Trump warns Iran, proxies against attacking U.S. in Iraq

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday warned Iran and its proxies against attacking U.S. troops or assets in Iraq, citing a possible “sneak attack” but giving no other details.

“Upon information and belief, Iran or its proxies are planning a sneak attack on U.S. troops and/or assets in Iraq. If this happens, Iran will pay a very heavy price, indeed!” Trump said in a post on Twitter.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Chris Reese; Editing by Chris Reese)

U.S.-led forces depart Iraqi military base near Mosul in drawdown

QAYYARA WEST AIRFIELD, Iraq (Reuters) – Troops with the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State began departing an air base in northern Iraq on Thursday, handing it over fully to the Iraqi military as part of a reduction of foreign forces in the country.

The overall drawdown will see coalition forces move into a smaller number of bases and reduce personnel. The coalition has not provided details or numbers.

Qayyara air base, south of the city of Mosul where Islamic State declared its caliphate in 2014, is the second base to be handed over to the Iraqis this month. Coalition troops left a base at al-Qaim on the Syrian border last week.

“The coalition will operate from fewer locations, but remains committed to supporting our partners in their fight against Daesh (Islamic States),” Brigadier General Vincent Barker of the coalition said in a statement.

Coalition officials say the troop cuts and relocation of units into fewer Iraqi bases is because Iraqi forces are mostly capable of containing the threat from leftover Islamic State militants on their own.

The U.S.-led coalition has supported the Iraqi military since 2014 in the fight to neutralise Islamic State. A few thousand militants are believed to be remain active, mostly confined to remote areas such as desert and mountains across northern Iraq. They periodically attack security forces but have held no major territory like towns and cities since 2017.

The coalition currently deploys around 7,500 troops in Iraq, including 5,000 Americans.

(Reporting by Thaier al-Sudani and Maher Nazeh; Writing by Ahmed Rasheed; Editing by John Davison and Mark Heinrich)

Pompeo to Iraq PM: U.S. will take action in self-defense if attacked

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Iraq’s prime minister that the United States would take measures in self-defense if attacked, according to a statement on Monday after a rocket attack on an Iraqi base that houses U.S. troops helping fight Islamic State.

Pompeo spoke to Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi on Sunday, a day after three American troops and several Iraqi forces were wounded in the second major rocket attack in the past week on an Iraqi base north of Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi officials said, raising the stakes in an escalating cycle of attacks and reprisals.

He said Iraq’s government should defend the U.S.-led coalition helping it fight Islamic State, according to the statement from State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus.

“Secretary Pompeo underscored that the groups responsible for these attacks must be held accountable. Secretary Pompeo noted that America will not tolerate attacks and threats to American lives and will take additional action as necessary in self-defense,” it said.

Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said 33 Katyusha rockets were launched near a section of the Taji base which houses U.S.-led coalition troops. It said the military found seven rocket launchers and 24 unused rockets in the nearby Abu Izam area.

The Iraqi military said several Iraqi air defense servicemen were critically wounded. Two of the three wounded U.S. troops are seriously injured and are being treated at a military hospital in Baghdad, the Pentagon said.

Longstanding antagonism between the United States and Iran has mostly played out on Iraqi soil in recent months.

Iranian-backed paramilitary groups have regularly rocketed and shelled bases in Iraq which host U.S. forces and the area around the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

The United States has in turn conducted several strikes inside Iraq, killing top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Kataib Hezbollah founder Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Alex Richardson and Andrea Ricci)

U.S. wages retaliatory strikes against Iran-backed militia in Iraq

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States waged a series of precision air strikes on Thursday against an Iran-backed militia in Iraq that it blamed for a major rocket attack a day earlier that killed two American troops and a 26-year-old British soldier.

The U.S. strikes appeared limited in scope and narrowly tailored, targeting five weapons storage facilities used by Kataib Hezbollah militants, including stores of weaponry for past attacks on U.S.-led coalition troops, the Pentagon said.

In a statement, Iraq’s military said the U.S. air strikes hit four locations in Iraq that housed formal Iraqi police and military units, in addition to the paramilitary groups.

Three Iraqi army soldiers were killed and four wounded, police in Babel province said in a statement. Five paramilitary fighters and one policeman were also injured, they said, adding that the fate of two more policemen was unknown.

