Trump says U.S. may release parts of Baghdadi raid video

Trump says U.S. may release parts of Baghdadi raid video
By Steve Holland and Andrew Osborn

WASHINGTON/MOSCOW (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday he may declassify and release part of the video taken on Saturday of the raid in Syria in which Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed.

The video is believed to include aerial footage and possibly footage from cameras mounted on the soldiers who stormed Baghdadi’s compound.

“We’re thinking about it. We may,” Trump told reporters before flying to Chicago. “We may take certain parts of it and release it.”

Trump said on Sunday that Baghdadi had died “whimpering and crying” in a raid by U.S. special forces in Syria, fulfilling his top national security goal.

World leaders welcomed Baghdadi’s death, but said the campaign against Islamic State, a group that carried out atrocities in the name of a fanatical version of Islam, was not over, with so-called lone wolves likely to seek revenge.

Baghdadi, who had led the jihadist group since 2010, killed himself by detonating a suicide vest after fleeing into a dead-end tunnel as U.S. forces closed in, Trump said in a televised address from the White House.

“He was a sick and depraved man and now he’s gone,” said Trump. “He died … whimpering and crying and screaming.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to say if the United States had told Russia about the operation in advance.

But he added: “If this information is confirmed we can talk about a serious contribution by the president of the United States to the fight against international terrorism.”

French President Emmanuel Macron said Baghdadi’s death was a major blow against Islamic State but “the fight continues to finally defeat this terrorist organization”.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “We will work with our coalition partners to bring an end to the murderous, barbaric activities of Daesh (Islamic State) once and for all.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters: “This is a many-headed monster … As you cut one off, another one inevitably arises.”

In Southeast Asia, an important focus for Islamic State, officials said security forces were preparing for a long battle to thwart the group’s ideology.

The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, home to some of Asia’s most organized Islamist militants, said they were braced for retaliation by Islamic State loyalists, including “lone wolf” attacks by radicalized locals.

CAPABLE AND DANGEROUS

Though Baghdadi’s death will unsettle Islamic State, it remains capable and dangerous, said Delfin Lorenzana, defense secretary of the Philippines, where the group’s influence has taken a hold in its troubled Mindanao region.

“This is a blow to the organization considering al-Baghdadi’s stature as a leader. But this is just a momentary setback considering the depth and reach of the organization worldwide,” Lorenzana said. “Somebody will take his place.”

Islamic State has no declared successor as leader. But the group has in the past proved resilient, continuing to mount or inspire attacks in the region and beyond despite losing most of its territory in recent years.

Baghdadi had long been sought by the United States – which offered a $25 million reward – as leader of a jihadist group that at one point controlled large areas of Syria and Iraq, where it declared a caliphate.

Islamic State has brutally attacked religious minorities and launched deadly strikes on five continents in a violent campaign that horrified most Muslims.

In their long hunt for Baghdadi, Iraqi intelligence teams secured a break in February 2018 after one of his top aides gave them information on how he escaped capture for so many years, two Iraqi security officials said.

Baghdadi held strategy talks with his commanders in moving minibuses packed with vegetables in order to avoid detection, Ismael al-Ethawi told officials after he was arrested by Turkish authorities and handed to the Iraqis.

“Ethawi gave valuable information which helped the Iraqi multi-security agencies team complete the missing pieces of the puzzle of Baghdadi’s movements and places he used to hide,” one of the Iraqi security officials said.

Iraqi security officials said Kurdish intelligence agents had exchanged information with counterparts in Baghdad on the movements of Baghdadi and his aides in Syria. One of the Kurds’ sources passed on a “golden tip” earlier this year.

Suspicious movements were spotted by locals at house in a village in Syria, which was placed under surveillance and turned out to be the house used by Baghdadi, the Iraqi officials said.

U.S. PULLBACK

The raid on Baghdadi comes weeks after Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria, which permitted Turkey to attack America’s Kurdish allies as it sought to set up a “safe zone”.

Critics expressed concern at the abandoning of the Kurdish fighters who were instrumental in defeating Islamic State in Syria, and said the move might allow the group to regain strength and pose a threat to U.S. interests.

Trump said the raid would not change his decision to withdraw troops from Syria.

But killing Baghdadi could help blunt those concerns, as well as boosting Trump domestically at a time when he is facing an impeachment inquiry in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Regional allies welcomed the operation, with Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan saying it marked “a turning point in our joint fight against terrorism”.

Turkey’s military was in intense coordination with U.S. counterparts on the night of the raid, a presidential spokesman said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praising an “impressive achievement”. Saudi Arabia also offered praise.

Egypt, which is fighting militants loyal to Islamic State, said the killing of Baghdadi is “an important step toward eradicating terrorism”.

U.S. foe Iran, which accuses the United States and its allies of creating Islamic State, was dismissive. Information Minister Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi, tweeted: “Not a big deal, You just killed your creature”.

