Iran designates as terrorists all U.S. troops in Middle East

FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a meeting with tribal leaders in Kerbala, Iraq, March 12, 2019. REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-Deen/File Photo

LONDON (Reuters) – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani signed a bill into law on Tuesday declaring all U.S. forces in the Middle East terrorists and calling the U.S. government a sponsor of terrorism.

The bill was passed by parliament last week in retaliation for President Donald Trump’s decision this month to designate Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards a foreign terrorist organization.

It was not clear what the impact of the new law might be on U.S. forces or their operations.

Rouhani instructed the ministry of intelligence, ministry of foreign affairs, the armed forces, and Iran’s supreme national security council to implement the law, state media reported.

The law specifically labels as a terrorist organization the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), which is responsible for U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

The United States has already blacklisted dozens of entities and people for affiliations with the Guards, but until Trump’s decision not the organization as a whole.

Comprising an estimated 125,000-strong military with army, navy and air units, the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) also command the Basij, a religious volunteer paramilitary force, and control Iran’s ballistic missile programs. The Guards’ overseas Quds forces have fought Iran’s proxy wars in the region.

The long-tense relations between Tehran and Washington took a turn for the worse last May when Trump pulled out of a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, reached before he took office, and reimposed sanctions.

Revolutionary Guards commanders have repeatedly said that U.S. bases in the Middle East and U.S. aircraft carriers in the Gulf are within range of Iranian missiles.

Rouhani said on Tuesday that Iran will continue to export oil despite U.S. sanctions aimed at reducing the country’s crude shipments to zero.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Peter Graff and Frances Kerry)

U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan, Afghan contractor listed as killed in blast is alive

An Afghan military convoy drives past the site of a car bomb attack where U.S soldiers were killed near Bagram air base, Afghanistan April 9, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – An Afghan contractor who was believed to have been killed in a car bomb near Kabul is alive, the U.S. military said on Tuesday.

Colonel David Butler, a spokesman for U.S. Forces- Afghanistan, told Reuters the Afghan contractor was initially believed to have been killed along with three other U.S. service members in the blast near Bagram air base close to Kabul.

It was only later that they found out the contractor was alive.

The blast, which the Taliban claimed responsibility for, also wounded three U.S. service members.

Violence has been relentless in Afghanistan even though Taliban militants have held several rounds of talks with U.S. officials about a peace settlement. The talks began late last year, raising hopes for an end to the conflict.

Monday’s attack was one of the deadliest against U.S. personnel in recent months. In November, a roadside bomb blast killed three U.S. service members near the central Afghan city of Ghazni.

The war has taken a much larger toll on Afghan security forces and civilians.

President Ashraf Ghani, speaking at the World Economic Forum in January, said about 45,000 members of Afghanistan’s security forces have been killed since he took office in September 2014, which works out to an average of 849 per month.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)

No pressure to withdraw from Syria by specific date: U.S. general

FILE PHOTO: General Joseph L. Votel, Commander of United States Central Command (CENTCOM) speaks during the Change of Command U.S. Naval Forces Central Command 5th Fleet Combined Maritime Forces ceremony at the U.S. Naval Base in Bahrain, May 6, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The general overseeing U.S. forces in the Middle East said on Thursday that he was under no pressure to withdraw forces from Syria by any specific date, after President Donald Trump ordered the drawdown of most U.S. troops from Syria.

“What is driving the withdrawal of course is our mission, which is the defeat of ISIS and so that is our principal focus and that is making sure that we protect our forces, that we don’t withdraw in a manner that increases the risk to our forces,” U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. Central Command, said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing.

“There is not pressure on me to meet a specific date at this particular time,” Votel said.

Trump had ordered the withdrawal of all 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria in December after he said they had defeated Islamic State militants in Syria. The abrupt decision sparked an outcry from allies and U.S. lawmakers and was a factor in Jim Mattis’ resignation as defense secretary.

