Baghdad, Jul 7 (AP/UNB) — Iraq's security and paramilitary forces have begun a military operation along the border with Syria aiming to clear the area of Islamic State group militants.
The Iraqi military said the operation that began at sunrise Sunday is being carried out by Iraqi troops and members of the Popular Mobilization Forces that largely consist of Iran-backed militias.
It said the operation that will last several days is the first phase of the Will of Victory Operation that aims to secure wide areas of the western province of Anbar and the central and northern regions of Salahuddin and Nineveh.
Although Iraq declared victory against IS in July 2017, the extremists have turned into an insurgency and have carried out deadly attacks in the country.
Tehran, Jul 7 (AP/UNB) — Iran announced Sunday it will raise its level of uranium enrichment, breaking another limit of its unraveling 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and further heightening tensions with the U.S.
Officials also said the next step impacting Iran's compliance with the deal would be taken in 60 days. They did not elaborate.
At the same time, Iran was signaling openness to last-minute efforts to save the faltering deal. Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said Sunday that discussions with European powers are continuing and that ministerial-level talks are planned later this month.
On Saturday, French President Emmanuel Macron told his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, in a phone call that he is trying to find a way by July 15 to resume the dialogue between Iran and Western partners.
Sunday's announcement about uranium enrichment came a year after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal. Iran has repeatedly warned Europe in recent weeks that it would begin walking away from an accord neutered by a maximalist American campaign of sanctions.
Hopes for saving the faltering deal appear increasingly dim, as the Europeans have been unable to offer Iran any effective way around U.S. sanctions that block Tehran's oil sales abroad and targeted its top officials.
At the same time, Iran's recent measures, while of concern to nuclear non-proliferation experts, could be easily reversible if Europeans offer Iran the sanctions relief it seeks.
Iran has ruled out re-negotiating the 2015 deal in any new diplomatic efforts. Iran's deputy foreign minister said Sunday that the U.S. can join any renewed talks, but must lift sanctions on Iran first.
Tensions began rising in May when the U.S. rushed thousands of additional troops, an aircraft carrier, nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and advanced fighter jets to the Mideast.
Mysterious oil tanker blasts near the Strait of Hormuz, attacks by Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen on Saudi Arabia and Iran shooting down a U.S. military drone have raised fears of a wider conflict engulfing a region crucial to global energy supplies.
In Sunday's news conference, Iranian officials said the new level of uranium enrichment would be reached later in the day, but did not provide a percentage.
Government spokesman Ali Rabiei said the new level "will be based on our needs." Under the nuclear deal, the cap for enrichment had been set at 3.67%.
Officials said details of Iran's plan for going beyond the 3.67% limit will be sent in a letter by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.
The United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said it was aware of Iran's comments and "inspectors in Iran will report to our headquarters as soon as they verify the announced development."
The decision to ramp up uranium enrichment came less than a week after Iran acknowledged breaking the deal's 300-kilogram (661-pound) limit on its low-enriched uranium stockpile.
Experts warn higher enrichment and a growing stockpile narrow the one-year window Iran would need to have enough material for an atomic bomb, something Iran denies it wants but the deal prevented.
The deputy foreign minister also signaled Iran's intention to take further steps impacting compliance with the deal.
"We prefer to announce the third step after a 60-day deadline and in an appropriate time," Aragchi said without elaborating
Enriched uranium at the 3.67% level is enough for peaceful pursuits but is far below weapons-grade levels of 90%.
Iran denies it seeks nuclear weapons, but the nuclear deal sought to prevent that as a possibility by limiting enrichment and Iran's stockpile of uranium.
The spokesman for Iran's nuclear department, Behrouz Kamalvandi, said Sunday that technical preparations for the new level of enrichment will be completed "within several hours and enrichment over 3.67% will begin."
He says monitoring will show the increased level by Monday morning.
International reaction came swiftly, including from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who long has described Iran and its nuclear program as a threat to his country. He called on world powers to impose "snapback sanctions" on Iran.
Baghdad, Jul 6 (AP/UNB) — Iraq on Friday celebrated the UNESCO World Heritage Committee's decision to name the historic city of Babylon a World Heritage Site in a vote held in Azerbaijan's capital, years after Baghdad began campaigning for the site to be added to the list.
