In Iraq’s Biblical lands, scattered Christians ask ‘should I stay or go?’

By John Davison

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – A jihadist message, “Islamic State endures,” is still graffitied on the front gate of Thanoun Yahya, an Iraqi Christian from the northern city of Mosul, scrawled by Islamist militants who occupied his home for three years when they ruled the city.

He refuses to remove it, partly in defiance of the militants who were eventually beaten by Iraqi forces, but also as a reminder that Iraq’s scattered and dwindling Christian community still lives a precarious existence.

“They’re gone, they can’t hurt us,” said the 59-year-old, sitting in his home which he reclaimed when Islamic State was driven out in 2017. “But there aren’t many of us left. The younger generation want to leave.”

Yahya sold the family’s metalwork shop to pay a ransom for his brother, kidnapped by al Qaeda militants in 2004 at a time when Christians were being abducted and executed.

Since then, he has watched siblings leave for foreign countries and work and income dry up.

Of 20 relatives who once lived in the neighborhood, only his family of six remain.

Iraq’s Christians have endured unrest over centuries, but a mass exodus began after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and accelerated during the reign of Islamic State, which brutalized minorities and Muslims alike.

Hundreds of thousands left for nearby areas and Western countries.

Across Iraq’s northern Nineveh Plains, home to some of the oldest churches and monasteries in the world, the remaining Christians often live displaced in villages that fell easily to Islamic State in 2014 or in enclaves of bigger cities such as Mosul and the nearby self-run Kurdish region.

The Islamists’ rule over almost a third of Iraq, with Mosul as their capital, ended in 2017 in a destructive battle with security forces.

‘ONLY GOD CAN HELP’

Physical and economic ruin remain. Iraqi authorities have struggled to rebuild areas decimated by war, and armed groups that the government has not been able to control vie for territory and resources, including Christian heartlands.

Christians say they are left with a dilemma – whether to return to damaged homes, resettle inside Iraq or migrate from a country that experience has shown cannot protect them.

“In 2014, Christians thought their displacement would last a few days,” said Cardinal Louis Sako, head of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Church.

“It lasted three years. Many lost hope and migrated. There’s no security or stability.”

Iraq’s indigenous Christians are estimated to number around 300,000, a fifth of the 1.5 million who lived in the country before the 2003 invasion that toppled Sunni Muslim leader Saddam Hussein.

Christians were tolerated under Hussein, but singled out for kidnappings and killings in the communal bloodshed of the mid-2000s onwards.

Pope Francis is to visit Iraq on an historic trip that eluded his predecessors. He will say a prayer for the victims of conflict at a site in Mosul where old churches lie in ruins, once used as religious tribunals by Islamic State.

Christians welcome the visit, but do not believe it will improve their lot.

“The pope can’t help us, only God can,” Yahya said.

DISPLACED, DISTRUSTFUL

Yahya’s family, who fled to Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region during Islamic State’s rule, is one of just a few dozen that have returned to Mosul out of an original population of some 50,000 Christians, according to local clergy.

His two teenage sons help out at the local church, the only one fully repaired in Mosul, which fills to about half its modest capacity on Sundays.

Firas, his eldest, finds little more than a day a week of casual labor and sees no future in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

“If I want to marry, I’ll have to leave. Christian women from here are displaced to other areas and don’t want to come back,” he said. “Ideally, I’d go to the West.”

The experience of Islamic State, which told Christians to convert, pay a tax or be killed, and the inability of Iraqi and Kurdish security forces to prevent the group marauding through their hometowns, has left many Christians distrustful of any but their own.

The nearby Christian town of Hamdaniya boasts its own militia, which local officials say is necessary because of the proliferation of Shi’ite Muslim paramilitary groups which seek control of land, and Islamic State militants who remain in hideouts across northern Iraq.

“If there were no Christian militia here, no one would come back. Why should we rely on outside forces to protect us?” said a local militia leader, who requested anonymity.

Nearly 30,000 Christians, half of Hamdaniya’s population, have returned, including a small number from abroad, and began rebuilding infrastructure thanks to foreign aid. It is a rare bright spot.

In the neighboring village, Christian leader Sako said most Christians were unable or unwilling to return out of fear of a local Shi’ite militia, and because non-Christians had bought their property in their absence.

Some have showed interest in resettling in Hamdaniya, but local officials generally reject this, fearing it would weaken Iraqi Christians’ presence.

