Pressuring junta, France suspends joint military operations with Malian forces

By Tangi Salaün

PARIS (Reuters) -France said on Thursday it was suspending its joint military operations with local troops in Mali as part of efforts to pressure the military junta there to restore a civilian-led government.

Mali’s military arrested interim President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane last week and pressured them to resign, derailing a transition to democratic elections after another military coup last August.

Former vice president Assimi Goita, a colonel who led the August coup and last week’s revolt, was declared president on Friday.

West African regional bloc ECOWAS and the African Union have suspended Mali from their organizations and threatened sanctions.

“Pending these guarantees, France, after informing its partners and the Malian authorities, has decided to suspend, as a precaution and temporarily, joint military operations with the Malian forces, as well as national advisory missions that benefit them,” the Armed Forces Ministry said in a statement.

French forces will continue to operate in the country separately and the decision will be reassessed in the coming days, it added.

A spokesman for the Malian army declined to comment on what he termed a political matter.

France, the former colonial power, has more than 5,000 troops waging counter-insurgency operations against Islamist militants in Mali and the wider Sahel, an arid region of West Africa just below the Sahara desert.

Militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State have strengthened their foothold across the region, making large swathes of territory ungovernable and stoking ethnic violence, especially in Mali and Burkina Faso.

While France has hailed some success in recent months, the situation is extremely fragile and Paris has increasingly grown frustrated with no end in sight to its operations.

Speaking to the Journal du Dimanche newspaper, President Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday the latest power grab by the junta and any sign it plans to negotiate with Islamist militants could lead to a French withdrawal.

“I passed them the message that I would not stay alongside a country where there is no longer democratic legitimacy or transition,” he was quoted as saying.

(Reporting by Tangi Salaun in Paris; Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Paul Lorgerie in BamakoWriting by John Irish; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Matthew Lewis)

Bombers aim for buses in new tactic to spread death and fear in Afghanistan

KABUL (Reuters) – Militants in Afghanistan are adopting a new tactic to spread fear in the capital, Kabul, especially among the the ethnic Hazara minority, planting bombs on crowded buses that have until now largely been spared such bloodshed.

Two blasts on buses in an area dominated by Shi’ite Muslim Hazras killed at least 12 people and wounded 10 on Tuesday, raising new fears in the community and alarming security officials who say such attacks are nearly impossible to stop.

Four people were killed and four wounded in the same neighborhood on Thursday when a bomb blew up a passenger van, police said.

“Our schools, worship sites, education centers, wedding halls have been attacked by Daesh in the past and now it’s the buses,” said shopkeeper Ahmad Ehsan, referring to the Islamic State militant group, which claimed responsibility for the Tuesday attacks.

“Nowhere is safe for us. We’re the soft, easy targets everywhere,” he said.

Hazaras have long been targeted by Sunni militant groups such as the Taliban and Islamic State.

On May 8, bombs outside a school in the same part of Kabul killed 80 people, most of them schoolgirls.

University student Sarah Nawandesh, who lives in the western part of Kabul where the bombings took place, said she now took the bus to university in “great fear”.

Police issued a statement on Wednesday urging residents to be vigilant while using public transport.

A senior security official said the bombing of public transport was a worrying new threat in the city of seven million people.

“Our enemies change tactics … this is a new threat, a new trend,” said the official, who declined to be identified.

Nearly 1,800 civilians were killed or wounded in the first three months of 2021 during fighting between government forces and Taliban insurgents despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations said last month.

The United States has announced a plan to withdraw all of its troops by Sept. 11, exactly two decades since the al Qaeda attacks on the United States that led to a new round of war in Afghanistan.

(Reporting by Kabul bureau; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Days after bombing, Afghans despair at three-day limit to ceasefire

KABUL (Reuters) – An announcement by the Taliban that they would cease fire for three days for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr has been met by many Afghans with little but despair, just days after a bombing that killed at least 80 people, most of them schoolgirls.

