As protests rock Baghdad and Beirut, Iran digs in

As protests rock Baghdad and Beirut, Iran digs in
BEIRUT/BAGHDAD (Reuters) – As governments in Iraq and Lebanon stagger and stumble under huge waves of popular protest, powerful factions loyal to Iran are pushing to quash political upheaval which challenges Tehran’s entrenched influence in both countries.

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri has resigned and the government of Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has been pushed to the brink of collapse.

Both governments have enjoyed backing from the West. But they have also relied on the support of political parties affiliated with powerful Iran-backed Shi’ite armed groups, keeping allies of Tehran in key posts.

That reflects the relentless rise of Iranian influence among Shi’ite communities across the Middle East, since Tehran formed the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1982 and after Saddam Hussein was toppled in Iraq in 2003.

Both Iraq and Lebanon have government systems designed to end sectarian conflict by guaranteeing a share of power to parties that represent different communities. In both countries, leading Shi’ite groups are closely associated with Iran, and have held on to weapons outside the official security forces.

Protesters are now challenging those power structures, which Iraqis and Lebanese blame for corruption, the dire state of public services and the squandering of national wealth, which Iraq brings in from oil and Lebanon from foreign backing.

WHO IS BEHIND THE PROTESTS?

Unusually in both countries where sectarian parties have previously dominated politics, most protesters are not linked to organized movements. In both countries they have called for the kind of sweeping change seen in the 2011 Arab uprisings, which brought down four Arab leaders but bypassed Lebanon and Iraq.

In Lebanon, demonstrations flared in late September against bad economic conditions as the country grappled with a deepening financial crisis. Nationwide protests broke out two weeks later against government plans to raise a new tax on calls using popular mobile phone software such as WhatsApp.

In Iraq, demonstrations began in Baghdad and quickly spread to the southern Shi’ite heartland.

WHAT IS AT STAKE?

In Iraq, the protests have taken place on a scale unseen since Saddam’s overthrow, with sweeping demands for change. The authorities have responded with a violent crackdown which left more than 250 people dead, many killed by snipers on rooftops firing into crowds.

“The fact that you were seeing that level of mobilization makes the protests more dangerous in the perception of the political elite,” said Renad Mansour, Iraq analyst at London-based Chatham House.

The mainly Iran-backed militias view the popular protests as an existential threat to that political order, Mansour said.

In Lebanon, the demonstrations come at a time of economic crisis widely seen as the worst since the 1975-1990 civil war. If Hariri’s resignation prolongs the political paralysis it will jeopardize prospects of rescue funding from Western and Gulf Arab governments.

HOW HAVE IRAN’S ALLIES RESPONDED?

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah initially addressed the Lebanon protesters sympathetically, echoing Hariri’s conciliatory stance, before changing tone and accusing foreign powers of instigating the unrest. People loyal to Hezbollah and the Shi’ite movement Amal attacked and destroyed a protest camp in Beirut.

Hariri announced his resignation shortly afterwards despite pressure from Hezbollah, widely seen as the most powerful player in Lebanon, not to concede to the protests.

In the absence of an obvious replacement for Hariri, Hezbollah, which is under U.S. sanctions, faces a predicament. Although Hezbollah and its allies have a majority in parliament, they cannot form a government on their own because they would face international isolation, said Nabil Boumonsef, a commentator with Lebanon’s an-Nahar newspaper.

“It would be the quickest recipe for financial collapse. The whole world will be closed to them.”

In Baghdad, Abdul Mahdi’s government was saved for now after apparent Iranian intervention. Reuters reported this week that Qassem Soleimani, the head of the elite Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, which sponsors Tehran’s allies abroad, flew to Baghdad for a secret meeting at which a powerful Shi’ite party agreed to keep the prime minister in office.

Iraqi security officials have said that snipers who shot down from rooftops at crowds last month were deployed by Iran-backed militias.

WHAT ARE THE LIMITS OF IRANIAN INFLUENCE?

