Tens of thousands march in Baghdad to mourn others, Soleimani

Tens of thousands march in Baghdad to mourn others, Soleimani

Baghdad: Tens of thousands of people marched in Baghdad on Saturday to mourn Iran’s military chief Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, killed in a US air strike that has raised the spectre of broader conflict in the West Asia.

Gholamali Abuhamzeh, a senior commander of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, said Tehran would penalize Americans”wherever they are in reach”, and raised the possibility of potential attacks on ships in the Gulf.

The US Embassy in Baghdad urged citizens to leave Iraq. Dozens of American employees of foreign oil firms left the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Friday. The USA and its allies have suspended training of Iraqi forces due to the increased threat, the military said in a letter seen by Reuters late on Friday.

Muhandis was the deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) umbrella body of paramilitary groups. A PMF-organised procession carrying the bodies of Soleimani, Muhandis and other Iraqis killed in the U.S. attack happened in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.

Mourners included many militiamen for whom Soleimani and Muhandis were heroes. They carried portraits of both men and plastered them on walls and armoured personnel carriers in the procession, and chanted, “Death to America” and “No No Israel”.

Militia commander Hadi al-Amiri and prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, the top candidate to succeed Muhandis and a Iran ally, attended.

Mourners brought the bodies of those killed in the strike by car. The procession was to end in Najaf, another town where the Iraqis and Muhandis killed will be put to rest.

Soleimani’s body will be transferred on Saturday. On Sunday it will be carried to the Shi’ite holy city of Mashhad in Iran’s northeast and from there to Tehran and his hometown Kerman in the southeast for burial on Tuesday, state media said.

Trump said on Friday Soleimani had been plotting imminent attacks on American diplomats and military personnel.

The U.S. strike followed a sharp increase in U.S.-Iranian hostilities in Iraq since last week when pro-Iranian militia attacked the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad after a deadly U.S. air raid on the Kataib Hezbollah militia, founded by Muhandis.

On Friday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed to retaliate and said Soleimani’s death would intensify the Islamic Republic’s immunity to the United States and Israel.

Abuhamzeh, the Revolutionary Guards commander in Kerman province, mentioned a set of potential targets for reprisals including the Gulf waterway through which about a third of the planet’s shipborne oil is exported to global markets.

“The Strait of Hormuz is a very important point for the West and a high number of American destroyers and warships cross there,” Abuhamzeh was quoted as saying on Friday evening from the semi-official news agency Tasnim.

“Vital American targets in the area have long since been identified by Iran. .

In Iran, some people worried that the country might be pushed by the death of Soleimani into war with a superpower.

“I feel so miserable for Soleimani’s departure but what if America and Iran begin a war? I have children. What if they ship my (university student) son to war?” Stated Monireh.

Mohamed Raad, a political leader in Lebanon’s heavily armed Hezbollah movement, stated retaliation by the Iran-backed”axis of resistance” – militia groups in nations from Lebanon to Yemen – would be decisive, al-Mayadeen TV reported Saturday.

‘REVENGE ON THE MURDERERS’

Many Iraqis condemned the U.S. attack, regarding Soleimani as a hero for his role in defeating Islamic State militants who captured large swathes of central and north Iraq in 2014.

“It is necessary to take revenge on the murderers. The martyrs got the prize they wanted – the decoration of martyrdom,” said one of the marchers, Ali al-Khatib.

Many Iraqis also voiced fear of being engulfed in a significant U.S.-Iranian conflict, and of militia reprisals against people involved in months of street protests against the Iranian-backed Baghdad government over alleged misrule and corruption.

They said Soleimani and Muhandis had endorsed the use of force against unarmed anti-government protesters last year and established militias which demonstrators blame for many of Iraq’s social and economic woes.

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Syria death toll tops 380,000 in virtually war: Monitor

Syria death toll tops 380,000 in virtually war: Monitor

Beirut: Almost nine years of civil war in Syria has left over 380,000 people dead including over 115,000 civilians, a war monitor said in a new toll Saturday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of resources across the nation, said they comprised around 22,000 children and more than 13,000 women.

The conflict has displaced or sent around 13 million Syrians into exile, causing billions of dollars-worth of destruction.

The Britain-based Observatory’s final casualty toll on the Syrian battle, issued in March last year, stood at more than 370,000 dead.

The latest toll included over 128,000 Syrian and non-Syrian pro-regime fighters.

More than half of those were Syrian soldiers, while 1,682 were out of the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah whose members were fighting in Syria since 2013.

The war has also taken the lives of over 69,000 opposition, Islamist, and Kurdish-led fighters.

It has killed more than 67,000 jihadists, largely from the Islamic State group and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group dominated by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

The total death toll does not include some 88,000 people who died of torture in regime jails, or thousands missing after being abducted by all sides in the conflict.