NIGHT-TIME RAID

In the hours before Trump’s announcement, sources in the region had described the raid on a compound in the village of Barisha, in Idlib province bordering Turkey, in the early hours of Sunday.

Trump said eight helicopters carried U.S. special forces to Baghdadi’s compound, where they were met with gunfire before blasting their way in.

The president said he watched the operation in the Situation Room of the White House.

At the height of its power, Islamic State ruled over millions of people from northern Syria to the outskirts of Baghdad.

Thousands of civilians were killed by the group as it mounted what the United Nations called a genocidal campaign against Iraq’s Yazidi minority. It also caused worldwide revulsion by beheading foreign nationals from countries including the United States, Britain and Japan.

The group has claimed responsibility for or inspired attacks in cities including Paris, Nice, Orlando, Manchester, London and Berlin, and in Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Khalil Ashawi in Syria, Katanga Johnson in Washington, Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, Ahmed Rasheed and Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad, Samia Nakhoul, Ellen Francis and Lisa Barrington in Beirut, Orhan Coskun in Ankara and Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul, Mahmoud Mourad in Cairo, and Reuters TV, Writing by Giles Elgood, Editing by William Maclean and Mike Collett-White)

At evangelical conference, concerns about Syria but cheers for Trump

Republican Mark Meadows speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (

By John Whitesides

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Prominent evangelical leaders have sharply criticized U.S. President Donald Trump over his decision to pull American military forces out of Syria, saying he was endangering tens of thousands of Christians in the Muslim-dominated region.

But the response was more muted at an annual conference of religious conservatives on Friday in Washington, where some Christian activists were concerned about the Syria move but willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt.

“I would have done things differently, but I don’t have all the information that went into the decision,” Jeffrey Morgan, co-founder of a pro-family group called Americans Against No-Fault Divorce, said at the Values Voter Summit.

“I have a hard time when we abandon friends who have stuck their necks out for us,” he said of the Kurds, close U.S. allies in the fight against Islamic State militants who are now under attack from Turkey in Syria. “But would I abandon the president over Syria? No way.”

William Murray, chairman of the Religious Freedom Coalition, a group that runs programs to assist Christians in Africa and the Middle East, including Syria, said he did not believe Kurds were protective of Christians in the region, but the withdrawal had made the area unstable.

“Any time you create a situation where bullets and bombs are flying, you are going to endanger people on the ground,” he said.

Evangelicals have been among Trump’s most loyal supporters through years of scandal and controversy, and the criticism from influential leaders has been a rare crack in their overwhelming support for the president as he heads into a congressional impeachment battle and a tough 2020 re-election fight.

Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, said after Trump announced the withdrawal that he was “in great danger of losing the mandate of Heaven.”

Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, asked people to pray for Trump to reconsider, saying “thousands of lives hang in the balance.”

Trump won 81% of the vote from white evangelical Christians in the 2016 election, which came just weeks after a decade-old Access Hollywood video surfaced showing him bragging about kissing and grabbing women because “when you are a star, they let you do it.”

Evangelicals have stuck with Trump since, through sex scandals like his alleged payments to hush up an affair with a porn star, and controversies like the investigation into Russian election meddling. In a Reuters/Ipsos poll from mid-September, 70% of white evangelicals approve of Trump’s job performance.

At the conference, which will conclude with a speech by Trump on Saturday night, the president drew repeated cheers for appointing conservative, anti-abortion judges, protecting religious liberties and battling liberals.

Speakers condemned the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry into whether Trump pressured his Ukrainian counterpart to dig up dirt on political rival Joe Biden, the former U.S. vice president who is seeking the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination.

“I think it’s time we send Adam Schiff home instead of the president of the United States,” conservative Republican U.S. Representative Mark Meadows told the cheering crowd, making a reference to one of the Democratic lawmakers leading the impeachment inquiry.

Attendees said Trump was a sympathetic leader besieged by Democrats determined to bring him down.

“He’s not a perfect man, but he represents more of my moral values than those who seem to hate him,” said Tim Chafins, a healthcare worker in Akron, Ohio. “What I see happening in Washington has nothing to do with Ukraine, Russia or China. It’s all politics.”

Tim Throckmorton, Midwest director of ministry for the Family Research Council, one of the sponsors of the conference, said that knowing Trump’s heart, “I’m sure he feels he is doing the right thing in Syria.”

“I hope the Christians in Syria are safe,” he added.

(Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Trump says he does not want war after attack on Saudi oil facilities

By Steve Holland and Rania El Gamal

WASHINGTON/DUBAI (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday it looked like Iran was behind attacks on oil plants in Saudi Arabia but stressed he did not want to go to war, as the attacks sent oil prices soaring and raised fears of a new Middle East conflict.

Iran has rejected U.S. charges it was behind the strikes on Saturday that damaged the world’s biggest crude-processing plant and triggered the largest jump in crude prices in decades.

Relations between the United States and Iran have deteriorated since Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear accord last year and reimposed sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic programs. Washington also wants to pressure Tehran to end its support of regional proxy forces, including in Yemen where Saudi forces have been fighting Iran-backed Houthis for four years.

