US bombs facilities in Syria used by Iran-backed militia; monitor counts 17 killed

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon, in Washington on Feb. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)
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US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon, in Washington on Feb. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon, in Washington, on Feb. 17, 2021. (AP file photo)
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Pentagon spokesman John Kirby speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon, in Washington, on Feb. 17, 2021. (AP file photo)
US jets have for the first time carried out an airstrike in Syria against a structure belonging to an Iran-backed militia. (File photo)
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US jets have for the first time carried out an airstrike in Syria against a structure belonging to an Iran-backed militia. (File photo)
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Updated 26 February 2021

US bombs facilities in Syria used by Iran-backed militia; monitor counts 17 killed

US bombs facilities in Syria used by Iran-backed militia; monitor counts 17 killed
  • SOHR says all casualties were fighters of the Popular Mobilization Forces
  • The strikes were in retaliation for a rocket attack in Iraq earlier this month, says US defense department

WASHINGTON/BEIRUT: The United States launched airstrikes in Syria on Thursday, targeting facilities near the Iraqi border used by Iranian-backed militia groups. 

US defense officials announced the strikes without providing details and with no mention of casualties, saying only that they were retaliation for a rocket attack in Iraq earlier this month that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member and other coalition troops.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said Friday that at  least 17 pro-Iran fighters were killed in the US strikes in Syria at the Iraq border overnight.

“The strikes destroyed three lorries carrying munitions... There were many casualties. Preliminary indications are that at least 17 fighters were killed, all members of Popular Mobilization Forces,” the director of the SOHR, Rami Abdul Rahman, told AFP, referencing the powerful coalition of pro-Iran Iraqi paramilitaries.

The airstrike was the first military action undertaken by the Biden administration, which in its first weeks has emphasized its intent to put more focus on the challenges posed by China, even as Mideast threats persist.

Biden’s decision to attack in Syria did not appear to signal an intention to widen US military involvement in the region but rather to demonstrate a will to defend US troops in Iraq.

“I’m confident in the target that we went after, we know what we hit,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters flying with him from California to Washington.

Speaking shortly after the airstrikes, he added, “We’re confident that that target was being used by the same Shia militants that conducted the strikes,” referring to a Feb. 15 rocket attack in northern Iraq that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member and other coalition personnel.

Austin said he recommended the action to Biden.

“We said a number of times that we will respond on our timeline,” Austin said. “We wanted to be sure of the connectivity and we wanted to be sure that we had the right targets.”

Earlier, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the US action was a “proportionate military response” taken together with diplomatic measures, including consultation with coalition partners.

“The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel,” Kirby said. “At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to deescalate the overall situation in eastern Syria and Iraq.”

Kirby said the US airstrikes “destroyed multiple facilities at a border control point used by a number of Iranian- backed militant groups,” including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid Al-Shuhada. The US has blamed Kataib Hezbollah for numerous attacks targeting US personnel and interests in Iraq in the past.

Further details were not immediately available.

Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor at Notre Dame Law School, criticized the US attack as a violation of international law.

“The United Nations Charter makes absolutely clear that the use of military force on the territory of a foreign sovereign state is lawful only in response to an armed attack on the defending state for which the target state is responsible,” she said. “None of those elements is met in the Syria strike.”

Biden administration officials condemned the Feb. 15 rocket attack near the city of Irbil in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish-run region, but as recently as this week officials indicated they had not determined for certain who carried it out. Officials have noted that in the past, Iranian-backed Shiite militia groups have been responsible for numerous rocket attacks that targeted US personnel or facilities in Iraq.

Kirby had said Tuesday that Iraq is in charge of investigating the Feb. 15 attack.

“Right now, we’re not able to give you a certain attribution as to who was behind these attacks, what groups, and I’m not going to get into the tactical details of every bit of weaponry used here,” Kirby said. “Let’s let the investigations complete and conclude, and then when we have more to say, we will.”

A little-known Shiite militant group calling itself Saraya Awliya Al-Dam, Arabic for Guardians of Blood Brigade, claimed responsibility for the Feb. 15 attack. A week later, a rocket attack in Baghdad’s Green Zone appeared to target the US Embassy compound, but no one was hurt.

Iran this week said it has no links to the Guardians of Blood Brigade.

The frequency of attacks by Shiite militia groups against US targets in Iraq diminished late last year ahead of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, though now Iran is pressing America to return to Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal.

The US under the previous Trump administration blamed Iran-backed groups for carrying out the attacks. Tensions soared after a Washington-directed drone strike that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and powerful Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis last year.

