U.S. military commander says China pushing territorial claims under cover of coronavirus

By Tim Kelly

TOKYO (Reuters) – China is using the coronavirus as a cover to push territorial claims in the South China Sea through a surge in naval activity meant to intimidate other countries that claim the waters, the commander of U.S. Forces in Japan said on Friday.

There has been a surge of activity by China in the South China Sea with navy ships, coast guard vessels and a naval militia of fishing boats in harassing vessels in waters claimed by Beijing, said Lieutenant General Kevin Schneider.

“Through the course of the COVID crisis we saw a surge of maritime activity,” he told Reuters in a phone interview. He said Beijing had also increased its activity in the East China Sea, where it has a territorial dispute with Japan.

Beijing’s increased level of activity would likely continue, predicted Schneider: “I don’t see troughs, I see plateaus,” he said.

China says its maritime activities in the area are peaceful. The press office at the Chinese embassy in Tokyo was not immediately available to comment outside of normal business hours.

Japan hosts the biggest concentration of U.S. forces in Asia, including an aircraft carrier strike group, an amphibious expeditionary force and fighter squadrons. In addition to defending Japan, they are deployed to deter China from expanding its influence in the region, including in the South China Sea.

The latest U.S. criticism of China comes as relations have frayed amid accusations by Washington that Beijing failed to warn it quickly enough about the coronavirus. China has dismissed that criticism as an attempt by President Donald Trump’s administration to cover up its own mistakes.

Beijing has built military island bases on reefs in the energy-rich South China Sea, in or near waters claimed by other countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. It imposed a unilateral fishing ban until Aug 16.

(Reporting by Tim Kelly; Editing by Peter Graff)

U.S. military says Russia deployed fighter jets to Libya

TUNIS (Reuters) – The U.S. military said on Tuesday that Russia has deployed fighter aircraft to Libya to support Russian mercenaries fighting for eastern forces, adding to concerns of a new escalation in the conflict.

“Russian military aircraft are likely to provide close air support and offensive fire,” the United States Africa command said in a statement it posted on its website and on Twitter.

Libya’s civil war has drawn in regional and global powers with what the United Nations has called a huge influx of weapons and fighters in violation of an arms embargo.

Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt support the eastern-based Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, which launched an offensive last year to seize the capital Tripoli.

However, in recent weeks the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) has with extensive Turkish backing pushed Haftar back from his foothold in southern Tripoli and from some other parts of the northwest.

The United States has played a less prominent role in the Libyan war than it did at an earlier stage when NATO helped rebels overthrow the country’s autocratic ruler Muammar Gaddafi.

The statement said the aircraft had arrived from an airbase in Russia after transiting via Syria, where they were repainted to conceal their Russian origin. There was no immediate response from the Russian Defence Ministry to a request for comment.

On Saturday, Russian fighters in Libya were flown out of a town south of Tripoli by their Libyan allies after retreating from frontlines in Tripoli, the town’s mayor said.

The LNA has denied any foreigners are fighting with it, but the United Nations said this month that Russian private military contractor Wagner Group had up to 1,200 people in Libya.

“Russia has employed state-sponsored Wagner in Libya to conceal its direct role and to afford Moscow plausible deniability of its malign actions,” the U.S. statement said.

It quoted U.S. Air Force General Jeff Harrigian as warning that if Russia seized bases on Libya’s coast, it would “create very real security concerns on Europe’s southern flank”.

The statement said neither the LNA nor mercenaries would be able to “arm, operate and sustain these fighters” — meaning fighter aircraft — without the support they had from Russia. Last week the LNA announced it would be launching a major new air campaign against the GNA and said it had refurbished four war jets.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Additional reporting by Andrew Osborne in Moscow; Editing by Alison Williams, William Maclean)

Pentagon eyes Chicago, Michigan, Florida, Louisiana as coronavirus spreads

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. military is watching coronavirus infection trends in Chicago, Michigan, Florida and Louisiana with concern as it weighs where else it may need to deploy, after boosting aid to New York, California and Washington, a top general said on Friday.

Air Force General John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the military was doing its own analysis as well as looking at data on infections compiled elsewhere in the government.

“There’s a certain number of places where we have concerns and they’re: Chicago, Michigan, Florida, Louisiana,” Hyten told a group of reporters, when asked where field hospitals could head next.

“Those are the areas that we’re looking at and trying to figure out where to go next.”

Confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States reached 100,040 on Friday, the highest number in the world, a Reuters tally showed.

The Army Corps of Engineers said on Friday it was aiming to provide facilities for 3,000 people with the coronavirus at Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center by April 24 for about $75 million.

Lieutenant General Todd Semonite, the Corps’ commander, said the Corps was looking at potentially converting 114 facilities in the United States into hospitals.

Asked about Hyten’s remarks, Semonite said he continued to be concerned about Michigan, Florida and Louisiana and had spoken with the governor of Louisiana. He said there could be a high demand for medical resources in Florida because of the aging population and added the Corps was developing options for the state.

STRAINS ON MILITARY

The military is already deploying field hospitals to Seattle and New York. A Navy hospital ship arrived on Friday in Los Angeles and another one is expected to reach New York City on Monday, where Hyten said the city was still dredging the harbor to allow the massive ship to dock.

Each ship has a capacity of about 1,000 beds and would not treat coronavirus patients, instead taking pressure off overwhelmed civilian hospitals.

But Hyten cautioned that the U.S. military only had limited medical capacity in the United States and, at some point, it would have to tap the reserve forces — while guarding against drawing medical staff away from civilian facilities.

President Donald Trump on Friday signed an executive order authorizing the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security to call up reservists.

“We made a decision about five or six years ago that we would downsize our military (health care) capabilities in the United States … to only really focus on our deployed requirements,” Hyten said.

He estimated that the military only had 1,329 adult hospital beds staffed at any one time in the United States.

“We’re digging into the active duty force really heavily,” he said. “So the next thing that we’re going to need is to look into the reserves.”

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

U.S. says 50 troops now diagnosed with traumatic brain injury after Iran strike

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Pentagon said on Tuesday 50 U.S. service members were now diagnosed with traumatic brain injury after missile strikes by Iran on a base in Iraq earlier this month, 16 more than the military had previously announced.

President Donald Trump and other top officials initially said Iran’s Jan. 8 attack had not killed or injured any U.S. service members.

“As of today, 50 U.S. service members have been diagnosed” with traumatic brain injury, Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Campbell said in a statement about injuries in the attack on the Ain al-Asad air base in western Iraq.

Symptoms of concussive injuries include headaches, dizziness, sensitivity to light and nausea.

Thirty-one of the 50 were treated in Iraq and returned to duty, including 15 of those diagnosed most recently, Campbell said.

Eighteen of the total have been sent to Germany for further evaluation and treatment, and one was sent to Kuwait and has since returned to duty, he said.

“This is a snapshot in time and numbers can change,” Campbell said.

In its previous update on Friday, the Pentagon had put the number of those injured at 34.

Trump last week appeared to play down the injuries, saying he “heard that they had headaches and a couple of other things.”

That prompted criticism from a U.S. war veterans group. William Schmitz, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said on Friday the group “expects an apology from the president to our service men and women for his misguided remarks.”

According to Pentagon data, about 408,000 service members have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury since 2000.

Iran fired missiles at Ain al-Asad in retaliation for the U.S. killing of a top Revolutionary Guard general, Qassem Soleimani, in a drone strike at Baghdad airport on Jan. 3.

The missile attacks capped a spiral of violence that had started in late December, and both sides have refrained from further military escalation.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Writing by Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Russia says ‘unacceptable’ Turkish incursion into Syria must be temporary

FILE PHOTO: Russia's special envoy on Syria Alexander Lavrentiev attends a meeting during consultations on Syria at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland September 11, 2018. Salvatore Di Nolfi/Pool via REUTERS

By Olesya Astakhova and Andrew Osborn

ABU DHABI/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia called Turkey’s military incursion into northeast Syria “unacceptable” and said on Tuesday the operation had to be limited in time and scale, a rare broadside that suggests Moscow’s patience with Ankara is wearing thin.

In Russia’s strongest criticism since Turkey launched its military operation last week, President Vladimir Putin’s envoy for Syria indicated Moscow wanted Ankara to wrap up its offensive soon.

“We didn’t agree with the Turks any questions about their presence in Syria and we don’t approve of their actions,” envoy Alexander Lavrentiev told reporters in Abu Dhabi during an official visit there by Putin.

He said Turkish troops had the right under an agreement struck between Damascus and Ankara in 1998, the Adana pact, to temporarily push up to a maximum of 10 km (six miles) into Syria to conduct counter-terrorism operations.