While Shi’ite militia forces project unambiguous power, Iran’s political weight is often deployed behind the scenes.

In Lebanon, a longstanding accord on power-sharing means no single confession can dominate state institutions. For all its prominence, Hezbollah picked only three ministers in Hariri’s last cabinet.

“A winner-takes-all mentality just does not work in Lebanon,” said Nadim Houry, executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative, who said Hezbollah may have miscalculated by employing “scare tactics” against the protesters.

“This goes against the grain of Lebanese politics. They are going to have to compromise.”

In Iraq too “Iran has more influence than any other country … but it doesn’t have control over what happens there,” says Crisis Group’s Iran project director Ali Vaez.

WHAT IS THE INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE?

In Iraq it is too early to say. Tehran’s main rival, the United States, has so far kept mostly quiet on the protests, probably waiting to see the outcome.

In Lebanon, which urgently needs outside funding to keep its economy afloat, Tehran’s international foes have used their financial clout to challenge its influence more directly. Before he quit, Hariri failed to convince foreign donors to release $11 billion in aid pledged last year, in part because of Hezbollah’s prominence.

Wealthy Sunni Gulf Arab states, engaged in a proxy conflict with Iran across the region, had long funded Beirut, but Saudi Arabia cut back support sharply three years ago, saying Hezbollah had “hijacked” the Lebanese state.

Gulf Arab countries and the United States have coordinated moves against Iranian-linked targets with sanctions on 25 corporations, banks and individuals linked to Iran’s support for militant networks including Hezbollah.

“Gulf Arab states are bound by sanctions. Hezbollah are an integral part of the (Lebanese) government,” a Gulf source said. “Nobody has given up on Lebanon” but “the system is broken… Improvements need to be seen on several fronts, including fiscal discipline.”

Two U.S. officials said this week that President Donald Trump’s administration is withholding $105 million in security aid for Lebanon.

(Reporting by Reuters correspondents in Baghdad, Beirut and Dubai; writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Samia Nakhoul and Peter Graff)

Seven countries issue Iran-related sanctions on 25 targets

Seven countries issue Iran-related sanctions on 25 targets
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and six other countries imposed sanctions on Wednesday on 25 corporations, banks and people linked to Iran’s support for militant networks including Hezbollah, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement.

The targets were announced by the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC) nations – which also include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was on a Middle East trip to finalize details of an economic development plan for the Palestinians, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.

All 25 targets were previously sanctioned by the United States.

“The TFTC’s action coincides with my trip to the Middle East, where I am meeting with my counterparts across the region to bolster the fight against terrorist financing,” Mnuchin said in the Treasury statement.

In Jerusalem on Monday, Mnuchin said the United States would increase economic pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, making the pledge during a Middle East trip that includes visits to U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Sanctions reimposed on Tehran by President Donald Trump after he withdrew the United States from world powers’ 2015 nuclear pact with Tehran have dried up Iranian oil revenues and cut Iranian banks’ ties to the financial world.

Twenty-one of the targets announced Wednesday comprised a vast network of businesses providing financial support to the Basij Resistance Force, the Treasury said.

It said shell companies and other measures were used to mask Basij ownership and control over multibillion-dollar business interests in Iran’s automotive, mining, metals, and banking industries, many of which have operate across the Middle East and Europe.

The four individuals targeted were Hezbollah-affiliated and help coordinate the group’s operations in Iraq, it said.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Daphne Psaledakis; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Prime Minister Hariri resigns as Lebanon crisis turns violent

Prime Minister Hariri resigns as Lebanon crisis turns violent
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Saad al-Hariri resigned as Lebanon’s prime minister on Tuesday, declaring he had hit a “dead end” in trying to resolve a crisis unleashed by huge protests against the ruling elite and plunging the country deeper into turmoil.

The move by the leading Sunni politician points to rising political tensions that may complicate the formation of a new government able to tackle Lebanon’s worst economic crisis since its 1975-90 civil war.

