Tehran using violence and politics to push US out of Iraq, say experts

Tehran using violence and politics to push US out of Iraq, say experts
An Iraqi protester flashes the victory sign during a strike and anti-government demonstrations in Baghdad. (AFP)
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Updated 24 January 2020

Tehran using violence and politics to push US out of Iraq, say experts

Tehran using violence and politics to push US out of Iraq, say experts
  • A withdrawal of US troops from Iraq would be a victory for Iran, and Tehran has long pursued a two-pronged strategy of supporting anti-US militias

BEIRUT: Iran has long sought the withdrawal of American forces from neighboring Iraq, but the US killing of an Iranian general and an Iraqi militia commander in Baghdad has added new impetus to the effort, stoking anti-American feelings that Tehran hopes to exploit to help realize the goal.

The Jan. 3 killing has led Iraq’s parliament to call for the ouster of US troops, but there are many lingering questions over whether Iran will be able to capitalize on the sentiment.

An early test will be a “million-man” demonstration against the American presence, called for by influential Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr and scheduled for Friday.

It is not clear whether the protesters will try to recreate a New Year’s Eve attack on the US Embassy compound in Baghdad by Iran-supported militias in the wake of US airstrikes that killed 25 militiamen along the border with Syria. Iran might simply try to use the march to telegraph its intention to keep up the pressure on US troops in Iraq.

But experts say Iran can be counted on to try to seize what it sees as an opportunity to push its agenda in Iraq, despite an ongoing mass uprising that is targeting government corruption as well as Iranian influence in the country.

“Iran is unconstrained by considerations of Iraqi sovereignty, domestic public opinion, or legality when compared to the Western democracies,” said David Des Roches, an expert with The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “This is Iran’s strategic advantage; they should be expected to press it.”

A withdrawal of US troops from Iraq would be a victory for Iran, and Tehran has long pursued a two-pronged strategy of supporting anti-US militias that carry out attacks, as well as exerting political pressure on Iraqi lawmakers sympathetic to its cause. Despite usually trying to keep attacks at a level below what might provoke an American response, Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah fired a barrage of rockets at a military base in Kirkuk in December, killing a US contractor and wounding several US and Iraqi troops.

The US responded first with deadly airstrikes on Iran-affiliated militia bases in western Iraq and Syria, then followed with the Jan. 3 drone attack that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military officer, along with Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis as they left Baghdad’s airport.

The severity of the US response surprised Iran and others, and it had the unanticipated result of bolstering Tehran’s political approach by prompting the Iraqi parliament to pass the resolution calling for the expulsion of all foreign troops from the country. 

In response, President Donald Trump has threatened sanctions on Iraq.

“What they want to do is get rid of US troops in what they see as a legitimate political manner,” said Dina Esfandiary, a London-based expert with The Century Foundation think tank. “If Iraqis themselves are voting out US troops, it looks a lot better for Iran than if Iran is a puppet master in Iraq trying to get rid of them — and on top of that it would be a more lasting decision.”

The legitimacy of the resolution is a matter of dispute. Not only was the session boycotted by Kurdish lawmakers and many Sunnis, but there also are questions of whether Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has the ability to carry it out. Abdul Mahdi resigned in November amid mass anti-government protests but remains in a caretaker role.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo bluntly rejected the call for the troops’ removal, instead saying Washington would “continue the conversation with the Iraqis about what the right structure is.”

Abdul Mahdi strongly supported the resolution, but since then has said it will be up to the next government to deal with the issue, and there are indications he has been working behind the scenes to help keep foreign troops in the country.

After closed-door meetings with German diplomats last week, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the prime minister had assured them that he had “great interest” in keeping the Bundeswehr military contingent and others part of the anti-Daesh coalition in Iraq.

The US, meantime, said it had resumed joint operations with Iraqi forces, albeit on a more limited basis than before.

Trump met Iraqi President Barham Saleh on Wednesday on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and said Washington and Baghdad have had “a very good relationship” and that the two countries had a “host of very difficult things to discuss.” Saleh said they have shared common interests including the fight against extremism, regional stability and an independent Iraq.

Asked about the plan for US troops in Iraq, Trump said, “We’ll see what happens.”

In a sign that bodes well for NATO’s continuing mission in the country, Iraq’s deputy foreign minister went to Brussels last week for talks with Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on the alliance’s presence in Iraq.

