U.S. states, cities desperate for coronavirus help, military prepares

By Stephanie Kelly and Doina Chiacu

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. governors and mayors on Monday became more desperate in their pleas for help from the federal government to fight coronavirus as the military prepared to set up field hospitals in New York and Seattle to ease the strain on creaking health services.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio urged U.S. lawmakers to approve an economic relief package and appealed for ventilators and medical equipment, even asking for help from private citizens.

“Anyone out there who can help us get these supplies, we have only days to get them in place. That is the reality,” de Blasio told CNN. New York, the most populous U.S. city, is now at the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States.

Karine Raymond, a nurse at Jack D. Weiler Hospital in New York’s Bronx borough, said most nurses were unable to get specialized N95 masks and even simpler surgical masks were in short supply. Nurses are being told to wear them for as long as possible, she said.

“We are the be all and end all and lifeline to these patients, and yet we are being contaminated and cross contaminating,” Raymond said.

As health authorities struggled to cope with the rising number of sick people and the U.S. Senate failed to advance an economic stimulus package, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the U.S. military is preparing to deploy field hospitals to New York and Seattle.

The planned hospitals, essentially tent facilities that can be rapidly set up, can only handle a limited number of patients and are less suited to treating highly infectious people who need to be isolated. But they can relieve pressure on hospitals by treating patients with illnesses other than COVID-19.

The Army Corps of Engineers is preparing to convert hotels and dormitories into treatment facilities for sick patients as the number of U.S. coronavirus cases nationwide topped 40,000 on Monday, more than 500 of whom have died.

New York’s de Blasio urged U.S. lawmakers to provide more help.

“I want to appeal to everyone in the House and Senate, you have got to help cities, towns, countries, states, public hospitals, private hospitals. You’ve got to get all of them direct relief,” he said.

A far-reaching economic package for the coronavirus crisis failed to advance in the Senate after Democrats said it contained too little money for hospitals and not enough restrictions on a fund to help big businesses. Democrats predicted a modified version would win passage soon.

Both Democrats and Republicans say they are aware that failure to agree on the bill could have a devastating effect on states, cities and businesses, and trigger further heavy losses in U.S. stock markets.

The U.S. Federal Reserve rolled out an unprecedented new array of programs aimed at blunting the “severe disruptions” to the economy caused by the coronarvirus outbreak.

The central bank will back the purchases of corporate bonds and direct loans to companies. It will expand its asset holding by as much as needed to stabilize financial markets and roll out a program to get credit to small and medium-sized business.

The steps briefly lifted U.S. stock index futures more than 3% but share prices quickly dropped back into the red, putting the S&P 500 <.SPX> on pace for its worst month since World War Two.

With the addition of Maryland, Indiana, Michigan and Massachusetts on Monday, 15 out of 50 U.S. states have now imposed restrictions on people’s movements to curtail the virus, putting the country on a track similar to those of the most devastated European countries such as Italy and Spain.

The population affected by the state lockdowns amounts to more than 150 million people out of a U.S. total of about 330 million.

STAY AT HOME

In what appeared to send a conflicting message about the federal government’s efforts to combat the coronavirus health crisis, a senior White House advisor said that President Donald Trump is considering measures to reopen the U.S. economy.

Trump issued guidelines a week ago that he said aimed to slow the spread of the disease over 15 days. Late on Sunday, he tweeted: “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself,” adding that at the end of the 15-day shutdown period, “we will make a decision as to which way we want to go.”

Trump senior economic adviser Larry Kudlow followed up on Monday, telling Fox News: “The president is right … We’re going to have to make some difficult trade-offs.”

A lack of coordinated federal action was causing chaos for states and municipalities, and even putting them in competition with each other for resources, the governors of New York, New Jersey and Illinois said.

The states “are all out looking for the same thing,” New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy told CNN on Monday.

Leaving states to fend for themselves has put them in bidding wars with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, other U.S. states and even against other countries, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker said.

“We’re competing against each other on what should be a national crisis where we should be coming together and the federal government should be leading, helping us,” Pritzker told the “Today” program.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called on Washington to put in place the federal defense production act to eliminate this “ad hoc” system. Trump on Sunday defended his decision to hold off using this power, on the grounds that nationalizing businesses “is not a good concept.”