With the aid of powerful allies Russia and Iran, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has inched his way back in recent years to controlling almost two-thirds of the nation.

That comes after a series of successes against rebels and jihadists because 2015, but also his forces being deployed to regions of the northeast of the country under a deal to halt a Turkish cross-border operation last year.

Areas of the country, however, remain beyond the range of the Damascus government.

They include the last major opposition bastion of Idlib, a region of some three million people that is ruled by the jihadists of HTS.

An escalation in violence there in recent weeks has caused 284,000 people to flee their homes, according to the United Nations.

In the northeast, Turkish troops and their proxies command a strip of land across the boundary after seizing it from Kurdish fighters earlier this year.

Kurdish-led forces control the far east Syria, where US troops are deployed near major oil fields.

Syria’s conflict is estimated to have set its economy back three decades, paralysing the production of oil and electricity and destroying infrastructure.

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Security experts warn after US killing of top Iranian general.

Security experts warn after US killing of top Iranian general.

Iran’s retaliation for the United States’ targeted killing of its top general is likely to comprise cyberattacks, security experts warned Friday. Iran’s state-backed hackers are already one of the world’s most aggressive and could inject malware which causes significant disruptions to the U.S. public and private sector.

Potential targets include manufacturing facilities, oil and gas plants and transit systems. A leading U.S. cybersecurity official is warning businesses and government agencies to be extra vigilant.

In 2012 and 2013, in response to U.S. sanctions, Iranian state-backed hackers completed a series of disruptive denial-of-service attacks that knocked offline the websites of major U.S. banks including Bank of America in addition to the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ. Two years later, they wiped servers at the Sands Casino in Las Vegas, crippling hotel and gaming operations.

The destructive attacks on U.S. targets ebbed when Tehran reached a nuclear deal with the Obama government in 2015. The killing early Friday in Iraq of Quds Force commander Gen. Qassam Soleimani – long after Trump scrapped the nuclear deal – completely alters the equation.

“Our concern is basically that things are going to go back to the way they were prior to the agreement,” said John Hultquist, director of intelligence analysis at the cybersecurity firm FireEye. “There are opportunities for them to cause real disruption and destruction.”

Iran has been doing plenty of probing of critical U.S. industrial systems in recent years – trying to gain access – but has restricted its damaging attacks to targets in the Middle East, experts say.

It is not known whether Iranian cyber brokers have implanted destructive payloads in U.S. infrastructure that could now be triggered.

“It’s certainly possible,” Hultquist said. “But we have not ever seen it.”

Robert M. Lee, chief executive of Dragos Inc., which specializes in industrial control system security, said Iranian hackers have been very aggressive in attempting to gain access to utilities, factories, and oil and gas facilities. That doesn’t mean they’ve succeeded, however. In one case in 2013 where they did break into the control system of a U.S. dam – garnering substantial media attention – Lee stated they probably didn’t know the compromised goal was a tiny flood-control structure 20 miles north of New York City.

Iran has been increasing its cyber capabilities but is not in the same league as China or Russia – that have proved most adept at sabotaging critical infrastructure, seen in strikes on Ukraine’s power grid and elections, experts agree.

And while the U.S. power grid is among the most secure and resilient in the world, plenty of private companies and local governments have not made sufficient investments in cybersecurity and are highly vulnerable, experts say.

“My worst-case scenario is a municipality or a cooperative-type assault where electricity is lost to a city or a few neighbourhoods,” Lee said.

Consider the havoc an epidemic of ransomware attacks has caused U.S. local governments, crippling services as vital as tax collection. While there is no evidence of coordinated involvement, imagine if the aggressor – instead of scrambling data and demanding ransoms – only wiped hard drives clean, said Hultquist.

The only known cybersecurity survey of U.S. local authorities, municipal and county, found that the networks of 28% were attacked at least hourly – and that the exact same percentage said they did not even know how frequently they were being attacked. Even though the study was done in 2016, the authors at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County do not believe the situation has improved since.

The top cybersecurity official in the Department of Homeland Security, Christopher Krebs, urged companies and government agencies to refresh their knowledge of Iranian state-backed hackers’ past exploits and methods after Soleimani’s death was announced. “Pay close attention to your critical systems,” he tweeted.

In June, Krebs warned of a rise in malicious Iranian cyber activity, especially attacks using common methods like spear-phishing that could erase entire networks:”What might start as an account compromise, in which you feel you might just lose data, can quickly develop into a situation where you’ve lost your whole network.”