The resignation of Hariri, who has been traditionally backed by the West and Sunni Gulf Arab allies, raises the stakes and pushes Lebanon into an unpredictable cycle. Lebanon could end up further under the sway of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, making it even harder to attract badly-needed foreign investment.

It also defies Hezbollah, which had wanted him to stay on. Hariri is seen as the focal point for Western and Gulf Arab aid to Lebanon, which is in dire need of financial support promised by these allies.

Hariri addressed the nation after a mob loyal to the Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah and Amal movements attacked and destroyed a protest camp set up by anti-government demonstrators in Beirut.

It was the most serious strife on the streets of Beirut since 2008, when Hezbollah fighters seized control of the capital in a brief eruption of armed conflict with Lebanese adversaries loyal to Hariri and his allies.

Lebanon has been paralyzed by the unprecedented wave of protests against the rampant corruption of the political class.

“For 13 days the Lebanese people have waited for a decision for a political solution that stops the deterioration (of the economy). And I have tried, during this period, to find a way out, through which to listen to the voice of the people,” Hariri said.

“It is time for us to have a big shock to face the crisis,” he said. “To all partners in political life, our responsibility today is how we protect Lebanon and revive its economy.”

President Michel Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, could now either accept Hariri’s resignation and begin consultations toward forming a new government, or ask him to rethink.

It took nine months to form the Hariri coalition cabinet that took office in January.

Some demonstrators vowed to stay in the street.

Protester Tarek Hijazi said the resignation was “a first step in building a patriotic democratic country, on the road to achieving the demands of the Oct. 17 uprising”.

The turmoil has worsened Lebanon’s acute economic crisis, with financial strains leading to a scarcity of hard currency and a weakening of the pegged Lebanese pound. Lebanese government bonds tumbled on the turmoil.

TENTS ON FIRE

On the streets of Beirut, black-clad men wielding sticks and pipes attacked the protest camp that has been the focal point of countrywide rallies against the elite.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, head of the heavily armed, Iran-backed Hezbollah, said last week that roads closed by protesters should be reopened and suggested the demonstrators were financed by its foreign enemies and implementing their agenda.

Smoke rose as some of the protester tents were set ablaze by Hezbollah and Amal supporters, who earlier fanned out in the downtown area of the capital shouting “Shia, Shia” in reference to themselves and cursing anti-government demonstrators.

“With our blood and lives we offer ourselves as a sacrifice for you Nabih!” they chanted in reference to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, head of the Amal Movement. “We heed your call, we heed your call, Nasrallah!” they chanted.

Security forces did not initially intervene to stop the assault, in which protesters were hit with sticks and were seen appealing for help as they ran, witnesses said. Tear gas was eventually fired to disperse the crowds.

Hariri did not refer to the violence in his address but urged all Lebanese to “protect civil peace and prevent economic deterioration, before anything else”.

France, which has supported Hariri, called on all Lebanese to help guarantee national unity.

LEBANESE POUND UNDER PRESSURE

Lebanon’s allies last year pledged $11 billion in financing to help it revive its economy, conditional on reforms that Hariri’s coalition government has largely failed to implement.

But there has been no sign of a rush to help.

A senior U.S. State Department official said last week this was not a situation where the Lebanese government should necessarily get a bailout, saying they should reform first.

Banks were closed for a 10th day along with schools and businesses.

Hariri last week sought to defuse popular discontent through a batch of reform measures agreed with other groups in his coalition government, including Hezbollah, to – among other things – tackle corruption and long-delayed economic reforms.

But with no immediate steps toward enacting these steps, they did not placate the demonstrators.

Central bank governor Riad Salameh called on Monday for a solution to the crisis in just days to restore confidence and avoid a future economic meltdown.

A black market for U.S. dollars has emerged in the last month or so. Three foreign currency dealers said a dollar cost 1,800 pounds on Tuesday, weakening from levels of 1,700 and 1,740 cited on Monday.

