Domestic, foreign factors could boost the fortunes of the Antichrist in Iraq’s elections

Domestic, foreign factors could boost the fortunes of Sadr in Iraq’s elections

BAGHDAD – Informed Iraqi sources said that the Sadrist movement has begun to prepare for the upcoming Iraqi elections and that it will present itself to the US as a “moderate” movement and the best option in the Iraqi Shia community.

The sources told The Arab Weekly that the Shia political spectrum is now divided between the pro-Iranian Popular Mobilisation Forces, accused by the US of responsibility for attacks targeting its forces in Iraq; the Dawa Party, which is internally splintered and the remnants of smaller formations, such as the Al-Hikma groups.

In this context, the Sadrist movement finds itself to be the strongest and most influential political faction, despite the fact that many forces within the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) were originally offshoots of the Sadrist movement.

An Iraqi source familiar with the movement’s internal discussions said, “The time for propaganda against American occupation is gone after the Sadrist movement had a taste of power. It has benefited from the quota system through the appointment of cabinet members in various positions and subsequently gained a level of influence within Iraqi state institutions that is similar to that wielded by the Dawa Party.”

He added that, “The leader of the movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, realises that the options of the United States are limited. There is no way to deal with the PMF, which is almost completely under the thumb of the Iranian Quds Force, nor with the Dawa Party, whose fortunes are eroding and which stands accused by many of its followers of corruption, nor with the smaller Shia groups that enjoy more popularity in the media than among political activists. The Sadrist movement has become the ‘moderate tendency’ despite all that happened during the past few years.”

On Monday, Iraqi President Barham Salih signed a decree to hold early elections on October 10.

Despite the endeavours of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi to co-opt a large segment of the Shia electorate within the civil state, the Sadrist movement is betting on its popularity among the poor in major popular neighbourhoods of Baghdad, in addition to segments of the population in the central Euphrates and southern Iraq regions that are dissatisfied with the government.

Kadhimi has yet to flesh out his personal political plan even though time is running out for him.

It is unclear whether he will enter the election race as a separate political movement or whether Iran will allow him to operate politically outside the Shia grouping that is loyal to Tehran. This is especially so because the Iranians consider him to be close to Washington and to the West and hold him responsible for opening the door for the return to Iraq of the pan-Arabist policies.

The Kadhimi government has vowed to ensure “a fair voting election process under international supervision, far from the influence of arms,” but it would be difficult for the PMF militias to leave the scene without putting up a struggle.

The position of the Sadrist movement in relation to the political system in Iraq has evolved from attacking it for lack of legitimacy, when not prohibiting it altogether, to infiltrating Iraqi state institutions, the army and security services and exerting partial control over the powers of the prime minister.

The United States does not seem totally opposed to the option of backing to Sadr, as long as he is able to curtail the domination of the Popular Mobilisation Forces over the state, or confront Kadhimi’s reluctance to thwart the PMF’s daily challenge to the authorities in line with the Iranian policy of targeting US forces in Iraq with “light” strikes that do not provoke President Joe Biden’s administration and push it to a tough response against Iran or its militias.

Sadr often tries to suggest that he is outside the Iranian orbit in Iraq and that he deals with Tehran as an equal.

He stresses also that his late father, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, saw himself as an Arab standing up to Iran’s hegemony over the supreme Shia authority of Iraq and whoever assumed it.

With the elections approaching, Nuri al-Maliki, who heads the State of Law coalition, is seeking to flirt with Sadr and bring him into the fold of Iran’s allies, minimising his differences with the populist leader.

Maliki said, “my hand is extended to whomever wants to reconcile with me, and I do not want disputes, and I do not want the continuation of the dispute, neither with Muqtada al-Sadr nor with anyone else,” denying “the existence of mediation for reconciliation with Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr.”

Iraqi observers believe that Sadr may achieve good results in the upcoming elections by billing himself a “moderate” and keeping his distance from Iran. But he will nevertheless remain part of the “Tehran system” which controls the Iraqi scene and uses it regionally for its own purposes.

