Trump cuts troop levels in Afghanistan but stops short of full withdrawal

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump will sharply reduce the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500 by mid-January, the Pentagon announced on Tuesday, stopping short of a full withdrawal from America’s longest war.

Trump’s decision to limit himself to a partial withdrawal was first reported by Reuters on Monday and triggered a rebuke from senior Republicans who fear it will undermine security and hurt fragile peace talks with the Taliban.

Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, who Trump installed last week after abruptly firing Mark Esper, confirmed the Afghan drawdown and also outlined a modest withdrawal of forces from Iraq that will reduce troop levels there from 3,000 to 2,500.

“By Jan. 15, 2021, our forces, their size in Afghanistan, will be 2,500 troops. Our force size in Iraq will also be 2,500 by that same date,” Miller told reporters.

“This is consistent with our established plans and strategic objectives, supported by the American people, and does not equate to a change in U.S. policy or objectives.”

Moments later, the top Republican in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, warned against any major changes in U.S. defense or foreign policy in the next couple of months – including any precipitous troop drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“It is extremely important here in the next couple of months not to have any earthshaking changes in regard to defense or foreign policy,” McConnell told reporters.

Trump is due to leave office on Jan. 20 after losing this month’s presidential election to Democrat Joe Biden. He has launched legal challenges to vote counts in some swing states which he says were fraudulent but legal experts give him little chance of success.

The top Republican on the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry also slammed the troop cut as a “mistake.”

“Further reductions in Afghanistan will also undercut negotiations there; the Taliban has done nothing – met no condition – that would justify this cut,” Thornberry said.

U.S. and Afghan officials are warning of troubling levels of violence by Taliban insurgents and persistent Taliban links to al Qaeda.

It was those ties that triggered U.S. military intervention in 2001 following the al Qaeda Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. Thousands of American and allied troops have died in fighting in Afghanistan.

Some U.S. military officials had been urging Trump to keep U.S. troop levels at around 4,500 for now.

But the withdrawal stops short of his pledge on Oct. 7, when Trump said on Twitter: “We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!”

Rick Olson, a former U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that the remaining 2,500 troops still give the United States some leverage in advancing the peace process, but “it would have been better to have left them at 4,500.”

“Zero would have been truly awful, while 2,500 is maybe okay, but it’s probably not very stable,” he said. “I would say 2,500 is probably stable as long as the U.S.-Taliban peace holds. But that may not happen because the Taliban have not done a reduction in violence, as they committed to do.”

Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Kabul, cautioned that “if we are pulling out faster than the withdrawal schedule, there’s no incentive for the Taliban to negotiate.”

The withdrawals could hand Biden a new set of challenges when he takes office on Jan. 20.

Taliban militants, fighting against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, have called on the United States to stick to a February agreement with the Trump administration to withdraw U.S. troops by May, subject to certain security guarantees.

Violence has been rising throughout Afghanistan, with the Taliban attacking provincial capitals, in some case prompting U.S. airstrikes.

In Iraq, four rockets fell in the Green Zone in Baghdad on Tuesday, an Iraqi military statement said. The fortified zone houses government buildings and foreign missions.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; additional reporting by Jonathan Landay, Richard Cowan, Jeff Mason and Steve Holland; Editing by Howard Goller and Alistair Bell)

Rockets land near Baghdad airport after week of anti-U.S. attacks

GENEVA, Switzerland (Reuters) – Three rockets landed in the vicinity of Baghdad airport near a military base in the complex that houses U.S. forces, the Iraqi military said, after one of the busiest weeks of attacks against U.S. targets in Iraq for months.

The incident caused no casualties, the military said.

It followed at least five attacks directed at U.S. interests in Iraq this week, including four blasts against convoys carrying supplies to bases housing U.S. forces, a rocket attack on an air base north of Baghdad and a rocket attack near the U.S. Embassy in the capital.

Washington blames such attacks on Iranian-backed militia groups. Iran has not directly commented on the incidents but little-known groups believed to be connected to Iran-aligned militias have claimed some attacks.

Friday’s attack took place as Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi prepares to travel to the United States for talks about Iraq’s future strategic relationship with Washington.

It also comes after Israel and the United Arab Emirates, two regional opponents of Iran, announced they would normalize diplomatic ties, a move that some commentators say provides a fresh challenge to Iran’s power in the Middle East.

