Syria vows to recover Golan as Trump policy shift draws criticism

FILE PHOTO: Israeli soldiers stand on tanks near the Israeli side of the border with Syria in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

By Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Syrian government vowed to take back the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights as its allies and enemies alike condemned U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday for moving to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the territory seized in war.

Trump’s statement on Thursday marked a dramatic shift in U.S. policy over the status of a disputed area that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East conflict and annexed in 1981 – a move not recognized internationally.

Against this backdrop of hostility toward the U.S. move, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Beirut on Friday after visiting Israel. He is expected to raise pressure on the government to curb the influence of the Iran-backed Hezbollah.

Trump’s declaration is the latest U.S. step to fuel anger in the region, both in states that are hostile to Israel and others that have relations with it and are allied to the United States.

It follows the U.S. recognition in December 2017 of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – a decision that also drew international criticism as the city’s disputed status remains at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Russia, an ally of President Bashar al-Assad with forces in Syria, said Trump’s comments risked seriously destabilizing the region, and it voiced hope the statement was just declaratory.

Iran, Assad’s main regional ally and which also has forces in Syria, condemned the statement as illegal and unacceptable.

“The personal decisions of Trump…will lead to crisis in the region,” Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman said.

Turkey, a U.S. ally and an adversary of Damascus, also said the move had brought the Middle East to the edge of a new crisis and the legitimization of the occupation of the Golan Heights could not be allowed.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Trump for his gesture “at a time when Iran seeks to use Syria as a platform to destroy Israel”. It could help Netanyahu in the midst of a tough re-election battle, analysts said.

The Syrian government said the Golan was an “indivisible” part of Syrian territory and recovering it “via all means guaranteed by international law is still a priority”.

It said United States with its “stupidity and arrogance” had no right to decide the fate of the area and any move to recognize Israeli sovereignty over it was “an illegal action with no impact”.

After remaining calm for decades since a 1974 armistice monitored by U.N. peacekeepers, Golan re-emerged as a flashpoint for regional tensions during the Syrian war. Last May, Israel accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guards of launching a rocket salvo into its territory from the Syrian side of the truce line.

Israel, which has mounted numerous air strikes against what it has called Iran-backed targets in Syria, has demanded Russia keep forces allied to Tehran away from the boundary.

The Syrian side was held by rebel forces for years until pro-government forces recovered it in July.

U.S. OFFICIAL: ISRAEL “COULD NOT GIVE UP THE GOLAN”

Jason Greenblatt, a senior White House adviser, said “under any conceivable circumstance, Israel could not give up the Golan”. “To do so would endanger Israel’s very existence,” he wrote on Twitter.

But Fouad Mundhir, a Syrian whose village is in Israeli-occupied Golan, said Trump was “canceling the will of an entire nation”. “You say you are carrying the flag of democracy, okay, Mr. Trump, have you taken into account the will of the people of the Golan?” he told Reuters in Jaramana, near Damascus.

In the Golan itself, Druze villager Sheikh Mahmoud Nazeeh, also rejected the move.

“Trump can make his statements and say he wants to make the Golan part of Israel. But we know this will stay Syrian land,” the 70-year-old said.

The European Union said its position on the status of the Golan Heights was unchanged and it did not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the area.

Germany said any change in borders should be “done through peaceful means between all those involved”, while France said it did not recognize the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights and any recognition was contrary to international law.

The Arab League, which suspended Syria in 2011 after the start of its civil war, said Trump had paved “the way for official American recognition” of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan and called this “completely beyond international law”.

Egypt, which made peace with Israel in 1979, said it still considers the Golan as occupied Syrian territory.

Israel says Syria’s civil war has reaffirmed the need to keep the plateau – coveted for its water resources and fertile soil – as a buffer zone between Israeli towns and the instability of its neighbor.

In Lebanon, Pompeo is expected to flag U.S. concerns about Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah’s growing role in government: the group has three cabinet ministers and together with its allies controls more than 70 of parliament’s 128 seats.

