Saudi Arabia must halt Yemen strikes: U.N. child rights panel

FILE PHOTO: Mukhtar Hadi, who survived a Saudi-led air strike that killed dozens including children, stands outside his house in Saada, Yemen September 4, 2018. Picture taken September 4, 2018. REUTERS/Naif Rahma/File Photo

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – A U.N. human rights watchdog called on Saudi Arabia on Thursday to immediately halt its deadly airstrikes against civilian targets in Yemen and to prosecute officials responsible for child casualties due to unlawful attacks.

The censure by the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child coincided with international concern at the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of Riyadh’s military role in Yemen, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct 2.

Pressure has mounted on Saudi Arabia, including from allies, to do more to limit civilian casualties in a 3-1/2 year civil war that has killed more than 10,000 people and pushed Yemen to the brink of famine.

Riyadh leads a Western-backed coalition of Arab states supporting the Yemeni government in fighting against the Iran-allied Houthi movement that controls Yemen’s capital. Britain and the United States are among countries supplying the coalition with weapons and military intelligence.

Saudi Arabia told the child rights panel last week that it was working hard to correct mistaken targeting by its military alliance, but the experts voiced skepticism.

The panel of 18 independent experts, in its conclusions issued on Thursday, took note of the Saudi statement but said that Yemeni children continue to be killed, maimed and orphaned.

“We asked them to put a halt immediately to these air strikes,” Clarence Nelson, panel vice-chair, told reporters.

At least 1,248 children had been killed and nearly the same number wounded in air strikes since March 2015, including dozens killed in a strike on a school bus in Saada province in August, U.N. figures show.

COALITION “INVESTIGATING THEMSELVES”

“Nearly 20 percent of the deaths of civilians are children. So that’s one in five civilians killed is a child under 18. That’s a lot of children,” Nelson said.

All sides have attacked civilian targets in Yemen including homes, medical facilities, schools, farms, weddings and markets, in breach of international law, the panel said.

The panel voiced concern at “the inefficiency of the Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT) set up by the coalition in 2016 to investigate allegations of unlawful attacks by (Saudi Arabia) and members of the coalition on children and facilities and spaces frequented by children”.

“There has been no case, let alone a case involving child casualties, recruitment or use of children in armed hostilities, where its investigations led to prosecutions and/or disciplinary sanctions imposed upon individuals, including military officials of (Saudi Arabia),” it said.

Nelson, referring to the JIAT team, said: “Firstly it was set up by coalition, they are essentially investigating themselves. Secondly it’s comprised of members from coalition countries. Thirdly, the information we have is that it is not investigating all ‘accidents’.”

He said a large number of strikes and incidents involving civilian casualties and children were not being pursued by JIAT.

The panel called for lifting the coalition’s aerial and naval blockade which it said has deprived millions of Yemenis of food and other vital supplies, mainly through Hodeidah port.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Editing by William Maclean)

Apple Watch, hired jet, mystery vehicle figure in search for missing Saudi dissident

FILE PHOTO: Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi speaks at an event hosted by Middle East Monitor in London Britain, September 29, 2018. Picture taken September 29, 2018. Middle East Monitor/Handout via REUTERS

By Orhan Coskun, Sarah Dadouch and Stephen Kalin

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Jamal Khashoggi believed he was safe in Turkey.

Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist and newspaper editor, had lived in exile in Washington for more than a year, writing a column for the Washington Post in which he regularly criticized his country’s crackdown on dissent, its war in Yemen and sanctions imposed on Qatar.

A still image taken from CCTV video and obtained by TRT World claims to show Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi as he arrives at Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey Oct. 2, 2018. Reuters TV/via REUTERS

A still image taken from CCTV video and obtained by TRT World claims to show Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi as he arrives at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey Oct. 2, 2018. Reuters TV/via REUTERS

He said he could write freely in the United States in a way that was impossible at home, according to friends and colleagues, but he was increasingly worried that Riyadh could hurt him or his family.

In Turkey, though, Khashoggi had friends in high places, including some of President Tayyip Erdogan’s advisers. So when he walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 2, he hoped the appointment would be brief, a simple bureaucratic task that would allow him to marry his Turkish fiancee, whom he had met four months earlier.

“He said the safest country in the world for Saudi Arabians was Turkey,” said Yasin Aktay, an Erdogan aide and close friend of Khashoggi.

Friends and family have not seen him since.

Turkish officials have said they believe Khashoggi, 59, was killed inside the consulate.

Saudi Arabia has strongly rejected the accusation. The kingdom’s ambassador to the United States, Prince Khalid bin Salman, said reports suggesting Khashoggi went missing in the Istanbul consulate or that Saudi Arabia had killed him “are absolutely false and baseless” and a product of “malicious leaks and grim rumors.”

“Jamal is a Saudi citizen who went missing after leaving the Consulate,” the ambassador said in a statement. Saudi Arabia has sent a team of investigators to work with Turkish authorities and “chase every lead to uncover the truth behind his disappearance.”

In interviews, Turkish officials provided new details of their investigation into the missing journalist.

Two senior Turkish officials revealed the existence of an object that may provide important clues to Khashoggi’s fate: the black Apple watch he was wearing when he entered the consulate. The watch was connected to a mobile phone he left outside, they said.

An official walks to gate of Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

An official walks to gate of Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

Investigators are also focusing on 15 Saudi men who entered the consulate around the same time as Khashoggi and left a short time later. These men had arrived hours earlier from Riyadh, most of them by private plane, the officials said. By the end of the day, they were on their way back to the kingdom.