The official pegged rate is 1,507.5 pounds to the dollar.

“Even if the protesters leave the streets the real problem facing them is what they are going to do with the devaluation of the pound,” said Toufic Gaspard, an economist who has worked as an adviser to the IMF and to the Lebanese finance minister.

“A very large majority of the Lebanese income is in the Lebanese pound, their savings are in the Lebanese pound and their pension is in Lebanese, and it is certain it has already started to devalue,” he said.

(Reporting by Eric Knecht, Laila Bassam, Ellen Francis, Tom Perry, Lisa Barrington, Samia Nakhoul and Reuters TV; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Netanyahu: Israel ready for any scenario after Hezbollah clash

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on as he arrives to review an honor guard with his Ethiopian counterpart Abiy Ahmed during their meeting in Jerusalem September 1, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

By Ari Rabinovitch and Ellen Francis

JERUSALEM/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israel was prepared for any scenario after a cross-border clash with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, but neither side seemed eager for another conflict.

Israel’s military said anti-tank missiles from Lebanon targeted an army base and vehicles. It responded with fire into southern Lebanon, after a week of growing tension raised fears of a new war with long-time enemy Hezbollah.

The Iran-backed Hezbollah movement said its fighters destroyed an Israeli military vehicle, killing and wounding those inside. Israel said there were no casualties.

Netanyahu, whose re-election campaign ahead of a poll less than three weeks away could have been complicated by war in the north, signaled business as usual after the hostilities erupted along the frontier with Lebanon.

The Israeli leader kept to his regular schedule, commenting on the security situation, in Hebrew only, at the start of a meeting with Honduras’ visiting president, and did not take questions from reporters.

“We were attacked by a few anti-tank missiles. We responded with 100 shells, aerial fire and various measures. We are in consultations about what’s to come,” Netanyahu said.

“I have given instructions to be prepared for any scenario, and we will decide on what’s next depending on how things develop,” he said, almost dismissively, in a departure from his usually much tougher language toward Israel’s enemies.

“I can make an important announcement – we have no casualties, no wounded, not even a scratch.”

The U.N. peacekeeping force on the frontier said calm had returned to the region at night. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) also said it had urged both sides to “exercise utmost restraint to prevent any further escalation.”

The two sides fought a month-long war in 2006 after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.

Israel has been on alert for a confrontation with Hezbollah for the past week after two drones crashed in Beirut’s southern suburbs, with one of them exploding. Security officials in the region have described the target as linked to precision-guided missile projects.

Any new war between Israel and Hezbollah would raise the risk of a wider conflict in the Middle East, where Iran has defied U.S. attempts to force it to renegotiate a 2015 nuclear deal it reached with world powers.

At the same time, Israel is alarmed by Tehran’s growing influence in the region through militia allies such as Hezbollah in countries such as Syria.

In Iraq, powerful Iranian-backed militias have blamed a series of recent blasts at their weapons depots on Israel and the United States.

Hezbollah said the operation on Sunday was carried out by a unit named after two of its fighters who were killed by an Israeli airstrike inside Syria last week.

An Iranian security official was cited as saying the Hezbollah attack on Sunday was “a reciprocal measure”.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said on Saturday night that field commanders were ready to respond to last week’s drone attack, which he blamed on Israel. But like Netanyahu, Nasrallah has not indicated Hezbollah was seeking full-scale war.

Amid the threats, Israel had moved extra forces into the border region, which was largely quiet since the 2006 war.

Without claiming responsibility for the Beirut drone attack, the Israeli military has published what it said were details about an extensive Iranian-sponsored campaign to provide Hezbollah with the means to produce precision-guided missiles.

Such missiles could potentially pose a counter-balance to Israel’s overwhelming military force in any future war, with the capacity to home in on and knock out core infrastructure sites.

Nasrallah says Hezbollah has enough of the missiles, dismissing claims that it has factories to produce the weapons.

