Protesters burn security post at U.S. Embassy in Iraq; Pentagon sending more troops to region

Protesters burn security post at U.S. Embassy in Iraq; Pentagon sending more troops to region
By Ahmed Rasheed and Idrees Ali

BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Protesters angry about U.S. air strikes on Iraq hurled stones and torched a security post at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday, setting off a confrontation with guards and prompting the United States to send additional troops to the Middle East.

The protests, led by Iranian-backed militias, posed a new foreign policy challenge for U.S. President Donald Trump, who faces re-election in 2020. He threatened to retaliate against Iran, but said later he does not want to go to war.

The State Department said diplomatic personnel inside were safe and there were no plans to evacuate them.

Embassy guards used stun grenades and tear gas to repel protesters, who stormed and burned the security post at the entrance but did not breach the main compound.

The Pentagon said that in addition to Marines sent to protect embassy personnel, about 750 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division were being sent to the Middle East and that additional troops were prepared to deploy over the next several days.

“This deployment is an appropriate and precautionary action taken in response to increased threat levels against U.S. personnel and facilities, such as we witnessed in Baghdad today,” U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in a statement.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the 750 troops would initially be based out of Kuwait. The officials said that as many as 4,000 troops could be sent to the region in the coming days if needed.

More than 5,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq supporting local forces.

The unprecedented attack on an American diplomatic mission in Iraq marked a sharp escalation of the proxy conflict between the United States and Iran – both influential players in the country – and plunged U.S. relations with Iraq to their worst level in years.

The United States and its allies invaded Iraq in 2003 and ousted Saddam Hussein. But political stability has been elusive.

Trump, on a two-week working vacation in Palm Beach, Florida, spoke by phone to Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi of Iraq. “President Trump emphasized the need to protect United States personnel and facilities in Iraq,” the White House said.

Trump accused Iran of orchestrating the violence.

“Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat,” Trump said in a tweet.

Asked later in the day about the possibility of tensions spiraling into a war with Iran, Trump told reporters: “Do I want to? No. I want to have peace. I like peace. And Iran should want to have peace more than anybody. So I don’t see that happening.”

Iran, under severe economic duress from punishing U.S. sanctions put in place by Trump, denied responsibility.

“America has the surprising audacity of attributing to Iran the protests of the Iraqi people against (Washington’s) savage killing of at least 25 Iraqis,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said.

The embassy incident came seven years after the 2012 attack by armed militants on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans and led to multiple congressional investigations.

TENSIONS OVER AIR STRIKES

The protests followed U.S. air strikes on Sunday on bases operated by the Iranian-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah inside Iraq, which killed at least 25 fighters and wounded 55. The strikes were retaliation for the killing of a U.S. civilian contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base, which Washington blamed on Kataib Hezbollah.

“Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded, and always will,” Trump said in a tweet. “Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible.”

Democrats upset that Trump ditched the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by Democratic President Barack Obama in 2015 were quick to pounce on the incident as a failure of Trump’s Iran policy.

“The predictable result of the Trump administration’s reckless bluster, escalation and miscalculation in the Middle East is that we are now hurtling closer to an unauthorized war with Iran that the American people do not support,” said U.S. Senator Tom Udall, a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The protesters, joined briefly by Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim militia leaders, threw stones at the embassy gate, while others chanted: “No, no, America! No, no, Trump!”

Iraqi special forces prevented protesters entering, later reinforced by U.S.-trained Iraqi Counter Terrorism forces.

The embassy has been hit by sporadic but non-lethal rocket fire in recent months, and was regularly shelled following the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, but had not been physically attacked by demonstrators in that way before.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CBS News that U.S. officials never contemplated evacuating the embassy and had kept the heat on Iraqi officials to ensure the compound was safe.

“We reminded them throughout the day of their continued responsibility,” he said.

The Popular Mobilisation Forces, an umbrella grouping of the militias that have been officially integrated into Iraq’s armed forces, said 62 militiamen and civilians were wounded by the tear gas and stun grenades fired to disperse the crowd.

A Reuters witness saw blood on the face of one wounded militiaman and on the stomach of the other as their colleagues carried them away.

Iraqis have been taking to the streets in the thousands almost daily to condemn, among other things, militias such as Kataib Hezbollah and their Iranian patrons that support Abdul Mahdi’s government.