General Motors Co <GM.N> and medical equipment maker Ventec are speeding up efforts under a partnership code-named “Project V” to build ventilators at a GM plant in Kokomo, Indiana, to help combat the coronavirus outbreak.

(Reporting by Stephanie Kelly, Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu, Dan Levine and Nathan Layne; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Sonya Hepinstall; Editing by Howard Goller and Alistair Bell)

After raucous welcome in India, Trump clinches $3 billion military equipment sale

By Steve Holland and Aftab Ahmed

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that India will buy $3 billion worth of military equipment, including attack helicopters, as the two countries deepen defense and commercial ties in an attempt to balance the weight of China in the region.

India and the United States were also making progress on a big trade deal, Trump said. Negotiators from the two sides have wrangled for months to narrow differences on farm goods, medical devices, digital trade and new tariffs.

Trump was accorded a massive reception in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state on Monday, with more than 100,000 people filling into a cricket stadium for a “Namaste Trump” rally.

On Tuesday, Trump sat down for one-on-one talks with Modi followed by delegation-level meetings to try and move forward on issues that have divided them, mainly the festering trade dispute.

After those meetings, Trump said his visit had been productive with the conclusion of deals to buy helicopters for the Indian military. India is buying 24 SeaHawk helicopters from Lockheed Martin equipped with Hellfire missiles worth $2.6 billion and also plans a follow-on order for six Apache helicopters.

India is modernizing its military to narrow the gap with China and has increasingly turned to the United States over traditional supplier, Russia.

Trump said the two countries were also making progress on a trade deal, which had been an area of growing friction between them.

“Our teams have made tremendous progress on a comprehensive trade agreement and I’m optimistic we can reach a deal that will be of great importance to both countries,” said Trump in remarks made alongside Modi.

The two countries had initially planned to produce a “mini deal”, but that proved elusive.

Instead both sides are now aiming for a bigger package, including possibly a free trade agreement.

Trump said he also discussed with Modi, whom he called his “dear friend”, the importance of a secure 5G telecoms network in India, ahead of a planned airwaves auction by the country.

The United States has banned Huawei, arguing the use of its kit creates the potential for espionage by China – a claim denied by Huawei and Beijing – but India, where telecoms companies have long used network gear from the Chinese firm, is yet to make a call.

Trump described Monday’s rally in Ahmedabad and again praised Modi and spoke of the size of the crowd, claiming there were “thousands of people outside trying to get in..

“I would even imagine they were there more for you than for me, I would hope so,” he told Modi. “The people love you…every time I mentioned your name, they would cheer.”

In New Delhi, Trump was given a formal state welcome on Tuesday at the red sandstone presidential palace with a 21-cannon gun salute and a red coated honor guard on horseback on a smoggy day.

HUG GETS TIGHTER

India is one of the few big countries in the world where Trump’s personal approval rating is above 50% and Trump’s trip has got wall-to-wall coverage with commentators saying he had hit all the right notes on his first official visit to the world’s biggest democracy.

They were also effusive in their praise for Modi for pulling off a spectacular reception for Trump.

“Modi-Trump hug gets tighter,” ran a headline in the Times of India.

But in a sign of the underlying political tensions in India, violent protests broke out in Delhi on Monday over a new citizenship law that critics say discriminates against Muslims and is a further attempt to undermine the secular foundations of India’s democracy. They say the law is part of a pattern of divisiveness being followed by Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

At least 7 people were killed and about 150 injured in the clashes that took place in another part of the capital, away from the center of the city where Modi is hosting Trump.

In his speech on Monday, Trump extolled India’s rise as a stable and prosperous democracy as one of the achievements of the century. “You have done it as a tolerant country. And you have done it as a great, free country,” he said.

Delhi has also been struggling with high air pollution and on Tuesday the air quality was moderately poor at 193 on a government index that measures pollution up to a scale of 500. The WHO considers anything above 60 as unhealthy.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Aftab Ahmed, Neha Dasgupta; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Turkey will hit Syrian government forces anywhere if troops hurt: Erdogan

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday his military would strike Syrian forces by air or ground anywhere in Syria if another Turkish soldier was hurt as the Syrian government fought to regain control of northwestern Idlib province from rebels.

Thousands of civilians meanwhile were heading north to the Turkish-Syrian border, many trudging by foot through snow in freezing temperatures, to escape air strikes and artillery barrages by the Russian-supported government forces.