The United States is a major donor to the Lebanese army but its allies, including the Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, have been weakened as Iran’s role has deepened through Lebanon, Iraq and Syria and Saudi influence has receded.

Washington has reintroduced sanctions on Iran and imposed new financial sanctions on Hezbollah which Lebanon’s Hezbollah-aligned president, Michel Aoun, said on Thursday were hurting all Lebanese.

(Reporting by Ali Abdelaty in Cairo/Tom Perry in Beirut, Maria Kiselyova in Moscow, and Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, Yousef Saba in Cairo, Ezgi Erkoyun and Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul, Kinda Makieh in Damascus, Joseph Nasr in Berlin, Robin Emmot in Brussels, Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.S. concerned over Hezbollah’s growing role in Lebanon

FILE PHOTO: Lebanon's Hezbollah supporters chant slogans during last day of Ashura, in Beirut, Lebanon September 20, 2018. REUTERS/Aziz Taher/File Photo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Hezbollah’s growing role in the Lebanese government worries the United States, the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon said during a meeting with Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri on Tuesday, according to the U.S. embassy.

The armed Shi’ite group, which is backed by Iran and listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, controls three of the 30 ministries in Hariri’s new cabinet, the largest number it has ever held. They include the Health Ministry, which has the fourth-largest budget in the state.

U.S. Ambassador Elizabeth Richard, speaking after the meeting, said she had been “very frank … about U.S. concern over the growing role in the cabinet of an organization that continues to maintain a militia that is not under the control of the government”, according to an embassy statement.

Richard, who did not name Hezbollah, said the group “continues to make its own national security decisions; decisions that endanger the rest of the country”.

It also “continues to violate the government’s disassociation policy by participating in armed conflict in at least three other countries”, she said. Lebanon’s official policy of disassociation is intended to keep it out of the region’s conflicts.

Hezbollah’s regional clout has expanded as it sends fighters to Mideast conflicts, including the war in neighboring Syria, where it has fought in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

Together with groups and individuals that see its arsenal as an asset to Lebanon, Hezbollah won more than 70 of the 128 seats in parliament in an election last year. Hariri, who is backed by the West, lost more than a third of his MPs.

A new unity cabinet, which took nearly nine months to put together, largely reflects the election result.

The United States has supplied the Lebanese military with more than $2.3 billion in assistance since 2005, aiming to support it as “the sole, legitimate defender” of the country. The United States is the largest provider of development, humanitarian and security assistance to Lebanon, Richard said.

“In just this last year alone, the United States provided more than $825 million in U.S. assistance and that’s an increase over the previous year.”

(Writing by Tom Perry, editing by Larry King)

Israel strikes in Syria in more open assault on Iran

What is believed to be guided missiles are seen in the sky during what is reported to be an attack in Damascus, Syria, January 21, 2019, in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. Facebook Diary of a Mortar Shell in Damascus/Youmiyat Qadifat Hawun fi Damashq/via REUTERS

By Angus McDowall and Dan Williams

BEIRUT/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel struck in Syria early on Monday, the latest salvo in its increasingly open assault on Iran’s presence there, shaking the night sky over Damascus with an hour of loud explosions in a second consecutive night of military action.

Damascus did not say what damage or casualties resulted from the strikes. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said 11 people were killed. Syria’s ally Russia said four Syrian soldiers had died and six were wounded.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the air raid had mostly targeted Iranian forces, but also hit Syrians helping them. “We will strike at anyone who tries to harm us,” he said.

The threat of direct confrontation between arch-enemies Israel and Iran has long simmered in Syria, where the Iranian military built a presence early in the nearly eight year civil war to help President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Israel, regarding Iran as its biggest threat, has repeatedly attacked Iranian targets in Syria and those of allied militia, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

With an election approaching, Israel’s government has begun discussing its strikes more openly and has also taken a tougher stance towards Hezbollah on the border with Lebanon. It said a rocket attack on Sunday was Iran’s work.