Iraqi political analyst and writer Mustafa Kamel, believes, “Sadr is Iran’s most dangerous agent in Iraq (…) and the role assigned to him is limited to reshuffling cards and providing a lifeline to the political system, and this is the secret of his fluctuating positions and wavering between right and left.”

Talking to The Arab Weekly, Kamel added that Sadr might win the elections “not because he enjoys support among the Iraqis, as he is widely rejected by them,  but because overt and covert bargaining, influence-peddling and foreign interferences might push him to the fore”.

He pointed out that, during the past few years, Arab efforts have been devoted to polishing Sadr’s image but he has failed to play a national leadership role as he quickly reverted to his usual sectarian and chaotic course.

Attacks Increase in the Iraqi Horn: Daniel 8

Iraq attacks deepen security woes as global, local rivals clash

By John Davison and Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – A series of attacks in Iraq this week illustrates the increasingly dangerous tangle of local and regional rivalries confronting the country’s security in an election year, Iraqi security and government officials say.

The violence appears linked to militias seeking to help ally Iran oppose Western and Gulf Arab adversaries in a tussle for influence playing out across the Middle East, as well as to growing domestic strains head of elections in October, they say.

Drone and rocket attacks in northern Iraq by pro-Iran groups indicated that militias are expanding the arsenal they are prepared to deploy against U.S. forces stationed in the country.

The strikes also for the first time killed a Turkish soldier, and a rare car bomb blast in Baghdad afterwards showed that security forces are struggling to keep a lid on local violence after years of relative calm in the capital.

Rivalry between Iran and the United States remains the biggest destabilising factor, despite the departure of former President Donald Trump and his tough rhetoric and fresh talks on Iran’s nuclear programme among world powers, the officials said.

Wednesday’s attack on U.S. forces at Erbil International Airport was the first time an explosives-laden drone was used against a U.S. target in Erbil, an Iraqi security official said.

“Drone use is a worrying development. We’re seeing a change in the way (U.S.) targets in the Kurdistan region are hit, as a message that these groups can choose the time and place of their assaults without being stopped,” the official said.

The security official, an Iraqi military officer and a government official all blamed militia groups supported by Iran for the attack.

They said it was likely retaliation for a recent attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility, widely believed to be carried out by U.S. ally Israel. Israel has not formally commented.

“This was related to the Natanz incident, and the negotiations with the United States. It’s to show Iran’s ability to strike back and the need for negotiations to bear fruit – that there’s a cost for Israeli attacks against Iran and a cost for negotiations going nowhere,” the government official said.

Militia supporters cheered the attack but no group has claimed it so far.

Iraqis often pay the price for escalating U.S.-Iran tension, said Jassim al-Hilfi, an Iraqi lawmaker. “This is the second time in just a few weeks that (pro-Iran) militias have been able to target Erbil. They don’t want Iraq to be secure,” he said.

Iran and the United States this month agreed to indirect talks over Tehran’s nuclear programme, eyeing a possible return to an international pact that Trump abandoned in 2018 before piling sanctions on Iran and killing its top commander Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike in Baghdad last year.

Since President Joe Biden took office, Iraqi militias have pressed their demand that a remaining force of 2,500 U.S. troops leave Iraq, and have continued attacks against the United States and its regional allies, deploying more sophisticated weaponry.

TURKEY TENSION RISES

Several Western officials, one Iraqi militia official and an Iranian security source said a thwarted drone attack against Saudi Arabia in January was launched from Iraq, part of an increase in attacks by Iranian proxies against the Gulf kingdom.

Iran has not commented on recent attacks against U.S. forces, but has previously denied involvement in such strikes.

Several little-known pro-Iran groups have released statements claiming some previous attacks against U.S. targets.

The killing on Wednesday of a Turkish soldier in a rocket attack on Turkish troops stationed in northern Iraq – a separate attack to Erbil but at around the same time – also complicates Iraq’s fragile security.