Erdogan said Turkey was determined to push the Syrian troops beyond Turkish observation posts in Idlib by the end of this month and that Ankara would not allow insurgents in Idlib to give them an excuse to attack.

In turn, the Kremlin accused Turkey of flouting agreements with Russia to neutralize militants in Idlib and said attacks on Syrian and Russian forces there were continuing.

Syrian troops and Iranian-backed militias have been advancing in Idlib in a campaign to destroy the last bastion of insurgents fighting for the past nine years to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

An extensive campaign of air strikes and artillery shelling was underway along the M4 highway, which links Latakia on the Mediterranean coast to the contested crossroads town of Saraqeb south of Idlib city, a humanitarian source said on Wednesday.

The offensive has uprooted hundreds of thousands of people, in the biggest single wave of displacement of the conflict, leaving them desperate for shelter amid atrocious weather conditions.

Many villages along the M5 highway, running south from the city of Aleppo, were now deserted, the source said.

Turkey, which is allied with some rebel groups opposed to Assad, counter-attacked on Tuesday after 13 Turkish soldiers were killed by Syrian shelling in Idlib in the last 10 days.

“If there is the smallest injury to our soldiers on the observation posts or other places, I am declaring from here that we will hit the regime forces everywhere from today, regardless of Idlib’s borders or the lines of the Sochi agreement,” Erdogan said, referring to a 2018 ceasefire accord.

“We will do this by any means necessary, by air or ground, without hesitating,” he told members of his AK Party in Ankara.

Turkey has set up 12 observation posts in Idlib as part of an agreement with Russia and Iran to establish what they called a de-escalation zone.

This month Ankara – which has the second-largest army in NATO – has poured some 5,000 troops and convoys of military vehicles across the border into Idlib, including tanks, armored personnel carriers and radar equipment to bolster its positions.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow remained committed to its deal with Ankara on Syria but that Russia considered militant attacks in Idlib unacceptable.

“The Turkish side undertook to ensure that terrorist groups in Idlib were neutralized,” he told reporters. “These groups are carrying out strikes from Idlib on Syrian forces and also taking aggressive action against our military facilities.”

WAVES OF DISPLACED

The Turkish military casualties have sparked some of the most serious confrontations between Ankara and Damascus in the war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and made millions refugees, including 3.6 million Syrians in Turkey.

Ankara says it cannot handle another wave of refugees.

In the last five days, some 52,000 people have fled toward the border, mostly from the towns of Atarib and Darat Izza west of Aleppo city, said Selim Tosun, the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation’s (IHH) media adviser in Syria.

In total, the number of people displaced since the fighting intensified in November was about 870,000, he said. Some 400 concrete block dwellings and 2,300 tents had been set up for the displaced people, 70% of whom are children, he said.

Speaking from the border area in northwest Syria, Tosun said traffic was jammed up for several kilometers. Cold weather, a lack of health facilities and the risk of epidemics were all threatening those on the move.

“They have been worn out by the war. They want at least some welfare and peace. They want the attacks to stop,” he said.

The U.N. regional spokesman on Syria, David Swanson, said people were fleeing by night in trucks or by foot in an effort to avoid the attacks.

“People are fleeing northwards not knowing where they will find shelter. Some are seeking shelter in host communities, in camps, makeshift shelters, abandoned buildings, schools, mosques and some people are out in the open in the cold and others are in their vehicles, having fled, and are trapped there. They are waking up each morning not knowing which direction to go,” he told Reuters from Turkey.

Many were also flocking into Idlib city, already host to tens of thousands of previously displaced people.

U.S. INCIDENT

Damascus and Moscow say the attacks are targeting hardline Islamist militants who control Idlib. Turkey says they are hitting civilians.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan agreed in a phone call the sides would continue contacts on Syria, the Kremlin said. Erdogan said he discussed with Putin the issue of the Turkish casualties.

The U.S. envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, met Erdogan aide Ibrahim Kalin in Ankara and the two sides said diplomatic efforts needed to be ramped up urgently to halt the wave of displaced, Anadolu news agency said.

Turkish artillery has been supporting the rebels as they battle to hold on to areas of Idlib. Russia has officers on the ground advising the Syrians on the campaign as well as some ground forces, and Russian warplanes have carried out numerous air strikes.

Separately, the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State said its troops opened fire on Wednesday at a checkpoint in northeast Syria after they came under small arms fire, an incident that underscored the multi-faceted nature of the conflict.