The Israeli shift comes a month after U.S. President Donald Trump unexpectedly announced a sudden plan to pull the 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, a move long sought by Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies. Trump’s decision shocked American allies in the region and was opposed by top U.S. officials including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis who quit in response.

The Israeli military said its fighter jets had attacked Iranian “Quds Force” targets early on Monday, including munition stores, a position in the Damascus International Airport, an intelligence site and a military training camp. Its jets then targeted Syrian defense batteries after coming under fire.

It followed a previous night of cross-border fire, which Israel said began when Iranian troops fired an Iranian-made surface-to-surface missile from an area near Damascus at a ski resort in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Syria said it was Israel that had attacked and its air defenses had repelled the assault. Syria had endured “intense attack through consecutive waves of guided missiles”, but had destroyed most “hostile targets”, state media quoted a military source as saying.

The Russian defense ministry said Syrian air defenses, supplied by Russia, had destroyed more than 30 cruise missiles and guided bombs, according to RIA news agency.

In Tehran, airforce chief Brigadier General Aziz Nasirzadeh said Iran was “fully ready and impatient to confront the Zionist regime and eliminate it from the earth”, according to the Young Journalist Club, a website supervised by state television.

Assad has said Iranian forces are welcome to stay in Syria after years of military victories that have brought most of the country back under his control. Just two big enclaves are still outside Assad’s grip, including the area Trump plans to exit.

Netanyahu, who is hoping to win a fifth term in the April 9 election, last week told his cabinet Israel has carried out “hundreds” of attacks over recent years.

“We have a permanent policy, to strike at the Iranian entrenchment in Syria and hurt whoever tries to hurt us,” he said on Sunday.

“EVERY LAST BOOT”

The Israeli military distributed footage of what it said were missiles hitting the Syrian defense batteries, as well as satellite images showing the location of the alleged Iranian targets. Syrian state media showed footage of explosions.

In a highly publicized operation last month, the Israeli military uncovered and destroyed cross-border tunnels from Lebanon it said were dug by Hezbollah to launch future attacks.

Israel last fought a war with Hezbollah, on Lebanese soil, in 2006. It fears Hezbollah has used its own role fighting alongside Iran and Assad in Syria to bolster its military capabilities, including an arsenal of rockets aimed at Israel.

Tensions have also risen with Israel’s construction of a frontier barrier that Lebanon says passes through its territory.

Washington has sought to reassure allies it still aims to eject Iran from Syria despite pulling its own troops out. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who visited the region this month, has vowed to expel “every last Iranian boot” from Syria.

Israel has sought reassurances from Moscow that Iranian forces in Syria would not be a threat. Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said the missile fired at the ski resort was launched from “an area we were promised the Iranians would not be present in”.

 

(Reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut, Ari Rabinovitch and Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow; writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Nick Macfie and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Syria state media says Israeli planes attack targets near Damascus

Smoke rises past a mountain as seen from Damascus countryside, Syria December 25, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Israeli war planes attacked with missiles unspecified targets near Damascus, the Syrian capital, on Tuesday and injured three Syrian soldiers, Syrian state media quoted a military source as saying.

“Our air defenses confronted hostile missiles launched by Israeli war planes from above the Lebanese territories and downed most of them before reaching their targets,” the military source said.

An arms depot was hit and three soldiers were injured due to the attack, the source added.

The nature of the Israeli missiles targets was unclear.

Syrian state media reported earlier in the evening downing several “hostile targets” near Damascus.

An Israeli military spokeswoman declined to comment on the reports.

“An IDF aerial defense system activated in response to an anti-aircraft missile launched from Syria,” the official Israeli army Twitter account later said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based war monitor, said Israeli missiles were launched from above the Lebanese territories and targeted western and southwestern Damascus rural areas.

“A number of missiles hit arms depots for Hezbollah or Iranian forces,” the observatory said. No casualties or losses were reported.

Lebanese state-run National News Agency said Israeli war planes performed mock raids above southern Lebanon.

