Trump: U.S. will respond with ‘great force’ if Iran attacks interests

FILE PHOTO - U.S. President Donald Trump addresses a Trump 2020 re-election campaign rally in Montoursville, Pennsylvania, U.S. May 20, 2019.    REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump warned on Monday Iran would be met with “great force” if it attacked U.S. interests in the Middle East, and government sources said Washington strongly suspects Shi’ite militias with ties to Tehran were behind a rocket attack in Baghdad’s Green Zone.

“I think Iran would be making a very big mistake if they did anything,” Trump told reporters as he left the White House on Monday evening for an event in Pennsylvania. “If they do something, it will be met with great force but we have no indication that they will.”

His comments came as two U.S. government sources said the United States strongly suspects Shi’ite militias with ties to, and possibly encouragement from, Iran fired a rocket on Sunday into Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.

The sources, who are familiar with U.S. national security assessments and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the United States was still trying to establish which militia fired the Katyusha rocket on Sunday and the extent, if any, of Iranian involvement.

The rocket fell in the Green Zone which houses government buildings and embassies and caused no casualties, the latest in a series of regional attacks the United States believes may have been inspired by Iran. Iran has rejected allegations of its possible involvement in attacks last week and Iran’s Iraqi allies rushed to condemn Sunday’s rocket blast.

The attacks include what Saudi Arabia described as armed drone attacks on two oil pumping stations within the kingdom on May 14 and the sabotage of four vessels, including two Saudi oil tankers, off the coast of the United Arab Emirates on May 12.

Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi group claimed responsibility for attacking the pumping stations. Saudi Arabia accused Tehran of ordering the attack. Tensions between Washington and its Sunni Muslim Gulf Arab allies on one side and Tehran and its Shi’ite Muslim proxies on the other have been flaring for weeks.

European and U.S. government sources believe Shi’ite militias based in Yemen or Iraq carried out the attacks in Saudi Arabia and near the UAE, likely with Iran’s encouragement.

The two U.S. sources said they are still trying to establish whether the rocket attack if inspired or directed by Iran, was designed to send a specific signal to the United States.

The incidents all took place after Trump decided to try to cut off Iran’s oil exports, roughly a year after he withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six major powers.

Trump’s decision to abandon the deal that restricted Iran’s potential pathway to developing a nuclear bomb in return for relief from economic sanctions angered Tehran, which accuses Washington of breaking its word. Iran denies ever having a nuclear weapons program.

LOW-GRADE URANIUM ENRICHMENT

In what may be a sign of Iranian displeasure, an Iranian news service reported on a fourfold increase in Iran’s rate of production of low-grade uranium enrichment.

Quoting an official at the Natanz enrichment plant, the semi-official Tasnim news service said Iran was accelerating the rate of production at which it refines uranium to 3.67% fissile purity, suitable for civilian nuclear power generation.

Two weeks ago, after Trump sought to block all Iranian oil exports, Iran said it would relax some of its commitments under the accord it struck with Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States.

Under the deal, negotiated by the administration of Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, Iran was allowed to stockpile up to 300 kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU) and ship any excess out of the country for storage or sale.

Iran said this month that cap no longer applied in response to the U.S. withdrawal from the deal.

It was not clear how far Iran’s LEU stock was from the 300-kg limit. Under the deal Iran can enrich uranium at 3.67%, well below the 90% purity required to make bombs and the 20% level to which Iran enriched before the deal.

Former U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, speaking to BBC World News television, played down the uranium announcement, saying “I don’t know that it’s necessary to go into the panic mode yet.”

Clapper stressed, as have some other analysts and diplomats, the danger of an accidental escalation, particularly when opposing forces are close to one another. Both U.S. and Iranian vessels patrol in the Strait of Hormuz.

“The thing I would  be concerned about is some inadvertent incident that could go incendiary,” he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had warned Iraqi leaders during a surprise visit two weeks ago to Baghdad that if they failed to rein in Iran-backed militias, which are expanding their power in Iraq and form part of its security apparatus, the United States would respond with force.