(This story adds dropped words in paragraphs 3, 5)

(Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun and Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul, Emma Farge in Geneva, Tom Balmforth and Andrey Kuzmin in Moscow, Suleiman Khalidi in Amman; Writing by Jonathan Spicer and Daren Butler; Editing by Dominic Evans and Angus MacSwan)

Iran makes arrests over plane disaster as protests rage on

By Parisa Hafezi and Babak Dehghanpisheh

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran said on Tuesday it had arrested people accused of a role in shooting down a Ukrainian airliner and had also detained 30 people involved in protests that have swept the nation for four days since the military belatedly admitted its error.

Wednesday’s shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines flight 752, killing all 176 people aboard, has led to one of the biggest public challenges to the Islamic Republic’s clerical rulers since they took power four decades ago.

In a step that will increase diplomatic pressure, Britain, France and Germany launched a dispute mechanism to challenge Iran for breaching limits on its nuclear program under an agreement which Washington abandoned in 2018.

Since the United States killed Iran’s most powerful military commander in a drone strike on Jan. 3, Tehran has faced escalating confrontation with the West and unrest at home, both reaching levels with little precedent in its modern history.

Iran shot down the airliner on Wednesday when its military was on high alert, hours after it had fired missiles at U.S. targets in Iraq. After days of denying a role in the air crash, it admitted it on Saturday, calling it a tragic mistake.

Protesters, many of them students, have held daily demonstrations since then, chanting “Clerics get lost!” and calling for the removal of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in power for more than 30 years.

Police have responded to some protests with a violent crackdown, video posts on social media showed. Footage showed police beating protesters with batons, wounded people being carried, pools of blood on the streets and the sound of gunfire.

Iran’s police denied firing at protesters. The judiciary said 30 people had been detained in the unrest but said the authorities would show tolerance toward “legal protests”.

‘WHERE IS JUSTICE?’

Video posts on Tuesday showed scores gathered peacefully at two Tehran universities. “Where is justice?” one group chanted.

The extent of the unrest is difficult to assess because of limits on independent reporting. Demonstrations tend to gather momentum later in the day and clashes have been at night.

President Hassan Rouhani promised a thorough investigation into the “unforgivable error” of shooting down the plane. He spoke in a television address on Tuesday, the latest in a series of apologies from a leadership that rarely admits mistakes.

Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said some of those accused of having a role in the plane disaster had been arrested, although he did not say how many or identify them.

Most of those on board the flight were Iranians or dual nationals. Canada, Ukraine, Britain and other nations who had citizens on the plane have scheduled a meeting on Thursday in London to consider legal action against Tehran.

The disaster and subsequent unrest comes amid one of the biggest escalations between Tehran and Washington since 1979.

Missiles launched at a U.S. base in Iraq killed an American contractor in December, an attack Washington blamed on an Iran-backed group. Confrontation eventually led to the U.S. drone strike on Jan. 3 that killed Qassem Soleimani, architect of Iran’s regional network of proxy militias.

Iran’s government was already reeling from the reimposition of sanctions by the United States, which quit an agreement with world powers under which Tehran would secure sanctions relief in return for scaling back its nuclear program.

SEEKING COMPLIANCE

Since Washington withdrew, Tehran has stepped back from its nuclear commitments and has said it would no longer recognize limits on enriching uranium. After months of threatening to act, European signatories to the deal, France, Britain and Germany, activated the agreement’s dispute mechanism on Tuesday.

The European Union’s top diplomat said the European move aimed to bring Tehran bank to compliance, not impose sanctions.

Iran’s leaders have been facing a powerful combination of pressure both at home and abroad.

Just two months ago, Iran’s authorities put down anti-government protests, killing hundreds of demonstrators in what is believed to be the most violent crackdown on unrest since the 1979 revolution.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, where Iran has wielded influence through a network of allied movements and proxies, governments that include powerful Iran-sponsored armed factions have faced months of hostile demonstrations in Lebanon and Iraq.

Iran’s president said in his address that those responsible for shooting down the plane would be punished, describing the military’s admission of its mistake “a good first step.”

