Israel signals it could attack Iranian weaponry in Iraq

Iron Dome anti-missile system fires an interceptor missile as rockets are launched from Gaza towards Israel near the southern city of Sderot, Israel August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Coh

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel signaled on Monday that it could attack suspected Iranian military assets in Iraq, as it has done with scores of air strikes in war-torn Syria.

Citing Iranian, Iraqi and Western sources, Reuters reported last week that Iran had transferred short-range ballistic missiles to Shi’ite allies in Iraq in recent months. Tehran and Baghdad formally denied that report.

Israel sees in Iran’s regional expansion an attempt to open up new fronts against it. Israel has repeatedly launched attacks in Syria to prevent any entrenchment of Iranian forces helping Damascus in the war.

“We are certainly monitoring everything that is happening in Syria and, regarding Iranian threats, we are not limiting ourselves just to Syrian territory. This also needs to be clear,” Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman told a conference hosted and aired live by the Israel Television News Company.

Asked if that included possible action in Iraq, Lieberman said: “I am saying that we will contend with any Iranian threat, and it doesn’t matter from where it comes … Israel’s freedom is total. We retain this freedom of action.”

There was no immediate response from the government of Iraq, which is technically at war with Israel, nor from U.S. Central Command in Washington, which oversees U.S. military operations in Iraq.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Saturday he was “deeply concerned” by the reported Iranian missile transfer.

“If true, this would be a gross violation of Iraqi sovereignty and of UNSCR 2231,” he tweeted, referring to a U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing the 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran. The Trump administration abandoned that deal in May, citing, among other factors, Iran’s ballistic missile projects.

According to regional sources, Israel began carrying out air strikes in Syria in 2013 against suspected arms transfers and deployments by Iran and its Lebanese ally, the Shi’ite Hezbollah militia.

These operations have largely been ignored by Russia, Damascus’s big-power backer, and coordinated with other powers conducting their own military operations in Syria.

A Western diplomat briefed on the coordination told Reuters last year that, while Israel had a “free hand” in Syria, it was expected not to take any military action in neighboring Iraq, where the United States has been struggling to help achieve stability since its 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.

Despite their formal state of hostilities, Israel and Iraq have not openly traded blows in decades.

In 1981, Israel’s air force destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor near Baghdad. During the 1991 Gulf war, Iraq fired dozens of Scud rockets into Israel, which did not retaliate, out of consideration for U.S. efforts to maintain an Arab coalition against Saddam.

Israel made a plan for its commandos to assassinate Saddam in Iraq in 1992, but the plan was abandoned after a fatal training accident.

(Additional reporting by Raya Jalabi in Erbil; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller)

Latest North Korea missile launch lands near Japan waters, alarms Tokyo

FILE PHOTO - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends the 3rd Meeting of Activists in Fisheries under the Korean People's Army

By Ju-min Park and James Pearson

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea launched a ballistic missile on Wednesday that landed in or near Japanese-controlled waters for the first time, the latest in a series of launches by the isolated country in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

The main body of the missile landed in Japan’s economic exclusion zone, a Japanese defence official said, escalating regional tensions that were already high after a series of missile launches this year and the decision by the United States to place a sophisticated anti-missile system in South Korea.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe described the launch as a “grave threat” to Japan and said Tokyo “strongly protested”. Japan also said its self-defence force would remain on alert in case of further launches.

A U.S. State Department spokesman condemned the launch, and said it would “only increase the international community’s resolve to counter” North Korea’s actions.

The U.S. Strategic Command said it had detected two missiles, one of which it said exploded immediately after launch.

The missile that landed in the Sea of Japan was launched at about 7:50 a.m. Seoul time (2250 GMT Tuesday) from a region in South Hwanghae province to the southwest of North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, South Korea’s Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.

The launch showed North Korea’s ambition to “directly and broadly attack neighbouring countries and target several places in the Republic of Korea such as ports and airfields”, the South Korean office said, referring to South Korea by its official title.

The missile appeared to be a Rodong-type medium-range missile that flew about 1,000 km (620 miles), it said.


The United States will begin large-scale annual drills with its ally South Korea later this month that it bills as defensive in nature and not provocative. North Korea typically protests against the drills, which it says are a rehearsal for invasion.