A U.S. State Department official noted on Sunday that there had been no claim of responsibility for the rocket attack, and that no U.S.-inhabited facility was affected, but said “we will hold Iran responsible” if such attacks were carried out by proxy militia forces.

On Sunday, Trump threatened Iran in a tweet, raising concerns about a potential U.S.-Iran conflict.

“If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!” he tweeted.

Critics accused Trump of sending mixed signals. Last week three U.S. officials told Reuters that Trump had told his top advisers he does not want war with Iran.

Democratic Senator Chris Coons, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Trump “bluffs about going after Iran” and said the consequences of being drawn into a war would be “tragic.”

Iran’s U.N. Ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi warned U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a letter made public on Monday that “if unchecked, the current situation might – sooner or later – go beyond the perimeter of control and thereby lead to another unnecessary regional crisis.”

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball; Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Patricia Zengerle and David Brunnstrom in Washington; John Davison, Ahmed Rasheed, and Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad, Raya Jalabi in Erbil and Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London; Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Arshad Mohammed and David Alexander; editing by Grant McCool and Phil Berlowitz)

For Syrian evacuees, civil war bus bombing a tragic end to a tragic deal

The interior of a damaged bus is seen after an explosion yesterday at insurgent-held al-Rashideen, Aleppo province, Syria

By John Davison

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Mothers Noha, a Shi’ite, and Samira, a Sunni, were besieged for nearly two years on each side of Syria’s civil war. At the weekend they finally escaped the suffocating blockades under an evacuation agreement – but their ordeal was not over.

As they waited at two transit points miles apart outside Aleppo, a bomb attack hit Noha’s bus convoy, killing more than 120 people including dozens of children. After ambulances rushed off the wounded, new buses arrived and the two convoys eventually reached their destinations – one in government territory and the other in rebel territory.

In the hours leading up to Saturday’s attacks, the two women spoke to Reuters about what they had left behind, their families being split up, and the likelihood they would never return home.

Reuters was not allowed back past security to try to find Noha after the blast, and lost contact with Samira after speaking to her earlier on another evacuee’s phone.

“We’ve lost everything. We hope to go back one day, but I don’t expect we will,” said Noha, 45, asking not to be identified by her last name.

Noha left al-Foua, one of two Shi’ite villages besieged by Syrian insurgents in Idlib province with her two youngest children and 5,000 other people under a deal between the Syrian government and armed opposition.

In exchange, 2,000 Sunni residents and rebel fighters from the government-besieged town of Madaya near Damascus – Samira’s hometown – were given safe passage out, and bussed to Idlib province, a rebel stronghold, via Aleppo.

Thousands of Syrians have been evacuated from besieged areas in recent months under deals between President Bashar al-Assad’s government and rebels fighting for six years to unseat him.

The deals have mostly affected Sunni Muslims living in rebel-held areas surrounded by government forces and their allies. Damascus calls them reconciliation deals and says it allows services to be restored in the wrecked towns.

Rebels say it amounts to forced displacement of Assad’s opponents from Syria’s main urban centres in the west of the country, and engenders demographic change because most of the opposition, and Syria’s population, are Sunni.

But backed militarily by Russia and Shi’ite regional allies, Assad, a member of Syria’s Alawite minority, has negotiated the deals from a position of strength.

“There was little choice. We had to leave, we were scared,” said Samira, 55, who was traveling with her five adult sons.

She had feared her sons would be arrested or forced to join the Syrian military and fight once troops and officials of the Damascus government moved into the town.

Like Noha, Samira was relieved to have escaped a crushing siege which had caused widespread hunger – and in the case of Madaya, starvation – but had left everything behind, including family.

“We owned three houses, farmland and three shops in Madaya town. Now, we don’t have a single Syrian pound,” she said.

Her daughter, pregnant with a third child, had stayed in Madaya because her husband had vowed to “live and die” there, she said.

Samira has not heard from her own husband for nearly four years after he was arrested by Syrian authorities.

NOWHERE TO LIVE

With nothing left and no place to stay in Idlib other than camps, Samira said she would try to migrate, joining the 5 million Syrian refugees who have left since the war broke out in 2011. More than 6 million are internally displaced.