Rouhani also said the government would be accountable to Iranians and those nations who lost citizens. Iranian state television said aviation officials from Canada, which had 57 citizens on the doomed flight, as well as from Iran and Ukraine, met in Tehran on Tuesday to discuss the investigation.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi and Babak Dehghanpisheh and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Peter Graff)

Venezuela’s Guaido pushes past troops to enter congress after socialist takeover

By Mayela Armas and Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan security forces let U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido enter the legislative palace on Tuesday amid a showdown for control of parliament after the ruling socialist party installed its own rival congressional chief.

Guaido, who was re-elected on Sunday to a second one-year term as head of the opposition-held congress, had pledged to preside over Tuesday’s opening session after security forces blocked him from the building over the weekend to allow socialist legislators to swear in their own speaker.

Local television images early Tuesday showed Guaido arguing for half an hour with troops wielding riot shields who again blocked the entrance to the legislative building, but eventually allowed him to push past them.

“This is not a barracks. This is the house of laws,” Guaido told the soldiers blocking his entrance. “The military does not get to decide who can enter the house of laws.”

But inside, a brief session led by Luis Parra – who was sworn in by allies of President Nicolas Maduro as parliament chief Sunday – had already ended, according to Reuters witnesses.

Parra’s swearing in on Sunday gave Maduro sway over the last major state institution that had remained outside his control and appeared to mark a setback to Washington’s efforts to unseat him.

The gambit marked an escalation in Maduro’s crackdown on the opposition, whose key international ally – the Trump administration – has so far been unsuccessful in its year-long attempt to oust Maduro through economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure.

U.S. special envoy for Venezuela Elliott Abrams on Monday said Washington was preparing new sanctions to step up pressure on Caracas. But Maduro’s move suggests he does not expect major consequences from the United States, though the government has steered clear of actions – like arresting Guaido – that could provoke a harsher response.

“We once again handed imperialism a defeat,” socialist party Vice President Diosdado Cabello said on his talk show Monday night.

Parra, who was elected to congress in 2015, had been expelled from the First Justice opposition party in late 2019 due to corruption allegations, which he has denied.

Dozens of countries, including the United States, denounced Parra’s appointment as illegitimate, and said they continued to recognize Guaido as the parliament’s head and as Venezuela’s rightful president.

On Sunday, after soldiers prevented Guaido from entering parliament, he held a separate session elsewhere in which 100 lawmakers backed his bid despite the earlier swearing-in of Parra. The legislature has 167 seats.

‘THE PEOPLE ARE IN CHARGE’

Guaido had vowed to preside over Tuesday’s legislative session despite what he called Parra’s “parliamentary coup.” Parra has rejected that description, while saying he wants to end confrontations with Maduro’s government. “We came to save parliament from destruction,” he said on Twitter.

After security forces opened the gates to allow him to pass, Guaido stood in the leadership post and sang the Venezuelan national anthem with allies. Electricity swiftly went out in the chamber, and state television – which had broadcast footage of Parra’s session – cut away from the congress.

“In here, the people are in charge,” lawmakers chanted as Guaido entered.

Guaido was elected head of the congress in January 2019 and invoked Venezuela’s constitution to assume an interim presidency, denouncing Maduro as a usurper who had secured re-election in a 2018 vote widely considered fraudulent.

So far, Maduro has fended off Guaido’s challenge, retaining control of the armed forces and tightening the noose around opposition lawmakers. More than 30 of Guaido’s congressional allies are in hiding, in prison, or in exile.

Guaido has also been losing support as Venezuelans tired with Maduro lose patience with his floundering movement. It remains to be seen whether his defiant response to Maduro’s move could galvanize his supporters, who turned out by the hundreds of thousands to protest Maduro early last year.

Parra’s new policy agenda focuses on reducing conflict with the government. Maduro was quick to celebrate his swearing-in, highlighting a “rebellion” among opposition lawmakers.

Parra said Monday his priority was to set up a new electoral council to preside over free and fair elections.

His brief session included a debate over proposals to tackle widespread shortages of gasoline. The session began around 10 a.m. and ended in under an hour.

(Reporting by Angus Berwick, Mayela Armas, Vivian Sequera, Corina Pons and Brian Ellsworth; Writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Tom Brown)

U.S. says it disrupted ‘imminent attack’ with killing of Iran commander

 

By Ahmed Rasheed and Ahmed Aboulenein

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iran promised harsh revenge on Friday after a U.S. air strike in Baghdad on Friday killed Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force and architect of its growing military influence in the Middle East.

