Washington, Jan 12 (AP/UNB) — The U.S. military said Friday it has started pulling equipment, but not troops, out of Syria as a first step in meeting President Donald Trump's demand for a complete military withdrawal. The announcement fueled concern about how quickly the U.S. will abandon its Kurdish allies, amid contradictory statements recently by administration officials on an exit timetable.
The withdrawal began with shipments of military equipment, U.S. defense officials said. But in coming weeks, the contingent of about 2,000 troops is expected to depart even as the White House vows to keep pressure on the Islamic State group. Once the troops are gone, the U.S. will have ended three years of organizing, arming, advising and providing air cover for Syrian, Kurdish and Arab fighters in an open-ended campaign devised by the Obama administration to deal the IS group a lasting defeat.
Uncertainty over the timing and terms of the Syria pullout have raised questions about the Trump administration's broader strategy for fighting Islamic extremism, including Trump's stated intention to reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan this summer.
U.S. airstrikes against IS in Syria began in September 2014, and ground troops moved in the following year in small numbers.
The U.S. military has a limited network of bases inside Syria. Troops work mostly out of small camps in remote parts of the country's northeast. Also, U.S. troops are among 200 to 300 coalition troops at a garrison in southern Syria known as al-Tanf, where they train and accompany local Syrian opposition forces on patrols to counter the IS group. Al-Tanf is on a vital road linking Iranian-backed forces from Tehran all the way to southern Lebanon — and Israel's doorstep.
Trump's decision to leave Syria, which he initially said would be rapid but later slowed down, shocked U.S. allies and angered the Kurds in Syria, who are vulnerable to attack by Turkey. It also prompted the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and drew criticism in Congress. Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, called the decision a "betrayal of our Kurdish partners."
The U.S. military command in Baghdad, which is managing the counter-IS campaign in Iraq and Syria, said Friday that it "has begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria," adding that, for security reasons, it would not reveal timetables, locations or troop movements. Other U.S. officials later made clear that the pullout did not yet include troops.
The withdrawal plan, whose details are classified, includes bringing hundreds of additional troops into Syria temporarily to facilitate the pullout. These include troops to provide extra security for those who are preparing to leave. The full withdrawal is expected to take several months.
The USS Kearsarge amphibious assault ship is now in the region and could provide troops and equipment to support the withdrawal.
U.S. troops are still working with a partner known as the Syrian Democratic Forces to stamp out the last IS holdouts in the Middle Euphrates River Valley near the Iraqi border. Trump has asserted that the IS group in Syria is defeated, but others have said a continued U.S. military presence is necessary to prevent a resurgence of the group. Two weeks before Trump announced he was ordering a pullout, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. still had a long way to go in training local Syrian forces to stabilize areas ridden of the IS group. He said it would take 35,000 to 40,000 local forces in northeastern Syria to maintain security, but only about 20 percent had been trained.
Another complication is the fate of hundreds of foreign IS fighters being held in Syria. The U.S. doesn't want these prisoners to be released once U.S. forces are gone, since they could rejoin the militant cause in Syria or elsewhere.
There has been confusion over plans to implement Trump's pullout order amid threats from Turkey to attack the Kurdish fighters, who are seen by Ankara as terrorists because of their ties to insurgents within Turkey.
On a visit to Turkish troops stationed near the Syrian border Friday, Turkey's defense minister, Hulusi Akar, reiterated that Ankara is "determined" to fight Kurdish militias it considers terrorists and said military preparations were ongoing.
"When the time and place comes, the terrorists here will also be buried in the ditches and trenches they have dug," he said.
Earlier this week, Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, said American troops will not leave northeastern Syria until the IS group is defeated and American-allied Kurdish fighters are protected, signaling a slowdown in Trump's initial order for a rapid withdrawal.
In Cairo on Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that although Trump has decided to bring troops home, he will keep up the fight against the IS group more broadly.
"Let me be clear: America will not retreat until the terror fight is over," Pompeo said.