The insurgents said late on Sunday they were offering the pause in fighting so Afghans could celebrate Eid in peace. The truce is meant to come into force on Thursday morning, at a critical moment with U.S. forces in the process of withdrawing after 20 years.

But many Afghans described the short holiday pause in fighting as a fruitless gesture. The Taliban observed a similar truce last year.

“If a ceasefire had been declared some days ago, perhaps these schoolgirls would have been alive and celebrating Eid with their families,” said Shah Wali, a Kabul shopkeeper, referring to Saturday’s bomb attack on a girls school mainly attended by Shi’ite Muslim members of the Hazara ethnic minority.

“It is a good and appropriate action, but not only on the three days of Eid… we want a permanent ceasefire,” he told Reuters.

The Taliban have condemned Saturday’s bombing, which U.S. officials suspect may have been the work of a rival militant group, such as Islamic State.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment about Afghans calling for a longer ceasefire in the wake of the bombing.

University student Shugufa Azaryoon, 22, said she did not welcome the ceasefire at all. Previous ceasefires had been used by Taliban fighters only to regroup and launch attacks after Eid, she said.

PERMANENT CEASEFIRE HASHTAG

The Afghan government wants the Taliban to agree to a more comprehensive ceasefire to promote political talks. The Taliban say they want to lay down their arms, but cannot do so permanently until a political settlement is reached.

Meanwhile, the hashtag “AfghansWantPermanentCeasefire” trended in Afghanistan on Facebook and Twitter in the lead up to Eid, which marks the end of the Ramadan holy fasting month.

Facebook user Sadaf Jamali wrote: “I kill people in Ramadan, I don’t kill people in Eid, but after Eid I will (kill) them again…This is Taliban’s logic #AfghansWantPermanentCeasefire”.

A day before the ceasefire was to begin, Taliban insurgents launched an offensive and took control of a key district located an hour’s drive from the capital Kabul.

Washington, which is pulling its remaining troops out of Afghanistan over the next four months, had long said its withdrawal was conditional on the Taliban reducing violence, but now says it is leaving no matter what.

U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad welcomed the announcement of the three-day ceasefire, but said on Twitter that “Afghans deserve much more: a political settlement & a permanent ceasefire.”

Government employee Saifullah Khan said the three-day ceasefire did not leave enough time to travel to spend the holiday with his family, who live in a village two-days’ journey away.

“I wish they had announced a longer ceasefire,” he said. “Like hundreds of thousands of other Afghans I have to wait for a real and permanent ceasefire…only a miracle can make this possible.”

(Reporting by Kabul newsroom; Editing by Peter Graff)

Manhattan subway bomber sentenced to life in prison

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) -A Bangladeshi man convicted of setting off a pipe bomb during rush hour in New York City’s busiest subway station, Times Square, was sentenced on Thursday to life plus 30 years in prison.

Akayed Ullah, 31, of Brooklyn, had claimed he wanted to kill only himself and was not acting on behalf of Islamic State when he detonated his homemade bomb on Dec. 11, 2017.

No one died and four people were injured in the explosion, which led to the temporary closure of the station and the adjacent Port Authority Bus Terminal during the morning rush. Ullah was burned in what prosecutors called a “lone wolf” attack.

U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Sullivan, who imposed the sentence, told Ullah he had committed a “truly barbaric and heinous crime” without regard for the humanity of those in his way.

“They were just people on the way to work, or school,” Sullivan said. “People who maybe had finished the night shift. … To you, these people were expendable.”

Ullah, who is married and has a 3-year-old son, had faced a mandatory minimum 35-year term.

He told Sullivan he did not condone violence, and apologized to New York City, law enforcement and the United States.

“What I did on December 11, it was wrong,” Ullah said. “I can tell you from the bottom of my heart, I’m deeply sorry.”

Prosecutors said Ullah was angry with then-President Donald Trump and with U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and that Islamic State propaganda inspired him to kill, maim and terrorize as many commuters as possible.

“Akayed Ullah’s message of hatred clearly backfired,” U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said in a statement.