Iraq, where U.S.-Iran tensions have often spilled over into violence, seeks to avoid being drawn into any regional conflagration.

The Middle East came close to a full conflict in January after a U.S. drone strike killed the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at Baghdad airport.

Iran-aligned militias have sworn to avenge their deaths.

The militias see Kadhimi as having firmly sided with the United States since he took office in May, after he ordered an arrest raid against one powerful Iran-aligned group and has indicated he wants to rein in the paramilitaries.

(Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Chris Reese and Angus MacSwan)

More U.S. troops leave Iraq over potential injures from missile attack

More U.S. troops leave Iraq over potential injures as Trump downplays brain risk
By Alexandra Alper and Idrees Ali

DAVOS, Switzerland/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday said he did not consider the brain injuries suffered by 11 U.S. service members in Iran’s recent attack on a base in Iraq to be serious, as the American military moved more troops out of the region for potential injuries.

In a separate statement on Wednesday, U.S. Central Command said that more troops had been flown out of Iraq to Germany for medical evaluations following Iran’s Jan. 8 missile attack on the base where U.S. forces were stationed after announcing the 11 injuries last week.

Further injuries may be identified in the future, it added, without giving further details.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said about a dozen troops were being transported to Germany.

Trump and other top officials initially said Iran’s attack had not killed or injured any U.S. service members before the Pentagon reversed course on Thursday, saying 11 U.S. troops had been treated for concussion symptoms after the attack on the Ain al-Asad air base in western Iraq.

On Wednesday, Trump declined to explain the discrepancy.

“I heard that they had headaches and a couple of other things, but I would say and I can report it is not very serious,” Trump told a news conference in Davos, Switzerland.

Asked whether he considered traumatic brain injury to be serious, Trump said: “They told me about it numerous days later. You’d have to ask the Department of Defense.”

Pentagon officials have said there had been no effort to minimize or delay information on concussive injuries, but its handling of the injuries following Tehran’s attack has renewed questions over the U.S. military’s policy regarding how it handles suspected brain injuries.

While the U.S. military has to immediately report incidents threatening life, limb or eyesight, it does not have an urgent requirement to do so with suspected traumatic brain injury, or TBI, which can take time to manifest and diagnose.

“I don’t consider them very serious injuries relative to other injuries I have seen,” Trump said. “I’ve seen people with no legs and no arms.”

Various health and medial groups for years have been trying to raise awareness about the seriousness of brain injuries, including concussions.

Such injury can cause symptoms such as memory problems, headaches, and sensitivity to light. Mood changes and possible links to mental illness are also concerns.

(Reporting by Alexandra Alper in Davos and Idrees Ali in Washington; writing by Susan Heavey; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Islamic State vows revenge against U.S. for Baghdadi killing

Late Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is seen in an undated picture released by the U.S. Department of Defense in Washington, U.S. October 30, 2019. U.S. Department of Defense/Handout via REUTERS

Islamic State vows revenge against U.S. for Baghdadi killing
By Hesham Abdulkhalek and Yousef Saba

CAIRO (Reuters) – Islamic State confirmed on Thursday that its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a weekend raid by U.S. forces in northwestern Syria and vowed revenge against the United States.

Baghdadi, an Iraqi jihadist who rose from obscurity to become the head of the ultra-hardline group and declare himself “caliph” of all Muslims, died during the swoop by U.S. special forces.

Islamic State (IS), which held swathes of Iraq and Syria from 2014-2017 before its self-styled caliphate disintegrated under U.S.-led attacks, had previously been silent about Baghdadi’s status.

It confirmed his demise in an audio tape posted online and said a successor it identified only as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi had been appointed.

Aymenn al-Tamimi, a researcher at Swansea University focusing on Islamic State, said the name was unknown but could refer to a leading figure in Islamic State called Hajj Abdullah whom the U.S. State Department had identified as a possible successor to Baghdadi.

An IS spokesman addressed the United States in the tape.

“Beware vengeance (against) their nation and their brethren of infidels and apostates, and carrying out the will of the commander of the faithful in his last audio message, and getting closer to God with the blood of polytheists,” he said.

Baghdadi’s death is likely to cause Islamic State to splinter, leaving whoever emerges as its new leader with the task of pulling the group back together as a fighting force, according to analysts.

Whether the loss of its leader will in itself affect the group’s capabilities is open to debate. Even if it does face difficulties in the leadership transition, the underlying ideology and the sectarian hatred it promoted remains attractive to many, analysts say.

