Factbox: The Kurdish struggle for rights and land

(Reuters) – Turkish forces are poised to advance into northeast Syria after U.S. troops began vacating the area, in an abrupt policy shift by President Donald Trump widely criticized in Washington as a betrayal of America’s Kurdish militia allies.

Ankara says it plans to create a “safe zone” to resettle millions of refugees currently living on Turkish soil. This would then serve as a buffer against what Turkey sees as its main security threat in Syria – Kurdish YPG fighters who Ankara says are linked to militants waging an insurgency inside Turkey.

Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran all have large Kurdish minorities seeking varying degrees of autonomy from central governments after decades of repression.

This is an overview of their status.

HISTORY

The Kurdish ethnic minority, mainly Sunni Muslims, speaks a language related to Farsi and lives mostly in a mountainous region straddling the borders of Armenia, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.

Kurdish nationalism stirred in the 1890s when the Ottoman Empire was on its last legs. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which imposed a settlement and colonial carve-up of Turkey after World War One, promised them independence.

Three years later, Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk tore up that accord. The Treaty of Lausanne, ratified in 1924, divided the Kurds among the new nations of the Middle East.

SYRIA

Before Syria’s popular uprising erupted in 2011, Kurds formed 8-10 percent of the population.

The Baathist state, championing Arab nationalism, had deprived thousands of Kurds of citizenship rights, banned their language and clamped down on Kurdish political activity.

During the war, President Bashar al-Assad focused on crushing mainly Sunni Arab rebels with the help of Russia and Iran, turning a blind eye as Kurdish fighters carved out self-rule across the north and east.

Kurdish forces have emerged among the biggest winners, controlling about a quarter of the country — territory rich in oil, water and farmland. It is the biggest chunk of Syria not in state hands, now with its own forces and bureaucracy.

Assad has said he will recover the northeast, but the two sides have kept some channels open.

The Kurdish YPG militia’s power grew after joining forces with U.S. troops to seize territory from Islamic State. While the U.S. deployment has provided a security umbrella that helped Kurdish influence expand, Washington opposes the autonomy plans.

Syrian Kurdish leaders say they do not seek partition but rather regional autonomy as part of Syria. Faced with the threat of a Turkish attack, the Kurdish-led authority in northern Syria has declared a state of “general mobilization” across north and east Syria.

TURKEY

Kurds form about 20 percent of the population.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) took up arms against the state in 1984, waging an insurgency for autonomy in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast. Since then, more than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured in 1999, tried and sentenced to death. That was later reduced to life in prison after Turkey abolished the death penalty.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has removed restrictions on using the Kurdish language. The government held talks with Ocalan, who is in jail on an island near Istanbul, in 2012, but they broke down and the conflict has revived.

The United States, the European Union and Turkey classify the PKK as a terrorist organization.

Turkey’s military has often struck targets in Iraq’s Kurdish region near the PKK’s stronghold in the Qandil mountains.

Erdogan has said he will crush Syria’s YPG, which Ankara sees as a branch of the PKK, and has sent troops into northern Syria to mount offensives rolling back the Kurdish fighters.

IRAQ

Kurds form 15-20 percent of the population, mainly inhabiting the three northern provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Late President Saddam Hussein’s rule targeted Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s when chemical gas was used, villages were razed and thousands of Kurds were forced into camps.

Their region has been semi-autonomous since 1991, has its own regional government and armed forces, but still relies on the Baghdad central government for its budget.

When Islamic State militants swept through much of northern Iraq in 2014, Kurdish fighters exploited the collapse of central authority to take control of Kirkuk, the oil city they regard as their ancient regional capital, as well as other territory disputed by Baghdad and the Kurdish north.

Iraqi government forces and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, with U.S. backing, defeated Islamic State which had captured swathes of northern Iraq.

Iraq’s Kurds held a referendum on independence in September 2017, which backfired and triggered a regional crisis in the face of opposition from Baghdad and regional powers.

The vote prompted military and economic retaliation from Baghdad, which retook the territory seized by Kurdish forces since 2014. Ties have since improved, but tensions remain over oil exports and revenue-sharing.

IRAN

Kurds form about 10 percent of the population.

In 2011, Iran pledged to step up military action against the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan, a PKK offshoot that has sought greater autonomy for Kurds in Iran.

Rights groups say Kurds, along with other religious and ethnic minorities, face discrimination under the ruling clerical establishment.

The elite Revolutionary Guards have put down unrest in the Kurdish community for decades, and the country’s judiciary has sentenced many activists to long jail terms or death. Iran’s military has demanded Iraqi authorities hand over separatist Kurdish dissidents stationed there and close their bases.

(Compiled by reporters in Beirut, Baghdad, Tehran and Istanbul; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Dozens killed as uprising sweeps across Iraq

By Ahmed Rasheed and John Davison

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Dozens of demonstrators were killed across Iraq on Thursday and Friday as violent protests against government corruption swelled into a mass spontaneous uprising sweeping much of the country, the worst unrest since the defeat of Islamic State.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi called for calm but protesters scorned his promises of political reform. The country’s most influential cleric pinned the blame for the violence on politicians who had failed to improve the lives of the public, and ordered them to meet the protesters’ demands.

