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Archive for January, 2020

Iran vows revenge for US attack that killed powerful general

January 04, 2020

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iran promised to seek revenge for a U.S. airstrike near Baghdad’s airport that killed the mastermind of its interventions across the Middle East, and the U.S. said Friday that it was sending thousands more troops to the region as tensions soared in the wake of the targeted killing.

The death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, marks a major escalation in the standoff between Washington and Tehran, which has careened from one crisis to another since U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed crippling sanctions.

Almost 24 hours after the attack on Soleimani, Iraqi officials and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq reported another deadly airstrike. An Iraqi government official reported a strike on two vehicles north of Baghdad but had no information on casualties. Another security official who witnessed the aftermath described charred vehicles and said five people were killed. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Iraqi state television and the media arm of the Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces also reported the strike. The group said its medics were targeted. An American official who spoke on the condition on anonymity denied the U.S. was behind the reported attack.

The targeted strike against Soleimani and any retaliation by Iran could ignite a conflict that engulfs the whole region, endangering U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and beyond. Over the last two decades, Soleimani had assembled a network of heavily armed allies stretching all the way to southern Lebanon, on Israel’s doorstep.

“We take comfort in knowing that his reign of terror is over,” Trump said of Soleimani. The United States said it was sending nearly 3,000 more troops to the Middle East, reflecting concern about potential Iranian retaliation. The U.S. also urged Americans to leave Iraq immediately following the airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport that Iran’s state TV said killed Soleimani and nine others.

The State Department said the embassy in Baghdad, which was attacked by Iran-backed militiamen and their supporters earlier this week, is closed and all consular services have been suspended. Around 5,200 American troops are based in Iraq to train Iraqi forces and help in the fight against Islamic State militants. Defense officials who discussed the new troop movements spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a decision not yet announced by the Pentagon.

A Pentagon official who was not authorized to speak publicly said the U.S. also had placed an Army brigade on alert to fly into Lebanon to protect the American Embassy. U.S. embassies also issued a security alert for Americans in Bahrain, Kuwait and Nigeria.

The announcement about sending more troops came as Trump said Soleimani’s killing was not an effort to begin a conflict with Iran. “We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war,” Trump said, adding that he does not seek regime change in Iran.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vowed “harsh retaliation” after the airstrike, calling Soleimani the “international face of resistance.” Khamenei declared three days of public mourning and appointed Maj. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani’s deputy, to replace him as head of the Quds Force.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the killing a “heinous crime” and said his country would “take revenge.” Iran twice summoned the Swiss envoy, the first time delivering a letter to pass to Washington.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the U.S. attack a “cowardly terrorist action” and said Iran has the right to respond “in any method and any time.“ Thousands of worshipers in Tehran took to the streets after Friday prayers to condemn the killing, waving posters of Soleimani and chanting “Death to deceitful America.”

However, the attack could act as a deterrent for Iran and its allies to delay or restrain any potential response. Trump said possible targets had been identified and the U.S. was prepared. Oil prices surged on news of the airstrike, and markets were mixed.

The killing promised to further strain relations with Iraq’s government, which is allied with both Washington and Tehran and has been deeply worried about becoming a battleground in their rivalry. Iraqi politicians close to Iran called for the country to order U.S. forces out.

The U.S. Defense Department said it killed the 62-year-old Soleimani because he “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” It also accused Soleimani of approving orchestrated violent protests at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

The strike, on an access road near Baghdad’s airport, was carried out early Friday by an American drone, according to a U.S. official. Soleimani had just disembarked from a plane arriving from either Syria or Lebanon, a senior Iraqi security official said. The blast tore apart his body and that of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces. A senior politician said Soleimani’s body was identified by the ring he wore.

Others killed include five members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard and Soleimani’s son-in-law, Iranian state TV said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

The attack comes at the start of a year in which Trump faces both a Senate trial following his impeachment and a re-election campaign. It marks a potential turning point in the Middle East and represents a drastic change for American policy toward Iran after months of tensions.

They are rooted in Trump’s decision in May 2018 to withdraw the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, struck under Barack Obama. Since then, Tehran shot down a U.S. military surveillance drone and seized oil tankers. The U.S. also blames Iran for other attacks targeting tankers and a September assault on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry that temporarily halved its production.