“If people move here from their own villages, it empties those areas of Christians,” said Isam Daaboul, the mayor of Hamdaniya.

“This threatens our existence in areas we’ve been for generations.”

(Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Syria condemns ‘cowardly’ U.S. air strikes on Iran-backed militias

By John Davison and Maha El Dahan

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Syria condemned U.S. air strikes against Iran-backed militias in the east of the country on Friday as a cowardly act and urged President Joe Biden not to follow “the law of the jungle”.

An Iraqi militia official close to Iran said the strikes killed one fighter and wounded four, but U.S. officials said they were limited in scope to show Biden’s administration will act firmly while trying to avoid a big regional escalation.

Washington and Tehran are seeking maximum leverage in attempts to return to the Iran nuclear deal.

“Syria condemns in the strongest terms the U.S. cowardly attack on areas in Deir al-Zor near the Syrian-Iraqi border,” the Syrian foreign ministry said in a statement.

“It (the U.S. administration) is supposed to stick to international legitimacy, not to the law of the jungle as (did) the previous administration.”

Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, also criticized the strikes and called for “unconditional respect of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria.”

“What has happened is very dangerous and could lead to an escalation in the whole region,” a Russian parliamentarian, Vladimir Dzhabarov, was quoted as saying by RIA news agency.

The strikes, early on Friday Middle Eastern time, targeted militia sites on the Syrian side of the Iraqi-Syrian border, where groups backed by Iran control an important crossing for weapons, personnel and goods.

Western officials and some Iraqi officials accuse Iran-backed groups of involvement in deadly rocket attacks against U.S. sites and personnel in Iraq in the last month.

ATTACKS ON U.S. FORCES IN IRAQ

The Iraqi militia official close to Iran said Friday’s air strikes had hit positions of the Kataib Hezbollah paramilitary group along the border.

Local sources and a medical source in eastern Syria told Reuters at least 17 people had been killed, but gave no further details. That toll could not be confirmed.

In recent attacks, a non-American contractor was killed at a U.S. military based at Erbil International Airport in Kurdish-run northern Iraq on Feb. 15 and, in the days that followed, rockets were fired at a base hosting U.S. forces, and near the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

Biden’s decision to strike only in Syria and not in Iraq gives Iraq’s government breathing room as it investigates the Erbil attack, which also wounded Americans.

Kataib Hezbollah has denied involvement in recent attacks against U.S. interests. Iran denies involvement in attacks on U.S. sites.

Several attacks, including the one on Erbil airport, have been claimed by little-known groups which some Iraqi and Western officials say are a front for established Iran-backed groups such as Kataib Hezbollah.

LIMITED RESPONSE

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement on Thursday that U.S. forces had conducted air strikes against infrastructure used by Iranian-backed militant groups.

“President Biden will act to protect American and Coalition personnel. At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq,” Kirby said.

He said the strikes destroyed multiple facilities at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups, including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the decision to carry out the strikes was meant to signal that, while the United States wanted to punish the militias, it did not want the situation to spiral into a bigger conflict.

The Iraqi military issued a statement saying it had not exchanged information with the United States over the targeting of locations in Syria, and that cooperation with the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq was limited to fighting Islamic State.

It was not clear how, or whether, the U.S. strikes might affect efforts to coax Iran back into negotiations about both sides resuming compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.

(Reporting by John Davison, Amina Ismail, Baghdad newsroom, Maha El Dahan in Beirut, Kinda Makieh in Damascus, and Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in Washington, and by Thomas Balmforth and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber in Moscow, editing by Timothy Heritage)

First big suicide attack in Baghdad for three years kills at least 32

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Two men blew themselves up in a crowded Baghdad market on Thursday, killing at least 32 people in Iraq’s first big suicide bombing for three years, authorities said, describing it as a possible sign of the reactivation of Islamic State.

Reuters journalists arriving after the blasts saw pools of blood and discarded shoes at the site, a clothing market in Tayaran Square in the center of the city. Health authorities said at least 110 people had been wounded.

“One (bomber) came, fell to the ground and started complaining ‘my stomach is hurting’ and he pressed the detonator in his hand. It exploded immediately. People were torn to pieces,” said a street vendor who did not give his name.

Suicide attacks, once an almost daily occurrence in the Iraqi capital, have halted in recent years since Islamic State fighters were defeated in 2017, part of an overall improvement in security that has brought normal life back to Baghdad.

