Iraqi armed groups dial down US attacks on request of Iran commander

Kataib Hezbollah Iraqi militia display the picture of the Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani as they gather ahead of the funeral of the Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was killed in an air strike at Baghdad airport on January 4, 2020. (REUTERS)
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Updated 19 February 2024
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Iraqi armed groups dial down US attacks on request of Iran commander

  • Lull allowed talks to resume over the future of US troops in Iraq
  • Fearing escalation, Iraq asked Iran to help rein in groups

BAGHDAD: A visit by the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force to Baghdad has led to a pause in attacks on US troops by Iran-aligned groups in Iraq, multiple Iranian and Iraqi sources told Reuters, saying it was a sign Tehran wants to prevent a broader conflict.

Esmail Qaani met representatives of several of the armed groups in Baghdad airport on Jan. 29, less than 48 hours after Washington blamed the groups for the killing of three US soldiers at the Tower 22 outpost in Jordan, the sources said.
Qaani, whose predecessor was killed by a US drone near the same airport four years ago, told the factions that drawing American blood risked a heavy US response, 10 of the sources said.
He said the militias should lie low, to avoid US strikes on their senior commanders, destruction of key infrastructure, or even a direct retaliation against Iran, the sources said.
While one faction did not initially agree to Qaani’s request, most others did. The next day, the elite Iran-backed group Kataib Hezbollah announced it was suspending attacks.
Since Feb. 4 there have been no attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria, compared to more than 20 in the two weeks before Qaani’s visit, part of a surge in violence from the groups in opposition to Israel’s war in Gaza.
“Without Qaani’s direct intervention it would have been impossible to convince Kataib Hezbollah to halt its military operations to de-escalate the tension,” a senior commander in one of the Iran-aligned Iraqi armed groups said.
Qaani and the Quds Force, the arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards that works with allied armed groups from Lebanon to Yemen, did not immediately reply to requests for comment for this story. Kataib Hezbollah and one other group could not be reached for comment. The US White House and Pentagon also did not immediately respond.
Qaani’s visit has been mentioned in Iraqi media but the details of his message and the impact on reducing attacks have not been previously reported.
For this account, Reuters talked to three Iranian officials, a senior Iraqi security official, three Iraqi Shiite politicians, four sources in Iran-backed Iraqi armed groups and four Iraq-focused diplomats.

Iraq-US talks resume
The apparent success of the visit highlights the influence Iran wields with Iraqi armed groups, who alternate between building pressure and cooling tensions to further their goal of pushing US forces out of Iraq.
The government in Baghdad, a rare ally of both Tehran and Washington, is trying to prevent the country again becoming a battlefield for foreign powers and asked Iran to help rein in the groups after the Jordan attack, five of the sources said.
Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani “has worked with all relevant parties both inside and outside Iraq, warning them,” that escalation “will destabilize Iraq and the region,” Sudani’s foreign affairs adviser Farhad Alaadin told Reuters when asked to confirm Qaani’s visit and the request for help to rein in armed groups.
The attack “played into the hand of the Iraqi government.” a Shiite politician from the ruling coalition said. Following the subsequent lull in hostilities, on Feb. 6 talks resumed with the United States about ending the US presence in Iraq.
Several Iran-aligned parties and armed groups in Iraq also prefer talks rather than attacks to end the US troop presence. Washington has been unwilling to negotiate a change to its military posture under fire, concerned it would embolden Iran.
The United States currently has some 2,500 troops in Iraq and 900 in Syria on an advise and assist mission. They are part of an international coalition deployed in 2014 to fight Islamic State, mainly in the west of the country and eastern Syria.
A US State Department spokesperson, who declined to comment on Qaani’s visit to Baghdad, said the US presence in Iraq would transition to “an enduring bilateral security relationship.”
The United States asserts that Iran has a high level of control over what it calls Iranian “proxies” in the region. Tehran says it has funded, advised and trained allies but they decide on operations on their own.
Another US official recognized Iran’s role in reducing attacks but said it was not clear if the lull would hold.
“We need to see more work done on the ground,” by Iraq to control the militias, a separate, senior, US official said, noting just a few arrests were made after a December mortar attack on the US embassy in Baghdad.