The United States was still investigating if Iran was behind the Saudi strikes, Trump said, but “it’s certainly looking that way at this moment”.

Trump, who has spent much of his presidency trying to disentangle the United States from wars he inherited, made clear, however, he was not going to rush into a new conflict on behalf of Saudi Arabia.

“I’m somebody that would like not to have war,” Trump said.

Several U.S. Cabinet members, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, have blamed Tehran for the strikes. Pompeo and others will travel to Saudi Arabia soon, Trump said.

A day after saying the United States was “locked and loaded” to respond to the incident, Trump said on Monday there was “no rush” to do so.

“We have a lot of options but I’m not looking at options right now. We want to find definitively who did this,” he said.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the strikes were carried out by “Yemeni people” retaliating for attacks by a Saudi-led military coalition in a war with the Houthi movement.

“Yemeni people are exercising their legitimate right of defense,” Rouhani told reporters during a visit to Ankara.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi called the allegations “unacceptable and entirely baseless.”

The attacks cut 5% of world crude oil production.

Oil prices surged by as much as 19% after the incidents, the biggest intraday jump since the 1990-91 Gulf crisis over Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Prices retreated from their peak after Trump said he would release U.S. emergency supplies and producers said there were enough stocks globally to make up for the shortfall.

Japan said it will consider coordinated release of its oil reserves and other measures if needed to ensure sufficient supplies in the wake of the attacks.

Crude prices were down around 1% in Asian trade on Tuesday.

“The question is how long it takes for the supply to get back online,” said Esty Dwek, head of global market strategy at Natixis Investment Managers.

“However, the (geopolitical) risk premium … which has been basically ignored by markets in favor of growth worries in recent months, is likely to be priced in going forward,” she said.

SAUDI SUSPICIONS

Saudi Arabia said the attacks were carried out with Iranian weapons and urged U.N. experts to help investigate the raid.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said Iranian threats were not only directed against the kingdom but against the Middle East and the world.

While the prince did not directly accuse Tehran, a Foreign Ministry statement reported him as calling on the international community to condemn whoever was behind the strike.

“The kingdom is capable of defending its land and people and responding forcefully to those attacks,” the statement added.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been enemies for decades and are fighting a number of proxy wars.

Trump said he had not made commitments to protect the Saudis.

“No, I haven’t promised Saudis that. We have to sit down with the Saudis and work something out,” he said. “That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us. But we would certainly help them.”

Two sources briefed on state oil company Saudi Aramco’s operations told Reuters it might take months for Saudi oil production to return to normal. Earlier estimates had suggested it could take weeks.

Saudi Arabia said it would be able to meet oil customers’ demand from its ample storage, although some deliveries had been disrupted. At least 11 supertankers were waiting to load oil cargoes from Saudi ports, ship tracking data showed on Monday.

RISING TENSIONS

Tension in the oil-producing Gulf region has dramatically escalated this year after Trump imposed severe U.S. sanctions on Iran aimed at halting its oil exports altogether.

For months, Iranian officials have issued veiled threats, saying that if Tehran is blocked from exporting oil, other countries will not be able to do so either. But Iran has denied a role in specific attacks, including bombings of tankers in the Gulf and previous strikes claimed by the Houthis.

Trump has said the goal from his “maximum pressure” approach is to force Iran to negotiate a tougher agreement and has left open the possibility of talks with Rouhani at an upcoming U.N. meeting. Iran says there can be no talks until Washington lifts sanctions.

U.N. Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths told the U.N. Security Council on Monday it was “not entirely clear” who was behind the strike but he said it had increased the chances of a regional conflict.

But the U.S. ambassador to the world body, Kelly Craft, said emerging information on the attacks “indicates that responsibility lies with Iran” and there is no evidence it came from Yemen.

Iran’s Yemeni allies have promised more strikes to come. Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sarea said the group carried out Saturday’s predawn attack with drones, including some powered by jet engines.

“We assure the Saudi regime that our long arm can reach any place we choose and at the time of our choosing,” Sarea tweeted. “We warn companies and foreigners against being near the plants that we struck because they are still in our sights.”

U.S. officials say they believe the attacks came from the opposite direction, possibly from Iran itself rather than Yemen, and may have involved cruise missiles. Wherever the attacks were launched, however, they believe Iran is to blame.

The attacks have raised questions about how Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s top spenders on weaponry, much of it supplied by U.S. companies, was unable to protect oil plants from attack.

Sensing a commercial opening, President Vladimir Putin said Russia was ready to help Saudi Arabia by providing Russian-made air defense systems to protect Saudi infrastructure.

Russia and China said it was wrong to jump to conclusions about who was to blame for the attack on Saudi Arabia.