Turkish newspaper Sabah said on Wednesday it had identified the 15 as members of a Saudi intelligence team. They included a forensic expert. A Turkish official did not dispute the report.

And investigators are trying to trace a vehicle that left the Saudi consulate at the same time as two cars destined for the airport, one of the officials said. This vehicle didn’t turn toward the airport, but set off in the opposite direction.

This story is based on interviews with Turkish officials, Khashoggi’s fiancee and more than a dozen of his friends, who gave insight into the columnist’s state of mind in the days leading up to his disappearance, and explained why he went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, not the embassy in his adopted home of Washington.

The case threatens to drive wedges between Saudi Arabia and Turkey and between Riyadh and its western allies. U.S. President Donald Trump said on Oct. 9 he plans to speak with Saudi Arabian officials about Khashoggi’s disappearance. The mystery also threatens to undermine Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s drive to attract foreign investors and new high-tech business to a country that is too dependent on oil revenues.

 

A NEW LIFE

Khashoggi met his Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, who is 23 years his junior, in May at a conference in Istanbul, according to Cengiz and a close friend of the Saudi journalist.

Their relationship quickly evolved, and Khashoggi spoke about wanting to start a new life with her. By August, the couple had decided to marry in Turkey, where Cengiz lived, and spend much of their time there.

“Jamal bought an apartment in Istanbul and we were furnishing our new home,” Cengiz told Reuters on Oct. 9. “We were planning to marry this week before Jamal flew back to Washington.”

The decision to marry in Istanbul, whose mosques reminded Khashoggi of his hometown Medina, set off a paper chase that ultimately ended in Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Turkish law required that Khashoggi, who was divorced, provide proof that he did not have a wife. He asked if he could get the document from the Saudi embassy in Washington, according to a friend in Europe, but was told the consulate in Turkey was better placed to help.

Cengiz said Khashoggi wouldn’t have applied for the document in Istanbul if he could have avoided it. Asked to comment, a Saudi official said it was “not accurate” that Khashoggi was told to go to Istanbul.

The friend recounted how he warned Khashoggi against getting the paper in Istanbul for fear the Saudis might arrest him if he set foot in the consulate. “He told me there is no solution except to arrange for this paper with the consulate in Turkey,” said the friend, who was in frequent contact with Khashoggi in the days before he disappeared. Khashoggi reassured him, he said, that his good connections in Turkey meant “no one can do anything to harm me in Istanbul.”

Khashoggi visited the consulate without an appointment on Friday, Sept 28. Cengiz waited outside. That first meeting went smoothly. Khashoggi told Cengiz and several friends that officials in the consulate had treated him politely. They explained the paperwork would take time to prepare.

Khashoggi exchanged phone numbers with a consulate official named Sultan so he could call and check on progress, according to three friends. Sultan said the document would be ready early the following week. Reuters has not been able to locate Sultan or confirm his role at the consulate. The consul declined to comment on who Khashoggi spoke to.

“He came out smiling. He told me ‘inshallah (God willing) I will receive this paper after I come back from London,'” Cengiz said.

Confident he would soon have the paperwork he needed, Khashoggi flew to London later the same day to attend a conference. He was asked there by colleagues about the threat he faced from the Saudi authorities for his work, according to some of those present.

“One of my colleagues at dinner asked if he saw a possibility that his citizenship would be withdrawn,” said Daud Abdullah, director of Middle East Monitor which organized the conference. “He discounted that – he didn’t think the authorities would go that far.”

An exiled Saudi dissident who spoke to Khashoggi in the days before his disappearance said his friend was worried that he might face interrogation by the Saudis, but nothing more.

Another friend, British-Palestinian activist Azzam Tamimi, who saw Khashoggi during that trip to London, said he “didn’t seem scared at all. The opposite. He was relaxed and calm.” Tamimi saw Khashoggi off at the airport in London.

MYSTERY MEN

Khashoggi flew back to Istanbul from London on Monday evening, Oct 1. The following morning, he spoke again with consul worker Sultan, who told him to collect the document at 1 p.m the same day.

Outside the consulate, a low rise building at the edge of one of Istanbul’s business districts, Khashoggi handed Cengiz his two mobile phones, the fiancee told Reuters. He left instructions that she should call Aktay, the Erdogan aide, if he didn’t reappear. Khashoggi was wearing his black Apple Watch, connected to one of the phones, when he entered the building.

A senior Turkish government official and a senior security official said the two inter-connected devices are at the heart of the investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance.

“We have determined that it was on him when he walked into the consulate,” the security official said. Investigators are trying to determine what information the watch transmitted. “Intelligence services, the prosecutor’s office and a technology team are working on this. Turkey does not have the watch so we are trying to do it through connected devices,” he said.

Tech experts say an Apple Watch can provide data such as location and heart rate. But what investigators can find out depends on the model of watch, whether it was connected to the internet, and whether it is near enough an iPhone to synchronize.

When Khashoggi did not emerge quickly, Cengiz said she at first hoped he had got the document and was talking with consul staff. “But when time passed and employees started leaving the building and he still wasn’t out, I panicked,” she said.

She called Aktay, the Erdogan aide, around 4.30 p.m and told him her fiance was missing. As soon as he received the call, Aktay told Reuters, he contacted Turkish security forces and intelligence officials. “Of course I also called the office of the president, who was in a senior party committee meeting at that point,” Aktay said. “After about half an hour, everybody was informed and ready to take the measures needed in this case. And of course then, a long period of tension and expectation started.”

