Cuba-U.S. tensions mount over pending protests on Communist-run island

HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel warned the U.S. embassy in Havana against fomenting protests by dissidents on the Communist-run island, the latest flashpoint between the longtime rivals ahead of fresh rallies slated for Nov. 15.

Cuba has said the planned demonstrations – scheduled for the same day the Caribbean island will reopen its borders to tourism – are illegal and blames the United States for underwriting them. The United States has threatened Cuba with further sanctions should the government jail protesters.

In a speech to Communist party stalwarts late on Sunday, Diaz-Canel doubled down on allegations of U.S. subterfuge, accusing the U.S. embassy of playing a role in fanning protests.

“Their embassy in Cuba has been taking an active role in efforts to subvert the internal order of our country,” Diaz-Canel said. “U.S. diplomatic officials meet frequently with leaders of the counterrevolution, to whom they provide guidance, encouragement, and logistical and financial support.”

The embassy could not immediately be reached for comment.

The U.S. diplomatic headquarters in Havana has operated with a skeleton crew since 2017, after employees fell ill with what is now known as ‘Havana Syndrome.’

Scaled-back operations have hobbled diplomacy between the two Cold War foes and have forced Cubans seeking consular services from the embassy to travel to Guyana instead.

Diaz-Canel said the embassy was nonetheless leveraging social media communications to criticize Cuba in “open interference in the internal affairs of our country.”

The embassy in recent weeks has highlighted on social media the cases of several Cubans detained and jailed following the biggest anti-government demonstrations in decades on July 11. The posts on Twitter call in Spanish for the release of dissidents and use the hashtag “#Presosporque,” or “Why are they prisoners?”

Cuban authorities said those arrested in July were guilty of crimes including public disorder, resisting arrest, and vandalism.

Juan Gonzalez, a top adviser on Latin America to U.S. President Joe Biden, told news agency EFE last week that the United States would respond if protesters were again jailed in November.

“Those individuals who are involved in violating the fundamental and universal rights of the Cuban people… we have made it very clear that we have every intention of responding,” Gonzalez said.

The outcome of the showdown between the Cuban government and increasingly bold dissidents will likely dictate the Biden administration’s policy towards the island nation going forward, said William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University in Washington.

The Biden administration’s “hostile rhetoric and support for dissidents has led the Cuban government to give up on any hope of better relations with Washington,” LeoGrande said. “Ironically, that gives the Cuban government no incentive to treat the upcoming march or its organizers with tolerance.”

(Reporting by Marc Frank and Dave Sherwood, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Israeli rightist seeks to outlaw opening of U.S. Palestinian mission in Jerusalem

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – An Israeli right-wing opposition legislator is seeking to outlaw the planned reopening of a U.S. mission in Jerusalem that has traditionally been a base for diplomatic outreach to the Palestinians.

Israel’s new cross-partisan government led by nationalist Prime Minister Naftali Bennett also opposes the re-inauguration of the consulate, potentially buoying Likud lawmaker Nir Barkat’s effort to scupper the move, though it would strain relations with Washington.

The consulate was subsumed into the U.S. Embassy that was moved to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv in 2018 by then-U.S. President Donald Trump, steps hailed by Israel and condemned by Palestinians.

With an eye towards repairing U.S. relations with the Palestinians, and rebuilding mutual trust, President Joe Biden’s administration says it will reopen the consulate while leaving the embassy in place.

Barkat’s legislation, filed in parliament last month and with voting as yet unscheduled, would outlaw opening a foreign mission in Jerusalem without Israel’s consent.

“I think that the current Israeli government is weak. It depends on the left, it depends on radicals on our side,” he told Reuters. “We must do everything we can to maintain the unity of the city of Jerusalem.”

Israel regards all of Jerusalem as its capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in a 1967 war along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as capital of the state they seek.

Ahmed Al-Deek, adviser to the Palestinian foreign ministry, said Barkat “represents the position of far-right parties in Israel which seek to block any chance of reaching a two-state solution”.

Barkat said polling showed some 70% public support for the bill – enough to garner votes from within the coalition. Asked for Bennett’s position, his spokesman cast the bill as a PR stunt, saying: “We don’t comment on trolling.”

U.S. officials have been largely reticent on the issue, saying only that the reopening process remains in effect.

Asked whether precedent existed in U.S. diplomacy for opening a mission over objections of a host country, the State Department’s Office of the Historian declined comment.

Barkat’s bill recognizes that there are a handful of countries with Jerusalem missions, like the former consulate, that predate Israel’s founding in 1948.