Kataib Hezbollah is one of the smallest but most potent of the Iranian-backed militias. Its flags were hung on the fence surrounding the embassy.

(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad and Idrees Ali in Washington; Additional reporting by Jeff Mason in Palm Beach, Fla. and Daphne Psaledakis, Doina Chiacu, Diane Bartz in Washington; Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Peter Cooney)

U.S. House passes Hong Kong rights bills, Trump expected to sign

By Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed two bills to back protesters in Hong Kong and send a warning to China about human rights, with President Donald Trump expected to sign them into law, despite delicate trade talks with Beijing.

The House sent the bills to the White House after voting 417 to 1 for the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act,” which the Senate passed unanimously on Tuesday. Strong support had been expected after the House passed a similar bill last month.

The measure, which has angered Beijing, would require the State Department to certify at least once a year that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to qualify for the special U.S. trading consideration that helped it become a world financial center.

It also would provide for sanctions against officials responsible for human rights violations in the Chinese-ruled city.

Demonstrators have protested for more than five months in the streets of Hong Kong, amid increasing violence and fears that Beijing will ratchet up its response to stop the civil disobedience.

The protesters are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in the freedoms promised to Hong Kong when Britain handed it back to China in 1997.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio was a main sponsor of the Senate-passed bill, which was co-sponsored by Republican Senator Jim Risch and Democratic Senators Bob Menendez and Ben Cardin.

The House passed, by 417 to zero, a second bill, which the Senate also approved unanimously on Tuesday, to ban the export of certain crowd-control munitions to Hong Kong police forces. That measure bans the export of items such as tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and stun guns.

President Trump has 10 days, excluding Sundays, to sign a bill passed by Congress, unless he opts to use his veto.

A person familiar with the matter said the president intended to sign the bills into law, not veto them.

Vetoes would have been difficult to sustain, since the measures passed both the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House with almost no objections.

A two-thirds majority would be required in both the Senate and House to override a veto.

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

In Beijing on Wednesday, China condemned the legislation’s passage, and vowed strong countermeasures to safeguard its sovereignty and security.

China’s foreign ministry said this month that China had lodged “stern representations” with the United States about the legislation and urged that it not be passed into law, saying it would not only harm Chinese interests and China-U.S. relations, but the United States’ own interests too.

It said China would “inevitably take vigorous measures to firmly respond, to staunchly safeguard our sovereignty, security and development interests.”

Trump prompted questions about his commitment to protecting freedoms in Hong Kong when he referred in August to its mass street protests as “riots” that were a matter for China to deal with.

Trump has since called on China to handle the issue humanely, while warning that if anything bad happened in Hong Kong, it could be bad for talks to end a trade war between the world’s two largest economies.

On Thursday, the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s main newspaper, the People’s Daily, urged the United States to “rein in the horse at the edge of the precipice” and stop interfering in Hong Kong matters and China’s internal affairs.

“If the U.S. side obstinately clings to its course, the Chinese side will inevitably adopt forceful measures to take resolute revenge, and all consequences will be borne by the United States,” it said in a front-page editorial.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Patricia Zengerle, additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Clarence Fernandez)

Islamic State’s presence evolved worldwide despite Syria defeat: U.S. State Department

Islamic State’s presence evolved worldwide despite Syria defeat: U.S. State Department
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The global presence of Islamic State continued to advance in 2018 through networks and affiliates, the State Department said in its annual terrorism report, even though the Trump administration declared it defeated the jihadi group in Syria and killed its leader last month in a U.S. raid.

Iran has also remained a top state sponsor of terrorism, the report said, and funneled nearly a billion dollars per year to support its proxies in the region despite Washington having significantly ramped up its sanctions against Tehran.

Terrorism tactics and the use of technologies have also evolved in 2018, while war-hardened fighters from groups such as Islamic State returning to their home countries began raising fresh threats, the report said.

“Even as ISIS lost almost all its physical territory, the group proved its ability to adapt, especially through its efforts to inspire or direct followers online,” said Nathan Sales, the U.S. counter-terrorism coordinator, whose office produced the congressionally mandated report.

“Additionally, battle-hardened terrorists headed home from the war zone in Syria and Iraq or traveled to third countries, posing new dangers,” he said.

