U.S. sees signs Iran or its allies may be planning attacks: Pentagon chief

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Thursday that there were indications Iran or the forces it backs may be planning additional attacks and said it was possible the United States might have to take preemptive action to protect American lives.

“There are some indications out there that they may be planning additional attacks, that is nothing new … we’ve seen this for two or three months now,” Esper told reporters.

“If that happens then we will act and by the way, if we get word of attacks or some type indication, we will take preemptive action as well to protect American forces to protect American lives.”

Iranian-backed demonstrators who hurled rocks at the U.S. embassy in two days of protests withdrew on Wednesday after Washington dispatched extra troops.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who faces a re-election campaign in 2020, accused Iran of orchestrating the violence. He threatened on Tuesday to retaliate against Iran but said later he did not want war.

The unrest outside the U.S. embassy in Baghdad followed U.S. air raids on Sunday against bases of the Tehran-backed Kataib Hezbollah group. Washington said the air strikes, which killed 25 people, were in retaliation for missile attacks that killed a U.S. contractor in northern Iraq last week.

The protests marked a new turn in the shadow war between Washington and Tehran playing out across the Middle East.

“The game has changed and we are prepared to do what is necessary to defend our personnel and our interests and our partners in the region,” Esper said.

During the same press briefing, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said there had been a sustained campaign by Kataib Hezbollah against U.S. personnel since at least October and the missile attack in northern Iraq was designed to kill.

“Thirty-one rockets aren’t designed as a warning shot, that is designed to inflict damage and kill,” Milley said.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Chizu and David Gregorio)

Rock-throwing Iraqi militias quit U.S. embassy after protests

By Ahmed Aboulenein

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Supporters of Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary groups who stormed the U.S. embassy’s perimeter and hurled rocks in two days of protests withdrew on Wednesday after Washington dispatched extra troops and threatened reprisals against Tehran.

The demonstrators, angry at U.S. air strikes against the Tehran-backed Kataib Hezbollah group that killed at least 25 people, threw stones at the building while U.S. forces stationed on the rooftops fired tear gas to disperse them.

But by mid-afternoon, most appeared to have obeyed a call to withdraw, issued by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) umbrella group of mainly Shi’ite militia, which said the demonstrators’ message had been heard.

Young men used palm tree branches to sweep the street in front of the embassy compound, while others packed up equipment and vans arrived to take people away. Some left to set up a protest camp in front of a nearby hotel.

Iraq’s military said all protesters had left by the evening.

The protests mark a new turn in the shadow war between Washington and Tehran playing out across the Middle East.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who faces re-election in 2020, on Tuesday threatened to retaliate against Iran but said later he did not want war.

The unrest followed U.S. air raids on Sunday against Kataib Hezbollah bases in retaliation for missile attacks that killed a U.S. contractor in northern Iraq last week.

On Tuesday, crowds chanted ‘Death to America!’, lit fires, and smashed surveillance cameras. They breached an outer perimeter of the embassy but did not enter the main compound.

BIGGEST U.S. EMBASSY

The huge embassy, built along the banks of the Tigris River in central Baghdad’s fortified “green zone” during American occupation following the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, is the biggest U.S. diplomatic mission in the world.

Washington said its diplomats were safe and was rushing hundreds of extra troops to the region.

The embassy said all public consular operations were suspended and all future appointments canceled.

The anti-American action comes after months of protests in Iraq against the government and the Iran-backed militias which support it. Many Iraqis complain their country has become a battlefield for a proxy war for influence between Washington and Tehran, and their leaders are too beholden to outside powers.

Iraq’s government has long faced frictions in its close relations with the two foes. Trump spoke to Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi on Tuesday and demanded Iraq protect the embassy.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday condemned the U.S. attacks. Iran summoned a Swiss envoy, who represents U.S. interests in Tehran, to complain about what it described as “warmongering” words from Washington.

Trump accused Iran of orchestrating the violence.

U.S. officials said 750 extra troops would initially be based out of Kuwait and as many as 4,000 troops could be sent to the region in coming days.

