Macron To Hold Top-Level Talks In Baghdad Wednesday – Iraq Officials

French President Emmanuel Macron makes a statement as he arrives for a European Union Council in Brussels on July 17, 2020, as the leaders of the European Union hold their first face-to-face summit over a post-virus economic rescue plan. – The EU has been plunged into a historic economic crunch by the coronavirus crisis, and EU officials have drawn up plans for a huge stimulus package to lead their countries out of lockdown. (Photo by Francisco Seco / POOL / AFP)

 

French President Emmanuel Macron will make his first official trip to Iraq on Wednesday, government sources in Baghdad told AFP, to signal solidarity with the crisis-hit country.

The one-day visit following his trip to Lebanon will make Macron the most senior foreign official to travel to Iraq since Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi ascended to power in May.

“He will meet the Iraqi prime minister and president and is hoping to hold talks with a range of political actors,” an Iraqi government source told AFP.

Two other Iraqi officials confirmed the visit. Macron’s office has yet to publically confirm the trip.

The focus, the Iraqi sources said, would be on “sovereignty” — insisting Baghdad carve out an independent path away from the tug-of-war between its two main allies, Washington and Tehran.

The message will echo that of France’s top diplomat Jean-Yves Le Drian during a trip to Iraq in July, when he insisted Baghdad “should dissociate itself from regional tensions”.

On August 27, French Defence minister Florence Parly held talks in Baghdad and Arbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region.

Unlike most foreign officials visiting Iraq, Macron will not stop over in Arbil, and is instead hoping Kurdish leaders will come to Baghdad to meet him.

Iraq has been rocked by a series of crises this year, starting with a US drone strike in January that killed top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Iran retaliated with strikes against US troops in western Iraq, and Tehran-backed groups are suspected of launching volleys of rockets on American diplomatic, military and commercial interests in recent months.

As OPEC’s second biggest crude producer, Iraq was hit hard by the collapse in oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic forced the country’s fragile economy to sink even further.

AFP

Iraq President ‘Denounces’ Iran Missile Strikes

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Iraq’s President Barham Saleh on Wednesday condemned Iran’s missile strikes on Iraqi bases where the US and other foreign troops are based, saying he feared “dangerous developments” in the region.

“We denounce the Iranian missile bombing that hit military installations on Iraqi territory and renew our rejection of the repeated violation of state sovereignty and the transformation of Iraq into a battlefield for warring sides,” his office said in a statement.

Iran launched the missiles early Wednesday in response to the killing of senior Revolution Guards commander Qasem Soleimani in a US drone strike in Iraq last week.

Iran, Iraq and US: Timeline Since Soleimani Killing

 

 

Here is a recap of events since the killing of top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad by the US on January 3, which escalated tensions between Tehran and Washington:

US assassinates Soleimani

On January 3 a US drone strike on Baghdad’s international airport kills Soleimani, head of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ foreign operations arm, the Quds Force.

Also among the dead is Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy chief of the Tehran-backed Iraqi paramilitary network Hashed al-Shaabi.

The Pentagon confirms Trump ordered Soleimani’s assassination while the US embassy in Baghdad urges all Americans to leave Iraq “immediately”.

The killing comes days after thousands of pro-Iranian supporters stormed the US embassy in Baghdad, chanting “Death to America!”, angered by US strikes against Hashed bases in Iraq.

Those US strikes, on December 29, had been in retaliation for rocket attacks against US interests in Iraq in which a US civilian contractor was killed.

Iran calls for revenge

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei promises “severe revenge” for Soleimani’s death.

In Iraq caretaker prime minister Adel Abdel Mahdi warns the US strike will “spark a devastating war in Iraq”, while President Barham Saleh pleads for “voices of reason” to prevail.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tells CNN Soleimani had been planning imminent action “that would have put dozens if not hundreds of American lives at risk”.

A Pentagon official says the US is deploying up to 3,500 more troops to the Middle East.

Trump threatens 52 Iran sites

On January 4 Trump warns the US is targeting 52 sites in Iran and will hit them “very fast and very hard” if the Islamic republic attacks American personnel or assets.

He says sites “important to… Iranian culture” are on the list.

The next day Pompeo insists any US military action against Iran will conform to international law after Trump is accused of threatening a war crime by declaring cultural sites as potential targets.