GUERRILLA ATTACKS

Islamic State also confirmed the death of its spokesman Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir.

“I think they’re trying to send the message, ‘Don’t think you’ve destroyed the project just because you’ve killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the official spokesman’,” Tamimi said.

Islamic State has resorted to guerrilla attacks since losing its last significant piece of territory in Syria in March.

Since Baghdadi’s death, it had posted dozens of claims of attack in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

H.A. Hellyer, senior associate fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International peace, said the group, also known as ISIS or Daesh, would have picked the name Quraishi for Baghdadi’s successor to suggest ancestry from the Prophet Mohammad’s tribe.

Baghdadi’s “caliph” name also ended in Quraishi.

“ISIS is trying to show to its followers it respects that tradition, but Muslims more widely aren’t likely to care very much, considering the wide violations of Islamic law that ISIS has clearly engaged within,” Hellyer added.

In his last audio message, released last month, Baghdadi said operations were taking place daily and urged freedom for women jailed in Iraq and Syria over their alleged links to the group.

He also said the United States and its proxies had been defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that the United States had been “dragged” into Mali and Niger.

(Reporting by Hesham Abdulkhalek, Yousef Saba and Ulf Laessing; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Pravin Char)

U.S. forces seen near Turkish border for patrol in northeast Syria: witness, SDF source

U.S. forces seen near Turkish border for patrol in northeast Syria: witness, SDF source
BEIRUT (Reuters) – U.S. forces in armored vehicles were seen on Thursday near the Syria-Turkey border in a part of northeastern Syria where they had not been observed since the United States announced a decision to withdraw from the area, a witness said.

A military source from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) described the movement as a patrol running between the towns of Rmeilan to Qahtaniyah, 20 km (12 miles) to the west. The source said it would “not be a one-time” event.

The head of the SDF’s media office could not immediately be reached for comment. The witness saw the vehicles outside the town of Qahtaniyah, roughly 6 km (4 miles) south of the border.

President Donald Trump announced this month that U.S. forces would withdraw from northeastern Syria, where the United States had allied with the SDF to oust Islamic State forces.

In response to a question about the reported troop movement, Colonel Myles Caggins, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said, “All Coalition military operations are de-conflicted with other forces operating in the region”.

“We have begun repositioning Coalition troops to the Deir al-Zor region, in coordination with our SDF partners, to increase security (and) continue our mission to defeat (Islamic State) remnants,” Caggins added.

The U.S. military said last week it was reinforcing its position in Syria with additional assets, including mechanized forces, to prevent oil fields from being taken over by remnants of the Islamic State militant group or others.

Trump said last week a small number of U.S. troops would remain in the area of Syria “where they have the oil”. Syria’s oil wells are principally located in Deir al-Zor province, well south of the Turkish-Syrian border.

(Reporting by Rodi Said in northeast Syria; Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Tom Perry and Will Dunham)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AMERICAN ASSURANCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

DEEPLY INVOLVED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The SDF says Washington has stabbed it in the back.

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

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

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

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

U.S. launches strike in southern Libya as U.N. warns of escalation

By Aidan Lewis

CAIRO (Reuters) – U.S. forces said on Wednesday they killed 11 suspected militants in their second air strike in a week near the southern Libyan town of Murzuq, as the U.N. envoy warned of a growing risk of armed escalation and rights abuses in the country.

The strike comes as rival factions have been locked in a battle around the capital Tripoli, about 500 miles (800km) to the north, which forces loyal to eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar have been trying to capture since April.

The U.S. attack, carried out on Tuesday deep in Libya’s southern desert, followed a Sept. 19 strike that the U.S. said had killed eight suspected militants.

“This air strike was conducted to eliminate ISIS (Islamic State) terrorists and deny them the ability to conduct attacks on the Libyan people,” Major General William Gayler, director of operations for U.S. Africa Command, said in a statement.

Some Islamic State militants retreated south into Libya’s desert as the group lost its stronghold in the coastal city of Sirte at the end of 2016.

The U.S., which has carried out occasional strikes in desert areas, has said it will not allow militants to use the fighting around Tripoli for cover.

The offensive on Tripoli by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) upended U.N.-led plans to broker a political settlement in Libya and soon stalled in the capital’s outskirts.

