Iran’s parliament passed a bill on Tuesday designating all US forces “terrorists” over the killing of a top Iranian military commander in a US strike last week.
Qasem Soleimani, the popular head of the Revolutionary Guards’ foreign operations arm, was killed in a US drone strike outside Baghdad airport on Friday, ratcheting up tensions between the arch-foes.
Under the newly adopted bill, all US forces and employees of the Pentagon and affiliated organisations, agents and commanders and those who ordered the “martyrdom” of Soleimani were designated as “terrorists”.
“Any aid to these forces, including military, intelligence, financial, technical, service or logistical, will be considered as cooperation in a terrorist act,” parliament said.
Lawmakers also voted to bolster by 200 million euros the coffers of the Quds Force — the foreign operations arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards that was headed by Soleimani.
The bill was an amended version of a law adopted in April last year that declared the United States a “state sponsor of terrorism” and its forces in the region “terror groups”.
Iran’s top security body, the Supreme National Security Council, said that blackisting came after the US designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guards a “terrorist organisation”.
Four rockets exploded Sunday night near a base housing US troops close to Iraq’s capital, a security official said, shortly after Washington carried out deadly airstrikes against a pro-Iran faction.
“Four Katyusha rockets exploded in the evening around the huge Taji Iraqi military base… which houses American soldiers, without causing casualties”, said the Iraqi official, who did not want to be named.
Any country that attacks Iran will become the “main battlefield”, the Revolutionary Guards warned Saturday after Washington ordered reinforcements to the Gulf following attacks on Saudi oil installations it blames on Tehran.
Tensions escalated between arch-foes Iran and the United States after last weekend’s attacks on Saudi energy giant Aramco’s Abqaiq processing plant and Khurais oilfield halved the kingdom’s oil output.
Yemen’s Huthi rebels have claimed responsibility for the strikes but the US says it has concluded the attacks involved cruise missiles from Iran and amounted to “an act of war”.
Washington approved the deployment of troops to Saudi Arabia at “the kingdom’s request,” Defence Secretary Mark Esper said, noting the forces would be “defensive in nature” and focused on air and missile defence.
But Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Major General Hossein Salami said Iran was “ready for any type of scenario”.
“Whoever wants their land to become the main battlefield, go ahead,” he told a news conference in Tehran.
“We will never allow any war to encroach upon Iran’s territory.
“We hope that they don’t make a strategic mistake”, he said, listing past US military “adventures” against Iran.
Salami was speaking at Tehran’s Islamic Revolution and Holy Defence museum during the unveiling of an exhibition of what Iran says are US and other drones captured in its territory.
It featured a badly damaged drone with US military markings said to be an RQ-4 Global Hawk that Iran downed in June, as well as an RQ-170 Sentinel captured in 2011 and still intact.
‘Act of war’
The Guards also displayed the domestically manufactured Khordad 3 air defence battery they say was used to shoot down the Global Hawk.
“What are your drones doing in our airspace? We will shoot them down, shoot anything that encroaches on our airspace,” said Salami, noting Iran had defeated “America’s technological dominance” in air defence and drone manufacture.
His remarks came only days after strikes on Saudi oil facilities claimed by Yemen’s Huthis, but the US says it has concluded the attack involved cruise missiles from Iran and amounted to “an act of war”.
Saudi Arabia, which has been bogged down in a five-year war across its southern border in Yemen, has said Iran “unquestionably sponsored” the attacks.
The kingdom says the weapons used in the attacks were Iranian-made, but it stopped short of directly blaming its regional rival.
“Sometimes they talk of military options,” Salami said, apparently referring to the Americans.
Yet he warned that “a limited aggression will not remain limited” as Iran was determined to respond and would “not rest until the aggressor’s collapse.”
The Guards’ aerospace commander said the US ought to learn from its past failures and abandon its hostile rhetoric.
“We’ve stood tall for the past 40 years and if the enemy makes a mistake, it will certainly receive a crushing response,” Brigadier General Amirali Hajizadeh said.
The United States upped the ante on Friday by announcing new sanctions against Iran’s central bank, with President Donald Trump calling the measures the toughest America has ever imposed on another country.
Washington has imposed a series of sanctions against Tehran since unilaterally pulling out of a landmark 2015 nuclear deal in May last year.