(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Jane Merriman and Mark Potter)

Israel says Iran boosting effort to set up Hezbollah precision-missile plants in Lebanon

FILE PHOTO: A general view picture shows the Lebanese village of Adaisseh on the left-hand-side of the Israel-Lebanon border, as seen from Kibbutz Misgav Am in northern Israel August 26, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel accused Iran on Thursday of stepping up efforts to provide its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon with precision-guided missile production facilities, a veiled warning to Beirut that Israeli counter-strikes could escalate.

Israel and Hezbollah, which last fought a war in 2006, are on high alert after Israeli drones were used at the weekend to attack what a security official in the region described as a target related to the militia’s precision-guided missile project.

Hezbollah has said it will retaliate for the rare strike in Beirut. The heavily armed Shi’ite movement has denied harboring such missile facilities. Lebanon has accused Israel of seeking pretexts for aggression.

Without claiming responsibility for the drone attack, the Israeli military went public with what it said were details about an extensive Iranian-sponsored project to provide Hezbollah with the means to produce precision-guided missiles.

Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said Iran had in recent months increased the pace of the project such that it was “faster in terms of buildings, facilities, locations, conversion and manufacturing facilities, and it means more people, operatives involved in doing so”.

“It is time for them (the Lebanese government) to understand their responsibility and understand the fact that what they are letting Hezbollah and Iran do on Lebanese soil is their responsibility,” Conricus said.

“They are the ones who are complicit in endangering Lebanon and Lebanese civilians which Hezbollah and Iran are using as human shields.”

(Reporting by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Frances Kerry)

Syria vows to recover Golan as Trump policy shift draws criticism

FILE PHOTO: Israeli soldiers stand on tanks near the Israeli side of the border with Syria in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

By Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Syrian government vowed to take back the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights as its allies and enemies alike condemned U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday for moving to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the territory seized in war.

Trump’s statement on Thursday marked a dramatic shift in U.S. policy over the status of a disputed area that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East conflict and annexed in 1981 – a move not recognized internationally.

Against this backdrop of hostility toward the U.S. move, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Beirut on Friday after visiting Israel. He is expected to raise pressure on the government to curb the influence of the Iran-backed Hezbollah.

Trump’s declaration is the latest U.S. step to fuel anger in the region, both in states that are hostile to Israel and others that have relations with it and are allied to the United States.

It follows the U.S. recognition in December 2017 of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – a decision that also drew international criticism as the city’s disputed status remains at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Russia, an ally of President Bashar al-Assad with forces in Syria, said Trump’s comments risked seriously destabilizing the region, and it voiced hope the statement was just declaratory.

Iran, Assad’s main regional ally and which also has forces in Syria, condemned the statement as illegal and unacceptable.

“The personal decisions of Trump…will lead to crisis in the region,” Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman said.

Turkey, a U.S. ally and an adversary of Damascus, also said the move had brought the Middle East to the edge of a new crisis and the legitimization of the occupation of the Golan Heights could not be allowed.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Trump for his gesture “at a time when Iran seeks to use Syria as a platform to destroy Israel”. It could help Netanyahu in the midst of a tough re-election battle, analysts said.

The Syrian government said the Golan was an “indivisible” part of Syrian territory and recovering it “via all means guaranteed by international law is still a priority”.

It said United States with its “stupidity and arrogance” had no right to decide the fate of the area and any move to recognize Israeli sovereignty over it was “an illegal action with no impact”.

After remaining calm for decades since a 1974 armistice monitored by U.N. peacekeepers, Golan re-emerged as a flashpoint for regional tensions during the Syrian war. Last May, Israel accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guards of launching a rocket salvo into its territory from the Syrian side of the truce line.

Israel, which has mounted numerous air strikes against what it has called Iran-backed targets in Syria, has demanded Russia keep forces allied to Tehran away from the boundary.

The Syrian side was held by rebel forces for years until pro-government forces recovered it in July.