Islamic State declared its so-called “caliphate” in 2014 after seizing large swathes of Syria and Iraq. The hard-line group established its de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, using it as a base to plot attacks in Europe.

In 2017, Islamic State lost control of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, and quickly thereafter almost all of its territory as a result of operations by U.S.-backed forces. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed last month in Syria in a raid by U.S. Special forces.

World leaders welcomed his death, but they and security experts warned that the group, which carried out atrocities against religious minorities and horrified most Muslims, remained a security threat in Syria and beyond.

The group on Thursday confirmed his death in an audio tape posted online and said a successor, identified as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi, had been appointed. It vowed revenge against the United States.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Dan Grebler)

For Syrian Kurds, a leader’s killing deepens sense of U.S. betrayal

For Syrian Kurds, a leader’s killing deepens sense of U.S. betrayal
By Tom Perry and Ellen Francis

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf spent the final months of her life building a political party that she hoped would help shape Syria’s future, drawing the attention of U.S. officials who said it would have a say in what happened once the war ended.

To her colleagues in the Future Syria Party and Kurdish communities in Syria’s northeast more broadly, her killing became a symbol of betrayal by the United States.

As recently as Oct. 3, State Department officials reassured her at a meeting that Washington would safeguard northern Syria from a threatened Turkish assault by mediating between Kurdish-led forces and Ankara, according to a colleague who was present.

A state department official said the U.S. message to Syrian partners had been consistent: that American forces would be withdrawing from the country.

Days after the meeting, President Donald Trump announced U.S. forces would quit the region, leaving it vulnerable to attack by Turkey.

Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria, key allies in the U.S. battle against Islamic State, said rebels fighting on the Turkish side murdered Khalaf. She was 34.

She was slain on Oct. 12 along with a driver and aide when Turkey-backed fighters stopped their SUV on the M4 highway in northern Syria, according to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and officials in her party.

The spokesman for the Turkey-backed Syrian rebel force, the National Army, at the time denied its fighters killed her, saying they had not advanced as far as the M4.

Last week, the spokesman, Youssef Hammoud, said the incident was being investigated among other “breaches”.

“If America hadn’t decided to withdraw, these factions … would not have dared to carry out their operations in that area,” said Moaz Abdul Karim, a Future Syria Party leader.

The U.S. State Department has said it was looking into reports of Khalaf’s death apparently while in the hands of Turkey-backed forces, calling the reports “extremely troubling”.

An autopsy report circulated by the SDF said Khalaf’s body had been riddled with bullets.

AMERICAN ASSURANCES

On Oct. 3, U.S. State Department representatives visited the Future Syria Party’s headquarters in the Syrian city of Raqqa and told Khalaf and party president Ibrahim al-Kaftan that American efforts in the region were aimed at mediation.

Since the party was founded in 2018, its leaders say U.S. officials have voiced their support. The party aims to attract members from across the ethnic spectrum in a region where critics said the Kurdish YPG militia had become too powerful.

“Yes, there was encouragement from the Americans to set up a party,” Kaftan said.

“The party was already being worked on by a team who believes in Syrian democracy. It was a Syrian idea, not an American one, but I repeat they were in favor of this idea,” he told Reuters in written answers to questions.

U.S. forces withdrew from a section of the border on Oct. 7, and soon afterwards Turkish troops mounted their third incursion into northern Syria since 2016.

Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist threat due to their links to a Kurdish insurgency at home. It has also said its operation in Syria was designed to create a buffer where some of the 3.6 million refugees who fled the Syrian conflict into Turkey could be re-settled.

DEEPLY INVOLVED

A civil engineer by training, Khalaf was deeply involved in the politics of northeast Syria from the earliest days of the war, now in its eighth year.

After leaving her job as a state employee, she helped to set up the Kurdish-led administration whose influence would eventually stretch over one third of Syria including predominantly Arab areas.

In 2018, she was elected secretary general of the Future Syria Party, which was launched from Raqqa, a predominantly Arab city where the SDF defeated IS in 2017 with U.S. backing.

Kaftan, an Arab architect from Manbij, was elected its leader, and he said that U.S. and French officials attended the ceremony.

The United States has long adopted a cautious political approach toward northern Syria, even as it backed the SDF militarily in the fight against IS.