The distinctive feature of the U.S. military campaign in Syria is its partnership with the Kurds and Arabs who were willing to act as American proxies by fighting the Islamic State group without U.S. troops having to take the lead combat role. U.S. forces took a similar approach in neighboring Iraq, starting in 2014, but in that case, they had a willing partner in the Iraqi government, whereas in Syria, the U.S. is present without the blessing of President Bashar Assad.
Syria also is complicated by the presence of Russian troops who are, in effect, propping up the Assad government, and by Iranian support for Assad. American and Russian warplanes have shared the skies over Syria, carrying out separate— and in some cases, conflicting — missions against the IS group and other targets.
The U.S. has about 5,200 troops in Iraq to assist its security forces, and Trump has given no indication he intends to withdraw them any time soon. He has, however, asserted that the U.S. must bring an end to the Mideast wars that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. He has questioned the wisdom of continuing the 17-year war in Afghanistan and recently demanded that about half of the 14,000 U.S. troops there be sent home.
Tehran, Jan 10 (AP/UNB) — Iran's president said Thursday the Islamic Republic soon will send two new satellites into orbit using Iran-made rockets, despite U.S. concern the launch could help further develop its ballistic missiles.
President Hassan Rouhani's comments, during a commemoration for the late President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, confirmed the rocket launches would take place.
Iran typically displays achievements in its space program in February, during the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. This year will mark the 40th anniversary of the revolution, which saw the Persian monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi replaced by the Islamic Republic overseen by a Shiite cleric.
"Soon, in the coming weeks, we will send two satellites into space using our domestically-made rockets," Rouhani said, without elaborating.
Previously, Iran has sent several short-lived satellites into orbit over the past decade, and in 2013 launched a monkey into space. The U.S. and its allies worry the same satellite-launching technology could be used to develop long-range missiles.
Last week Iran said country's three new satellites have successfully passed pre-launch tests.
Earlier in January, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Iran's plans for sending satellites into orbit demonstrate the country's defiance of a U.N. Security Council resolution that calls on Iran to undertake no activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
Iran insists the launches do not violate the resolution.
Meanwhile Thursday, Iran began an annual air drill in central parts of the country.
The state-run IRNA news agency said dozens of fighter jets, bombers and transportation planes are taking part in the 2-day maneuver. It said beside U.S.-made F-14, F-5 and F-4 fighter jets of the shah's era, the Russian-made MiG-29 fighter jet as well as the Iranian -made Saegheh fighter will participate in the annual war game.
Drones, laser-guided rockets and heavy smart bombs also will be used, said Gen. Amir Angizeh, the maneuver's spokesman.
Pompeo is currently touring the Mideast to promote the White House's tough stance on Iran and to assure America's Arab allies that the Trump administration is not walking away from the region.
On Wednesday, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called Washington officials "first-class idiots" in unusually harsh remarks that reflect the broader tension between Iran and the U.S. after President Donald Trump withdrew America from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers.
Sanaa, Jan 10 (AP/UNB) — A bomb-laden drone flown by Yemen's Houthi rebels flew into a military parade on Thursday outside of the southern port city of Aden, killing at least six troops from a Saudi-led coalition and their allies in a brazen attack threatening U.N.-brokered peace efforts to end the yearslong war tearing at the Arab world's poorest nation.
The attack at the Al-Anad Air Base, where American special forces once led their fight against Yemen's al-Qaida branch, targeted high-ranking military officials in Yemen's internationally recognized government.
The attack also raised new questions about Iran's alleged role in arming the Houthis with drone and ballistic missile technology, something long denied by Tehran despite researchers and U.N. experts linking the weapons to the Islamic Republic.
"Once again this proves that the Houthi criminal militias are not ready for peace and that they are exploiting truces in order for deployment and reinforcements," said Information Minister Moammar al-Eryani, who said two senior military officials were wounded in the attack.
"This is time for the international community to stand by the legitimate government and force the militias to give up their weapons and pull out of the cities," he added.
The Houthis immediately claimed the attack through their al-Masirah satellite news channel, saying the attack targeted "invaders and mercenaries" at the base in the southern province of Lahj, leaving "dozens of dead and wounded."