“The North Koreans seem to have been timing their recent short-range and medium-range missile tests to the weeks ahead of U.S.-South Korean joint exercises,” said Joshua Pollack, editor of the U.S.-based Nonproliferation Review.

“If the allies can exercise their armed forces, so can the North,” he said.

On July 19, North Korea fired three ballistic missiles that flew between 500 km and 600 km (300-360 miles) into the sea off its east coast.

The North later said the launches were part of an exercise simulating preemptive strikes against South Korean ports and airfields used by the U.S. military.

The latest launches follow an agreement last month between South Korea and the United States to deploy an advanced Terminal High Altitude Area Defence anti-missile system in the South.

North Korea had threatened a “physical response” against the deployment decision.

The North came under the latest round of U.N. Security Council sanctions in March after its fourth nuclear test in January and the launch of a long-range rocket the following month.

Tensions have been high on the Korean peninsula since the January nuclear test. The two Koreas remain technically at war under a truce that ended fighting in the 1950-53 Korean War.

(Additional reporting by Jack Kim in Seoul and Nobuhiro Kubo in Tokyo; Editing by Tony Munroe and Paul Tait)

Attempted North Korean missile launch fails

KCNA file picture shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watching the ballistic rocket launch drill of the Strategic Force of the Korean People's Army at an unknown location

By Ju-min Park

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea attempted to fire a missile from its east coast on Tuesday but the launch appears to have failed,South Korean officials said, in what would be the latest in a string of unsuccessful ballistic missile tests by the isolated country.

The launch attempt took place at around 5:20 a.m. Seoul time (4.20 p.m. ET), said the officials, who asked not to be identified. They did not elaborate.

Tension in Northeast Asia has been high since North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test in January and followed that with a satellite launch and test launches of various missiles.

Japan put its military alert on Monday for a possible North Korean missile launch.

“North Korea shows no sign of abandoning the development of nuclear missiles and so we will continue to work closely with the U.S. and South Korea in response and maintain a close watch,” Japanese Minister of Defence Gen Nakatani told a media briefing.

North Korea appeared to have attempted to launch an intermediate-range Musudan missile, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency said.

North Korea attempted three test launches of the Musudan in April, all of which failed, U.S. and South Korean officials have said.

Yonhap quoted a South Korean government source as saying the missile was likely to have exploded at about the time it lifted off from a mobile launcher.

China, North Korea’s only major ally, called for the cessation of any action that would exacerbate tension.

“The situation on the peninsula remains complex and sensitive,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a briefing when asked about the launch.

“We think that all sides should avoid any actions that further worsen tensions.”

China has been angered by North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests and signed up to tough U.N. sanctions against its reclusive neighbor in March.

North Korean state media did not mention any missile launch.

A Pentagon statement said that a failed North Korean intermediate-range ballistic missile launch had been detected, but did not pose a threat to North America.

“We strongly condemn North Korea’s missile test in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, which explicitly prohibit North Korea’s use of ballistic missile technology,” the Pentagon statement said.


The North’s flurry of weapons technology tests came in the run-up to the first congress in 36 years of its ruling Workers’ Party this month, where young leader Kim Jong Un consolidated his control.

Tuesday’s launch appears to have been its first missile test since then, and experts said it was unusual to test-fire a missile so soon after a failure.

The South Korean military said the successive tests could stem from Kim’s order in March for further tests of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.

“They must’ve been in a rush. Maybe Kim Jong Un was very upset about the failures,” said Lee Choon-geun, senior research fellow at South Korea’s state-run Science and Technology Policy Institute.

North Korea has never carried out a successful launch of the Musudan missile, which theoretically has the range to reach any part of Japan and the U.S. territory of Guam.

The North is believed to have up to 30 Musudan missiles, according to South Korean media, which officials said were first deployed in around 2007.

“It could have cracks and something wrong with the welding,” Lee said of possible causes for the latest failure. “But deployment before test-firing these to complete development seems unusual.”

The attempted launch took place near the east coast city of Wonsan, one of the South Korean officials said, the same area where previous Musudan tests had taken place.

