U.S. troops to start extended exercises in Lithuania amid tensions over Belarus

By Andrius Sytas

VILNIUS (Reuters) – U.S. troops and tanks will arrive in Lithuania on Friday for a two-month deployment near the Belarus border, but the government said the move was not a message to its Russian-backed neighbor, where protests continue over a disputed election.

In an announcement on Wednesday evening, NATO member Lithuania said U.S. troops will be moved from Poland for pre-planned military exercises. These are “defensive in nature and not directed against any neighbor, including Belarus,” it added.

However, the troops are arriving earlier and staying longer than the government had indicated before the outbreak of protests in Belarus over the Aug. 9 election that returned President Alexander Lukashenko, a key ally of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, to power.

Lukashenko has denied accusations by the Belarus opposition and Western countries that the vote was rigged and has resisted protesters’ demands to step down. He has accused NATO of a military buildup near Belarus’ borders, something the alliance denied, and has said he will ask for Russian military help if needed.

The deployment in Lithuania, which will begin on Friday and will last until November, includes 500 American troops and 40 vehicles, such as Abrams tanks and Bradley armored troop carriers, a Lithuanian army spokesman said.

On July 29, Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis told BNS wire the United States would send a battalion-sized troop contingent – between 300 to 1,000 soldiers – in September, for two weeks’ training, beginning in the middle of the month.

He repeated that information on Aug. 4 in an interview with public radio LRT.

“Deployment was aligned with training schedule and training area availability,” defense minister spokeswoman Vita Ramanauskaite told Reuters.

In addition to the U.S. deployment, up to 1,000 troops and military planes from France, Italy, Germany, Poland and others will take part in an annual exercise on Sept. 14-25, the Lithuanian army spokesman said.

The ministry did not state any plans for those troops to stay beyond Sept. 25.

Karoblis said earlier this month that there was a real danger Russia would send forces to Belarus.

(Reporting by Andrius Sytas; Editing by Simon Johnson, Steve Orlofsky and Frances Kerry)

Trump pushes military response as U.S. girds for more protests

By Nathan Layne and Brendan O’Brien

NEW YORK/MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Tuesday said U.S. troops should take to the streets of New York City to quell unrest, as authorities across the country prepared for another night of protests over the death of an unarmed black man in police custody.

Dozens of cities are under curfews. The head of the U.S. National Guard said on Tuesday that 18,000 Guard members were assisting local law enforcement in 29 states.

Lawmakers and law enforcement officials seemed taken aback by the extent of mayhem overnight in some major U.S. cities where police were shot at and pelted with rocks and projectiles as they faced hostile crowds.

Demonstrators smashed windows and looted stores in New York, including luxury retailers on Fifth Avenue, and set fire to a Los Angeles strip mall. Four officers were shot in St. Louis and one in Las Vegas who was critically wounded, authorities said.

Trump has threatened to use the military to battle violence that has erupted nightly, often after a day of peaceful protests. He has derided local authorities, including state governors, for their response to the disturbances.

“NYC, CALL UP THE NATIONAL GUARD. The lowlifes and losers are ripping you apart. Act fast!” Trump tweeted on Tuesday. He deploying thousands of armed soldiers and law enforcement in the U.S. capital and vowed to do the same wherever authorities fail to regain control.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo voiced outrage at the chaos in America’s largest city, saying its mayor and police force “did not do their job last night.” He said he believed Mayor Bill de Blasio underestimated the scope of the problem.

The governor said he had offered the state’s mayors support from state police or 13,000 National Guard who are on standby and said that with a 38,000-strong police force, New York City should be able to address its unrest on its own.

He added that Trump sought to blur the line between protesters representing a cross-section of Americans with a legitimate cause and looters. Authorities blame the looting and vandalism on a relatively small number of people protesting against police brutality.

De Blasio poured cold water on the idea of deploying the National Guard in his city.

Demonstrators have taken to the streets over the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American who died after a white policeman pinned his neck under a knee for nearly nine minutes in Minneapolis on May 25.

Derek Chauvin, the 44-year-old Minneapolis police officer who planted his knee on Floyd’s neck, has been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Three other officers involved have not been charged.