Turkey has been waging a campaign against separatist Kurdish PKK militants who operate in southern Turkey but are based in the mountains of neighbouring northern Iraq. The PKK has Iraqi allies aligned with the Iran-backed paramilitaries.

Iran-backed militias this year ramped up their rhetoric against the Turkish presence, calling Turkish troops an occupying force which, like the Americans, must leave. No group immediately claimed the attack that killed the Turkish soldier, but analysts say it was carried out by pro-Iran militias.

“Militias seem to have opened a new front with Turkey and drew blood. They might be inviting trouble,” said Bilal Wahab, a Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Iran’s proxies see Turkish incursion there as a threat to their gateway to Syria, a key smuggling route for weapons, personnel and goods.

Iran and Turkey might not have the appetite for escalation. “We’ll see if this attack on a Turkish base is swept under the rug, or whether it will be a game-changer,” Wahab said.

Turkish authorities did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

EMBATTLED IRAQI GOVERNMENT

The increasingly complex strategic picture heaps pressure on Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who has tried in vain to curb militia power and wants a peaceful, free general election in October. Added to his plate are domestic rivalries in a country where violence has often spiked during election years.

In January, Baghdad’s deadliest suicide bombing for three years, claimed by Islamic State, ripped through a central market killing more than 30 people.

On Thursday, a car bombing killed at least four – the second incident to shatter the relative calm Baghdad has enjoyed since Islamic State’s 2017 defeat. No group claimed Thursday’s blast and security forces have not yet publicly identified a culprit.

Some Iraqi politicians say the blast was Islamic State trying to cause chaos. Others say it could be rival Shi’ite armed groups seeking to intimidate each other ahead of the vote.

Either way, it shows armed groups can move weapons around Baghdad under the noses of security forces, analysts say.

“The government … has neither the political ability to deter militias from carrying out attacks nor the security wherewithal to stop them and hold them accountable when attacks happen,” Wahab said.

A spokesman for the Iraqi government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by John Davison, Ahmed Rasheed; writing by John Davison, Editing by William Maclean)

How the Saudis Will Become a Nuclear Horn: Daniel 7

How the Saudis can fast-track a nuclear-weapons program

If I were them—and with Iran in mind—I would conclude that all the misbehavior that the Biden administration wants to punish me for would evaporate if I only had a nuclear-weapons program that I could use as leverage to extract whatever concessions I wish.

Eric R. Mandel(April 16, 2021 / JNS)

While the Biden administration offers sanctions relief to Tehran in exchange for temporarily limiting uranium enrichment to less than 20 percent, it is fulfilling another promise, to “recalibrate”—i.e., punish—longtime American ally Saudi Arabia. As the Saudis sustain Iranian-directed missile and drone attacks from Yemen and Iraq, the Biden administration chose to remove Patriot missile batteries from Saudi Arabia, as well as redeploy an aircraft carrier and surveillance systems away from the region. The clear message to Iran is: We will abandon our ally Saudi Arabia, your arch-enemy, if you will only rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal.

If I were the Saudis, I would conclude that all the misbehavior that the Biden administration wants to punish me for would evaporate if I only had a nuclear-weapons program that I could use as leverage to extract whatever concessions I wish from the Americans. I could do like the Iranians—threaten, intimidate and take over neighboring states—and be absolved if I would just slow down my nuclear-development program.

The Saudis might open their Rolodex and call Pakistan. According to the BBC, in 2013, “a senior NATO decision-maker … had seen intelligence reporting that nuclear weapons made in Pakistan on behalf of Saudi Arabia are now sitting ready for delivery.” This is the logical conclusion. The way we are headed, the Biden administration is about to start a nuclear arms race in the region with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, among others learning the lessons of the Iranian nuclear agreement. The formula is to develop a secret nuclear program, lie about it, engage in disruptive behavior and then trade some of that for a nuclear deal in your favor or foreign aid.