But Trump was persuaded by advisers that about 200 U.S. troops would join what is expected to be a total commitment of about 800 to 1,500 troops from European allies to set up and observe a safe zone being negotiated for northeastern Syria.

About 200 other U.S. troops will remain at the U.S. military outpost of Tanf, near the border with Iraq and Jordan.

Thousands of people could still be left inside Islamic State’s last enclave in eastern Syria, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said, as waves of evacuations from the tiny area continued on Thursday.

The SDF has said it wants to ensure all civilians have been evacuated before launching a final assault on the besieged enclave of Baghouz. It is the last shred of populated territory held by Islamic State, which once controlled swathes of Iraq and Syria.

Votel said he believed that Islamic State militants being evacuated from the remaining territory controlled the militant group were largely “unrepentant, unbroken and radicalized.” He said the militant group was waiting “for the right time to resurge.”

“We will need to maintain a vigilant offensive against this now widely dispersed and disaggregated organization that includes leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources and toxic ideology,” Votel added.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by James Dalgleish)

U.S.-led coalition withdrawing equipment from Syria

FILE PHOTO: Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) head a convoy of U.S military vehicles in the town of Darbasiya next to the Turkish border, Syria April 28, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo

By Rodi Said and Phil Stewart

QAMISHLI, Syria/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State added to confusion surrounding the U.S. withdrawal from Syria on Friday by declaring that it had started the pullout process but U.S. officials later clarified that only equipment, not troops, had exited the country.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement last month that he had decided to withdraw the 2,000 U.S. troops there stunned allies who have joined Washington in the battle against Islamic State militants in Syria. Senior U.S. officials were shocked too, among them Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who quit in protest.

U.S. Colonel Sean Ryan, a coalition spokesman, said the coalition “has begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria.”

“Out of concern for operational security, we will not discuss specific timelines, locations or troop movements,” Ryan said.

After media reports suggesting the departure of U.S. forces had begun, U.S. officials told Reuters that no troops had yet withdrawn and stressed that the battle against Islamic State was continuing as U.S.-backed forces try to capture the group’s last remaining pockets of territory in Syria. The three U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

But the U.S. officials confirmed that equipment was being moved out of Syria, a sign that despite mixed messages from Washington preparations for a withdrawal of troops was proceeding apace.

Residents near border crossings that are typically used by U.S. forces going in and out of Syria from Iraq said they had seen no obvious or large-scale movement of U.S. ground forces on Friday.

SYRIA UPHEAVAL

The U.S. decision has injected new uncertainties into the eight-year-long Syrian war and spurred a flurry of contacts over how a resulting security vacuum will be filled across a swathe of northern and eastern Syria where the U.S. forces are stationed.

On the one hand, Turkey aims to pursue a campaign against Kurdish forces that have allied with the United States, and on the other the Russia- and Iran-backed Syrian government sees the chance to recover a huge chunk of territory.

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton suggested on Tuesday that protecting Washington’s Kurdish allies would be a precondition of the U.S. withdrawal. That drew a rebuke from Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan who called his comments “a serious mistake”.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has been touring the Middle East this week to reassure allies of Washington’s commitment to regional security, said on Thursday the withdrawal would not be scuppered despite the Turkish threats.

The Kurdish groups that control the north have turned to Moscow and Damascus in the hope of striking a political deal that will stave off Turkey and shield their autonomy in the north.

Russia, which has deployed forces into Syria in support of the Damascus government, said it had the impression that the United States wanted to stay despite the announced withdrawal of U.S. troops, RIA news agency reported.

RUSSIA URGES DAMASCUS-KURDISH DIALOGUE

Maria Zakharova, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said it was important for Syrian Kurds and the Syrian government to start talking to each other in light of the U.S. withdrawal plans.

She also said the territory previously controlled by the United States should be transferred to the Syrian government.

“In this regard, establishing dialogue between the Kurds and Damascus takes on particular significance. After all, the Kurds are an integral part of Syrian society,” Zakharova said.