“But it doesn’t give them (Turkish troops) the right to remain on Syrian territory permanently and we are opposed to Turkish troops staying on Syrian territory permanently,” he said.

Lavrentiev made his comments as Turkey pressed ahead with its offensive in northern Syria despite U.S. sanctions and growing calls for it to stop, while Syria’s Russia-backed army moved on the key city of Manbij that was abandoned by U.S. forces.

Lavrentiev earlier on Tuesday told Russian news agencies that Moscow had always considered any kind of Turkish military operation on Syrian territory unacceptable.

His comments, which suggest growing tensions between Turkey and Russia, came a day after the Kremlin complained that Turkey’s incursion was “not exactly” compatible with Syrian territorial integrity.

“The security of the Turkish-Syrian border must be ensured by the deployment of Syrian government troops along its entire length,” said Lavrentiev. “That’s why we never spoke in favor or supported the idea of Turkish units (being deployed there) let alone the armed Syrian opposition.”

Lavrentiev said Turkey’s actions risked upsetting delicate religious sensitivities in northern Syria.

In particular, he said the area was populated by Kurds, Arabs and Sunnis who would not take kindly to their lands being resettled by people who had never lived there, a reference to Turkey’s plan to house refugees from other parts of Syria there.

Lavrentiev confirmed that Russia had brokered an agreement between the Syrian government and Kurdish forces that saw the Kurds cede control of territory to Syrian troops.

Those talks had taken place at Russia’s Hmeimim air base in Syria among other places, he said.

Russia’s influence in Syria and the Middle East is widely seen to have been boosted in the last week thanks to Washington scaling back its Syria operation and the Syrian Kurds striking a deal with President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow’s closest ally in the region.

Lavrentiev said Moscow was hoping that the United States would withdraw all of its forces from Syria. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu spoke to his U.S. counterpart about Syria on Tuesday evening.

Russian military police are patrolling the line of contact between Syrian and Turkish government troops.

Lavrentiev estimated there were around 12,000 Islamic State prisoners being held in northeast Syria.

(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova, Maxim Rodionov and Tom Balmforth; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Pentagon mulling military request to send 5,000 troops to Middle East: officials

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Bainbridge sail in the Arabian Sea May 17, 2019. U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Brian M. Wilbur/Handout via REUTERS.

By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Department of Defense is considering a U.S. military request to send about 5,000 additional troops to the Middle East amid increasing tensions with Iran, two U.S. officials told Reuters on Wednesday.

Tehran and Washington have this month been escalating rhetoric against each other, following U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to try to cut Iran’s oil exports to zero and beef up the U.S. military presence in the Gulf in response to what he said were Iranian threats.

The officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the request had been made by U.S. Central Command, but added that it was not clear whether the Pentagon would approve the request.

The Pentagon regularly receives – and declines – requests for additional resources from U.S. combatant commands throughout the world.

One of the officials said the requested troops would be defensive in nature.

It is unclear if any specific request will ultimately be presented to the White House. The request for 5,000 additional troops was first reported by Reuters.

This appeared to be the latest request for additional resources in the face of what U.S. officials have said are credible threats from Iran against U.S. forces and American interests in the Middle East.

The United States has not publicly shown any evidence of what the specific intelligence on the Iranian threat is.

The Pentagon declined to comment.

“As a matter of longstanding policy, we are not going to discuss or speculate on potential future plans and requests for forces,” Commander Rebecca Rebarich, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said on Wednesday.

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said on Tuesday that while threats from Iran in the Middle East remained high, deterrence measures taken by the Pentagon had “put on hold” the potential for attacks on Americans.

The U.S. military accelerated the deployment of a carrier strike group to the Middle East, and sent bombers and Patriot missiles to the region earlier this month in response to what Washington said were troubling indications of possible preparations for an attack by Iran.

U.S. government sources told Reuters last week they believe Iran encouraged Houthi militants or Iraq-based Shi’ite militias to carry out attacks on tanker ships off the United Arab Emirates.