Washington opposed the emergence of the Kurdish-led autonomous region and the main Kurdish groups were always kept out of the U.N. political process for Syria, despite their huge influence on the ground.

But according to Kaftan, U.S. officials including the envoy for Syria James Jeffrey told members of his party that it would have a role in international talks over Syria’s future.

The State Department official said the United States wanted a political solution to Syria’s conflict that included “full representation for all Syrians.

“U.S. officials, including Ambassador Jeffrey, made clear that this included the populations of northeast Syria and intervened repeatedly with the UN to this end.”

The fate of Kurds in northern Syria is now more uncertain than it has been for years. Stripped of U.S. protection, the SDF struck a deal for Syrian government forces to deploy into the region it controlled.

The SDF says Washington has stabbed it in the back.

Despite the Turkish incursion, which has sparked an exodus and killed scores of people, leaders of Future Syria Party hope it will have a role in shaping the next phase of Syria’s recovery from war.

Khalaf always believed the solution in Syria must come through dialogue with all concerned parties including the Syrian government and Turkey, Kaftan said.

“Hevrin didn’t sleep more than 4-5 hours a day,” he said. “But she would always say Syria deserves a lot from us, and for the people who have suffered through nine years of war, we must seek to secure a real, safe future for them.”

(Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Pompeo says China trade deal has ‘got to be right’: interview

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to the media at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Pasay City, Metro Manila, Philippines, March 1, 2019. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Trump will reject a U.S.-China trade deal that is not perfect, but the United States would still keep working on an agreement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a media interview.

“Things are in a good place, but it’s got to be right,” Pompeo told Sinclair Broadcasting Group, according to a transcript released by the State Department on Tuesday.

Asked if Trump would walk away from any deal that was not perfect, Pompeo said, “Yes” and pointed to the Republican president’s rejection of an agreement with North Korea at a summit last week in Hanoi.

Trump last week said that he was willing to abandon trade talks with China, but U.S. advisers in recent days have signaled more positive outcomes.

Pompeo made his remarks following stops in Iowa, where he was attending a conference for farmers, who have been caught up in the ongoing trade war with the world’s top two economies.

“This has to work for America. If it doesn’t work, we’ll keep banging away at it. We’re going to get to the right outcome. I’m confident that we will,” Pompeo told Sinclair.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Saudi Arabia strips Osama bin Laden’s son of citizenship; U.S. offers million dollar reward

A photograph circulated by the U.S. State Department’s Twitter account to announce a $1 million USD reward for al Qaeda key leader Hamza bin Laden, son of Osama bin Laden, is seen March 1, 2019. State Department/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia has stripped citizenship from Hamza bin Laden, the son of slain al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the interior ministry said in a statement published by the official gazette.

The U.S. State Department said on Thursday it was offering a reward of up to $1 million for information leading “to the identification or location in any country” of Hamza, calling him a key al Qaeda leader.

Hamza, believed to be about 30 years old, was at his father’s side in Afghanistan before the September 11 attacks and spent time with him in Pakistan after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan pushed much of al Qaeda&rsqu’s senior leadership there, according to the Brookings Institution.

Introduced by the organization’s new chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in an audio message in 2015, Hamza provides a younger voice for the group whose aging leaders have struggled to inspire militants around the world galvanized by Islamic State, analysts say.

He has called for acts of terrorism in Western capitals and threatened to take revenge against the United States for his father’s killing, the State Department said in 2017 when it designated him as a global terrorist.

He also threatened to target Americans abroad and urged Saudi tribes to unite with Yemen’s Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to fight against Saudi Arabia, it said.

Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. special forces who raided his compound in Pakistan in 2011. Hamza was thought to be under house arrest in Iran at the time, and documents recovered from the compound indicated that aides had been trying to reunite him with his father.

The Saudi decision to strip him of his citizenship was made by a royal order in November, according to a statement published in the Um al-Qura official journal.

(Reporting by Sarah Dadouch and Stephen Kalin; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Andrew Heavens)

U.S. demands immediate return of ex-Marine detained in Russia on spy charges

Paul Whelan, a U.S. citizen detained in Russia for suspected spying, appears in a photo provided by the Whelan family on January 1, 2019. Courtesy Whelan Family/Handout via REUTERS

By Mary Milliken and Gabrielle Teacutetrault-Farber

BRASILIA/MOSCOW (Reuters) – The United States is demanding the immediate return of a retired U.S. Marine detained by Russia on spying charges, and wants an explanation of why he was arrested, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday.