(Reporting by Steve Holland in Washington and Rania El Gamal in Dubai; Writing by William Maclean, Mike Collett-White and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Alistair Bell, Peter Cooney & Simon Cameron-Moore)

U.S. blames Iran for Saudi oil attack, Trump says ‘locked and loaded’

A satellite image shows an apparent drone strike on an Aramco oil facility in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia September 14, 2019. Planet Labs Inc/Handout via REUTERS

By Roberta Rampton and Arshad Mohammed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Sunday the United States was “locked and loaded” for a potential response to the attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, after a senior U.S. administration official said Iran was to blame.

Trump also authorized the use of the U.S. emergency oil stockpile to ensure stable supplies after the attack, which shut 5% of world production and sent crude prices soaring more than 19% in early trade on Monday, before moderating to show a 10% gain.

“There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!” Trump said on Twitter.

Earlier in the day, a senior U.S. official told reporters that evidence from the attack, which hit the world’s biggest oil-processing facility, indicated Iran was behind it, instead of the Yemeni Houthi group that had claimed responsibility.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said there was no evidence the attack came from Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been battling the Houthis for over four years in a conflict widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Muslim rival Iran.

“Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply,” Pompeo said.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi dismissed the U.S. allegations that it was responsible was “pointless”. A senior Revolutionary Guards commander warned the Islamic Republic was ready for “full-fledged” war.

“All American bases and their aircraft carriers in a distance of up to 2,000 kilometers around Iran are within the range of our missiles,” the semi-official Tasnim news agency quoted Commander Amirali Hajizadeh as saying.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran were already running high because of a long-running dispute between the two nations over Iran’s nuclear program that led the United States to impose sweeping sanctions.

Oil prices surged as much as 19% in early Asian trade on Monday on worries over global supply and soaring tensions in the Middle East.

Brent crude posted its biggest intra-day percentage gain since the start of the Gulf War in 1991.

State oil giant Saudi Aramco said the attack on Saturday had cut output by 5.7 million barrels per day.

The U.S. official, who asked not to be named, said on Sunday there were 19 points of impact in the attack on Saudi facilities and evidence showed the launch area was west-northwest of the targets – not south from Yemen.

The official added that Saudi officials indicated they had seen signs that cruise missiles were used in the attack, which is inconsistent with the Iran-aligned Houthi group’s claim that it conducted the attack with 10 drones.

“There’s no doubt that Iran is responsible for this. No matter how you slice it, there’s no escaping it. There’s no other candidate,” the official told reporters.

Riyadh has accused Iran of being behind previous attacks on oil-pumping stations and the Shaybah oil field, charges that Tehran denies, but has not blamed anyone for Saturday’s strike. Riyadh also says Tehran arms the Houthis, a charge both deny.

Richard Nephew, a program director at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, said if Iran was responsible for the attack, it may be as retribution for U.S. sanctions.

“They are making decisions about whether and how to respond to what they see as a massive attack on their interests from the U.S. via sanctions by attacking U.S. interests in turn, and those of U.S. partners they believe are responsible for U.S. policy,” he said.

Aramco gave no timeline for output resumption. A source close to the matter told Reuters the return to full oil capacity could take “weeks, not days”.

Riyadh said it would compensate for the damage at its facilities by drawing on its stocks, which stood at 188 million barrels in June, according to official data.

Trump said he had “authorized the release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, if needed, in a to-be-determined amount sufficient to keep the markets well-supplied.”

CALLS FOR RESTRAINT

Consultancy Rapidan Energy Group said images of the Abqaiq facility after the attack showed about five of its stabilization towers appeared to have been destroyed, and would take months to rebuild – something that could curtail output for a prolonged period.

“However Saudi Aramco keeps some redundancy in the system to maintain production during maintenance,” Rapidan added, meaning operations could return to pre-attack levels sooner.

The Saudi bourse closed down 1.1% on Sunday, with banking and petrochemical shares taking the biggest hit. Saudi petrochemical firms announced a significant reduction in feedstock supplies.

“Abqaiq is the nerve center of the Saudi energy system. Even if exports resume in the next 24 to 48 hours, the image of invulnerability has been altered,” Helima Croft, global head of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets, told Reuters.

Some Iraqi media outlets said the attack came from there. Baghdad denied that on Sunday and vowed to punish anyone using Iraq, where Iran-backed paramilitary groups wield increasing power, as a launchpad for attacks.

Kuwait, which borders Iraq, said it was investigating the sighting of a drone over its territory and coordinating with Saudi Arabia and other countries.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned Saturday’s attacks and called on all parties to exercise restraint and prevent any escalation. The European Union warned the strikes posed a real threat to regional security, and several nations urged restraint.

The attack came after Trump said a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was possible at the U.N. General Assembly in New York this month. Tehran ruled out talks until sanctions are lifted.

But Trump appeared on Sunday to play down the chances he might be willing to meet with Iranian officials, saying reports he would do so without conditions were not accurate.

As recently as last Tuesday, Pompeo said Trump “is prepared to meet with no preconditions”.