The mixed message of publicly calling for the troops to go but privately wanting them to stay is an indication of Iran’s strong influence, particularly among its fellow Shiite Muslims, Des Roches said.

“For any Iraqi politician in Baghdad — particularly a Shia politician — to defy Iran openly is to risk political as well as physical death,” he said. “So we shouldn’t be surprised if the public and the private lines espoused by Iraqi politicians differ.”

American forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011 but returned in 2014 at the invitation of the government to help battle Daesh after the extremist group seized vast areas in the north and west of the country. A US-led coalition provided crucial air support as Iraqi forces, including Iran-backed militias, regrouped and drove Daesh out in a costly three-year campaign. There are currently some 5,200 American troops in the country.

Even before the drone strike, there were growing calls in nationwide protests across sectarian lines, which started in October centered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, for the end of all foreign influence in the country. The demonstrations also targeted government corruption and poor public services.

The rejection of Iranian influence over Iraqi state affairs has been a core component of the movement, and pro-Iranian militias have targeted those demonstrations along with Iraqi security forces, killing hundreds and injuring thousands. Protesters fear that with the focus on the push for the US troop withdrawal in response to the attack that killed Soleimani, they may be even easier targets for those forces and that their message will be lost.

“I think Iraq has had enough of having to deal with the Americans and the Iranians alike,” Esfandiary said. “But the assassination of Al-Muhandis, almost more so than Solemani, was such a glaring oversight of sovereignty and of all agreements they had signed on to with the US in terms of the US presence in Iraq, that it has kind of taken some of the attention away from Iran, to Tehran’s delight.”

Friday’s march called for by Al-Sadr is expected to redirect the focus onto the US troops. The cleric, who also leads the Sairoon bloc in parliament, derives much of his political capital through grassroots mobilization.

The Tahrir Square protesters initially rejected that call, saying they want the escalating conflict between Iran and the US off of Iraqi soil.

Since then, Al-Sadr has reached out to them directly, saying the demonstrations against the government and against the American troops are “two lights from a single lamp,” and it is not yet clear whether that might convince them to participate in the march.


Greece arrests Moroccan IS suspect

Greece arrests Moroccan IS suspect
Updated 9 min 28 sec ago

Greece arrests Moroccan IS suspect

Greece arrests Moroccan IS suspect
  • Greek police sources told AFP the 28-year-old man was arrested in Thessaloniki
  • Morocco's MAP news agency said he was detained on Tuesday for alleged involvement in terror actions

RABAT: Greek security services have arrested a Moroccan suspected of belonging to Daesh group in Syria who had appeared in one of their propaganda videos, police and security sources said Thursday.
Greek police sources told AFP the 28-year-old man was arrested in Thessaloniki on the basis of an international warrant issued in 2017 by Rabat, and that a decision would be taken on his possible extradition to Morocco.
Morocco’s MAP news agency, quoting a security source, said he was detained on Tuesday for alleged involvement in the planning of “terrorist” actions in Morocco.
The suspect, known as Abu Mohamed Al-Fateh, had joined the jihadist group in Syria in 2014 and held “positions of responsibility,” it said.
He had appeared in a video showing the body of a Syrian fighter being mutilated.
About 1,600 Moroccans joined jihadist groups in Syria, Iraq and Libya, of whom 137 were killed, according to official figures in Morocco.


Forest fires rage near Turkish resorts, killing three

Forest fires rage near Turkish resorts, killing three
Updated 57 min 1 sec ago

Forest fires rage near Turkish resorts, killing three

Forest fires rage near Turkish resorts, killing three
  • At least 122 people have also been injured in the fires
  • President Erdogan announced that an arson investigation has already been initiated

