Biden, Kadhimi seal agreement to end U.S. combat mission in Iraq

By Steve Holland and Trevor Hunnicutt

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on Monday sealed an agreement formally ending the U.S. combat mission in Iraq by the end of 2021, more than 18 years after U.S. troops were sent to the country.

Coupled with Biden’s withdrawal of the last American forces in Afghanistan by the end of August, the Democratic president is completing U.S. combat missions in the two wars that then-President George W. Bush began under his watch.

Biden and Kadhimi met in the Oval Office for their first face-to-face talks as part of a strategic dialogue between the United States and Iraq.

“Our role in Iraq will be … to be available, to continue to train, to assist, to help and to deal with ISIS as it arises but we’re not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat zone,” Biden told reporters as he and Kadhimi met.

There are currently 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq focusing on countering the remnants of Islamic State. The U.S. role in Iraq will shift entirely to training and advising the Iraqi military to defend itself.

The shift is not expected to have a major impact since the United States has already moved toward focusing on training Iraqi forces.

A U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003 based on charges that then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s government possessed weapons of mass destruction. Saddam was ousted from power, but such weapons were never found.

In recent years the U.S. mission was dominated by helping defeat Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

“Nobody is going to declare mission accomplished. The goal is the enduring defeat of ISIS,” a senior administration official told reporters ahead of Kadhimi’s visit.

The reference was reminiscent of the large “Mission Accomplished” banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier above where Bush gave a speech declaring major combat operations over in Iraq on May 1, 2003.

“If you look to where we were, where we had Apache helicopters in combat, when we had U.S. special forces doing regular operations, it’s a significant evolution. So by the end of the year we think we’ll be in a good place to really formally move into an advisory and capacity-building role,” the official said.

U.S. diplomats and troops in Iraq and Syria were targeted in three rocket and drone attacks earlier this month. Analysts believed the attacks were part of a campaign by Iranian-backed militias.

The senior administration official would not say how many U.S. troops would remain on the ground in Iraq for advising and training.

Kadhimi is seen as friendly to the United States and has tried to check the power of Iran-aligned militias. But his government condemned a U.S. air raid against Iran-aligned fighters along its border with Syria in late June, calling it a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.

The U.S.-Iraqi statement is expected to detail a number of non-military agreements related to health, energy and other matters.

The United States plans to provide Iraq with 500,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine under the global COVAX vaccine-sharing program. Biden said the doses should arrive in a couple of weeks.

The United States will also provide $5.2 million to help fund a U.N. mission to monitor October elections in Iraq.

“We’re looking forward to seeing an election in October,” said Biden.

(Reporting By Steve Holland and Trevor Hunnicutt; editing by Grant McCool)

Anger mounts after 92 killed in Iraq COVID hospital fire

By Ahmed Rasheed and Maher al-Saih

NASSIRIYA, Iraq (Reuters) -The death toll from a fire that tore through a coronavirus hospital in southern Iraq rose to 92, health officials said on Tuesday, as authorities faced accusations of negligence from grieving relatives and a doctor who works there.

More than 100 people – patients and visitors – were injured in the blaze on Monday night in Nassiriya, officials said.

An investigation showed the fire began when sparks from faulty wiring spread to an oxygen tank that then exploded, police and civil defense authorities said.

It was Iraq’s second such tragedy in three months, and the country’s president on Tuesday blamed corruption for both. A statement from the prime minister’s office called for national mourning.

Rescue teams were using a heavy crane to remove the charred and melted remains of the part of the city’s al-Hussain hospital where COVID-19 patients were being treated, as relatives gathered nearby.

A medic at the hospital, who declined to give his name and whose shift ended a few hours before the fire broke out, said the absence of basic safety measures meant it was an accident in the making.

“The hospital lacks a fire sprinkler system or even a simple fire alarm,” he told Reuters.

“We complained many times over the past three months that a tragedy could happen any moment from a cigarette stub but every time we get the same answer from health officials: ‘we don’t have enough money’.”

In April, a similar explosion at a Baghdad COVID-19 hospital killed at least 82 and injured 110.

The head of Iraq’s semi-official Human Rights Commission said Monday’s blast showed how ineffective safety measures still were in a health system crippled by war and sanctions.