Soleimani, a 62-year-old general, was regarded as the second most powerful figure in Iran after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

FILE PHOTO: Combination photo of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani (L) and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a commander in the Popular Mobilization Forces. REUTERS/Stringer/Thaier al-Sudani

The overnight attack, authorized by President Donald Trump, was a dramatic escalation in a “shadow war” in the Middle East between Iran and the United States and its allies, principally Israel and Saudi Arabia.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the strike aimed to disrupt an “imminent attack” that would have endangered Americans in the Middle East. Democratic critics said the Republican president had raised the risk of more violence in a dangerous region.

Pompeo, in interviews on Fox News and CNN, declined to discuss many details of the alleged threat but said it was “an intelligence based assessment” that drove the decision to target Soleimani.

In a tweet, Trump said Soleimani had “killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more”, but did not elaborate.

The attack also killed top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an adviser to Soleimani.

It followed a sharp increase in longrunning U.S.-Iranian hostilities last week when pro-Iranian militiamen attacked the U.S. embassy in Iraq following a U.S. air raid on the Kataib Hezbollah militia, founded by Muhandis.

Iraq’s prime minister said that with Friday’s attack Washington had violated a deal for keeping U.S. troops in his country.

CONCERN OVER ESCALATION

Israel put its army on high alert and U.S. allies in Europe including Britain, France and Germany voiced concerns about an escalation in tensions.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Soleimani was killed in a drone strike. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said he died in an attack by U.S. helicopters.

The U.S. embassy in Baghdad urged all American citizens to depart Iraq immediately.

Dozens of U.S. citizens working for foreign oil companies in the southern city of Basra were leaving the country. Iraqi officials said the evacuations would not affect output and exports were unaffected.

Oil prices jumped more than $3 a barrel over concern about disruption to Middle East supplies.

Khamenei said harsh revenge awaited the “criminals” who killed Soleimani and said his death would double resistance against the United States and Israel.

In statements on state media, he called for three days of national mourning and appointed Soleimani’s deputy, Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani, to replace him as Quds Force head.

‘STICK OF DYNAMITE’

Trump critics called the operation reckless.

“President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox,” said former Vice President Joe Biden, a contender in this year’s U.S. presidential election.

As leader of the Quds Force, the foreign arm of the Guards, Soleimani had a key role in fighting in Syria and Iraq.

Over two decades he was at the forefront of projecting the Islamic Republic’s military influence across the Middle East, acquiring celebrity status at home and abroad.

President Hassan Rouhani said the assassination would make Iran more decisive in resisting the United States, while the Revolutionary Guards said anti-U.S. forces would exact revenge across the Muslim world.

Hundreds of Iranians marched toward Khamenei’s compound in central Tehran to convey their condolences.

“I am not a pro-regime person but I liked Soleimani. He was brave and he loved Iran, I am very sorry for our loss,” said housewife Mina Khosrozadeh in Tehran.

In Soleimani’s hometown, Kerman, people wearing black gathered in front of his father’s house, crying as they listened to a recitation of verses from the Koran.

“Heroes never die. It cannot be true. Qassem Soleimani will always be alive,” said Mohammad Reza Seraj, a teacher.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi condemned the killings as an act of aggression that breached Iraq’s sovereignty and would lead to war.

Israel has long seen Soleimani as a major threat and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the U.S. action. Israeli Army Radio said the military was on heightened alert.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense called the killing a “short-sighted” step that would lead to escalations in the region.

PREVIOUS ATTACKS

The slain commander’s Quds Force, along with paramilitary proxies from Lebanon’s Hezbollah to Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces grouping of Iran-backed militias – battle-hardened militias armed with missiles – has ample means to respond.

In September, U.S. officials blamed Iran for a missile and drone attack on oil plants of Saudi energy giant Saudi Aramco. Washington also blamed Tehran for earlier raids on Gulf shipping.

Iran has denied responsibility for the strikes and accused Washington of warmongering by reimposing crippling sanctions on Iran’s main export, oil, in order to force Tehran to renegotiate a deal to freeze its nuclear activities.

Soleimani had survived several assassination attempts by Western, Israeli and Arab agencies over the past two decades.

The Quds Force, tasked with operating beyond Iran’s borders, shored up support for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad when he looked close to defeat in the civil war raging since 2011 and also helped militias defeat Islamic State in Iraq.

Soleimani became head of the force in 1998, after which he quietly strengthened Iran’s ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria’s government and Shi’ite militia groups in Iraq.