Separately, the international department of China’s Communist Party said diplomat Ri Su Yong, one of North Korea’s highest-profile officials, visited China on Tuesday, meeting the department’s head, Song Tao.

The two expressed a desire to increase cooperation between their parties and work hard to promote regional peace and stability, the department said in a brief statement.

There was no indication of any link between the missile launch and Ri’s visit.

Ri was foreign minister until he was named a member of the politburo during the recent Workers’ Party congress.

(Additional reporting by Se Young Lee in Seoul, Tim Kelly in Tokyo, Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Idrees Ali in Washington; Writing by Tony Munroe; Editing by Robert Birsel and James Dalgleish)

South Korea dismissed North Korean proposal as bogus

KCNA picture of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attending a banquet for contributors of the recent rocket launch

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea dismissed on Monday a North Korean proposal for military talks as “a bogus peace offensive” and said it was formally rejecting the overture because it lacked a plan to end the North’s nuclear program.

North Korea’s proposal on the weekend for talks between the two Koreas, a repeat of a call by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a congress of his ruling party this month, came after a period of heightened tension on the peninsula.

North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test in January and launched a long-range rocket in February, triggering tougher international sanctions and the adoption of a more hardline position by South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

North Korea said dialogue between military officials from the two sides was urgently needed to reduce tension, and suggested they be held in late May or early June.

South Korea said the offer was insincere.

“The dialogue proposed by the North does not mention its nuclear program, which is the fundamental issue for peace on the Korean peninsula and South-North ties,” South Korean Defence Ministry spokesman Moon Sang-gyun told a briefing.

“Proposing dialogue without an expression of its position on denuclearization is a bogus peace offensive for bogus peace that lacks sincerity.”

Moon said the South had sent a message over a military hotline on Monday expressing regret over the North’s proposal and asking it to state its position on denuclearization.

This month, at the first congress of North Korea’s Workers’ Party in 36 years, Kim declared his country a nuclear weapons state and vowed to press on with nuclear development, which he said was defensive.

In the run-up to the congress, North Korea test-fired a series of missiles including a submarine-based ballistic missile. It also attempted a launch of an intermediate-range ballistic missile.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles political ties with the North, said Pyongyang’s intention may be to sow discord among the public in the South and create a rift in the international commitment to sanctions.

“Let me repeat: Now is not the time for dialogue,” said ministry spokesman Cheong Joon-hee.

North Korea came under tougher international pressure with the March adoption of a U.N. Security Council resolution that was even backed its lone major ally China, which disapproves of its nuclear arms program.

South Korea has also cut off all commercial contacts with the North.

The two Koreas have remained in a technical state of war since their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

(Reporting by Jack Kim)

Netanyahu tells France’s Ayrault he opposes peace conference

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told France’s foreign minister on Sunday that Israel remained opposed to a French initiative for an international conference to try to revive peace talks.

Palestinians welcomed the proposal but Israel is concerned that the conference that France seeks to hold in the autumn would try to dictate terms for a peace deal.

In public remarks to his cabinet after meeting France’s Jean-Marc Ayrault, Netanyahu said: “I told him the only way to advance genuine peace between us and the Palestinians is through direct negotiations between us and them, without preconditions.”

Israel made the same argument in the formal response it gave last month. France hopes an international conference would set out a framework for peace negotiations, after U.S. efforts to broker a two-state deal collapsed in April 2014.

“I know that Netanyahu does not agree (to the French proposal),” Ayrault told reporters after his talks with the Israeli leader in Jerusalem and a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the occupied West Bank.

Ayrault said France would continue to pursue the initiative and that its ultimate goal was for both sides to return to direct talks, with international intervention laying the groundwork.

“It is very clear to us, and I said this today to both the prime minister and to President Abbas, that we cannot take the place of the two parties,” he said at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion airport at the end of a one-day visit to promote the plan.

“Only they can conduct direct negotiations to achieve a solution,” Ayrault said. “But because things are currently stuck … external intervention is necessary to provide renewed momentum.”

An international gathering of ministers, tentatively planned for May 30 in Paris, is set to include the Middle East Quartet (the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations), the Arab League, the U.N. Security Council and about 20 countries, without Israeli or Palestinian participation.