Supporters of the strike against Soleimani said it restored U.S. deterrence power against Iran, and Trump allies were quick to praise the action. “To the Iranian government: if you want more, you will get more,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham tweeted.

“Hope this is the first step to regime change in Tehran,” Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, wrote in a tweet. Others, including Democratic presidential hopefuls, criticized Trump’s order. Joe Biden said Trump had “tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox,” saying it could leave the U.S. “on the brink of a major conflict across the Middle East.”

Trump, who was vacationing at his private club in Palm Beach, Florida, said he ordered the airstrike because Soleimani had killed and wounded many Americans over the years and was plotting to kill many more.

“He should have been taken out many years ago,” Trump added. The potential for a spiraling escalation alarmed U.S. allies and rivals alike. “We are waking up in a more dangerous world,” France’s deputy minister for foreign affairs, Amelie de Montchalin, told RTL radio.

The European Union warned against a “generalized flare-up of violence.” Russia condemned the killing, and fellow Security Council member China said it was “highly concerned.” Britain and Germany noted that Iran also bore some responsibility for escalating tensions.

Even so, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed frustration at the European reaction. “Frankly, the Europeans haven’t been as helpful as I wish that they could be. The Brits, the French, the Germans all need to understand that what we did, what the Americans did, saved lives in Europe as well,” he said on the Fox News “Hannity” program.

While Iran’s conventional military has faced 40 years of American sanctions, Iran can strike in the region through its allied forces like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraqi militias and Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called on “the resistance the world over” to avenge Soleimani’s killing. Frictions over oil shipments in the Gulf also could increase, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has built up a ballistic missile program.

Iran’s Supreme National Security Council said in a statement Friday that it had held a special session and made “appropriate decisions” on how to respond but didn’t elaborate. Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett held a meeting with top security officials Friday, but the Israeli military said it was not taking any extraordinary action on its northern front, other than closing a ski resort in the Golan Heights near Lebanon and Syria as a precaution.

The most immediate impact could be in Iraq. Funerals for al-Muhandis and the other slain Iraqis were set for Saturday. Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi condemned the strike as an “aggression against Iraq.” An emergency session of parliament was called for Sunday, which the deputy speaker, Hassan al-Kaabi, said would take “decisions that put an end to the U.S. presence in Iraq.”

Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Robert Burns, Lolita C. Baldor and Zeke Miller in Washington; Jon Gambrell and Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Nasser Karimi and Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran; Bassem Mroue and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut; and Joseph Krauss and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Soleimani, a general who became Iran icon by targeting US

January 03, 2020

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — For Iranians whose icons since the Islamic Revolution have been stern-faced clergy, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani widely represented a figure of national resilience in the face of four decades of U.S. pressure.

For the U.S. and Israel, he was a shadowy figure in command of Iran’s proxy forces, responsible for fighters in Syria backing President Bashar Assad and for the deaths of American troops in Iraq. Solemani survived the horror of Iran’s long war in the 1980s with Iraq to take control of the Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force, responsible for the Islamic Republic’s foreign campaigns.

Relatively unknown in Iran until the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Soleimani’s popularity and mystique grew out American officials calling for his killing. By the time it came a decade and a half later, Soleimani had become Iran’s most recognizable battlefield commander, ignoring calls to enter politics but becoming as powerful, if not more, than its civilian leadership.

“The warfront is mankind’s lost paradise,” Soleimani recounted in a 2009 interview. “One type of paradise that is portrayed for mankind is streams, beautiful nymphs and greeneries. But there is another kind of paradise. … The warfront was the lost paradise of the human beings, indeed.”

A U.S. airstrike killed Soleimani, 62, and others as they traveled from Baghdad’s international airport early Friday morning. The Pentagon said President Donald Trump ordered the U.S. military to take “decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing” a man once referred to by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a “living martyr of the revolution.”

Soleimani’s luck ran out after being rumored dead several times in his life. Those incidents included a 2006 airplane crash that killed other military officials in northwestern Iran and a 2012 bombing in Damascus that killed top aides of Assad. More recently, rumors circulated in November 2015 that Soleimani was killed or seriously wounded leading forces loyal to Assad as they fought around Syria’s Aleppo.

Iranian officials quickly vowed to take revenge amid months of tensions between Iran and the U.S. following Trump pulling out of Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers. While Soleimani was the Guard’s most prominent general, many others in its ranks have experience in waging the asymmetrical, proxy attacks for which Iran has become known.