Pompeo, in Brasilia for the inauguration of Brazil’s new president, said the U.S. government hoped to gain consular access to Paul Whelan within hours.

“We’ve made clear to the Russians our expectation that we will learn more about the charges, come to understand what it is he’s been accused of and if the detention is not appropriate, we will demand his immediate return,” Pompeo said.

In Moscow, RIA news agency cited a foreign ministry spokesman as saying Russia has allowed consular access to Whelan. Russia’s FSB state security service detained Whelan on Friday and opened a criminal case against him.

The State Department did not immediately confirm that Moscow had provided consular access.

Whelan was visiting Moscow for the wedding of a former fellow Marine and is innocent of the espionage charges against him, his family said on Tuesday.

He had been staying with the wedding party at Moscow’s Metropol hotel when he went missing, his brother, David, said.

“His innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected,” Whelan’s family said in a statement released on Twitter on Tuesday.

Russia’s FSB state security service said Whelan had been detained on Friday, but it gave no details of his alleged espionage activities. Under Russian law, espionage can carry a prison sentence of between 10 and 20 years.

David Whelan told CNN that his brother, who had served in Iraq, has been to Russia many times in the past for both work and personal trips, and had been serving as a tour guide for some of the wedding guests. His friends filed a missing person report in Moscow after his disappearance, his brother said.

He declined to comment on his brother’s work status at the time of his arrest and whether his brother lived in Novi, Michigan, as address records indicate.

BorgWarner, a Michigan-based automotive parts supplier, said Whelan is the company’s director, global security. He is responsible for overseeing security at our facilities in Auburn Hills, Michigan, and at other company locations around the world.”

BUTINA CASE

Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA Moscow station chief, said it was “possible, even likely” that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered Whelan’s arrest to set up an exchange for Maria Butina, a Russian citizen who pleaded guilty on Dec. 13 to acting as an agent tasked with influencing U.S. conservative groups.

Russia says Butina was forced to make a false confession about being a Russian agent.

Putin told U.S. President Donald Trump in a letter on Sunday that Moscow was ready for dialogue on a “wide-ranging agenda,” the Kremlin said following a series of failed attempts to hold a new summit.

At the end of November, Trump canceled a planned meeting with Putin on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Argentina, citing tensions about Russian forces opening fire on Ukrainian navy boats and then seizing them.

Trump’s relations with Putin have been under a microscope as a result of U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.

Moscow has denied intervening in the election. Trump has said there was no collusion and characterized Mueller’s probe as a witch hunt.

Russia’s relations with the United States plummeted when Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. Washington and Western allies have imposed a broad range of sanctions on Russian officials, companies and banks.

(Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Islamist militants adapted after losses: U.S. State Dept.

By Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The State Department warned on Wednesday that Islamic State, al Qaeda and its affiliates have adapted by dispersing and becoming less vulnerable to military action after the United States and its partners made “major strides” against the armed Islamist groups last year.

In an annual report on the U.S. anti-terrorism fight worldwide, the State Department said militant attacks decreased globally in 2017 by 23 percent from 2016, with a 27 percent reduction in fatalities.

The drops were due mostly to “dramatically” reduced extremist attacks in Iraq, said Nathan Sales, the U.S. counter-terrorism coordinator, whose office produced the congressionally mandated report.

U.S.-backed forces and Iraqi militias liberated nearly all of the territory that Islamic State, also known as ISIS, once controlled in Iraq and Syria, including the major Iraqi city of Mosul.

The United States and its partners also stepped up pressure on al Qaeda to prevent its resurgence, it said.

Islamic State, al Qaeda and their affiliates, however, “have proven to be resilient, determined and adaptable, and they have adjusted to heightened counterterrorism pressure in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere,” the report said.

The groups “have become more dispersed and clandestine,” used the Internet to inspire attacks by their followers, and as a result, “have made themselves less susceptible to conventional military action,” it continued.

Militant groups retain “both the capability and the intent to strike the United States and its allies,” Sales told reporters.

The report said Iran remained “the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism” in 2017, using its elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Lebanese Hezbollah, the Shi’ite Muslim militia movement, to undertake “terrorist-related and destabilizing activities.