MARTIN LUTHER KING REMEMBERED

Floyd’s death has reignited the explosive issue of police brutality against African Americans and led to a painful reexamination of race relations five months before a divided America votes in a presidential election.

Some of those who have gathered at the site of Floyd’s killing have invoked the non-violent message of the late U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated in 1968, as the only way forward.

“He would be truly appalled by the violence because he gave his life for this stuff,” said Al Clark, 62, a black man who drove to the Minneapolis memorial with one of King’s speeches blaring from his truck.

“But I can understand the frustration and anger.”

In Atlanta, six officers will face charges for an incident in which two college students were removed from their car and tased, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard told a briefing. Two of the six officers were terminated on Sunday.

A police officer in Sarasota, Florida, was placed on leave on Tuesday after video surfaced showing the officer kneeling on a man’s back and neck during an arrest in May.

Officers were injured in clashes elsewhere, including one who was in critical condition after being hit by a car in the Bronx, police said.

The protests have escalated racial tensions in a country hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, with African Americans making up a disproportionately high number of cases and being hard hit by job losses from lockdowns to stop the spread of the virus.

Critics accuse Trump, who is seeking re-election in a Nov. 3 election, of further stoking conflict and racial tension rather than seeking to bring the country together and address the underlying issues.

“President Trump is right to be focused on law and order. He wasn’t hired to be the consoler-in-chief,” said Jason Miller, who advised the Republican Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden pledged in a speech on Tuesday to try to heal the racial divide in America and blasted Trump’s response to the protests.

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg, Lisa Lambert, Maria Caspani, Peter Szekely, Zachary Fagenson, Brendan O’Brien, Nathan Layne, Susan Heavey and Brad Brooks; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Howard Goller)

Trump warns Iran, proxies against attacking U.S. in Iraq

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday warned Iran and its proxies against attacking U.S. troops or assets in Iraq, citing a possible “sneak attack” but giving no other details.

“Upon information and belief, Iran or its proxies are planning a sneak attack on U.S. troops and/or assets in Iraq. If this happens, Iran will pay a very heavy price, indeed!” Trump said in a post on Twitter.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Chris Reese; Editing by Chris Reese)

Pompeo to Iraq PM: U.S. will take action in self-defense if attacked

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Iraq’s prime minister that the United States would take measures in self-defense if attacked, according to a statement on Monday after a rocket attack on an Iraqi base that houses U.S. troops helping fight Islamic State.

Pompeo spoke to Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi on Sunday, a day after three American troops and several Iraqi forces were wounded in the second major rocket attack in the past week on an Iraqi base north of Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi officials said, raising the stakes in an escalating cycle of attacks and reprisals.

He said Iraq’s government should defend the U.S.-led coalition helping it fight Islamic State, according to the statement from State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus.

“Secretary Pompeo underscored that the groups responsible for these attacks must be held accountable. Secretary Pompeo noted that America will not tolerate attacks and threats to American lives and will take additional action as necessary in self-defense,” it said.

Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said 33 Katyusha rockets were launched near a section of the Taji base which houses U.S.-led coalition troops. It said the military found seven rocket launchers and 24 unused rockets in the nearby Abu Izam area.

The Iraqi military said several Iraqi air defense servicemen were critically wounded. Two of the three wounded U.S. troops are seriously injured and are being treated at a military hospital in Baghdad, the Pentagon said.

Longstanding antagonism between the United States and Iran has mostly played out on Iraqi soil in recent months.

Iranian-backed paramilitary groups have regularly rocketed and shelled bases in Iraq which host U.S. forces and the area around the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

The United States has in turn conducted several strikes inside Iraq, killing top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Kataib Hezbollah founder Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Alex Richardson and Andrea Ricci)

‘Hit with a truck’ – How Iran’s missiles inflicted brain injury on U.S. troops

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

(Reuters) – In the wee hours of Jan. 8, Tehran retaliated over the U.S. killing of Iran’s most powerful general by bombarding the al-Asad air base in Iraq.

Among the 2,000 troops stationed there was U.S. Army Specialist Kimo Keltz, who recalls hearing a missile whistling through the sky as he lay on the deck of a guard tower. The explosion lifted his body – in full armor – an inch or two off the floor.