“Trump through his gamble has dragged the U.S. into the most dangerous situation in the region,” Hessameddin Ashena, an adviser to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, wrote on the social media app Telegram. “Whoever put his foot beyond the red line should be ready to face its consequences.”

Born March 11, 1957, Soleimani was said in his homeland to have grown up near the mountainous and the historic Iranian town of Rabor, famous for its forests, its apricot, walnut and peach harvests and its brave soldiers. The U.S. State Department has said he was born in the Iranian religious capital of Qom.

Little is known about his childhood, though Iranian accounts suggest Soleimani’s father was a peasant who received a piece of land under the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, but later became encumbered by debts.

By the time he was 13, Soleimani began working in construction, later as an employee of the Kerman Water Organization. Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution swept the shah from power and Soleimani joined the Revolutionary Guard in its wake. He deployed to Iran’s northwest with forces that put down Kurdish unrest following the revolution.

Soon after, Iraq invaded Iran and began the two countries long, bloody eight-year war. The fighting killed more than 1 million people and saw Iran send waves of lightly armed troops into minefields and the fire of Iraqi forces, including teenage soldiers. Solemani’s unit and others came under attack by Iraqi chemical weapons as well.

Amid the carnage, Soleimani became known for his opposition to “meaningless deaths” on the battlefield, while still weeping at times with fervor when exhorting his men into combat, embracing each individually.

After the Iraq-Iran war, Soleimani largely disappeared from public view for several years, something analysts attribute to his wartime disagreements with Hashemi Rafsanjani, who would serve as Iran’s president from 1989 to 1997. But after Rafsanjani, Soleimani became head of the Quds force. He also grew so close to Khamenei that the Supreme Leader officiated the wedding of the general’s daughter.

As chief of the Quds — or Jerusalem — Force, Solemani oversaw the Guard’s foreign operations and soon would come to the attention of Americans following the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

In secret U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, U.S. officials openly discussed Iraqi efforts to reach out to Soleimani to stop rocket attacks on the highly secured Green Zone in Baghdad in 2009. Another cable in 2007 outlines then-Iraqi President Jalal Talabani offering a U.S. official a message from Soleimani acknowledging having “hundreds” of agents in the country while pledging, “I swear on the grave of (the late Ayatollah Ruhollah) Khomeini I haven’t authorized a bullet against the U.S.”

U.S. officials at the time dismissed Soleimani’s claim as they saw Iran as both an arsonist and a fireman in Iraq, controlling some Shiite militias while simultaneously stirring dissent and launching attacks. U.S. forces would blame the Quds Force for an attack in Karbala that killed five American troops, as well as for training and supplying the bomb makers whose improvised explosive devices made IED — improvised explosive device — a dreaded acronym among soldiers.

In a 2010 speech, U.S. Gen. David Petreaus recounted a message from Soleimani he said explained the scope of Iranian’s powers. “He said, ‘Gen. Petreaus, you should know that I, Qassem Soleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan,’” Petraeus said.

The U.S. and the United Nations put Soleimani on sanctions lists in 2007, though his travels continued. In 2011, U.S. officials also named him as a defendant in an outlandish Quds Force plot to allegedly hire a purported Mexican drug cartel assassin to kill a Saudi diplomat.

But his greatest notoriety would arise from the Syrian civil war and the rapid expansion of the Islamic State group. Iran, a major backer of Assad, sent Soleimani into Syria several times to lead attacks against IS and others opposing Assad’s rule. While a U.S.-led coalition focused on airstrikes, several ground victories for Iraqi forces came with photographs emerging of Soleimani leading, never wearing a flak jacket.

“Soleimani has taught us that death is the beginning of life, not the end of life,” one Iraqi militia commander said.

Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

US kills Iran’s most powerful general in Baghdad airstrike

January 03, 2020

BAGHDAD (AP) — The United States killed Iran’s top general and the architect of Tehran’s proxy wars in the Middle East in an airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport early on Friday, an attack that threatens to dramatically ratchet up tensions in the region.

The targeted killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, could draw forceful Iranian retaliation against American interests in the region and spiral into a far larger conflict between the U.S. and Iran, endangering U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and beyond.

The Defense Department said it killed Soleimani because he “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” It also accused Soleimani of approving the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad earlier this week.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that a “harsh retaliation is waiting” for the U.S. Iranian state TV carried a statement by Khamenei also calling Soleimani “the international face of resistance.” Khamenei declared three days of public mourning for the general’s death.