Yemeni officials said that among the wounded were Mohammad Saleh Tamah, head of Yemen's Intelligence Service, senior military commander Mohammad Jawas, and Lahj governor Ahmed al-Turki, adding that authorities were still searching for wounded among the rubble. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
Local reporter Nabil al-Qaiti was attending the ceremony and standing in front of the stage when he saw a drone approach and hover nearby about 25 meters (yards) high in the air, minutes after the parade started. Army spokesman Mohammed al-Naqib was delivering a speech from a podium when the drone exploded.
"It was a very strong explosion and we could feel the pressure," he said, adding that two of the people standing next to him — a soldier and a journalist— were wounded. Al-Qaiti saw many wounded but no dead.
"The drone was packed with explosives," he added.
Some 8,000 soldiers had been taking part in the parade, as well as two governors and a large number of top military commanders including the chief of staff. Initial reports said six troops were killed.
Yemen plunged into civil war in 2014 when the rebels captured Sanaa, and the Saudi-led coalition intervened a year later when they pushed further south. The coalition, which is fighting alongside government troops, has since been trying to restore Yemen's internationally recognized government to power.
Hopes were raised last month that the country was moving toward peace, after the two sides agreed to a prisoner swap and cease-fire in the port city of Hodeida, where rival forces were to withdraw to allow humanitarian aid flows to return and hopefully relieve a country pushed to the brink of famine by war.
Fighting has largely abated in Hodeida but progress on the withdrawal has been slow. The U.N. humanitarian aid chief Wednesday accused the rebels of blocking humanitarian supplies traveling from areas under their control to government-held areas. Mark Lowcock told the U.N. Security Council that the rebels also recently informed humanitarian agencies that 72 hours' notice is required ahead of any movements instead of 48 hours.
Officials in the Saudi-led coalition have shown journalists a series of drones they said showed a growing sophistication by the Houthis, starting first with plastic foam models that could be built by hobby kit to one captured in April that closely resembled an Iranian-made drone.
Those drones have in the past been flown into the radar arrays of Saudi Arabia's Patriot missile batteries, according to the research group Conflict Armament Research, disabling them and allowing the Houthis to fire ballistic missiles into the kingdom unchallenged.
Iran has been accused by the U.S. and the U.N. of supplying ballistic missile technology and arms to the Houthis, something Tehran denies.
Arab satellite channels owned by Saudi Arabia immediately began describing the drone used in Thursday's attack as Iranian made, without offering evidence. However, a United Nations panel of experts on Yemen issued a report in 2018 noting that the Houthi's Qasef-1 drone "is virtually identical in design, dimensions and capability to that of the Ababil-T, manufactured by the Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industries."
"At least two components of the system were supplied to the Islamic Republic of Iran after the implementation of the targeted arms embargo" in April 2015, the panel said.
The Ababil-T can deliver up to a 45-kilogram (100-pound) warhead up to 150 kilometers (95 miles) away.
Such drones also remain difficult to shoot down with either light or heavy weapons fire. Iraqi forces learned while driving out the Islamic State group from northern Iraq, where the extremists would load drones with grenades or simple explosives to target their forces.
Tehran, Jan 9 (AP/UNB)— Iran's supreme leader on Wednesday called U.S. officials "first-class idiots," mocking American leaders as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo toured the Mideast to promote the White House's tough stance on Iran.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's comments were unusually harsh, reflecting the broader tension between Iran and the United States after President Donald Trump withdrew America from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers.
Khamenei, speaking to a group from Iran's religious capital of Qom, made the remark while recounting a story about a U.S. official once predicting he'd celebrate Christmas in Iran.
"Some U.S. officials pretend that they are mad," Khamenei said. "Of course I don't agree with that, but they are first-class idiots."
The supreme leader did not name the official. However, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton told a meeting of the Iranian exile group Mujahedeen-e-Khalq last March that "before 2019, we here ... will celebrate in Iran." Trump's personal lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, has made similar comments before the MEK over the years.
Iran's supreme leader, viewed by Shiite hard-liners as second only to God, typically doesn't make such forceful remarks. However, Trump's decision last year to withdraw from the nuclear deal has seen the 79-year-old cleric grow increasingly critical.
