Qassim Soleimani: the possible targets for Iran’s ‘crushing revenge’ over assassination

Tehran will not leave the killing of its top commanders unanswered, and yesterday vowed "crushing revenge" over the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani. 

 The raid dramatically escalated already tense relations between the US and Iran, who have for months been fighting a shadow war.

The US is now bracing for a response, though it is unclear yet what form it will take.

Direct attacks

Iran showed in September with an attack on Saudi Arabia’s biggest oil field that is is capable of sophisticated and long-range attacks from its soil, if US intelligence is to be believed. Such a range would bring tourist-friendly cities such as Dubai in the UAE within striking distance.

But a direct attack on…

Turkish president threatens to recognise US genocide of Native Americans in response to Armenia ruling

Turkey’s president has said he would recognise the mass killing of Native Americans by European settlers as genocide, in a tit-for-tat move against a US Congress resolution.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan hit out at Congress for a recent bill that recognised the 1915 Armenian Genocide at the hands of the Ottoman authorities.

“We should oppose [the US] by reciprocating such decisions in parliament. And that is what we will do," Mr Erdogan said, speaking on the pro-government A Haber news channel. 

“Can we speak about America without mentioning [Native Americans]? It is a shameful moment in US history.”

Around 1.5 million ethnic Armenians were killed by modern-day Turkey’s predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, in the early 20th century. 

The Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan commemorates the murder of up to 1.5 million Armenians Credit: KAREN MINASYAN/AFP via Getty Images

Turkey accepts that many Armenians were killed in clashes with Ottoman forces during World War One, but contests the figures and denies that the killings were systematically orchestrated, which constitutes a genocide.

Mevlut Çavuşoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, said the move was a “political show” and “not legally binding”: “Politicians with limited knowledge about the history should not judge the history,” he warned. 

In the US, scholars, activists, and indigenous communities have been writing and teaching about the slaughter of Native American people since the 19th century.

The US legislation is seen as largely symbolic, but the timing and the subject – highly controversial among Turks – will be viewed by Ankara as a deliberate provocation.

Relations between the two Nato allies have been strained in recent months over a number of issues including Turkey’s purchase of Russian missile defence systems as well as Turkey’s incursion into Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria.

Mr Erdogan had threatened last month at the Nato summit in London that he would veto plans to bolster forces in Poland and the Baltics unless the alliance designated the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as terrorists. 

He dropped his opposition after a private meeting with Mr Trump.

Shortly after the Armenian genocide vote, House members from both parties also overwhelmingly backed legislation calling on Donald Trump, the US president, to impose sanctions on Turkey over its offensive in Syria.

Seeking to placate Turkey, Mr Trump’s administration said Tuesday it does not consider the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 to be genocide. 

"The position of the administration has not changed" after the votes by Congress, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a terse statement.

"Our views are reflected in the president’s definitive statement on this issue from last April," she said.

Will North Korea spark a Christmas missile crisis?

There is little good will from North Korea this Christmas. An escalation in weapons tests and bitter rhetoric against the US has heightened fears that nuclear talks between Pyongyang and Washington are past the point of no return. On the Korean peninsula, 2020 could literally start with a bang. 

The most recent tests, at its long-range launch site – of a suspected rocket engine – suggest that Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, may be ready to break his self-imposed moratorium on testing intercontinental ballistic missiles that could potentially reach the continental US. 

After an historic summit between Kim and Donald Trump, the US president, and the promise of progress in 2018, talks this…

US military investigates ‘white power’ hand signals by students at Army and Navy game

The US Army and Navy academies are investigating hand signs associated with white supremacist groups that were flashed by students and televised during the Army-Navy football match on Saturday night.

Cadets at West Point and midshipmen at the Naval Academy in the stands both appeared to display the sign during the broadcast, officials told The Wall Street Journal. The gesture was seen during part of an ESPN broadcast of the match at from Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.

Academy officials said they are trying to determine what the hand signals were meant to convey.

"We’re looking into it," Lt. Col. Chris Ophardt, a spokesperson for the US Military Academy at West Point in New York, told the newspaper. "I don’t know what their intention is."

President Trump attended the match and helped with the coin toss Credit: JACQUELYN MARTIN/AP

"We are aware and will be looking into it," said Commander Alana Garas, a spokesperson for the US Naval Academy, in Annapolis, Maryland.