Local and international media reported Khashoggi’s disappearance the next day, Wednesday, Oct. 3. Turkish authorities said there was no evidence to suggest Khashoggi had left the building, and they believed he was still inside. Saudi authorities countered that their citizen had left the consulate and that they were investigating.

Two Turkish security sources told Reuters that security camera recordings showed Khashoggi had not left the consulate by either of its two exits.

They said that 15 Saudi men had entered the building at around the time Khashoggi went in, having flown into Istanbul earlier in the day, most of them on a private aircraft from Riyadh and some on commercial flights.

The men left after “some time” in two cars and returned to the airport, the sources said. They said a third vehicle left at the same time but turned in the opposite direction. Investigators are trying to trace its route by analyzing surveillance cameras. The Istanbul consulate referred questions about the 15 men and the vehicles to Saudi authorities, who did not respond to a request for comment.

“It is a very mysterious situation. Diplomats that came in private jets, stay in Turkey for a few hours, and leave. It is also very easy for them to pass through security due to their diplomatic immunity,” one of the security sources said.

According to Flight Tracker, an online flight tracking system, a private plane that brought nine of the men in the early hours of Oct. 2 was registered to a company called Sky Prime Aviation Services. A company official confirmed that Sky Prime Aviation owned the plane and that it was in use on Oct. 2, but gave no further details. He said the firm was owned by a private company registered in Saudi Arabia. Two industry sources said the firm belongs to the Saudi government. The Saudi government did not respond to a request for comment.

The other six men arrived on commercial flights, the security source said. The 15 men checked in, briefly, to two hotels, the Movenpick and Wyndham, which are close to the Saudi consulate. The hotels declined to comment.

As pressure built on Saudi Arabia to locate their missing citizen, Saudi officials in Istanbul showed a Reuters reporter around the consulate on Saturday, Oct. 6, opening cupboards and inviting him to inspect the ladies’ bathroom. A few hours later, Turkish authorities said they believed Khashoggi had been killed.

A Saudi source told Reuters that British intelligence believed there had been an attempt to drug Khashoggi inside the consulate that culminated in an overdose. He said the information came from a British intelligence source. Contacted by Reuters, British intelligence did not comment. Asked about this account, a Saudi official said: “This death is not true.”

REFORM NOT REVOLUTION

Khashoggi’s message in his columns for the Washington Post was one of reform, not revolution.

He often championed political change but did not question the Saudi monarchy as an institution. He criticized the royal family for misusing Saudi’s oil wealth and questioned specific policies, such as the war in Yemen and the arrests of Saudi intellectuals and activists.

His bumpy relations with the Saudi authorities and the clerical establishment predated the rise of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. In 2003 he was fired as editor-in-chief of reform newspaper Al Watan, less than two months into his tenure, after publishing columns critical of the growing influence of the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia.

In 2007, he was named editor-in-chief of Al Watan for a second time but was forced to resign three years later after publishing an article that challenged some elements of Salafism, a branch of Sunni Islam.

Khashoggi was also the consummate insider, as an adviser to former intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal and a confidant of billionaire investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.

Yet by early 2017, he was feeling the heat again. The authorities ordered him to stop writing and tweeting, then he watched as other writers, including several friends, were detained in a crackdown on dissent in September, 2017.     “He was outside (the country), so he didn’t return,” said his friend, Tamimi.

In the United States, he felt he could speak freely. Karen Attiah, his editor at the Washington Post, said it was as if he had rediscovered journalism. “When he was in the newsroom, when I brought him the first time, he became energized. He took a selfie and said, ‘I miss this. I miss being in a newsroom.’ We spoke about editing and what it was like to talk to writers. He just lit up,” she said.

An acquaintance said Khashoggi was considering launching new projects from Washington. One idea focused on bringing attention to political prisoners in Saudi Arabia and promoting democracy in the Arab world, said the acquaintance.

Attiah, the global opinions editor of the Washington Post, said Khashoggi rarely expressed fears for himself but he was “really torn up” about the pressures on his family. “I did worry about Jamal,” she said. “I just thought, ‘Who would be so brazen to go after him?'”

(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy and Jonathan Landay in Washington; Editing by Janet McBride and Nick Tattersall)

Yemen war a ‘living hell’ for children: UNICEF

A woman carries a child at the malnutrition ward of al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

SANAA (Reuters) – In the malnutrition ward of a hospital in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, doctors weigh toddlers with protruding rib cages and skeletal limbs.

Twenty children, most under the age of two, being treated at the ward in Sab’een Hospital are among hundreds of thousands of children suffering from severe malnutrition in the impoverished country that has been ravaged by a more than three years of war.

“The conflict has made Yemen a living hell for its children,” Meritxell Relano, UNICEF Representative in Yemen, told Reuters.

A child looks on as a relative wraps it with a blanket at the malnutrition ward of al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

A child looks on as a relative wraps it with a blanket at the malnutrition ward of al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

She said more than 11 million children, or about 80 percent of the country’s population under the age of 18, were facing the threat of food shortages, disease, displacement and acute lack of access to basic social services.

“An estimated 1.8 million children are malnourished in the country. Nearly 400,000 of them are severely acute malnourished and they are fighting for their lives every day.”