Airport security
With Iran bracing for a US response to the Jordan attack, Qaani made the visit quick and did not leave the airport, “for strict security reasons and fearing for his safety,” the senior Iraqi security source said.
The strike in 2020 that killed former Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani outside the airport followed an attack Washington also blamed on Kataib Hezbollah that killed a US contractor, and at the time sparked fears of a regional war. Along with Soleimani, the drone killed former Kataib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis.
Both Tehran and Baghdad wanted to avoid a similar escalation this time around, nine sources said.
“The Iranians learned their lesson from the liquidation of Soleimani and did not want this to be repeated,” the senior Iraqi security source said.
A high-ranking Iranian security official said: “Commander Qaani’s visit was successful, though not entirely, as not all Iraqi groups consented to de-escalate.” One smaller but very active group, Nujaba, said it would continue attacks, arguing that US forces would only leave by force.
It remains to be seen how long the pause holds. An umbrella group representing hard-line factions vowed to resume operations in the wake of the US killing of senior Kataib Hezbollah leader Abu Baqir Al-Saadi in Baghdad on Feb. 7.
Saadi was also a member of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a state security agency that started out as mostly Shiite armed groups close to Iran that fought against Islamic State, highlighting just how intertwined the Iran-backed armed groups are with the Iraqi state.
US-led forces invaded Iraq and toppled former leader Saddam Hussein in 2003, before withdrawing in 2011.
Shiite armed groups who spent years attacking US forces in the wake of the 2003 invasion went on to fight on the same side as, though not in direct partnership with, US soldiers against Islamic State until it was territorially defeated.
In the subsequent years, rounds of tit-for-tat fighting with the remaining US troops escalated until the US killing of Soleimani and Muhandis.
Those killings prompted Iraq’s parliament to vote for the exit of foreign forces. Prime Minister Sudani’s government came to power in October 2022 on a promise to implement that decision, though it was not seen as a priority, government officials have said.
The situation changed again with the onset of the Gaza war.
Dozens of attacks and several rounds of US responses, including the killing of a senior Nujaba leader in Baghdad on Jan. 5, led Sudani to declare that the coalition had become a magnet for instability and to initiate talks for its end.
He has kept the door open to continued US presence in a different format via a bilateral deal.
Iraqi officials have said they hope the current lull will hold so the talks, expected to take months if not longer, can reach a conclusion.
At a funeral service for Saadi, senior Kataib Hezbollah official and PMF military chief Abdul Aziz Al-Mohammedawi vowed a response for the latest killing, but stopped short of announcing a return to violence. The response would be based on consensus, he said, including with the government.
“Revenge for the martyr Abu Baqir Al-Saadi means the exit of all foreign forces from Iraq. We won't accept anything less than that,” he said.


Thousands of Lebanese mourn slain Christian political official

Updated 17 sec ago
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Thousands of Lebanese mourn slain Christian political official

The army said that Sleiman was killed in a carjacking by Syrian gang members who then took his body across the border
His party said it would consider Sleiman’s death a “political assassination until proven otherwise“