More than 5,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq supporting local forces. The air strikes have galvanized calls inside Iraq to expel them.

Many in the crowd outside the embassy said ending Washington’s presence in Iraq was their main goal.

‘DEVIL’S DEN’

Despite decades of enmity between Iran and the United States, Iran-backed militias and U.S. forces found themselves on the same side during Iraq’s 2014-2017 war against Islamic State fighters, with both powers helping the government recapture territory from militants who had overrun a third of Iraq.

Since then, U.S. troops have yet to leave, while the Iran-backed militias have been incorporated into the security forces.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who has announced plans to step down in the face of anti-government protests in which more than 450 people were killed, is backed by Iran and its allies.

The militia may have decided to pull back from the embassy to avoid making him look weak or to avert clashes with government forces.

Overnight, demonstrators had pitched tents and camped outside the embassy walls, then brought food, cooking equipment and mattresses during the morning, indicating plans to stay before the withdrawal call.

“Our sit-in is eternal, until this devil’s den is closed off forever, but don’t give anyone an excuse to make your protest violent. Don’t clash with security,” one protest leader told the crowd from a stage erected at the embassy before the departure.

Young men, some in fatigues, waved militia flags and chanted “Death to America” as Apache helicopters circled above.

The embassy’s outer walls bore scorch marks and graffiti.

“Iraq is not safe for America and its followers,” one read.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Peter Graff and Andrew Cawthorne)

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)

Violent protests erupt around U.S. Embassy in Baghdad after U.S. air strikes

By Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Protesters and militia fighters enraged by U.S. air strikes on Iraq staged a violent demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday, torching a security post and hurling stones as security forces and embassy guards hit back with stun grenades and tear gas.

Iraqi officials said the ambassador and other staff had been evacuated but this could not be confirmed with American officials.

In Washington, U.S. President Donald Trump accused Iran of orchestrating the violence and said Tehran would be held responsible.

The protesters and militiamen stormed and burned a security post at the entrance of the U.S. Embassy but did not breach the main compound, Reuters witnesses said.

They threw stones at the gate while others chanted, “No, no, America! No, no, Trump!”

Iraqi special forces were deployed around the main gate to prevent them entering the embassy. U.S.-trained and -equipped Iraqi Counter Terrorism forces later reinforced them.

Medical sources said 12 militiamen were wounded by the tear gas and stun grenades fired to disperse the crowd.

U.S. planes on Sunday had attacked bases belonging to an Iranian-backed militia – an action that risks drawing Iraq further into a proxy conflict between Washington and Tehran at a time when mass protests are challenging Iraq’s political system.

The attack on the Kataib Hezbollah militia was in response to the killing of a U.S. civilian contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base.

“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. In addition, we expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified.”

Two Iraqi foreign ministry officials said the U.S. ambassador and other staff had left, but they did not say when.

The Washington Post reported that inside the embassy, U.S. diplomats and staffers were huddled in a fortified safe room, according to two reached by a messaging app.

A few hours into the protest, tear gas was fired in an attempt to disperse the crowd and some of the militias encouraged protesters through loudspeakers to leave.

“We have delivered our message, please leave the area to avoid bloodshed,” one announcement said.

Security guards inside the embassy also fired stun grenades at protesters outside the gates of the compound. Reuters correspondents heard at least seven loud bangs.

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

‘CLOSED IN THE NAME OF THE PEOPLE’

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

But on Tuesday, it was the militias who protested, spraying “Closed in the name of the people” on the gates of the U.S. Embassy and smashed the surveillance cameras around the building with bricks and stones.

Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, and many other senior leaders were among the protesters.

“Americans are unwanted in Iraq. They are a source of evil and we want them to leave,” Khazali told Reuters.

Khazali is one of the most feared and respected Shi’ite militia leaders in Iraq, and one of Iran’s most important allies.

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.

Militia commander Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, also known as Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, and Badr Organisation leader Hadi al-Amiri were also at the protest.

There are more than 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq supporting local forces, though Iraq has rejected any long-term presence of additional U.S. forces that crossed its border during an American withdrawal from northern Syria.