Another politically powerful cleric pulled his opposition faction’s lawmakers out of parliament, a gesture certain to fuel the passions behind the unrest.

On the streets of Baghdad, a Reuters Television crew saw police snipers stationed on rooftops open fire on a crowd, critically wounding at least one protester hit in the neck.

The violence comes two years after Iraq put down the insurgency by the Sunni Muslim armed group Islamic State. The protests arose in the south, heartland of the Shi’ite majority, but has quickly spread, with no formal leadership from any organized political or sectarian movement.

Security and medical sources gave a death toll early on Friday of 46 killed in three days of unrest, the vast majority of the deaths in the last 24 hours as the violence accelerated.

“It is sorrowful that there have been so many deaths, casualties and destruction,” Iraq’s most influential cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said in a letter read out by his representative during a sermon.

“The government and political sides have not answered the demands of the people to fight corruption or achieved anything on the ground,” said Sistani, who stays out of day-to-day politics but whose word is law for Iraq’s Shi’ites. “Parliament holds the biggest responsibility for what is happening.”

Populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who leads the largest opposition bloc in parliament, ordered his lawmakers to suspend participation in the legislature until the government introduces a program that would serve all Iraqis.

“WE WALK AMONG YOU”

The violence is an unprecedented test for Adel Abdul Mahdi, a mild-mannered veteran politician who came to power last year as a compromise candidate backed by powerful Shi’ite groups that dominated Iraq since the downfall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

In his overnight address, Abdul Mahdi pledged reforms but said there was no “magic solution” to Iraq’s problems. He insisted politicians were aware of the suffering of the masses: “We do not live in ivory towers – we walk among you in the streets of Baghdad,” he said.

A young man in a crowd fleeing sniper shots at a central Baghdad square in the morning was scornful. “The promises by Adel Abdul Mahdi are to fool the people, and today they are firing live gunshots at us,” he said.

“Today this was a peaceful protest. They set up these barricades, and the sniper is sitting right there since last night.”

Police and medical sources told Reuters the death toll included 18 people killed in the southern city of Nassiriya, 16 in the capital Baghdad, four in the southern city of Amara and four in Baquba as unrest spread north of the capital. Deaths were also reported in the southern cities of Hilla and Najaf.

Curfews were imposed in a number of cities. Authorities shut roads into the capital from the north and northeast and were sending reinforcements to Baghdad’s densely-populated east. Military convoys were being sent to Nassiriya.

Late on Thursday protesters in Baghdad gathered in darkness by a bonfire set among the flaming wreckage of an armored vehicle, across the Tigris River from the government compound.

“They are shooting live fire at the Iraqi people and the revolutionaries. We can cross the bridge and take them out of the Green Zone!” a man shouted to Reuters TV.

“Abdul Mahdi, they will cross the bridge. You better resign. Resign. The people demand the fall of the regime!” he shouted as the crowd behind him took up a chant that swept the Middle East during popular uprisings across the region in 2011: “The people demand the fall of the regime!”

“REVOLUTION OF HUNGER”

The unrest comes on the eve of Arbaeen, a Shi’ite pilgrimage which in recent years has drawn 20 million worshippers, trekking for days on foot across southern Iraq in the world’s biggest annual gathering, ten times the size of the Mecca Hajj.

Some pilgrims were already taking to the roads on Friday, although in smaller numbers than in recent years. Iran has closed one of the border crossings used by millions of pilgrims. Qatar has told its citizens to stay away.

A senior Iranian cleric blamed the unrest on the United States and Israel, saying they aimed to thwart the pilgrimage.

The protests could grow if they receive formal backing from Sadr, who has long denounced corruption and the political elite.

“We Sadrists support the protests by all means, but we would wait for orders from our leader Sayyed Moqtada before we would take to the streets,” a senior Sadrist politician, Awad Awadi, told Reuters. He called the protests “a revolution of hunger.”

Ahmed al-Kinani, a lawmaker from a party linked to a powerful Iran-backed militia, said most of the protesters were simply demanding their rights, but a minority were using the demonstrations to target the security forces. His party was willing to do what it takes to calm the situation, including accepting a reshuffling of cabinet ministries.

Two years after the defeat of the Islamic State Sunni militant movement, Iraq has finally been at peace and free to trade for the first extended period since the 1970s, with oil exports at record levels. But Iraqis say they have seen few benefits, with infrastructure still in ruins and jobs scarce.

(Reporting by John Davison, Ahmed Rasheed, Reuters Television staff in Baghdad, Aref Mohammed in Basra and Ali Hafthi in Hilla; Writing by Peter Graff)

At least 31 die during stampede at Ashura rituals in Iraq’s Kerbala

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – At least 31 people died and another 102 were wounded on Tuesday during the Shi’ite Muslim religious rituals of Ashura in Iraq’s southern holy city of Kerbala, in what officials at its Imam Hussein shrine described as a stampede.

The death toll released by the Iraqi Health Ministry was expected to rise, with at least nine people still in critical condition. Thirty people died on site and one more died in hospital, the Health Ministry spokesman said.