U.S. OFFICIAL: ISRAEL “COULD NOT GIVE UP THE GOLAN”

Jason Greenblatt, a senior White House adviser, said “under any conceivable circumstance, Israel could not give up the Golan”. “To do so would endanger Israel’s very existence,” he wrote on Twitter.

But Fouad Mundhir, a Syrian whose village is in Israeli-occupied Golan, said Trump was “canceling the will of an entire nation”. “You say you are carrying the flag of democracy, okay, Mr. Trump, have you taken into account the will of the people of the Golan?” he told Reuters in Jaramana, near Damascus.

In the Golan itself, Druze villager Sheikh Mahmoud Nazeeh, also rejected the move.

“Trump can make his statements and say he wants to make the Golan part of Israel. But we know this will stay Syrian land,” the 70-year-old said.

The European Union said its position on the status of the Golan Heights was unchanged and it did not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the area.

Germany said any change in borders should be “done through peaceful means between all those involved”, while France said it did not recognize the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights and any recognition was contrary to international law.

The Arab League, which suspended Syria in 2011 after the start of its civil war, said Trump had paved “the way for official American recognition” of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan and called this “completely beyond international law”.

Egypt, which made peace with Israel in 1979, said it still considers the Golan as occupied Syrian territory.

Israel says Syria’s civil war has reaffirmed the need to keep the plateau – coveted for its water resources and fertile soil – as a buffer zone between Israeli towns and the instability of its neighbor.

In Lebanon, Pompeo is expected to flag U.S. concerns about Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah’s growing role in government: the group has three cabinet ministers and together with its allies controls more than 70 of parliament’s 128 seats.

The United States is a major donor to the Lebanese army but its allies, including the Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, have been weakened as Iran’s role has deepened through Lebanon, Iraq and Syria and Saudi influence has receded.

Washington has reintroduced sanctions on Iran and imposed new financial sanctions on Hezbollah which Lebanon’s Hezbollah-aligned president, Michel Aoun, said on Thursday were hurting all Lebanese.

(Reporting by Ali Abdelaty in Cairo/Tom Perry in Beirut, Maria Kiselyova in Moscow, and Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, Yousef Saba in Cairo, Ezgi Erkoyun and Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul, Kinda Makieh in Damascus, Joseph Nasr in Berlin, Robin Emmot in Brussels, Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.S. concerned over Hezbollah’s growing role in Lebanon

FILE PHOTO: Lebanon's Hezbollah supporters chant slogans during last day of Ashura, in Beirut, Lebanon September 20, 2018. REUTERS/Aziz Taher/File Photo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Hezbollah’s growing role in the Lebanese government worries the United States, the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon said during a meeting with Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri on Tuesday, according to the U.S. embassy.

The armed Shi’ite group, which is backed by Iran and listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, controls three of the 30 ministries in Hariri’s new cabinet, the largest number it has ever held. They include the Health Ministry, which has the fourth-largest budget in the state.

U.S. Ambassador Elizabeth Richard, speaking after the meeting, said she had been “very frank … about U.S. concern over the growing role in the cabinet of an organization that continues to maintain a militia that is not under the control of the government”, according to an embassy statement.

Richard, who did not name Hezbollah, said the group “continues to make its own national security decisions; decisions that endanger the rest of the country”.

It also “continues to violate the government’s disassociation policy by participating in armed conflict in at least three other countries”, she said. Lebanon’s official policy of disassociation is intended to keep it out of the region’s conflicts.

Hezbollah’s regional clout has expanded as it sends fighters to Mideast conflicts, including the war in neighboring Syria, where it has fought in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

Together with groups and individuals that see its arsenal as an asset to Lebanon, Hezbollah won more than 70 of the 128 seats in parliament in an election last year. Hariri, who is backed by the West, lost more than a third of his MPs.

A new unity cabinet, which took nearly nine months to put together, largely reflects the election result.

The United States has supplied the Lebanese military with more than $2.3 billion in assistance since 2005, aiming to support it as “the sole, legitimate defender” of the country. The United States is the largest provider of development, humanitarian and security assistance to Lebanon, Richard said.