Wysopal said the Iranians are apt to have heard a lot from the 2017 NotPetya assault, which the U.S. and Britain have imputed to state-backed Russian hackers and which caused at least $10 billion in damage globally. The cyberattack to date, it exploited applications after being delivered via an Ukrainian tax software provider and spread on networks without human intervention.

When then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper blamed Iran for the Sands Casino assault, it was among the first cases of American intelligence agencies identifying a particular country as hacking for political reasons: The casino’s owner, Sheldon Adelson, is a big Israel backer. Clapper also noted that the value of hacking for collecting intelligence. North Korea’s hack of Sony Pictures in retaliation for a film its leader was mocked by that followed.

The vast majority of the almost 100 Iranian targets leaked online this past year by a individual or group known as Laboratory Dookhtegan – a defector, perhaps – were in the Middle East, said Charity Wright, a former National Security Agency analyst at the threat intelligence firm InSights. She said it’s highly likely Iran will concentrate its retaliation on U.S. targets in the region as well as in Israel and the U.S.

Iran is widely believed to have been behind a catastrophic 2012 assault on Aramco, the Saudi oil company, that wiped the data from more than 30,000 computers. It was also a casualty of this Stuxnet computer virus. First uncovered in 2010, it ruined thousands of centrifuges involved in Iran’s contested nuclear program and is widely reported to have been a U.S.-Israeli invention.

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Europe not ‘useful’ as could be over Soleimani killing: Mike Pompeo

Europe not ‘useful’ as could be over Soleimani killing: Mike Pompeo

Washington: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday that Washington’s European allies had not been”as helpful” as he expected over the US killing of Iranian army commander Qassem Soleimani in Iraq.

Pompeo called officials worldwide to explore the attack, which was commended by US President Donald Trump’s Republicans and close ally Israel, but elsewhere met with sharp warnings it may inflame regional tensions.

“I spent the past day and a half, two weeks, talking to partners in the region, sharing with them what we were doing, why we were doing it, seeking their help.

They have been fantastic,” Pompeo stated in an interview with Fox News.

“And talking to our partners in other places that have not been quite as good. Frankly, the Europeans haven’t been as helpful as I wish that they might be,” he said.

US officials stated Soleimani, who had been blacklisted by the US, was killed when a drone hit his car near Baghdad’s international airport.

Meanwhile French President Emmanuel Macron urged those involved to act with”restraint” while British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said de-escalation would be key.

“The Brits, the French, the Germans all need to know what we did, what the Americans did, saved lives in Europe as well,” Pompeo said.

“This was a fantastic thing for the entire world, and we’re urging everyone in the world to get behind what the United States is attempting to do to get the Islamic Republic of Iran to simply behave like a normal nation,” he added.

Pompeo said earlier in the day that when he was killed in the attack, action that threatened citizens was being planned by Soleimani. (AFP) CPS

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Bushfires 2 More Killed, Sweep Across Southeast Australia

Bushfires 2 More Killed, Sweep Across Southeast Australia

Sydney: Bushfires burned dangerously out of control on Australia’s east coast on Saturday, fuelled by soaring temperatures and strong winds which had firefighters fighting to save lives and property, and authorities said the worst of conditions was yet to come. By late afternoon, Victoria had 17 fires rated at evacuate or crisis warning amounts and New South Wales had 12 rated emergency, with more than 100 others burning across the countries. ‘we are still to hit the worst of it and We are in for a long night,’ NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said at an afternoon briefing. ‘It’s a very volatile situation.’

Authorities have said conditions could prove to be worse than New Year’s Eve, when fires burnt massive tracts of bushland and forced tens of thousands of residents and summer holidaymakers to seek refuge on beaches. Since the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) upgraded its emergency warnings on the flames, it delivered the identical blunt advice to people who had not evacuated at-risk regions:’It is too late to leave. Seek shelter.’ One fire in southern NSW was creating its own thunderstorm, the RFS said, which created new threats as lightning strikes could set off fresh fires.

As the fires worsened, residents used social websites to post photos of the sky turning black and red from the smoke and glare of the flames, such as in the Victorian town of Mallacoota, where around 1,000 people were evacuated by sea on Friday. The government announced an unprecedented call up of army reservists to support firefighters as well other sources including a navy ship equipped for humanitarian relief and disaster. Andy Gillham, the incident controller in the Victorian city of Bairnsdale, said the area had avoided the worst of the flames on Saturday but stressed this was an exceptional fire season. ‘In a normal year, we would start to see the fire season kick off in a big way around early January and we’re already up to a million hectares of burnt country.