Sunday’s air strikes killed at least 25 fighters and wounded 55.

(Reporting By Ahmed Rasheed, Maher Nazeh and Thaier al-Sudani; writing by Maha El Dahan; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Flag comes down on U.S. Palestinian mission in Jerusalem

An American flag flutters at the premises of the former United States Consulate General in Jerusalem March 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The United States lowered the flag on Monday at the Jerusalem consulate that had served as its diplomatic channel to the Palestinians, merging the mission with the new U.S Embassy to Israel in the contested city.

The Palestinians, who have boycotted the Trump administration since it shifted long-standing U.S. policy in December 2017 by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, voiced anger at what they see as Washington’s latest move against them.

Whereas previously the consulate reported on Palestinian matters directly to Washington, its staff have now been repurposed in the embassy as a “Palestinian Affairs Unit” under the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman.

“This is the last nail in the coffin” of peacemaking, veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said on Twitter.

Israeli-Palestinian talks collapsed in 2014 and the White House says it intends to present a new peace plan after a national election in Israel in April.

Israel deems all of Jerusalem, including the eastern sector it captured in the 1967 Middle East War and annexed in a move not recognized internationally, as its undivided capital.

Washington has avoided such language, however, signaling that the final status of the city should be negotiated by the sides.

Palestinians want to make East Jerusalem the capital of a state they seek in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The European Union’s latest report on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, released last month, said continued expansion had made the chances of a two-state solution with Jerusalam as the capital of both “increasingly unattainable”.

Building of new houses had continued at an unprecedented rate in the second half of 2018, opening the way for more Israelis to move in, the report said.

LOW KEY

At the ornate consulate on Agron Street in downtown Jerusalem, the flag ceremony was kept low key under gray winter skies. Friedman, who helped spearhead May’s relocation of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to a different converted consular building in south Jerusalem, was not present.

U.S. officials said the Stars and Stripes banner was taken down and presented to departing consul Karen Sasahara as a farewell gift, in keeping with foreign service custom, after which another U.S. flag was run up.

The U.S. State Department said the merger was driven by operational efficiency and did not signal any change in policy.

“Our work and our team will continue to work on reaching peace in this land,” Sasahara said on YouTube.

U.S. officials told Reuters last month that the Agron street building, immediately upon consulate operations ending, would serve as the ambassador’s official residence.

But that plan appeared to have slowed. On Monday, the consulate plaque had been removed from the building facade, leaving a blank space.

The U.S. consulate in Jerusalem had dated back 175 years, to when the city – holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims – was under Ottoman rule.

(Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub; Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Angus MacSwan)

Russia extends detention of ex-U.S. Marine accused of spying

Former U.S. marine Paul Whelan who is being held on suspicion of spying talks with his lawyers Vladimir Zherebenkov and Olga Kralova, as he stands in the courtroom cage after a ruling regarding extension of his detention, in Moscow, Russia, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

By Tom Balmforth and Alexander Reshetnikov

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Russian court on Friday ruled that Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine accused of spying, should be held in a pre-trial detention facility for a further three months to give investigators more time to look into his case.

Whelan, who holds U.S., British, Canadian and Irish passports, was detained in a Moscow hotel room on Dec. 28 and accused of espionage, a charge he denies. If found guilty, he could be imprisoned for up to 20 years.

The case has put further strain on already poor U.S.-Russia relations as has that of another detained American, private equity chief Michael Calvey.

Russia’s Federal Security Service detained Whelan after an acquaintance handed him a flash drive containing classified information. Whelan’s lawyer says his client was misled.

Whelan had met the same person in the town of Sergiev Possad in May last year where they visited the town’s monastery and other tourist sites, the lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, told reporters on Friday.

When Whelan returned to Russia again in December to attend a wedding, the same acquaintance unexpectedly turned up and gave him a flash drive containing what Whelan thought were photographs of the earlier trip, the lawyer said.