Nuclear deal unravels further

On January 5, Iran announces its fifth step back from the nuclear deal with world powers agreed in 2015, saying it will forgo a “limit on the number of centrifuges”.

Since May 2019 Iran has gradually freed itself from commitments to which it had subscribed, in response to the unilateral withdrawal a year earlier of the US which reinstated economic sanctions against Tehran.

Funeral turns deadly

After days of mourning for Soleimani in Iraq and Iran, a stampede during a massive funeral procession in Iran kills more than 50 people.

In Baghdad, Mahdi confirms he has received what the US called a draft letter describing steps its military would take to “move out” of Iraq.

In Washington, US officials scramble to deny the idea, calling the letter a mistakenly released draft.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper says the Pentagon’s “policy has not changed. We are not leaving Iraq”.

Iran strikes back

Iran launches a volley of missiles early Wednesday at Iraqi bases housing US and other coalition troops.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says the strikes are a “slap in the face” for the United States and revenge for Soleimani’s death is yet to come.

Iraq’s military said it sustained no casualties, and US President Donald Trump said initial casualty assessments indicated “all is well”.

Iraq Military Says no Iraqi Casualties As Several Missiles Hit Bases

Members of Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi military network attempt to break into the US embassy in the capital Baghdad, on December 31, 2019, during a rally to vent anger over weekend air strikes that killed pro-Iran fighters in western Iraq. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP

 

A total of 22 missiles struck two bases housing US troops in Iraq but there were no Iraqi casualties, the military in Baghdad said Wednesday after the overnight attack.

The statement made no mention of Iran, which claimed that it had fired ballistic missiles at the Ain al-Asad airbase in retaliation for the US killing of a top Iranian general.

“Between 1:45 am and 2:15 am (2245 GMT and 2315 GMT) Iraq was hit by 22 missiles, 17 on the Ain al-Asad airbase and … five on the city of Arbil,” the Iraqi military said.

“There were no victims among the Iraqi forces,” it added but did not mention whether or not there were casualties among foreign troops.

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Ain al-Asad is the largest airbase where US-led coalition troops are based.

Arbil is the capital of the Kurdish region, and a top official from the regional government said no American military base or US consulate was hit there.

The official also said there were no casualties in Arbil.

President Donald Trump on Tuesday took to Twitter following the strike to say an “assessment of casualties & damages taking place now”.

“So far, so good!” he wrote.

It was the first time Iran directly targeted a US installation with ballistic missiles.

Over the last two months, US troops and even the embassy in Baghdad had been targeted in more than a dozen rocket attacks that Washington blamed on pro-Tehran groups, but none had been claimed.

Iran Fires Over A Dozen Missiles On Iraq Base Housing US Troops

 

Iran on Wednesday launched a missile attack on an Iraqi airbase where US forces are based, threatening “more crushing responses” if Washington carried out further strikes, Iranian state media said.

It said the missiles were in response to a US strike last week that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi top commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Security sources told AFP that nine rockets hit the sprawling Ain al-Asad airbase in the country’s west, the largest of the Iraqi military compounds where foreign troops are based.

The attack came in three waves just after midnight, the sources said.

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Iran swiftly claimed responsibility for the attack, with state TV saying it had launched “tens of missiles” on the base and promised “more crushing responses” if the US carried out further strikes.

The Pentagon said Iran had fired more than a dozen missiles against Ain al-Asad and another installation hosting US and coalition forces near Arbil.

It said bases hosting foreign troops had expected an attack and had been on “high alert” for days.

US President Donald Trump was “monitoring the situation closely and consulting with his national security team,” according to the White House.

The attack came after pro-Tehran factions in Iraq had vowed to join forces to “respond” to the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis last week.

Soleimani was seen as the “godfather” of Tehran’s proxy network across the region and Muhandis, one of his top advisors, was the deputy head of Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi military network.

Many factions within the Hashed, which has been incorporated into the Iraqi state, have ties to Tehran.

On Tuesday, a hardline Hashed faction issued its fiercest threat yet to retaliate.

“The US Marines must immediately return to their dens to make their coffins,” said Akram al-Kaabi, head of the Harakat al-Nujaba group.

“The International Resistance Regiments have been formed in order to execute a harsh, deliberate response to the American terrorist forces,” Kaabi added.

His deputy had earlier called for an urgent meeting to unite anti-American forces across Iraq.