Saudi Arabia is no angel. The stain of the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the country’s exporting radical Sunni Islamist ideology in the late 20th century has ramifications that we live with to this day. ISIS was the worst permutation yet of radical Sunni ideology. But after 9/11, the Saudis turned a page and began to align more closely with American interests. In the 21st century, they have been a moderating and stabilizing force in Sunni Islam.

Their support of the Abraham Accords, which allowed the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco to recognize Israel with diplomatic relations, is groundbreaking. Previous administrations did not even contemplate its possibility. If nurtured for regional stability, it is a path to suppress the Saudi need for a nuclear-weapons program. It also ended the fiction that the Israeli-Arab conflict needs to wait until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ends. That is excellent news for those who believe Palestinian intransigence has been the roadblock to peace.

Instead of building on the game-changing Abraham Accords and pulling Saudi Arabia to the finish line by recognizing Israel, the Biden administration has chosen to make the Saudis a pariah, while begging the Iranian revolutionary regime to return to a deal that was created in their favor. As a reminder, it was created to give Iran international legitimacy for an industrial-size nuclear program within the decade. Stipulated within the nuclear agreement is Iran’s ability to buy an unlimited number of conventional weapons right now. No wonder that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei allowed his minions to sign it.

Like the Obama team, the Biden administration still believes that you can appease Iran by acquiescing in their nuclear blackmail. Obama’s policy was to distance the United States from its Gulf state allies and Israel while ingratiating his administration with the Iranians, who have never ceased undermining U.S. security interests worldwide. The only good to come out of this mistaken policy is the increased willingness of the Saudis and others in the region to be friendlier to Israel as the only nation willing to take on the Iranians. This has been especially evident as Israel continues to impede Iran’s progress towards a nuclear weapon, most recently with its alleged attack this week on the Natanz enrichment facility.

Kowtowing to a third-rate military that supports terror sends a poor message to American allies around the world. The administration seems intent on settling for merely slowing down Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons while ignoring and, in effect, funding with sanctions relief the Islamic Republic’s decades-long worldwide campaign of terrorism. The false hope offered to the American people that the administration will be able to negotiate a new agreement dealing with Tehran’s malign activities after the resumption of a deal would be laughable if it were not so dangerous.

Hopefully, the administration will reflect on the potential consequences of its actions and change course to avoid turning the Middle East into a nuclear Wild West. The Saudis and the rest of the Sunni Muslim world are watching.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the U.S. Senate, House and their foreign-policy advisers. He is a columnist for “The Jerusalem Post” and a contributor to i24TV, “The Hill,” JTA and “The Forward.”

Biden’s Afghan Pullout Enables the Pakistani Nuclear Horn : Daniel 8

Biden’s Afghan Pullout Is a Victory for Pakistan. But at What Cost?

Pakistan’s military stayed allied to both the Americans and Taliban. But now the country may face intensified extremism at home as a result of a perceived Taliban victory.

April 15, 2021

Pakistani soldiers in South Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan, in 2009.Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Near the peak of the American war in Afghanistan, a former chief of neighboring Pakistan’s military intelligence — an institution allied both to the U.S. military and to its Taliban adversaries — appeared on a talk show called “Joke Night” in 2014. He put a bold prediction on the record.

“When history is written,” declared Gen. Hamid Gul, who led the feared spy service known as the I.S.I. during the last stretch of the Cold War in the 1980s, “it will be stated that the I.S.I. defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with the help of America.”

“Then there will be another sentence,” General Gul added after a brief pause, delivering his punchline to loud applause. “The I.S.I., with the help of America, defeated America.”

In President Biden’s decision to withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan by September, Pakistan’s powerful military establishment finally gets its wish after decades of bloody intrigue: the exit of a disruptive superpower from a backyard where the I.S.I. had established strong influence through a friendly Taliban regime before the U.S. invaded in 2001.

A return of the Taliban to some form of power would dial the clock back to a time when Pakistan’s military played gatekeeper to Afghanistan, perpetually working to block the influence of its archenemy, India.