Also, an adviser to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani warned President Donald Trump of retaliation from Tehran. “Trump through his gamble has dragged the U.S. into the most dangerous situation in the region,” Hessameddin Ashena wrote on the social media app Telegram. “Whoever put his foot beyond the red line should be ready to face its consequences.”

Iranian state television later in a commentary called Trump’s order to kill Soleimani “the biggest miscalculation by the U.S.” in the years since World War II. “The people of the region will no longer allow Americans to stay,” the TV said.

The airport strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, and five others, including the PMF’s airport protocol officer, Mohammed Reda, Iraqi officials said.

Trump was vacationing on his estate in Palm Beach, Florida, but sent out a tweet of an American flag. The dramatic attack comes at the start of a year in which Trump faces both a Senate trial following his impeachment by the U.S. House and a re-election campaign. It marks a potential turning point in the Middle East and represents a drastic change for American policy toward Iran after months of tensions.

Tehran shot down a U.S. military surveillance drone and seized oil tankers. The U.S. also blames Iran for a series of attacks targeting tankers, as well as a September assault on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry that temporarily halved its production.

The tensions take root in Trump’s decision in May 2018 to withdraw the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, struck under his predecessor, Barack Obama. The 62-year-old Soleimani was the target of Friday’s U.S. attack, which was conducted by an armed American drone, according to a U.S. official. His vehicle was struck on an access road near the Baghdad airport.

A senior Iraqi security official said the airstrike took place near the cargo area after Soleimani left his plane and joined al-Muhandis and others in a car. The official said the plane had arrived from either Lebanon or Syria.

Two officials from the PMF said Suleimani’s body was torn to pieces in the attack, while they did not find the body of al-Muhandis. A senior politician said Soleimani’s body was identified by the ring he wore.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to give official statements. It’s unclear what legal authority the U.S. relied on to carry out the attack. American presidents claim broad authority to act without the approval of the Congress when U.S. personnel or interests are facing an imminent threat. The Pentagon did not provide evidence to back up its assertion that Soleimani was planning new attacks against Americans.

Democratic Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Trump owes a full explanation to Congress and the American people. “The present authorizations for use of military force in no way cover starting a possible new war. This step could bring the most consequential military confrontation in decades,” Blumenthal said.

But Trump allies were quick to praise the action. “To the Iranian government: if you want more, you will get more,” tweeted South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. For Iran, the killing represents more than just the loss of a battlefield commander, but also a cultural icon who represented national pride and resilience while facing U.S. sanctions. While careful to avoid involving himself in politics, Soleimani’s profile rose sharply as U.S. and Israeli officials blamed him for Iranian proxy attacks abroad.

While Iran’s conventional military has suffered under 40 years of American sanctions, the Guard has built up a ballistic missile program. It also can strike asymmetrically in the region through forces like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The U.S. long has blamed Iran for car bombings and kidnappings it never claimed.

As the head of the Quds, or Jersualem, Force of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, Soleimani led all of its expeditionary forces and frequently shuttled between Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Quds Force members have deployed into Syria’s long war to support President Bashar Assad, as well as into Iraq in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, a longtime foe of Tehran.

Soleimani rose to prominence by advising forces fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and in Syria on behalf of the embattled Assad. U.S. officials say the Guard under Soleimani taught Iraqi militants how to manufacture and use especially deadly roadside bombs against U.S. troops after the invasion of Iraq. Iran has denied that. Soleimani himself remains popular among many Iranians, who see him as a selfless hero fighting Iran’s enemies abroad.

Soleimani had been rumored dead several times, including in a 2006 airplane crash that killed other military officials in northwestern Iran and following a 2012 bombing in Damascus that killed top aides of Assad. Rumors circulated in November 2015 that Soleimani was killed or seriously wounded leading forces loyal to Assad as they fought around Syria’s Aleppo.

Soleimani’s killing follows the New Year’s Eve attack by Iran-backed militias on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The two-day embassy attack, which ended Wednesday, prompted Trump to order about 750 U.S. soldiers deployed to the Middle East.

It also prompted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to postpone his trip to Ukraine and four other countries “to continue monitoring the ongoing situation in Iraq and ensure the safety and security of Americans in the Middle East,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Wednesday.