In 2017, Khamenei dismissed remarks by Trump calling Iran a "terrorist" nation as "idiotic." Last May, after Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal which saw Iran limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions, Khamenei told Trump in a speech: "You cannot do a damn thing!"
"The body of this man, Trump, will turn to ashes and become the food of the worms and ants, while the Islamic Republic continues to stand," Khamenei said at the time.
Khamenei's comments Wednesday came as Pompeo visited Iraq. On Tuesday, the U.S. top diplomat threatened that America would double down on commercial and diplomatic efforts in the coming weeks to "put real pressure on Iran."
Khamenei's remarks to Qom residents were meant to mark the anniversary of religious riots in 1978 that challenged Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. They would spiral into the nationwide demonstration that saw the shah leave Iran and give rise to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iranians will commemorate the revolution's 40th anniversary in February.
Dubai, Jan 3 (AP/UNB) — Saudi Arabia announced on Thursday it will seek the death penalty against five suspects in the slaying of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a killing that has seen members of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's entourage implicated in the writer's assassination.
Prosecutors announced that 11 suspects in the slaying attended their first court hearing with lawyers, but the statement did not name those in court. It also did not explain why seven other suspects arrested over the Oct. 2 killing at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul did not immediately face formal charges. The kingdom previously announced 18 people had been arrested.
Saudi officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The killing of Khashoggi, who wrote columns critical of Prince Mohammed, has strained the decades-long ties the kingdom enjoys with the United States. It also has added to a renewed international push to end the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
The state-run Saudi Press Agency and state television gave few details about the hearing.
"The Public Prosecutor demanded imposing proper punishments against the defendants and is seeking capital punishment for five of the defendants for their direct involvement in the murder," a statement from prosecutors said, without elaborating.
The suspects requested copies of the indictments they faced, as well as asked for more time to prepare for their case, prosecutors said.
While vague on details about the case, prosecutors made a point to express concerns about Turkey. They alleged that Turkish officials did not answer two formal requests made for evidence in the case.
"To date, the Saudi Public Prosecutor has not received any response, and the Public Prosecution is still awaiting their response," the statement said.
Officials in Ankara could not be immediately reached for comment. Turkish officials have previously said they shared evidence with Saudi Arabia and other nations over Khashoggi's killing.
Turkey also has demanded Saudi Arabia extradite those 18 suspects to be tried there for Khashoggi's killing. Turkish security officials have kept up a slow leak of videos, photographs and morbid details surrounding Khashoggi's slaying to pressure the kingdom, as the two U.S.-allied countries vie for influence over the wider Mideast.
Turkish media have published photographs of members of the crown prince's entourage at the consulate in Istanbul ahead of the slaying. Khashoggi's body, believed to have been dismembered after his killing, has yet to be found.
Khashoggi, 59, entered the consulate Oct. 2 as his fiancée waited outside. But unbeknownst to him, a team of Saudi officials had flown in before his arrival and laid in wait for him.
Saudi Arabia denied for weeks that Khashoggi had been killed but later changed its story and ultimately acknowledged the brutal slaying. King Salman ordered the restructuring of the country's intelligence service, but has so far shielded Prince Mohammed, his 33-year-old son who is next in line to the throne in the oil giant kingdom.
All that has not has not stopped widespread international criticism against the kingdom. Under Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia has seen the arrest of business leaders, royals and activists while also recently granting women the right to drive.
U.S. senators in December passed the measure that blamed the prince for Khashoggi's killing and called on Riyadh to "ensure appropriate accountability." Senators also passed a separate measure calling for the end of U.S. aid to the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Both measures drew angry responses from the kingdom, but a renewed international effort has begun to end the Yemen war.
It is no surprise that the kingdom would seek to execute those accused in Khashoggi's slaying. Saudi Arabia was the world's third top executioner in 2017, behind China and Iran, according to Amnesty International's most recent figures available.
The kingdom executed at least 146 people, according to the group. It regularly beheads those condemned to death and last year said it "crucified" a Myanmar man, an execution in which the condemned is usually beheaded and then the body put on display, arms outstretched as if crucified.