The hand sign is similar to the one often used to indicate "OK," but the Anti-Defamation League says it has lately been used as an extremist meme, in part because of its ambiguity.

US Coast Guard leaders last year reprimanded an officer who used a similar hand sign during a television broadcast. This year, a Chicago Cubs fan was banned from a match for making the gesture.

The Navy won the 120th annual match 31-7. President Donald Trump took the field during the coin toss and visited both teams’ locker rooms before the game.

US government workers to get 12 weeks paid parental leave

The US government is set to give 12 weeks paid parental leave to federal workers for the first time.

It will be available to around two million government personnel when they become mothers and fathers.

The move came as part of a defence bill passed by the House of Representatives, and is set to be approved by the Senate, and signed by Donald Trump within days.

A compromise between Democrats and Republicans in Congress combined the landmark parental leave provision alongside a $738 billion budget for the Pentagon.

The parental leave measure, which had been pushed by Democrats, will cost the US government an estimated $3.3 billion over the next five to 10 years.

Some on the liberal wing of the Democrat party continued to object to thedeal because of the size of the defence budget.

It will include a 3.1 per cent pay raise for military personnel, the largest in a decade

The compromise bill also included Mr Trump’s demand for the new US Space Force as a sixth armed service.

That was reportedly key to getting paid parental leave included in the bill.

Democrats dropped a demand to block Mr Trump from transferring Pentagon money to fund border wall construction.

However, Republicans also dropped Mr Trump’s demand for $7.2 billion in funding for the wall.

A series of Democrat proposals also did not make it into the deal, including a call for a ban on US military assistance to Saudi-led forces in Yemen, and protections for transgender troops.

Campaigners for paid parental leave welcomed the development, but said it did not go far enough.

They said federal government employees make up only a small percentage of the US workforce, and less than one in five workers across the country gets paid parental leave.

Adam Smith, the Democrat chairman of the House armed services committee, called the parental leave provision an "enormous accomplishment."

He added: "Ït’s basically hard to negotiate when your side wants 100 things and the other side wants nothing."

Mr Trump wrote on Twitter: "Wow! All of our priorities have made it: Pay Raise for our Troops, Rebuilding our Military, Paid Parental Leave, Border Security, and Space Force!

"Congress – don’t delay this anymore! I will sign this historic defense legislation immediately!"

US warnings over spate of Iranian-backed rocket attacks on its bases in Iraq

Attacks on bases hosting US-led coalition forces by Iranian-armed militias are heading towards a red line for the coalition, who would respond with such force that “no one would like the outcome,” a senior US official warned on Wednesday.

Just hours later a further two rockets hit near the military section of Baghdad airport.

The attack is the tenth of its type since October, targeting joint US-Iraqi military facilities that host forces from the US-led coalition to defeat Isil.  

Speaking to Reuters on the condition of anonymity, the US official reportedly said that while there were no claims of responsibility for the attacks, intelligence and forensic analyses indicated Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim militia groups are behind them.

The Iraqi paramilitary groups and the US are trading blame on the series of attacks.

“We’re waiting for full evidence…If past is prologue, I’d say there’s a good chance it was Iran that’s behind it,” David Schenker, the US Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, told reporters last Friday. Two further attacks have happened since.

The rocket attacks come amid US accusations that Iran has capitalised on the continued unrest in Iraq to secretly move short-range ballistic missiles into the country.

The Trump administration hit Iran with fresh sanctions on Wednesday in an effort to intensify their “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. 

The sanctions target several transportation firms in the Islamic Republic, including the state-shipping line, as well as a China-based company that has been involved in delivering missile parts to Iran. 

Piling economic sanctions and ramped up rhetoric have been a pillar of the “maximum pressure” campaign since Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran in May 2018.

Iran has since taken several major steps away from the deal amid fears of a war with the US, further exacerbating tensions. 

An attack on Monday saw four Katyusha rockets hit a base near Baghdad airport, wounding five members of Iraq’s elite Counter-Terrorism Service. A larger 240-millimetre rocket was used in a similar attack near the airport on Friday, which is thought to have not been used in Iraq since 2011.   

