran’s spreading influence in the Middle East. Muhandis was de facto leader of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) umbrella body of paramilitary groups.

The attack took Washington and its allies, mainly Saudi Arabia and Israel, into uncharted territory in their confrontation with Iran and its proxy militias across the region.

The United States has been an ally of the Iraqi government since the 2003 U.S. invasion to oust dictator Saddam Hussein, but Iraq has become more closely allied with Iran.

The Iraqi parliament is convening an extraordinary session during which a vote to expel U.S. troops could be taken as soon as Sunday. Many Iraqis, including opponents of Soleimani, have expressed anger at Washington for killing the two men on Iraqi soil and possibly dragging their country into another conflict.

BODIES TAKEN TO HOLY CITIES

A PMF-organized procession carried the bodies of Soleimani and Muhandis, and those of others killed in the U.S. strike, through Baghdad’s Green Zone.

The top candidate to succeed Muhandis, Hadi al-Amiri, spoke over the dead militia commander’s coffin: “The price for your noble blood is American forces leaving Iraq forever and achieving total national sovereignty.”

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi also attended. Mahdi’s office later said he received a phone call from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and they “discussed the difficult conditions facing Iraq and the region.”

Mourners brought the bodies of the two slain men by car to the Shi’ite holy city of Kerbala, south of Baghdad, then to Najaf, another sacred Shi’ite city, where they were met by the son of Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and where Muhandis and the other Iraqis killed will be laid to rest.

Soleimani’s body will be transferred to the southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan that borders Iraq. On Sunday it will be taken to the Shi’ite holy city of Mashhad in Iran’s northeast and from there to Tehran and his hometown Kerman in the southeast for burial on Tuesday, state media said.

The U.S. strike followed a sharp increase in U.S.-Iranian hostilities in Iraq since last week when pro-Iranian militias attacked the U.S. embassy in Baghdad after a deadly U.S. air raid on Kataib Hezbollah, founded by Muhandis. Washington accused the group of an attack on an Iraqi military base that killed an American contractor.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein and Maha El Dahan in Baghdad and David Shepardson in Washington; Additional reporting by Ghazwan Jabouri in Tikrit, Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, Nadine Awadallah in Beirut, John Chalmers in Brussels, and Kate Holton in London; Writing by Will Dunham, Mark Heinrich and Grant McCool; Editing by Frances Kerry and Daniel Wallis)

Britain Kills Home Grown Jihadists in Syria

Two British citizens who fled to Syria to join with the terrorist group ISIS have been killed in an airstrike by British troops.

It marked the first time the British government has targeted terrorists who grew up in the UK.

Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin were killed when a Royal Air Force drone targeted their convoy near Raqqa on August 21st.  The drone was controlled either at RAF Waddington or by a British crew operating at a US airbase in Nevada.  

The strike was targeted at Khan; British officials say that Amin just had the bad luck of being in the vehicle with Khan.

Khan was shown last year in a recruitment video for the terrorist group.  He had been working to attempt to radicalize more British youths and bring them to Syria to join ISIS.  

A third Briton who had joined the terrorist group, Junaid Hussain, was killed in a separate US airstrike coordinated by the Brits.

It was necessary and proportionate for the individual self-defense of the UK,British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Monday.

Both Junaid Hussain and Reyaad Khan were British nationals based in Syria who were involved in actively recruiting ISIS sympathizers and seeking to orchestrate specific and barbaric attacks against the west, including directing a number of planned terrorist attacks right here in Britain, such as plots to attack high-profile public commemorations, including those taking place this summer. We should be under no illusion. Their intention was the murder of British citizens.

The slain terrorists reportedly had plotted to carry about attacks at major British events that were thwarted by government operatives.  One even targeted Queen Elizabeth at an event in May.

We took this action because there was no alternative. In this area, there is no government we can work with. We have no military on the ground to detain those preparing plots,Cameron added.  And there was nothing to suggest that Reyaad Khan would ever leave Syria or desist from his desire to murder us at home. So we had no way of preventing his planned attacks on our country without taking direct action.

British Born ISIS Hacker and Recruiter Killed in Drone Strike

A British citizen who intelligence officials say was a head of terrorist group ISIS’ cyberwarfare division has been killed in a U.S. drone strike.

Juaniad Hussain, also called Abu Hussain al-Britani, died in an airstrike in Raqqa, Syria.  U.S. officials say they have a “high level of confidence” that Hussain is dead.

Hussain has been confirmed as the target of the attack as he moved in a convoy.  The strike was part of a 48 hour campaign aimed at the terrorist’s power structure in their self-proclaimed capital.

“This is a great intelligence success,” one U.S. official told CNN.

Cybersecurity experts say that while Hussain was more of a nuisance than serious hacker, he was especially dangerous in recruiting hackers and others to join the terrorist group.

“He wasn’t a serious threat. He was most likely a nuisance hacker,” Adam Meyers, vice president of cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, told the London Independent.   “It was his involvement in recruitment, communications and other ancillary support that would have made him a target.”

Hussain had spent six months in prison for hacking the personal address book of British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2012.  He left for Syria soon after the sentence.