“Paul and I consider this was a provocation and a crime by his acquaintance,” said Zherebenkov, saying Whelan had known the man, whom he did not name, for several years.

Whelan on Friday appeared in court in a cage and looked downcast when he spoke briefly to reporters before masked security officials cut him off.

“I could do with care packages, food, things like that, letters from home,” Whelan said.

The court on Friday said Whelan would be held in pre-trial detention until May 28, extending an earlier ruling to keep him in custody until Feb. 28.

The U.S. embassy in Moscow said a consular official had visited Whelan in custody on Thursday.

It said, however, that it was unable to provide further information as Whelan had not been allowed by investigators to sign a privacy act waiver (PAW) that would legally allow the U.S. government to release information about the case.

“In every other instance, we have been able to obtain a signed PAW, but in Mr. Whelan’s case, the Investigative Committee is not allowing this to happen. Why is this case any different?” embassy spokeswoman Andrea Kalan wrote on Twitter.

(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova and Maxim Rodionov; editing by Andrew Osborn)

U.S. concerned over Hezbollah’s growing role in Lebanon

FILE PHOTO: Lebanon's Hezbollah supporters chant slogans during last day of Ashura, in Beirut, Lebanon September 20, 2018. REUTERS/Aziz Taher/File Photo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Hezbollah’s growing role in the Lebanese government worries the United States, the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon said during a meeting with Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri on Tuesday, according to the U.S. embassy.

The armed Shi’ite group, which is backed by Iran and listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, controls three of the 30 ministries in Hariri’s new cabinet, the largest number it has ever held. They include the Health Ministry, which has the fourth-largest budget in the state.

U.S. Ambassador Elizabeth Richard, speaking after the meeting, said she had been “very frank … about U.S. concern over the growing role in the cabinet of an organization that continues to maintain a militia that is not under the control of the government”, according to an embassy statement.

Richard, who did not name Hezbollah, said the group “continues to make its own national security decisions; decisions that endanger the rest of the country”.

It also “continues to violate the government’s disassociation policy by participating in armed conflict in at least three other countries”, she said. Lebanon’s official policy of disassociation is intended to keep it out of the region’s conflicts.

Hezbollah’s regional clout has expanded as it sends fighters to Mideast conflicts, including the war in neighboring Syria, where it has fought in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

Together with groups and individuals that see its arsenal as an asset to Lebanon, Hezbollah won more than 70 of the 128 seats in parliament in an election last year. Hariri, who is backed by the West, lost more than a third of his MPs.

A new unity cabinet, which took nearly nine months to put together, largely reflects the election result.

The United States has supplied the Lebanese military with more than $2.3 billion in assistance since 2005, aiming to support it as “the sole, legitimate defender” of the country. The United States is the largest provider of development, humanitarian and security assistance to Lebanon, Richard said.

“In just this last year alone, the United States provided more than $825 million in U.S. assistance and that’s an increase over the previous year.”

(Writing by Tom Perry, editing by Larry King)

Russia detains U.S. citizen in Moscow for suspected spying

FILE PHOTO: A flag flies behind an enclosure on the territory of the U.S. embassy in Moscow, Russia March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva/File Photo

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s FSB state security service said on Monday it had detained an American citizen suspected of spying in Moscow and had opened a criminal case against him.

The FSB said the American had been detained on December 28 but it gave no details of the nature of his alleged espionage.

The English-language service of TASS news agency named the American as Paul Whelan but Reuters was unable to independently confirm the exact spelling of his name.

Russia’s foreign ministry told TASS it could not provide further detail on the case, but said the U.S. Embassy in Moscow had been informed.

The U.S. Embassy would not comment directly, referring inquiries to the State Department in Washington.

Under Russian law, espionage can carry between 10 and 20 years in prison.

Earlier this month Russian national Maria Butina pleaded guilty in a U.S. court to a conspiracy charge in a deal with prosecutors and admitted to working with a top Russian official to infiltrate American conservative activist groups and politicians as an agent for Moscow.

U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller in July indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers on charges related to hacking Democratic Party computer networks in 2016.