“In just this last year alone, the United States provided more than $825 million in U.S. assistance and that’s an increase over the previous year.”

(Writing by Tom Perry, editing by Larry King)

Israel strikes in Syria in more open assault on Iran

What is believed to be guided missiles are seen in the sky during what is reported to be an attack in Damascus, Syria, January 21, 2019, in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. Facebook Diary of a Mortar Shell in Damascus/Youmiyat Qadifat Hawun fi Damashq/via REUTERS

By Angus McDowall and Dan Williams

BEIRUT/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel struck in Syria early on Monday, the latest salvo in its increasingly open assault on Iran’s presence there, shaking the night sky over Damascus with an hour of loud explosions in a second consecutive night of military action.

Damascus did not say what damage or casualties resulted from the strikes. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said 11 people were killed. Syria’s ally Russia said four Syrian soldiers had died and six were wounded.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the air raid had mostly targeted Iranian forces, but also hit Syrians helping them. “We will strike at anyone who tries to harm us,” he said.

The threat of direct confrontation between arch-enemies Israel and Iran has long simmered in Syria, where the Iranian military built a presence early in the nearly eight year civil war to help President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Israel, regarding Iran as its biggest threat, has repeatedly attacked Iranian targets in Syria and those of allied militia, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

With an election approaching, Israel’s government has begun discussing its strikes more openly and has also taken a tougher stance towards Hezbollah on the border with Lebanon. It said a rocket attack on Sunday was Iran’s work.

The Israeli shift comes a month after U.S. President Donald Trump unexpectedly announced a sudden plan to pull the 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, a move long sought by Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies. Trump’s decision shocked American allies in the region and was opposed by top U.S. officials including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis who quit in response.

The Israeli military said its fighter jets had attacked Iranian “Quds Force” targets early on Monday, including munition stores, a position in the Damascus International Airport, an intelligence site and a military training camp. Its jets then targeted Syrian defense batteries after coming under fire.

It followed a previous night of cross-border fire, which Israel said began when Iranian troops fired an Iranian-made surface-to-surface missile from an area near Damascus at a ski resort in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Syria said it was Israel that had attacked and its air defenses had repelled the assault. Syria had endured “intense attack through consecutive waves of guided missiles”, but had destroyed most “hostile targets”, state media quoted a military source as saying.

The Russian defense ministry said Syrian air defenses, supplied by Russia, had destroyed more than 30 cruise missiles and guided bombs, according to RIA news agency.

In Tehran, airforce chief Brigadier General Aziz Nasirzadeh said Iran was “fully ready and impatient to confront the Zionist regime and eliminate it from the earth”, according to the Young Journalist Club, a website supervised by state television.

Assad has said Iranian forces are welcome to stay in Syria after years of military victories that have brought most of the country back under his control. Just two big enclaves are still outside Assad’s grip, including the area Trump plans to exit.

Netanyahu, who is hoping to win a fifth term in the April 9 election, last week told his cabinet Israel has carried out “hundreds” of attacks over recent years.

“We have a permanent policy, to strike at the Iranian entrenchment in Syria and hurt whoever tries to hurt us,” he said on Sunday.

“EVERY LAST BOOT”

The Israeli military distributed footage of what it said were missiles hitting the Syrian defense batteries, as well as satellite images showing the location of the alleged Iranian targets. Syrian state media showed footage of explosions.

In a highly publicized operation last month, the Israeli military uncovered and destroyed cross-border tunnels from Lebanon it said were dug by Hezbollah to launch future attacks.

Israel last fought a war with Hezbollah, on Lebanese soil, in 2006. It fears Hezbollah has used its own role fighting alongside Iran and Assad in Syria to bolster its military capabilities, including an arsenal of rockets aimed at Israel.

Tensions have also risen with Israel’s construction of a frontier barrier that Lebanon says passes through its territory.