(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Ahmed Aboulenein; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali, Susan Heavey, Lisa Lambert and Mary Milliken in Washington, Parisa Hafezi and Michael Georgy in Dubai, Maha El Dahan in Baghdad, Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem, Polina Ivanova in Moscow; Writing by Samia Nakhoul and Frances Kerry; Editing by Robert Birsel, Raju Gopalakrishnan, Mike Collett-White, William Maclean)

U.S. ready to deal with any North Korean ‘Christmas gift’: Trump

U.S. ready to deal with any North Korean ‘Christmas gift’: Trump
By Alexandra Alper

PALM BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday brushed off North Korea’s warning of a “Christmas gift”, saying the United States would “deal with it very successfully,” amid U.S. concerns that Pyongyang might be preparing a long-range missile test.

“We’ll find out what the surprise is and we’ll deal with it very successfully,” Trump told reporters at his Mar-a-Lago resort. “We’ll see what happens.”

“Maybe it’s a nice present,” he quipped. “Maybe it’s a present where he sends me a beautiful vase as opposed to a missile test.”

North Korea warned Washington earlier this month of a possible “Christmas gift” after its leader Kim Jong Un gave the United States until the end of the year to propose new concessions in talks over his country’s nuclear arsenal and reducing tensions between the two long-time adversaries.

In issuing the warning, North Korea accused Washington of trying to drag out denuclearization talks ahead of Trump’s re-election bid next year and said it was “entirely up to the U.S. what Christmas gift it will select to get.”

U.S. military commanders have said that the North Korean response could involve the testing of a long-range missile, something North Korea has suspended, along with nuclear bomb tests, since 2017.

Trump has repeatedly held up the suspension of such tests as evidence that his policy of engaging with North Korea, which has involved unprecedented summits with Kim, was working.

ICBM TEST IN 2017

North Korea’s last test of an intercontinental ballistic missile took place in November 2017. That involved a Hwasong-15 ICBM, the largest missile it has ever tested, and which it said was capable of reaching all of the United States.

Trump and Kim have met three times since 2018, but there has been no substantive progress in dialogue. North Korea has demanded an end to international sanctions while the United States says Pyongyang must first commit to giving up its nuclear weapons.

Recent days have seen a flurry of international diplomacy aimed at preventing a complete breakdown of dialogue and avoiding a return to the heated confrontation seen two years ago that raised fears of war.

China, North Korea’s most important economic and diplomatic backer, together with Russia, proposed last week that the U.N. Security Council lift some sanctions to break the current deadlock.

A U.S. State Department official responded by saying it was not the time to consider lifting U.N. sanctions when North Korea was “threatening to conduct an escalated provocation, refusing to meet to discuss denuclearization, and continuing to maintain and advance its prohibited weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs.”

North Korea has conducted repeated tests of short-range missiles this year and this month carried out what appeared to be engine tests at a rocket-testing facility U.S. officials have said Kim promised Trump he would close.

Pyongyang said the tests were aimed at “restraining and overpowering the nuclear threat of the U.S.”

(Reporting by Alexandra Alper, Tim Ahmann and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Alex Richardson and Alistair Bell)

U.S. House approves Space Force, family leave in $738 billion defense bill

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives approved on Wednesday a $738 billion defense policy bill providing the first paid family leave for all federal workers and the creation of a Space Force, a top military priority for President Donald Trump.

The Democratic-controlled chamber voted by 377-48, easily sending the conference report on the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, to the Republican-controlled Senate, which is expected to pass it by the end of next week.

Trump said he would sign the bill as soon as it passes.

“Wow!” he said on Twitter. “All of our priorities have made it into the final NDAA: Pay Raise for our Troops, Rebuilding our Military, Paid Parental Leave, Border Security, and Space Force! Congress – don’t delay this anymore! I will sign this historic defense legislation immediately!”

The establishment of the U.S. Space Force as the sixth Armed Service of the United States, under the Air Force, fulfills one of Trump’s most high-profile requests.

Despite broad bipartisan support, a handful of left-leaning Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans opposed the measure because it did not include policy planks that would have restrained Trump’s war powers, including a ban on support for Saudi Arabia’s air campaign in Yemen.

The fiscal 2020 NDAA also does not bar the Republican president from using military funds to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico and lacks strong language that would have forced the cleanup of chemicals known as PFAS believed to contaminate some water supplies.