“Daesh terrorist groups might be standing behind the attacks,” Civil Defense chief Major General Kadhim Salman told reporters, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

A video taken from a rooftop and circulated on social media purported to show the second blast scattering people gathered in the area. Images shared online, which Reuters could not independently verify, showed several dead and wounded.

Thursday’s attack took place in the same market that was struck in the last big attack, in January, 2018, when at least 27 people were killed.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi held an urgent meeting with top security commanders to discuss Thursday’s suicide attacks, the premier’s office said in a brief statement. Iraqi security forces were deployed and key roads blocked to prevent possible further attacks.

Suicide attacks against civilian targets were a near-daily tactic of mainly Sunni Muslim insurgents during the U.S. occupation of Iraq after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, and were later employed by Islamic State, whose fighters swept across a third of the country in 2014.

By 2017 the fighters had been driven from all territory they held, although they have continued to wage a low-level insurgency against Iraqi forces and attack officials mainly in northern areas.

(Reporting by Baghdad newsroom; Writing by Ahmed Rasheed and John Davison; Editing by Catherine Evans and Peter Graff)

Israel launches major air strikes on Iran-linked targets in Syria

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – Israel launched an air attack against Iranian-linked targets in Syria near the main border crossing to Iraq in the early hours of Wednesday, one of the biggest strikes yet in a campaign that has escalated in the Trump administration’s final weeks.

Israel has been stepping up strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, part of aggressive posture adopted before President-elect Joe Biden takes office next week in what could bring a reassessment of Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy on Iran.

Syrian news agency SANA and Syrian state media said Israel had struck sites in Al Bukamal, the Syrian city that controls the border checkpoint on the main Baghdad-Damascus highway. The highway is part of the main over ground supply route linking Iran to its proxy fighters in Syria and Lebanon.

The Syrian reports also said Israeli strikes had hit areas in Deir al Zor province, where Iranian-backed militias and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards fighters have a heavy presence.

Two residents in the regional capital Deir al Zor City told Reuters they could hear the distant sound of huge explosions, apparently from arms depots destroyed in the raids.

Israel’s military did not immediately comment. Tzachi Hanegbi, an Israeli government minister, told Israeli radio he would not discuss the specific reports, but that Israel hit Iranian targets in Syria “whenever our intelligence dictates it and according to our operational capability.”

The United States has a small number of troops at Tanf, a base in Syria near Al Bukamal, the main city struck by Wednesday’s Israeli raid. Western intelligence sources say Israel’s stepped up strikes on Syria in the last few months are part of a shadow war approved by the Trump administration.

Israel’s Defense Force Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi said last month that missile strikes had “slowed down Iran’s entrenchment in Syria” adding they had hit more than 500 targets in 2020.

Israel has said its goal is to end Tehran’s military presence, which Western intelligence sources say has expanded in Syria in recent years.

A regional intelligence source said the targets included Syrian security compounds inside Al Bukamal and Deir Zor, while in the past raids had struck only the cities’ outskirts.

The latest raids were notable for having hit “advanced weaponry and weapons depots … in a large combat arena,” the regional intelligence source said.

Iran’s proxy militias led by Lebanon’s Hezbollah now hold sway over vast areas in eastern, southern and northwestern Syria, as well as several suburbs around Damascus. They also control Lebanese-Syrian border areas.

(Reporting by Ahmed Tolba and Suleiman al Khalidi in Amman; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem, Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Timothy Heritage)

Iran tests drones in military exercise

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran launched exercises featuring a wide array of domestically produced drones on Tuesday, Iranian media reported, days after the anniversary of the U.S. killing of a top Iranian general by a drone strike in Iraq.

Iran and the regional forces it backs have increasingly relied in recent years on drones in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf.

Iran’s armed forces are to test combat drones used as bombers, interceptors and in reconnaissance missions in the two-day exercises in central Semnan province, the semi-official Fars news agency said.

“The fingers of our heroic armed forces are on the trigger, and if enemies commit the slightest mistake, the armed forces will surely respond fiercely,” said Mohammad Baqeri, chief of staff of the armed forces, quoted by state media.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has said U.S. President Donald Trump may be trying to find an excuse to attack Iran in his last days in office, or Israel might try to provoke a war. Israel rejected the allegation.

The exercises coincided with increased tensions between Iran and the United States, two days after the first anniversary of the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike at Baghdad airport.