This is a marathon event and we expect to be busy handling these fires for the next eight weeks,’ he said. Following are highlights of what is going on across Australia: – Temperatures topped 45C (113F) in a lot of the Sydney metropolitan area, with Penrith recording a high of 48.9C (120F) in accordance with the Bureau of Meteorology. Canberra, the national capital, recorded a temperature of 44C just after 4 pm, and that the chief minister said was a record for the territory. – A late southerly wind change expected on Saturday will dramatically lower temperatures, but it will also bring wind gusts of 70-80 kmh (43-50 mph) that are likely to fan the strength and unpredictability of fires which have already isolated cities, with major streets and highways being closed.

In South Australia, two people died on Kangaroo Island, a popular vacation spot not far off the shore, taking the national toll from this week’s fires to 12. Twenty-one people remain unaccounted for in Victoria, down from 28 reported on Friday. – South Australian Premier Steven Marshall said over 100,000 hectares of Kangaroo Island, about one quarter of its total area, had been burnt, but weather conditions have improved after Friday’s fires. – The first of thousands of residents and vacationers stranded on a beach in Mallacoota in southeastern Australia landed near Melbourne on Saturday following a 20-hour journey by ship.

A ship, carrying about 1,000 people, is expected to arrive on Saturday afternoon. – The focus on Saturday is preventing loss of life, authorities said. National parks have been closed and people urged earlier this week to evacuate large parts of NSW’s south coast and Victoria’s north eastern regions, magnets for holidaymakers at the summit of Australia’s summer school holidays. – National death toll in fire season, which started in September, is 23, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said. – Morrison confirmed that his trip to Japan and India scheduled for mid-January had been postponed due to the fires. – greater than 5.25 million hectares (13 million acres) of land has been burnt this fire season. (Reuters)

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Another fatal airstrike in Iraqi state TV, Baghdad & Iranian militias assert US behind it

Another fatal airstrike in Iraqi state TV, Baghdad & Iranian militias assert US behind it

Baghdad: Iran promised to seek revenge for a US airstrike near Baghdad’s airport that killed the mastermind of its interventions across the Middle East, and the U.S. said Friday that it was sending thousands more troops to the region as tensions soared in the wake of the targeted killing.

The death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, marks a significant escalation in the standoff between Washington and Tehran, which has careened from one crisis to another since U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed crippling sanctions. 24 hours after the attack on Soleimani, Iraqi officials and militias in Iraq reported another airstrike.

An Iraqi government official reported a strike on two vehicles north of Baghdad but had no information on casualties. Another security official who witnessed the aftermath described vehicles that were charred and said five people were killed. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

State television and the press arm of the Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces reported the strike.

An American official who spoke on the condition on anonymity denied the U.S. was supporting the reported attack.

The targeted attack against Soleimani and any retaliation by Iran could spark a conflict that engulfs the entire area, threatening U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and beyond. Over the last two decades, Soleimani had assembled a network of heavily armed allies stretching all the way to southern Lebanon, on Israel’s doorstep. We take comfort Trump said of Soleimani.

The United States said it was sending almost troops into the Middle East, reflecting concern about Iranian retaliation. The U.S. also urged Americans to leave Iraq immediately after the airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport that Iran’s state TV said killed Soleimani and nine others.

Approximately 5,200 American troops are based in Iraq to train Iraqi forces and help in the battle against Islamic State militants. Defense officials who discussed the new troop movements spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a decision not yet announced by the Pentagon.

A Pentagon official who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly said the U.S. also had put an Army brigade on alert to fly into Lebanon to protect the American Embassy.

The announcement about sending more troops came as Trump said Soleimani’s killing wasn’t an effort to start a battle with Iran.

We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to begin a war, Trump said, adding that he doesn’t seek regime change in Iran.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vowed harsh retaliation’ following the airstrike, calling Soleimani the worldwide face of resistance.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the killing a crime’ and said his nation would take revenge. Iran summoned the time delivering a letter to pass to Washington, the Swiss envoy.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif known as the U.S. assault a cowardly terrorist action and said Iran has the right to react in any method and any time.

However, the attack could act as a deterrent for Iran and its allies to delay or restrain any possible response. Trump said possible targets had been identified and the U.S. was prepared.

The killing promised to further strain relations with Iraq’s government, which is allied with both Washington and Tehran and has been deeply worried about turning into a battleground in their competition. Iraqi politicians close to Iran called for the country to order U.S. forces out.

The U.S. Defense Department said it killed the 62-year-old Soleimani since he had been actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.’ Additionally, it accused Soleimani of approving orchestrated violent protests in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

The attack, on an access road near Baghdad’s airport, was completed early Friday by an American drone, according to a U.S. official.

Soleimani had just disembarked from a plane arriving from either Syria or Lebanon, a senior Iraqi security official said. The explosion tore apart his body and that of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces. A senior politician said the ring that he wore identifyed Soleimani’s body. Others killed include five members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard and Soleimani’s son-in-law, Iranian state TV said.

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