A coalition of Sunni Muslim Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, intervened in Yemen’s war in 2015 against the Iranian-aligned Houthis after they drove the internationally recognized government out of the capital Sanaa.

The war has unleashed the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis in the nation of 28 million, where 8.4 million people are believed to be on the verge of starvation and 22 million people are dependent on aid.

The coalition has imposed stringent measures on imports into Yemen to prevent the Houthis from smuggling weapons but the checks have slowed the flow of commercial goods and vital aid into the country.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE say they are providing funds and supplies to support aid efforts in Yemen. The Houthis blame the coalition for choking off imports into the country.

In Sab’een hospital a toddler in diapers lay wrapped in blankets with a tube inserted in the child’s nose. Another child cried while being lowered naked unto a scale to be weighed.

A boy lies in bed at Hemodialysis Center in Al-Thawra hospital in Sanaa, Yemen September 13 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

A boy lies in bed at Hemodialysis Center in Al-Thawra hospital in Sanaa, Yemen September 13 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

The families of the children declined to speak to the media.

“The situation of the families without jobs, without income and in the middle of the war, is catastrophic,” Relano said.

She said UNICEF had provided more than 244,000 severely malnourished children under the age of five with therapeutic treatment since the beginning of 2018, in addition to micronutrient treatment to over 317,000 children under five.

“The human cost and the humanitarian impact of this conflict is unjustifiable,” U.N. humanitarian coordinator Lise Grande said in a statement on Thursday.

“Parties to the conflict are obliged to do absolutely everything possible to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure and ensure people have access to the aid they are entitled to and need to survive.”‘

(Reporting by Reuters team in Yemen and Tom Miles in Geneva; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Alison Williams)

Exclusive: Iran moves missiles to Iraq in warning to enemies

FILE PHOTO: A display featuring missiles and a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seen at Baharestan Square in Tehran, Iran September 27, 2017. Nazanin Tabatabaee Yazdi/TIMA via REUTERS

By John Irish and Ahmed Rasheed

PARIS/BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iran has given ballistic missiles to Shi’ite proxies in Iraq and is developing the capacity to build more there to deter attacks on its interests in the Middle East and to give it the means to hit regional foes, Iranian, Iraqi and Western sources said.

Any sign that Iran is preparing a more aggressive missile policy in Iraq will exacerbate tensions between Tehran and Washington, already heightened by U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

It would also embarrass France, Germany and the United Kingdom, the three European signatories to the nuclear deal, as they have been trying to salvage the agreement despite new U.S. sanctions against Tehran.

According to three Iranian officials, two Iraqi intelligence sources and two Western intelligence sources, Iran has transferred short-range ballistic missiles to allies in Iraq over the last few months. Five of the officials said it was helping those groups to start making their own.

“The logic was to have a backup plan if Iran was attacked,” one senior Iranian official told Reuters. “The number of missiles is not high, just a couple of dozen, but it can be increased if necessary.”

Iran has previously said its ballistic missile activities are purely defensive in nature. Iranian officials declined to comment when asked about the latest moves.

The Iraqi government and military both declined to comment.

The Zelzal, Fateh-110 and Zolfaqar missiles in question have ranges of about 200 km to 700 km, putting Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh or the Israeli city of Tel Aviv within striking distance if the weapons were deployed in southern or western Iraq.

The Quds Force, the overseas arm of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has bases in both those areas. Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani is overseeing the program, three of the sources said.

Western countries have already accused Iran of transferring missiles and technology to Syria and other allies of Tehran, such as Houthi rebels in Yemen and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Iran’s Sunni Muslim Gulf neighbors and its arch-enemy Israel have expressed concerns about Tehran’s regional activities, seeing it as a threat to their security.

Israeli officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the missile transfers.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday that anybody that threatened to wipe Israel out “would put themselves in a similar danger”.

MISSILE PRODUCTION LINE

The Western source said the number of missiles was in the 10s and that the transfers were designed to send a warning to the United States and Israel, especially after air raids on Iranian troops in Syria. The United States has a significant military presence in Iraq.

“It seems Iran has been turning Iraq into its forward missile base,” the Western source said.

The Iranian sources and one Iraqi intelligence source said a decision was made some 18 months ago to use militias to produce missiles in Iraq, but activity had ramped up in the last few months, including with the arrival of missile launchers.

“We have bases like that in many places and Iraq is one of them. If America attacks us, our friends will attack America’s interests and its allies in the region,” said a senior IRGC commander who served during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

The Western source and the Iraqi source said the factories being used to develop missiles in Iraq were in al-Zafaraniya, east of Baghdad, and Jurf al-Sakhar, north of Kerbala. One Iranian source said there was also a factory in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The areas are controlled by Shi’ite militias, including Kata’ib Hezbollah, one of the closest to Iran. Three sources said Iraqis had been trained in Iran as missile operators.

The Iraqi intelligence source said the al-Zafaraniya factory produced warheads and the ceramic of missile molds under former President Saddam Hussein. It was reactivated by local Shi’ite groups in 2016 with Iranian assistance, the source said.

A team of Shi’ite engineers who used to work at the facility under Saddam were brought in, after being screened, to make it operational, the source said. He also said missiles had been tested near Jurf al-Sakhar.

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon declined to comment.

One U.S official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Tehran over the last few months has transferred missiles to groups in Iraq but could not confirm that those missiles had any launch capability from their current positions.

Washington has been pushing its allies to adopt a tough anti-Iran policy since it reimposed sanctions this month.