ANKARA: Three people were reported dead Thursday and more than 100 injured as thousands of firefighters battled huge blazes spreading across the Mediterranean resort regions of Turkey’s southern coast.
Officials also launched an investigation into suspicions the fires that broke out Wednesday in four locations to the east of the tourist hotspot Antalya were the result of arson.
Turkey’s disaster and emergencies office said three people were killed — including an 82-year-old who lived alone — and 122 injured by the fires.
“Treatment of 58 of our citizens continues,” it was quoted as saying by the Anadolu state news agency.
The fires first emerged across a sparsely populated region about 75 kilometers (45 miles) east of Antalya — a resort especially popular with Russian and other eastern European tourists.
But they were creeping closer Thursday to sandy beaches dotted with hotels and resorts.
Images on social media and Turkish TV showed residents jumping out of their cars and running for their lives through smoke-filled streets lit up by orange flames.
The heavy clouds of smoke turned the sky dark orange over a beachfront hotel complex in the town of Manavgat.
Agriculture Minister Bekir Pakdemirli said a hotel was also being evacuated near the tourist city of Bodrum — some 300 kilometers west of Antalya — as new fires broke out across the southern coast.
Pakdemirli said 150 cows and thousands of sheep and goats had perished in the flames.

The fires were raging with temperatures approaching 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) and wind gusts of 50 kilometers (30 miles) an hour.
But Antalya mayor Muhittin Bocek said he suspected foul play because the fires started in four locations at once.
“This suggests an arson attack, but we do not have clear information about that at this stage,” Bocek said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said an investigation had already been launched.
The Russian embassy said Moscow had sent three giant firefighting aircraft to dump fire retardant on the burning forests to contain the flames.
More than 4,000 Turkish firefighters had been dispatched across the region to help contain the damage and search for people needing help.
They rescued 10 people on Thursday who were stranded on a boat in a lake that was surrounded by burning forest.
“All of the state’s means have been mobilized,” Environment Minister Murat Kurum said. “All our teams are in the field.”


Syrian rebels attack army outposts in southern Syria

Syrian rebels attack army outposts in southern Syria
Updated 31 min 31 sec ago

Syrian rebels attack army outposts in southern Syria

Syrian rebels attack army outposts in southern Syria
  • This is the biggest flare-up of violence since government forces retook the restive region three years ago
  • The widespread attacks at army outposts near the border crossing of Nassib with Jordan also disrupted passenger and commercial traffic

AMMAN: Syrian rebels waged a spate of mortar attacks on Syrian army checkpoints in the southern province of Daraa, rebels, residents and the army said on Thursday.
This is the biggest flare-up of violence since government forces retook the restive region three years ago.
The widespread attacks at army outposts near the Damascus-Daraa highway leading to the border crossing of Nassib with Jordan also disrupted passenger and commercial traffic at the main gateway for goods from Lebanon and Syria to the Gulf.
Multiple army checkpoints around key towns and villages from the town of Nawa north of the province to Muzarib near the border with Jordan were also seized, they said.
The army has sent reinforcements from its elite Fourth Division, run by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s brother Maher, senior military defectors said, confirming army leaks.
The attacks came after the army launched a dawn operation against the rebel-held old quarter of the city of Daraa, where peaceful protests against decades of autocratic Assad family rule began in 2011 and were met by deadly force before spreading across the country.
The army has sought to reassert its control after the collapse of talks earlier this week to get local elders and former rebels to allow the army to extend its control inside the old quarter, known as Daraa al Balad.
The Syrian army, aided by Russian air power and Iranian militias, retook control of the strategic province that borders Jordan and Israel’s Golan Heights to the west in the summer of 2018.
Russian-brokered deals at the time forced rebels to hand over heavy weapons and return state institutions in the enclave but kept away the army from entering their neighborhoods.
“The rebels have waged a counter offensive after the army operation against Daraa whose intensity has taken the regime by surprise,” said Zaid al Rayes, a political opposition figure in touch with local groups in Daraa.
State media said terrorists had fired at the main hospital in Daraa and the army had evacuated hundreds of fleeing families from rebel held neighborhoods.
Thousands of former rebels had chosen to stay with their families rather than head to remaining rebel-held areas in northern Syria, where tens of thousands of others displaced from recaptured areas had gathered.
The province saw a widespread boycott of last May’s polls that extended Assad’s presidency in what officials saw as a defiance of state authority.
Western intelligence sources say growing dissent is aggravated by the presence of Iranian-backed local militias who now hold sway and act with impunity since the central government is too weak to impose its authority on the area.