The breach at the embassy followed U.S. airstrikes Sunday that killed 25 fighters of the Iran-backed militia in Iraq, the Kataeb Hezbollah. The U.S. military said the strikes were in retaliation for last week’s killing of an American contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that the U.S. blamed on the militia.

U.S. officials have suggested they were prepared to engage in further retaliatory attacks in Iraq. “The game has changed,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Thursday, telling reporters that violent acts by Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq — including the Dec. 27 rocket attack that killed one American — will be met with U.S. military force.

Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Zeke Miller in Washington, Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed reporting.

Attack on US Embassy in Iraq shows stark choices for Trump

January 01, 2020

WASHINGTON (AP) — The attack on the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad by Iran-supported militiamen Tuesday is a stark demonstration that Iran can still strike at American interests despite President Donald Trump’s economic pressure campaign. Trump said Iran would be held “fully responsible” for the attack, but it was unclear whether that meant military retaliation.

“They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat. Happy New Year!” Trump tweeted later in the afternoon. He also thanked top Iraqi government leaders for their “rapid response upon request.”

Defense Secretary Mark Esper later announced that “in response to recent events” in Iraq, and at Trump’s direction, he authorized the immediate deployment of an infantry battalion of about 750 soldiers from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to the Middle East. He did not specify their destination, but a U.S. official familiar with the decision said they will go to Kuwait.

Esper said additional soldiers from the 82nd Airborne’s quick-deployment brigade, known officially as its Immediate Response Force, are prepared to deploy over the next several days. The U.S. official, who provided unreleased details on condition of anonymity, said the full brigade of about 4,000 soldiers may deploy.

“This deployment is an appropriate and precautionary action taken in response to increased threat levels against U.S. personnel and facilities, such as we witnessed in Baghdad today,” Esper said in a written statement.

The 750 soldiers deploying immediately are in addition to 14,000 U.S. troops who have deployed to the Gulf region since May in response to concerns about Iranian aggression, including its alleged sabotage of commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf.

Tuesday’s breach of the embassy compound in Baghdad, which caused no known U.S. casualties or evacuations, revealed growing strains between Washington and Baghdad, raising questions about the future of the U.S. military mission there. The U.S. has about 5,200 troops in Iraq, mainly to train Iraqi forces and help them combat Islamic State extremists.

The breach followed American airstrikes Sunday that killed 25 fighters of an Iran-backed militia in Iraq, the Kataeb Hezbollah. The U.S. said those strikes were in retaliation for last week’s killing of an American contractor and the wounding of American and Iraqi troops in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that the U.S. blamed on the militia. The American strikes angered the Iraqi government, which called them an unjustified violation of its sovereignty.

Trump blamed Iran for the embassy breach and called on Iraq to protect the diplomatic mission even as the U.S. reinforced the compound with Marines from Kuwait. “Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many,” he tweeted from his estate in Florida. “We strongly responded, and always will. Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible. In addition, we expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified!”

Even as Trump has argued for removing U.S. troops from Mideast conflicts, he also has singled out Iran as a malign influence in the region. After withdrawing the U.S. in 2018 from an international agreement that exchanged an easing of sanctions for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program, Trump ratcheted up sanctions.

Those economic penalties, including a virtual shut-off of Iranian oil exports, are aimed at forcing Iran to negotiate a broader nuclear deal. But critics say that pressure has pushed Iranian leaders into countering with a variety of military attacks in the Gulf.

Until Sunday’s U.S. airstrikes, Trump had been measured in his response to Iranian provocations. In June, he abruptly called off U.S. military strikes on Iranian targets in retaliation for the downing of an American drone.

Robert Ford, a retired U.S. diplomat who served five years in Baghdad and then became ambassador in Syria, said Iran’s allies in the Iraqi parliament may be able to harness any surge in anger among Iraqis toward the United States to force U.S. troops to leave the country. Ford said Trump miscalculated by approving Sunday’s airstrikes on Kataeb Hezbollah positions in Iraq and Syria — strikes that drew a public rebuke from the Iraqi government and seem to have triggered Tuesday’s embassy attack.

“The Americans fell into the Iranian trap,” Ford said, with airstrikes that turned some Iraqi anger toward the U.S. and away from Iran and the increasingly unpopular Iranian-backed Shiite militias. The tense situation in Baghdad appeared to upset Trump’s vacation routine in Florida, where he is spending the holidays.

