International worries grow over US claims of Iranian threat

A handout picture provided by the office of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on May 14, 2019, shows President Hassan Rouhani speaking during a government meeting in the capital Tehran. (AFP/HO/Khamenei.ir)
Updated 15 May 2019
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International worries grow over US claims of Iranian threat

  • US officials said they had detected signs of Iranian preparations for potential attacks on US forces and interests in the Mideast

WASHINGTON: International worries that the Trump administration is sliding toward war with Iran flared into the open amid skepticism about its claims that the Islamic Republic poses a growing threat to the US and its allies in the Arabian Gulf and beyond .
The US military on Tuesday rebutted doubts expressed by a British general about such a threat. President Donald Trump denied a report that the administration has updated plans to send more than 100,000 troops to counter Iran if necessary. But Trump then stirred the controversy further by saying: “Would I do that? Absolutely.”
The general’s remarks exposed international skepticism over the American military build-up in the Middle East, a legacy of the 2003 invasion of Iraq that was predicated on false intelligence. US officials have not publicly provided any evidence to back up claims of an increased Iranian threat amid other signs of allied unease.
As tensions in the region started to surge, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said his nation was worried about the risk of accidental conflict “with an escalation that is unintended really on either side.” Then on Tuesday, Spain temporarily pulled one of its frigates from the US-led combat fleet heading toward the Strait of Hormuz. That was followed by the unusual public challenge to the Trump administration by the general.
“No, there’s been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria,” said Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika, a senior officer in the US-backed coalition fighting the Daesh group. Ghika, speaking in a video conference from coalition headquarters in Baghdad, told reporters at the Pentagon that the coalition monitors the presence of Iranian-backed forces “along with a whole range of others because that’s the environment we’re in.”
But he added, “There are a substantial number of militia groups in Iraq and Syria, and we don’t see any increased threat from any of them at this stage.”
Late in the day, in a rare public rebuttal of an allied military officer, US Central Command said Ghika’s remarks “run counter to the identified credible threats” from Iranian-backed forces in the Mideast. In a written statement, Central Command said the coalition in Baghdad has increased the alert level for all service members in Iraq and Syria.
“As a result, (the coalition) is now at a high level of alert as we continue to closely monitor credible and possibly imminent threats to US forces in Iraq,” the statement said.
At the White House, Trump, who has repeatedly argued for avoiding long-term conflicts in the Mideast, discounted a New York Times report that the US has updated plans that could send up to 120,000 troops to counter Iran if it attacked American forces.
“Would I do that? Absolutely,” he told reporters. “But we have not planned for that. Hopefully we’re not going to have to plan for that. If we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that.”
Reinforcing Trump’s denial, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a joint news conference in Sochi with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, “We fundamentally do not seek war with Iran.”
A Trump administration official said a recent small meeting of national security officials was not focused on a military response to Iran, but instead concentrated on a range of other policy options, including diplomacy and economic sanctions. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Lavrov said Pompeo told him that a potential deployment of 120,000 US troops to the Mideast was only a “rumor.” Lavrov said the international community needs to focus on diplomacy with Iran, including on the potentially explosive issue of Iran’s nuclear program, which is constrained by a US-brokered deal in 2015 that Trump has abandoned.
US Iran envoy Brian Hook told reporters traveling with Pompeo in Brussels that the secretary of state shared intelligence on Iran with allies since “Europe shares our concerns about stability in the Gulf and the Middle East.” What the Europeans do not share, however, is Washington’s more aggressive approach to Iran.
“We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident, with an escalation that is unintended really on either side but ends with some kind of conflict,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told reporters in Brussels.
“What we need is a period of calm to make sure that everyone understands what the other side is thinking,” Hunt said.
Last week, US officials said they had detected signs of Iranian preparations for potential attacks on US forces and interests in the Mideast, but Washington has not spelled out that threat.
The US has about 5,000 troops in Iraq and about 2,000 in Syria as part of the coalition campaign to defeat the Daesh group there. It also has long had a variety of air and naval forces stationed in Bahrain, Qatar and elsewhere in the Gulf, partly to support military operations against Daesh and partly as a counter to Iranian influence.
Gen. Ghika’s comments came amid dramatically heightened tensions in the Middle East. The US in recent days has ordered the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group to the Gulf region, plus four B-52 bombers. It also is moving a Patriot air-defense missile battery to an undisclosed country in the area. As of Tuesday, the Lincoln and its strike group had passed through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait in the Red Sea, but officials would not disclose their exact location.
Tensions rose another notch with reports Sunday that four commercial vessels anchored off the United Arab Emirates had been damaged by sabotage.
A US military team was sent to the UAE to investigate, and one US official said the initial assessment is that each ship has a 5- to 10-foot hole in it, near or just below the water line. The official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss details of the investigation, said the early interpretation is that the holes were caused by explosive charges.
The official on Tuesday acknowledged seeing some photographs of the damage to the ships, but those images have not been made public. The official also said that the team is continuing to conduct forensic testing on the ship damage and that US leaders are still awaiting the final report. The team’s initial assessment is that the damage was done by Iranian or Iranian-backed proxies, but they are still going through the evidence and have not yet reached a final conclusion, the official said.


Palestinian refugees protest Lebanese Labor Ministry restrictions

Updated 45 min 10 sec ago
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Palestinian refugees protest Lebanese Labor Ministry restrictions

  • All Palestinian political forces and popular committees took part in the protests

BEIRUT: Palestinian refugees in Lebanon expressed their anger on Tuesday at the decision of the Lebanese Ministry of Labor to classify Palestinian labor similarly to illegal Syrian labor. 