One strike hit an Iraqi civilian airport under construction in the holy Shi’ite Muslim city of Kerbala and killed a worker, Iraqi religious authorities said on Friday.

The U.S. military did not estimate how many people in Iraq may have been killed in the strikes, which officials said were carried out by piloted aircraft.

But there was no sign of the kind of high-profile killing that President Donald Trump authorized in January, when the United States targeted a top Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, in a Pentagon statement detailing the strikes, cautioned that the United States was prepared to respond again, if needed.

“We will take any action necessary to protect our forces in Iraq and the region,” Esper said.

Trump had been quick to authorize the U.S. military to respond following Wednesday’s attack in Iraq, in which militants fired dozens of 107 mm Katyusha rockets from a truck, striking Iraq’s Taji military camp north of Baghdad.

About 18 of the roughly 30 rockets fired hit the base. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.

It was the third time in recent months the U.S. military lashed out against Kataib Hezbollah. It killed more than two dozen militants in December in response to an attack on an Iraqi base that killed a U.S. contractor.

The U.S. military drone strike in January that targeted Soleimani also killed Kataib Hezbollah founder Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

It was unclear if the latest strikes would deter further militant action. The Taji rocket attack took place on what would have been Soleimani’s 63rd birthday, suggesting the militants still sought revenge.

FURTHER ATTACKS?

Dennis Ross, a former U.S. ambassador now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank, cast doubt on the Pentagon’s ability to deter Kataib Hezbollah.

“Regrettably, these attacks on our forces will continue as Iran has no problem fighting to the last of the Shia militias and believe they can force us out of Iraq,” he said on Twitter.

Iran retaliated for the U.S. drone strike that killed Soleimani by launching missiles from its territory at an Iraq base hosting U.S. troops, causing brain injuries to more than 100.

In the latest attack, 14 U.S.-led coalition personnel were wounded, including American, British, Polish and other nationals. Private-industry contractors were among the wounded.

U.S. Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Pentagon reporters that five of the wounded were categorized as “urgent,” suggesting serious injuries that could require rapid medical evacuation.

Britain identified its fallen service member as Lance Corporal Brodie Gillon. The United States has not yet identified its service members killed.

In a sign of concern that tension between the United States and Iran could be headed toward open conflict, the Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation on Wednesday to limit Trump’s ability to wage war against Iran.

The Republican president has been engaged in a maximum-pressure campaign of renewed sanctions and near-constant rhetoric against Iran, after pulling the United States out of the international nuclear deal struck under his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have mostly played out on Iraqi soil in recent months.

Iran-backed paramilitary groups have regularly been rocketing and shelling bases in Iraq that host U.S. forces and the area around the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Ulf Laessing in Baghdad, Ali Rubei in Babel; Editing by Leslie Adler and Peter Cooney)

Assange tried to call White House, Hillary Clinton over data dump, his lawyer says

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – Julian Assange tried to contact Hillary Clinton and the White House when he realized that unredacted U.S. diplomatic cables given to WikiLeaks were about to be dumped on the internet, his lawyer told his London extradition hearing on Tuesday.

Assange is being sought by the United States on 18 counts of hacking U.S. government computers and an espionage offense, having allegedly conspired with Chelsea Manning, then a U.S. soldier known as Bradley Manning, to leak hundreds of thousands of secret documents by WikiLeaks almost a decade ago.

On Monday, the lawyer representing the United States told the hearing that Assange, 48, was wanted for crimes that had endangered people in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan who had helped the West, some of whom later disappeared.

U.S. authorities say his actions in recklessly publishing unredacted classified diplomatic cables put informants, dissidents, journalists and human rights activists at risk of torture, abuse or death.

Outlining part of his defense, Assange’s lawyer Mark Summers said allegations that he had helped Manning to break a government password, had encouraged the theft of secret data and knowingly put lives in danger were “lies, lies and more lies”.

He told London’s Woolwich Crown Court that WikiLeaks had received documents from Manning in April 2010. He then made a deal with a number of newspapers, including the New York Times, Britain’s Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel, to begin releasing redacted parts of the 250,000 cables in November that year.

A witness from Der Spiegel said the U.S. State Department had been involved in suggesting redactions in conference calls, Summers said.