The city on the Euphrates River is about 85 kilometers (55 miles) south of Baghdad and once was a main tourist attraction before Iraq suffered one war after another in the past four decades.
The 4,300-year-old Babylon -- now mainly an archaeological ruin and two important museums -- is where dynasties have risen and fallen since the earliest days of settled human civilization.
A man visits the archaeological site of Babylon, Iraq, Friday, July 5, 2019.Photo: AP
King Hammurabi wrote his famous code of laws in Babylon, while Nebuchadnezzar sent his vast army from the city to Jerusalem to put down an uprising and bring the Jews back as slaves.
Some say Alexander the Great, who led his army out of Macedonia to conquer most of the known world, died here in 332 B.C.
Dozens of Iraqis waving their national flag gathered at the Ishtar Gate at the site celebrating their city's new international status.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi described the vote as "another victory for the Iraq of civilizations that was and will always be a lighthouse to the world."
People stand near the Lion of Babylon at the archaeological site of Babylon, Iraq, Friday, July 5, 2019.Photo: AP
President Barham Saleh tweeted that after Babylon, more ancient sites will be added to the list through which "Iraq will restore that status that it deserves."
Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi and Minister of Culture Abdul-Amir al-Hamadani congratulated the Iraqi people on the announcement.
The vote came years after the Islamic State group damaged another Iraq World Heritage site in the country's north, the ancient city of Hatra. The extremists also destroyed other sites in Iraq, including Nimrud where giant winged bulls that once stood sentry at the nearly 3,000-year-old palace were hacked to pieces.
Along with Babylon and Hatra, Iraq has three other sites of World Heritage, the archaeological city of Samarra in central Iraq, Ashur in the north and the citadel of the northern city of Erbil.
A man walks in front of Ishtar Gate at the archaeological site of Babylon, Iraq. Photo: AP
UNESCO said in its statement that Babylon's "remains, outer and inner-city walls, gates, palaces and temples, are a unique testimony to one of the most influential empires of the ancient world."
"The city's association with one of the seven wonders of the ancient world_the Hanging Gardens_has also inspired artistic, popular and religious culture on a global scale," UNESCO said.
Tehran, Jul 5 (AP/UNB) — A former leader of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard says the Islamic Republic should consider seizing a British oil tanker in response to authorities detaining an Iranian oil tanker off the coast Gibraltar.
Mohsen Rezaei, who led the Guard during the 1980s "Tanker War" in the Persian Gulf, wrote Friday on Twitter: "If England does not release the Iranian oil tanker, the duty ... (of Iran) is to respond and seize one English oil tanker."
Authorities in Gibraltar intercepted Thursday a super tanker believed to be breaching European Union sanctions by carrying a shipment of Iranian crude oil to Syria. Spanish authorities say the seizure came at the request of the U.S.
The seizure comes amid heightened tensions between Iran and the U.S. over Tehran's unraveling nuclear deal with world powers.
Tehran, Jul 4 (AP/UNB) — Iran's president warned that Tehran will increase its enrichment of uranium to "any amount that we want" beginning on Sunday, putting further pressure on European nations to save its faltering nuclear deal and offer a way around intense U.S. sanctions.
President Hassan Rouhani's threat, combined with Iran surpassing the stockpile limits of the 2015 atomic accord, could narrow the estimated one-year window it would need to produce enough material for a nuclear weapon, something Iran denies it wants but the deal sought to prevent.
But as tensions rise a year after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the deal, it looks unlikely that Europe can offer Iran a way to sell its oil on the global market despite U.S. sanctions.
All this comes as the U.S. has rushed an aircraft carrier, B-52 bombers and F-22 fighters to the region and Iran recently shot down a U.S. military surveillance drone. "Be careful with the threats, Iran. They can come back to bite you like nobody has been bitten before!" Trump tweeted in response to Rouhani's warning.
On Wednesday, Iran also marked the anniversary of the U.S. Navy shooting down an Iranian passenger jet in 1988, a mistake that killed 290 people and shows the danger of miscalculation in the current crisis.