While the European signatories to the nuclear deal have so far balked at U.S. pressure, they have grown increasingly impatient over Iran’s ballistic missile program.

France, in particular, has bemoaned Iranian “frenzy” in developing and propagating missiles and wants Tehran to open negotiations over its ballistic weapons.

Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Thursday that Iran was arming regional allies with rockets and allowing ballistic proliferation. “Iran needs to avoid the temptation to be the (regional) hegemon,” he said.

In March, the three nations proposed fresh EU sanctions on Iran over its missile activity, although they failed to push them through after opposition from some member states.

“Such a proliferation of Iranian missile capabilities throughout the region is an additional and serious source of concern,” a document from the three European countries said at the time.

MESSAGE TO FOES

A regional intelligence source also said Iran was storing a number of ballistic missiles in areas of Iraq that were under effective Shi’ite control and had the capacity to launch them.

The source could not confirm that Iran has a missile production capacity in Iraq.

A second Iraqi intelligence official said Baghdad had been aware of the flow of Iranian missiles to Shi’ite militias to help fight Islamic State militants, but that shipments had continued after the hardline Sunni militant group was defeated.

“It was clear to Iraqi intelligence that such a missile arsenal sent by Iran was not meant to fight Daesh (Islamic State) militants but as a pressure card Iran can use once involved in regional conflict,” the official said.

The Iraqi source said it was difficult for the Iraqi government to stop or persuade the groups to go against Tehran.

“We can’t restrain militias from firing Iranian rockets because simply the firing button is not in our hands, it’s with Iranians who control the push button,” he said.

“Iran will definitely use the missiles it handed over to Iraqi militia it supports to send a strong message to its foes in the region and the United States that it has the ability to use Iraqi territories as a launch pad for its missiles to strike anywhere and anytime it decides,” the Iraqi official said.

Iraq’s parliament passed a law in 2016 to bring an assortment of Shi’ite militia groups known collectively as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) into the state apparatus. The militias report to Iraq’s prime minister, who is a Shi’ite under the country’s unofficial governance system.

However, Iran still has a clear hand in coordinating the PMF leadership, which frequently meets and consults with Soleimani.

(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and Jonathan Landay in Washington; editing by David Clarke)

Dozens killed, including children on a bus, in Yemen air strikes

A Yemeni man holds a boy who was injured by an airstrike in Saada, Yemen August 9, 2018./REUTERS/Naif Rahma

ADEN (Reuters) – Saudi-led coalition air strikes on Thursday killed dozens of people, including children traveling on a bus, in Yemen’s Saada province, Yemeni medical sources and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said.

The Western-backed alliance fighting the Iranian-aligned Houthi group in Yemen said in a statement that the air strikes targeted missile launchers used to attack the southern Saudi city of Jizan on Wednesday, killing a Yemeni civilian there.

It accused the Houthis of using children as human shields.

Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam said the coalition showed “clear disregard for civilian life” as the attack had targeted a crowded public place in the city.

A Yemeni boy lies in the hospital after he was injured by an airstrike in Saada, Yemen August 9, 2018./REUTERS/Naif Rahma

A Yemeni boy lies in the hospital after he was injured by an airstrike in Saada, Yemen August 9, 2018./REUTERS/Naif Rahma

The ICRC said one attack hit the bus driving children in Dahyan market, in northern Saada, adding hospitals there had received dozens of dead and wounded.

A Reuters photographer saw bloodied and bandaged children being treated by doctors.

Footage from the Houthi media office showed a boy wearing a blue backpack with a UNICEF logo being carried into a hospital emergency room with blood pouring down his face and over his traditional Yemeni thawb, an ankle-length garment.

Abdul-Ghani Sareeh, head of a health department in Saada, told Reuters that the death toll was to 43, with 61 wounded.

“Scores killed, even more injured, most under the age of 10,” Johannes Bruwer, head of the delegation for the ICRC in Yemen, said in a Twitter post.

It was unclear how many children were killed and how many air strikes were carried out in the area, in northern Yemen, near the border with Saudi Arabia.

Smoke rises after an airstrike in Sanaa, Yemen August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

Smoke rises after an airstrike in Sanaa, Yemen August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

“RED LINE”

Saudi Arabia and Sunni Muslim allies intervened in Yemen’s war in 2015 against the Houthis, who control the most populous areas of Yemen, including the capital Sanaa, and drove the internationally recognized government into exile in 2014.

The United States and other Western powers provide arms and intelligence to the alliance, and human rights groups have criticized them over coalition air strikes that have killed hundreds of civilians at hospitals, schools, and markets.

The alliance says it does not intentionally target civilians and has set up a committee to probe alleged mass casualty air strikes, which has mostly cleared the coalition of any blame.

“Today’s attack in Saada was a legitimate military operation … and was carried out in accordance with international humanitarian law,” the coalition said in the Arabic-language statement carried by SPA.

“Targeting Saudis and residents in Saudi is a red line,” coalition spokesman Turki al-Malki later told Al Arabiya TV.

Fragments from the Houthi missile launched at Jizan Industrial City had killed one Yemeni civilian and wounded 11, Saudi state media said earlier on Thursday.

The Houthis have launched a series of missile strikes on the kingdom, including Riyadh, over the past year.

Saada, the main stronghold of the Houthis, has mainly come under air strikes from the coalition as the mountainous province makes battles hard for pro-government ground troops.