Keltz says he thought he had escaped with little more than a mild headache. Initial assessments around the base found no serious injuries or deaths from the attack. U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted, “All is well!”

The next day was different.

“My head kinda felt like I got hit with a truck,” Keltz told Reuters in an interview from al-Asad air base in Iraq’s western Anbar desert. “My stomach was grinding.”

Keltz, who said he had concussion symptoms for days, is among 109 soldiers diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries in the wake of last month’s attack, a figure that has steadily risen as more troops report symptoms and get medical screening.

Reuters interviewed more than a dozen officials and soldiers and spoke with brain-injury specialists to assemble the most comprehensive account so far of the nature of the soldiers’ injuries and how they sustained them.

The slowly rising casualty count underscores the difficulty in detecting and treating what has become one of the most common injuries in the U.S. military during two decades of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, where U.S. troops face roadside bombs, rockets and mortars.

More than a week after the attack, on Jan. 16, Defense Secretary Mark Esper was made aware that soldiers had suffered brain injuries from the missiles, the Pentagon said. That day, the Pentagon reported that an unspecified number of troops were treated for concussive symptoms and 11 were flown to Kuwait and Germany for higher-level care.

On Jan. 22, Trump said that he “heard that they had headaches and a couple of other things,” prompting criticism from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers and a U.S. veterans group that the president was underplaying the casualties from the attack.

“I think it was unfortunate to use those words,” said Republican Representative Richard Hudson, who represents Fayetteville, North Carolina, home to Fort Bragg that includes the Army’s Special Operations Command.

The White House declined to comment for this story.

A DIFFERENT CLASS OF WOUNDS

The U.S. military has long treated brain injuries as a different class of wounds that do not require rapid reporting up the chain of command, unlike incidents threatening life, limb or eyesight.

Since 2000, nearly 414,000 service members have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries, or TBIs, according to Pentagon data. The number is likely higher because the Pentagon only counts as one injury cases where a soldier suffers brain trauma in multiple incidents.

U.S. troops operating drone flights appeared to have suffered the most brain injuries during the attack on al-Asad, said Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Garland, who was on the base at the time. Many worked near the air strip, he said. Like Specialist Keltz, who was manning a guard tower, the drone pilots had been assigned to watch for a possible ground attack.

“Those drone pilots, they’re the ones that took the brunt of the TBI cases,” said Garland, who as commander of Task Force Jazeera oversees more than 400 soldiers.

The number of troops diagnosed with brain injury from last month’s attack was expected to stabilize near the current count, one U.S. official said. Less than 10 were now being monitored with possible TBI symptoms, the official said.

The total U.S. military count, however, excludes civilian contractors on the base at the time, many of whom have since departed.

Some U.S. troops also suffered from anxiety-related symptoms after the attack, including sleeplessness and, in at least one case, a sustained high heart rate, according to interviews with soldiers and officials. However, they could not provide a specific number.

The Pentagon categorizes brain injuries as mild, moderate, severe or penetrating. The vast majority of injuries are classified as mild, as were all of the injuries reported from al-Asad.

STANDING GUARD

Garland, the commander, said he was taken aback when he learned of U.S. intelligence indicating that Iranian missiles would strike within hours. He immediately found a base map and started sizing up the best options to shelter his troops.

He recalled old bunkers on the base built during the era of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator toppled by U.S.-led forces in 2003. But the bunkers wouldn’t hold everyone. Some would need to disperse, taking cover in armored vehicles driven away from targets.

Others in Garland’s unit — including Specialist Keltz –would need to stand guard to watch for additional attacks beyond the expected missiles.

Keltz said he and a fellow soldier were already manning a tower when First Sergeant Larry Jackson came to them, explaining the intelligence and giving them their orders.

“What I need you boys to do is to lay down on the ground when the impacts happen – and then I need you to jump right back up and man those guns,” Jackson said in an interview, recounting his instructions to Keltz and other soldiers at the base.

As the Iranian missiles streaked through the night sky toward the base, their engines glowed orange – like the ends of lit cigarettes, Garland said. The glow was all that Garland could see in the darkness before scrambling back into a bunker.

Then came the blasts. At least eleven missiles struck the base, destroying housing units made from shipping containers and other facilities.