Turkey views the U.S.-backed YPG Syrian Kurdish militia as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a 34-year insurgency in Turkey for Kurdish political and cultural rights, mostly in southeastern areas near Syria.

A Kurdish politician told Reuters last week the Kurds had presented Moscow with a road-map for a deal with Damascus. Syria’s deputy foreign minister said on Wednesday he was optimistic about renewed dialogue with the Kurds.

Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian of France, which is part of the U.S.-led coalition, welcomed what he believed was a slower withdrawal by the United States after pressure from its allies.

“President Macron spoke to him (Trump) several times and it seems that there has been a change that I think is positive,” he said in a television interview on Thursday.

In a rare acknowledgment that French troops were also in Syria, he said they would leave when there is a political solution in the country.

(Reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, John Irish in Paris, Andrey Ostroukh in Moscow and Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Tom Perry and Phil Stewart; Editing by Angus MacSwan and James Dalgleish)

Assad, aided by Russia, poised to snuff out ‘cradle’ of revolt

FILE PHOTO: A woman holds a Syrian flag in Deraa, Syria, July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/File Photo

By Tom Perry and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) – President Bashar al-Assad is poised to snuff out the Syrian rebellion in the place it first began more than seven years ago, as rebels enter talks with his Russian allies on withdrawing from Deraa city or accepting a return of state authority.

Government forces backed by Russia have seized most of Deraa province in the campaign that got underway last month and on Monday encircled rebel-held parts of Deraa city and seized the entire Jordanian frontier that was once in opposition hands.

Assad, whose control was once reduced to a fraction of Syria, now holds the largest chunk of the country with crucial help from his Russian and Iranian allies.

Deraa was the scene of the first anti-Assad protests that spiraled into a war now estimated to have killed half a million people. The conflict has driven over 11 million people from their homes, with some 5.6 million Syrian refugees in neighboring states alone and many more in Europe.

Rebels in Deraa are due to hold talks with Russian officers on Tuesday, a spokesman for the rebels, Abu Shaimaa, said. The talks were due to take place in the town of Busra al-Sham.

Some are seeking evacuation to opposition-held areas of the north while others are negotiating to remain as a local security force, he said.

“Today there is a session with the Russians over the forced displacement,” he said in a text message, referring to the expected evacuation of a yet-to-determined number of rebels to opposition areas of the northwest at the border with Turkey.

A pro-Syrian government newspaper, al-Watan, said “the coming hours will be decisive on the level of ending the chapter of terrorism in Deraa city”.

As Assad pushes for outright military victory, there seems little hope of a negotiated peace settlement to the conflict.

The north and much of the east however remain outside his control and the presence of U.S. and Turkish forces in those areas will complicate further advances for Damascus.

“EXTREMELY SCARED”

Government forces began thrusting into Deraa province last month. Heavily outgunned rebels surrendered quickly in some places as the United States, which once armed them, told opposition forces not to expect its intervention.

Deraa rebels agreed to a wider ceasefire deal brokered by Russia last Friday and to surrender the province in phases. Syrian and Russian forces then took control of the main crossing with Jordan, which has been in rebel hands since 2015.

On Monday, government forces extended their control all the way along Deraa province’s border with Jordan up to a pocket of territory held by Islamic State-affiliated militants, severing a once vital opposition lifeline to Jordan.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, said army helicopters dropped leaflets on the rebel-held town of al-Haara saying “there is no place for militants”.

The government offensive is expected to turn next to nearby rebel-held areas of Quneitra province, at the border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The offensive has triggered the biggest single displacement of civilians in the war, uprooting more than 320,000 people. Large numbers of people have moved again in the few days since the ceasefire was agreed, some returning to their villages.

Rachel Sider, Syria advocacy and information adviser with the Norwegian Refugee Council, said displaced people had been crossing back to areas that are subject to the agreement “because the expectation is that now there is a ceasefire that is holding, that will be the most stable and safe place”.

