US troops in Syria attacked after airstrikes on militias

Drones are seen during an Iran army drone combat exercise in Semnan, Iran. US air strikes on Sunday targeted Iran-backed militia groups using drones to hit US military positions in Iraq. (AFP file)
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Updated 29 June 2021

US troops in Syria attacked after airstrikes on militias

  • One of the facilities targeted was used to launch and recover the drones, a defense official said.
  • Blinken said that the strikes in Iraq and Syria should send Iran a “strong” message of deterrence not to keep attacking US forces

WASHINGTON: US troops in eastern Syria came under rocket attack Monday, with no reported casualties, one day after US Air Force planes carried out airstrikes near the Iraq-Syria border against what the Pentagon said were facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups to support drone strikes inside Iraq.
Iraq's military condemned the US airstrikes, and the militia groups called for revenge against the US.
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said the militias were using the facilities to launch unmanned aerial vehicle attacks against US troops in Iraq. It was the second time the administration has taken military action in the region since Biden took over earlier this year.
There was no indication that Sunday's attacks were meant as the start of a wider, sustained US air campaign in the border region. But a spokesman for the US military mission based in Baghdad, Col. Wayne Marotto, wrote on Twitter Monday that at 7:44 p.m. local time “US forces in Syria were attacked by multiple rockets.” He said there were no injuries and that attack damage was being assessed.
Marotto later tweeted that while under rocket attack, US forces in Syria responded in self-defense with artillery fire at the rocket-launching positions.
Kirby said the US military targeted three operational and weapons storage facilities — two in Syria and one in Iraq. In its release of videos of the strikes by Air Force F-15 and F-16 aircraft, the Pentagon described one target as a coordination center for the shipment and transfer of advanced conventional weapons.
Kirby said the airstrikes were “defensive,” saying they were launched in response to the attacks by militias.
“The United States took necessary, appropriate, and deliberate action designed to limit the risk of escalation — but also to send a clear and unambiguous deterrent message,” Kirby said.
The Pentagon said the facilities were used by Iran-backed militia factions, including Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada.
A Pentagon spokeswoman, Navy Cmdr. Jessica McNulty, said Monday that each strike hit its intended target and that the US military was still assessing the results of the operation.
“The targets selected were facilities utilized by the network of Iran-backed militia groups responsible for the series of recent attacks against facilities housing US personnel in Iraq,” McNulty said. She said those groups have conducted at least five such "one-way” drone attacks since April.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking to reporters in Rome on Monday, said Biden has been clear that the US will act to protect American personnel.
“This action in self-defense to do what’s necessary to do to prevent further attacks, I think sends a very important and strong message. And I hope very much that it is received,” he said. “I think we’ve demonstrated with the actions taken last night and actions taken previously, that the president is fully prepared to act and act appropriately and deliberately to protect us.“

Blinken also said that the strikes on pro-Iran fighters in Iraq and Syria should send a “strong” message of deterrence not to keep attacking US forces.
“I would hope that the message sent by the strikes last night will be heard and deter future action,” Blinken told reporters on a visit to Rome.
“This action in self-defense to do what’s necessary to prevent further attacks sends a very important and strong message,” he said.
Asked in Rome if the United States was holding Iran responsible for the attacks, Blinken said: “A number of the groups involved in recent attacks are militia that are backed by Iran.”
Two Iraqi militia officials told The Associated Press in Baghdad that four militiamen were killed in the airstrikes near the border with Syria. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to give statements. They said the first strike hit a weapons storage facility inside Syrian territory, where the militiamen were killed. The second strike hit the border strip.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that closely monitors the Syrian conflict through activists on the ground, reported that at least seven Iraqi militiamen were killed in the airstrikes.
The Iran-backed Iraqi militia factions vowed revenge for the attack and said in a joint statement they would continue to target US forces. “We ... will avenge the blood of our righteous martyrs against the perpetrators of this heinous crime and with God's help we will make the enemy taste the bitterness of revenge,” they said.
The Popular Mobilization Forces, an Iraqi state-sanctioned umbrella of mostly Shiite militias — including those targeted by the US strikes — said their men were on missions to prevent infiltration by Daesh and denied the presence of weapons warehouses.
Iraq's military condemned the strikes as a “blatant and unacceptable violation of Iraqi sovereignty and national security.” It called for avoiding escalation, but also rejected that Iraq be an “arena for settling accounts" — a reference to the US and Iran. It represented rare condemnation by the Iraqi military of US airstrikes.
In Iran, foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh accused the US of creating instability in the region. “Definitely, what the US is doing is disrupting the security of the region," he said on Monday.
US military officials have grown increasingly alarmed over drone strikes targeting US military bases in Iraq, which became more common since a US-directed drone killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani near the Baghdad airport last year. Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was also killed in the attack. The strike drew the ire of mostly Shiite Iraqi lawmakers and prompted parliament to pass a nonbinding resolution to pressure the Iraqi government to oust foreign troops from the country.
Sunday's strikes mark the second time the Biden administration launched airstrikes along the Iraq-Syria border region. In February, the US launched airstrikes against facilities in Syria, near the Iraqi border, that it said were used by Iranian-backed militia groups.
The Pentagon said those strikes were retaliation for a rocket attack in Iraq earlier that month that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member and other coalition troops.
At that time, Biden said Iran should view his decision to authorize US airstrikes in Syria as a warning that it can expect consequences for its support of militia groups that threaten US interests or personnel.
“You can’t act with impunity. Be careful,” Biden said when a reporter asked what message he had intended to send.