Beyond surveillance, Iranian drones can drop munitions and also carry out a “kamikaze” flight when loaded with explosives and flown into a target, according to a U.S. official who spoke to Reuters.

Iran has developed a large domestic arms industry in the face of international sanctions and embargoes barring it from importing many weapons. Western military analysts say Iran sometimes exaggerates its weapons capabilities, though concerns about its ballistic missiles contributed to Washington leaving the nuclear pact.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Peter Graff)

Trump cuts troop levels in Afghanistan but stops short of full withdrawal

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump will sharply reduce the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500 by mid-January, the Pentagon announced on Tuesday, stopping short of a full withdrawal from America’s longest war.

Trump’s decision to limit himself to a partial withdrawal was first reported by Reuters on Monday and triggered a rebuke from senior Republicans who fear it will undermine security and hurt fragile peace talks with the Taliban.

Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, who Trump installed last week after abruptly firing Mark Esper, confirmed the Afghan drawdown and also outlined a modest withdrawal of forces from Iraq that will reduce troop levels there from 3,000 to 2,500.

“By Jan. 15, 2021, our forces, their size in Afghanistan, will be 2,500 troops. Our force size in Iraq will also be 2,500 by that same date,” Miller told reporters.

“This is consistent with our established plans and strategic objectives, supported by the American people, and does not equate to a change in U.S. policy or objectives.”

Moments later, the top Republican in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, warned against any major changes in U.S. defense or foreign policy in the next couple of months – including any precipitous troop drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“It is extremely important here in the next couple of months not to have any earthshaking changes in regard to defense or foreign policy,” McConnell told reporters.

Trump is due to leave office on Jan. 20 after losing this month’s presidential election to Democrat Joe Biden. He has launched legal challenges to vote counts in some swing states which he says were fraudulent but legal experts give him little chance of success.

The top Republican on the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry also slammed the troop cut as a “mistake.”

“Further reductions in Afghanistan will also undercut negotiations there; the Taliban has done nothing – met no condition – that would justify this cut,” Thornberry said.

U.S. and Afghan officials are warning of troubling levels of violence by Taliban insurgents and persistent Taliban links to al Qaeda.

It was those ties that triggered U.S. military intervention in 2001 following the al Qaeda Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. Thousands of American and allied troops have died in fighting in Afghanistan.

Some U.S. military officials had been urging Trump to keep U.S. troop levels at around 4,500 for now.

But the withdrawal stops short of his pledge on Oct. 7, when Trump said on Twitter: “We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!”

Rick Olson, a former U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that the remaining 2,500 troops still give the United States some leverage in advancing the peace process, but “it would have been better to have left them at 4,500.”

“Zero would have been truly awful, while 2,500 is maybe okay, but it’s probably not very stable,” he said. “I would say 2,500 is probably stable as long as the U.S.-Taliban peace holds. But that may not happen because the Taliban have not done a reduction in violence, as they committed to do.”

Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Kabul, cautioned that “if we are pulling out faster than the withdrawal schedule, there’s no incentive for the Taliban to negotiate.”

The withdrawals could hand Biden a new set of challenges when he takes office on Jan. 20.

Taliban militants, fighting against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, have called on the United States to stick to a February agreement with the Trump administration to withdraw U.S. troops by May, subject to certain security guarantees.

Violence has been rising throughout Afghanistan, with the Taliban attacking provincial capitals, in some case prompting U.S. airstrikes.

In Iraq, four rockets fell in the Green Zone in Baghdad on Tuesday, an Iraqi military statement said. The fortified zone houses government buildings and foreign missions.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; additional reporting by Jonathan Landay, Richard Cowan, Jeff Mason and Steve Holland; Editing by Howard Goller and Alistair Bell)

Trump could withdraw troops from Somalia as part of global pullback

By Phil Stewart and Katharine Houreld

WASHINGTON/NAIROBI (Reuters) – President Donald Trump may withdraw nearly all U.S. troops from Somalia as part of a global pullback that could see major reductions in Afghanistan and a slight drawdown in Iraq, U.S. officials told Reuters on Tuesday.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that nothing had been finalized and that no orders have been received by the U.S. military. However, there appeared to be a growing expectation on Tuesday that drawdown orders would be coming soon.

The Pentagon declined comment on future decisions on troop deployments. Reuters reported on Monday that Trump was expected to settle for a partial withdrawal from Afghanistan, despite promising to pull out all troops by Christmas.