“But we also know that people still feel extremely scared. They are not very clear about who is in control of the places that they are from. We have seen a lot of confusion amongst people who are trying to make a decision about their families’ safety and their future,” she said.

Tens of thousands of displaced people are still thought to be sheltering in the Tel Shihab area of Deraa province, and many more are at the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

(The story corrects to show talks over fate of rebels in Deraa city are being held in Busra al-Sham, not Deraa city itself.)

(Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by William Maclean)

U.S. forces, British divers join search for boys missing in Thai cave

Rescue workers work near the Tham Luang caves during a search for members of an under-16 soccer team and their coach, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, June 27, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

By Chayut Setboonsarng

CHIANG RAI (Reuters) – U.S. forces and British divers have arrived in Thailand to help in the search for 12 schoolboys and their soccer coach believed trapped by floodwaters in a cave, as rescuers prepared to drill a shaft into the cave on the fifth day of the search.

Major Buncha Duriyapan, commander of the 37th Military District in Chiang Rai, said workers would drill down from the top of the Tham Luang cave complex in northern Chiang Rai province to create an alternative entrance for rescue workers.

British diver Richard William Stanton arrives to the Tham Luang caves during a search for the members of an under-16 soccer team and their coach, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, June 27, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya T

British diver Richard William Stanton arrives to the Tham Luang caves during a search for the members of an under-16 soccer team and their coach, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, June 27, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

“We will drill down from one of the chimneys,” Buncha told reporters on Thursday.

“The expert divers went straight from the plane into the cave to make an assessment,” he said, referring to the three British divers who landed in Thailand on Wednesday.

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said 30 members of the United States Pacific Command (USPACOM) have joined the search operation.

“The United States Pacific Command (USPACOM) has sent 30 staff with equipment to help penetrate the cave walls,” Prawit told reporters.

Search efforts, which have included Thailand’s elite navy SEAL unit, have been hampered by heavy rain and flooding inside the cave where the boys, aged between 11 and 16, and their 25-year-old assistant coach went missing on Saturday.

Rescue workers on Thursday scoured the top of the mountain looking for alternative entrances to the cave, according to a Reuters reporter at the scene.

Thai National Deputy Police Chief Wirachai Songmetta said police officers would explore a one kms path to the right of the cave on Thursday.

So far, rescue teams have been focusing on a seven kms (four mile) long route to the left of the cave’s entrance which they believe the boys and their coach took.

Authorities say they’re optimistic the boys are still alive, but the toll of five days of no news was visible on the faces of the boys’ relatives.

Family members, red-eyed from crying, said prayers on Thursday near the cave, led by a saffron-robed Buddhist monk.

“Observe your breath in this place of love. Love between mother, father and child,” the monk told anxious relatives.

“Do not worry and wait for good news.”

(Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Michael Perry)

Syrian frontline town divides NATO allies Turkey and U.S.

American army vehicles drive north of Manbij city, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria March 9, 2017.

By Dominic Evans

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – A dispute between Turkey and the United States over control of a north Syrian town has put the NATO allies on opposing sides of the conflict’s front line, deepening a diplomatic rift ahead of a visit to Turkey by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

This week’s talks, already challenging given disagreements over President Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown after a failed 2016 coup, the detention of U.S. consulate staff and citizens, and the trial of a Turkish bank executive for evading U.S. sanctions on Iran, have been given added edge by the dispute over Syria.

Turkish and U.S. troops, deployed alongside local fighters, have carved out rival areas of influence on Syria’s northern border. To Ankara’s fury, Washington allied itself with a force led by the Kurdish YPG, a militia which Turkey says is commanded by the same leaders overseeing an insurgency in its southeast.

The dispute has come to a head over the Syrian town of Manbij, where Turkey has threatened to drive out a YPG-led force and warned the United States – which has troops there – not to get in the way.

“This is what we have to say to all our allies: don’t get in between us and terrorist organizations, or we will not be responsible for the unwanted consequences,” Erdogan said last month, days before launching a military offensive against the YPG in the northwestern Syrian region of Afrin.