However, a password that allowed access to the full unredacted material was published in a book by a Guardian reporter about WikiLeaks in February 2011. In August, another German newspaper reported it had discovered the password and it had access to the archive.

PEOPLE’S LIVES “AT RISK”

Summers said Assange attempted to warn the U.S. government, calling the White House and attempting to speak to then- Secretary of State Clinton, saying “unless we do something, people’s lives are put at risk”.

Summers said the State Department had responded by suggesting that Assange call back “in a couple of hours”.

The United States asked Britain to extradite Assange last year after he was pulled from the Ecuador embassy in London, where he had spent seven years holed up avoiding extradition to Sweden over sex crime allegations which have since been dropped.

Assange has served a prison sentence in Britain for skipping bail and remains jailed pending the U.S. extradition request

Supporters hail Assange as an anti-establishment hero who revealed governments’ abuses of power, and argue the action against him is a dangerous infringement of journalists’ rights. Critics cast him as a dangerous enemy of the state who has undermined Western security.

(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Julian Assange put lives at risk, lawyer for United States says

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – Julian Assange is wanted for crimes that put at risk the lives of people in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan who had helped the West, some of whom later disappeared, said a lawyer acting for the United States in its bid to extradite him.

Almost a decade since his WikiLeaks website enraged Washington by leaking hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. documents, Assange, 48, is fighting extradition from Britain to the United States where he is accused of espionage and hacking.

He was wanted, said James Lewis, lawyer for the U.S. authorities, not because he embarrassed the authorities but because he put informants, dissidents, and rights activists at risk of torture, abuse or death.

“What Mr Assange seems to defend by freedom of speech is not the publication of the classified materials but the publication of the names of the sources, the names of people who had put themselves at risk to assist the United States and its allies,” Lewis said at London’s Woolwich Crown Court.

Supporters hail Assange as an anti-establishment hero who revealed governments’ abuses of power, and argue the action against him is a dangerous infringement of journalists’ rights.

Chants from 100 of his backers outside could be clearly heard inside. Assange himself complained about the din.

“I’m finding it difficult concentrating,” said a clean-shaven Assagne, dressed in a blue-grey suit. “This noise is not helping either. I understand and am very appreciative of the public support. They must be disgusted…”

Judge Vanessa Baraitser warned those in the public gallery not to disturb the proceedings.

The United States asked Britain to extradite Assange last year after he was pulled from the Ecuador embassy in London, where he had spent seven years holed up avoiding extradition to Sweden over sex crime allegations which have since been dropped.

Assange has served a prison sentence in Britain for skipping bail and remains jailed pending the U.S. extradition request.

Jennifer Robinson, one of Assange’s lawyers, has said his case could lead to criminalising activities crucial to investigative journalists, and his work had shed light on how the United States conducted its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We are talking about collateral murder, evidence of war crimes,” she said last week. “They are a remarkable resource for those of us seeking to hold governments to account for abuses.”

Lewis, speaking on behalf of the U.S. authorities, said hundreds of people across the world had to be warned after the WikiLeaks disclosures. Some had to be relocated. Others later disappeared, he said, although he said the United States would not try to prove that was directly a result of the disclosures.

Some WikiLeaks information was found at Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan, he added.

HERO OR ENEMY?

The United States has charged Assange with 18 criminal counts of conspiring to hack government computers and violating an espionage law. Lewis said Assange had conspired with Chelsea Manning, then a U.S. soldier known as Bradley Manning, to hack Department of Defense computers.

He said Assange’s defense team was guilty of hyperbole by suggesting Assange might receive a U.S. jail term of 175 years. Similar cases had led to terms of about 40-60 months, he said.

Assange attracted a host of well-known backers, with those criticizing the case against him ranging from leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn to Roger Waters, co-founder of rock group Pink Floyd. Designer Vivienne Westwood was among protesters outside court.

In addition to releasing military records, WikiLeaks angered Washington by publishing secret U.S. diplomatic cables that laid bare critical U.S. appraisals of world leaders. Assange made headlines in 2010 when WikiLeaks published a classified U.S. military video showing a 2007 U.S. helicopter strike in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff.