He is also expected to order a small drawdown in Iraq, from 3,000 to 2,500, U.S. officials say, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The United States has about 700 troops in Somalia focused on helping local forces defeat the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab insurgency, in a mission that receives little attention in the United States but is considered a cornerstone of the Pentagon’s global efforts to combat al Qaeda.

Trump’s newly-installed acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, a former Green Beret and counter-terrorism official, is taking a hard look at Somalia and could opt for keeping a minimal presence there and stop relying on large deployments to combat the group.

Critics say such a radical change in approach carries significant risk.

Colonel Ahmed Abdullahi Sheikh, who served for three years as the commander of the Danab special forces until 2019, said any such decision to pull back would not be based on the counter-terrorism threat in Somalia and could undermine trust in the United States.

“This is being dictated by politics,” he said.

The United States already pulled out of Bossaso and Galkayo around three weeks ago. They remain in the southern port city of Kismayo, a special forces airbase in Baledogle and in the capital Mogadishu, but a rapid pullout risks ceding ground to al Shabaab, Sheikh said.

“It would create a vacuum. The Somali security forces have good morale because of the U.S. troops … there’s the possibility of air support if they are attacked, they can have medevacs,” Sheikh said.

Somalia has been riven by civil war since 1991, but over the past decade the African Union-backed peacekeeping force has clawed back control of the capital and large swathes of the country from al Shabaab.

(Additional reporting by Idrees Ali, Editing by William Maclean)

Vienna gunman rampaged alone, intelligence was fumbled: Austrian minister

By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) – Large quantities of mobile phone footage have confirmed that the jihadist who killed four people in a rampage in Vienna on Monday was the only gunman, but Austria fumbled intelligence on him, Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said on Wednesday.

Austria arrested 14 people aged 18 to 28 on Tuesday in connection with the attack and is investigating them on suspicion of belonging to a terrorist organization, he said. But it would also have to investigate its own actions, he added.

“Before the terror attack began, according to the information currently available, some things also went wrong,” Nehammer told a news conference.

In July, neighboring Slovakia’s intelligence service had handed over information suggesting the attacker had tried and failed to buy ammunition there, Nehammer and a top ministry official, Director General for Public Security Franz Ruf, said.

“In the next steps evidently something went wrong here with communications,” said Nehammer, who called for the formation of an independent commission to examine the errors made.

After receiving the tip-off from Slovakia, Austria’s domestic intelligence agencies at the federal and provincial level made the necessary checks and sent questions back to Bratislava, Ruf said.

“It’s up to the commission to clarify whether the process went optimally and in line with the law,” he said when pressed on what had gone wrong.

The gunman, who was shot dead by police within minutes of opening fire on crowded bars on Monday evening, was a 20-year-old with dual Austrian and North Macedonian citizenship. Born and raised in Vienna, he had already been convicted of trying to reach Syria to join Islamic State and had spent time in jail.

All of those arrested in Austria have a “migration background”, Nehammer said. Vienna police chief Gerhard Puerstl added that some were dual citizens of Bangladesh, North Macedonia, Turkey or Russia.

Neutral Austria, part of the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS formed in 2014, has for years seen jihadist attacks as its biggest security threat and warned of the danger posed by foreign fighters returning from Iraq or Syria or their admirers.

At the end of 2018, the authorities knew of 320 people from Austria who were actively involved or had wanted to participate in jihad in Syria and Iraq. Of these, around 58 people were thought to have died in the region and 93 to have returned to Austria. Another 62 were prevented from leaving the country.

Nehammer repeated criticism of a deradicalization program, saying the gunman had “perfectly” fooled the program to reintegrate jihadists into society.

LONE GUNMAN

Members of the public had handed in more than 20,000 mobile phone videos that the authorities analyzed before coming to the conclusion that there was only one gunman, Nehammer said, putting an end to lingering confusion on that point.

Switzerland has also arrested two men in connection with the attack. Its justice minister said the two were “obviously friends” with the gunman.

Ruf said Austria was in contact with Switzerland and another country that he declined to identify over the investigation.

North Macedonia said on Tuesday three people were somehow involved in the attack and all had dual Austrian and North Macedonian citizenship. It identified them only by initials.

Monday’s attack drew international expressions of support for Austria, which had been spared the deadly militant attacks that have hit other European countries in the past decade.