BYBLOS, Lebanon: Thousands of Lebanese on Friday mourned a slain Christian political official authorities said was killed by a Syrian gang, with supporters pointing the finger at Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah group.
Pascal Sleiman was a coordinator in the Byblos (Jbeil) area north of Beirut for the Lebanese Forces (LF) Christian party, which opposes the government in neighboring Syria and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.
On Monday, the army said that Sleiman, who had gone missing the day before, was killed in a carjacking by Syrian gang members who then took his body across the border.
His party said it would consider Sleiman’s death a “political assassination until proven otherwise.”
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has denied that his party was involved.
Speaking after Sleiman’s funeral, LF leader Samir Geagea called for the “failed, corrupt” authorities in Lebanon to be changed.
Geagea blamed their failure, among other things, on “illegal weapons” — a barely veiled reference to Hezbollah.
The Iran-backed group is the only party in Lebanon that has kept its weapons arsenal after the end of the 1975-1990 civil war, and it wields great influence on the country’s political life.
Since the Israel-Hamas war broke out on October 7, Hezbollah has traded near-daily cross-border fire with Israeli forces in actions opposed by the LF and other parties.
“We don’t want to wake up one day, as we did now, and find ourselves involved in a never-ending war,” Geagea said Friday.
Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, spiritual leader of Lebanon’s largest Christian sect, held back tears as he presided over Sleiman’s funeral in Byblos.
Outside the St. Georges church, LF supporters waved the party’s white flag with its cedar tree — the symbol of Lebanon — circled in red.
Mourners told AFP they were unconvinced by the army’s version that car thieves killed Sleiman.
“This story never convinced me. It is not coherent at all,” said Jean Habshi, 50, who came to pay his respects.
“Enough with Hezbollah, enough with the illegal weapons,” Roba Hajjal, 24, told AFP outside the church.
“If they (Hezbollah) did not kill him, at the very least they allowed the Syrians in. We are all at risk of meeting Pascal’s fate,” she said.
Lebanon has a long history of political assassinations that have taken place with impunity.
Years of economic meltdown have further strained a weak judiciary that has been widely accused of succumbing to political interference.
Ziad Hawat, an LF lawmaker from Byblos, on Friday called for a “serious, transparent” probe into Sleiman’s murder, adding that the party had concerns “based on past experiences.”
“We do not want the killer to be known to all,” he added, while “remaining unknown to the judiciary.”
On Tuesday, Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi vowed to get tough on Syrians after several were arrested on suspicion of involvement in Sleiman’s killing.

Dozens of Palestinians killed in Gaza as Hamas official vows to ‘break’ Israel

Updated 21 min 58 sec ago
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Dozens of Palestinians killed in Gaza as Hamas official vows to ‘break’ Israel

  • Residents of Al-Nusseirat camp in central Gaza said dozens were dead or wounded after Israeli bombardment from air, land and sea
  • Meshaal said: “It is an important round on the path of liberating Palestine and defeating the Zionist project“

GAZA: Israeli forces fought Palestinian militants in the north and center of the Gaza Strip on Friday as Khaled Meshaal, a senior official in Gaza’s ruling Hamas movement, said its six-month-old battle with Israel would “break the enemy soon.”
Most Israeli troops have been pulled out of Gaza in preparation for an assault on the southern city of Rafah, where more than 1 million Palestinians are sheltering, but fighting has continued in various areas.
Residents of Al-Nusseirat camp in central Gaza said dozens were dead or wounded after Israeli bombardment from air, land and sea that had followed a surprise ground offensive on Thursday, and that houses and two mosques had been destroyed.
Health officials said earlier that six people had been killed in strikes on the camp, and around 70 wounded, including three Palestinian journalists.
In Gaza City, Palestinian health officials said at least 25 people had been killed and several wounded in an Israeli air strike on a house in Al-Daraj neighborhood. Gaza’s health ministry said 89 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli military strikes in the space of 24 hours.
The Israel military (IDF) said it was pursuing “a precise intelligence-based operation” against militants and their infrastructure in central Gaza.
“Over the past day, IDF fighter jets struck over 60 terror targets in the Gaza Strip, including underground launch posts, military infrastructure and sites in which armed terrorists operated,” a military statement said. “In parallel, IDF artillery struck terrorist infrastructure in the central Gaza Strip.”
Meshaal spoke at an event in Doha, Qatar, to mourn members of Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh’s family killed in an Israeli air strike in Gaza on Wednesday.
“This is not the final round,” he said. “It is an important round on the path of liberating Palestine and defeating the Zionist project.”
At least 33,545 Palestinians have now been killed since the Israeli offensive began, Gaza’s health ministry said, with most of the 2.3 million population displaced and much of the enclave laid to waste.
The war began when Hamas led an attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7 in which 1,200 people were killed and 253 taken hostage. Around 130 are still being held incommunicado in Gaza, Israel says.