“We will wage a war against the American presence in all parts of the region that we can reach,” said Nasr al-Shammary.

US installations across Iraq had faced some 15 rocket attacks in recent months but none had been claimed.

As a result, the US-led coalition and NATO announced they were temporarily suspending their operations in Iraq.

At Least Two Rockets Hit Near US Embassy In Baghdad – Witnesses

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Two rockets hit near the US embassy in Iraq’s capital Sunday, witnesses told AFP, shortly after the deadline from a hardline pro-Iran faction for local troops to get away from US forces.

The vehemently anti-American group, Kataeb Hezbollah, had warned Iraqi security forces to “get away” from US troops at joint bases across Iraq by 5:00 pm (1400 GMT).

Sunday’s attack marks the 14th time rockets have been fired towards US installations in Iraq over the last two months.

Iraq Parliament Demands US Troop Ouster After Soleimani Killing

 

 

Pressure against the US in Iraq ramped up Sunday, as rockets hit near the American embassy and parliament demanded the ouster of thousands of US troops over the killing of a top Iranian general.

Ties have deteriorated after an American precision drone strike Friday on the Baghdad international airport that killed Iran’s Major General Qasem Soleimani and top Iraqi military figure Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

A pair of rockets hit near the US embassy in Iraq’s high-security Green Zone for the second night in a row on Sunday just hours after Iraq’s foreign ministry summoned the American ambassador over the strike.

Earlier, caretaker prime minister Adel Abdel Mahdi attended an extraordinary parliamentary session during which he slammed the US strike as a “political assassination”.

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He joined 168 lawmakers — just enough for quorum in Iraq’s 329-seat parliament — to discuss the ouster of US troops.

Some 5,200 US soldiers are stationed across Iraqi bases to support local troops preventing a resurgence of the Islamic State jihadist group.

They are deployed as part of the broader international coalition, invited by the Iraqi government in 2014 to help fight IS.

“The parliament has voted to commit the Iraqi government to cancel its request to the international coalition for help to fight IS,” speaker Mohammed Halbusi announced.

The cabinet would have to approve any decision but the premier indicated support for an ouster in his speech.

“We face two main choices,” he told MPs: either immediately voting for foreign troops to leave or setting limits and a timeframe for withdrawal through a parliamentary process.

US-led coalition ‘pauses’ ops

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reacted to the parliament’s move by saying: “We’ll have to take a look at what we do when the Iraqi leadership and government makes a decision”.

Britain, a key member of the US-led coalition against jihadists, urged Iraq to allow soldiers to stay in the country, saying their work was “vital”.

Admiral Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council secretary, said US troop presence in Iraq after the Iraqi parliamentary decision would be considered an “occupation”.

Hardline parliamentarians with ties to Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi, a military force close to Iran, had demanded the immediate expulsion of all foreign troops.

No Kurdish and most Sunni MPs boycotted the session as they were more supportive of an American military presence, seen as a counterweight to Iran.

Tom Warrick, a former US official and current fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Soleimani and pro-Iran factions within the Hashed had long sought the US’s ouster.

“If US forces do end up withdrawing, it could grant Soleimani a post-humous victory,” Warrick told AFP.

As the session got under way, the US-led coalition announced it was suspending its Iraq operations due to deadly rocket attacks on their bases.

“This has limited our capacity to conduct training with partners and to support their operations against Daesh (IS) and we have therefore paused these activities, subject to continuous review,” it said.

Late Saturday, two missiles slammed into the Green Zone and another two rockets hit an airbase north of the capital housing American troops.

There had been fears of a volleys of rockets following a warning from a hardline Hashed faction for Iraqis to move away from US forces by Sunday afternoon.

Increased tensions had already prompted NATO to suspend training activities in Iraq and a US defence official told AFP American-led coalition forces would “limit” operations.

‘Blatant violation’

Iraq’s foreign ministry said it summoned US ambassador Matthew Tueller and submitted complaints to the United Nations Security Council over the strikes.

“They were a blatant violation of Iraqi sovereignty,” the ministry said in a statement, and “contradict the agreed-upon missions of the international coalition.”

The US strike on Baghdad international airport early Friday killed five Iranian Revolutionary Guards and five members of Iraq’s Hashed.

After a procession that made its way across various Iraqi cities on Saturday, the remains of the Iranians, plus those of Muhandis and another Hashed member, were flown to Iran where mourners packed the streets to pay tribute to them.