The ministry did not disclose how they had been killed but shrine officials told Reuters the stampede took place towards the end of the procession, when thousands of pilgrims rushed towards the shrine during what is known as the Tuwairij run.

“The pilgrims fell one on top of the other and we were unable to pull them out,” pilgrim Abdel Mahdi told Reuters.

Photographs circulated on social media showed dozens of people bloodied and lying across a walkway, while other pilgrims attempted to help.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi expressed his condolences to those killed in the stampede, while the Health Minister visited the wounded in hospital.

The annual pilgrimage marking the death of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Hussein in battle in 680 draws hundreds of thousands of Shi’ite Muslims to Kerbala from around the world.

Hussein’s death in a battle at Kerbala over the leadership of the Islamic community is one of the defining events in the schism between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims.

The rituals commemorating the death of Hussein involve self-flagellation, with crowds of mourners striking themselves and some lacerating their heads with blades. Stampedes have occurred in the past.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; writing by Raya Jalabi,; Editing by Peter Graff and Ed Osmond)

In Iraqi holy city, row over female violinist at soccer match shows social rift

Joelle Saade, violinist, plays Iraq's national anthem during an opening ceremony of the West Asia Football Federation Championship at Kerbala Stadium in the holy city of Kerbala, Iraq July 30, 2019. Picture taken July 30, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

By John Davison

KERBALA, Iraq (Reuters) – The match should have been cause for young Iraqis to celebrate. Their national team beat Lebanon 1-0 in the first competitive international hosted by Iraq for years in the holy city of Kerbala, complete with an opening ceremony of music and dance.

Instead, the event drew high-level criticism which many of the city’s youth say shows the gulf between them and the political and religious establishment.

At the opening ceremony last week for the West Asia Football Federation Championship, a tournament of Arab countries hosted by Iraq, a Lebanese woman violinist not wearing the Islamic headscarf and with uncovered arms played Iraq’s national anthem.

Many Iraqis were elated that such a ceremony, typical of international football tournaments, could finally take place on their soil after football governing body FIFA last year partially lifted a ban largely in place since 1990 on Iraq hosting competitive matches over security concerns.

Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim endowment which administers religious sites and property, backed by prominent conservative politicians, rushed to condemn the performance saying it “overstepped religious boundaries and moral standards … and violated the holy sanctity of Kerbala.”

Iraq’s Ministry of Youth and Sport which organized the ceremony first defended it, then said: “the ministry will coordinate with official bodies to prevent any scenes that contrast with the holiness of the province.”

For many Iraqis, especially women, it was a reminder of the power Islamic authorities, Islamist parties and conservative Iran-backed politicians still wield after years of conflict and sectarian killing, as Iraq tries to recover and open up to the outside world.

“We thought the event was a positive message, that a more normal life can come to Kerbala,” said Fatima Saadi, a 25-year-old dentist, sitting in a coffee shop in Kerbala.

“Most of us rejected the politicians’ comments – the holy ground is where the shrines are, but outside those places there’s a different life.”

Kerbala is hallowed ground for Shi’ite Muslims. It houses the shrine of the Imam Hussein, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson and most revered Shi’ite imam who was slain in battle.

Millions of Shi’ite pilgrims, mostly from Iraq and Iran, visit every year. Shi’ite religious authorities say women should wear the headscarf everywhere in the city.

“There’s nothing to stop a ceremony taking place at Kerbala stadium, or from women attending,” said Sheikh Wael al-Boudairi, a local cleric.

“But we disagreed with the way in which the woman appeared in that stadium, and that she played (violin) – it is against the holy character of Kerbala.”

Shi’ite scholars hold various views on what type of music pious Muslims should listen to. For many, playing of an instrument in Kerbala would be forbidden, they say.

LOOKING TO THE AYATOLLAH

Saadi, who wears a headscarf but not the full black robe that most women in Kerbala wear in public, said society had closed off there since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein and since which mostly Iran-backed Islamist parties and groups have dominated Iraq.

Former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of the Dawa party and Qais al-Khazali, a rising political leader who heads a powerful paramilitary faction took to social media to criticize the ceremony.

Observant but liberal Iraqis, who say they are the majority in the country’s urban centers, hoped for high-level pushback from Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who holds enormous sway, but he has not commented on it.

Other Iraqis say the football ceremony debate has been used to distract from Iraq’s real problems, including corruption and a suppression of rights they blame on those in power.

“The politicians and religious authorities are out of touch. They don’t understand what the street wants or the nature of Iraqi society,” said Dhikra Sarsam, a civil activist in Baghdad.

“But this isn’t a new issue for us. Whenever we try to take a step forward on women’s rights, they try to send us 100 steps back.”

(Reporting by John Davison; additional reporting by Reuters TV, Maher Nazih in Baghdad; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

In Lebanon, a monastery brings together Christians scattered by war

A view of the Monastery of Saint Anthony of Qozhaya in the heart of the Qadisha valley, in Zgharta district, LebanonJune 23, 2019. REUTERS/Imad Creidi

By Ayat Basma

QOZHAYA, Lebanon (Reuters) – The last time Samuel Botros stepped into the Lebanese monastery of Saint Anthony of Qozhaya was in 1978. He was 24, newly married, and the country was in the grip of an all-out war. Like many of his generation, he left. It took him 41 years to return.