Saudi de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Trump that Riyadh was ready to deal with “terrorist aggression”. A Saudi-led coalition has responded to past Houthi attacks with airstrikes on the group’s military sites in Yemen.

The conflict has been in military stalemate for years. The Saudi alliance has air supremacy but has come under scrutiny over civilian deaths and a humanitarian crisis that has left millions facing starvation.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Arshad Mohammed; Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal and Parisa Hafezi, Saeed Azhar and Hadeel Al Sayegh in Dubai, David Shepardson and Timothy Gardner in Washington, William James in London, John Irish in Paris, Alex Lawler, Julia Payne and Ron Bousso in London, Robin Emmott in Brussels and Devika Krishna Kumar and Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous and Richard Valdmanis; Editing by William Maclean, Peter Cooney & Simon Cameron-Moore)

Netanyahu opposes Iran talks after Trump moots meeting Rouhani

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a state memorial ceremony at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a shrine holy to Jews and Muslims, in Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank September 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

LONDON (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged world powers on Thursday not to open a dialogue with Iran, after U.S. President Donald Trump said he may meet his Iranian counterpart to resolve a crisis over Tehran’s nuclear project and sanctions against it.

“This is not the time to hold talks with Iran. This is the time to increase the pressure on Iran,” Netanyahu told reporters en route to London, where he was hosted by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and was later scheduled to confer with U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

Netanyahu’s comments marked rare public discord between the right-wing Israeli leader and Trump on the Iranian nuclear issue. Netanyahu had previously counseled France against its own outreach to Iran.

The Israeli leader, who is fighting for his political life in an election on Sept. 17, regularly touts his influence with Western leaders, especially fellow rightwingers such as Trump and Johnson, as vital for Israeli security. His opponents say his closeness to rightwing figures abroad hurts Israel by making support for it a partisan issue in friendly countries.

On Wednesday, Trump left the door open to a possible meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the upcoming U.N. General Assembly in New York, saying: “Anything’s possible. They would like to be able to solve their problem.”

Tehran has rejected any negotiations with Washington unless Trump drops sanctions he imposed after quitting the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, an agreement Netanyahu had savaged as inadequate.

Iran has said that, starting on Friday, it would begin developing centrifuges to speed up the enrichment of uranium, which can produce fuel for power plants or for atomic bombs. The Iranians deny seeking nuclear weapons.

The centrifuge move would be Iran’s latest reduction of its commitments to restrict nuclear projects under the 2015 deal.

Netanyahu called this “another violation, another provocation by Iran, this time in the realm of its quest for nuclear weaponry”.

Meeting Johnson at 10 Downing Street, Netanyahu praised the politically embattled British leader for his “staunch stance against anti-Semitism and … support for Israel’s security”.

“We have the challenge of Iran’s aggression and terrorism, and I’d like to talk to you about how we can work together to counter these things for the benefit of peace,” Netanyahu told Johnson, according to an official Israeli transcript.

Like other European partners to the Iran nuclear deal, Britain was worried by the U.S. withdrawal. Johnson, while openly sympathetic to Israel, wants to preserve a vision of Palestinian statehood that has eroded under Netanyahu’s tenure.

Netanyahu – who has doubled as defense minister for the past 10 months, a period of stepped-up Israeli operations against Iranian targets in the region – brought his air force chief and top military mission planner for the London meeting with Esper.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz told Ynet TV that Netanyahu and Esper would discuss “everything that happens in the space between Syria, Lebanon, Iraq,” an allusion to the often clandestine Israeli military campaign.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Toby Chopra and Peter Graff)

‘We will make them pay’: North Korea launches missiles, condemns U.S.-South Korea drills

People watch a TV broadcasting a news report on North Korea firing two unidentified projectiles, in Seoul, South Korea, August 6, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Josh Smith and Joyce Lee

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea fired missiles into the sea off its east coast for the fourth time in less than two weeks, South Korea said on Tuesday, as Pyongyang warned that hostile moves against it “have reached the danger line.”

The North, criticizing the U.S.-South Korean drills and their use of high-tech weapons, has fired a series of missiles and rockets since its leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump agreed at a June 30 meeting to revive stalled denuclearization talks.

North Korea has said it is committed to diplomacy and it will wait until the end of the year for the United States to soften its policy of sanctions and political pressure over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

But if Washington and Seoul disregard North Korea’s repeated warnings, “we will make them pay (a) heavy price,” a North Korean foreign ministry spokesman said in a statement released through state news agency KCNA.

Trump has played down the tests by saying they did not break any agreement he had with Kim but the talks have yet to resume. Analysts believe the tests are designed both to improve North Korean military capabilities and to pressure Washington to offer more concessions.

“Part of what’s happening now is that North Korea is expressing frustrations with a general lack of progress on inter-Korean agenda while increasing leverage in U.S.-North Korea negotiations by demonstrating how its programs could and will continue to advance,” said Jenny Town, managing editor at 38 North, a website that tracks North Korea.