“Every explosion I heard, I was thinking, OK, that’s a number of people that have just lost their lives,” he said.

But initial checks after the attack showed nobody was killed or obviously injured, despite massive devastation to the base. Word got back to Washington. Just before 6 a.m. in Baghdad, Trump tweeted an update: “Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good!”

FALLING THROUGH THE CRACKS

On the ground at al-Asad, U.S. Army Major Robert Hales, a doctor who is deployed to al-Asad, defended the initial reports of no injuries.

“Everyone here did not have any outward physical injuries,” he said in an interview. “There were no lacerations. There’s no shrapnel wounds.”

Such “silent” injuries take time to manifest, he said.

Injury figures kept climbing in the weeks after the attack. What began as at least 11 cases grew to 34 about a week later.

On Jan. 22, Trump made his controversial comment, referring to the injuries as “headaches.” The Veterans of Foreign Wars demanded an apology for Trump’s “misguided remarks”.

A week later, on Jan. 28, the toll of brain injuries climbed to 50. In early February, Reuters was the first to report that the count had surpassed 100.

The brain injuries sustained in the Iranian missile attack are fundamentally different than those that have typically resulted from past attacks, brain-trauma specialists said.

That’s because the al-Asad bombing was more intense than typical quick-hit, single-explosion attacks: The explosions came in waves and lasted more than an hour.

When a roadside bomb goes off in Afghanistan, head wounds are often visible. In insurgent bomb blasts, shrapnel or other flying debris can cause brain injuries upon impact. But the damage from large pressure waves from a major blast – like the ones at al-Asad that Specialist Keltz felt – often take more time to diagnose.

Marilyn Kraus, director of the Traumatic Brain Injury program and concussion clinic at George Washington University, said troops may minimize or underreport their symptoms initially. Others may not show symptoms until much later in part because their injuries are initially masked by the adrenaline rush that comes with combat.

“Some of these things can fall into the cracks initially,” said Kraus, who previously served as medical director of the Traumatic Brain Injury Consult Section at the Walter Reed military hospital in Bethesda, Maryland.

In the short term, mild traumatic brain injury can cause headaches, nausea, dizziness and confusion, while longer-term effects can include chronic headaches, mood changes and dizziness, Kraus said. Repeated head injuries can lead to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a brain degeneration disorder that some researchers have linked to suicidal thoughts, substance misuse and depression, she said.

Hales, the Army doctor, cited research within the past six months showing in animal models that signs of damage to the brain can increase in the weeks after a blast. At al-Asad, soldiers started showing symptoms such as headaches or a “foggy feeling” days after the attack, Hales said. The symptoms often persisted.

“That’s the reason why you saw a huge delay” in identifying the injuries, he said. “That prompted us to re-screen pretty much the whole population of al-Asad.”

(Stewart and Ali reported from Washington. Editing by Brian Thevenot and Jason Szep)

Exclusive: More than 100 U.S. troops diagnosed with brain injuries from Iran attack – officials

By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. military is preparing to report a more than 50% jump in cases of traumatic brain injury stemming from Iran’s missile attack on a base in Iraq last month, U.S. officials told Reuters on Monday.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of an announcement, said there were over 100 cases of TBI, up from the 64 previously reported last month.

The Pentagon declined to comment, but in the past had said to expect an increase in numbers in the weeks after the attack because symptoms can take time to manifest and troops can sometimes take longer to report them.

No U.S. troops were killed or faced immediate bodily injury when Iran fired missiles at the Ain al-Asad base in Iraq in retaliation for the U.S. killing of Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike at the Baghdad airport on Jan. 3.

The missile attacks capped a spiral of violence that had started in late December. Both sides have refrained from further military escalation, but the mounting number of U.S. casualties could increase pressure on the Trump administration to respond, perhaps non-militarily.

Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last month that the service members suffering from traumatic brain injuries had been diagnosed with mild cases. He added the diagnosis could change as time went on.

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

Pentagon officials have repeatedly said there has been no effort to minimize or delay information on concussive injuries. But the disclosures following Tehran’s attack has renewed questions over the U.S. military’s policy regarding how it internally reports suspected brain injuries and whether they are treated publicly with the same urgency as loss of limb or life.