The 1975-90 civil war may be over in Lebanon but conflicts in nearby countries like Iraq and Syria have devastated entire communities where Christians once lived alongside Muslims. That has triggered an exodus among people of both faiths, especially among minority sects – like Botros’ Syriac Orthodox community whose roots are in early Christianity.

The monastery, which is nestled in a remote valley in the northern Lebanese mountains and dates from the fourth century, is a meeting place for Christians who have fled conflict.

“It is the war that did this to us. It is the wars that continue to leave behind destruction and force people to leave,” said Botros, visiting the monastery as part of a gathering of his community’s scout group – their first in the region since the 1950s.

The scout group’s roughly 150 members include people living in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and further afield. Lebanon was the only country where they could all meet easily and safely, Botros said.

In Iraq, years of conflict, most recently with Islamic State, erased much of the Christian heritage in ancient cities like Mosul and Sinjar in the north. In Syria’s civil war, some of the oldest churches in Aleppo, Homs and other cities were damaged.

Botros, now 65, is about to retire in Sweden where he made his home years ago. He is father and grandfather to children who know Lebanon only through photos.

“I would like them to visit so that when I pass, there is something to pull them back,” he said.

ANCIENT SANCTUARY

On Sundays and public holidays, the monastery’s small church, with the bell tower and facade, etched into the cliffs is full of people huddled in the pews or standing at the back of the vaulted interior.

Its patron is Saint Anthony, a monk who is believed to have lived in rural Egypt in the fourth or fifth century.

“This place has always been a shrine…we don’t even know when it started. Even when there was no development…people still came,” said Father Fadi Imad, the priest who gives sermons.

Qozhaya lies within a valley known as the Valley of Saints, or Qannoubine in ancient Syriac, part of a wider valley network called Qadisha that has a long history as a refuge for monks. At one time, Qadisha was home to hundreds of hermitages, churches, caves and monasteries. The monastery of Saint Anthony is the last surviving one.

It was an early home for Lebanon’s Christian Maronites, the first followers of the Roman Catholic church in the East.

The Maronites and sometimes the Druze, a Muslim sect, sought the sanctuary of the mountains away from the political and religious dynasties of the times with whom they did not always agree, Father Imad said.

“The inhabitants of this mountain…and they were not only Christians, came here because they were persecuted and weak,” he said.

“Qozhaya holds in its heart 1,600 years of history and it doesn’t belong to anyone, church or faith, … it belongs to the homeland,” he said.

The monastery is surrounded by forests of pine and cedar and orchards that can only be reached via a narrow, winding road.

Its grounds include a cave where visitors light candles, a museum housing the Middle East’s oldest printing press in ancient Syriac and halls for resident priests.

Visitors nowadays include foreign and Arab tourists and local residents including Muslims who sometimes come to ask for a blessing.

Father Imad said the monastery was the safest it had been in its history despite being surrounded by countries at war or suffering its aftermath.

“No one is telling us that they are coming to kill us anymore … at least in Lebanon,” he said.

Before he left, Botros and his fellows stood for a final photo outside the building with the valley behind. With their flags and scarves around their necks, they smiled and cheered as the bells rang.

“What I have seen today I will never forget for as long as I live,” Botros said.

“No matter how long it takes, the son always returns to the mother.”

(Reporting by Ayat Basma; Editing by Frances Kerry)

War with Iran is the mother of all wars: Iran president

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is seen during a meeting with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and with deputies and Senior directors of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran, Iran, August 6, 2019. Official President website/Handout via REUTERS

GENEVA (Reuters) – War with Iran is the mother of all wars, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday in a speech broadcast live on state TV, warning once again that shipping might not be safe in the Strait of Hormuz oil waterway.

Tensions have risen between Iran and the West since last year when the United States pulled out of an international agreement which curbed the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program in return for an easing of economic sanctions on Iran.

“Peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, war with Iran is the mother of all wars,” Rouhani said at the Foreign Ministry in a speech which also praised Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif after the United States imposed sanctions on him on July 31.

If the United States wants to have negotiations with Iran then it must lift all sanctions, Rouhani said, noting that Iran must be allowed to export oil.

Fuelling fears of a Middle East war with global repercussions, the Guards seized British tanker Stena Impero near the Strait of Hormuz in July for alleged marine violations, two weeks after British forces captured an Iranian oil tanker near Gibraltar accused of violating sanctions on Syria.

“A strait for a strait. It can’t be that the Strait of Hormuz is free for you and the Strait of Gibraltar is not free for us,” Rouhani said.

Approximately one-fifth of the world’s oil traffic passes through the strategic Strait of Hormuz.

The Guards seized an Iraqi oil tanker in the Gulf on Wednesday which they said was smuggling fuel and detained seven crewmen, Iran’s state media reported.