In what may signal a bid to persuade Israel to reconsider the former mission as a candidate to rejoin that group, Thomas Nides, Biden’s pick for ambassador, noted in his Sept. 22 confirmation hearing: “That consulate has existed, in one form or another, for almost 130 years.”

Barkat was unmoved, saying: “We respect what happened before 1948 (but) never did we give anybody consent to open up a diplomatic mission for Palestinians in the city of Jerusalem.”

(Additional by Ali Sawafta; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich)

Moscow decries ‘unfriendly actions’ as U.S. ends visa services for most Russians

By Dmitry Antonov and Alexander Marrow

MOSCOW (Reuters) -The Kremlin accused Washington on Friday of fueling tension with “unfriendly actions” after the U.S. embassy in Moscow said it was cutting staff and stopping processing visas for most Russians.

The embassy said it was cutting consular staff by 75% and that from May 12 it would stop processing non-immigrant visas for non-diplomatic travel after a new Russian law imposed limits on how many local staff can work at foreign diplomatic missions.

That means Russians, who are not diplomats or green card seekers, will no longer be able to apply inside their own country for visas to visit the United States for tourism and other purposes. They will have to make such applications in third countries instead if they need to.

The Russian foreign ministry pointed out that Russian consulates in the United States were still issuing visas within 10 days despite suffering diplomatic cutbacks themselves and said there was nothing to stop Washington from topping up staff by bringing in U.S. nationals.

It said the U.S. diplomatic staff quota in Russia stood at 455, but that there were only 280 accredited employees, giving Washington ample room to top up staff numbers.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the embassy’s decision would have little practical impact because, he said, Russians have already been struggling to get U.S. visas.

“You know, here one has to look at the root cause of the tense situation that is developing in our bilateral relations,” Peskov told reporters.

“If you unravel the knot of unfriendly steps in the opposite direction, then it becomes obvious that the precursor to all of this is the unfriendly actions of the United States.”

He said Russia had “expected better” of the first 100 days of Joe Biden’s U.S. presidency.

He welcomed moves to extend the New START nuclear arms treaty. “But this positive baggage is still small in comparison with the load of negativity that we have accumulated over these 100 days. This load unfortunately prevails,” he said.

Moscow and Washington have long differed over a range of issues, but ties slumped further after Biden said he believed President Vladimir Putin was “a killer”.

SANCTIONS

The United States imposed sanctions on Russia this month for alleged malign activity, including interfering in last year’s U.S. election, cyber hacking and “bullying” neighboring Ukraine.

Moscow retaliated with sanctions against the United States, and has rejected U.S. criticism of its treatment of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

Russia’s ties with several countries in central and eastern Europe have also deteriorated in recent weeks, leading to a series of diplomatic expulsions.

When Putin signed the law limiting local staff employed at diplomatic missions last week, he also told the government to draw up a list of “unfriendly” states to be subject to the restrictions.

A draft list published by Russian state TV suggests the United States is one of the countries that will be on it.

“We regret that the actions of the Russian government have forced us to reduce our consular work force by 75%,” the U.S. embassy said in a statement.

“Effective May 12, U.S. Embassy Moscow will reduce consular services offered to include only emergency U.S. citizen services and a very limited number of age-out and life or death emergency immigrant visas,” it said.

“I have always been afraid of the ‘Iron Curtain’, only now it’s not being imposed by our side, but by the other side,” said Ksenia Sobchak, a former Russian presidential candidate.

(Reporting by Anton Kolodyazhnyy; Writing by Alexander Marrow, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

U.S. calls for dialogue to resolve India’s farmers’ protests

By Sanjeev Miglani and Mayank Bhardwaj

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – The U.S. embassy in New Delhi urged India’s government on Thursday to resume talks with farmers whose months-long protests over agricultural reforms erupted into violence last week.

India’s Foreign Ministry said it had “taken note” of the comments and underlined ongoing efforts between Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and farmers groups to resolve the situation.

“We encourage that any differences between the parties be resolved through dialogue,” a U.S. embassy spokesperson said in a statement that also offered general support for the government’s efforts to “improve the efficiency of India’s markets and attract greater private sector investment.”

Modi’s government has held multiple rounds of talks with representatives of thousands of farmers who have camped, mostly peacefully, on the outskirts of New Delhi since late last year.

But no talks have been held since Jan 26., when some protesters clashed with police in the heart of the capital city following a military parade to mark Republic Day, and no indication has been given of when they might resume.

Television images of protesters occupying the ramparts of New Delhi’s historic Red Fort and later clashing with police drew international attention to the confrontation between Modi’s government and the farmers.

The farmers, who enjoy most support in northern India’s breadbasket states, argue that three new farm laws will hurt their interests while benefiting large firms.