Diplomats say that meeting will package all economic incentives and other guarantees that various countries have offered in previous years to create an agenda for an autumn peace conference.

While objecting to the French initiative, Netanyahu, a right-winger, has stopped short of saying Israel would boycott it.

Keeping his options open could help Netanyahu in preliminary contacts with the main opposition Zionist Union party – a centre-left group likely to favour participating – on expanding his ruling coalition that has a mere one-seat parliamentary majority.

(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

U.S., Russia agree to extend truce to Aleppo

Residents walk near damaged buildings in the rebel held area of Old Aleppo

By Lesley Wroughton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States said on Wednesday it had agreed with Russia to extend a cessation of hostilities agreement to include Aleppo where intense day-long violence between Syrian rebels and government forces killed dozens of people.

The State Department said the truce went into effect at 12:01 a.m. Damascus time on Wednesday, but acknowledged the fighting had not stopped.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was not surprised that fighting continued in some areas, adding both sides were working to communicate with commanders in the field.

Kerry, meeting with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini at the State Department, said it was vital that both sides abide by the agreement. He called on Russia to use its influence over President Bashar al-Assad to stop the violence.

There was no immediate response from Moscow to the announcement of an agreement, but the Syrian army said it would implement a “regime of calm” in Aleppo for 48 hours as of Thursday.

The surge in bloodshed in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the civil war and biggest strategic prize, wrecked the first major “cessation of hostilities” agreement of the war, sponsored by Washington and Moscow, which had held since February.

In battles on Wednesday between rebels and government forces in western Aleppo, opposition forces said they were forced to retreat by heavy aerial bombing.

Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, addressing a U.N. Security Council meeting on the situation in Aleppo, said an agreement would have been announced on Tuesday but opposition attacks in Aleppo had prevented it from happening.

“The deterioration in certain areas of Syria, including Aleppo, is a serious source of concern. The government forces are fighting off a large-scale offensive by the jihadists (in Aleppo),” he told the council.


Kerry said the United States was coordinating closely with Russia to finalize strengthened monitoring of the extension of the cessation of hostilities to Aleppo.

He said he expected a meeting of the International Syrian Support Group, a grouping of foreign ministers of European and Middle Eastern government chaired by Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, to meet within the next two weeks.

In Berlin, the German and French foreign ministers said achieving a ceasefire in Aleppo was critical to renewing peace talks.

“I believe everyone knows and can conclude that there could be no return to the political talks in Geneva if a ceasefire in and around Aleppo is not observed,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters.

In Geneva, a senior U.N. humanitarian official said the Syrian government was refusing U.N. demands to deliver aid to hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped by the fighting, including many in devastated Aleppo.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said dozens had been killed on both sides in what it described as the most intense battle in the Aleppo region in a year. Government forces were reinforced by allies from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, it said.

A rebel fighter said about 40 government soldiers had been killed, while rebel losses stood at 10 dead. A military source denied there had been heavy casualties in army ranks, but said dozens of civilians and many rebels had been killed.

Rebel sources said insurgents at one point captured a strategic location known as Family House, but later lost it after the government side sent in reinforcements.

A pro-government military strategist said the offensive failed to breach key army defense and supply lines in Aleppo.

During the Security Council meeting, U.N. political chief Jeffrey Feltman said a consolidated truce and greater humanitarian aid access were needed to ensure the next round of Syria peace talks – set for this month – were credible. Without progress, he said there was a “real risk of a failed political process.”

“The current levels of violence in Aleppo, in particular, negatively impact the ability of the Syrian parties to engage in negotiations,” Feltman said.

U.N. aid chief Stephen O’Brien told the 15-member council that life for the people in Aleppo was horrendous and they were “living under daily threat and terror.”

(Additional reporting by David Alexander in Washington, Tom Perry and Suleiman al-Khalidi in Beirut, Paul Carrel and Joseph Nasr in Berlin and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Editing by Peter Cooney)

China urges U.N. ‘back draft resolution on poison gas’

Women, affected by what activists say was a gas attack, receive treatment inside a makeshift hospital in Kfar Zeita village in Hama

BEIJING (Reuters) – China on Thursday urged U.N. Security Council members to back a draft resolution demanding states report when militants are developing chemical weapons in Syria.