It already maintains sweeping sanctions on Iran’s central bank, but the US Treasury said Friday’s designation was over the regulator’s work in funding “terrorism”.
The “action targets a crucial funding mechanism that the Iranian regime uses to support its terrorist network, including the Qods Force, Hezbollah and other militants that spread terror and destabilise the region,” said US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
The Qods Force is the Guards’ foreign operations arm, while Hezbollah is a Lebanese Shiite militant group closely allied with Iran.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the new sanctions meant the United States was “trying to block the Iranian people’s access to food and medicine”.
It showed the US was in “despair” and that “the maximum pressure policy has reached its end,” semi-official news agency ISNA quoted him as saying from New York.
US troops were first sent to Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on US soil carried out by Al-Qaeda, which was sheltered by the former Taliban regime.
Washington now wants to end its military involvement and has been talking to the Taliban since at least 2018. Trump says that troops will only be reduced when the Taliban gives a guarantee that its territory will not be used by Al-Qaeda or other international militant groups.
Trump underlined that there was to be no complete withdrawal, keeping a force that would provide “high intelligence.”
Seoul announced on Sunday that it has agreed to hike its payment for maintaining American troops on its soil, settling a dispute with its longtime ally ahead of a second summit between the United States and North Korea.
The two countries have been in a security alliance since the 1950-53 Korean war, which ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty — with more than 28,000 US troops stationed in the South to guard against threats from Pyongyang.
But US President Donald Trump has repeatedly complained about the expense of keeping American forces on the peninsula, with Washington reportedly asking Seoul to double its contribution toward costs.
The negotiations ended with South Korea’s foreign ministry saying Seoul will pay about 1.04 trillion won (US$924 million) in 2019, 8.2 per cent more than what is offered under a previous five-year pact which expired at the end of last year.
The ministry said that although the US had demanded a “huge increase” in payment, they were able to reach an agreement that reflects “the security situation of the Korean peninsula”.
“The two countries reaffirmed… the importance of a strong South Korea-US alliance and the need for a stable stationing of the US troops,” it said in a statement issued after a signing ceremony.
The row had raised concern that Trump may use it as an excuse for US withdrawal.
The US president and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are expected to discuss an official declaration to end the decades-old war — a prelude to a peace treaty — at their second summit in Hanoi later this month.
At their first meeting in Singapore last year, the notoriously unpredictable US president had made a shock decision to suspend US-South Korea military drills.
But Trump told US broadcaster CBS last week that he had “no plans” to remove US troops from South Korea as part of a deal at the upcoming summit, although he admitted “maybe someday” he would withdraw them, adding: “It’s very expensive to keep troops there.”
Since the deal is only valid for one year, the two sides may soon have to return to the negotiating table.
Seoul contributed around 960 billion won last year — more than 40 per cent of the total bill — financing the construction of American military facilities and paying South Korean civilians working on US bases.
The deal will officially go into effect after it receives parliamentary approval in South Korea, which is expected to take place in April, according to Yonhap news agency.
A suicide attack claimed by the Islamic State group killed 15 people including US serviceman Wednesday in the northern Syrian city of Manbij near the Turkish border, a monitor said.
Nine civilians and five US-backed fighters were among the dead in the attack on a restaurant in the flashpoint city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Rubble littered the outside of the eatery in the city center, footage from a Kurdish news agency showed, and its facade was blackened by the blast.
The Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of sources in Syria, said it was the first such suicide attack in the city against the US-led coalition fighting IS in 10 months.
The bombing came as Kurds who control a large swathe of northern Syria rejected a Turkish plan to set up a “security zone” on the Syrian side of the border.
Almost eight years into Syria’s civil war, Turkey has repeatedly threatened to attack Syrian Kurdish fighters it views as “terrorists” on its southern flank.
Washington, which has relied heavily on the Kurds in its campaign against IS in Syria, has sought guarantees for their safety after President Donald Trump suddenly announced a US troop pullout last month.
On Tuesday, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara would set up a “security zone” in northern Syria following a suggestion by Trump.
The planned buffer would embrace a large swathe of the autonomous region the Kurds have established in northern and northeastern Syria.
Senior Kurdish political leader Aldar Khalil said any Turkish deployment in Kurdish-held areas was “unacceptable”.
He said the Kurds would accept the deployment of UN forces along a separation line between Kurdish fighters and Turkish troops to ward off the threatened offensive.
