Soleimani strike threatens UK ‘lives and interests’

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Britain ‘will not lament’ the loss of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, but fell short of supporting the attack. (File/AP)
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Updated 07 January 2020

Soleimani strike threatens UK ‘lives and interests’

  • British MP says US failure to share information ‘a matter of concern’

LONDON: When the sun rose on Jan. 3, the world woke to unprecedented contemporary tensions between the US and Iran. 

As an American drone fired missiles at the convoy of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad at around 1 a.m., most of Washington’s allies were in the dark.

British sources said the government was not informed ahead of the strike, despite the heavy UK presence in the region and Iraq.

Washington’s failure to forewarn London amid heightened regional tensions has caused confusion and concern among commentators and politicians. 

“I’ve long believed that the purpose of having allies is that we can surprise our enemies and not each other,” said Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative MP and chair of the foreign affairs committee in the previous UK Parliament.

The failure to share information has become “a pattern,” and it is “a bit of a shame that the US administration of late has not shared with us, and that is a matter of concern,” he added.

A source close to Downing Street told Arab News that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson — who is currently holidaying on the private Caribbean island of Mustique — was unaware that the strike was due to take place. 

As global leaders weighed in on the incident, Johnson remained silent until Jan. 5, when he was careful not to deliver a statement that was overly supportive of US President Donald Trump’s orders.

Johnson said Britain “will not lament” the loss of Iran’s top general, but fell short of supporting the attack.

A surprisingly short statement from Britain’s Foreign Office did not contain a line of support for Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani. 

In a statement, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Britain had “always recognized the aggressive threat posed by the Iranian Quds force,” but he called for de-escalation, adding: “Further conflict is in none of our interests.”

Lucy Fisher, defense editor at The Times, said Iran was “convinced of its status as a world superpower,” and the chance of it launching attacks on British interests was “very possible given the UK is inextricably linked with the US in the eyes of Iran.” 

A senior commander in the Quds Force — Iran’s international military force, responsible for supporting proxy militias — told The Times on Jan. 6: “Our forces will retaliate and target US troops in (the) Middle East without any concern about killing its allies, including UK troops, as this has turned into a fully fledged war with much collateral damage expected.”

The commander added: “We request (the) UK, the key US ally, and other Western allies … to not stand with this Trump regime.”

His inflammatory comments come as Iraqi police confirmed that two rockets had injured six people in Baghdad’s Green Zone, where the US Embassy is based.

Iraq’s Parliament has backed a resolution supported by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to expel foreign forces — including British troops — from the country.

Raab responded by urging Baghdad to abandon the resolution. He told Iraq’s government that an ejection of NATO forces would allow Daesh to “exploit the vacuum” left behind.

Arab News understands that Britain’s Defense Ministry is preparing new plans to secure UK interests and personnel after the resolution. 

The 400 British armed forces personnel based in Iraq have shifted their mission from training local forces to fight Daesh, to defending NATO bases and high-value individuals. 

The Royal Navy now plans to resume its escort of merchant vessels through the Strait of Hormuz following the heightened tensions. 

HMS Montrose and HMS Defender, a frigate and a destroyer respectively, had ended their escorting duties in 2019, but will now return to their duties. 

But despite the widely perceived threat to British interests, and the predictable trouble this has brought to London, the US failed to consult or even brief
the UK ahead of the attack.

The diplomatic silence over an assassination that has huge ramifications for British security has led to some questioning the value of the “special relationship” between the two nations.

“We pride ourselves on the so-called ‘special relationship,’ yet there’s often little evidence that the US has a special relationship with anyone other than itself,” said Charlie Herbert, a former British Army major general.

Kyle Orton, an independent terrorism researcher, told Arab News: “British interests are at risk, arguably more than American interests if Iran is looking for a calibrated response that doesn’t provoke worse from Washington.”

But he added: “The need for speed and secrecy makes it imperative to keep the circle of people aware small.” 

According to reports from the Los Angeles Times, that circle was small but included Israel. Barak Ravid, a journalist with sources in Israel’s government, said on Jan. 4 that the “US informed Israel about this operation in Iraq apparently a few days ago.”

A well-informed Israeli army officer told the Los Angeles Times that the attack “did not come as a surprise.”