But the Pakistani military’s sheltering of the Taliban insurgency over the past two decades — doggedly pursuing a narrowly defined geopolitical victory next door — risks another wave of disruption at home. Pakistan is a fragile, nuclear-armed state already reeling from a crashed economy, waves of social unrest, agitation by oppressed minorities and a percolating Islamic militancy of its own that it is struggling to contain.

If Afghanistan descends into chaos, Pakistanis are bound to feel the burden again just as they did after Afghanistan disintegrated in the 1990s following the Soviet withdrawal. Millions of Afghan refugees crossed the porous border to seek relative safety in Pakistan’s cities and towns.

Afghan men waiting for tokens to apply for a Pakistani visa in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in October.Parwiz/Reuters

And more: A Taliban return to power, either through a civil war or through a peace deal that gives them a share of power, would embolden the extremist movements in Pakistan that share the same source of ideological mentorship in the thousands of religious seminaries spread across Pakistan. Those groups have shown no hesitation in antagonizing the country’s government.

While Pakistan’s military played a dangerous game of supporting militants abroad and containing extremists at home, the country’s Islamist movements found a rallying cause in the presence of an invading foreign force next door, openly fund-raising for and cheering on their Afghan classmates. New extremist groups kept shrinking the civil society space in Pakistan — often targeting intellectuals and professionals for abuse or attack — and even found sympathizers in the ranks of Pakistan’s security forces.

Pakistani generals have resorted to a mix of force and appeasement in tackling the country’s own growing militancy problem, said Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa, a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. But a strategy for countering the spread of extremism has been elusive.

“It scares me, it scares me,” Dr. Siddiqa said. “Once the Taliban come back, that should trouble the Pakistani government, or any government. It will be inspiring for all the other groups.”

Said Nazir, a retired brigadier and defense analyst in Islamabad, said Pakistan had “learned some lessons” from the blowback of past support to jihadist groups. The country would need to tread more cautiously in the endgame of the Afghan war.

“Victory will not be claimed by Pakistan, but tacitly the Taliban will owe it to Pakistan,” Mr. Nazir said. “Pakistan does fear the replay of past events and fears a bloody civil war and violence if hasty withdrawal and no political solution occur simultaneously.”

Seth Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said that although Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment are “undoubtedly celebrating” the Biden announcement, greater control in Afghanistan is far from assured.

“It will be difficult, if not impossible, for Pakistan to control the Taliban and other militant groups in Afghanistan as the country spirals into a civil war,” he said. “Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other groups are already operating in Afghanistan. There is no way Pakistan can control this hodgepodge of groups, which have different interests, leaders, and goals.”

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a deputy leader of the Taliban, arrives in Moscow for an Afghan peace conference in March.Pool photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko

From the moment of its birth as a country in 1947, Pakistan found itself surrounded by enemies. The new borders drawn up by British officials instantly mired Pakistan in a host of territorial disputes, including a serious one with Afghanistan, which still lays claim to what most of the world sees as Pakistan’s northwestern regions.

It was at the peak of the Cold War in the 1970s, as the Soviet Union pushed to expand its influence in South and Central Asia, that Pakistani leaders found a formula of deploying Islamist proxies they have stuck to ever since. The United States armed and financed the training of the mujahedeen insurgency that would defeat the Soviet Army in Afghanistan and topple the government it propped up. Pakistan’s army, particularly its intelligence wing, would serve as the handler, host, and trainer.

Through the ensuing civil war in the 1990s, Pakistani generals helped a younger group of fundamentalist Afghan fighters known as the Taliban sweep the fighting factions and establish a government with control over more than 90 percent of Afghanistan.

But when the United States invaded in 2001 to chase Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda after their terrorist attacks on American soil, the Americans also turned their sights on Pakistan’s allies in Afghanistan, the ruling Taliban. Pakistan found itself in a difficult position. In the face of President George Bush’s “with us or against us” ultimatum, Pakistan’s military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, reluctantly went along.

The decision had an immediate blowback: Pakistan began facing attacks from the Pakistani Taliban for siding with the U.S. military campaign against their ideological brothers in Afghanistan. It took years of military operations that cost the lives of thousands of Pakistani forces, and displaced countless people in Pakistan’s northwest, to quell the group.