The hearing will not decide if Assange is guilty of any wrongdoing, but whether the extradition request meets the requirements set out under a 2003 UK-U.S. treaty, which critics say is stacked in Washington’s favor.

The case will get under way before being postponed until May 18, when it will resume again for a further three weeks to allow both sides more time to gather evidence.

(Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Peter Graff)

‘Hit with a truck’ – How Iran’s missiles inflicted brain injury on U.S. troops

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

(Reuters) – In the wee hours of Jan. 8, Tehran retaliated over the U.S. killing of Iran’s most powerful general by bombarding the al-Asad air base in Iraq.

Among the 2,000 troops stationed there was U.S. Army Specialist Kimo Keltz, who recalls hearing a missile whistling through the sky as he lay on the deck of a guard tower. The explosion lifted his body – in full armor – an inch or two off the floor.

Keltz says he thought he had escaped with little more than a mild headache. Initial assessments around the base found no serious injuries or deaths from the attack. U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted, “All is well!”

The next day was different.

“My head kinda felt like I got hit with a truck,” Keltz told Reuters in an interview from al-Asad air base in Iraq’s western Anbar desert. “My stomach was grinding.”

Keltz, who said he had concussion symptoms for days, is among 109 soldiers diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries in the wake of last month’s attack, a figure that has steadily risen as more troops report symptoms and get medical screening.

Reuters interviewed more than a dozen officials and soldiers and spoke with brain-injury specialists to assemble the most comprehensive account so far of the nature of the soldiers’ injuries and how they sustained them.

The slowly rising casualty count underscores the difficulty in detecting and treating what has become one of the most common injuries in the U.S. military during two decades of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, where U.S. troops face roadside bombs, rockets and mortars.

More than a week after the attack, on Jan. 16, Defense Secretary Mark Esper was made aware that soldiers had suffered brain injuries from the missiles, the Pentagon said. That day, the Pentagon reported that an unspecified number of troops were treated for concussive symptoms and 11 were flown to Kuwait and Germany for higher-level care.

On Jan. 22, Trump said that he “heard that they had headaches and a couple of other things,” prompting criticism from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers and a U.S. veterans group that the president was underplaying the casualties from the attack.

“I think it was unfortunate to use those words,” said Republican Representative Richard Hudson, who represents Fayetteville, North Carolina, home to Fort Bragg that includes the Army’s Special Operations Command.

The White House declined to comment for this story.

A DIFFERENT CLASS OF WOUNDS

The U.S. military has long treated brain injuries as a different class of wounds that do not require rapid reporting up the chain of command, unlike incidents threatening life, limb or eyesight.

Since 2000, nearly 414,000 service members have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries, or TBIs, according to Pentagon data. The number is likely higher because the Pentagon only counts as one injury cases where a soldier suffers brain trauma in multiple incidents.

U.S. troops operating drone flights appeared to have suffered the most brain injuries during the attack on al-Asad, said Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Garland, who was on the base at the time. Many worked near the air strip, he said. Like Specialist Keltz, who was manning a guard tower, the drone pilots had been assigned to watch for a possible ground attack.

“Those drone pilots, they’re the ones that took the brunt of the TBI cases,” said Garland, who as commander of Task Force Jazeera oversees more than 400 soldiers.

The number of troops diagnosed with brain injury from last month’s attack was expected to stabilize near the current count, one U.S. official said. Less than 10 were now being monitored with possible TBI symptoms, the official said.

The total U.S. military count, however, excludes civilian contractors on the base at the time, many of whom have since departed.

Some U.S. troops also suffered from anxiety-related symptoms after the attack, including sleeplessness and, in at least one case, a sustained high heart rate, according to interviews with soldiers and officials. However, they could not provide a specific number.

The Pentagon categorizes brain injuries as mild, moderate, severe or penetrating. The vast majority of injuries are classified as mild, as were all of the injuries reported from al-Asad.

STANDING GUARD

Garland, the commander, said he was taken aback when he learned of U.S. intelligence indicating that Iranian missiles would strike within hours. He immediately found a base map and started sizing up the best options to shelter his troops.

He recalled old bunkers on the base built during the era of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator toppled by U.S.-led forces in 2003. But the bunkers wouldn’t hold everyone. Some would need to disperse, taking cover in armored vehicles driven away from targets.