But “other choices are unacceptable as they infringe on the sovereignty of Syria and the sovereignty of our autonomous region,” Khalil told AFP.
Ankara has welcomed Washington’s planned withdrawal of some 2,000 US troops from Syria but the future of US-backed Kurdish fighters has poisoned relations between the NATO allies.
On Monday, Erdogan had a telephone conversation with Trump to ease tensions after the US leader threatened to “devastate” the Turkish economy if Ankara attacks Kurdish forces in Syria, and called for a “safe zone”.
The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have been the key US ally in the fight against IS.
They have taken heavy losses in a campaign now nearing its conclusion, with the jihadists confined to an ever-shrinking enclave of just 15 square kilometers (under six square miles).
The shock announcement of a US withdrawal has sent the Kurds scrambling to seek a new ally in Damascus, which has long rejected Kurdish self-rule.
With military backing from Russia since 2015, President Bashar al Assad’s government has made huge gains against the jihadists and rebels, and now controls almost two-thirds of the country.
A northwestern enclave held by jihadists and pockets held by Turkish troops and their allies remains beyond its reach, along with the much larger Kurdish region.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Syrian government must take control of the north.
“The best and only solution is the transfer of these territories under the control of the Syrian government, and of Syrian security forces and administrative structures,” Lavrov said.
The head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, another key ally of the Damascus regime, said it would not withdraw any forces from Syria, dismissing Israel threats.
Erdogan said he had a “quite positive” telephone conversation with Trump late on Monday in which he reaffirmed that “a 20-mile (30 kilometers) security zone along the Syrian border… will be set up by us.”
The Syrian Kurdish leader said Turkey was the wrong choice to oversee the mooted “security zone”.
“Trump wants to implement these safe regions through cooperation with Turkey. But any role for Turkey will upset the balance and the region will not be safe,” Khalil said.
The Turkish army has launched two major operations in Syria — in 2016 against IS jihadists and Syrian Kurdish fighters, and in 2018 targeting the Kurds.
The last offensive saw Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies overrun the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in the northwest, one of several the Kurds had governed since 2012.
Critics have accused Turkish troops and their proxies of military occupation of Syrian sovereign territory.
Ankara has spoken of a YPG-free “security zone” under its control, but it is not clear if Washington has the same details in mind.
Analyst Mutlu Civiroglu said it was not immediately clear what the US president meant by a “safe zone”, or who he thought would patrol it.
Analysts were “waiting for a clarification from Washington to see what the president really meant”, he told AFP.
US politicians and international allies scrambled Friday to make sense of President Donald Trump’s momentous foreign policy decisions for Syria and Afghanistan — epic reversals that prompted Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to quit.
Trump’s historic moves to pull out of Syria and slash troop numbers in Afghanistan run counter to years of US doctrine in the region, and set the stage for a cascading series of events that could well result in more bloodshed across a scarred region.
While many Americans — and not just his supporters — lauded Trump’s decision, fed up after years of costly and spiraling conflicts, politicians of every stripe were tripping over each other to voice their condemnation.
“Reducing the American presence in Afghanistan and removing our presence in Syria will reverse… progress, encourage our adversaries, and make America less safe,” said Republican Congressman Mac Thornberry, a Trump ally who heads the House Armed Services Committee.
In the Pentagon, no one seemed to know what comes next.
“We are referring all questions to the White House,” one spokeswoman said when asked about the momentous Afghanistan withdrawal.
Mattis, who was seen as a voice of moderation and widely trusted by allies, resigned Thursday after telling Trump he could not abide the Syria decision.
It leaves vulnerable to Turkish attack thousands of Kurdish fighters the Pentagon has spent years training and arming to fight the Islamic State group.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban welcomed Trump’s partial pull out, with a spokesman saying the group was “more than happy.”
Bill Roggio, an Afghanistan expert and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told AFP the Trump administration’s Middle East policy is in disarray.
“I do not know what its policy is, specifically with respect to what was known as the War on Terror,” he said.
“Until Trump articulates a policy, it appears isolationism has won the day.”
Trump campaigned on a pledge of “America First” and vowed to limit US engagement overseas, so his action on Afghanistan and Syria aren’t bolts from the blue, and many observers were pleased with his actions.
Just weeks before Mattis announced a surge of troops in Afghanistan in August 2017, polls showed Americans were weary of war and lacked confidence that Washington had any winning strategy.
