Jerusalem, Aug 23 (AP/UNB) — Israel was responsible for the bombing of an Iranian weapons depot in Iraq lost month, U.S. officials have confirmed, an attack that would mark a significant escalation in Israel's years-long campaign against Iranian military entrenchment across the region.
The confirmation comes as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is strongly hinting that his country is behind recent airstrikes that have hit bases and munitions depot belonging to Iran-backed paramilitary forces operating in Iraq.
The mystery attacks have not been claimed by any side and have left Iraqi officials scrambling for a response, amid strong speculation that Israel may have been behind them. Earlier this week, the deputy head of the Iraqi Shiite militias, known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces, openly accused Israeli drones of carrying out the attacks, but ultimately blamed Washington and threatened strong retaliation for any future attack.
Such attacks are potentially destabilizing for Iraq and its fragile government, which has struggled to remain neutral amid growing tensions between the United States and Iran.
Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, known for his strong allegiance to Iran, warned of a "strong response" if it is proven that Israel was behind the recent airstrikes in Iraq.
In statements issued by his office on Friday, he also said that if Israel continues to target Iraq, the country "will transform into a battle arena that drags in multiple countries, including Iran."
There have been at least three explosions at Iraqi Shiite militia bases in the past month. American officials now confirm Israel was responsible for at least one of them.
Two American officials said Israel carried out an attack on an Iranian weapons depot in July that killed two Iranian military commanders. The U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.
The July 19 attack struck a militia base in Amirli, in Iraq's northern Salaheddin province, causing a huge explosion and fire. A senior official with the Shiite militias at the time told The Associated Press that the base hit housed advisers from Iran and Lebanon — a reference to the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah group. He said the attack targeted the headquarters of the advisers and a weapons depot.
Iranian media reported a funeral for a "shrine defender" named Abolfazl Sarabian on the next day, which typically denotes someone fighting in Iraq and Syria.
On August 12, a massive explosion at the al-Saqr military base near Baghdad shook the capital, killing one civilian and wounding 28 others. The base housed a weapons depot for the Iraqi federal police and the PMF. The most recent of the explosions came Tuesday night, at a munitions depot north of Baghdad.
There have been weeks of speculation in Israel that the army is attacking targets in Iraq.
In an interview with a Russian-language TV station on Thursday, Netanyahu indicated the speculation is true.
"I don't give Iran immunity anywhere," he said, accusing the Iranians of trying to establish bases "against us everywhere," including Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.
Asked whether that means Israel is operating in Iraq, Netanyahu said: "We act in many arenas against a country that desires to annihilate us. Of course I gave the security forces a free hand and the instruction to do what is needed to thwart these plans of Iran."
Early Friday, the New York Times, citing Israeli and U.S. officials, reported that Israel bombed an Iranian weapons depot in Iraq last month.
It would be the first known Israeli airstrike in Iraq since 1981, when Israeli warplanes destroyed a nuclear reactor being built by Saddam Hussein. It also steps up Israel's campaign against Iranian military involvement across the region.
Israel has previously acknowledged hundreds of airstrikes on Iranian targets in neighboring Syria, primarily arms shipments believed to be destined for Iran's Hezbollah allies.
Israel considers Iran to be its greatest enemy and has repeatedly vowed that it will not allow the Iranians, who are supporting the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad, to establish a permanent military presence in Syria.
To strike Iraq, Israeli warplanes could potentially travel through neighboring Syria — although that would likely require Russian agreement.
The other, more complicated option would be for Israeli warplanes to travel through Turkey, a former ally that now has cool relations with Israel, or through Saudi Arabia, to carry out strikes on Iraq.
Israel and the Saudis do not have formal diplomatic relations, but are believed to have established a behind-the-scenes alliance based on their shared hostility toward Iran.
Israeli attacks in Iraq are potentially destabilizing for the volatile country, at a time when Iraq is beginning to recover from a devastating fight against the Islamic State group, and decades of war and conflict prior to that.