MULTIPLE MISSILE LAUNCHES

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said what appeared to be two short-range ballistic missiles were fired from near Kwail on North Korea’s west coast, about 125 km (80 miles) southwest of Pyongyang, in South Hwanghae province early on Tuesday. They were the fourth set of launches since July 25.

The missiles flew about 450 km (280 miles) and reached an altitude of 37 km (23 miles), the JCS said. U.S. and South Korean intelligence agencies deemed they had similar flight characteristics to the short-range ballistic missiles launched by North Korea on July 25, it said.

Kim Dong-yub, a military expert at South Korea’s Kyungnam University, said the latest launch area was significant because the flight path of 450 km meant that all of South Korea was in range of such missiles.

“It becomes difficult to detect the origin of the launch in advance because it is capable of launching a missile from most anywhere in North Korea, targeting all of South Korea,” he said.

South Korea’s defense ministry said on Tuesday the missile launch went against the spirit of easing tension on the Korean peninsula.

A United Nations report said on Monday Pyongyang has continued to enhance its nuclear and missile programs and used cyberattacks to take in $2 billion to fund the development.

The missile tests represent military advances, as well as help Kim strengthen his bargaining power with the United States, said Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official focused on Korea.

“Kim believes he doesn’t need to compromise to get what he wants, doesn’t need to conduct serious negotiations at the working level because he has recourse to Trump, and doesn’t need to restrain any of his missile testing or actions abroad as long as he doesn’t test an intercontinental ballistic missile,” Jackson said.

‘DO US HARM’

The launches on July 25 were the first since Trump and Kim met at the heavily armed Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas on June 30. What was agreed at that meeting is now under scrutiny.

The North Korean foreign ministry spokesman said that the North remained committed to resolving issues through dialogue, but that the United States and South Korea’s joint military drills violate a pledge made by Trump to Kim.

Pyongyang “will be compelled to seek a new road as we have already indicated” if South Korea and the United States continue with hostile military moves, he said.

The arrival of new, U.S.-made F-35A stealth fighters in South Korea, the visit of a U.S. nuclear-powered submarine to a South Korean port, and U.S. tests of ballistic missiles are among the steps that have forced North Korea to continue its own weapons development, the spokesman said.

“The U.S. and South Korean authorities remain outwardly talkative about dialogue,” he said. “But when they sit back, they sharpen a sword to do us harm.”

South Korean media reported that U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises had started on Monday. A senior South Korean official said previously the drills would mainly involve computer simulations.

A JCS spokesman told a regular news briefing on Monday the allies were preparing for a joint exercise in the second half of the year but would not confirm the name of the drill or whether it had already started.

The testing of short-range missiles by North Korea is banned by a 2006 United Nations Security Council resolution demanding that North Korea suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program.

Japan’s defense ministry said it did not see any imminent threat to Japanese security from the latest projectile launch by North Korea.

(Reporting by Josh Smith and Joyce Lee; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON and Chris Gallagher in TOKYO; Editing by Paul Tait and Darren Schuettler)

Trump signs measure to permanently extend compensation for Sept. 11 responders

U.S. President Donald Trump pumps his fist during a signing ceremony for the "Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act" in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S., July 29, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Jeff Mason and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Calling emergency first responders “heroes,” U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday signed into law a measure authorizing permanent benefits for police, firefighters and others suffering from illnesses connected to their work reacting to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

The legislation, known as the “Never Forget the Heroes Act,” approves federal funding through 2092 for an estimated 18,100 people who are likely to qualify for benefits, according to government estimates.

First responders who rushed to the site of the World Trade Center’s twin towers in New York following their destruction in the Sept. 11 hijacked plane attacks, and others who worked for months cleaning up, were exposed to toxic chemicals despite early government statements that the site was safe.

The fund compensates those people, or their relatives if they have since died, for economic and other losses. Trump hailed the men and women who rushed to the site in hopes of rescuing survivors and finding remains of victims.

“Today we come together as one nation to support our September 11 heroes, to care for their families, and to renew our eternal vow: never, ever forget,” Trump told a crowd at a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, which he said included more than 60 of the first responders.

Without the legislation, passed in the U.S. Senate last Tuesday, victims would have seen reduced benefits because of a lack of funding.

The attacks on the United States using four hijacked planes killed more than 2,900 people and injured over 6,000. Of those, more than 2,600 people were killed in New York.

Former New York businessman Trump said he visited the World Trade Center site in the aftermath.

“I was down there also, but I’m not considering myself a first responder, but I was down there,” Trump said.

The remark drew the ire of some Twitter users who recounted Trump’s comments at the time on the towers’ destruction, including one on WWOR-TV about a 72-story building he said he owned in lower Manhattan – “and now it’s the tallest.”