Trump spent just under an hour at his private golf club in West Palm Beach before returning to his Mar-a-Lago resort in nearby Palm Beach. He had spent nearly six hours at his golf club on each of the previous two days. Trump spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi and emphasized the need for Iraq to protect Americans and their facilities in the country, said White House spokesman Hogan Gidley.

Trump is under pressure from some in Congress to take a hard-line approach to Iranian aggression, which the United States says included an unprecedented drone and missile attack on the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry in September. More recently, Iran-backed militias in Iraq have conducted numerous rocket attacks on bases hosting U.S. forces.

Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican and supporter of Trump’s Iran policy, called the embassy breach “yet another reckless escalation” by Iran. Tuesday’s attack was carried out by members of the Iran-supported Kataeb Hezbollah militia. Dozens of militiamen and their supporters smashed a main door to the compound and set fire to a reception area, but they did not enter the main buildings.

Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, blamed Iran for the episode and faulted Trump for his “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. “The results so far have been more threats against international commerce, emboldened and more violent proxy attacks across the Middle East, and now, the death of an American citizen in Iraq,” Menendez said, referring to the rocket attack last week.

By early evening Tuesday, the mob had retreated from the compound but set up several tents outside for an intended sit-in. Dozens of yellow flags belonging to Iran-backed Shiite militias fluttered atop the reception area and were plastered along the embassy’s concrete wall along with anti-U.S. graffiti. American Apache helicopters flew overhead and dropped flares over the area in what the U.S. military called a “show of force.”

The U.S. also was sending 100 or more additional Marines to the embassy compound to support its defenses. The embassy breach was seen by some analysts as affirming their view that it is folly for the U.S. to keep forces in Iraq after having eliminated the Islamic State group’s territorial hold in the country.

A U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is also a long-term hope of Iran, noted Paul Salem, president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute. And it’s always possible Trump would “wake up one morning and make that decision” to pull U.S. forces out of Iraq, as he announced earlier with the U.S. military presence in neighboring Syria, Salem said. Trump’s Syria decision triggered the resignation of his first defense secretary, retired Gen. Jim Mattis, but the president later amended his decision and about 1,200 U.S. troops remain in Syria.

Trump’s best weapon with Iran is the one he’s already using — the sanctions, said Salem. He and Ford said Trump would do best to keep resisting Iran’s attempt to turn the Iran-U.S. conflict into a full-blown military one. The administration should also make a point of working with the Iraqi government to deal with the militias, Ford said.

For the president, Iran’s attacks — directly and now through proxies in Iraq — have “been working that nerve,” Salem said. “Now they really have Trump’s attention.”

Associated Press writers Matthew Lee, Darlene Superville and Sagar Meghani contributed to this report.

Iran rejects ‘conditional release’ for Iranian-British woman

December 22, 2019

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — The lawyer of an Iranian-British woman convicted on spying charges in Iran has asked that she be released after serving half of her sentence, a request that was immediately rejected by the Tehran prosecutors’office, the state IRNA news agency reported Sunday.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who works for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was sentenced to five years for allegedly planning the “soft toppling” of Iran’s government while traveling with her young daughter in Iran at the time. She was arrested in April 2016. Her sentence has been widely criticized and her family has denied all the allegations against her.

The report by IRNA quoted her lawyer, Mahmoud Behzadi Rad, as saying that he had submitted a request for what Iran’s judiciary calls “conditional release” — when a convict has served half his or her sentence, the person can apply for such a release and the courts have the power to grant it for “good behavior”.

“According to the law, she is entitled to apply for a conditional release,” the lawyer said. IRNA did not say why the request was denied. Behzadi Rad said he had applied for a conditional release for another of his clients, prominent Iranian human rights activist Narges Mohammadi who is serving a 10-year sentence. Behzadi Rad is her lawyer, too. The request for her release was also denied, he said.

The lawyer also said that Zaghari-Ratcliffe has had several psychiatric evaluations recently while in prison but did not elaborate on her condition or the state of her health. In England, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, has been leading a campaign to try to win his wife’s release from prison. British officials are also calling for her release.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe went on a 15-day hunger strike in June, to call attention to her plight. In July, she was moved to the mental health ward of Imam Khomeini hospital under the control of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

The Free Nazanin Campaign said in a statement at the time that it does not know what treatment she is receiving or how long she is expected to remain in the hospital. Iran has also detained at least one other Iranian-British national, anthropologist Kameel Ahmady, who has been accused of spying and of links to foreign intelligence agencies.