President Emmanuel Macron of France, which has suffered two deadly attacks recently amid Islamist anger over the publication of satirical caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad, will visit Vienna next Monday, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s office said.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Additional reporting by Michael Shields; Writing by Michael Shields and Francois Murphy; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Gareth Jones)

Kuwait bids farewell to late ruler and pillar of Arab diplomacy as new emir takes over

By Ahmed Hagagy

KUWAIT (Reuters) – Kuwait on Wednesday laid to rest late ruler Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, a Gulf Arab elder statesman who helped steer his nation through some of the region’s most turbulent decades, in funeral rites closed to the public due to COVID-19 concerns.

The only leader of fellow Gulf Arab states in attendance was the emir of Qatar, which has been boycotted by Saudi Arabia and its allies, including the United Arab Emirates, in a dispute that Sheikh Sabah, 91, tried until his death to resolve.

His successor and brother, Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah, 83, headed the rites after being sworn in at parliament, pledging to work for the OPEC member state’s prosperity, stability and security.

“Our dear nation today faces difficult situations and dangerous challenges that can only be overcome … by unifying ranks and working hard together,” he told the National Assembly.

Sheikh Nawaf takes the reins of the small wealthy nation, which holds the world’s seventh-largest oil reserves, at a time when low crude prices and the coronavirus have strained the finances of a country with a cradle-to-grave welfare system.

His succession is not expected to change oil or investment policy and he is seen maintaining a foreign policy that saw Kuwait balance ties with larger neighbors Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran.

Dignitaries from around the world paid respects to Sheikh Sabah, a seasoned diplomat and savvy politician widely respected as a humanitarian who strove to heal rifts in the Middle East, mending ties with former occupier Iraq and championing the Palestinian cause.

“He will be long remembered by all who work for regional stability, understanding between nations and between faiths, and for the humanitarian cause,” Britain’s Queen Elizabeth said in a statement tweeted by Buckingham Palace.

“DIFFICULT TIMES”

Sheikh Sabah, who died on Tuesday in the United States were he was hospitalized since July, had ruled the U.S.-allied country since 2006, and steered its foreign policy for over 50 years.

Sheikh Nawaf was at the airport when the plane brought the body back home, wrapped in a white shroud and the Kuwaiti flag.

Sheikh Sabah was buried in Sulaibikhat cemetery alongside his kin, after prayers at Bilal bin Rabah mosque where mourners, including Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, all wore face masks.

The UAE said it was represented by its deputy premier, who is also interior minister, and the minister of tolerance and coexistence, both members of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family.

When Kuwait’s previous emir, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, died in 2006, thousands of Kuwaitis attended the funeral and many, along with expatriates, lined the streets.

“I am sure all the men would have loved to go … and we as women would have loved to somehow pay tribute to our emir,” Khadija, a Kuwaiti fitness instructor, told Reuters.

“I wish we could have young leadership and new visions … I want to see change in our economy, education, and implementation of many promises that didn’t take place,” she said, adding that other Gulf states saw change under a new generation of leaders.

Sheikh Nawaf, who lacks the diplomatic skills of his predecessor, is likely to focus on domestic matters such as naming a crown prince who would manage ties with a parliament that has often clashed with the government and hindered economic reform efforts, diplomats and analysts say.

Under the constitution, the emir chooses the crown prince but traditionally the ruling family, some of whose senior members have been jostling for the position, convenes a meeting to build consensus. Parliament also has to approve the choice.

“I don’t expect big change under Sheikh Nawaf. We have big problems and some may be resolved but I’m not very optimistic,” said Mohammed Abu Ghanem, a 45-year-old Kuwaiti.

(Reporting by Ahmed Hagagy, Dahlia Nehme, Lisa Barrington, Aziz El Yaakoubi and Nafisa Eltahir; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Nick Macfie, William Maclean)

Threat to evacuate U.S. diplomats from Iraq raises fear of war

By John Davison

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Washington has made preparations to withdraw diplomats from Iraq after warning Baghdad it could shut its embassy, two Iraqi officials and two Western diplomats said, a step Iraqis fear could turn their country into a battle zone.

Any move by the United States to scale down its diplomatic presence in a country where it has up to 5,000 troops would be widely seen in the region as an escalation of its confrontation with Iran, which Washington blames for missile and bomb attacks.

That in turn would open the possibility of military action, with just weeks to go before an election in which President Donald Trump has campaigned on a hard line towards Tehran and its proxies.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to close the embassy in a phone call a week ago to President Barham Salih, two Iraqi government sources said. The conversation was initially reported by an Iraqi news website.