(Story corrects date of Iraqi ship’s seizure)

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Alison Williams)

From Iraq to Yemen, drones raise U.S. alarm over Iranian plans

FILE PHOTO: A projectile and a drone launched at Saudi Arabia by Yemen'S Houthis are displayed at a Saudi military base, Al-Kharj, Saudi Arabia June 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stephen Kalin

By Babak Dehghanpisheh and Phil Stewart

GENEVA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The increased use of drones by Iran and its allies for surveillance and attacks across the Middle East is raising alarms in Washington.

The United States believes that Iran-linked militia in Iraq have recently increased their surveillance of American troops and bases in the country by using off-the-shelf, commercially available drones, U.S. officials say.

The disclosure comes at a time of heightened tensions with Iran and underscores the many ways in which Tehran and the forces it backs are increasingly relying on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in places like Yemen, Syria, the Strait of Hormuz and Iraq.

Beyond surveillance, Iranian drones can drop munitions and even carry out “a kamikaze flight where they load it up with explosives and fly it into something”, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthis have significantly increased their UAV attacks in recent months, bombing airports and oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, a main rival of Iran.

Last month, Iran came close to war with the United States after the Islamic Republic’s unprecedented shoot-down of a U.S. drone with a surface-to-air missile, a move that nearly triggered retaliatory strikes by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Trump withdrew from a major 2015 nuclear deal last year and reimposed sanctions to cut off Iran’s oil exports and pressure the Islamic Republic to negotiate over its ballistic missile program and regional policy.

The increased use of drones by Iran or its regional allies is a strategy aimed at pushing back and defending against pressure from the United States and foes like Saudi Arabia and Israel, current and former security officials and analysts say.

Iran now flies two or three drones over Gulf waters every day, the first U.S. official estimated, making it a core part of Tehran’s effort to monitor the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-fifth of the world’s oil consumption flow.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have accused Iran of carrying out attacks against six oil tankers near the Strait in the past two months, a claim Tehran has denied.

The U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, declined to quantify the extent to which surveillance near U.S. forces has increased in Iraq or to specify which militia were carrying it out.

“We have seen an uptick in drone activity in Iraq near our bases and facilities,” the first official said. “Certainly the drones that we have seen are more of the commercial off-the-shelf variant. So they’re obviously a deniable type UAV-activity in Iraq.”

A second official said the recent increase in surveillance was worrying but acknowledged Iran-linked militia in Iraq had a history of keeping tabs on Americans.

Reuters has previously reported that the United States has indirectly sent warnings to Iran, saying any attack against U.S. forces by proxy organizations in Iraq will be viewed by Washington as an attack by Iran itself.

In recent weeks, mortars and rockets have been fired at bases in Iraq where U.S. forces are located but no American troops have been injured. U.S. officials did not link those attacks to the increased surveillance.

Attempts to reach the Iranian ministry of foreign affairs and the Revolutionary Guards, who are most closely linked to militant groups in Iraq, for comment were unsuccessful.

Iraqi militia groups linked to Iran began using drones in 2014 and 2015 in battles to retake territory from Islamic State, according to militia members and Iraqi security officials.

These groups received training on the use of drones from members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah, two Iraqi security officials with knowledge of militia activities said.

“Key militia groups have the ability to launch aerial attacks using drones. Will they target American interests? That hasn’t happened yet,” said one Iraqi security official. “They used Katyusha [rockets] and mortars in very restricted attacks against American interests in Iraq to send a message rather than trying to inflict damage. Using explosive-laden drones is very possible once we have a worsening situation between Tehran and Washington.”

HOW SOPHISTICATED ARE IRAN’S DRONES?

In March, Iran boasted about a complex military exercise involving 50 drones. In a slickly edited video aired on state TV, waves of drones streak across a clear blue sky, bombing buildings on an island in the Gulf.

The show of force was intended to highlight Iran’s locally developed UAV program, which it has been building up for several years.

Douglas Barrie, a senior fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, however, cautioned that some of Iran’s claims were “best viewed through the prism of domestic messaging”. “That Iran has a growing capability in UAVs isn’t debatable. What is an open question is the actual levels of technology it often employs,” Barrie said, adding that Israel had the most advanced program in the region.

American technology may have been used to enhance the Iranian drone program: an advanced U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel reconnaissance drone went down in eastern Iran in 2011, and Revolutionary Guards commanders say they were able to reverse engineer it, a claim which some security officials and analysts dispute.

“They’ve really come up with some aircraft which are looking increasingly sophisticated in terms of their ability to carry guided weapons and carry out long-range surveillance missions,” said Jeremy Binnie, Middle East and Africa editor for Jane’s Defense Weekly.

U.S. forces have shot down Iranian-made drones in 2017 in Syria, after deeming them a threat to both U.S.-backed forces and their advisers.

EXPORTING DRONE TECHNOLOGY

Iran has passed on its drones and technical expertise to regional allies, current and former security officials and analysts say.

The Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah advise the Houthis on the use of drones and operate video uplinks from Tehran and Beirut to beam in technical expertise when needed, an official from the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen said.

Iran has denied any role in the conflict in Yemen.