Iran does not recognize dual nationality for its citizens.

India’s crackdown hits religious freedom in disputed Kashmir

December 10, 2019

SRINAGAR, India (AP) — For years Romi Jan’s mornings would begin with the plaintive call to prayer that rang out from the central mosque in disputed Kashmir’s largest city. The voice soothed her soul and made her feel closer to God.

Not anymore. For nearly four months now, the voice that would call out five times a day from the minarets of the Jamia Masjid and echo across Srinagar has been silent, a result of India’s ongoing security operations in this Muslim-majority region.

“The mosque closure is a relentless agony for me and my family,” Jan said. “I can’t tolerate it, but I am helpless.” Already one of the most militarized places in the world, last summer India began pouring more troops into its side of Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both in its entirety. It implemented a security lockdown in which it pressed harsh curbs on civil rights, arrested thousands of people, blocked internet and phone service, and shuttered important mosques.

All of this was laying the groundwork for the Hindu nationalist-led government’s Aug. 5 decision to strip Kashmir of its semiautonomous status and remove its statehood, moves it knew would be met with fury by Kashmiri Muslims, most of whom want independence or unification with Pakistan. The government said the restrictions were needed to head off anti-India protests and violence.

While some of the conditions have since been eased, some mosques and Muslim shrines in the region either remain shuttered or have had their access limited. Muslims say this is undermining their constitutional right to religious freedom and only deepening anti-India sentiment.

The centuries-old Jamia Masjid, made of brick and wood, is one of the oldest in this city of 1.2 million, where 96% of people are Muslim. When it’s open, thousands of people congregate there for prayers.

Romi would take her two children there every day and sit inside the compound while they would play. “I would forget all my miseries there,” she said. Now, when her kids ask why they can’t go to the mosque, she draws a blank face.

“I open my window of the house which faces the mosque and show my kids the soldiers that are stationed outside it,” Romi said. That it’s a target for authorities is neither surprising nor new. Friday sermons at the mosque mainly revolve around the Kashmir conflict, and its surrounding neighborhoods are often where stone-throwing protesters clash with government forces as part of an ongoing anti-India rebellion.

Authorities have banned prayers at the mosque for extended periods during unrest in 2008, 2010 and 2016. Official data show the mosque was closed at least 250 days in those three years combined. Mohammed Yasin Bangi, the 70-year-old whose voice has called out the prayers at the mosque for the last 55 years, said the current restrictions are the worst he has seen.

“During earlier restrictions, we would be sometimes allowed to offer evening prayers. But not even once during this time around,” he said. “The closure of the mosque has robbed me of my peace. I’ve been subjected to spiritual torture.”

A top police officer in the city, speaking on condition of anonymity in keeping with department policy, said authorities decided the mosque could reopen last month for Friday prayers but mosque officials refused.

A mosque official speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals said they refused because authorities sought assurances that there would be no protests or speeches against Indian rule.

Rohit Kansal, Kashmir’s chief government spokesman, declined to comment. Officials from the Home Ministry in New Delhi, which oversees internal security in the country, did not respond to requests for comment.

Freedom of religion is enshrined in India’s constitution, allowing citizens to follow and freely practice religion. The constitution also says the state will not “discriminate, patronize or meddle in the profession of any religion.”

But even before the current security operation in Kashmir, experts say conditions for India’s Muslims have been growing worse under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, which came to power in 2014 and won a landslide re-election in May.

In June, the U.S. State Department said in a report that religious freedom in India continued a downward trend in the year 2018. India’s foreign ministry rejected the report. In August, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation raised concerns about India’s lockdown in Kashmir and called for authorities to ensure that Kashmiri Muslims could exercise their religious rights.

The ongoing restrictions in Kashmir have also included gatherings at Muslim shrines and religious festivals. In August, worshipers were told to host the prayers for the festival of Eid-al-Adha inside small neighborhood mosques rather than in the large outdoor gatherings that are normal. In September, authorities banned the annual Muharram processions that mark the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson.

Last month, during the yearly celebration of the birth anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad, authorities blocked all roads leading to Dargah Hazratbal, the region’s most revered Muslim shrine. Only a few hundred devotees were allowed to pray there — far fewer than the tens of thousands the event has been known to draw.