Trump has warned that Iran would be met with “great force” if it attacked U.S. interests in the Middle East.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Wednesday that Iran’s youth will witness the demise of Israel and American civilization.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; editing by Rosalba O’Brien and G Crosse)

Half of American adults expect war with Iran ‘within next few years’: Reuters/Ipsos poll

FILE PHOTO: A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with foreign ministers and representatives of the U.S., Iran, China, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and the European Union during Iran nuclear talks at the Vienna International Center in Vienna, Austria, July 14, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

By Chris Kahn

(Reuters) – Half of all Americans believe that the United States will go to war with Iran “within the next few years,” according to a Reuters/Ipsos public opinion poll released on Tuesday amid increased tensions between the two countries.

While Americans are more concerned about Iran as a security threat to the United States now than they were last year, few would be in favor of a pre-emptive attack on the Iranian military. But if Iran attacked U.S. military forces first, four out of five believed the United States should respond militarily in a full or limited way, the May 17-20 poll showed.

Historically tense relations between Washington and Tehran worsened in May after U.S. President Donald Trump hardened his anti-Iran stance and restored all sanctions on Iranian oil exports following his decision a year ago to pull the United States out of a 2015 international nuclear accord with Tehran.

The United States moved an aircraft carrier and forces to the Gulf region in response to intelligence that Iran may be plotting against U.S. interests, an assertion Iran denies.

Nearly half – 49% – of all Americans disapprove of how Republican Trump is handling relations with Iran, the poll found, with 31% saying they strongly disapprove. Overall, 39% approve of Trump’s policy.

The survey showed that 51% of adults felt that the United States and Iran would go to war within the next few years, up 8 percentage points from a similar poll published last June. In this year’s poll, Democrats and Republicans were both more likely to see Iran as a threat and to say war was likely.

Iran was characterized by 53% of adults in the United States as either a “serious” or “imminent” threat, up 6 percentage points from a similar poll from last July. In comparison, 58% of Americans characterized North Korea as a threat and 51% characterized Russia as a threat.

Despite their concerns, 60% of Americans said the United States should not conduct a pre-emptive attack on the Iranian military, while 12% advocate for striking first.

If Iran attacked, however, 79% said that the U.S. military should retaliate: 40% favored a limited response with airstrikes, while 39% favored a full invasion.

Both the United States and Iran have said they do not want war, although there have been bellicose statements from both.

Despite Trump’s decision to withdraw, the poll showed 61% of Americans still supported the 2015 deal between Iran and world powers to curb Iran’s potential pathway to a nuclear bomb in return for sanctions relief. Republicans also favored the accord negotiated by the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama, with a little more than half saying they supported it.

Gulf allies and U.S. government officials have said they believe Iran-backed groups are responsible for a series of attacks on shipping and pipelines in the Gulf in the last week.

Trump has said he would like to negotiate with the Islamic Republic’s leaders. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani rejected talks on Tuesday and has said “economic war” is being waged against Iran.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll was conducted online in English throughout the United States. It gathered responses from 1,007 adults, including 377 Democrats and 313 Republicans, and has a credibility interval, a measure of precision, of 4 percentage points.

To see a copy of the full poll results and methodology, click here: https://tmsnrt.rs/2WUpjFT

(Reporting by Chris Kahn; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)

White House reviews military plans against Iran: New York Times

FILE PHOTO: An F/A-18E Super Hornet launches from the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the Red Sea, May 10, 2019. Courtesy Dan Snow/U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The top U.S. defense official has presented an updated military plan to President Donald Trump’s administration that envisions sending up to 120,000 troops to the Middle East should Iran attack American forces or accelerate work on nuclear weapons, the New York Times reported on Monday.

Citing unnamed administration officials, the Times said Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan presented the plan at a meeting of Trump’s top security aides on Thursday.

Reuters could not immediately confirm the report.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Pentagon declined to comment.

Tensions between Iran and the United States have intensified since Trump pulled out of a 2015 international deal to curb Iran’s nuclear activities and imposed increasingly strict sanctions on Tehran.

Trump wants to force Tehran to agree to a broader arms control accord and has sent an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Gulf in a show of force against what U.S. officials have said are threats to U.S. troops in the region.

Iran has said the U.S. is engaging in “psychological warfare,” called the U.S. military presence “a target” rather than a threat and said it will not allow its oil exports to be halted.

The Times said among those attending the Thursday meeting were Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton, CIA Director Gina Haspel, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford.

Several plans were detailed, the Times said, and “the uppermost option called for deploying 120,000 troops, which would take weeks or months to complete.”