By Sunday, Washington had begun preparations to withdraw diplomatic staff if such a decision is taken, those sources and the two Western diplomats said.

The concern among the Iraqis is that pulling out diplomats would be followed quickly by military action against forces Washington blamed for attacks.

Populist Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who commands a following of millions of Iraqis, issued a statement last week pleading for groups to avoid an escalation that would turn Iraq into a battleground.

One of the Western diplomats said the U.S. administration did not “want to be limited in their options” to weaken Iran or pro-Iranian militias in Iraq. Asked whether he expected Washington to respond with economic or military measures, the diplomat replied: “Strikes.”

The U.S. State Department, asked about plans to withdraw from Iraq, said: “We never comment on the Secretary’s private diplomatic conversations with foreign leaders … Iran-backed groups launching rockets at our Embassy are a danger not only to us but to the Government of Iraq.”

PERENNIAL RISK

In a region polarized between allies of Iran and the United States, Iraq is the rare exception: a country that has close ties with both. But that has left it open to a perennial risk of becoming a battle ground in a proxy war.

That risk was hammered home in January this year, when Washington killed Iran’s most important military commander, Qassem Soleimani, with a drone strike at Baghdad airport. Iran responded with missiles fired at U.S. bases in Iraq.

Since then, a new prime minister has taken power in Iraq, supported by the United States, while Tehran still maintains close links to powerful Shi’ite armed movements.

Rockets regularly fly across the Tigris towards the heavily fortified U.S. diplomatic compound, constructed to be the biggest U.S. embassy in the world in central Baghdad’s so-called Green Zone during the U.S. occupation after a 2003 invasion.

In recent weeks rocket attacks near the embassy have increased and roadside bombs targeted convoys carrying equipment to the U.S.-led military coalition. One roadside attack hit a British convoy in Baghdad, the first of its kind against Western diplomats in Iraq for years.

On Monday three children and two women were killed when two militia rockets hit a family home, the Iraqi military said. Police sources said Baghdad airport was the intended target.

Two Iraqi intelligence sources suggested plans to withdraw American diplomats were not yet in motion, and would depend on whether Iraqi security forces were able to do a better job of halting attacks. They said they had received orders to prevent attacks on U.S. sites, and had been told that U.S. evacuations would begin only if that effort failed.

DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD

Iraqis are concerned about the impact of November’s presidential election on the Trump administration’s decision-making.

While Trump has boasted of his hard line against Iran, he has also long promised to withdraw U.S. troops from engagements in the Middle East. The United States is already drawing down its force sent to help defeat Islamic State fighters in Iraq from 2014-2017.

Some Iraqi officials dismissed Pompeo’s threat to pull out diplomats as bluster, designed to scare armed groups into stopping attacks. But they said it could backfire by provoking the militias instead, if they sense an opportunity to push Washington to retreat.

“The American threat to close their embassy is merely a pressure tactic, but is a double-edged sword,” said Gati Rikabi, a member of Iraq’s parliamentary security committee.

He and another committee member said U.S. moves were designed to scare Iraqi leaders into supporting Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who has tried to check the power of Iran-aligned militia groups, with scant success.

HAWKS ON BOTH SIDES

The militias are under public pressure to rein in supporters who might provoke Washington. Since last year, public opinion in Iraq has turned sharply against political groups seen as fomenting violence on behalf of Iran.

Publicly, the powerful Iran-backed Shi’ite militia groups which control large factions in parliament have tried to distance themselves from attacks on Western targets.

U.S. officials say they think the Shi’ite militias or their Iranian backers have created splinter offshoots to carry out such attacks, allowing the main organizations to evade blame.

A senior figure in a Shi’ite Muslim political party said he thought Trump might want to pull out diplomats to keep them out of harm’s way and avoid an embarrassing pre-election incident.

Militia attacks were not necessarily under Tehran’s control, he said, noting that Iran’s foreign ministry had publicly called for a halt to attacks on diplomatic missions in Iraq.

“Iran wants to boot the Americans out, but not at any cost. It doesn’t want instability on its Western border,” the Shi’ite leader said. “Just like there are hawks in the U.S., there are hawks in Iran who have contact with the groups carrying out attacks, who aren’t necessarily following state policy.”

(Reporting by John Davison, additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; Editing by Peter Graff)