France urges no travel to Iran, Lebanon, Israel and Palestinian territories

Updated 54 min 7 sec ago
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France urges no travel to Iran, Lebanon, Israel and Palestinian territories

  • Iran has threatened reprisals against Israel over a strike on the Iranian consulate in Syria
  • France’s Foreign Minister asked that family members of French diplomats in Iran be evacuated

PARIS: France on Friday warned its citizens to “imperatively refrain from travel in the coming days to Iran, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories,” the foreign minister’s entourage told AFP.
Iran has threatened reprisals against Israel over a strike on the Iranian consulate in Syria on April 1 that killed seven Revolutionary Guards including two generals, sparking fears of an escalation of violence in the Middle East.
France’s Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne at a crisis meeting also asked that family members of French diplomats in Iran be evacuated, and no French civil servants be sent on missions to the listed countries.
Israel has bombarded the Gaza Strip since an unprecedented attack by Palestinian militant group Hamas against Israel on October 7. It has also stepped up strikes against Iranian personnel and allies in Syria and Lebanon.
Israel has traded near-daily cross-border fire with Iran-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah since the start of the latest Gaza conflict.


Israeli forces kill two Palestinians including Hamas gunman

Updated 12 April 2024
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Israeli forces kill two Palestinians including Hamas gunman

  • Hamas confirms Mohammad Omar Daraghmeh’s death and his membership of its armed Al-Qassem Brigades

RAMALLAH: Israeli forces shot dead two Palestinians, including a member of the armed wing of Hamas, near Tubas in the occupied West Bank on Friday following a raid on the town earlier in the morning, the military said.
It said Mohammad Omar Daraghmeh, whom it described as the head of Hamas infrastructure in the Tubas area of the Jordan valley was killed during an exchange of fire with security forces. It said a number of weapons and military-style equipment, including automatic rifles were found in his vehicle.
Hamas confirmed Daraghmeh’s death and his membership of its armed Al-Qassem Brigades.
The official Palestinian news agency WAFA said another man was killed by Israeli forces conducting a raid in the Al-Fara refugee camp in Tubas. Hamas said it mourned the man’s death but did not claim him as a member.
The military said forces carrying out the operation opened fire on Palestinians who threw explosive devices and killed one man it said was attempting to attack them.
The incident was the latest in a wave of confrontations in the West Bank between Israeli security forces and Palestinians, including both armed militants and unarmed protesters, since the start of the war in Gaza last October.
Hundreds of Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces, most of them armed fighters but some of them unarmed civilians, and thousands have been arrested or detained. In the same period more than a dozen Israelis have been killed by Palestinian attackers.


US does not expect to be drawn into war but predicts attack by Iran against Israel

The North Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC. (AFP)
Updated 12 April 2024
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US does not expect to be drawn into war but predicts attack by Iran against Israel

  • The White House said it warned Iran to not use that attack as a pretext to escalate further in the region

WASHINGTON: The United States expects an attack by Iran against Israel but one that would not be big enough to draw Washington into war, a US official said late on Thursday.
The White House said earlier Washington did not want conflict to spread in the Middle East and the US had told Iran it was not involved in an air strike against a top Iranian military commander in Damascus.
The White House added it warned Iran to not use that attack as a pretext to escalate further in the region.
Suspected Israeli warplanes bombed Iran’s embassy in Damascus on Monday in a strike for which Iran has vowed revenge and in which a top Iranian general and six other Iranian military officers were killed, ratcheting up tension in a region already strained by the Gaza war.
Iranian sources told Reuters Tehran has signalled to Washington that it will respond to Israel’s attack on its Syrian embassy in a way that aims to avoid major escalation and it will not act hastily, as Tehran presses demands including a Gaza truce.
The United States has been on high alert about possible retaliatory strikes from Iran and US envoys have been working to lower tensions.
Palestinian group Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200, according to Israeli tallies. Israel’s military assault on Hamas-governed Gaza has since killed over 33,000 according to the local health ministry, displaced nearly all of Gaza’s 2.3 million population, caused a humanitarian crisis and led to genocide allegations that Israeli denies.
Iran-backed groups have declared support for Palestinians, waging attacks from Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq. Tehran has avoided direct confrontation with Israel or the United States, while declaring support for its allies.

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