Governor of China’s Xinjiang province accuses US of hypocrisy over Uighur bill

A Chinese governor has accused the United States of hypocrisy over its counter-terrorism policies after the House of Representatives passed a bill that criticised China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims.

The bill called for a tougher response by the US to Beijing’s internment of up to 1 million Uighurs in camps in the western province of Xinjiang.

The province’s governor, Shohrat Zakir, told reporters in Beijing that the bill, passed last week in Washington, is a severe violation of international law and a gross interference in China’s affairs which amounts to a US smear campaign against his country.

"When the lives of people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang were seriously threatened by terrorism, the US turned a deaf ear," Zakir said. "On the contrary, now that Xinjiang society is steadily developing and people of all ethnicities are living and working in peace, the US feels uneasy, and attacks and smears Xinjiang."

China has repeatedly denied any mistreatment of Uighurs and insists the camps are part of counter-terrorism measures and provide vocational training. Human rights groups and former detainees have said conditions in the camps are poor, with inmates subject to psychological and physical abuse.

Shohrat Zakir, Xinjiang's governor, said the US bill was a smear against China Credit: NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Mr Zakir said that the counter-terrorism measures in Xinjiang are no different from anti-terrorism measures in the US. Washington has detained suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba since 2002.

He also claimed that the US has turned a blind eye to Xinjiang’s social stability, and is launching a smear campaign against the region and using issues there to sow discord among ethnic groups in China, he added.

Mr Zakir, who is deputy secretary of the Xinjiang Communist Party, said any attempt to disable Xinjiang is doomed to fail.

At the news conference in Beijing, images of past violence were displayed in excerpts from an English-language documentary, Fighting Terrorism in Xinjiang, aired on China’s state broadcaster CGTN.

The Uighur bill, which was passed in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, requires President Trump to condemn abuses against Muslims and calls for the closure of the camps in Xinjiang.

It also calls on Mr Trump to impose sanctions for the first time on Chen Quanguo, a member of China’s powerful politburo, and secretary of Xinjiang’s Communist Party.

The row is the latest in a series of clashes between the US and China that has also included Congress passing a bill criticising the treatment of protesters in Hong Kong. The antagonism could complicate the prospects for a deal to end a 17-month long trade war between the countries.

Pensacola shooting being treated as ‘act of terrorism’

The mass shooting at a US navy base in Pensacola Florida is being treated as an act of terrorism, the FBI said on Sunday.

Rachel Rojas, the Special Agent leading the investigation, said officials were trying to examine the motive which drove Lieutenant Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, a Saudi trainee military pilot, to open fire, killing three US navy sailors and injuring eight others, before being shot dead by police.

"We are working with the assumption this was an act of terrorism," Ms Rojas said.

Other Saudi students who are on the same course have been restricted to base at the Naval Air Station on the instructions of their commanding officer and were co-operating with the investigation.

The shooter was  identified as 21-year-old  Mohammed Alshamranim a second lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force Credit: handout/AFP

“We currently assess there was one gunman who perpetrated this attack and no arrests have been made in this case." she added.

Ms Rojas dismissed fears that some students had disappeared.  "I can report that the FBI is working side by side with the US Navy and they have confirmed to us they have 100 per cent accountability on all international students from NAS Pensacola."

She declined to be drawn on the killer’s motive, despite reports that he had posted a manifesto on Twitter in which he described America as a "nation of evil".

The Pensacola shootings prompted Rick Scott, a Republican senator from Florida to call for the pilot training programme to be suspended pending a review.

Mark Esper, the US defence secretary, said that the Pentagon will carry out a review of the vetting process of foreign students participating in the exchange scheme.

However, speaking on Fox News, he said the programme was vital to the country’s security interests.

“The ability to bring foreign students here to train with us is very important to us to build those long term relationships that keep us safer."

Saudi gunman called US ‘nation of evil’ before Florida shooting

A Saudi trainee military pilot reportedly condemned the United States as a "nation of evil" before carrying out a mass shooting at a top US Navy base in Florida.

Lieutenant Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani killed three people and injured eight before being shot dead himself by police at the Naval Air Station Pensacola.

The Saudi Air Force officer, who was on a US-sponsored training programme, reportedly posted a manifesto on Twitter in which he wrote: "I’m against evil, and America as a whole has turned into a nation of evil."