Lawmakers attended the ceremony along with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was in office at the time of the attacks and was praised for his leadership then. Giuliani is now an attorney for Trump.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Richard Cowan; editing by Grant McCool)

North Korea upbeat on Trump-Kim surprise meeting as a chance to push nuclear talks

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un cross over a military demarcation line at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, in Panmunjom, South Korea, June 30, 2019. KCNA via REUTERS

By Joyce Lee

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump agreed at their meeting on Sunday to push forward dialogue for making a new breakthrough in the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, North Korean state media said on Monday.

Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to set foot in North Korea on Sunday when he met Kim in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas and agreed to resume stalled nuclear talks.

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as they meet at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Panmunjom, South Korea, June 30, 2019. KCNA via REUTERS

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as they meet at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Panmunjom, South Korea, June 30, 2019. KCNA via REUTERS

“The top leaders of the two countries agreed to keep in close touch in the future, too, and resume and push forward productive dialogues for making a new breakthrough in the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and in the bilateral relations,” KCNA news agency said.

The meeting, initiated by a tweet by Trump that Kim said took him by surprise, displayed the rapport between the two, but analysts said they were no closer to narrowing the gap between their positions since they walked away from their summit in February in Vietnam.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters shortly before departing South Korea that a new round of talks would likely happen “sometime in July” and the North’s negotiators would be foreign ministry diplomats.

In a photo released by KCNA on Monday, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and Pompeo are shown sitting next to Kim and Trump respectively in Freedom House, the building in which the two leaders had their one-on-one talks.

KCNA said that during the chat between Trump and Kim, the two leaders explained “issues of easing tensions on the Korean peninsula,” “issues of mutual concern and interest which become a stumbling block in solving those issues,” and “voiced full understanding and sympathy.”

Kim said it was the good personal relationship he had with Trump that made such a dramatic meeting possible at just one day’s notice and that the relationship with Trump would continue to produce good results, according to KCNA.

The two leaders’ “bold, brave decision” that led to the historic meeting “created unprecedented trust between the two countries” that had been tangled in deeply rooted animosity, KCNA said.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the meeting between Trump and Kim and “fully supports the continued efforts of the parties to establish new relations toward sustainable peace, security and complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement.

China also welcomed the meeting, with a foreign ministry spokesman describing it as “constructive and achieving positive results”.

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as they meet at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Panmunjom, South Korea, June 30, 2019. KCNA via REUTERS

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as they meet at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Panmunjom, South Korea, June 30, 2019. KCNA via REUTERS

But problems could lie ahead.

“The fact that the nuclear talks have jump-started is very encouraging, but that doesn’t mean that the two sides have already adjusted their positions and set the conditions for successful working-level negotiations,” said Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy.

Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, dismissed a report in The New York Times on Monday that Washington is seeking to soften its approach, floating an idea of accepting a nuclear freeze – instead of complete dismantlement – and giving tacit recognition that North Korea is a nuclear state.

“I read this NYT story with curiosity,” Bolton said in a tweet. “Neither the [National Security Council] staff nor I have discussed or heard of any desire to ‘settle for a nuclear freeze by NK.’ This was a reprehensible attempt by someone to box in the President. There should be consequences.”

(Reporting by Jack Kim and Joyce Lee; Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at United Nations, Josh Smith in Seoul, and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Peter Cooney and Sandra Maler)

Trump says Iran ‘made a very big mistake’ by shooting down drone

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seen near a "3 Khordad" system which is said to had been used to shoot down a U.S. military drone, according to news agency Fars, in this undated handout picture. Fars news/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE.

By Parisa Hafezi and Phil Stewart

DUBAI/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday said Iran made “a very big mistake” by shooting down a U.S. military drone that Tehran said was on a spy mission over its territory, in an incident that fanned fears of wider military conflict in the Middle East.

The United States, which called the event an “unprovoked attack” in international air space, is pursuing a campaign to isolate Iran to contain its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and limit its role in regional wars.

It was the latest in an escalating series of incidents in the Gulf region, a critical artery for global oil supplies, since mid-May including explosive strikes on six oil tankers as Tehran and Washington have edged toward confrontation.

“Iran made a very big mistake!” Trump said in a Twitter post.

It was unclear how the United States might respond and U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, said Washington had no appetite for war with Iran.

Iran has denied involvement in the tanker attacks, but global jitters about a new Middle East conflagration disrupting oil exports have triggered a jump in crude prices. They surged by more than $3 to above $63 a barrel on Thursday.

Saudi Arabia, Washington’s main gulf ally, said Iran had created a grave situation with its “aggressive behavior” and the kingdom was consulting other Gulf Arab states on next steps.

“When you interfere with international shipping it has an impact on the supply of energy, it has an impact on the price of oil which has an impact on the world economy. It essentially affects almost every person on the globe,” Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, told reporters in London.

Tensions flared with Trump’s withdrawal last year from world powers’ 2015 nuclear accord with Iran and have worsened as Washington imposed fresh sanctions to throttle Tehran’s vital oil trade. Iran retaliated earlier this week with a threat to breach limits on its nuclear activities imposed by the deal.