(Reporting by Mohammad Zargham and Eric Beech; Editing by Michael Perry)

U.S. sending carrier, bombers to Mideast is “psychological warfare”: Iran

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s top security body dismissed as “psychological warfare” a U.S. announcement that a carrier strike group and bombers are being sent to the Middle East as a message to Tehran, the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported on Tuesday.

Tensions rose on the eve of the anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from world powers’ 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Tehran is likely to revive part of its halted nuclear program on Wednesday in response to the U.S. move but does not plan to pull out of the agreement itself, state media said.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said on Sunday the United States was deploying the Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group and a bomber task force to the Middle East in a warning over alleged threats by Iranian forces.

“Bolton’s statement is a clumsy use of a burnt-out happening for (the purpose of) psychological warfare,” Tasnim quoted Keyvan Khosravi, spokesman for the Supreme National Security Council, as saying. Khosravi said the carrier had arrived in the Mediterranean weeks ago.

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said on Monday he had approved dispatching the carrier strike group and bombers due to indications of a “credible threat by Iranian regime forces”. He gave no details of underlying intelligence.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Twitter: “If U.S. and clients don’t feel safe, it’s because they’re despised by the people of the region – blaming Iran won’t reverse that.”

Iran’s state-run Press TV earlier said: “The deployment seems to be a ‘regularly scheduled’ one by the U.S. Navy, and Bolton has just tried to talk it up.”

JITTERS

Separately, a military adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei asserted that the United States was “neither willing nor capable” of military action against Iran, the semi-official news agency ISNA reported.

Brigadier General Hossein Dehgan said Washington would have a hard time convincing world opinion and regional countries to accept an all-out war against Iran, and to mobilize resources for such a conflict.

Iranian newspapers and commentators have dismissed Washington’s announcement as a “bluff” and “empty rhetoric”.

However, as jitters over the war of words rose, Iran’s rial currency extended its fall on Tuesday, hovering around a seven-month low against the U.S. dollar on the unofficial market, foreign exchange websites reported.

The rial declined to 154,000 to the dollar on Tuesday, compared to 150,500 rials on Monday, touching its lowest value since early October 2018, according to Bonbast.com.

Last week, President Donald Trump’s administration said it would end waivers for countries buying Iranian oil in an attempt to reduce Iran’s crude exports to zero following Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal.

The administration also blacklisted Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Iran said last month it was prepared for a U.S. decision to end the waivers as the Revolutionary Guards repeated a threat to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf if Tehran were barred from using it.

Around 30 percent of the world’s seaborne oil exports is shipped through the strait.

While neither Shanahan nor Bolton elaborated on the gist of U.S. intelligence, other U.S. officials told Reuters there were

“multiple, credible threats” against U.S. forces on land,

including in Iraq, by Iran and proxy forces and at sea.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Sexual assaults spike in U.S. military, hit new record: Pentagon

Women Soldiers Image by Mario Cesar on Pixiebay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Defense Department said on Thursday the estimated number of sexual assaults in the military climbed nearly 38 percent in 2018 compared with a survey two years earlier, data that critics say laid bare broken Pentagon promises of a crackdown.

The Pentagon said there were 6,053 reports of sexual assaults last year, according to an anonymous, bi-annual survey. It is a record number and the highest since the U.S. military began collecting this kind of survey data in 2004.

Taking into consideration unreported cases as well, the military survey estimated 20,500 male and female service members experienced some kind of sexual assault last year. The estimated number in 2016 was 14,900.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democratic presidential candidate who has been an advocate for overhauling rules for prosecution of sex crimes in the U.S. military, said the data made clear that it was time for Congress to act.

“Sexual assaults continue to increase dramatically while the number of cases going to trial goes down,” she said. “The status quo is not working.”

The report found that the odds of a military woman between the ages of 17 and 20 being sexually assaulted was one in eight.

“It is time for Congress to stop giving the failing military leadership the benefit of doubt and pass real reform empowering military prosecutors. Enough is enough,” said Don Christensen, a retired colonel and former chief Air Force prosecutor who now leads the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders.

The Pentagon said it was going to make changes to deal with the spike.

“To put it bluntly, we are not performing to the standards

and expectations we have for ourselves or for each other,” acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said in a memo. “This is unacceptable. We cannot shrink from facing the challenge head-on. We must, and will, do better.”

In a briefing on Thursday, a senior official told reporters that the Pentagon was looking to make sexual harassment a stand-alone crime.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Editing by Bill Trott)