(With AP and AFP)


Israeli PM to press France on Iran, warn Hezbollah ‘playing with fire’

Updated 05 July 2022

Israeli PM to press France on Iran, warn Hezbollah ‘playing with fire’

  • France is among world powers trying to revive a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran
  • Iran has itself been in breach of the deal, ramping up projects with bomb-making potential

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid will press French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday for a tougher and time-limited tack on the Iranian nuclear negotiations, and warn that the Tehran-backed Hezbollah group is “playing with fire,” an official said.
Lapid’s visit to France, his first abroad since becoming caretaker premier last week, is also a chance to flex diplomatic muscles as Israelis gear up for a snap election in November.
France is among world powers trying to revive a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that the previous US administration quit and which Israel opposed, deeming its caps insufficient.
As Lebanon’s former colonial administrator, France has additional clout in Beirut — whose economic crisis-hit leaders were jarred on Saturday when Israel shot down three Hezbollah drones launched toward one of its Mediterranean gas rigs.
“The French are very, very active on the Iranian issue,” a senior Israeli official told reporters.
“It is important for us to make our case ... Israel opposes a return to the JCPOA (2015 nuclear deal). In the same breath, we do not oppose a deal. We seek a very strong deal.”
Israel is not a party to the nuclear negotiations. But Western capitals have been attentive to its worries about its arch-enemy and worried it might take preemptive military action if it deems diplomacy a dead end.
Since the US walkout, Iran has itself been in breach of the deal, ramping up projects with bomb-making potential — though it denies having such designs. Its technical advancements have set a ticking clock on the so-far fruitless negotiations.
“We want an end to the unending talks,” said the senior Israeli official, calling for “coordinated pressure” on Iran and offering help on “drafting an appropriate framework” for that.
Israel has de facto front with Iran in Lebanon, home to Hezbollah. The senior Israeli official, alluding to Saturday’s shoot-downs, accused the group of “playing with fire.”
The official declined to elaborate on that warning, but said Lapid would share with Macron “new material explaining how Hezbollah is endangering Lebanon.”
Hezbollah and Israel fought a war across Lebanon’s border in 2006 but have been in a largely stable standoff since.
The Karish rig near Lebanon’s coast will produce gas not only for Israel, but eventually also for the European Union, the official said, tapping into EU countries’ quest to replace Russia as an energy supplier since it invaded Ukraine.


Egypt FM in London to inaugurate partnership council

Updated 04 July 2022

Egypt FM in London to inaugurate partnership council

CAIRO: Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry headed to London to inaugurate the first partnership council between his country and the UK.

The council will be co-chaired by Shoukry and British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. It will include political consultations and discussions on economic and trade issues, with the participation of British Trade Policy Minister Penny Mordaunt.

A spokesman for Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said the launch of the council comes in light of strengthening cooperation between the two countries in various fields.

While in London, Shoukry met with Lord Tariq Ahmad, British minister for South Asia, North Africa, the UN and the Commonwealth, to discuss bilateral relations.

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US offers cash rewards to curb Iran smuggling

Updated 05 July 2022

US offers cash rewards to curb Iran smuggling

  • Navy targets weapons and drugs in Arabian Gulf and Red Sea

JEDDAH: The US Navy is offering cash rewards of up to $100,000 for information leading to the interception of smuggled weapons and narcotics in the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea.

The initiative by the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet does not directly name Iran but analysts said it was clearly aimed at curbing the flow of Iranian arms to the Houthi militia in Yemen and restricting the lucrative regional drugs trade operated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
“Any destabilizing activity has our attention,” 5th Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Timothy Hawkins said. “Definitely we have seen in the last year skyrocketing success in seizing both illegal narcotics and illicit weapons. This represents another step in our effort to enhance regional maritime security.”
Operators fluent in Arabic, English and Farsi will staff a phone hotline, and the Navy will also take tips online in Dari and Pashto. Payouts can be as high as $100,000 or the equivalent in vehicles, boats or food for tips that include information on planned attacks targeting Americans.
Asked whether new seizures could increase tensions with Iran, Hawkins listed the weapons and drugs the Navy hoped to intercept under the program. “That’s what we’re after,” he said. “That’s not in the interest of regional stability and security.”