Trump had said the death of a US contractor would be a red line and provoke US escalation in Iraq. The December 2019 killing of a US civilian contractor in a rocket attack in Kirkuk sparked a tit-for-tat fight on Iraqi soil that brought the country to the brink of a proxy war.
US forces have been significantly reduced in Iraq to 2,500 personnel and no longer partake in combat missions with Iraqi forces in ongoing operations against the Daesh group.

Soleimani’s shadow
Qassem Soleimani left a trail of death and destruction in his wake as head of Iran’s Quds Force … until his assassination on Jan. 3, 2020. Yet still, his legacy of murderous interference continues to haunt the region

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Blinken reveals uncertainty clouding US-Iran nuclear talks

Blinken reveals uncertainty clouding US-Iran nuclear talks
Updated 15 min 24 sec ago

Blinken reveals uncertainty clouding US-Iran nuclear talks

Blinken reveals uncertainty clouding US-Iran nuclear talks
  • US secretary of state: ‘We don’t yet know’ if Tehran is serious about making a deal in Vienna
  • Blinken tells BBC Iran could acquire nuclear weapons within months

LONDON: Negotiators in talks with Iran over curbs to its nuclear program do not yet know if Tehran is willing to make a deal, according to the White House’s top diplomat.

“We’ve been engaged now in Vienna for some weeks with our European partners, with Russia, China, and indirectly … with Iran,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the BBC on Thursday.

“We’ve demonstrated our very seriousness of purpose in terms of wanting to get back into the so-called JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action),” he added. 

“What we don’t yet know is whether Iran is prepared to make the same decision and move forward.” 

Blinken warned that, having progressively walked back on nuclear curbs hammered out as part of the 2015 deal agreed with world powers, Tehran could acquire nuclear weapons within months.

Under the original deal, from which former US President Donald Trump withdrew in 2018, Iran received billions of dollars’ worth of sanctions relief in exchange for strict curbs and heavy monitoring of its nuclear program.

“Right now, unfortunately, Iran has itself lifted many of the constraints imposed on it by the agreement because we pulled out,” Blinken said.

“And it’s now getting closer and closer again to that point where its breakout time is going to be down to a few months and eventually even less.”


Egypt and Turkey conclude talks on regional issues

With no clear progress, Egyptian and Turkish officials concluded two days of talks in Cairo. (Facebook/@MFAEgyptEnglish)
With no clear progress, Egyptian and Turkish officials concluded two days of talks in Cairo. (Facebook/@MFAEgyptEnglish)
Updated 06 May 2021

Egypt and Turkey conclude talks on regional issues

With no clear progress, Egyptian and Turkish officials concluded two days of talks in Cairo. (Facebook/@MFAEgyptEnglish)
  • Talks were aimed at resetting ties between the two regional powers
  • Both sides vowed to evaluate the outcome of their first round of consultations

LONDON: Egypt and Turkey concluded consultations on Thursday in the Egyptian capital Cairo to discuss ties and regional conflicts.
A joint statement described the talks as “frank and in-depth” and dealt with bilateral relations and a number of regional issues, particularly the situations in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and “the need to achieve peace and security in the Eastern Mediterranean region.”
The two day consultations were headed by Egyptian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Hamdi Sanad Loza, and his Turkish counterpart Sedat Onal.
“The two sides will evaluate the outcome of this round of consultations and agree on the next steps,” the joint statement added.
The discussions were the first high-level public talks for years between the two powers.
Turkey has been striving to mend fences with several US-allied Arab states but Egypt has so far responded cautiously to Turkish overtures.
(With Reuters)


Qatar’s attorney general orders arrest of finance minister

Qatar’s attorney general orders arrest of finance minister
Updated 06 May 2021

Qatar’s attorney general orders arrest of finance minister

Qatar’s attorney general orders arrest of finance minister
  • The reports consisted of damage to public funds, abuse of public office, and abuse of power

LONDON: Qatar’s Public Prosecutor ordered the arrest of Minister of Finance Ali Sharif Al-Emadi over reports of crime related to holding public office, Qatar News Agency reported on Thursday.
“After reviewing documents, and their attached reports, the Attorney General ordered the arrest of the Minister of Finance Ali Sharif Al-Emadi to investigate what was mentioned in the reports of crimes related to practicing public office,” the statement said.
The reports consisted of damage to public funds, abuse of public office, and abuse of power.
The Public Prosecutor ordered wide investigations into the crimes raised in the submitted reports.