Authorities on Monday allowed thousands of people to gather at a Sufi shine in downtown Srinagar for an annual celebration. Restrictions on such gatherings are particularly galling to Kashmiri Muslims because they have long complained that the government curbs their religious freedom on the pretext of law and order while promoting and patronizing an annual Hindu pilgrimage to the Amarnath Shrine in Kashmir that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Sheikh Showkat, a professor of international law and human rights at the Central University of Kashmir, warned that such a duality in policy sent a clear message that the government no longer remains impartial toward different religions and further alienates the people of Kashmir.

“It no way augers well for any peace,” he said. “Whether it triggers further radicalization or not, it definitely infuriates people about the safety and security of their faith. It can also snowball into a mass mobilization against the state.”

Syed Mohammed Tayib Kamili has been leading annual prayers at Kashmir’s Khanqah Naqashband shrine since 1976. Indian authorities stopped last month’s gathering from taking place. The decision, which was met with anti-India protests, was the first time the prayers had not been held in the shrine’s 399-year history, Kamili said.

“They have not only violated constitution,” he said, “but also invited wrath of the divine power.”

Associated Press writer Sheikh Saaliq contributed to this report.

Devastating factory fire kills at least 43 in Indian capital

December 08, 2019

NEW DELHI (AP) — Authorities said an electrical short circuit appeared to cause a fire that killed at least 43 people in a factory in central New Delhi early Sunday, as relatives of the workers who were trapped inside identified the dead from photos on police officers’ phones.

Assistant New Delhi police commissioner Anil Kumar Mittal said that “the fire appears to have been caused by electric short circuit,” adding that authorities were investigating whether the factory was operating legally.

The building’s owner, Rihan, who goes by one name, was detained on suspicion of culpable homicide not amounting to murder, Mittal said. Firefighters had to fight the blaze from 100 meters (yards) away because it broke out in one of the area’s many alleyways, tangled in electrical wire and too narrow for vehicles to access, authorities said.

A resident of the area, Mohammed Naushad, said he was woken by people wailing at around 4:30 a.m. He went outside to find smoke and flames shooting out of a building near Sadar Bazaar, New Delhi’s largest wholesale market for household goods. Inside, he found the fourth floor engulfed in flames. One floor below, he saw “20 to 25 people lying on the floor.”

“I don’t know if they were dead or unconscious, but they were not moving,” Naushad said. He said he carried at least 10 people out of the flames on his shoulders and into the arms of emergency responders.

Maisuma Bibi, a day laborer making plastic handbags, survived the blaze. She said she was sleeping in a room with about 18 other women and children on the building’s first floor when she woke to find a bag full of plastic parts on fire. Her brother-in-law carried her to safety, she said.

Outside a mortuary that was guarded by dozens of police officers, some of the workers’ relatives said they had received phone calls from the men trapped inside, who begged them to call the fire brigade.

Many of the men were migrant workers from the impoverished border state of Bihar in eastern India, relatives said. They earned as little as 150 rupees ($2.10) per day making handbags, caps and other garments, sleeping at the factory between long shifts.

Many of the victims were asleep when the blaze began, according to Yogesh, a police spokesman who uses one name. Dr. Kishore Singh said rescuers brought victims to his government-run hospital and two others in the city. Another 16 people were being treated for burns or smoke inhalation and were in stable condition, Singh said.

Police barred relatives from entering Lok Nayak hospital, where some of the victims were taken. Relatives of the workers cried, consoled one another and jostled for information. “I was told by someone my nephew is inside, but I haven’t seen him,” said Mohammad Moti, who was searching for his 22-year-old nephew, Mohammad Chedi.

Fire Services chief Atul Garg said it took 25 fire trucks to put out the blaze. About 60 people, including some of the dead, were taken out of the building, Mittal said. New Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, appeared at the scene of the fire, promising victims’ families compensation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the fire as “extremely horrific.” “My thoughts are with those who lost their loved ones. Wishing the injured a quick recovery,” Modi tweeted. Fires are common in India, where building laws and safety norms are often flouted by builders and residents. In 1997, a fire in a movie theater in New Delhi killed 59 people. In February this year, 17 people were killed by a fire in a six-story hotel in the capital not far from Sunday’s blaze that started in an illegal rooftop kitchen.

Associated Press photojournalist Manish Swarup contributed to this report.

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