The Yemen war has killed more than 10,000 people, displaced more than 2 million and driven the country to the verge of famine, according to the United Nations.

(Corrects official’s name in paragraph 8 to Abdul-Ghani Sareeh from Abdul-Ghani Nayeb)

(Reporting by Dubai Newsroom; Writing and additional reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Alison Williams)

Why is Saudi halting oil shipments through the Red Sea?

FILE PHOTO: General view of Saudi Aramco's Ras Tanura oil refinery and oil terminal in Saudi Arabia May 21, 2018. Picture taken May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah/File Photo

By Stephen Kalin and Rania El Gamal

RIYADH/DUBAI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia announced last week it was suspending oil shipments through the Red Sea’s Bab al-Mandeb strait after Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis attacked two ships in the waterway.

To date, no other exporters have followed suit. A full blockage of the strategic waterway would virtually halt shipment to Europe and the United States of about 4.8 million barrels per day of crude oil and refined petroleum products.

Western allies backing a Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen expressed concern about the attacks, but have not indicated they would take action to secure the strait. That would risk deeper involvement in a war seen as a proxy battle for regional supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

THE YEMEN WAR

The threat to shipping in Bab al-Mandeb has been building for some time, with the Houthis targeting Saudi tankers in at least two other attacks this year. It is not unusual to reevaluate security after such an incident, but Riyadh’s announcement also carries a political dimension.

Analysts say Saudi Arabia is trying to encourage its Western allies to take more seriously the danger posed by the Houthis and step up support for its war in Yemen, where thousands of air strikes and a limited ground operation have produced only modest results while deepening the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

“Rather than allowing these hostile maneuvers to go unnoticed in the eyes of the world, the Saudi (energy) minister has placed Iran’s subversions of the whole global economy under the spotlight for everyone to see,” said energy consultant Sadad al-Husseini, a former senior executive at Saudi Aramco. “The capture of the port of Hodeidah will go a long way towards putting an end to these disruptions.”

Hodeidah, Yemen’s main port, is the target of a coalition offensive launched on June 12 in a bid to cut off the Houthis’ primary supply line. After failing to make major gains, the coalition halted operations on July 1 to give the United Nations a chance to resolve the situation, though some fighting has continued.

The suspension of Saudi shipments – with the implied threat of higher oil prices – may also be aimed at pressuring European allies, who have continued to support the nuclear deal with Iran following the U.S. withdrawal in May, to take a stronger stance against Tehran’s ballistic missiles program and support for armed groups across the region.

There was no official confirmation that the move was coordinated with Washington but one analyst said it would be astonishing if it were not, given the strategic alliance between the two countries.

FILE PHOTO: Saudi soldiers walk by oil tanker trucks delivered by Saudi authorities to support charities and NGOs in Marib, Yemen January 26, 2018. Picture taken January 26, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser /File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Saudi soldiers walk by oil tanker trucks delivered by Saudi authorities to support charities and NGOs in Marib, Yemen January 26, 2018. Picture taken January 26, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser /File Photo

RAISE THE STAKES

No party has much appetite for an all-out conflict, but the situation can easily deteriorate. Both the Saudis and the Houthis appear to want to raise the stakes – with different goals in mind.

“The Houthis are trying to provoke a situation where there’s a great effort to negotiate an end to the war in Yemen,” said James Dorsey, senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“The Saudis are trying to create a situation in which the U.S. would in one form or another significantly step up support … so that they can claim military victory.”

The risk is that one side miscalculates, eliciting a response that is stronger than anticipated.

“We’re just one missile away somewhere from getting into a more direct confrontation,” said Helima Croft, global head of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets.

OPTIONS FOR SAUDI OIL

Saudi Arabia announced it was halting oil shipments through the Red Sea “until the situation becomes clearer and maritime transition through Bab al-Mandeb is safe”.

It is unclear when that will be. But there may not be a big rush as the world’s top oil exporter has other ways to supply European and U.S. markets.

Redirecting ships around the southern tip of Africa would cost a lot more in time and money, making it an unlikely alternative.

Instead, Saudi Arabia will probably use the Petroline, or East-West Pipeline, through which it transports crude from fields in its Eastern Province to the Red Sea port of Yanbu for export to Europe and North America.

It could also charter non-Saudi ships to carry its oil through Bab al-Mandeb, as it does with Asian customers using different routes, industry and trading sources say.

POLITICAL SOLUTION NEEDED

Even before last week’s attack, shipping companies had taken extra precautions, including armed guards, more lookouts at sea, sailing faster and increased contact with international navies.

A January United Nations report said existing measures would not protect ships against attacks involving waterborne improvised explosive devices, anti-ship missiles, land based anti-tank guided missiles or sea mines.

Experts say the United States and other partners could provide naval escorts to tankers and take more steps to reduce the Houthis’ capacity to target shipping, including arms supplies and help with logistics, intelligence and targeting.

Increased naval patrols helped curb pirate attacks in the nearby Gulf of Aden a decade ago, but Western allies are less likely to get directly involved this time to avoid being dragged into the Yemen war.

While a military approach might deal with the threat to shipping, Elizabeth Dickinson at the International Crisis Group says the only real solution is a settlement to the war in Yemen, which remains elusive.

HOW MIGHT IRAN RESPOND?

After withdrawing from a 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers, Washington is now pushing countries to end imports of Iranian oil from November. Tehran has warned of counter-measures and threatened to block Gulf oil exports if its own exports are halted.