"The Trump administration is pushing the center of Iranian politics to the right at the determent of the Iranian people and the entire region," said Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst for the International Crisis Group. "Rouhani is clearly at the end of his rope and has no choice other than green lighting further escalation."
Rouhani, still viewed inside Iran as a relatively moderate cleric in the country's Shiite theocracy, has taken an increasingly hard-line tone in his remarks to the West. Particularly, he and others in his administration target European signatories to the nuclear deal for not doing enough to ease restrictions on Iran's oil and financial sectors.
That continued Wednesday in a televised address to his Cabinet. His remarks seemed to signal that Europe has yet to offer Iran anything to alleviate the pain of the renewed U.S. sanctions targeting its oil industry and top officials.
The deal saw Iran agree to limit its enrichment of uranium to 3.67%, which is enough for nuclear power plants but far below the 90% needed for weapons. It also limited its stockpile of enriched uranium to 300 kilograms (661 pounds). In exchange, Iran saw crippling economic sanctions lifted.
But after Trump withdrew from the deal, those sanctions and even more-stringent newer ones took effect. On Monday, both Iran and the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency confirmed that Tehran had breached that stockpile limit.
Rouhani some two months earlier set the Sunday deadline that Iran would increase its enrichment of uranium. Wednesday's remarks underlined that.
"From July 7 onward, the level of our enrichment will not be at 3.67% anymore," Rouhani said. "We will put aside this commitment as much as we want to and to any level we think is necessary and we need."
However, Rouhani's remarks, while strident, seemed to still insist last-minute diplomacy could be possible.
"Our advice to Europe and the United States is to go back to logic and to the negotiating table," he said. "Go back to understanding, to respecting the law and resolutions of the U.N. Security Council. Under those conditions, all of us can abide by the nuclear deal."
There was no immediate reaction in Europe, where the EU just the day before finalized nominations to take over the bloc's top posts.
On Tuesday, European powers separately issued a statement on Iran breaking through its stockpile limit, calling on Tehran "to reverse this step and to refrain from further measures that undermine the nuclear deal."
Vaez, the Iran analyst, said the current state of the deal forced Rouhani to shift right, while also highlighting the limitations faced by Europe.
"It is a pity that despite its goodwill and efforts, Europe fell short of preserving an agreement that incarnates European belief in multilateralism," he said.
The heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran have seen a series of incidents spiral across the wider Persian Gulf. Mysterious attacks have struck oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, which the U.S. and Israel blame on Iran, although Tehran denies involvement.
Yemen's Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have launched a series of bomb-laden drone attacks on Saudi Arabia. Iran also shot down an over $100 million U.S. military surveillance drone on June 20, nearly sparking a retaliatory American strike.
Iranian state TV reported that the powerful Imam Reza Foundation, a religious body that manages vast endowments and businesses across Iran, awarded medals to those who shot down the U.S. drone.
Meanwhile, relatives of those killed the 1988 downing of Iran Air Flight 655 by the U.S. Navy marked the day by visiting the site in the Strait of Hormuz where its debris fell.
Iranian TV showed video of the mourners as armed Iranian Revolutionary Guard fast boats patrolled around them. They tossed gladiolas and roses into the strait from the boat and by helicopter as some wept.
"Thirty years of being an orphan!" one woman screamed. Others chanted: "Death to America!"
Just after dawn on July 3, 1988, the USS Vincennes chased Iranian speedboats into Iranian territorial waters after they allegedly shot at an American helicopter. It began firing at the Iranian vessels there.
The Vincennes then mistook Iran Air flight 655, which had taken off from Bandar Abbas, Iran, heading for Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, for an Iranian fighter jet. It fired missiles, killing all 290 people on board.
The U.S. later would give USS Vincennes Capt. William C. Rogers the country's Legion of Merit award, further angering Iran.
The downing of the flight remains one of the moments the Iranian government points to in its decades-long distrust of America. They rank it alongside the 1953 CIA-backed coup that toppled Iran's elected prime minister and secured Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's absolute power until he abdicated the throne before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif marked the holiday by writing on Twitter: "US aggression against Iran did not begin with @realdonaldtrump."