The comments by al-Maliki, who was Iraqi prime minister for eight years and now heads a Shiite bloc in parliament, follow fiery threats to the U.S. made hours earlier by the powerful Hezbollah Brigades, an Iran-backed militia. In a statement, it held the U.S. responsible for the strikes and said any new attacks will be met with a harsh response.
"Be sure that if the confrontation between us starts, it will only end with your removal from the region once and for all," it said.
The U.S. maintains some 5,000 troops in Iraq, and some groups such as the Hezbollah Brigades want them to leave.
Damascus, Aug 20 (AP/UNB) — Airstrikes targeted a Turkish army convoy inside a rebel-held part of northwestern Syria on Monday, killing three civilians and wounding 12 others, the Turkish Defense Ministry said.
Syria said the Turkish convoy was carrying ammunition to rebels who have lost ground this month amid a government offensive to retake their last stronghold in the country.
The incident ratcheted up tensions in the region, currently ground zero in the long-running Syrian civil war that has put Turkish, Russian, U.S. and Iranian interests at stake.
The Turkish Defense Ministry said the convoy was attacked while heading to one of Turkey's observation posts in rebel-controlled Idlib province, but did not say whether any Turkish people were killed.
Syria's Foreign Ministry said the convoy of armored vehicles was delivering weapons to Khan Sheikhoun, a major rebel-held town that lies on the front line of fighting along the southern edge of the Idlib enclave. The town is a stronghold of al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the most powerful militant group in the area.
It was not immediately clear whether the airstrikes were carried out by Syrian or Russian warplanes. The convoy consisted of several armored vehicles and flatbed trucks carrying tanks.
The Turkish move into Idlib appears to be a message by Ankara that it won't allow Syrian forces to capture Khan Sheikhoun, which would cut the highway linking Idlib to northern parts of Hama province, home to one of Turkey's observation posts.
Syrian government forces reached the town's outskirts earlier Monday.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, and Idlib-based opposition activist Mazen al-Shami reported that Syrian troops reached the M5 highway north of Khan Sheikhoun. That would make it more difficult for rebels and civilians to move between Idlib and rebel-held areas in northern parts of Hama province.
Just before midnight, the Observatory and other activists reported that Syrian troops entered Khan Sheikhoun from the northern part after the insurgents retreated amid intense clashes and heavy airstrikes. The town, one of the largest in Idlib province, has been emptied of residents who fled the violence.
The town came under a suspected chemical attack on April 4, 2017 that killed 89 people and triggered the first direct American assault on the Syrian government.
The United Nations called for de-escalation and a return to the cease fire negotiated in September, sponsored by Russia, which backs the Syrian government, and Turkey which backs the rebels, who have controlled the region since 2012.
Under that deal, the M5 highway was supposed to be open by the end of 2018 but that never happened. Now, Syrian troops appear to be trying to open it by force.
The Turkish Defense Ministry's brief statement did not provide details but "strongly condemned" the airstrikes, adding that they were "against existing agreements as well as our cooperation and dialogue" with Russia.
The strikes hit near the highway where the convoy was traveling, Syrian activists said.
Turkey's private DHA news agency said Syrian government planes targeted the route of a Turkish military convoy carrying reinforcement vehicles and personnel. It said the convoy was heading toward two Turkish observation posts when it came under Syrian aircraft fire.
The report said the convoy could not proceed because the route between Maaret al-Numan and Khan Sheikhoun was targeted. The agency did not report any casualties.
The Britain-based Observatory said airstrikes believed to be from Russian planes struck near the highway and forced the nearly 25-vehicle Turkish convoy to stop.
Al-Shami also said that warplanes struck areas near where the Turkish convoy was moving. The Sham Network, an activist collective, posted photos of the Turkish convoy. A mushroom cloud of smoke, apparently from the airstrike, could be seen in the distance.
Among those killed was Mohammed Hussein al-Qassem, a commander with the Failaq al-Sham rebel group that is supported by Turkey, opposition activists said.
Hours after the airstrike, the Turkish convoy was just north of the village of Heesh in Idlib, said Yazan Mohammed, a media activist in Idlib province.