Some diplomats have dismissed the proposed resolution as a bid to distract from accusations the Syrian government uses such weapons.

Russia and China circulated a draft resolution to the 15-member body on Wednesday, which Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said could serve as a deterrent to “terrorist” groups such as Islamic State from using chemical weapons.

Islamic State militants are believed to be responsible for sulfur mustard gas attacks in Syria and Iraq last year, the United States has said. Russia has also said it sees a high probability that Islamic State is using chemical weapons.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang called on “all relevant parties to strengthen coordination, cooperate and jointly oppose and punish any party’s move to use chemical weapons”.

“We also hope all parties on the Security Council can support this Russia-China draft resolution,” Lu told reporters at a regular press briefing.

“We resolutely oppose anyone, for whatever purpose, under any circumstances, using chemical weapons,” Lu said.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded in a confidential report that at least two people were exposed to sulfur mustard in Marea, north of Aleppo, in August.

The draft resolution, seen by Reuters, would demand that states, particularly those neighboring Syria, “immediately report any actions by non-State actors to develop, acquire, manufacture, possess, transport, transfer, or use chemical weapons and their means of delivery to the Security Council”.

Some council diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the draft resolution was a ploy by Russia to divert attention from allegations that the Syrian government continued to use chemical weapons. Churkin denied it was a distraction.

Syria agreed to destroy its chemical weapons in 2013 under a deal broker by Moscow and Washington, but the OPCW has since found chlorine has been “systematically and repeatedly” used as a weapon. Government and opposition forces have denied using chlorine.

(Reporting by Michael Martina; editing by Robert Birsel)

North Korea Nuclear Missile Capable

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during a visit to the Sinhung Machine Plant in this undated photo released by North Korea's

y Jack Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea can mount a nuclear warhead on a medium-range missile, a South Korean official said on Tuesday in a new assessment of the capability of a country that conducted its fourth nuclear test this year.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said last month his country had miniaturized nuclear warheads to mount on ballistic missiles. It was his first direct statement of a claim often made in state media though never independently verified. [nL4N16G5IY]

“We believe they have accomplished miniaturization of a nuclear warhead to mount it on a Rodong missile,” the South Korean official, with knowledge of South Korea’s assessment of the North’s nuclear program, told a small group of reporters on condition of anonymity.

The Rodong missile can fire a 1 tonne (1,100 lb) warhead a distance of up to 2,000 km (1,250 miles), the official said. That would put all of South Korea, most of Japan and parts of Russia and China in range.

“We believe they have the ability to mount a nuclear warhead on a Rodong. Whether they will fire it like that is a political decision,” said the official.

There was no direct evidence that the North has successfully mounted a warhead on such a missile, the South Korean official said. He declined to discuss the basis for the change in assessment.

Staunch U.S. ally South Korea has been facing off against its rival to the north for decades.

The South’s conservative president, Park Geun-hye, has reversed a policy of trying to engage the North in dialogue and has instead adopted a hard line against it, particularly since the North conducted its fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6 and a month later launched a long-range rocket putting an object into space orbit.

The test and launch prompted the U.N. Security Council to impose new sanctions.

South Korea has previously said North Korea had made progress in its efforts to miniaturize a nuclear warhead but the capability was incomplete. South Korea’s Defence Ministry said on Tuesday that assessment remained the military’s position.

Rodong missiles, developed from Soviet-era Scud missiles, make up the bulk of the North’s short- and medium-range missile arsenal with an estimated stockpile of 200.

Experts have predicted that the delivery vehicle for the North’s first nuclear warhead would be the medium-range Rodong missile, rather than an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which the North has yet to test.

Despite threats to strike the mainland United States, the North is seen as several years away from building an ICBM that can carry a nuclear warhead.

Experts have previously said a functioning mid-range nuclear missile would need the technology to overcome the stress of launch and re-entry and to strike the target with precision, which requires repeated testing.

The North fired a Rodong missile in March. It flew about 800 km (500 miles) into the sea, in the first such launch since two Rodongs were fired in 2014.

(Editing by Tony Munroe, Robert Birsel)