A Pakistani Army officer inside a school where Pakistani Taliban gunmen killed 145 people in Peshawar in 2014.Muhammed Muheisen/Associated Press

At the same time, Pakistan’s military kept working to help the Afghan Taliban regroup as an insurgency to keep the United States in check. Even as American officials relied on Pakistani help to conduct the war and intelligence operations, some were bitter about the double role played by the I.S.I. The killing of Bin Laden in Pakistan by U.S. forces in 2011 was one rare moment when those tensions played out in public.

But Pakistan’s generals were also successful in making themselves indispensable to the United States — offering a nuclear-armed ally in a region where China, Russia and Islamist militants all had interests. Effectively, it meant that the United States chose to turn a blind eye as its Pakistani allies helped the Taliban wear down American and allied forces in Afghanistan.

Afghan government officials, meanwhile, were becoming increasingly distraught that their American allies were not coming down harder on Pakistan.

On one trip to Afghanistan soon after being elected vice president in 2008, Mr. Biden was urged by President Hamid Karzai to pressure Pakistan into rooting out Taliban sanctuaries on its soil. Mr. Biden was reported to respond by saying that Pakistan was 50 times more important to the United States than Afghanistan was.

In recent years, as American officials sought a way to leave Afghanistan, they again had to turn to Pakistan — to pressure the Taliban to come to peace talks, and to lend help when the United States needed to move against Al Qaeda or the Islamic State affiliate in the region.

With the U.S. intention to leave publicly declared, Pakistan did away with any semblance of denial that the Taliban leadership was sheltering there. Taliban leaders flew from Pakistani cities to engage in peace talks in Qatar. When negotiations reached delicate moments that required consultations with field commanders, they flew back to Pakistan.

When the United States finally signed a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban in February last year, the mood in some circles in Pakistan was one of open celebration.

A supporter of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan party throws stones at the police during a protest in Lahore on Tuesday.Rahat Dar/EPA, via Shutterstock

Pakistan’s former defense minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, who had repeatedly visited the halls of power in Washington as a U.S. ally, tweeted a photo of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meeting Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban deputy at the talks in Qatar.

“You might have might on your side, but God is with us,” Mr. Asif said in the tweet, ending with a cry of victory. “Allah u Akbar!”

But there are signs that extremist groups within Pakistan have already felt emboldened by the Taliban’s perceived victory, giving a glimpse of the trouble likely to be in store for Pakistani officials.

The once-defeated Pakistani Taliban have increased their activities in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Ambushes against security forces have become more frequent.

Just how wide the problem of extremism might stretch has been on display in recent days on the streets of two of Pakistan’s main cities, Lahore and Karachi.

Supporters of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, a movement that sees itself as protecting Islam against blasphemy, thrashed uniformed members of Pakistani forces and took dozens hostage for hours. Videos emerged of Pakistani army officers trying to reason with the violent protesters. Officials said two policemen had been killed, and 300 wounded. The showdown continues, as the government moved to ban the group as a terrorist outfit.

“The state was not able to control the stick-wielding and stone-hurling members of the T.L.P. that paralyzed most parts of the country for two days,” said Afrasiab Khattak, a former chairman of Pakistan’s human rights commission. “How will they handle trained, guns-carrying Taliban militants?”

A Pakistani soldier on guard at the border with Afghanistan in North Waziristan in 2017.Caren Firouz/Reuters

Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

Israeli army says it targeted ‘Hamas military sites’ outside the Temple Walls: Revelation 11

Israeli army says it targeted ‘Hamas military sites’ in Gaza

Israeli military claims it targeted ‘weapons manufacturing site’, while Palestinian media say agricultural lands also came under attack.

The Israeli army claimed that the Palestinians fired a rocket from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel [Said Khatib/AFP]

Israeli warplanes have carried out air raids at several locations after midnight on Friday in the Gaza Strip in response to a rocket fired from the besieged Palestinian enclave that hit southern Israel.