The refugees carried out a general strike and protests across 12 camps.

The protests, under the slogan “Day of Anger,” paralyzed movement in the camps. Protesters closed the entrances with burning tyres. All Palestinian political forces and popular committees took part in the protests. 

The speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Nabih Berri, received a letter from the head of the Palestinian National Council, Salim Zanoun, calling on him to “address the negative effects of the decision of the Lebanese Ministry of Labor.”

Zanoun said that Palestinians would support “Lebanon and its stability, as well as our determination to struggle together for the return of the Palestinian refugees, who have been graciously hosted by Lebanon for 71 years, and all refugees to their land and homes from which they were displaced by terrorism and the Israeli killing machine.”

Zanoun added that the decision of the Ministry of Labor has “caused great damage to human and civil rights and closed the doors of life for the Palestinian refugees.”

A source in the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC) said: “The protests are an expression of the deteriorating social and living conditions experienced by Palestinians in Lebanon. The decision of the Ministry of Labor inspired these protests.”

The source added: “The census conducted by the Lebanese state in cooperation with the Palestinian Authority in 2017 showed that the number of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon has reached 174,000 and the Palestinian labor force doesn’t exceed 40,000 workers. But if we repeat the census this year, we’ll find that there’s a decline in the labor force because of the quest to migrate, even if illegally, and to move to a third country in search of a better life.”

The Lebanese Parliament introduced amendments to laws 128 and 129 on labor and social security in 2010, which excludes “exclusively Palestinian refugee workers, who are duly registered in the records of the Ministry of the Interior, from the terms of reciprocity and work permit issued by the Ministry of Labor.”

The LPDC source said: “The amendment needed implementation decrees from the Council of Ministers, signed by the president, the prime minister and the minister of labor, but they’ve not been issued for nine years.”

The Palestinian labor force is present in fragile sectors such as construction and small crafts, but more problems arise among Palestinians who graduate from Lebanese universities and cannot work in their specialties because of trade union limitations. The source said that the Order of Nurses in Lebanon is the only union that allows Palestinians to work in their sector.

Alongside the protests, a meeting was held between various Palestinian factions at the headquarters of the LPDC with representatives of the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers. The Palestinian side called for “ending the measures of the Ministry of Labor regarding Palestinian refugees and not linking Palestinian labor in Lebanon with foreign labor.”

Ghassan Ayoub, a Palestinian member of the LPDC, said that the ministry’s actions “have a political impact. The Palestinian refugee isn’t a guest who has remained in Lebanon because he liked the hospitality.  He’s a forced refugee who was born in Lebanon and lives on his territory. He isn’t a foreign expatriate who came to work in Lebanon. This must be taken into account in the enforcement of the Ministry of Labor’s procedures.”

Ayoub said the situation demanded “the application of the spirit of the law and not the text of the law. There are many complications in the law in terms of obtaining a work permit and conditions for establishing a business. They’re impossible conditions for the Palestinians.”

As for the implications of applying the ministry’s procedures to the refugees in Lebanon, Ayoub said: “Ninety percent of professions are forbidden to Palestinians, which means that they’re entitled to work in only a few sectors, namely porterage and digging, which are arduous. That means you’re telling the Palestinians ‘you have 10 percent of the air to breathe.’ What do you want from the Palestinians? Where should they go? What are the alternatives?”

Palestinian refugees are not entitled to work in 72 professions in Lebanon, and are not permitted access to social security. One of the contradictions of the law is that Palestinians have the right to purchase a taxi but are forbidden to work in it. Moreover, Palestinians are only allowed to fish after obtaining a special permit.

“The plan of the ministry to combat illegal foreign labor force isn’t aimed at the Palestinians and has nothing to do with conspiracy theories,” Lebanese Labor Minister Kamil Abu Sulaiman said. 

“There’s a labor law in Lebanon. We approved a plan a month and a half ago to implement the law and gave a grace period of one month before we began inspections. The law applies to everyone and law enforcement can’t be fragmented.”

Abu Sulaiman added: “The Palestinian reaction is incomprehensible and meaningless.”

He received a call from Ashraf Dabbour, the Palestinian ambassador to Lebanon, and said he informed the diplomat of the ministry’s readiness to facilitate the affairs of the Palestinians.

In an open letter, Dabbour called on Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to avoid being “dragged into what does not serve our just cause. Our goal in the stage of our forced presence in Lebanon is to have a decent life until our return to our homeland, supported by our Lebanese brothers.”

The LPDC said that the Ministry of Labor “ignores the special case of the Palestinian refugees under the amendment of laws 128 and 129 and treats them as foreign workers.” 

The LPDC added: “The Palestinian refugees can’t return to their country, and everything that they produce inside Lebanon remains in it, which strengthens the economic cycle of the country, whether it comes from small entrepreneurs or the hard work of laborers and craftsmen.

“Lebanon also benefits from the funds flowing through the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East’s $80 million budget. They also gain from the efforts of international organizations in Palestinian camps, as well as what Palestinian refugees send to their refugee families in Lebanon, which is estimated at several hundred million dollars.”

Fathi Abu Al-Ardat, secretary in Lebanon of Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization, said: “The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are guests in this country and we respect its sovereignty, but we also respect the decent living of Palestinians in the camps.”