DNA testing was required to separate the Iraqis’ remains so they could be properly buried, the Hashed said.

As head of the Quds Force, the Guards’ foreign operations arm, Soleimani oversaw Iran’s wide-ranging interventions in regional power struggles.

In Iraq, protesters taking to the streets since October had blamed him for propping up a government they see as corrupt and inept.

Demonstrations still rocked the capital and south on Sunday, with many protesting against Iran and the United States.

US President Donald Trump claimed Soleimani was planning an “imminent” attack on US personnel in the region and threatened Iran — which has promised “severe revenge” — with more strikes.

British Govt Advises Nationals To Avoid Travelling To Iraq, Iran

A handout picture released by Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force shows a scene from the funeral procession for slain Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (portrait) just outside Baghdad’s high-security Green Zone on January 4, 2020. Thousands of Iraqis chanting “Death to America” joined the funeral procession of the two men both killed in a US airstrike the previous day.
Hashed al-Shaabi Media / AFP

 

The British government on Saturday advised UK nationals to avoid travelling to Iraq and Iran in face of heightened tensions in the Middle East following the US killing of a top Iranian commander in Baghdad.

“Following the death of Qasem Soleimani and heightened tensions in the region… We now advise British nationals against all travel to Iraq (and) we now advise against all but essential travel to Iran,” Britain’s Foreign Office said in a statement.

“The first job of any government is to keep British people safe,” the statement said.

“Given heightened tensions in the region, (we) now advise people not to travel to Iraq, with the exception of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and to consider carefully whether it’s essential to travel to Iran. We will keep this under review.”

On Friday, the US military killed Soleimani in an air strike outside Baghdad international airport that shocked the Islamic republic and sparked fears of a new war in the Middle East.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps confirmed the death of the commander of its Quds Force foreign operations arm, and Tehran’s clerical leadership promised “severe vengeance… in the right place and time”.

In its statement, the British Foreign Office urged UK nationals in the region to “remain vigilant and monitor the media carefully.”

On Friday, foreign minister Dominic Raab had said that while London had “always recognised the aggressive threat” posed by Soleimani and his Quds Force, “following his death, we urge all parties to de-escalate. Further conflict is in none of our interests.”

Iraq’s Pro-Iran Hashed Orders Pullback From US Embassy

 

Supporters of Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi force began dismantling their sit-in outside the US embassy in Baghdad on Wednesday, but hardliners insisted they would stay put.

The Hashed, a powerful paramilitary network integrated into Iraq’s state security forces, ordered its backers to end their protest outside the US mission.

“You delivered your message,” it said in a statement.

Thousands had massed outside the embassy in anger at deadly weekend US air strikes on pro-Iran Hashed faction, Kataeb Hezbollah.

Iraq’s caretaker prime minister Adel Abdel Mahdi had called on the Hashed supporters to leave the embassy on Tuesday but most spent the night in dozens of tents pitched outside the perimeter wall.

On Wednesday, the Hashed called on supporters to regroup outside the high-security Green Zone where the mission is located.

An AFP photographer saw some protesters beginning to dismantle their tents.

But a leading Kataeb Hezbollah commander told AFP they would stay outside the embassy.

“We in Kataeb Hezbollah won’t withdraw even if the others do,” said the commander, who was among those outside.

Iraq’s Pro-Iran Hashed Orders Pullback From US Embassy

In this collage, American soldiers take their position as Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi military etwork attempt to break into the US embassy in the capital Baghdad. US EMBASSY IN IRAQ / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP

 

 

Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi military force Wednesday ordered its supporters to end their sit-in at the US embassy compound in Baghdad, but hardliners pledged to stay put outside the mission.

“You delivered your message,” the Hashed said in a statement addressed to the crowds encircling the embassy since Tuesday in outrage over deadly American airstrikes on a pro-Iran Hashed faction at the weekend.

It called on supporters to regroup outside the high-security Green Zone where the mission is located, but a leading commander in Kataeb Hezbollah, the group targeted in the US raids, told AFP they would “remain” at the embassy.

Trump Threatens Iran After Baghdad Embassy Attack

 

US President Donald Trump warned Tehran it would “pay a very big price” after a mob of pro-Iranian demonstrators stormed the American embassy compound in Iraq, as his government said it is sending hundreds more troops to the Middle East.