Fighter jets and attack helicopters struck a “weapons manufacturing site, a weapon smuggling tunnel and a military post” operated by Hamas, the movement which governs Gaza, the Israeli military said in a statement on Friday.

“We will not tolerate any threat to Israeli civilians,” it added. A security source in Gaza told AFP news agency there were no casualties from the series of attacks after midnight.

Palestinian Maan news agency reported on Friday that the Israeli attack started with artillery shelling east of Juhr al-Dik, a town in central Gaza. It added that missiles and drones targeted different sites, including agricultural lands in the southeastern neighbourhood of Al-Zaytoun and east of Al-Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza.

Sirens sounded a warning in the border town of Sderot late on Thursday after a rocket was fired from Gaza, according to the Israeli military. A city spokesperson said the projectile landed on open ground outside the city. There were no reports of injuries or damage to property, he said.

The latest attack comes weeks after the Israeli military carried out night-time raids against Hamas positions in the southern part of the Strip.

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Palestinian groups, including Hamas, have called on Israel to end its 14-year crippling land, sea and air blockade on the enclave – home to two million people.

The United Nations has dubbed Gaza an “open-air prison” with residents enduring extreme poverty amid conditions that have worsened since the coronavirus pandemic.

Hundreds of Palestinians have been killed in recent years as they protested against the blockade, which Israel has justified on security grounds.

A fragile truce has held in recent years despite occasional flareups, with Palestinians firing rockets at Israel and Israel responding with air raids on the coastal enclave.

The Iranian Nuclear Horn Prepares for War: Daniel 8:4

Leader Urges Iranian Army to Boost Preparedness – Politics news – Tasnim News Agency

Tasnim News Agency

Ayatollah Khamenei, commander-in-chief of the Iranian Armed Forces, sent a message to Army Commander Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi on Saturday in commemoration of the Army and the Ground Force Day.

In the message, the Leader sent regards to all “dear staff members of the Army and their honorable families”.

Today, the Army is at the scene and prepared to carry out operations. Keep enhancing this preparedness to the required level and play a role,” Ayatollah Khamenei told the Army chief.

In remarks in April 2018, Ayatollah Khamenei commended Major General Mousavi for his emphasis on unity among all Iranian Armed Forces, describing such a stance as a sign of the commander’s executive intelligence.

Iran marks the Army Day on Farvardin 29 (April 18).

This year, the Army has decided to hold parades with vehicles and display its latest achievements on trucks in celebration of the Army Day to prevent any gathering of people in order to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Iran Just Weeks From Being Nuclear: Revelation 16

Iran starts enriching uranium to 60%, its highest level ever

This satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility on Wednesday, April 7, 2021.(Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran began enriching uranium Friday to its highest-ever purity, edging close to weapons-grade levels, as it attempts to pressure negotiators in Vienna amid talks on restoring its nuclear deal with world powers after an attack on its main enrichment site.

The move drew a rebuke from U.S. President Joe Biden, who noted that negotiations were continuing anyway.

A top official said only a few grams an hour of uranium gas would be enriched up to 60% purity — triple its previous level but at a quantity far lower than what the Islamic Republic had been able to produce. Iran also is enriching at an above-ground facility at its Natanz nuclear site already visited by international inspectors, not deep within underground halls hardened to withstand airstrikes.

The narrow scope of the new enrichment provides Iran with a way to quickly de-escalate if it choses, experts say, but time is narrowing. An Iranian presidential election looms on the horizon as Tehran already is threatening to limit international inspections. Israel, suspected of carrying out Sunday’s sabotage at Natanz, also could act again amid a long-running shadow war between the two Middle East rivals.

Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, Iran’s parliament speaker, announced the higher enrichment on Twitter.

“The young and God-believing Iranian scientists managed to achieve a 60% enriched uranium product,” Qalibaf said. “I congratulate the brave nation of Islamic Iran on this success. The Iranian nation’s willpower is miraculous and can defuse any conspiracy.”