Despite exchanging bellicose threats with President Donald Trump, Iranian officials consider the possibility of a military confrontation with the United States “very low”. Some still believe in the possibility of direct negotiations, but several contacted by Reuters warned that Tehran’s response to a U.S.-initiated war would be costly.

“Our military power might not be equal to America’s but Iran’s non-conventional capabilities can and will be a blow to Americans, which will drag them into another quagmire in the region,” said a senior official who asked not to be named.

Besides disrupting the flow of oil in the Gulf, insiders say that in a direct confrontation, Iran could target U.S. interests from Jordan to Afghanistan, including troops in Syria and Iraq.

TANKER WAR UNLIKELY

During the “tanker war” of the mid-1980s, Gulf waters were mined as Iran and Iraq attacked oil shipments. U.S., British and other foreign forces escorted other nations’ tankers – with some Kuwaiti ships reflagging with the U.S. banner – and conducted limited strikes on Iranian maritime targets.

While the Saudis could fly different flags now to try to avoid Houthi attacks, analysts say that would undermine their efforts to project power in the region.

(For a graphic on ‘Oil transit chokepoints’ click https://tmsnrt.rs/2K3HPVf)

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul in London, Parisa Hafezi in Ankara and Yara Bayoumy in Washington; Writing by Stephen Kalin)

As Hodeidah battle grinds on, residents suffer lack of clean water, electricity

A displaced boy from Hodeidah city carries his brother who is affected by monoplegia, at a school where displaced people live, in Sanaa, Yemen June 22, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

By Dahlia Nehme

DUBAI (Reuters) – Residents unable to flee Hodeidah face constant bombardment, lack of clean water and power cuts as an Arab coalition battles to capture Yemen’s main port from Iran-aligned Houthis.

“We hear loud explosions all the time,” Assem Mohammed, a 30-year-old pharmacist, said by telephone.

“We haven’t had water for three days.”

Mohammed, with his wife and six-month-old daughter, are among a dwindling number of residents who have remained in Hawak district, a neighborhood sandwiched between the airport, captured this week by the coalition, and the sea port, the latest target of the military offensive.

Whether through lack of funds or work or personal commitments, some families like Mohammed’s cannot escape.

Drivers transporting fleeing residents out of Hodeidah have more than doubled their fares since the battle began, while the hospital where Mohammed works has threatened employees with dismissal if they are absent for long periods.

“Electricity has also been cut in most of the city since three days, and in some neighborhoods for a week,” he said. He blamed the water shortage on damage to pipes that relief workers say has been caused by the Houthis digging trenches. Houthi officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

Since 2015 Hodeidah residents have used privately-owned generators to produce electricity. But this month’s offensive has left them struggling to obtain the necessary diesel oil.

Temperatures during summer in Yemen soar to above 40 degrees Celsius (104 F) in the shade, which along with lack of clean water could help spread disease.

Coalition leaders Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have pledged a swift operation to capture the Red Sea port, without entering the city center to minimize civilian casualties and maintain a flow of essential goods.

But its maritime port is a principal entry point for Yemen’s relief supplies, and the United Nations fears heavy fighting will worsen what is already the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis, with 22 million Yemenis dependent on aid and an estimated 8.4 million believed to be on the verge of starvation.

A displaced woman from Hodeidah city carries her sick daughter at a school where displaced people live, in Sanaa, Yemen June 22, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

A displaced woman from Hodeidah city carries her sick daughter at a school where displaced people live, in Sanaa, Yemen June 22, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

“The level and degree of human suffering is heart-breaking,” Lise Grande, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Yemen said on Thursday. “Of all the things we are worried about, cholera is top of the list.”

“It wouldn’t take much to start an unstoppable outbreak.”

Dozens of displaced families have been relocated to schools in the city, Mohammed Kassem, Hodeidah ICRC system manager, told Reuters as relief workers distributed food bags at one facility.

“We ran away only with the clothes we were wearing,” said one woman while waiting to receive her share.

The coalition says it wants to prevent the Houthis receiving weapons and generating cash from imports, eventually forcing them to start talks on handing over power to the internationally recognized government of President Abd-Rabu Mansour Hadi.

UN CONCERNED

Grande warned against cholera spreading “with lightning speed” if the water system breaks down and nothing is done to immediately address the situation.

U.N. officials estimate that in a worst-case scenario the fighting could cost up to 250,000 lives, especially if a cholera epidemic occurs in the widely impoverished region.

The Arab coalition intervened in the war in 2015 to roll back Houthi control of Yemen’s main population centers and reinstate its internationally recognized government. Coalition forces retook much of the south before the war, widely seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, bogged down.

Tens of Hodeidah families have fled the fighting in Hodeidah for safety in the Houthi-held capital Sanaa, while others have headed to Raymah and Wusab, also in Houthi-ruled areas inland.

“They told us there’s an organization where we can register as refugees over here, but God knows,” said Marwan al-Barah, one of those displaced from Hodeidah.

In a Sanaa school, Reuters TV footage showed men who had fled Hodeidah queuing to register their families as displaced, while women sat on the floor in classrooms as their bare-foot children and toddlers played nearby.

(Reporting by Dahlia Nehme; Editing by Sami Aboudi, William Maclean)

Khamenei says curbing Iran’s missile program a ‘dream that will never come true’

FILE PHOTO: Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during Friday prayers in Tehran September 14, 2007. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl/File Photo

ANKARA (Reuters) – Iran’s top leader said on Monday it would respond harshly to any attack and that Western demands for limits on its ballistic missile program are a “dream that will never come true”.