“To have such a tragic incident repeated few months later means that still no (sufficient) measures have been taken to prevent them,” Ali Bayati said.

The fact that the hospital had been built with lightweight sandwich panels separating the wards had made the fire spread faster, local civil defense authority head Salah Jabbar said.

Health and civil defense managers in the city and the hospital’s manager had been suspended and arrested on Monday on the orders of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, his office said.

Government investigators arrived in Nassiriya on Tuesday morning, according to a statement. Their findings would be announced within a week, Kadhimi’s office said.

‘FAILED GOVERNMENT’

President Barham Salih on Twitter said both fires were “the result of endemic corruption and mismanagement that disregards the lives of Iraqis”.

At the city’s morgue, anger spread among people gathered as they waited to receive their relatives’ bodies.

“No quick response to the fire, not enough firefighters. Sick people burned to death. It’s a disaster,” said Mohammed Fadhil, who was waiting to receive his bother’s body.

Two health officials said the dead from Monday’s fire included 21 charred bodies that were still unidentified.

The blaze trapped many patients inside the coronavirus ward who rescue teams struggled to reach, a health worker told Reuters on Monday before entering the burning building.

In Najaf, a holy Shi’ite city around 250 km (155 miles) northwest of Nassiriya, an angry Imad Hashim sobbed after losing his mother, sister-in-law and niece.

“What should I say after losing my family,” the 46-year-old said. “No point demanding anything from a failed government. Three days and this case will be forgotten like others.”

(Reporting by Maher al-Saih and Ahmed Rasheed;Editing by Tom Perry and Janet Lawrence)

U.S. warplanes strike Iran-backed militia in Iraq, Syria

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States said on Sunday it carried out another round of air strikes against Iran-backed militia in Iraq and Syria, this time in response to drone attacks by the militia against U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq.

In a statement, the U.S. military said it targeted operational and weapons storage facilities at two locations in Syria and one location in Iraq. It did not disclose whether it believed anyone was killed or injured but officials said assessments were ongoing.

Iraqi militia groups aligned with Iran in a statement named four members of the Kataib Sayyed al-Shuhada faction they said were killed in the attack on the Syria-Iraq border. They vowed to retaliate.

The strikes came at the direction of President Joe Biden, the second time he has ordered retaliatory strikes against Iran-backed militia since taking office five months ago. Biden last ordered limited strikes in Syria in February, that time in response to rocket attacks in Iraq.

“As demonstrated by this evening’s strikes, President Biden has been clear that he will act to protect U.S. personnel,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

The strikes came even as Biden’s administration is looking to potentially revive a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. The decision to retaliate appears to show how Biden aims to compartmentalize such defensive strikes, while simultaneously engaging Tehran in diplomacy.

Biden’s critics say Iran cannot be trusted and point to the drone attacks as further evidence that Iran and its proxies will never accept a U.S. military presence in Iraq or Syria.

Iran called on the United States to avoid “creating crisis” in the region.

“Certainly what the United States is doing is disrupting security in the region, and one of the victims of this disruption will be the United States,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on Monday.

In an apparent indication that Baghdad is determined to avoid getting sucked into a U.S.-Iran escalation, Iraq’s military issued a rare condemnation of the U.S. strikes. The Iraqi and U.S. militaries continue close coordination in a separate battle in Iraq, fighting remnants of the Sunni extremist group Islamic State.

Biden and the White House declined comment on the strikes on Sunday. But Biden will meet Israel’s outgoing president, Reuven Rivlin, at the White House on Monday for a broad discussion that will include Iran and U.S. efforts to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal. Those efforts have raised serious concerns in Israel, Iran’s arch-foe.

U.S. officials believe Iran is behind a ramp-up in increasingly sophisticated drone attacks and periodic rocket fire against U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq, where the U.S. military has been helping Baghdad combat the remnants of Islamic State.

Two U.S. officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said Iran-backed militias carried out at least five drone attacks against facilities used by U.S. and coalition personnel in Iraq since April.

The Pentagon said the facilities targeted were used by Iran-backed militia including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada.

One of the facilities targeted was used to launch and recover the drones, a defense official said.