At the time of the attack, Ullah had a green card, allowing him to live in the United States.

He lived with his mother, sister and two brothers in Brooklyn, while his wife and then-infant son lived in Bangladesh.

Ullah’s lawyer Amy Gallicchio, a federal public defender, called him a “deeply troubled soul” who had been attracted on the internet to the “distorted and radical messages” of extremism.

“He is not an evil man,” Gallicchio said, a sentiment the judge also expressed. “He is not a monster.”

But federal prosecutor Rebekah Donaleski questioned why Ullah chose Times Square to set off the bomb if suicide was his goal.

The bomb materials had come from a nearby construction site where Ullah worked as an electrician.

“It is important to send a message that when you attack New York City, there will be no leniency,” Donaleski said.

Ullah was convicted in November 2018. Sullivan presided over Ullah’s case when he was a federal district judge.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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)

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)

UK court lifts bar on evidence transfer over Islamic State ‘Beatles’

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s Supreme Court on Wednesday lifted a bar which prevented the government from giving evidence to U.S. authorities about an alleged Islamic State execution squad, nicknamed “the Beatles”, after reassurances were given that the men would not face the death penalty.

The U.S. Department of Justice is seeking the extradition of Britons Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, who are accused of the killing and torture of Western hostages in Syria.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr said last week that U.S. prosecutors would not seek the death penalty against the men or carry out executions if they were imposed, an issue which had been a stumbling block for Britain handing over captured militants.

In March, Britain’s Supreme Court had ruled that data protection laws meant Britain could not provide material to the United States or other foreign countries in cases which could lead to a death penalty. That decision followed legal action brought by Elsheikh’s mother, Maha El Gizouli.

The British courts imposed a block on the transfer of evidence while her case was ongoing. But the Supreme Court said it had released an order on Wednesday which formally ended El Gizouli’s action and thus ended the legal prohibition.

“The order concludes the proceedings in the Supreme Court, which means that the stay or the stop on providing material to the U.S. government is removed,” a court spokeswoman said.

There was no immediate response from Britain’s Home Office (interior ministry).

Kotey and Elsheikh are being held by the U.S. military in an unidentified overseas location after they were captured in 2019 but Barr said it was becoming untenable to continue to hold them.

The pair were members of a four-strong Islamic State unit that was known as the Beatles because they were English speakers.

They are alleged to have detained or killed Western hostages, including U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig.

One member, Mohammed Emwazi, known as “Jihadi John”, was believed to have been killed in a 2015 U.S.-British missile strike.

The U.S. Justice Department wants Britain to turn over evidence it has on Kotey and Elsheikh to allow them to be tried in the United States.

Barr had said if Britain did not turn over the material by Oct. 15, the United States would turn over the men for prosecution in the Iraqi justice system.

(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

U.S. halts military cooperation with Mali as coup supporters celebrate

By Tiemoko Diallo and Aaron Ross

BAMAKO (Reuters) – The United States said on Friday it had suspended cooperation with Mali’s military in response to the overthrow of the president, as thousands gathered in the capital to celebrate the junta’s takeover.

The ousting of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on Tuesday has dismayed Mali’s international partners, who fear it could further destabilize the former French colony and West Africa’s entire Sahel region.

“Let me say categorically there is no further training or support of Malian armed forces full-stop. We have halted everything until such time as we can clarify the situation,” the U.S. Sahel envoy J. Peter Pham told journalists.

The United States regularly provides training to soldiers in Mali, including several of the officers who led the coup. It also offers intelligence support to France’s Barkhane forces, who are there to fight affiliates of al Qaeda and Islamic State.

Pham said a decision on whether Washington would designate the actions a coup, which could trigger a cut-off of direct support to the government, had to go through a legal review. A Pentagon spokesperson referred on Friday to the events as an “act of mutiny”.

Supporters of the junta filled Independence Square in the capital, Bamako, which has been largely peaceful since Tuesday’s turmoil. Many of them sang, danced, tooted vuvuzelas and waved banners thanking the mutineers.