U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to play down the brain injuries last month, saying he “heard that they had headaches and a couple of other things” following the attack, prompting criticism from lawmakers and a U.S. veterans group.

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

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

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Editing by Franklin Paul, Dan Grebler and Lisa Shumaker)

‘No, No America’: Iraq protesters demand expulsion of U.S. troops

By John Davison and Aziz El Yaakoubi

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Iraqis rallied in central Baghdad on Friday calling for the expulsion of U.S. troops, but the protest mostly dissipated after a few hours despite fears of violence following a cleric’s call for a “million strong” turnout.

Populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr convened the march after the U.S. killing of an Iranian general and an Iraqi paramilitary chief in Baghdad this month. His eventual decision to hold it away from a separate anti-government protest camp, and away from the U.S. embassy, looked pivotal in keeping the march peaceful.

Throngs started gathering early on Friday at al-Hurriya Square near Baghdad’s main university. They avoided Tahrir Square, symbol of mass protests against Iraq’s ruling elites.

“We want them all out – America, Israel, and the corrupt politicians in government,” said Raed Abu Zahra, a health worker from southern Samawa, who had come by bus to Baghdad and stayed in Sadr City, a sprawling district controlled by Sadr’s followers.

“We support the anti-government protests in Tahrir Square as well, but understand why Sadr held this protest here so it doesn’t take attention from theirs,” he added.

The protests have shattered nearly two years of relative calm following the 2017 defeat of Islamic State and threaten to send the country back into major civil strife.

Unrest erupted in October with protests against a corrupt ruling elite, including Iran-backed politicians, that have met deadly force from government security forces and pro-Iran paramilitaries that dominate the state.

Washington’s killing this month of Iranian military mastermind Qassem Soleimani added a new dimension to the crisis.

It has temporarily united rival Shi’ite groups in opposition to the presence of U.S. troops – a rallying cry that critics say aims simply to refocus the street and kill the momentum of the anti-establishment protests that challenge their grip on power.

Sadr, who commands a following of millions in vast Baghdad slums, opposes all foreign interference in Iraq but has recently aligned himself more closely with Iran, whose allies have dominated state institutions since a 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Sadr supported anti-government protests when they began in October, but did not publicly urge his followers to join them.

The demonstrations have since taken aim at all groups and figures that are part of the post-2003 system including Sadr, who although often considered an outsider is part of that system, commanding one of the two largest blocs in parliament.

Parliament urged the government to eject U.S. troops after the killing of Soleimani, but Sunni and Kurdish politicians boycotted the session, the first time lawmakers have voted along ethnic and sectarian lines since the defeat of IS.

Sunnis and Kurds generally oppose the withdrawal of U.S. troops, seeing them as crucial in fighting against IS remnants and a buffer against dominance of Iran.

“DO NOT CROSS THIS BARRIER”

U.S.-Iran tension playing out on Iraqi soil has further fractured Iraqi politics and distracted leaders from forming a new government.

Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called in his weekly sermon for political groups to form a government as soon as possible to bring stability to the country and enact reforms to improve Iraqis’ lives.

“Iraq’s sovereignty must be respected … and citizens should have the right to peaceful protest,” said the cleric, who comments on politics only in times of crisis and wields great influence over Iraq’s Shi’ite majority.

Iraqi President Barham Salih posted a photo of Friday’s march on Twitter and wrote that Iraqis deserved a “fully sovereign state that serves its people.”

Under the government of caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who said he would quit in November, security forces and unidentified gunmen believed to be linked to powerful Iran-backed militias killed nearly 450 anti-establishment protesters.

Marchers on Friday wore Iraqi flags and symbolic white robes indicating they were willing to die for Iraq while others sat looking out over the square from half finished buildings, holding signs reading “No America, no Israel, no colonialists”.

Anti-American marchers were protected by Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam, or Peace Brigades, and Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella grouping of mostly Iran-backed Shi’ite militias, witnesses said.

The march did not head as initially feared towards U.S. Embassy, the scene of violent clashes last month when militia supporters tried to storm the compound.

Many marchers boarded buses in the early afternoon to head home. A smaller number shuffled along towards Tahrir Square.

Outside the U.S. embassy in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, a sign read “Warning. Do not cross this barrier, we will use pre-emptive measures against any attempt to cross”.