A Morning Consult-Politico poll at the time showed only 23 percent of people thought the US was “winning” in Afghanistan; 38 percent thought it was “losing.”
“Trump ran on a platform of non-intervention, ‘no more stupid wars,’ and promised to get out of the nation-building business,” Daniel Davis, a retired army lieutenant colonel and senior fellow at the Defense Priorities military think tank, told AFP.
“That, in general terms, is his policy, which is fundamentally sound.”
In March, Trump said he wanted to bring troops home “soon” from Syria and last year, when he agreed to boost the US troop presence in Afghanistan, he said he was doing so against his own instincts.
“Getting out of Syria was no surprise,” Trump tweeted on Thursday.
“I’ve been campaigning on it for years, and six months ago, when I very publicly wanted to do it, I agreed to stay longer,” he added, noting that it was “time to come home” and “time for others to finally fight.”
Trump claims IS has been defeated territorially in Syria, even though thousands of fighters remain and still hold small pockets of land.
His withdrawal from Syria abruptly ends American influence in the war-ravaged country and gives the Turks an opening to attack US-backed Kurds.
Trump reportedly made the decision during a phone call last week with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
By ceding Syria, Trump is also yanking a keystone of his own administration’s foreign policy: to push back against Iran, which supports President Bashar al-Assad and is seeking to expand regional influence.
“This is a huge strategic mistake that I hope the president will reconsider,” Jack Keane, a retired general, told Fox News.
“If he does not, I believe with some degree of confidence that he will come to regret this decision.”
Keane has been one of the names in the Washington rumor mill to replace Mattis.
He went on to warn that Trump was repeating the “mistakes” of President Barack Obama, who for years drew withering criticism from Republicans for pulling US troops out of Iraq, only to see the emergence of IS.
Trump’s withdrawal orders, meanwhile, rattled Europe.
French Defense Minister Florence Parly said there was still “has a job to finish” in Syria and called on the US to discuss its withdrawal with other members of a coalition fighting IS.
Britain’s junior defense minister Tobias Ellwood had contradicted Trump on Wednesday, retweeting his message that the jihadists had been defeated in Syria with the words: “I strongly disagree.
“It has morphed into other forms of extremism and the threat is very much alive,” he wrote.
A withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan would not affect the security of the war-torn country, a spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani said Friday, in the first official response to the news that has left officials in Kabul reeling.
“If they withdraw from Afghanistan it will not have a security impact because in the last four and half years the Afghans have been in full control,” presidential spokesman Haroon Chakhansuri said via social media.
Seven US troops were killed when their helicopter crashed during a transport mission in western Iraq, a defence official told AFP Friday.
The Sikorsky HH-60 Pave Hawk chopper was on a routine troop transport operation Thursday flying from Iraq to Syria when it went down, the official said.
“There were seven people aboard — they are all believed to be dead,” the official added.
The four crewmembers were all in the Air Force, but it was not immediately known which service the other troops were from, another official said.
Investigators are probing the crash’s cause. A Pentagon statement said it did not appear to be a result of enemy activity.
An accompanying US helicopter reported the crash and a quick reaction force comprised of Iraqi Security Forces and US-led coalition members secured the scene.
“This tragedy reminds us of the risks our men and women face every day in service of our nations. We are thinking of the loved ones of these service members today,” Brigadier General Jonathan Braga said.
“We are grateful to the Iraqi security forces for their immediate assistance in response to this tragic incident.”
The identities of those killed will be released after next of kin are notified.
First introduced in the early 1980s, the ageing Pave Hawk is based on the Army’s Black Hawk chopper and is used often used for medical evacuation missions.
President Donald Trump took to Twitter to share his condolences.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and loved ones of the brave troops lost in the helicopter crash on the Iraq-Syria border yesterday. Their sacrifice in service to our country will never be forgotten,” he wrote.
The US has operated helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft in Iraq during the war against the Islamic State group, which overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in 2014.
US forces began carrying out air strikes against IS in August 2014, a campaign that was later expanded to Syria and has provided weapons, training and other support to forces fighting the jihadists in both countries.
Baghdad declared victory over the extremists late last year but IS still has the ability to wage deadly violence in Iraq, including a series of attacks in the country’s north that left 25 dead earlier this month.