The Observatory's chief, Rami Abdurrahman, said Turkish aircraft were over the area where the convoy had stopped, adding that another convoy was also heading to the area from northern Idlib province.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry called the convoy's incursion a "flagrant Turkish intervention," saying that "this hostile behavior of the Turkish regime" wouldn't affect Syria's push into Khan Sheikhoun.
Syrian troops have been on the offensive in Idlib and its surroundings since April 30. The region is home to 3 million people, many of them displaced by other battles around the war-torn country. The latest round of fighting in the past month has displaced some 450,000 people.
Gibraltar, Aug 20 (AP/UNB) — An Iranian supertanker with $130 million worth of light crude oil that the U.S. suspects is tied to a sanctioned organization left Gibraltar and was heading east into the Mediterranean Sea on Monday, with its next destination reported to be Greece.
The Iran-flagged Adrian Darya 1, previously named Grace 1, set course for Kalamata, Greece, with an estimated arrival on Aug. 25, according to ship tracking service MarineTraffic. It wasn't immediately clear why the tanker would be heading there or whether the destination could change.
The vessel left Gibraltar late Sunday after having been detained for a month in the British overseas territory for allegedly attempting to breach European Union sanctions on Syria. Gibraltar authorities rejected attempts by the U.S. to seize the oil tanker again, arguing that EU regulations are less strict than U.S. sanctions on Iran.
Gibraltar said it had been assured by Iran that the tanker wouldn't unload its cargo in Syria.
Iranian government officials have yet to publicly acknowledge the ship's next destination, or where it will discharge its cargo of 2.1 million barrels of crude oil. Iran has denied it was ever headed for Syria.
Greece's Ministry of Shipping and Island Policy said it had received no notification that the supertanker is headed for Kalamata.
The tanker's release comes amid a growing confrontation between Iran and the West after President Donald Trump pulled Washington out of Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers over a year ago. The decision re-imposed sanctions on Iran, stopping billions of dollars in business deals, largely halting the sale of Iran's crude oil internationally and sharply depreciating Iran's currency, the rial.
The U.S. Department of State reiterated its position Monday that the Adrian Darya 1 was "transporting illicit oil to fuel the Iranian regime's and Syrian regime's campaigns of terror and oppression," and it said that companies and mariners who assist it could be considered to be providing material support to a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.
"We have conveyed our strong position to the Greek government on the matter, as well as all ports in the Mediterranean that should be forewarned about facilitating this vessel," it said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that his country was being discreet about the tanker's designation due to sanctions by the U.S., which he said "illegally tries to bully others from purchasing our oil."
The threat of punitive measures by the U.S. for buying Iranian oil has discouraged many countries from purchasing it, though the oil itself is not subject to any U.N. or international sanctions.
Zarif said the tanker's seizure in early July by British Royal Marines "was not based on any law," speaking in English to reporters in Helsinki, Finland.
Shortly after the ship was detained, Iran seized the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero, which remains held by the Islamic Republic. Analysts had said the Iranian ship's release by Gibraltar might mean that the Stena Impero could go free.
But Iranian officials have denied there had been a tit-for-tat seizure, alleging that the Stena Impero was detained after it violated international maritime law while transiting the Strait of Hormuz.
"There is no specific relation between these two ships," Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said, referring to the Stena Impero and the Adrian Darya 1. He said the release of the Stena Impero depended on a court ruling about "two to three nautical violations that are being investigated."
In Gibraltar, a lawyer representing the former captain and two crew members of the supertanker said they had decided they no longer wanted to work on the ship, following the incident.
"They had had enough," lawyer Richard Wilkinson told The Associated Press on Monday. "(The captain) didn't feel happy about going back under these circumstances. He felt that he'd lost control. And being the person responsible for control, he didn't like that."
In a last-ditch effort to stop the Adrian Darya 1's release, the U.S. unsealed a warrant Friday to seize the supertanker and its cargo, citing violations of U.S. sanctions as well as money laundering and terrorism statutes.
U.S. officials told reporters that the oil aboard the ship was worth some $130 million and that it was destined for a designated terror organization.
The unsealed court documents argued that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are the ship's true owners through a network of front companies.