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Mary Milliken and Alistair Bell)

Trump questions 3-D gun sales as U.S. states sue

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about the economy while delivering remarks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barr

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Tuesday raised concerns about the sale of plastic guns made with 3-D printers, a day after several U.S. states sued his administration to block the imminent online publication of designs to make the weapons.

Eight states and the District of Columbia on Monday filed a lawsuit to fight a June settlement between the federal government and Defense Distributed allowing the Texas-based company to legally publish its designs. Its downloadable plans are set to go online on Wednesday.

The legal wrangling is the latest fight over gun rights in the United States, where a series of mass shootings in recent years has re-ignited the long-simmering debate over access to firearms.

“I am looking into 3-D Plastic Guns being sold to the public,” Trump said in a Twitter post that referred to the powerful National Rifle Association lobbying group. “Already spoke to NRA, doesn’t seem to make much sense.”

Representatives for the U.S. State Department, which signed off on the settlement allowing publication of the designs to go forward, did not immediately reply to a request for comment. The U.S. Department of Justice, which also signed off on the settlement, said the issue was a matter for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a spokeswoman said.

NRA officials were not immediately available for comment.

The states are asking a U.S. judge to issue an injunction to block the online distribution of the gun blueprints. They say the U.S. government has failed to study the national and state security implications of the decision and violated states’ rights to regulate firearms.

Josh Blackman, a lawyer for Defense Distributed, said the case was not about guns but instead about protecting the constitutional free speech rights of his client.

“I don’t care what President Trump says. I will be arguing to protect my client’s First Amendment rights,” he said in an interview on Tuesday.

Defense Distributed’s website said it would publish the files on Wednesday but blueprints for seven guns already were available for download on Tuesday. The company’s founder, self-declared anarchist Cody Wilson, told media outlets on Monday that the files went up late Friday evening.

Mark Kelly, who co-founded a gun reform group with his wife, former Democratic U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords, who was wounded in a 2011 shooting, criticized Trump for his tweet.

“He should go to the State Department, not the NRA,” he said.

Kelly said Trump should tell the department the blueprints should remain restricted under international arms trafficking regulations.

The states, in their filing on Monday, argued the online plans will give criminals easy access to weapons by circumventing traditional sales and regulations.

Gun rights groups have been largely dismissive of concerns about 3-D printable guns, saying the technology is expensive and the guns unreliable.

The gun plans were pulled from the internet in 2013 by order of the U.S. State Department under international gun trafficking laws. Wilson sued in 2015, claiming the order infringed his constitutional rights.

Until recently, the government argued the blueprints posed a national security risk. Gun control groups said there had been no explanation for the June settlement and the administration’s abrupt reversal on the issue.

Wilson said in an online video that the blueprints were downloaded more than 400,000 times before they were taken down in 2013.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Tina Bellon in New York and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by Bill Trott)

U.S. visa applicants to be asked for social media history: State Department

FILE PHOTO - A man is silhouetted against a video screen with a Twitter and a Facebook logo as he poses with a laptop in this photo illustration taken in the central Bosnian town of Zenica, August 14, 2013. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – The U.S. government plans to collect social media history from nearly everyone who seeks entry into the United States, State Department proposals showed on Friday as part of President Donald Trump’s policy of “extreme vetting.”

Most immigrant and non-immigrant visa applicants – about 14.7 million people – will be asked to list on a federal application form all of the social media identities that they have used in the past five years – information that will be used to vet and identify them, according to the proposals.

The State Department will publish the proposals in a notice in the Federal Register on Friday seeking approval from the Office of Management and Budget. The public has 60 days to comment on the requests.

The proposals support President Donald Trump’s campaign pledge in 2016 to crack down on illegal immigration for security reasons and his call for “extreme vetting” of foreigners entering the United States.

The department said it intends not to routinely ask most diplomatic and official visa applicants for the social media information.

If approved, applicants also will be required to submit five years of previously used telephone numbers, email addresses and their international travel history. They will be asked if they have been deported or removed from any country and whether family members have been involved in terrorist activities, the department said.

Courts have struck down the first two versions of Trump’s travel ban and the current one is narrower in scope than its predecessors. The Supreme Court will consider its legality this spring and a decision is expected in June.

(Editing by Bill Trott)