Washington has sought to reassure allies it still aims to eject Iran from Syria despite pulling its own troops out. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who visited the region this month, has vowed to expel “every last Iranian boot” from Syria.

Israel has sought reassurances from Moscow that Iranian forces in Syria would not be a threat. Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said the missile fired at the ski resort was launched from “an area we were promised the Iranians would not be present in”.

 

(Reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut, Ari Rabinovitch and Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow; writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Nick Macfie and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Syria state media says Israeli planes attack targets near Damascus

Smoke rises past a mountain as seen from Damascus countryside, Syria December 25, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Israeli war planes attacked with missiles unspecified targets near Damascus, the Syrian capital, on Tuesday and injured three Syrian soldiers, Syrian state media quoted a military source as saying.

“Our air defenses confronted hostile missiles launched by Israeli war planes from above the Lebanese territories and downed most of them before reaching their targets,” the military source said.

An arms depot was hit and three soldiers were injured due to the attack, the source added.

The nature of the Israeli missiles targets was unclear.

Syrian state media reported earlier in the evening downing several “hostile targets” near Damascus.

An Israeli military spokeswoman declined to comment on the reports.

“An IDF aerial defense system activated in response to an anti-aircraft missile launched from Syria,” the official Israeli army Twitter account later said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based war monitor, said Israeli missiles were launched from above the Lebanese territories and targeted western and southwestern Damascus rural areas.

“A number of missiles hit arms depots for Hezbollah or Iranian forces,” the observatory said. No casualties or losses were reported.

Lebanese state-run National News Agency said Israeli war planes performed mock raids above southern Lebanon.

During the more than seven-year conflict in neighboring Syria, Israel has grown deeply alarmed by the expanding clout of its arch enemy Iran – a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Israel’s air force has struck scores of targets it describes as Iranian deployments or arms transfers to Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement in the war.

(Reporting by Hesham Hajali in Cairo, Kinda Makieh in Damascus and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Dahlia Nehme; Editing by Edmund Blair and Leslie Adler)

Israeli military begins sealing off cross-border tunnels from Lebanon

FILE PHOTO: A photo taken during a guided tour by the Israeli army shows a view inside a tunnel which reportedly connects Lebanon and Israel, near the border by the northern Israeli town of Metula December 19, 2018. Jack Guez/Pool via REUTERS

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Israeli military on Thursday began to seal off four tunnels that it said had been dug by the Lebanese armed group Hezbollah under the border from Lebanon.

The work was being carried out on the Israeli side of the frontier demarcation, known as the “Blue Line”, military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus told reporters.

Israel says Hezbollah dug the tunnels with the aim of launching cross-border attacks with backing from its regional sponsor Iran. Hezbollah has yet to comment.

U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon have said they had so far confirmed the existence of four tunnels which the Israeli army discovered in recent weeks in the vicinity of the border.

Conricus said the military would “neutralize and destroy” the tunnels. Some were built with concrete components while others were dug directly into rock,” he said.

“Preliminary work has started,” Conricus said. “We warn anybody against approaching the openings of the tunnels or staying close to them, all of the tunnels, on the Lebanese side.”

He said Israel had asked the U.N. peacekeeping force, known as UNIFIL, to convey the warning to the Lebanese army.

“The end result is that Hezbollah will no longer be able to utilize these tunnels in order to terrorize Israeli civilians.”

Conricus said the work was likely to be completed in a matter of hours.

Israel has called for UNIFIL to deal with the tunnels on the Lebanese side of the border. The Israeli military has said it holds the Beirut government responsible for breaching Security Council resolution 1701, which ended a 2006 war with Hezbollah.

President Michel Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, has said Lebanon is committed to implementing 1701.

The resolution banned all unauthorized weapons between the Litani River and the U.N.-monitored border between Israel and Lebanon. Under the resolution, Lebanon’s army is responsible for security on its side of the border in a zone from which any other armed force, including Hezbollah, is banned.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Angus MacSwan)