U.S. MIDEAST FORCES

Upping the ante, Washington said on Monday it would deploy about 1,000 more troops, along with Patriot missiles and manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft, to the Middle East on top of a 1,500-troop increase announced after the May tanker attacks.

Iranian state media said the “spy” drone was brought down over the southern Iranian province of Hormozgan, which is on the Gulf, with a locally made “3 Khordad” missile.

A U.S. official said the drone, formally called an RQ-4A Global Hawk High-Altitude, Long, Endurance Unmanned Aircraft System, had been downed in international air space over the Strait of Hormuz, through which about a third of the world’s seaborne oil exits the Gulf..

Navy Captain Bill Urban, a spokesman for the U.S. military’s Central Command, said Iran’s account that the drone had been flying over Iranian territory was false.

“This was an unprovoked attack on a U.S. surveillance asset in international air space,” Urban said. The drone, he added, was downed over the Strait of Hormuz at approximately 2335 GMT – in the early morning hours of local time in the Gulf.

Separately, a U.S. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity the debris field from the drone was in international waters in the Strait and U.S. naval assets have been dispatched to the area.

Iran’s foreign ministry said the drone had violated Iranian air space and warned of the consequences of such “illegal and provocative” measures.

Independent confirmation of the drone’s location when it was brought down was not immediately available.

A Iranian Revolutionary Guards statement said the drone’s identification transponder had been switched off “in violation of aviation rules and was moving in full secrecy” when it was downed, Iranian state broadcaster IRIB reported.

IRANIAN “RED LINE”

“Our air space is our red line and Iran has always responded and will continue to respond strongly to any country that violates our air space,” Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, told Iran’s Tasnim news agency.

The RQ-4A’s manufacturer, Northrop Grumman, says on its website that it can fly for over 24 hours at a time at altitudes higher than 10 miles (16 km), with an operational range of 8,200 nautical miles.

The Trump administration sought on Wednesday to rally global support for its pressure on Iran by displaying limpet mine fragments it said came from an oil tanker damaged in the June 13 attacks, saying the ordnance closely resembled mines publicly displayed in Iranian military parades.

European diplomats have said more evidence is needed to pinpoint responsibility for the tanker strikes.

The U.S. sanctions net draped over Iran, scuttling its oil exports and barring it from the dollar-dominated global finance system, have hammered Iran’s economy, undoing the promise of trade rewards from the 2015 deal to curb its nuclear ambitions.

Trump has sent forces including aircraft carriers, B-52 bombers and troops to the Middle East over the past few weeks. Iran said last week it was responsible for the security of the Strait of Hormuz, calling on American forces to leave the Gulf.

Tehran has also said it will shortly suspend compliance with the nuclear deal’s curbs on its uranium enrichment, meant to block any pathway to nuclear weapons capability, and threatened to disrupt oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz.

But Trump – who sees the nuclear deal as flawed to Iran’s advantage and requiring renegotiation – and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have both said they have no interest in starting a war.

(Additional reporting by Asma Alsharif, Stephen Kalin in Riyadh and Doina Chiacu in Washinigton; Writing by Parisa Hafezi and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Alistair Bell)

Putin: ready for Trump talks but U.S. elections could complicate ties

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during an annual nationwide televised phone-in show in Moscow, Russia June 20, 2019. Sputnik/Alexey Nikolsky/Kremlin via REUTERS

By Andrew Osborn and Maria Kiselyova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday he was ready to hold talks with Donald Trump if that was what his U.S. counterpart wanted, but added that Trump’s re-election campaign could complicate U.S.-Russia relations.

Trump has said he expects to meet Putin at a G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, next week, though Moscow has so far said it has yet to receive a formal invitation for such talks.

U.S.-Russia ties remain strained by everything from Syria to Ukraine and Venezuela, as well as by allegations of Russian interference in U.S. politics, which Moscow denies.

Putin said this month that relations between Moscow and Washington were getting worse and worse.

“Dialogue is always good, there’s always demand for it,” said Putin during his annual question-and-answer session when quizzed about talks with Trump.

“Sure, if the American side shows interest … we are ready for dialogue.”

The Russian leader said the two countries had a lot to talk about, including strategic nuclear stability. A landmark arms control treaty is coming up for renewal, while both sides have said they are quitting the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, stoking fears of a wider arms race.

Putin said Trump’s drive to win another presidential term might complicate the situation, however.

“We all understand and see what is going on in domestic politics in the United States,” said Putin. “Even if the president wants to take steps toward us, wants to talk about anything, there are a huge number of limitations.

“Even more so now as the current head of state will make all his statements with his election campaign in mind. He has already started the campaign, so everything will not be simple in our relations,” Putin said.

The Russian leader said talks, if they took place, could help re-establish what he called normal relations between Russia and the United States, including on the economy. He also said he wanted the two countries to talks about cyber security.

(Additional reporting by Elena Fabrichnaya, Tom Balmforth, Vladimir Soldatkin and Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber and Moscow Bureau; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Jon Boyle)