The U.S. military carried out strikes with F-15 and F-16 aircraft, officials said, adding the pilots made it back from the mission safely.

“We assess each strike hit the intended targets,” one of the officials told Reuters.

Iraq’s government is struggling to deal with militias ideologically aligned with Iran which are accused of rocket fire against U.S. forces and of involvement in killing peaceful pro-democracy activists.

Earlier in June, Iraq released Iran-aligned militia commander Qasim Muslih, who was arrested in May on terrorism-related charges, after authorities found insufficient evidence against him.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington; Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington, John Davison in Baghdad; Editing by Matthew Lewis, William Maclean)

U.S. House backs repeal of 2002 war authorization in bid to end ‘forever wars’

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday backed the repeal of the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force that allowed the war in Iraq, as lawmakers pull back the authority to declare war from the White House.

The House voted 268 to 161 in favor of revoking the authorization it gave former President George W. Bush to invade Iraq 19 years ago. At least 49 Republicans joined Democrats in favor of repeal, a bipartisan vote that underscored prospects for reining in AUMFs that presidents from both parties have used to justify nearly 20 years of military actions around the globe.

The U.S. Constitution gives the power to declare war to Congress. However, that authority has shifted to the president due to the “forever war” AUMFs, which do not expire – including the 2002 Iraq AUMF and one allowing the fight against al Qaeda and affiliates after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

To be enacted, the measure passed on Thursday must also be approved by the Senate – where its prospects are less certain – and signed into law by President Joe Biden, who has said he supports it.

“I look forward to Congress no longer taking a back seat on some of the most consequential decisions our nation can make,” said Representative Greg Meeks, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urging support for the repeal.

“There comes a time when certain AUMFs simply become outdated and need to be repealed,” Meeks said.

‘DANGEROUS MESSAGE’

Opponents worry repeal of the 2002 AUMF would dangerously limit the powers of the president and send the message that the United States is pulling back from the Middle East.

Representative Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was committed to updating the “outdated” AUMF, but he did not want repeal until an alternative was in place.

“This rushed, standalone repeal… sends a dangerous message of disengagement that could dangerous message, which it will, and strengthen al Qaeda and ISIS in the region,” McCaul said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer threw his weight behind the repeal effort on Wednesday. Schumer said the 2002 AUMF is outdated and repealing it would prevent future presidential “military adventurism” such as former President Donald Trump’s 2020 airstrike on a Baghdad airport, which raised fears of war days before the Republican was to leave office.

Trump cited the 2002 Iraq authorization as one of his justifications for the strike, which killed Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani.

Repeal will need 60 votes to get through the evenly divided 100-member Senate, meaning that it would need the support of at least 10 Republicans to go into effect.

Repeal advocates said they had high hopes of garnering the 60 votes, noting past bipartisan support for stalled efforts to rein in the AUMFs.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell blasted the repeal plan, saying existing authorizations should stay in place until new ones have been completed. “The grave threats posed by ISIS, al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are as real as they’ve ever been,” McConnell said in remarks opening the Senate.

Some members of Congress are also discussing a repeal and replacement of the 2001 AUMF passed for the Afghanistan war.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Giant drone sculpture menaces New York City, with intent

By Aleksandra Michalska

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A giant, white sculpture of a drone has appeared 25 feet (7.6 m) over Manhattan’s High Line park, unnerving New Yorkers – which was the creators’ intention.

Sam Durant, the artist behind the fiberglass “Untitled (drone),” said the work was designed to “remind the public that drones and surveillance are a tragic and pervasive presence in the daily lives of many living outside – and within – the United States.”

The white sculpture of the predator drone stands out against the blue summer skies, appearing to hover over 10th Avenue, and rotating on its pole when pushed by the wind.

“What we want to do with High Line Art is to bring to the public not just beautiful artworks, but also thought provoking artworks that can generate conversations,” said Cecilia Alemani, chief curator of High Line Art, which sponsored Durant’s work.

California resident Ariella Figueroa said the drone made her think about the future.

“It’s the same technology that we were using in Iraq and Afghanistan 10, 12 years ago that is now handheld and anyone can buy,” said Figueroa. “It’s a little intimidating, a little scary, especially here in New York City.”