The conflict has spread outside Tripoli, with air and drone strikes against the port city of Misrata, Sirte, and Jufra in central Libya, U.N. Libya envoy Ghassan Salame told the U.N. Human Rights Council on Wednesday.

It had also triggered a “micro-conflict” in Murzuq, where more than 100 civilians are reported to have been killed over the past two months, he said.

“The conflict risks escalating to full-blown civil war,” Salame said by video link. “It is fanned by widespread violations of the U.N. arms embargo by all parties and external actors.”

“Serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law have been committed with total impunity, including increased summary executions, enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment as well as conflict-related sexual violence.”

Libya has been divided between rival factions based in Tripoli and the east since 2014, three years after a NATO-backed uprising ended Muammar Gaddafi’s four-decade rule.

Haftar’s LNA is battling forces aligned with the Government of National Accord (GNA), which was set up in 2016 following a U.N.-brokered deal.

Haftar’s foreign backers include the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, who diplomats and analysts say are vying for influence in the oil-rich nation with regional rivals Turkey and Qatar.

At least 128,000 people have been displaced by the fighting since April, according to U.N. estimates.

(Reporting by Aidan Lewis in Cairo and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Trump: U.S. will maintain presence in Afghanistan even if deal reached with Taliban

FILE PHOTO: U.S. military advisers from the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade sit at an Afghan National Army base in Maidan Wardak province, Afghanistan August 6, 2018. REUTERS/James Mackenzie/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Thursday that U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan were being reduced to 8,600 but that American forces would remain in the country even if Washington reaches an agreement with the Taliban to end the 18-year war.

“Oh yeah, you have to keep a presence,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News radio. “We’re going to keep a presence there. We’re reducing that presence very substantially and we’re going to always have a presence. We’re going to have high intelligence.”

Trump said the U.S. force level in Afghanistan was being reduced to 8,600 “and then we make a determination from there as to what happens.” Some 14,000 U.S. service members are currently in Afghanistan, among whom about 5,000 are dedicated to counterinsurgency operations.

The Taliban said on Wednesday it was close to a “final agreement” with U.S. officials on a deal that would see U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan in exchange for a pledge that the country would not become a haven for other Islamist militant groups.

“We hope to have good news soon for our Muslim, independence-seeking nation,” Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Doha said.

Both U.S. and Taliban negotiators have reported progress in their talks in recent weeks, raising the prospect of an end to the conflict. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for peace in Afghanistan, was due to travel from Doha to Kabul this week for a meeting with Afghan leaders.

The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and ousted its Taliban leaders after they refused to hand over members of the al Qaeda militant group behind the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Trump has long called for an end to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, writing on Twitter seven years ago that the war was “a complete waste” and six years ago that “we should leave Afghanistan immediately.”

Since becoming president in January 2017, he has repeatedly said he could end the Afghanistan war quickly if he didn’t mind killing millions of people, a claim he repeated in the interview with Fox News radio.

“We could win that war so fast if I wanted to kill 10 million people … which I don’t. I’m not looking to kill a big portion of that country,” Trump said.

He denied the United States was acting too quickly by reducing troop levels, something he criticized his predecessor, Barack Obama, for doing in Iraq.

“We have to watch Afghanistan, but we’re bringing it down,” he said.

Trump warned that any attack on the United States again from Afghan territory would bring a massive response.

“We will come back with a force like they’ve never seen before,” Trump told Fox News radio.

On Wednesday, the top U.S. military officer, Marine General Joseph Dunford, told reporters that it was too early to talk about the future of U.S. counterterrorism troops in Afghanistan.

“I honestly think it’s premature to talk about what our counterterrorism presence in Afghanistan may or may not be without a better appreciation for what will the conditions (be),” said Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

He said that in the current security environment, local Afghan security forces needed U.S. support to deal with the violence.

“If an agreement happens in the future, if the security environment changes, then obviously our posture may adjust,” Dunford said.

(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Staff evacuated as rocket strikes near foreign oil firms in Iraq

Iraqi soldiers sit on a tank at the entry of Zubair oilfield after a rocket struck the site of residential and operations headquarters of several oil companies at Burjesia area, in Basra, Iraq June 19, 2019. REUTERS/Essam Al-Sudani

By Aref Mohammed and Ahmed Rasheed

BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) – A rocket hit a site in southern Iraq used by foreign oil companies on Wednesday, including U.S. energy giant ExxonMobil, wounding three people and threatening to further escalate U.S.-Iran tensions in the region.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack near Iraq’s southern city of Basra, the fourth time in a week that rockets have struck near U.S. installations.