“I don’t want to be in Idlib, we know no one there. Also you don’t know when or where the jets might bomb,” she said, referring to the heavy bombardment by Russian and Syrian warplanes of rebel-held areas in Idlib – including a recent alleged poison gas attack.

“The plan is to try to get to Turkey, to leave Syria for good.”

Noha was also heading into the unknown.

“I don’t know where we’ll live, whether they (authorities) have anything set up. At the very least, we just want to be safe. The children jump at night from the sound of rockets. We just want security, wherever they take us,” she said.

Her adult son and daughter had stayed in al-Foua but were hoping to leave in the next stage of the evacuation deal. Noha’s husband had been killed, but she did not say how.

Both women said they would never have left their hometowns but for the strangling sieges, which caused severe food and medicine shortages, and the gradual change of control in each area.

Government forces moved into Madaya on Friday. Rebels are also due to leave nearby Zabadani as part of the deal. In al-Foua and Kefraya, hundreds of pro-government fighters were evacuated, and the agreement will pave the way for insurgents to take over.

Russia, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah have helped Assad gain the upper hand against rebels in the west of the country in the last 18 months and he now controls all of Syria’s most populous cities there, although insurgents have made gains in some areas.

But with the war that has killed hundreds of thousands far from over, those displaced in swap deals see return a long way off.

“People have built their houses and worked their whole lives setting themselves up, and now they’ve left, with nothing, zero,” Noha said.

(Additional reporting by Ammar Abdullah; Editing by Anna Willard)

World’s largest cemetery grows bigger as Shi’ite militias bury their dead

he Wadi al-Salam cemetery, Arabic for "Peace Valley", is seen in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq

By Alaa al-Marjani and Saif Hameed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – The world’s largest cemetery, in Iraq’s Shi’ite holy city of Najaf, is expanding at double its usual rate as the nation’s death rate increased with the war on Islamic State.

The Wadi al-Salam cemetery, Arabic for “Peace Valley,” has a special place in the hearts of Shi’ite Muslims as it surrounds the Mausoleum of their first imam, Ali Bin Abi Talib, a cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Mohammad.

The pace of daily burials rose to 150-200 after Islamic State, the ultra-hardline Sunni group overran a third of the country in 2014, said Jihad Abu Saybi, a historian of the cemetery. The rate was 80-120 a day previously, he said.

Shi’ite paramilitary often visit Ali’s golden-domed shrine before heading to the frontlines to battle Islamic State, and request to be laid to rest in Wadi al-Salam should they be killed, as a reward for their sacrifice.

As land becomes scarce, the cost of a standard 25 square meter family burial lot has risen to about 5 million Iraqi dinars ($4100) almost double the amount paid for the same lots before violence escalated as IS exerted control over large swathes of north and western Iraq in 2014.

Millions of graves of different shapes lie in the roughly 10 square km (4 square miles) cemetery that attracts burials from Shiites all over the world. By nationality, Iraq’s Iranian neighbors are thought to come second in number people interred near Ali’s golden-domed shrine.

Often built with baked bricks and plaster, decorated with Koranic calligraphy, some graves are above ground tombs, reflecting the wealth of those within.

(Editing by Jeremy Gaunt.)

Iraq Special Forces Advance on Tikrit

Iraqi Special Forces are advancing on Tikrit, driving out the terrorist group ISIS from what had been considered a major win for the terrorists.

The advance has been assisted by the U.S. airstrikes against key parts of the terrorist’s defense network within the city.  The attacks were the first major air assault by U.S. forces in several weeks.

“The Iraqi and coalition air forces conduct strikes in order to remove the enemy and then our forces advance,” said General Tahsin Ibrahim Sadiq. “When the attacking forces advance, they clear any pockets of resistance and allow for the rest of our forces to move in and barricade further ahead.”

Officials say the airstrikes are also targeting ISIS leadership’s command locations.

More than 20,000 Iraqi troops and paramilitary groups are involved in the Tikrit offensive.

The assault came as two Shi’ite militias withdrew from the battle because the United States demanded that Iranian officials and Iranian troops withdraw from the battle.  The militias are protesting that U.S. is forbidding Iranian involvement.