Turkey would turn its attention to Manbij, about 100 km (60 miles) east of Afrin, “as soon as possible”, he said.

But Washington says it has no plans to withdraw its soldiers from Manbij, and two U.S. commanders visited the town last week to reinforce that message.

It has also warned that Turkey’s air and ground offensive in Afrin risks exacerbating a humanitarian crisis in Syria and disrupting one of the few corners of the country that had remained stable through seven years of civil war.

In a blunt but possibly understated assessment of Tillerson’s visit, a U.S. State Department official said Washington expected “a difficult conversation” in Ankara.

For Turkey, the dispute has pushed relations with the United States to breaking point.

“We will discuss these issues during Tillerson’s visit, and our ties are at a very critical stage,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Monday. “Either we will improve our ties, or they will completely deteriorate.”

“GUNG-HO” MILITARY

As the grievances between Washington and Ankara have escalated, Turkey has built bridges with rival powers Russia and Iran – even though their support has put Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the ascendancy while Turkey still backs the weakened rebels seeking his downfall.

The three countries agreed a so far ineffectual plan to wind down the fighting between the Syrian army, which is supported by Russian air power and Iran-backed militias, and jihadist fighters and Turkish-backed rebels.

Turkey says it also won agreement to launch its Afrin operation from Russia, which controls most of the air space in western Syria.

In contrast, it says the United States has yet to honor several pledges: for Washington to stop arming the YPG, to take back those arms after Islamic State was defeated in Syria, and to pull back YPG forces from Manbij.

Last week’s visit to Manbij by U.S. military commanders was a short-sighted and thoughtless “military gung-ho gesture”, according to Erdogan’s senior foreign policy adviser, Gulnur Aybet.

“It is not helpful, at a time when the United States and Turkey are trying to find common ground … for U.S. generals in the field to undertake a flippant and provocative display in Manbij next to the YPG,” she told Reuters.

Relations with the United States were “fragile and frustrating because pledges have been unfulfilled and there is a lack of coherence between the White House and the military”, Aybet said.

U.S. VIEWED UNFAVORABLY

Erdogan has also said Turkey will “strangle” a force which the United States plans to develop in the large sweep of northern Syria which the YPG and its allies currently control, including more than 400 km (250 miles) of the border with Turkey.

His tough language, a year before presidential and parliamentary elections, resonates in a country where 83 percent of people view the United States unfavorably, according to a poll published on Monday.

The poll for the Center for American Progress also found that 46 percent of Turks think their country should do more to confront the United States, compared with 37 percent who believe it should maintain the alliance.

That sentiment has underpinned Erdogan’s unyielding response to other disputes with Washington.

He has dismissed criticism of Turkey’s crackdown since the failed July 2016 coup, in which 250 people were killed, saying the response is justified by the security challenges Turkey faces.

The president has also said the U.S. court conviction of an executive of Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank for evading Iran sanctions was a “political coup attempt” which showed the U.S.-Turkish partnership was eroding.

In October he accused the U.S. consulate in Istanbul of sheltering an employee with links to U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, blamed by Ankara for last year’s failed coup. Turkey has sought the extradition of Gulen, who has denied any link to the coup attempt.

Turkey’s detention of two locally employed U.S. consulate workers – without providing evidence, according to Washington – led to the two countries suspending visa services. Even when services were resumed, they disagreed publicly over what assurances had been made to resolve their differences.

“The U.S.-Turkey alliance can no longer be taken for granted,” Ozgur Unluhisarcikli of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, which promotes transatlantic cooperation, wrote in a report published ahead of Tillerson’s trip.

“That this relationship has endured several stress tests in the past is no guarantee that it will survive this one”.

(THis story corrects spelling of adviser’s name in paragraph 16)

(Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz and Orhan Coskun in Ankara, and Yara Bayoumy in Washington; editing by Giles Elgood)

Trump to present vision for U.S. strategy in Afghanistan war

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Army soldiers from the 2nd Platoon, B battery 2-8 field artillery, fire a howitzer artillery piece at Seprwan Ghar forward fire base in Panjwai district, Kandahar province southern Afghanistan, June 12, 2011.