Authorities in Gibraltar said Sunday that, unlike in the U.S., Iran's Revolutionary Guard is not designated a terrorist organization under EU, U.K. or Gibraltar law.
The Iranian spokesman warned Monday against any order by the U.S. Justice Department to have the renamed ship seized again.
"If such an action is taken or even if it is stated verbally and not done, it is considered a threat against the maritime security in international waters," said Mousavi. "The Islamic Republic of Iran has given necessary warnings to the U.S. officials through official channels, especially the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, not to commit such a mistake which (could) bring them severe consequences."
The Iranian ship was detained while sailing under a Panamanian flag with the name Grace 1. It changed the name on Sunday and hoisted an Iranian flag.
Madrid, Aug 18 (AP/UNB) — Authorities in Gibraltar on Sunday rejected the United States' latest request not to release a seized Iranian supertanker, clearing the way for the vessel to set sail after being detained last month for allegedly attempting to breach European Union sanctions on Syria.
The ship was expected to leave Sunday night, according to a statement on Twitter by Hamid Baeidinejad, Iran's ambassador to Britain.
The tanker's release comes amid a growing confrontation between Iran and the West after President Donald Trump pulled Washington out of Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers over a year ago.
Shortly after the tanker's detention in early July near Gibraltar — a British overseas territory — Iran seized the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero, which remains held by the Islamic Republic. Analysts had said the Iranian ship's release by Gibraltar could see the Stena Impero go free.
Gibraltar's government said Sunday it was allowing the Iranian tanker's release because "The EU sanctions regime against Iran - which is applicable in Gibraltar - is much narrower than that applicable in the US."
In a last-ditch effort to stop the release, the U.S. unsealed a warrant Friday to seize the vessel and its cargo of 2.1 million barrels of light crude oil, citing violations of U.S. sanctions as well as money laundering and terrorism statutes.
U.S. officials told reporters that the oil aboard the ship was worth some $130 million and that it was destined for a designated terror organization to conduct more terrorism.
The unsealed court documents argued that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are the ship's true owners through a network of front companies.
Authorities in Gibraltar said Sunday that, unlike in the U.S., the Iran's Revolutionary Guard is not designated a terrorist organization under EU, U.K. or Gibraltar law.
The Iranian ship was detained while sailing under a Panamanian flag with the name Grace 1. As of Sunday, it had been renamed the Adrian Darya 1 and had hoisted an Iranian flag. Workers were seen painting the new name on the side of the ship Saturday.
Iran has not disclosed the Adrian Darya 1's intended destination and has denied it was ever sailing for Syria.
The chief minister of Gibraltar, Fabian Picardo, said he had been assured in writing by the Iranian government that the tanker wouldn't unload its cargo in Syria.
Baeidinejad, Iran's ambassador to Britain, said in a series of tweets that "round-the-clock efforts to carry out port formalities and deploy the full crew onto the ship" had taken place since Gibraltar lifted the vessel's detention Thursday.
The Astralship shipping agency in Gibraltar, which has been hired to handle paperwork and arrange logistics for the Adrian Darya 1, had told The Associated Press that a new crew of Indian and Ukrainian nationals were replacing the sailors on board.
Astralship managing director Richard De la Rosa said his company had not been informed about the vessel's next destination.
Messages seeking comment from the Iranian Embassy in London were not immediately returned.
Dubai, Aug 18 (AP/UNB) — Iran's foreign minister says he's praying for the "speedy recovery" of Kuwait's ruling emir, though there has been no public word on the 90-year-old ruler being ill or injured.
Mohammad Javad Zarif made the comment on Sunday on Twitter as part of a visit to the small, oil-rich Mideast nation.
Zarif wrote: "Praying for Emir's speedy recovery," apparently in reference to Kuwait's ruler, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah.
Zarif did not elaborate and Iranian media did not immediately acknowledge the remarks.
Kuwait's Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment. There was no statement on Kuwait's state-run KUNA news agency about the emir's health.
Sheikh Sabah has ruled Kuwait since January 2006. He's pushed for diplomacy to solve regional issues and hosted major donor conferences.