U.N. experts say the Houthis now have drones that can drop bigger bombs further away and more accurately than before. In May, drones hit two oil pumping stations hundreds of kilometers inside Saudi territory.

“Either the drones that attacked the pipelines were launched from inside Saudi territory or the Houthis just significantly upped their capability with satellite technology and were provided with the capability to extend the distance,” said Brett Velicovich, a drone expert and U.S. Army veteran, about the May attack.

A commander of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia closely linked to Iran, using the nickname Abu Abdullah, told Reuters in 2014 that Iran had provided training for operating drones, which were mostly used to target Islamic State positions.

He said at the time that they had also used the drones to carry out surveillance on American military positions in Iraq and in the conflict in Syria, where Kataib Hezbollah fought in support of President Bashar al-Assad. 

Iraqi militia groups have now acquired enough expertise to modify drones for attacks, two Iraqi security officials with knowledge of the militia activities said.

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh and Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Tuqa Khalid in Dubai, Stephen Kalin in Riyadh and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; editing by Giles Elgood)

Staff evacuated as rocket strikes near foreign oil firms in Iraq

Iraqi soldiers sit on a tank at the entry of Zubair oilfield after a rocket struck the site of residential and operations headquarters of several oil companies at Burjesia area, in Basra, Iraq June 19, 2019. REUTERS/Essam Al-Sudani

By Aref Mohammed and Ahmed Rasheed

BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) – A rocket hit a site in southern Iraq used by foreign oil companies on Wednesday, including U.S. energy giant ExxonMobil, wounding three people and threatening to further escalate U.S.-Iran tensions in the region.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack near Iraq’s southern city of Basra, the fourth time in a week that rockets have struck near U.S. installations.

Three previous attacks on or near military bases housing U.S. forces near Baghdad and Mosul caused no casualties or major damage. None of those incidents were claimed.

An Iraqi security source said it appeared that Iran-backed groups in southern Iraq were behind the Basra incident.

“According to our sources, the team (that launched the rocket) is made up of more than one group and were well trained in missile launching,” the security source said.

He said they had received a tip-off several days ago the U.S. consulate in Basra might be targeted but were taken by surprise when the rocket hit the oil site.

Iranian officials have made no comment about the attack but have strongly denied all other allegations against them of attacking energy tankers and facilities in the region.

Abbas Maher, mayor of the nearby town of Zubair, said he believed Iran-backed groups had specifically targeted Exxon to “send a message” to the United States.

U.S.-Iranian hostility has risen since President Donald Trump withdrew Washington from a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and other world powers in May last year.

Trump has since reimposed and extended U.S. sanctions on Iran, forcing states to boycott Iranian oil or face sanctions of their own. Tehran has threatened to abandon the nuclear pact unless other signatories act to rein in the United States.

The U.S. face-off with Iran reached a new pitch following attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf in May and June that Washington blames on Tehran. Iran denies any involvement.

ESCALATION FEARED

While the long-time foes say they do not want war, the United States has reinforced its military presence in the region and analysts say violence could nonetheless escalate.

Some Western officials have said the recent attacks appear designed to show Iran could sow chaos if it wanted.

Iraqi officials fear their country, where powerful Iran-backed Shi’ite Muslim militias operate in close proximity to some 5,200 U.S. troops, could become an arena for escalation.

The United States has pressed Iraq’s government to rein in Iran-backed paramilitary groups, a tall order for a cabinet that suffers from its own political divisions.

Iraq’s military said three people were wounded in Wednesday’s strike by a short-range Katyusha missile. It struck the Burjesia site, west of Basra, which is near the Zubair oilfield operated Italy’s Eni SpA.

Police said the rocket landed 100 meters from the part of the site used as a residence and operations center by Exxon. Some 21 Exxon staff were evacuated by plane to Dubai, a security source said.

Zubair mayor Maher said the rocket was fired from farmland around 3-4 km (2 miles) from the site. A second rocket landed to the northwest of Burjesia, near a site of oil services company Oilserv, but did not explode, he said.

“We cannot separate this from regional developments, meaning the U.S.-Iranian conflict,” Maher said.

“These incidents have political objectives … it seems some sides did not like the return of Exxon staff.”

EXPORTS UNAFFECTED

Exxon had evacuated its staff from Basra after a partial U.S. Baghdad embassy evacuation in May and staff had just begun to return.

Burjesia is also used as a headquarters by Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Eni., according to Iraqi oil officials.

The officials said operations including exports from southern Iraq were not affected.

A separate Iraqi oil official, who oversees foreign operations in the south, said the other foreign firms had no plans to evacuate and would operate as normal.

A Shell spokesman said its employees had “not been subject to the attack … and we continue normal operations in Iraq.”

Eni say its operations were also proceeding as normal after the rocket exploded “several kilometers” from its facilities.

Wednesday’s rocket strike fits into a pattern of attacks since May, when four tankers in the Gulf and two Saudi oil pumping stations were attacked.

They have been accompanied by a spate of incidents inside Shi’ite-dominated Iraq, which is allied both to the United States and fellow Shi’ite Muslim Iran.

The attacks in Iraq have caused less damage but have all taken place near U.S. military, diplomatic or civilian installations, raising suspicions they were part of a campaign.