Iranian hackers posed as aerobics instructors to target defense workers

A fake Facebook page that was controlled by an Iranian hacker, according to reports. (Screenshot)
A fake Facebook page that was controlled by an Iranian hacker, according to reports. (Screenshot)
Updated 29 July 2021

Iranian hackers posed as aerobics instructors to target defense workers

A fake Facebook page that was controlled by an Iranian hacker, according to reports. (Screenshot)
  • They sent “flirtatious” videos to build rapport and later delivered malware to targets’ devices
  • It is unclear whether any sensitive information was stolen

LONDON: A group of Iranian hackers posed as aerobics instructors from Liverpool, UK, and sent flirtatious messages in an attempt to steal sensitive information from defense and aerospace industry personnel.

The hackers’ false identities were exposed by Facebook and the cybersecurity company Proofpoint, which said the operation proves the effort that Iran is putting into targeting individuals of interest.

The hackers have been identified as part of the TA456 group, which also goes by the name of Tortoiseshell — a group widely believed to be aligned with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Proofpoint described the group as “one of the most determined Iranian-aligned threat actors” that it tracks, due to tactics of spending months or years building up a relationship with targets across various platforms, as well as its “general persistence.”

The operatives created fake Facebook, Instagram and email accounts for a woman named Marcella Flores. She was depicted as a smiling, tanned and dark-haired Spanish woman working as a fitness instructor in Liverpool. They created a fake education and work history for her.

Proofpoint said that Flores would target people who publicly identified themselves as employees at defence contractors on social media accounts, befriending them before starting up a conversation.

In one case, she sent the target benign messages and photographs, as well as a “flirtatious” video to build a rapport, before later sending a link to a dietary survey but that in fact contained a malware download that would steal usernames, passwords and other data.

Proofpoint did not say whether the attacks were successful, but if they were, the stolen information could be used to gain access to larger aerospace companies that the original target was a subsidiary or contractor for.

Facebook banned her account and that of several others earlier this month, saying that they were all fake online personas created by the Iranian operatives to “conduct espionage operations across the internet.”

Facebook said: “Our investigation found them targeting military personnel and companies in the defence and aerospace industries primarily in the US, and to a lesser extent in the UK and Europe.”

When the comprehensive campaign was revealed, Amin Sabeti, an expert in Iranian cyber-operations, told Arab News that the strategy — which he dubs “social engineering” hacking — is a go-to tactic for Iranian operatives, or those working on behalf of the state.

“It’s the same pattern that Iranian state-backed hackers have been following for years,” he said.

Sabeti explained that they rely on manipulating targets into providing sensitive information or account details that can then be exploited for their gain — and, since they are operating from Iranian soil, “they have the consent of the regime.”

Sabeti said: “It’s easy, cheap, there’s plausible deniability and it works, it’s effective.”


Delta variant drives Mideast virus surge: WHO

Delta variant drives Mideast virus surge: WHO
Updated 29 July 2021

Delta variant drives Mideast virus surge: WHO

Delta variant drives Mideast virus surge: WHO
  • WHO said the highly transmissible strain has been recorded in 15 out of the region’s 22 countries
  • Tunisia has been struggling to contain the outbreak

CAIRO: The World Health Organization said Thursday the Delta variant has led to a "surge" in coronavirus outbreaks triggering a "fourth wave" in the Eastern Mediterranean region, where vaccination rates remain low.
The global health body said the highly transmissible strain, first detected in India, has been recorded in 15 out of the 22 countries of the region under its purview, stretching from Morocco to Pakistan.
"The circulation of the Delta variant is fuelling the surge in Covid-19 cases and deaths in an increasing number of countries in WHO's Eastern Mediterranean Region," it said in a statement.
"Most of the new cases and hospitalised patients are unvaccinated people. We are now in the fourth wave of Covid-19 across the region," said Ahmed al-Mandhari, director of WHO's Eastern Mediterranean region.
Infections have increased by 55 percent, and deaths by 15 percent, in the last month compared to the month before. More than 310,000 case and 3,500 deaths have been recorded weekly.
Countries such as Tunisia, which has suffered the biggest number of Covid-19 deaths in North Africa, have been struggling to contain the outbreak.
Critical shortages of oxygen tanks and intensive care beds have stretched the capacities of healthcare systems regionally.
WHO noted the rapid spread of the Delta variant was quickly making it "the dominant strain" in the region.
According to a recent paper in the journal Virological, the amount of virus found in the first tests of patients with the Delta variant was 1,000 times higher than patients in the first wave of the virus in 2020, greatly increasing its contagiousness.

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