(Additional reporting by Nadine Awadalla; Writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi, Editing by William Maclean)

U.S. troops describe ‘miraculous’ escape at Iraqi base attacked by Iran

By John Davison

AIN AL-ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq (Reuters) – Troops at the Iraqi air base that bore the brunt of Iran’s first direct missile attack against U.S. forces said they were shocked by its intensity and grateful to emerge unscathed.

The scale of the damage at the Ain al-Asad base showed Iran’s destructive capability at a time when U.S. officials say they are still concerned that Iran-backed groups across the region could wage attacks on the United States.

“It’s miraculous no one was hurt,” Lt Col Staci Coleman, the U.S. air force officer who runs the airfield, told reporters on Monday at the vast base deep in the western Anbar desert in Iraq, where 1,500 Americans were deployed.

“Who thinks they’re going to have ballistic missiles launched at them … and suffer no casualties?”

The Jan. 8 attack came hours after U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the United States should expect retaliation over the U.S. killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike in Iraq the previous week.

The killing raised fears of a new Middle East war, but the United States, Iraq and other countries with troops at the base said no one was hurt. U.S. military leaders have said that was thanks to commanders on the ground, not Tehran’s goodwill.

At one site, a cruise missile had left a large crater and incinerated living quarters made from shipping containers.

Heavy concrete blast walls were knocked over and the shipping containers were smashed and charred along with contents including bicycles, chairs and other furniture. Several soldiers said one of their number had come very close to being blown up inside a shelter behind the blast walls.

Almost a dozen missiles hit the air base, where U.S. forces carried out “scatter plans” to move soldiers and equipment to a range of fortified areas apart from one another.

The United States did not have Patriot air defenses at the base, putting the onus on local commanders to protect their troops.

“We’d got notification there could be an attack a few hours prior so had moved equipment,” said U.S. Staff Sergeant Tommie Caldwell.

‘IT’S LIKE TERROR’

Lt Col Coleman said that by 10pm all the staff she manages were ready to take cover. “People took this very seriously,” she said.

Three and a half hours later the missiles started arriving. Several soldiers said they continued for two hours.

Staff Sgt Armando Martinez, who had been out in the open to watch for casualties, said he could not believe how easily one missile leveled the concrete blast walls.

“When a rocket strikes that’s one thing; but a ballistic missile, it’s like terror,” he said.

“You see a white light like a shooting star and then a few seconds later it lands and explodes. The other day, after the attack, one colleague saw an actual shooting star and panicked.”

One missile landed on the tarmac of a parking and servicing area for Blackhawk helicopters helping to ferry equipment in the fight against Islamic State insurgents.

The helicopters had been moved but it destroyed two light hangars and badly damaged portacabins nearby.

“We must have been in the bunkers for more than five hours, maybe seven or eight,” said Kenneth Goodwin, Master Sgt in the U.S. Air Force. “They knew what they were aiming at by targeting the airfield and parking area.”

It was the latest strike against an air base that has figured prominently in high-ranking U.S. officials’ visits to Iraq.

“After these missile attacks, when we hear of possible militia rocket attacks, we tend to think, ‘Oh only rockets … that’s a change’,” Coleman said, describing the common feeling when the missile attacks were over as “sheer relief”.

On Sunday the Iraqi military said four people had been wounded in an attack on Balad air base in northern Iraq, which also houses U.S. personnel. Military sources identified the wounded as Iraqi soldiers.

(Reporting by John Davison; Writing by Philippa Fletcher; Editing by David Goodman)

Iranian missiles target U.S. troops in Iraq, Trump to make statement

By Ahmed Aboulenein, Phil Stewart and Parisa Hafezi

BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON/DUBAI (Reuters) – Iranian forces fired missiles at military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq on Wednesday in retaliation for the U.S. killing of an Iranian general, raising the stakes in its conflict with Washington amid concern of a wider war in the Middle East.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, addressing a gathering of Iranians chanting “Death to America”, said the attacks were a “slap on the face” of the United States and said U.S. troops should leave the region.

Tehran’s foreign minister said Iran took “proportionate measures” in self-defense and did not seek to escalate the confrontation.