UN urges Israel to stop demolitions and evacuations in Sheikh Jarrah in West Bank

UN urges Israel to stop demolitions and evacuations in Sheikh Jarrah in West Bank
Updated 06 May 2021

UN urges Israel to stop demolitions and evacuations in Sheikh Jarrah in West Bank

UN urges Israel to stop demolitions and evacuations in Sheikh Jarrah in West Bank
  • UN says eviction of Palestine refugee families in other neighborhoods in occupied East Jerusalem are ‘very worrying’
  • Wennesland says ‘deeply concerned’ by surge in tensions and violence in occupied West Bank since start of Ramadan

LONDON: The UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process urged Israel to cease demolitions and evictions, in line with its obligations under international humanitarian law.
“The latest developments related to the eviction of Palestine refugee families in Sheikh Jarrah and other neighborhoods in occupied East Jerusalem are also very worrying,” Tor Wennesland said in a statement on Thursday.
Twenty-two Palestinians were wounded in overnight clashes with Israeli police in annexed east Jerusalem, the Red Crescent said Thursday, as tensions flared over a controversial land rights case.
The legal case centers on the homes of four Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood near Jerusalem’s walled Old City on land claimed by Jews.
He also said he was “deeply concerned” by the surge in tensions and violence in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, since the start of the Muslim month of Ramadan.
“In the past few days alone, two Palestinians, including a woman and a child, were killed in separate incidents, by Israeli security forces (ISF) in the context of clashes or attacks,” said Wennesland.
He also said an Israeli was killed by a Palestinian in a drive-by shooting, and several others were injured.
"I reiterate that ISF must exercise maximum restraint and use lethal force only when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life,” he added.
Last month, anti-Arab Israeli extremists, emboldened by the election of their allies to parliament, began a march calling for violence against Arabs.
The move raised tensions, prompting cross-border attacks from Gaza and clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police.
Wennesland said perpetrators of violence on all sides must be held accountable and swiftly brought to justice.
“I call on political, religious and community leaders on all sides to stand firmly against violence, incitement and inflammatory rhetoric,” he said, adding “if unaddressed, the situation could spiral out of control.”


Israel accuses Spanish woman of aiding banned militant group

Israel accuses Spanish woman of aiding banned militant group
Updated 06 May 2021

Israel accuses Spanish woman of aiding banned militant group

Israel accuses Spanish woman of aiding banned militant group
  • A military court indicted Juana Ruiz Sánchez on Israeli terrorism-financing offenses and other charges
  • Israel, US, Canada and European Union regard the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine a terrorist organization

JERUSALEM: Israeli authorities on Thursday charged a Spanish woman under the country’s anti-terrorism laws, accusing her of funneling large sums of donations from European governments to a banned Palestinian militant group.
Juana Ruiz Sánchez was charged in a West Bank military court. Her indictment was the culmination of a more than year-long investigation into financing for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
The group is regarded by Israel, the United States, Canada, and European Union as a terrorist organization.
Ruiz, a Spanish citizen and West Bank resident, has worked for Health Work Committees, a Palestinian non-governmental organization that provides medical services in the territory.
She was indicted on Israeli terrorism-financing offenses and other charges. The Palestinian NGO’s senior accountant, former accountant and former purchasing department manager were expected to be charged with similar offenses in the coming days, according to the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency.
Ruiz, 62, had been held by Israeli authorities without charge since her arrest at her home near Bethlehem on April 13. Spanish authorities have provided her with consular assistance and Spain’s deputy consul general has accompanied her during court hearings, the Spanish Foreign Ministry said in an emailed statement to The Associated Press.
“We will continue following this case closely, insisting and working together with the Israeli authorities,” it said.
The PFLP is a Palestinian Leninist-Marxist militant group that opposes the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. It staged a number of airline hijackings in the 1970s and numerous attacks on Israeli civilians, including the 2001 assassination of then-tourism minister Rehavam Zeevi. It is part of the PLO, the main Palestinian national movement.
The Shin Bet began investigating the PFLP’s finances following an August 2019 attack by the militant group in the West Bank that killed a 17-year-old girl and wounded her brother and father, an Israeli official said.
The investigation found at least seven Palestinian charities had funneled tens of millions of euros donated by European governments and organizations for humanitarian purposes to PFLP coffers.
The Israeli official said the probe found that the NGO, along with other aid organizations, including the Union of Agricultural Work Committees and Addameer, “act under PFLP leadership and in accordance with the organization’s directives, as a cover for promoting the PFLP’s activities and funding.”
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. The Health Works Committees did not respond to requests for comment.
Although the PFLP is one of the smaller Palestinian militant groups operating in the occupied West Bank, its cash pipeline from Europe has “developed considerably in the past decade,” the official said. “European governmental money helped build up this organization.”
Israel’s Foreign Ministry has called on European governments to step up oversight of donations to Palestinian organizations to ensure they don’t wind up funding groups outlawed by the EU.
The European Union’s diplomatic mission in Israel did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A petition calling on Israel to free Ruiz and the other detainees’ was signed by nearly 6,000 individuals and organizations in Spain, saying the aid group was attacked by Israel “in a policy of repression, weakening and dismantling of civil society organizations of Palestine.”