By Steve Holland and John Walcott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – It will be President Donald Trump’s turn on Monday to address a problem that vexed his two predecessors when he details his strategy for the war in Afghanistan, America’s longest military conflict.

In a prime-time speech to the nation, Trump may announce a modest increase in U.S. troops, as recommended by his senior advisers.

Trump has long been skeptical of the U.S. approach in the region, where the Afghan war is in its 16th year.

He announced a strategic review soon after taking office in January and has privately questioned whether sending more troops was wise, U.S. officials said.

“We’re not winning,” he told advisers in a mid-July meeting, questioning whether Army General John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, should be fired, an official said.

Trump, who on Sunday ended a two-week working vacation at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club, reached his decision on Afghanistan after lengthy talks with his top military and national security aides at Camp David, Maryland, on Friday.

A White House statement on Sunday said Trump would “provide an update on the path forward for America’s engagement in Afghanistan and South Asia.”

A senior administration official said the likeliest outcome was that Trump would agree to a modest increase in U.S. troops. Current U.S. troop numbers are about 8,400.

The United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, and overthrew the Islamist Taliban government. But U.S. forces have remained bogged down there through the presidencies of George W. Bush, Barack Obama and now Trump.

“I took over a mess, and we’re going to make it a lot less messy,” Trump said when asked about Afghanistan earlier this month.

 

TALIBAN THREAT

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has argued that a U.S. military presence is needed to protect against the ongoing threat from Islamist militants.

Afghan security forces have struggled to prevent advances by Taliban insurgents. The war stymied the Obama administration, which committed an increase of tens of thousands of U.S. troops to reverse Taliban gains, then committed to a troop drawdown, which ultimately had to be halted.

Earlier this year, Trump gave Mattis the authority to set troop levels in Afghanistan, opening the door for future troop increases requested by Nicholson. The general, who leads U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, said in February he needed “a few thousand” additional forces, some potentially drawn from U.S. allies.

U.S. military and intelligence officials are concerned that a Taliban victory would allow al Qaeda and Islamic State’s regional affiliate to establish bases in Afghanistan from which to plot attacks against the United States and its allies.

One reason the White House decision has taken so long, two officials who participated in the discussions said on Sunday, is that it was difficult to get Trump to accept the need for a broader regional strategy that included U.S. policy toward Pakistan before making a decision on whether to send additional forces to Afghanistan.

Both officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to disclose Trump’s decisions on troop levels and Pakistan policy before he does.

The difficulty in reaching a decision was compounded, the two officials said, by the wide range of conflicting options Trump received.

White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster and other advisers favored accepting Nicholson’s request for some 4,000 additional U.S. forces.

But recently ousted White House strategic adviser Steve Bannon had argued for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces, saying that after 16 years, the war was still not winnable, U.S. officials said. Bannon, fired on Friday by Trump, was not at the Camp David meeting.

The officials said that another option examined was shrinking the U.S. force by some 3,000 troops and leaving a smaller counterterrorism and intelligence-gathering contingent to carry out special operations and direct drone strikes against the Taliban.

Proponents argued that option was less costly in lives and money and would add less to the damage already inflicted on U.S. special operations forces by the long-running battles in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Syria.

 

 

(Additional reporting by Idrees Ali traveling with Mattis in Amman; Writing by James Oliphant; Editing Peter Cooney.)

 

Suspected Islamic State cell was planning attacks on U.S. forces in Kuwait

An Islamic State flag is seen in this picture illustration taken

KUWAIT CITY (Reuters) – Suspected Islamic State militants arrested in Kuwait and the Philippines were planning to carry out bombings against U.S. military forces in Kuwait, the Gulf country’s al-Rai newspaper reported on Monday.