Opinion

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The fleet and its allies seized $500 million in drugs alone in 2021, more than the four previous years combined, and intercepted the shipment of 9,000 weapons, three times the number in 2020.
Despite a UN Security Council arms embargo on Yemen, Tehran has long been transferring rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, missiles and other weapons to the Houthis in Yemen. UN experts have examined missiles aimed at civilian targets and oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and traced the components back to Iran.
The rewards program is the latest initiative under 5th Fleet Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, who also launched a drone task force last year amid rising tension with Iran. The US Navy and Revolutionary Guard naval forces have had several encounters in the Strait of Hormuz.
The Houthis said last week they were monitoring increased US activity in the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf.“Because of this, defense and confrontation options are open,” a spokesman said.


Al Jazeera reporter likely killed by unintentional gunfire from Israeli positions, US says

Updated 04 July 2022

Al Jazeera reporter likely killed by unintentional gunfire from Israeli positions, US says

  • Palestinian-American Shireen Abu Akleh was killed on May 11 during an Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank
  • Family “incredulous” after US reported it wasn't possible to determine whose gun fired bullet which killed her

WASHINGTON: Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was likely killed by unintentional gunfire from Israeli positions, but independent investigators could not reach a definitive conclusion about the origin of the bullet that struck her, the US State Department said on Monday.

Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American, was killed on May 11 during an Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank.

The US Security Coordinator (USSC), after summarizing investigations by both the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Palestinian Authority, concluded that gunfire from Israeli positions was likely responsible for Abu Akleh’s death, the State Department said.

“The USSC found no reason to believe that this was intentional but rather the result of tragic circumstances during an IDF-led military operation against factions of Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” the State Department said in a statement.

In forensic analysis by third-party examiners overseen by the USSC, however, ballistic experts determined the bullet was badly damaged which prevented a clear conclusion as to its origin, the State Department said.

Abu Akleh's family said Monday they were “incredulous” after the US reported it was not possible to determine whose gun fired the bullet which killed her.

“With respect to today’s announcement by the State Department — on July 4, no less — that a test of the spent round that killed Shireen Abu Akleh, an American citizen, was inconclusive as to the origin of the gun that fired it, we are incredulous,” the family said in a statement.

Palestinians have said the Israeli military deliberately killed Abu Akleh. Israel has denied this, saying she may have been hit by errant army fire or by a bullet from one of the Palestinian gunmen who were clashing with its forces at the scene.

The death of Abu Akleh, and feuding between the sides over the circumstances, have overshadowed a visit by US President Joe Biden due this month.


Lebanese PM criticizes Hezbollah over drone provocation

Updated 04 July 2022

Lebanese PM criticizes Hezbollah over drone provocation

  • The Israeli military said on Saturday said that it has shot down the three drones
  • Hezbollah issued a statement saying they were unarmed and were sent on a reconnaissance mission

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister on Monday criticized the militant group Hezbollah for sending three unmanned aircraft over an Israeli gas installation last week, saying it was an unnecessarily risky action.
Najib Mikati’s comment came two days after Hezbollah launched three drones over the Karish gas field in the Mediterranean Sea.
The Israeli military said on Saturday that it has shot down the three drones, before Hezbollah issued a statement saying they were unarmed and were sent on a reconnaissance mission. “The mission was accomplished and the message was received,” Hezbollah said.
Lebanon claims the Karish gas field is disputed territory under ongoing maritime border negotiations, whereas Israel says it lies within its internationally recognized economic waters.
“Lebanon believes that any actions outside the state’s framework and diplomatic context while negotiations are taking place is unacceptable and exposes it to unnecessary risks,” Foreign Minister Abdallah Bouhabib said, citing Mikati’s statement.
Israel and Hezbollah are bitter enemies that fought a monthlong war in the summer of 2006. Israel considers the group its most serious immediate threat, estimating it has some 150,000 rockets and missiles aimed at Israel.
The incident in the Karish gas field took place soon after US mediator Amos Hochstein recently visited Lebanese and Israeli officials, as talks were advancing.
Mikati on Saturday told reporters that Lebanon had received “encouraging information” regarding the border dispute, but refused to comment until after he receives a “written official response to the suggestions by the Lebanese side.”
Negotiations between Lebanon and Israel to determine their maritime borders commenced in October 2020, when the two sides held indirect US-mediated talks in southern Lebanon. Since taking over the mediation from late 2021, Hochstein has resorted to shuttle diplomacy with visits to both Beirut and Jerusalem.
The two countries, which have been officially at war since Israel’s creation in 1948, both claim some 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea. Lebanon hopes to exploit offshore gas reserves as it grapples with the worst economic crisis in its modern history.

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