A rocket landed near the U.S. embassy in Baghdad last month causing no damage or casualties. The United States had already evacuated hundreds of diplomatic staff from the embassy, citing unspecified threats from Iran.

Iran backs a number of Iraqi Shi’ite militias which have grown more powerful after helping defeat Islamic State.

Iraqi officials say that threats from Iran cited by Washington when it sent additional forces to the Middle East last month included the positioning by Iran-backed militias of rockets near U.S. forces.

Rockets hit on or near three separate military bases housing U.S. forces near Baghdad and in the northern city of Mosul in three separate attacks since Friday.

(Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal in Dubai, Stephen Jewkes in; Writing by John Davison; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Jon Boyle and Andrew Cawthorne and Alison Williams)

Instructions from headquarters: Islamic State’s new guerrilla manual

FILE PHOTO: Police officers work at the scene at St. Sebastian Catholic Church, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha/File Photo

By Lena Masri and Ali Abdelaty

CAIRO (Reuters) – After losing territory, Islamic State fighters are turning to guerrilla war – and the group’s newspaper is telling them exactly how to do it.

In recent weeks, IS’s al-Naba online newspaper has encouraged followers to adopt guerrilla tactics and published detailed instructions on how to carry out hit-and-run operations.

The group is using such tactics in places where it aims to expand beyond Iraq and Syria. While IS has tried this approach before, the guidelines make clear the group is adopting it as standard operating procedure.

    At the height of its power IS ruled over millions in large parts of Syria and Iraq.

    But in March it lost its last significant piece of territory, the Syrian village of Baghouz, and the group has been forced to return to its roots: a style of fighting that avoids direct confrontation, weakening the enemy by attrition and winning popular support.

This attempt to revive Islamic State has so far been successful, analysts say, with many global attacks in recent weeks, including in places never before targeted by the group.

“The sad reality is that ISIS is still very dangerous,” said Rita Katz, executive director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks extremists. “It has the tools and foundations needed to build insurgencies across the world.”

In a rare video published by IS’s Al Furqan network in April, the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi encouraged followers to fight on and weaken the enemy by attrition, stressing that waging war is more important than winning.

“It was more downbeat than his only other video appearance from the pulpit of the Grand al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul in 2014, when he was dressed all in black and sporting a fancy watch.

“In the new video, he sat cross-legged on a mattress as he spoke to three aides. A Kalashnikov rifle rested against the wall behind him — the same type of weapon that appeared in videos of Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and Baghdadi’s predecessor Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who both adopted the guerrilla warfare tactic.

“He appeared as a commander of hardened mujahideen, of an insurgency group, not the pampered leader of a well-off caliphate,” said Katz. “His appearance totally mobilized Islamic State’s supporters all over the world.”

ORGANIZED TACTIC

Hassan Abu Hanieh, a Jordanian expert on Islamists, said IS has used guerrilla tactics to temporarily seize towns in order to attract media coverage but also as part of a new strategic approach.

“This kind of war has turned into a strategy for the group,” he said. “At this stage they are using it as a war of attrition, like Baghdadi said in his latest speech.”

In April, IS claimed it had attacked the town of Fuqaha in Libya, killing the head of the town council and setting fire to the municipal guard headquarters. “They seized control of the town for several hours and then returned to their bases safely,” the claim said of the IS fighters.

In recent weeks, al-Naba newspaper, one of IS’s most important media outlets, has published a four-part series titled “The Temporary Fall of Cities as a Working Method for the Mujahideen”.

In the articles, IS urged fighters to avoid face-to-face clashes with the enemy — something the group had previously encouraged.

The series explained how guerrilla fighters can weaken the enemy without taking losses. It urged the jihadists to seize weapons from victims and grab or burn their valuables.

“Among the goals of hit-and-run attacks,” the series said, was to take hostages, release prisoners and seize cash from the enemy.

Other goals were to “secure the needs of fighters” by collecting money, food, medicine and weapons “particularly when it is difficult to secure these needs because (the fighters) are in a weak position,” one of the articles said.

AL QAEDA TACTICS

” These guerrilla warfare manuals are the most detailed IS has published yet,” Katz said.

“The language is similar to the one used in manuals published years ago by Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia via its al-Battar electronic magazine, which provided military instructions to supporters and cells around the world,” she said.

IS’s new manuals show that the group is short on fighters and finances, she added.

“When it lost its territory, IS also lost an important source of income, mainly taxes and oil revenue.”

“Financially, territorially and militarily speaking, the group is very weak,” said Katz. “That said, ISIS leadership seeks to revive its so-called caliphate, with special attention on areas outside of Iraq and Syria.”

Although not all of the group’s claims can be confirmed, it has announced some wide-ranging operations.

On April 18, IS claimed its first attack in Democratic Republic of Congo and announced the creation of a “Central Africa Province” of the “Caliphate”. Since then the group has claimed several more attacks in Congo.

On May 10, IS claimed it had established a province in India. It also said IS fighters had inflicted casualties on Indian soldiers in Kashmir.