The next move appeared to lie with Washington.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who ordered the drone strike that killed General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on Friday, gave an initial response on Twitter: “All is well!”.

Trump said casualties and damage from the missile attacks were being assessed. The White House said the president would make a statement at 11 a.m. (1600 GMT).

Trump, who was impeached last month and faces an election this year, at the weekend threatened to target 52 Iranian sites if Iran retaliated for Soleimani’s killing.

TARGETS

Iranian state television said Iran had fired 15 ballistic missiles from its territory at U.S. targets in its neighbor Iraq early on Wednesday. The Pentagon said al-Asad air base and another facility in Erbil were targeted.

The United States did not announce any casualties.

Iranian state television said 80 “American terrorists” had been killed and U.S. helicopters and military equipment damaged. It did not say how it obtained that information.

Germany, Denmark, Norway and Poland said none of their troops in Iraq were hurt. Britain, which also has personnel in Iraq, condemned the Iranian action and said Tehran “should not repeat these reckless and dangerous attacks”.

Iraq said its forces did not suffer casualties. The U.N. mission in Iraq called for restraint, saying: “Iraq should not pay the price for external rivalries.” Graphic: Iran fires missiles at U.S bases in Iraq – https://tmsnrt.rs/35DS8dy

More than 5,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq along with the other foreign forces in a coalition that has trained and backed Iraqis against the threat of Islamic State militants.

“As we evaluate the situation and our response, we will take all necessary measures to protect and defend U.S. personnel, partners, and allies in the region,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said.

In Tehran, Khamenei said in a televised speech: “Military action like this is not sufficient. What is important is ending the corrupting presence of America in the region,” renewing Tehran’s long-standing demand for Washington to withdraw its forces.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the strikes “concluded” Tehran’s response to the killing of Soleimani, who had been responsible for building up Iran’s network of proxy armies across the Middle East. He was buried in his hometown Kerman on Monday after days of national mourning.

“We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression,” he wrote on Twitter.

Iranian television reported an official in the supreme leader’s office as saying the missile attacks were the “weakest” of several retaliation scenarios. It quoted another source saying Iran had lined up 100 other potential targets.

State media also showed footage of what it said were the missiles being fired into the night sky. In the background, voices shouted “God is greatest”. It also showed purported images of the blasts where they struck. It was not possible to verify the images’ authenticity.

WAY OUT?

Airlines canceled Iran and Iraq flights and re-routed others away from both countries’ airspace after the attacks.

Oil prices, which jumped in frenzied early trading after the missile attack, slipped later on as alarm faded..

Analysts said market tension could ease as long as oil production facilities remain unaffected. They also saw Trump and Zarif’s comments as signaling calm, at least for now.

Iran is likely to want to avoid any conventional military conflict with superior U.S. forces, other analysts say. In the past, it has focused on asymmetric strikes, such as sabotage or other military action via proxies, they say.

U.S. officials said Soleimani was killed because forces under his command planned attacks on U.S. targets. They have not provided evidence.

Before Soleimani was buried, his body was taken on a tour of cities in Iraq and Iran, drawing huge crowds. A stampede at his funeral on Tuesday killed at least 56 people.

After the Iranian missile attack, state television showed footage of the burial, with hundreds of people chanting “God is greatest” when the strikes were announced over loudspeakers.

“His revenge was taken and now he can rest in peace,” Iranian television said.

Friction between Iran and the United States rose after Trump withdrew in 2018 from a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, approved by his predecessor Barack Obama, and reimposed sanctions on Tehran slashing its vital oil exports.

Khamenei, in his speech on Wednesday, ruled out any resumption of talks with Washington on the 2015 nuclear pact.

Trump’s U.S. political rivals have challenged his decision to order Soleimani’s killing and questioned its timing in a U.S. election year.

“We must ensure the safety of our service members, including ending needless provocations from the Administration and demanding that Iran cease its violence. America & world cannot afford war,” U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Twitter.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad, Parisa Hafezi and Babak Dehghanpisheh in Dubai, Phil Stewart, Steve Holland and Eric Beech in Washington, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Steve Scherer in Ottawa and Robin Emmott in Brussels; Writing by Edmund Blair and Angus MacSwan; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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)