Angered by US airstrikes that killed two dozen paramilitary fighters on Sunday, hundreds of protesters spilled through checkpoints in the high-security Green Zone Tuesday, demanding the removal of American troops from Iraq and voicing loyalty to a powerful Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani of the Revolutionary Guard Corps.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the attack was “orchestrated by terrorists,” one of whom he named as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Muhandis has been identified as second-in-command of the Tehran-backed Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary group which includes Kataeb Hezbollah, the group that was targeted in the US airstrikes.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said around 750 troops from a rapid response unit of the 82nd Airborne Division are prepared to deploy over the next several days to the region.

“This deployment is an appropriate and precautionary action taken in response to increased threat levels against US personnel and facilities, such as we witnessed in Baghdad today,” he said.

Prior to the announcement, a US official told AFP that “up to 4,000 (troops) may ultimately be deployed”.

The US had already flown a rapid response team of Marines into Baghdad to reinforce its embassy after the attack Tuesday, which left smoke and flames rising from the embassy entrance and further heightened tension between Tehran and Washington.

Esper’s announcement is the latest move by Washington to step up its defences in the region since US President Donald Trump in May 2018 pulled out of a multinational nuclear deal with Iran and re-imposed crippling economic sanctions.

Trump blamed Tehran for the embassy attack and warned that it would face punishment if Americans are killed.

“Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities,” Trump said on Twitter.

“They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat,” wrote Trump, adding “Happy New Year!”

However, Trump later told reporters that he did not foresee war with Tehran.

Surprise, fury

Trump’s message came at the end of a day in which Washington officials appeared surprised and furious over the ease at which the protestors entered the Green Zone, reaching the US embassy compound for the first time in years.

Live broadcasts showed the protesters battering down the high-security doors of the embassy reception building, smashing windows, burning a sentry box and chanting “Death to America!”

The State Department and Pentagon demanded Iraq’s leaders provide security to the compound — which was already heavily fortified.

By the time a contingent of US Marine reinforcements flew in, some of the demonstrators had pulled back and others settled in for a sustained protest, preparing food for the evening.

Tehran said the United States is itself to blame for airstrikes that killed about two dozen Kataeb Hezbollah fighters on Sunday.

“The surprising audacity of American officials is so much that after killing at least 25… and violating the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, that now… they attribute the Iraqi people’s protest against their cruel acts to the Islamic Republic of Iran,” said foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi.

‘Strategic patience’

The mob attack put a focus on the strains in the US-Iraqi relationship. Allies of Iran, which enjoys significant support in parts of the Iraqi government, increasingly challenge Washington’s influence in the country.

US jet fighters on Sunday struck five Kateab Hezbollah outposts in Iraq and Syria after a series of rocket attacks on US-occupied facilities in Iraq over the past two months that are blamed on the group and its alleged Iranian sponsors.

One of those attacks, in Kirkuk on Friday, left an American civilian contractor dead and exhausted what US officials called Trump’s “strategic patience” with Tehran.

‘First lesson’ to US

It also added to the growing calls by some political factions in Iraq to push US troops out of the country nearly 17 years after they entered and overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime.

The protesters who besieged the US embassy on Tuesday carried posters reading: “Parliament should oust US troops, or else we will!”

Late Tuesday Kataeb Hezbollah hailed the attack as a “first lesson” to Washington, “so that Trump knows he did something extremely stupid”.

US officials said there were no plans to evacuate the mission, and no US personnel were reported injured. Ambassador Matthew Tueller, who had been on holiday, was on his way back to the embassy.

Trump Expects Iraqi Forces To Protect US Embassy In Baghdad

 

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the media at the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly on September 24, 2019 in New York City. Images/AFP

 

President Donald Trump said Tuesday he expects Iraq to “use its forces” to protect the US embassy in Baghdad after pro-Iran protesters breached the outer wall of the compound.

“We expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified!” Trump tweeted.

Iraqi supporters of pro-Iran factions attacked the embassy early Tuesday, breaching its outer wall and chanting “Death to America” in anger over weekend air strikes that killed two dozen fighters.

It was the first time in years that protesters have been able to reach the US embassy, which is sheltered behind a series of checkpoints in the high-security Green Zone.

Trump blamed Iran for organizing the attack and warned Tehran would be held accountable.

“Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the US Embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible,” he tweeted.#

AFP