The same day, militants on motorbikes stormed a town in northeastern Nigeria and opened fire on residents and soldiers in an attack later claimed by Islamic State.

IS has claimed more operations in Nigeria and dozens of similar attacks in recent weeks in Afghanistan, Niger, Somalia, Egypt, Pakistan, Chechnya, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. In several cases, the group published pictures of bullets, rifles and other weapons it said it had collected from soldiers.

“By striking in a wide range of places, IS is promoting itself and proving it can reorganize and modify its strategy,” said Laith Alkhouri, co-founder and senior director at Flashpoint, which monitors militants’ activity online.

“ISIS super-temporarily seizes areas, flexes its muscles, subdues locals, even recruits from amongst them, and taunts governments by exposing security flaws or weaknesses,” he said. “This is a considerably important avenue for ISIS’s growth.”

“Guerrilla war is a less costly way to inflict damage and the group is using the tactic where it wants to expand, such as eastern Afghanistan, northeastern Nigeria, Somalia, North Africa, the Indian subcontinent and central Africa, he said.

“The group’s media realizes the importance of highlighting this, not only for boosting the morale of the support base,” Alkhouri said. “But just as importantly for expanding its footprint geographically and effectively setting up and expanding unrest zones around the world.”

(Reporting by Lena Masri and Ali Abdelaty; Additional reporting by Maiduguri newsroom; Writing by Lena Masri; Editing by Giles Elgood)

‘American Taliban’ Lindh released from U.S. prison -Washington Post

FILE PHOTO: U.S.-born John Walker Lindh (L) is led away by a Northern Alliance soldier after he was captured among al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners following an uprising at the Fort Qali-i-Janghi prison near Mazar-i-Sharif December 1, 2001 REUTERS/STR/File Photo

(Reuters) – John Walker Lindh, the American captured in Afghanistan in 2001 fighting for the Taliban, was released early from federal prison on Thursday, the Washington Post reported, citing Lindh’s lawyer.

Lindh, who was 20 years old when he was captured, left prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, on probation after serving 17 years of a 20-year sentence, the newspaper said.

Now 38, Lindh is among dozens of prisoners to be released over the next few years after being captured in Iraq and Afghanistan and convicted of terrorism-related crimes following the attacks on the United States by al Qaeda on Sept. 11, 2001.

FILE PHOTO: A picture of John Walker Lindh is shown on the attendance register of the madrassa (Islamic school) Arabia Hassani Kalan Surani Bannu, in Bannu in Pakistan, January 26, 2002. REUTERS/Haider Shah/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A picture of John Walker Lindh is shown on the attendance register of the madrassa (Islamic school) Arabia Hassani Kalan Surani Bannu, in Bannu in Pakistan, January 26, 2002. REUTERS/Haider Shah/File Photo

His release brought objections from elected officials who asked why Lindh was being freed early and what training parole officers had to spot radicalization and recidivism among former jihadists.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Lindh’s release “unexplainable and unconscionable.”

“There’s something deeply troubling and wrong about it,” he said on Fox News on Thursday morning.

Leaked U.S. government documents published by Foreign Policy magazine show the federal government as recently as 2016 described Lindh as holding “extremist views.”

“What is the current interagency policy, strategy, and process for ensuring that terrorist/extremist offenders successfully reintegrate into society?” asked U.S. Senators Richard Shelby and Margaret Hassan in a letter to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Lindh’s parents, Marilyn Walker and Frank Lindh, did not respond to requests for comment and Lindh’s lawyer, Bill Cummings, declined to comment.

Melissa Kimberley, a spokeswoman for the prison in Terre Haute, could not immediately be reached for confirmation of the Post’s report.

U.S.-born Lindh converted from Catholicism to Islam as a teenager. At his 2002 sentencing, he said he traveled to Yemen to learn Arabic and then to Pakistan to study Islam.

FILE PHOTO: Undated handout image of American Taliban John Walker Lindh, distributed February 5, 2002. American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh, described by a prosecutor as a "committed terrorist" who abandoned his country, is to be released early from a federal prison while some U.S. lawmakers worry he still poses a security risk.. REUTERS/Handout/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Undated handout image of American Taliban John Walker Lindh, distributed February 5, 2002. American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh, described by a prosecutor as a “committed terrorist” who abandoned his country, is to be released early from a federal prison while some U.S. lawmakers worry he still poses a security risk.. REUTERS/Handout/File Photo

He said he volunteered as a soldier with the Taliban, the radical Sunni Muslim group that ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, to help fellow Muslims in their struggle or “jihad.” He said he had no intention “to fight against America” and never understood jihad to mean anti-Americanism.

Lindh told the court he condemned “terrorism on every level” and attacks by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden were “completely against Islam.”

But a January 2017 report by the U.S. government’s National Counterterrorism Center, published by Foreign Policy, said that, as of May 2016, Lindh “continued to advocate for global jihad and to write and translate violent extremist texts.”

NBC News reported that Lindh wrote a letter to its Los Angeles station KNBC in 2015 expressing support for Islamic State, saying the Islamic militant group was fulfilling “a religious obligation to establish a caliphate through armed struggle.”

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Bill Trott)