After decades of fighting alongside American troops, and with thousands of British military and governmental personnel deployed in the Middle East to work alongside US forces, many Britons will be wondering what more they must do to enjoy the kind of advance notice afforded to Israel.

Lebanon family restless as it awaits missing ‘heroes’

Updated 11 August 2020

Lebanon family restless as it awaits missing ‘heroes’

  • Najib Hitti, 27, Charbel Hitti, 22 and Charbel Karam, 37, all relatives, left together in one firetruck to douse a port blaze believed to have sparked the August 4 mega-blast
  • The Hittis’ hopes of seeing their loved ones alive have dimmed since the army on Sunday said it had concluded search and rescue operations with little to no hope of finding survivors

QARTABA, Lebanon: Three firefighters. One Lebanese family. The same restless wait. Rita Hitti has not slept a wink since the Beirut port blast, when her firefighting son, nephew and son-in-law went missing.
“In one piece or several, we want our sons back,” she told AFP from the Hitti family’s home in the mountain town of Qartaba, north of Beirut.
“We have been waiting for the remains for six days,” she added, dark circles under her eyes.
Najib Hitti, 27, Charbel Hitti, 22 and Charbel Karam, 37, all relatives, left together in one firetruck to douse a port blaze believed to have sparked the August 4 mega-blast that killed 160 people and wounded at least 6,000 others across town.
They were among the first rescuers at the scene. They have not been heard of since.
Near the entrance to their Qartaba home, the three men are praised as “heroes” in a huge banner unfurled over a wall.
The double exposure shot shows them in the foreground dressed sharply in suits.
In the background, the blast’s now-infamous pink plume rises above their heads as they try to douse a fire.
An eerie calm filled the stone-arched living room, where dozens of relatives and neighbors gathered around Rita, the mother of Najib Hitti.
The women were mum, the men whispered between themselves, the young shuffled in and out of the room, quietly.
Karlen, Rita’s daughter, looked among the most sombre, with her husband Charbel Karam, brother Najib and cousin Charbel all missing.
Sitting next to her mother on the couch, she fought back tears and did not say a single word.
The Hittis’ hopes of seeing their loved ones alive have dimmed since the army on Sunday said it had concluded search and rescue operations with little to no hope of finding survivors.
The health ministry has said the number of missing stands at less than 20, while the army announced it had lifted five corpses from beneath the rubble.
A large blaze was still ripping through the blast site when the Hittis and other relatives of port employees dashed to the disaster zone to check on their loved ones.
But they were stopped by security forces.
“I told them I would know my boys from their smell,” Rita said she told an officer who barred her from the site.
“Let me enter to search for them and when I whiff their smell I will know where they are,” the mother said she pleaded.
Ever since, her hopes have gradually dwindled, but her anger is boiling.
Lebanese authorities have pledged a swift investigation but the exact cause of the blast remains unclear.
Authorities say it was triggered by a fire of unknown origin that broke out in a port warehouse where a huge pile of highly volatile ammonium nitrate fertilizer had been left unsecured for years.
Whatever the cause of the fire was, the popular consensus is that the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of officials in charge of the port as well those who have ruled Lebanon country for decades.
“We gave them heroes and they returned them to us as ‘martyrs’,” Rita said, scoffing at the label officials have used to brand blast casualties.
“What martyrs? What were they protecting? The noxious things (authorities) were hiding in the port?” she asked rhetorically.
“They are martyrs of treachery.”
George, father of Charbel Hitti, also rushed to the blast site to look for his son and relatives after the explosion.
“I started to scream their names: Najib, Charbel... I was like a mad man,” he told AFP.
“We waited until 6 in the morning the next day for clues to what happened,” he said.
“In the end, I started crying.”
He did manage, however, to get one piece of information from a port security official close to the family who was at the scene of the blaze when the firefighting team first arrived on August 4.
The security official had told him that the firefighters were trying to break open the door to the ammonium nitrate warehouse because they could not find the keys before the explosion ripped the whole place apart.
A week has since passed and George said hopes of finding the three men alive have faded.
Assuming they are dead, George said he now wants one thing: “We just want DNA test results that are compatible with those of Charbel, Najib and Charbel,” he said.
“Imagine. This is everything we now wish for.”