(Reporting by Aleksandra Michalska, Writing by Rosalba O’Brien; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

UN investigator says he has evidence of genocide against Iraq’s Yazidis

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A U.N. team investigating Islamic State crimes in Iraq has found “clear and convincing evidence that the crimes against the Yazidi people clearly constituted genocide,” the head of the inquiry said on Monday.

Karim Khan told the U.N. Security Council that the team, which started work in 2018, had also identified perpetrators “that clearly have responsibility for the crime of genocide against the Yazidi community.”

The Yazidis are a religious sect whose beliefs combine elements of several ancient Middle Eastern religions. Islamic State militants consider the Yazidis to be devil-worshippers.

Khan, a British lawyer who will next month become the International Criminal Court prosecutor, said the intent of Islamic State “to destroy the Yazidi, physically and biologically, was manifest in the ultimatum that was repeated in so many different villages in Iraq – to convert or die.”

Islamic State overran the Yazidi heartland in northern Iraq in 2014, forcing young women into servitude as “wives” for fighters, massacring thousands of people and displacing most of the 550,000-strong community. In 2016 an independent U.N. commission of inquiry described it as genocide.

Nadia Murad, an Iraqi Yazidi woman who was enslaved and raped by Islamic State, and human rights lawyer Amal Clooney lobbied the Security Council, which then created the U.N. investigative team in 2017.

They also pushed for the council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court or create a special court.

“Evidence has been found, but we are still searching for the political will to prosecute,” Murad, who won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, told the Security Council on Monday.

The U.N. team has so far identified 1,444 possible perpetrators of attacks against the Yazidis.

Khan also said that from the team’s investigation into the mass killing of unarmed cadets and military personnel at Tikrit Air Academy in June 2014 “it is clear that the crime of direct and public incitement to commit genocide occurred.”

The team has identified 20 people of interest and 875 victims remains from 11 mass graves from the Tikrit attack by the Sunni extremists against Shia Muslims.

(Reporting by Michelle NicholsEditing by Chizu Nomiyama and Grant McCool)

Explosives-laden drone targets U.S. forces at Iraq’s Erbil airport

ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) -A drone dropped explosives near U.S. forces stationed at Erbil airport in northern Iraq late on Wednesday, Kurdish officials said, with no immediate reports of casualties.

A separate rocket attack killed a Turkish soldier at a military base nearby, the Turkish defense ministry said.

It was the first known attack carried out by an unmanned aerial drone against U.S. forces in Erbil, amid a steady stream of rocket attacks on bases hosting U.S. forces and the embassy in Baghdad that Washington blames on Iran-backed militias.

The interior ministry of the autonomous Kurdistan regional government, based in Erbil, said in a statement the drone was carrying TNT which it used to target the U.S. forces. It said no one was hurt in the attack.

A group that Western and some Iraqi officials say is aligned with Iran praised the attack, but did not explicitly claim it.

A barrage of rockets hit the same U.S.-led military base in the Erbil International Airport vicinity in February, killing a non-American contractor working with the U.S. military.

Shortly before Wednesday’s attack in Erbil, at least two rockets landed on and near a base to the west of the city that hosts Turkish forces, Iraqi security officials said. That attack killed a Turkish soldier, Ankara said.

A rocket hit a base belonging to an Iraqi Shi’ite Muslim militia group near that Turkish base a few hours later, a security official said, wounding at least one fighter. It was not immediately clear who had fired the rocket.

Turkey also has troops in Iraq both as part of a NATO contingent and a force that has attacked Kurdish separatist militants in the north.

The Iran-backed militias oppose both the presence of the United States and Turkey and demand a full withdrawal of all foreign troops.

The United States has sometimes responded with air strikes against Iran-aligned militias including on the Iraqi-Syrian border.

An air strike ordered by former president Donald Trump that killed Iran’s top commander Qassem Soleimani in January 2020 sent the region to the brink of a full-scale conflict.

(Reporting by Ali Sultan and Amina Ismail; additional reporting by Alaa Swilam in Cairo; writing by John Davison in Baghdad; Editing by Grant McCool)

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)