Those provisions were included in a version of the NDAA the House passed in October, but not in one passed by the Senate. They were removed during months of negotiations with Senate Republicans and Trump administration officials.

Democratic Representative Adam Smith, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, defended the bill, pointing to the family leave policy and other benefits for troops and the difficulty reaching compromise in a bitterly divided government.

“This was not an easy process. This is an incredibly important piece of legislation,” he said.

A provision prohibiting the transfer of firearms export oversight to the Department of Commerce from the Department of State was also removed, clearing the way for a rule change that would allow easier international sales of U.S.-made assault weapons.

MORE MONEY FOR THE MILITARY

The fiscal 2020 NDAA increases defense spending by about $20 billion, or about 2.8%. It includes $658.4 billion for Department of Defense and Department of Energy national security programs, $71.5 billion to pay for ongoing foreign wars and $5.3 billion in emergency funding for repairs from natural disasters.

It increases pay for the troops by 3.1% and mandates 12 weeks’ paid leave so federal workers can care for their families, a U.S. first.

Because the NDAA is a “must pass” bill that has cleared Congress for 58 straight years, lawmakers use it as a vehicle for a wide range of policy provisions in addition to determining how many aircraft or ships the Pentagon can buy or what it can pay the troops.

While this year’s NDAA allows the Pentagon to buy 12 more Lockheed Martin-made F-35 jets <LMT.N> than the administration initially requested, it prohibits the transfer of the F-35 to Turkey.

It expresses a Sense of Congress that Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system, which Washington says is not compatible with NATO defenses and threatens the F-35, constitutes a significant transaction under U.S. sanctions law.

The bill says Trump should implement sanctions on Turkey over the S-400 purchase.

The NDAA also reauthorizes $300 million of funding for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, to include lethal defensive items as well as new authorities for coastal defense cruise missiles and anti-ship missiles.

Military aid to Ukraine has been at the center of the impeachment inquiry into Trump, after his administration held up security assistance for Kiev last summer even as the country dealt with challenges from Russia.

The NDAA also contains provisions intended to address potential threats from China, including requiring reports on China’s overseas investments and military relations with Russia.

It says Congress “unequivocally supports” residents of Hong Kong as they defend their rights and seek to preserve their autonomy with China and calls for improving Taiwan’s defense capabilities.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Additional reporting by Mike Stone in Washington; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Leslie Adler)

China suspends U.S. military visits to Hong Kong, sanctions U.S.-based NGOs

BEIJING (Reuters) – China said on Monday U.S. military ships and aircraft won’t be allowed to visit Hong Kong, and also announced sanctions against several U.S. non-government organizations for encouraging protesters to “engage in extremist, violent and criminal acts.”

The measures were announced by China’s Foreign Ministry in response to U.S. legislation passed last week supporting anti-government protesters. It said it had suspended taking requests for U.S. military visits indefinitely, and warned of further action to come.

“We urge the U.S. to correct the mistakes and stop interfering in our internal affairs. China will take further steps if necessary to uphold Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity and China’s sovereignty,” said ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a daily news briefing in Beijing.

China last week promised it would issue “firm counter measures” after U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act,” which supports anti-government protesters in Hong Kong and threatens China with potential sanctions.

There are fears that the row over Hong Kong could impact efforts by Beijing and Washington to reach preliminary deal that could de-escalate a prolonged trade war between the two countries.

The U.S.-headquartered NGOs targeted by Beijing include the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the International Republican Institute, Human Rights Watch, and Freedom House.

“They shoulder some responsibility for the chaos in Hong Kong and they should be sanctioned and pay the price,” said Hua.

In more normal times, several U.S. naval ships visit Hong Kong annually, a rest-and-recreation tradition that dates back to the pre-1997 colonial era which Beijing allowed to continue after the handover from British to Chinese rule.

Visits have at times been refused amid broader tensions and two U.S. ships were denied access in August.

The USS Blue Ridge, the command ship of the Japanese-based Seventh Fleet, stopped in Hong Kong in April – the last ship to visit before mass protests broke out in June.

Foreign NGOs are already heavily restricted in China, and have previously received sharp rebukes for reporting on rights issues in the country including the mass detention of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

(Reporting by Cate Cadell and Beijing Monitoring Desk; Editing by Tom Hogue & Simon Cameron-Moore)