In February he charged 13 Russians and three Russian companies as part of a criminal and espionage conspiracy to tamper in the election to support Trump and disparage his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.

Russia has denied interfering in the election. Trump has denied colluding with Moscow.

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

(Reporting by Gabrielle Trault-Farber in Moscow and Will Dunham in Washington; Editing by Richard Balmforth, William Maclean)

U.S. to merge Jerusalem consulate in to new embassy

FILE PHOTO: U.S. marines take part in the dedication ceremony of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States will merge the U.S. Consulate General, which serves Palestinians, with its new embassy into a single diplomatic mission in Jerusalem, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday.

“This decision is driven by our global efforts to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our operations,” Pompeo said in a statement. “It does not signal a change of U.S. policy on Jerusalem, the West Bank, or the Gaza Strip.”

The consulate-general in Jerusalem is the top mission for Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem for their capital.

“We will continue to conduct a full range of reporting, outreach, and programming in the West Bank and Gaza as well as with Palestinians in Jerusalem through a new Palestinian Affairs Unit inside U.S. Embassy Jerusalem,” Pompeo said.

He said the Trump administration was committed to a peace effort between Israel and the Palestinians.

U.S. President Donald Trump outraged the Arab world and stoked international concern by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December and moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May.

The status of Jerusalem is one of the thorniest disputes between Israel and the Palestinians and Palestinian leaders accused Trump of sowing instability by overturning decades of U.S. policy.

Palestinians, with broad international backing, seek East Jerusalem as the capital of a state they want to establish in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Israel regards all of the city, including the eastern sector it captured in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed, as its “eternal and indivisible capital,” but that is not recognized internationally. The Trump administration has avoided that description, and noted that the city’s final borders should be decided by the parties.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Frances Kerry)

North Korea newspaper blasts ‘double-dealing’ U.S. after Pompeo’s trip canceled

People and soldiers gather to offer flowers to the statues of state founder Kim Il Sung and former leader Kim Jong Il on the Day of Songun at Mansu hill, Pyongyang, North Korea, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on August 26, 2018. KCNA via REUTERS

(Reuters) – North Korea’s state-controlled newspaper on Sunday accused the United States of “double-dealing” and “hatching a criminal plot” against Pyongyang, after Washington abruptly canceled a visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Negotiations have been all but deadlocked since U.S. President Donald Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore in June.

Pompeo has pressed for tangible steps toward North Korea’s abandonment of its nuclear arsenal while Pyongyang is demanding that Washington first make concessions of its own.

North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper said U.S. special units based in Japan were staging an air drill aimed at “the infiltration into Pyongyang”, citing a South Korean media outlet.

“Such acts prove that the U.S. is hatching a criminal plot to unleash a war against the DPRK and commit a crime which deserves merciless divine punishment in case the U.S. fails in the scenario of the DPRK’s unjust and brigandish denuclearisation first,” the paper said.

“We cannot but take a serious note of the double-dealing attitudes of the U.S. as it is busy staging secret drills involving man-killing special units while having a dialogue with a smile on its face,” it noted.

A spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul said he had no information on the drill alleged in the newspaper. The U.S. military spokesman in South Korea was not immediately available to comment.

The editorial, which did not mention the Pompeo visit, urged Washington to give up the “pointless military gamble” and implement the Singapore agreement, in which the leaders pledged to work towards a complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Since the summit, the two sides have struggled to narrow differences over the North’s nuclear weapons program.

Pyongyang is calling for a declaration of peace as part of security guarantees designed to encourage it to abandon its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, while the Trump administration says a peace deal and other concessions will only come after more progress on denuclearization.

In part to reassure North Korea, Trump canceled or delayed joint military drills with South Korea, but smaller exercises continue.

Trump partly blamed China for the lack of progress with North Korea and suggested that talks with Pyongyang could be on hold until after Washington resolved its bitter trade dispute with Beijing. China expressed “serious concern” about Trump’s comments, which it called “irresponsible”.

(Reporting by Hayoung Choi, Josh Smith; Editing by Alison Williams)