Allies fear US-Iran tensions could spark accidental conflict

Currently docked at the port of San Diego, USS Abraham Lincoln along with other ships in the carrier’s strike group and a bomber wing is likely to be deployed to the Mideast. (AP)
Updated 16 May 2019
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Allies fear US-Iran tensions could spark accidental conflict

  • In a statement, Central Command said the coalition in Baghdad has increased the alert level for all service members in Iraq and Syria

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 up to 120,000 troops to counter Iran if necessary. But Trump then stirred the controversy further by saying: “Would I do that? Absolutely.”

Underscoring what the US says is heightened risk to US personnel, the US Embassy in Baghdad on Wednesday ordered all non-essential, non-emergency government staff to leave Iraq immediately.

Still, the general’s remarks exposed international skepticism over the American military buildup 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.” 

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 Daesh. 

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 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.

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 Tuesday at the White House. “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 IS 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 o Sunday that four commercial vessels anchored off the UAE 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.

An 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.


Al-Nouri mosque restoration aims to revive spirit of Iraq's ruined Mosul

Updated 2 min 11 sec ago

Al-Nouri mosque restoration aims to revive spirit of Iraq's ruined Mosul

  • The 12th-century Iraqi monument was blown up by retreating Daesh fighters in 2017
  • Project is part of a $100 million UNESCO-led heritage reconstruction plan for Mosul

DUBAI: Government officials and NGOs are taking the initiative to restore vital historical sites across the Middle East after years of destruction by militant groups. The UN cultural agency UNESCO recently announced that the reconstruction of Al-Nouri Mosque — which was blown up by Daesh in June 2017 — in the Iraqi city of Mosul will start at the beginning of next year.
Launched in 2018, the mosque restoration plan will be the most eye-catching part of a $100 million UNESCO-led heritage reconstruction called “Revive the Spirit of Mosul.”
The timeline of the restoration plan for the 12th-century mosque, famed for its leaning minaret, was finalized during a meeting in Paris between UNESCO and Iraqi government officials.
“What they call the Arab Spring is really the Arab Fall because many historic sites in Iraq, Syria and Libya have been erased,” said Samir Saddi, founder and director of the Beirut-based architecture and design institute ARCADE.
“The destruction is very upsetting because it’s not only about heritage itself as much as it is about these monuments and their meaning in social and religious life.”
Saddi sees restoration in the Middle East as a costly, recurrent endeavor as extremists have repeatedly targeted historical monuments due to their importance to local communities.
“You can kill a person, but here you’re erasing centuries of cultural and religious meaning. It’s very important to restore these buildings,” he said.
“What’s also important is what should be done in terms of educating people and creating awareness on how to maintain these monuments.”
Saddi said the challenge for the Middle East is not only restoration but also how to make sure this kind of destruction does not happen again, and how to preserve monuments and  traditional architecture.
“It’s really the biggest subject because you can restore the mosque, but what about the daily destruction of heritage in terms of habitat and nature?” he said.
Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate from Al-Nouri Mosque in the summer of 2014, only for his own fighters to blow it up three years later as Iraqi government forces closed in.
The mosque was not the first victim of Daesh’s cultural nihilism. In January 2017, Daesh fighters destroyed the Roman theater in the Syrian city of Palmyra — a historical landmark dating back to the 2nd century AD — and other monuments in the area.

FASTFACT

● Mosul’s Al-Nouri Mosque dates back to the 12th century AD

● Daesh destroyed the mosque in June 2017

● UNESCO launched a restoration plan in 2018

● The heritage reconstruction of Mosul will cost $100m

The Great Umayyad Mosque in Syria’s largest city Aleppo was another target. The 8th-century mosque, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was demolished in April 2013.
“There are many sites across the Middle East and North Africa that are very rich in Roman, Greek, Byzantine and Islamic history,” Saddi said.
“Daesh fighters knew what they were doing. They selected prominent sites and systematically destroyed them because this is how you really make the most damaging impact on people.”
Al-Nouri Mosque is one of Iraq’s many war-devastated historical places. Others include the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, located on the eastern bank of the Tigris River in Mosul, and Nimrud, the first Assyrian capital from over 3,000 years ago.
“Restoring such sites is vital because they’re part of the history, culture and civilization of the area,” said Rashad Bukhash, chair of the Architectural Heritage Society in the UAE.
“Al-Nouri Mosque is very old and went through different stages of restoration. It’s important to keep these sacred buildings as part of Iraq’s culture and part of human history.”
The UAE is providing more than $50 million to finance UNESCO’s “Revive the Spirit of Mosul” project, focusing on the restoration of Al-Nouri Mosque, with the EU providing another $24 million.
In addition, the UNESCO initiative will make funds available for the rebuilding of churches, schools, and a street in Mosul’s Old City that was famous for its bookshops.
Bukhash said what will help in the restoration process is that Al-Nouri Mosque’s complete documentation, drawings and photos have survived.
“People who lived and worked on it will help to rebuild the mosque exactly as it was. As a mosque where people prayed, it’s important to restore it for history on the one hand, and to send a message to terrorists on the other hand that we’re building history back no matter what they do,” he said.
Saddi suggested an alternative to restoring devastated historical sites, such as building a museum nearby to tell their story.
“There is a continuous cycle of violence and reconstruction. The destruction of Al-Nouri Mosque is an act of extreme terror,” he said.
“The mosque is partially destroyed, and we can’t go back in time and pretend it didn’t happen,” he added.
“It should stay as it is today, but there should be a museum project to show what this mosque was, its history and relation to the community, when and why it was destroyed, who did this act of savagery and why, and how to avoid the repetition of these barbaric acts in the future.”
Saddi said a museum for Al-Nouri Mosque as the main “artefact” would represent a much stronger statement than rebuilding it to its original state, which he believes will never match its original form.
“In other words, there is before and after. The Mosul population should remember the destruction by seeing it, but also by learning and gaining knowledge, hence the idea of an Al-Nouri Museum,” he said.
Saddi spoke of the relevance of a project he is working on: A museum for changing times. “What’s happening in the Arab world is a complete change, both social and economic,” he said.
“My project is a museum for architecture in the Arab world — not modern but historical, traditional architecture that has disappeared,” he added.
“When you go to Palmyra, you see an old city but only stones or arches. However, in Syria and Iraq you have entire community settlements that are disappearing, not just because of war but also because of development and because people are moving from rural areas to cities.”
Saddi recommends preserving memories of such architecture, as well as research into their intrinsic value.
“We’re now living in a period where sustainability is the key word. People are emigrating from the Middle East to Europe, leaving behind a lot of knowledge and know-how, so something should be done in that sense,” he said.
“We should have a setup where you can understand how the built environment was done from Iraq to Morocco, the richness of our architecture and how it has been vandalized not only by war but also by modern developments. In other words, what’s the future of our past?”
Mosul’s future could well be riding on UNESCO’s restoration project. Two years after Daesh was ousted, it is a city in ruins, still struggling with basic services such as electricity, water and health care.
The UN is working to restore private houses in the historic Old City, but most of its residents still reside in camps.