The suspects were also plotting a suicide attack on a Hussainiya, or Shi’ite Muslim meeting hall, said al-Rai, which has close ties to the security services.

Philippine security forces arrested a Kuwaiti and a Syrian for suspected links to Islamic State on March 25, three months after they arrived in Manila.

Al-Rai said Kuwaiti security forces also arrested a Syrian chemistry teacher suspected of involvement with the plots.

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait referred queries to Kuwaiti authorities. Kuwaiti security officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Kuwait, home to several U.S. military bases, suffered its deadliest militant attack in decades when a Saudi suicide bomber blew himself up inside a packed Shi’ite mosque in June 2015, killing 27 people. Islamic State claimed responsibility.

(Reporting by Ahmed Hagagy Writing by Katie Paul; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Trump’s son-in-law, Kushner, flies into Iraq with top U.S. general

U.S. President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner (L) speaks with Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before departing for Iraq from Ramstein Air Base, Germany April 3, 2017. DoD/Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro/Handout via REUTERS

By Phil Stewart

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, flew into Iraq on Monday with the top U.S. military officer to get a first-hand assessment of the battle against Islamic State from U.S. commanders on the ground and to meet Iraqi officials.

For Kushner, who has not been to Iraq before, the trip comes at a critical time as Trump examines ways to accelerate a U.S.-led coalition campaign that U.S. and Iraqi officials say has so far been largely successful in uprooting Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

The visit appears to demonstrate the far-reaching portfolio of Kushner, 36, who is part of Trump’s innermost circle and who has been given a wide range of domestic and foreign policy responsibilities, including working on a Middle East peace deal.

Marine General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he invited Kushner and Tom Bossert, White House homeland security adviser, to accompany him so they could hear “first-hand and unfiltered” from military advisers about the situation on the ground and interact with U.S. forces.

“I said, ‘Hey, next time I go to Iraq, if you’re interested, come and it’d be good,” Dunford said, adding he extended the invitation weeks ago.

That kind of ground-level awareness of the war helps inform strategic decisions, Dunford said, adding it was the same reason he regularly leaves Washington to visit Iraq.

“The more appreciation you could have for what’s actually happening on the ground, the more informed you are when you start talking about the strategic issues,” Dunford said.

Kushner, who is married to Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump, did not speak with reporters during the flight to Iraq.

Dunford’s spokesman, Navy Captain Greg Hicks, said Kushner was traveling on behalf of Trump to express the president’s support and commitment to Iraq’s government and U.S. personnel helping combat Islamic State.

Trump, who campaigned on defeating Islamic State, has yet to announce any dramatic shift in war strategy.

U.S. ROLE AFTER MOSUL FIGHT

The trip to Iraq comes as Iraqi security forces engage in fierce, house-to-house fighting to retake Mosul, Islamic State’s last major stronghold in Iraq and the city where leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate nearly three years ago.

Nearly 290,000 people have fled the city to escape the fighting, according to the United Nations.

Although the loss of Mosul would deal a major defeat to Islamic State, U.S. and Iraqi officials are preparing for smaller battles even after the city is recaptured and expect the group to go underground to fight as a traditional insurgency.

What happens to the U.S. military role in Iraq after Mosul is recaptured remain unclear.

Influential Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has previously called on Iraq’s government to order the withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces after the battle of Mosul is over.

Dunford said Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi understood the need for continued U.S. military support.

“It’s not our judgment that the Iraqis will be self sustaining and self sufficient in the wake of Mosul. More importantly, it’s not Prime Minister Abadi’s assessment,” Dunford said.

Across the border in Syria, a U.S.-backed campaign to isolate Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa is advancing ahead of an eventual assault on the city.

U.S.-backed Syrian forces repelled a major counter-attack by Islamic State militants holding out at the country’s largest dam and in the nearby town of Tabqa, the group and activists said on Sunday. The dam is a strategic target in the military campaign, located about 40 km (25 miles) to the east of Raqqa.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Giles Elgood)