But the government says the reforms will bring much-needed investment to a farm sector that accounts for nearly 15% of India’s $2.9 trillion economy but about half its workforce.

BARRICADES UP, INTERNET DOWN

Police remain on guard against further attempts by farmers to bring the protests into the capital, and have reinforced barricades at three main sites.

Earlier this week internet services were temporarily suspended in some areas, drawing widespread criticism, including from international activists and celebrities.

“We recognize that unhindered access to information, including the internet, is fundamental to the freedom of expression and a hallmark of a thriving democracy,” the U.S. embassy spokesperson said.

In response to social media posts on the internet shutdowns, India’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that vested interest groups were mobilizing international support against the country.

“Any protests must be seen in the context of India’s democratic ethos and polity, and the ongoing efforts of the government and the concerned farmer groups to resolve the impasse,” ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava said on Thursday.

Farm union leaders have been calling for a repeal of the new laws and to make the government’s crop price guarantee scheme legally binding, and for the withdrawal of legal cases against protesters.

But some farmer groups have expanded their list of demands.

At a rally in northern Haryana state on Wednesday, thousands of farmers from the politically influential Jat community backed a call to waive farm loans and increase crop prices paid by the government.

“If the government doesn’t concede to our demands, thousands more farmers will march towards Delhi,” Kek Ram Kandela, a leader among the Jat farmers, told the rally attended by more than 50,000 people.

(Additional reporting and Writing by Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Catherine Evans)

Violence escalates in Iraq as government pushes to end protests

By Aziz El Yaakoubi and Nadine Awadalla

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Gunmen shot dead two protesters in Iraq’s southern city of Nassiriya overnight and a Baghdad district became a battlefield on the third day of a drive by security forces to end months of demonstrations against the largely Iran-backed ruling elite.

Clashes over the weekend had already killed at least five protesters and rockets hit the U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone housing government buildings.

Security sources told Reuters three people were wounded when at least one rocket landed inside the U.S. embassy compound, the first time in years that an attack on the Green Zone – a regular occurance – had actually hurt staff there.

The Iraqi military said five Katyusha rockets had hit the Green Zone late on Sunday, without reporting casualties. The U.S. embassy was not immediately available for comment.

Authorities began the pushback on Saturday to try to end protests that began in the capital on Oct. 1 and in other southern cities. Demonstrators are demanding the removal of all politicians, free elections and an end to corruption.

In Nassiriya, at least 75 protesters were wounded, mainly by live bullets, in overnight clashes when security forces tried to move them away from bridges in the city, police and health sources said.

Unknown gunmen in four pickup trucks had attacked the main protest camp there, shooting dead the two people and setting fire to demonstrators’ tents before fleeing the scene, the sources said.

Some protesters began building more permanent structures using bricks, Reuters witnesses said, while others broke into a police office on Monday and set fire to at least five police vehicles parked inside.

The leaderless movement is an unprecedented challenge to Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim-dominated and largely Iran-backed ruling elite, which emerged after a U.S.-led invasion toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

“REVOLUTION”

Pitched battles raged in the Khilani area of central Baghdad near Tahrir Square, on Monday with protesters throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at security forces using tear gas, live rounds in the air and slingshots to push them back.

Some of the demonstrators danced on the protest frontline while others shielded themselves behind concrete blocks and trees or by using metal sheets.

“This revolution is peaceful. They use various kinds of fire against us, live ammunition, bullets and teargas canisters. I got injured in my face,” said Allawi, a hooded protester who gave only his first name.

Tuk tuks darted through the crowd to help the wounded and carried away protesters suffering from teargas inhalation.

Demonstrations continued in other southern cities, despite repeated attempts by security forces to clear up their camps.

Nearly 500 people have been killed in the unrest, with both security forces and unidentified gunmen shooting people dead.

After a lull earlier this month, demonstrations resumed; protesters have controlled three key bridges in Baghdad and maintain camps and road blocks in several cities in the south.

The government has responded with violence and piecemeal reform. The international community has condemned the violence but not intervened to stop it.

Saturday’s push by the authorities began after populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said on Friday that he would halt the involvement of his supporters in the demonstrations.

Sadr had backed the demands of protesters for the removal of corrupt politicians and for the provision of services and jobs soon after the demonstrations began in October, but stopped short of calling on all his followers to join in.

“Everyone has come out protesting against the government,” said Hussain, a protester. “We demand that all politicians resign and get out. We don’t want Moqtada or any of them.”

(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi, Nadine Awadalla, Baghdad bureau; Writing by Ahmed Rasheed, Editing by William Maclean and Philipaa Fletcher)

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)