The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, the country’s civilian nuclear arm, later acknowledged the move to 60%. Ali Akbar Salehi told Iranian state television the centrifuges now produce 9 grams an hour, but that would drop to 5 grams an hour in the coming days.

“Any enrichment level that we desire is in our reach at the moment and we can do it at any time we want,” Salehi said.

It wasn’t clear why the first announcement came from Qalibaf, a hard-line former leader in the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard already named as a potential presidential candidate in Iran’s upcoming June election.

While 60% is higher than any level Iran previously enriched uranium, it is still lower than weapons-grade levels of 90%. Iran had been enriching up to 20% — and even that was a short technical step to weapons-grade. The deal limited Iran’s enrichment to 3.67%.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iran’s nuclear program, did not respond to a request for comment. Earlier this week, it sent its inspectors to Natanz and confirmed Iran was preparing to begin 60% enrichment at an above-ground facility at the site.

Israel, which has twice bombed Mideast countries to stop their nuclear programs, plans to hold a meeting of its top security officials Sunday over the Iranian announcement. Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi called Iran a threat while on a trip Friday to Cyprus.

“Israel is determined to defend itself against any attempt to harm its sovereignty or citizens, and will do whatever it takes to prevent this radical and anti-Semitic regime from acquiring nuclear weapons,” Ashkenazi said.

Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful, though the West and the IAEA say Tehran had an organized military nuclear program up until the end of 2003. An annual U.S. intelligence report released Tuesday maintained the American assessment that “Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities that we judge would be necessary to produce a nuclear device.”

Iran previously had said it could use uranium enriched up to 60% for nuclear-powered ships. However, the Islamic Republic currently has no such ships in its navy.

The threat of higher enrichment by Iran already had drawn criticism from the U.S. and three European nations in the deal — France, Germany and the United Kingdom. On Friday, European Union spokesman Peter Stano called Iran’s decision “a very worrisome development.”

“There is no credible explanation or civilian justification for such an action on the side of Iran,” Stano said. The Vienna talks aim to “make sure that we go back from such steps that bring Iran further away from delivering on its commitments and obligations.”

Diplomats reconvened Friday in Vienna. After talks Thursday, Chinese negotiator Wang Qun called for doing “away with all disruptive factors by moving forward as swiftly as we can on the work of negotiations, especially by zeroing in on sanction lifting.”

The 2015 nuclear deal, which former President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from in 2018, prevented Iran from stockpiling enough high-enriched uranium to be able to pursue a nuclear weapon if it chose in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

In Washington, Biden said Tehran’s latest step was contrary to the deal. “We do not support and do not think it’s at all helpful,” he said. But he added that the Vienna talks had not been sidetracked.

“We are nonetheless pleased that Iran has agreed to continue to engage in indirect discussions with us on how we move forward and what is needed to get back” into the nuclear deal, he said. “It’s premature to make a judgment as to what the outcome will be, but we’re still talking.”

The weekend attack at Natanz was initially described only as a blackout in the electrical grid feeding both its above-ground workshops and underground enrichment halls — but later Iranian officials began calling it an attack.

Alireza Zakani, the hard-line head of the Iranian parliament’s research center, referred to “several thousand centrifuges damaged and destroyed” in a state TV interview. However, no other official has offered that figure and no images of the aftermath have been released.

In the coming weeks, Iran has threatened to further impede IAEA inspections and potentially destroy video recordings it now holds of its facilities. Meanwhile, it continues to use advanced centrifuges and gain know-how in high enrichment, something that worries nonproliferation experts.

“Because the deal has started to unravel, Iran has begun to acquire more knowledge about how to operate more advanced machines,” said Daryl G. Kimball, the executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association. “This particular operation, enriching to 60%, is going to give it even more information.”

Borrowing a term used to describe diluting high-enriched uranium, Kimball added: “That knowledge cannot be down-blended. It cannot be reversed.”

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Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran; Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip; Samuel Petrequin in Brussels; and David Rising and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed.

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