Three previous attacks on or near military bases housing U.S. forces near Baghdad and Mosul caused no casualties or major damage. None of those incidents were claimed.

An Iraqi security source said it appeared that Iran-backed groups in southern Iraq were behind the Basra incident.

“According to our sources, the team (that launched the rocket) is made up of more than one group and were well trained in missile launching,” the security source said.

He said they had received a tip-off several days ago the U.S. consulate in Basra might be targeted but were taken by surprise when the rocket hit the oil site.

Iranian officials have made no comment about the attack but have strongly denied all other allegations against them of attacking energy tankers and facilities in the region.

Abbas Maher, mayor of the nearby town of Zubair, said he believed Iran-backed groups had specifically targeted Exxon to “send a message” to the United States.

U.S.-Iranian hostility has risen since President Donald Trump withdrew Washington from a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and other world powers in May last year.

Trump has since reimposed and extended U.S. sanctions on Iran, forcing states to boycott Iranian oil or face sanctions of their own. Tehran has threatened to abandon the nuclear pact unless other signatories act to rein in the United States.

The U.S. face-off with Iran reached a new pitch following attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf in May and June that Washington blames on Tehran. Iran denies any involvement.

ESCALATION FEARED

While the long-time foes say they do not want war, the United States has reinforced its military presence in the region and analysts say violence could nonetheless escalate.

Some Western officials have said the recent attacks appear designed to show Iran could sow chaos if it wanted.

Iraqi officials fear their country, where powerful Iran-backed Shi’ite Muslim militias operate in close proximity to some 5,200 U.S. troops, could become an arena for escalation.

The United States has pressed Iraq’s government to rein in Iran-backed paramilitary groups, a tall order for a cabinet that suffers from its own political divisions.

Iraq’s military said three people were wounded in Wednesday’s strike by a short-range Katyusha missile. It struck the Burjesia site, west of Basra, which is near the Zubair oilfield operated Italy’s Eni SpA.

Police said the rocket landed 100 meters from the part of the site used as a residence and operations center by Exxon. Some 21 Exxon staff were evacuated by plane to Dubai, a security source said.

Zubair mayor Maher said the rocket was fired from farmland around 3-4 km (2 miles) from the site. A second rocket landed to the northwest of Burjesia, near a site of oil services company Oilserv, but did not explode, he said.

“We cannot separate this from regional developments, meaning the U.S.-Iranian conflict,” Maher said.

“These incidents have political objectives … it seems some sides did not like the return of Exxon staff.”

EXPORTS UNAFFECTED

Exxon had evacuated its staff from Basra after a partial U.S. Baghdad embassy evacuation in May and staff had just begun to return.

Burjesia is also used as a headquarters by Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Eni., according to Iraqi oil officials.

The officials said operations including exports from southern Iraq were not affected.

A separate Iraqi oil official, who oversees foreign operations in the south, said the other foreign firms had no plans to evacuate and would operate as normal.

A Shell spokesman said its employees had “not been subject to the attack … and we continue normal operations in Iraq.”

Eni say its operations were also proceeding as normal after the rocket exploded “several kilometers” from its facilities.

Wednesday’s rocket strike fits into a pattern of attacks since May, when four tankers in the Gulf and two Saudi oil pumping stations were attacked.

They have been accompanied by a spate of incidents inside Shi’ite-dominated Iraq, which is allied both to the United States and fellow Shi’ite Muslim Iran.

The attacks in Iraq have caused less damage but have all taken place near U.S. military, diplomatic or civilian installations, raising suspicions they were part of a campaign.

A rocket landed near the U.S. embassy in Baghdad last month causing no damage or casualties. The United States had already evacuated hundreds of diplomatic staff from the embassy, citing unspecified threats from Iran.

Iran backs a number of Iraqi Shi’ite militias which have grown more powerful after helping defeat Islamic State.

Iraqi officials say that threats from Iran cited by Washington when it sent additional forces to the Middle East last month included the positioning by Iran-backed militias of rockets near U.S. forces.

Rockets hit on or near three separate military bases housing U.S. forces near Baghdad and in the northern city of Mosul in three separate attacks since Friday.

(Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal in Dubai, Stephen Jewkes in; Writing by John Davison; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Jon Boyle and Andrew Cawthorne and Alison Williams)

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)