“It’s a scene of joy. God delivered us from the hands of evil, we are happy, we are behind our army,” said a 59-year-old farmer who gave his name only as Souleymane.

Some protesters also showed their disapproval of different foreign powers. One sign had the words “Barkhane” and “MINUSMA” crossed out, the latter a reference to the U.N. peacekeeping force in Mali.

Meanwhile a couple of Russian flags could be seen waving in the crowd. Russia’s ambassador to Mali has met representatives of the junta, Russian state news agency RIA reported.

France said on Thursday that Barkhane’s operations would continue despite the coup.

TRANSITION

The junta leaders have said they acted because the country was sinking into chaos and insecurity that they said was largely the fault of poor government. They have promised to oversee a transition to elections within a “reasonable” amount of time.

Junta spokesman Ismael Wague said on Thursday that the officers were holding talks with political leaders that would lead to the appointment of a transitional president.

They have held Keita since detaining him and forcing him to dissolve parliament and resign.

A United Nations human rights team visited Keita and 13 other senior figures held by the junta late on Thursday, spokeswoman Liz Throssell said.

“There are no indications that these people have been ill-treated,” she told a news briefing in Geneva, where she called for their release.

Earlier on Friday, the mutineers freed Finance Minister Abdoulaye Daffe and the president’s private secretary, Sabane Mahalmoudou, the head of Keita’s party, Bocary Treta, said.

A delegation from the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is expected to arrive in Bamako on Saturday, after the bloc held an emergency summit aimed at reversing Keita’s ouster.

ECOWAS has already suspended Mali’s membership, shut off borders and halted financial flows to the country.

(Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo and Aaron Ross; Additional reporting by Felix Onuah in Abuja, David Lewis in London, Stephanie Nebehey in Geneva, Idrees Ali in Washington and Andrey Ostroukh in Moscow; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Toby Chopra, Angus MacSwan and Frances Kerry)

U.S. says Islamic State conducted attack on Kabul hospital

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday blamed Islamic State militants — not the Taliban — for a gruesome hospital attack in Afghanistan this week that killed two newborn babies, and it renewed calls for Afghans to embrace a troubled peace push with the Taliban insurgency.

But it was unclear if the U.S. declaration would be enough to bolster the peace effort and reverse a decision by the Kabul government to resume offensive operations against the Taliban.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani ordered the military on Tuesday to switch to “offensive mode” against the Taliban following the hospital attack in Kabul and a suicide bombing in Nangarhar province that killed scores of people.

U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad blamed Islamic State for both attacks in a statement issued on Twitter, saying the group opposed any Taliban peace agreement and sought to trigger an Iraq-style sectarian war in Afghanistan.

“Rather than falling into the ISIS trap and delay peace or create obstacles, Afghans must come together to crush this menace and pursue a historic peace opportunity,” Khalilzad said.

“No more excuses. Afghans, and the world, deserve better.”

An affiliate of the Islamic State militant group claimed responsibility for the Nangarhar bombing, according to the SITE Intelligence Group. No one has claimed the hospital attack.

The Taliban denied involvement in either attack, but the government accused the group of fostering an environment in which terrorism thrives or of working with other militant groups who could have been involved, straining U.S. efforts to bring the insurgents and Afghan government together.

The attacks were another setback to U.S. President Donald Trump’s stalled plans to bring peace to Afghanistan and end America’s longest war.

A Feb. 29 U.S.-Taliban deal called for a phased U.S. troop withdrawal and for the Afghan government and Taliban to release some prisoners by March 10, when peace talks were to start.

Intra-Afghan peace talks have yet to occur and there is some bitterness within the Afghan government, which was not a party to the Feb. 29 deal, that the United States undercut their leverage by negotiating directly with the Taliban.

Ghani’s decision to revive offensive operations is supported by many opposition figures, who believe Washington’s sole focus is to keep the U.S. troop withdrawal plan on track to help Trump win a second term in the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election.

(Reporting by Eric Beech and Phil Stewart; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Daniel Wallis)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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