It went on: "I’m not against you for just being American, I don’t hate you because your freedoms, I hate you because every day you supporting, funding and committing crimes not only against Muslims but also humanity."

According to the the SITE intelligence group, which monitors jihadist activity, the messages were posted hours before the shooting, and quoted Osama bin Laden.

The FBI was investigating whether the postings were made by Alshamrani, and whether he was part of a wider group.

Navy Capt. Tim Kinsella briefs members of the media following a shooting at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla., Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. The US Navy is confirming that a shooter is dead and several injured after gunfire at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola. Credit: Pensacola News Journal

Agents detained six other Saudis for questioning, three of whom reportedly started filing after the attack. It was not clear whether they had any connection to the gunman or were just at the scene.

The sprawling Naval Air Station Pensacola is the site of the US National Naval Aviation Museum, and the base of the Blue Angels flight demonstration team.

It is referred to as the home of US naval aviation and hundreds of pilots from allied nations pass through for training at any one time.

Military personnel are not allowed to carry weapons on the base but Alshamrani was able to take a Glock handgun, purchased locally, into a classroom building where trainee pilots were studying.

His training at the base began in August 2017 and was due to finish in August 2020.

He was also armed with up to six extended magazines, meaning he could have caused far greater carnage had he not been shot by sheriff’s deputies who rushed to the scene.

Saudi Arabia sought to distance itself from the incident as it seeks to repair its image of being an exporter of Islamic extremism.

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers in the September 11, 2001 attacks were Saudis, including some who gained civilian flight training in the US.

Last year, the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

King Salman telephoned Donald Trump to denounce the Florida shooting as "heinous" and to pledge cooperation over investigating it.

Prince Khalid bin Salman, the king’s younger son and deputy defence minister, said: "Like many other Saudi military personnel, I was trained in a US military base, and we used that valuable training to fight side by side with our American allies against terrorism and other threats."

The aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy arrives for exercises at Naval Air Station Pensacola Credit: US NAVY via Reuters

However, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis suggested Riyadh should offer compensation to the victims, saying they "owe a debt".

US officials said Saudi Air Force officers undergoing military training in the US were intensely vetted, "hand-picked," and often came from elite families.

But Mark Esper, the US defence secretary, said vetting procedures would be reviewed. He said: "Are we screening persons coming to make sure they have their life in order, their mental health is adequate?"

There are currently 5,000 foreign aviation students from 153 countries in the US, including hundreds of Saudis.

Captain Timothy Kinsella, the Pensacola base commander, said: "The cross-training with allies is something that we have done for a long time. In World War II, we had Royal Air Force folks training here."

Iran and US complete prisoner swap 

An Iranian held in the US and an American held in Iran have been freed, the two sides said on Saturday, in an apparent prisoner swap at a time of heightened tensions.

Tehran announced the release of Iranian scientist Massoud Soleimani from the United States shortly before Washington declared American researcher Xiyue Wang was returning home.

"Glad that Professor Massoud Soleimani and Mr. Xiyue Wang will be joining their families shortly," Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted.

"Many thanks to all engaged, particularly the Swiss government," which has looked after US interests in Iran in the absence of diplomatic ties, Mr Zarif added.

n this Wednesday, May 9, 2018 file photo, Hua Qu, the wife of detained Chinese-American Xiyue Wang, poses for a photograph with a portrait of her family in Princeton, N.J Credit: AP

State news agency IRNA said Mr Soleimani had been "freed moments ago after one year of illegal detention and was handed over to Iranian officials in Switzerland".

In a statement issued in Washington, US President Donald Trump said that "after more than three years of being held prisoner in Iran, Xiyue Wang is returning to the United States".

Mr Wang, a Chinese-born American, was serving 10 years on espionage charges in Iran.

A doctoral candidate in history at Princeton University, he had been researching Iran’s Qajar dynasty when he was imprisoned in August 2016.

Mr Soleimani is a professor and senior stem cell researcher at Tehran’s Tarbiat Modares University who left for the United States on October 22, 2018, according to IRNA.

The United States and Iran have not had diplomatic ties since 1980.

Relations between the two foes worsened in May 2018 when Trump withdrew the US from an international accord that gave Iran relief from sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear programme.