Others in Garland’s unit — including Specialist Keltz –would need to stand guard to watch for additional attacks beyond the expected missiles.

Keltz said he and a fellow soldier were already manning a tower when First Sergeant Larry Jackson came to them, explaining the intelligence and giving them their orders.

“What I need you boys to do is to lay down on the ground when the impacts happen – and then I need you to jump right back up and man those guns,” Jackson said in an interview, recounting his instructions to Keltz and other soldiers at the base.

As the Iranian missiles streaked through the night sky toward the base, their engines glowed orange – like the ends of lit cigarettes, Garland said. The glow was all that Garland could see in the darkness before scrambling back into a bunker.

Then came the blasts. At least eleven missiles struck the base, destroying housing units made from shipping containers and other facilities.

“Every explosion I heard, I was thinking, OK, that’s a number of people that have just lost their lives,” he said.

But initial checks after the attack showed nobody was killed or obviously injured, despite massive devastation to the base. Word got back to Washington. Just before 6 a.m. in Baghdad, Trump tweeted an update: “Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good!”

FALLING THROUGH THE CRACKS

On the ground at al-Asad, U.S. Army Major Robert Hales, a doctor who is deployed to al-Asad, defended the initial reports of no injuries.

“Everyone here did not have any outward physical injuries,” he said in an interview. “There were no lacerations. There’s no shrapnel wounds.”

Such “silent” injuries take time to manifest, he said.

Injury figures kept climbing in the weeks after the attack. What began as at least 11 cases grew to 34 about a week later.

On Jan. 22, Trump made his controversial comment, referring to the injuries as “headaches.” The Veterans of Foreign Wars demanded an apology for Trump’s “misguided remarks”.

A week later, on Jan. 28, the toll of brain injuries climbed to 50. In early February, Reuters was the first to report that the count had surpassed 100.

The brain injuries sustained in the Iranian missile attack are fundamentally different than those that have typically resulted from past attacks, brain-trauma specialists said.

That’s because the al-Asad bombing was more intense than typical quick-hit, single-explosion attacks: The explosions came in waves and lasted more than an hour.

When a roadside bomb goes off in Afghanistan, head wounds are often visible. In insurgent bomb blasts, shrapnel or other flying debris can cause brain injuries upon impact. But the damage from large pressure waves from a major blast – like the ones at al-Asad that Specialist Keltz felt – often take more time to diagnose.

Marilyn Kraus, director of the Traumatic Brain Injury program and concussion clinic at George Washington University, said troops may minimize or underreport their symptoms initially. Others may not show symptoms until much later in part because their injuries are initially masked by the adrenaline rush that comes with combat.

“Some of these things can fall into the cracks initially,” said Kraus, who previously served as medical director of the Traumatic Brain Injury Consult Section at the Walter Reed military hospital in Bethesda, Maryland.

In the short term, mild traumatic brain injury can cause headaches, nausea, dizziness and confusion, while longer-term effects can include chronic headaches, mood changes and dizziness, Kraus said. Repeated head injuries can lead to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a brain degeneration disorder that some researchers have linked to suicidal thoughts, substance misuse and depression, she said.

Hales, the Army doctor, cited research within the past six months showing in animal models that signs of damage to the brain can increase in the weeks after a blast. At al-Asad, soldiers started showing symptoms such as headaches or a “foggy feeling” days after the attack, Hales said. The symptoms often persisted.

“That’s the reason why you saw a huge delay” in identifying the injuries, he said. “That prompted us to re-screen pretty much the whole population of al-Asad.”

(Stewart and Ali reported from Washington. Editing by Brian Thevenot and Jason Szep)

Iraqi cleric scolds security forces after protesters die in new tensions

By John Davison

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric on Friday berated security forces for failing to protect protesters killed in clashes with rival groups this week in the southern city of Najaf, and urged politicians to pick a government trusted by the people.

The violence in the holy city of Najaf, where Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is based, killed eight anti-government demonstrators after followers of populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr stormed their sit-in protest.

The incident laid bare new tensions on the street in Iraq, where nearly 500 people have been killed in months of unrest.

The most recent events have pitted young anti-government protesters against many of Sadr’s followers, known as blue hats for the caps they wear.