Tensions between Iran and the West have resurged since President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of world powers’ 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, calling it deeply flawed.

European signatories are scrambling to save the accord, which they see as crucial to forestalling an Iranian nuclear weapons, by protecting trade with Iran against the reimposition of U.S. sanctions to dissuade Tehran from quitting the deal.

Under the deal, the Islamic Republic curbed its disputed nuclear energy program and in return won a lifting of most international sanctions that had hobbled its economy.

One of Trump’s demands – which European allies back in principle – is negotiations to rein in Iran’s ballistic missile program, which was not covered by the nuclear deal.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei again said this was non-negotiable. “Some Europeans are talking about limiting our defensive missile program. I am telling the Europeans, ‘Limiting our missile work is a dream that will never come true,” he said in a televised speech.

Trump also objected that the 2015 deal did not address Iran’s nuclear work beyond 2025 or its role in conflicts in Yemen and Syria. Though committed to the deal, European powers share Trump’s concerns and want broader talks with Iran to address the issues.

“Our enemies have staged economic and psychological … warfare against us and new American sanctions are part of it,” Khamenei told a gathering to mark the 29th anniversary of the death of Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

“Tehran will attack 10 times more if attacked by enemies … The enemies don’t want an independent Iran in the region … We will continue our support for oppressed nations,” he said.

Khamenei said Iran had no intention of curbing its influence in the Middle East and urged Arab youth to stand up to U.S. pressure.

“Young Arabs, you should take action and the initiative to control your own future … Some regional countries act like their own people’s enemies,” he said in an allusion to U.S.-allied Gulf Arab states who have supported rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a close ally of Tehran.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Trump pulls U.S. from Iran nuclear deal, to revive sanctions

U.S. President Donald Trump reacts to a question from the media as National Security Advisor John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence look on after the president announced his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement during a statement in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Tuesday he was reimposing economic sanctions on Iran and pulling the United States out of an international agreement aimed at stopping Tehran from obtaining a nuclear bomb.

The decision is likely to raise the risk of conflict in the Middle East, upset America’s European allies and disrupt global oil supplies.

“I am announcing today that the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal,” Trump said at the White House. “In a few moments, I will sign a presidential memorandum to begin reinstating U.S. nuclear sanctions on the Iranian regime. We will be instituting the highest level of economic sanctions.”

The 2015 deal, worked out by the United States, five other international powers and Iran, eased sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran limiting its nuclear program.

Trump says the agreement, the signature foreign policy achievement of Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, does not address Iran’s ballistic missile program, its nuclear activities beyond 2025 nor its role in conflicts in Yemen and Syria.

Iran has ruled out renegotiating the agreement and threatened to retaliate, although it has not said exactly how, if Washington pulled out.

Renewing sanctions would make it much harder for Iran to sell its oil abroad or use the international banking system.

(Additional reporting by Tim Ahmann, Makini Brice, Warren Strobel and Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Ayenat Mersie in New York, Sybille de La Hamaide, John Irish and Tim Hepher in Paris, Parisa Hafezi in Ankara, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London, Andrew Torchia in Dubai; Writing by William Maclean and Alistair Bell; Editing by Peter Graff, Yara Bayoumy and Bill Trott)

Saudi-led air strike kills 12 civilians, including seven children: medics

Morgue workers sort plastic bags containing bodies of an airstrike victims in Hodeida, Yemen April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

HODEIDAH, Yemen (Reuters) – An air strike by the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen killed 12 civilians including seven children in the coastal city of Hodeidah on Monday, medics and a witness said.

Medics and a civilian who saw the wreckage said the air strike had destroyed a house in the al-Hali district, where displaced civilians from other provinces were settled.

The 12 victims were all from the same family, they said.

A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition told Reuters: “We take this report very seriously and it will be fully investigated as all reports of this nature are – using an internationally approved, independent process. Whilst this is ongoing, it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

Hodeidah is home to the impoverished country’s biggest port from where most of the humanitarian aid reaches millions of civilians on the brink of famine. The operation of port, controlled by the Iran-aligned Houthis, was not affected by the air strike.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened in a civil war in Yemen in 2015 against the Houthis to restore the internationally recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The alliance, which includes other Sunni Muslim states, has conducted thousands of air strikes targeting Houthi fighters and has often hit civilian areas, although it denies ever doing so intentionally.

The war has killed more than 10,000 people, displaced more than 2 million and driven the country – already the poorest on the Arabian Peninsula – to the verge of famine.

Last week the Houthis launched a flurry of missiles which Saudi Arabia said it had intercepted over Riyadh. Debris from the missiles fell on a home, killing one person.

Rights watchdog Human Rights Watch on Monday said the Houthi attack had violated the laws of war by indiscriminately targeting populated areas.

“The Houthis should immediately stop their indiscriminate missile attacks on populated areas of Saudi Arabia,” said Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson.

“But just as unlawful coalition airstrikes don’t justify the Houthis’ indiscriminate attacks, the Saudis can’t use Houthi rockets to justify impeding life-saving goods for Yemen’s civilian population.”

When the Houthis fired missiles at Riyadh last November, the coalition responded by shutting Yemen’s airports and ports. The United Nations said that blockade raised the danger of mass starvation, and it was partially lifted.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Alison Williams and Hugh Lawson)