The blue hats turned on protesters in several incidents after Sadr entered a deal with Iran-backed political blocs last week to bring in new Prime Miniser-designate Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi – a move the protesters reject.

Sistani, in remarks delivered by his representative during his weekly Friday sermon in the holy city of Kerbala, condemned the violence in Najaf and blamed security forces for failing to stop it.

“It is the security forces that must take responsibility to keep the peace, protect the protest squares and peaceful demonstrators and identify attackers and rabble rousers,” the representative said.

“There is no excuse for shirking that duty.”

Sistani holds great influence over public opinion among Iraq’s Shi’ite majority. He avoids commenting on politics except during crises. His withdrawal of support for the government of Adel Abdul Mahdi in November sealed the outgoing premier’s fate.

Sistani urged that the new government which Allawi will form be representative of the Iraqi people and said it must have their full trust.

“It must be capable of calming the situation and take steps toward early elections free of the influence of money, weapons and foreign interference,” he said.

SADR’S ‘BETRAYAL’

Some protesters had hoped Sistani would reject Allawi who was named last week ending weeks of deadlock between political blocs.

“We hope Sistani will reject Allawi and the deal between the parties on Friday,” Mahdi Abdul Zahra, a protester in Baghdad, said.

The rival and two most powerful parliamentary blocs of Sadr and a grouping of Iran-backed parties put their differences aside to approve Allawi’s nomination.

Sadr has regularly threatened to call all his followers out to protest alongside the anti-government movement. The followers including the blue hats had been unofficially involved in the demonstrations and at times protected protesters from assaults by security forces and Iran-aligned militiamen.

His move to support Allawi, and subsequent calls for the blue hats to remove protest camps deemed to be preventing schools or businesses from functioning, is seen as betrayal by many.

“I used to support the Sadrist movement. But the minute he did this, I stopped. I’ve erased all by Facebook posts that supported him,” Abdul Zahra said from a main square where protesters skirmished with police.

The protests began in October and swelled in cities throughout the Shi’ite south, pitting impoverished and jobless masses against the Shi’ite-dominated and Iran-aligned government.

Security forces and unidentified gunmen have shot dead nearly 500 people since then.

(Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Traumatic brain injuries from strike in Iraq diagnosed as ‘mild’: top U.S. general

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Service members suffering from traumatic brain injury following missile strikes by Iran on a base in Iraq earlier this month have all so far been diagnosed with mild cases, Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Thursday.

“The diagnosis we have so far for all of the folks that had been diagnosed to date is ‘mild traumatic brain injury,'” said Milley at a press conference. “That’s the diagnosis that’s been reported to us so far.”

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert and Idrees Ali; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Iraqis rebuild wrecked protest camp as violence escalates

NASSIRIYA, Iraq (Reuters) – Anti-government protesters in the southern Iraqi city of Nassiriya say they will not back down despite the destruction of their camp by gunmen in an attack that left at least two people dead.

Unidentified gunmen in four vehicles tore through the camp late on Sunday and set the protesters’ tents on fire, police and medical sources said. The incident came a day after security forces had made a violent nationwide attempt to close down such settlements.

The protesters said they now intended to make their camp more permanent and on Tuesday they began to clear the ruins and build new huts out of bricks and mortar that would provide better protection.

“After they burned our tents, we started building with bricks. And if they destroy the brick-built camp, we will use the bricks of our houses, I swear by God. We do all that for the sake of our motherland, Iraq,” said one protester, who declined to give his name.

Mass protests against corruption, economic decline and foreign political interference have rocked Iraq since October.

Nearly 500 people have been killed while demonstrating against the largely Iranian-backed ruling elite. After a lull this month, protests resumed in Baghdad and other cities, including Nassiriya, Basra and Najaf.

Nassiriya has been a major flashpoint with frequent violent clashes between protesters and security forces.

As they began to put their protest camp back together, volunteers turned al-Haboubi square in central Nassiriya into a construction site. A giant billboard overlooking the scene reads: “The fearful do not create freedom”.

“We will build with bricks, and if they destroy bricks, we will build with concrete. Iraqis won’t step back until they regain all rights,” another protester said.

(Reporting by Maher Nazeh; Writing by Nadine Awadalla; Editing by Aziz El Yaakoubi and Giles Elgood)