During the more than seven-year conflict in neighboring Syria, Israel has grown deeply alarmed by the expanding clout of its arch enemy Iran – a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Israel’s air force has struck scores of targets it describes as Iranian deployments or arms transfers to Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement in the war.

(Reporting by Hesham Hajali in Cairo, Kinda Makieh in Damascus and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Dahlia Nehme; Editing by Edmund Blair and Leslie Adler)

Israeli military begins sealing off cross-border tunnels from Lebanon

FILE PHOTO: A photo taken during a guided tour by the Israeli army shows a view inside a tunnel which reportedly connects Lebanon and Israel, near the border by the northern Israeli town of Metula December 19, 2018. Jack Guez/Pool via REUTERS

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Israeli military on Thursday began to seal off four tunnels that it said had been dug by the Lebanese armed group Hezbollah under the border from Lebanon.

The work was being carried out on the Israeli side of the frontier demarcation, known as the “Blue Line”, military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus told reporters.

Israel says Hezbollah dug the tunnels with the aim of launching cross-border attacks with backing from its regional sponsor Iran. Hezbollah has yet to comment.

U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon have said they had so far confirmed the existence of four tunnels which the Israeli army discovered in recent weeks in the vicinity of the border.

Conricus said the military would “neutralize and destroy” the tunnels. Some were built with concrete components while others were dug directly into rock,” he said.

“Preliminary work has started,” Conricus said. “We warn anybody against approaching the openings of the tunnels or staying close to them, all of the tunnels, on the Lebanese side.”

He said Israel had asked the U.N. peacekeeping force, known as UNIFIL, to convey the warning to the Lebanese army.

“The end result is that Hezbollah will no longer be able to utilize these tunnels in order to terrorize Israeli civilians.”

Conricus said the work was likely to be completed in a matter of hours.

Israel has called for UNIFIL to deal with the tunnels on the Lebanese side of the border. The Israeli military has said it holds the Beirut government responsible for breaching Security Council resolution 1701, which ended a 2006 war with Hezbollah.

President Michel Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, has said Lebanon is committed to implementing 1701.

The resolution banned all unauthorized weapons between the Litani River and the U.N.-monitored border between Israel and Lebanon. Under the resolution, Lebanon’s army is responsible for security on its side of the border in a zone from which any other armed force, including Hezbollah, is banned.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Israel says Hezbollah closed precision-guided missile plants

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem December 16, 2018. Abir Sultan/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday Hezbollah had shut down plants to develop precision-guided missiles but was imperiling Lebanon with a cross-border tunnel network he deemed “an act of war”.

Netanyahu spoke hours before the U.N. Security Council was due to discuss Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese group, and appeared aimed at swaying world powers to order stronger intervention by U.N. peacekeepers.

An Israeli soldier lowers a camera down an Israeli-dug hole into a cross-border tunnel dug from Lebanon into Israel, as seen on the Israeli side of the border, near the town of Metula December 19, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

An Israeli soldier lowers a camera down an Israeli-dug hole into a cross-border tunnel dug from Lebanon into Israel, as seen on the Israeli side of the border, near the town of Metula December 19, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Israel deems Hezbollah, against which it fought an inconclusive war in 2006, its most potent foe. Israeli forces have repeatedly struck suspected Hezbollah arms transfers via Syria during its civil war, but avoid such action in Lebanon.

Israel and the United States believe Hezbollah has sought homegrown production of precision-guided missiles that could paralyze Israeli civilian infrastructure.

Addressing the United Nations on Sept. 7, Netanyahu identified three such plants around Beirut airport – a disclosure that Lebanon’s foreign minister, a political ally of Hezbollah, dismissed at the time as fabricated.

“The underground sites for precision conversion of missiles, which (Israeli) military intelligence gave me, to expose, those sites were closed,” Netanyahu told a conference on Wednesday.

“They are trying to open other sites,” he said, without elaborating. Hezbollah hoped to have thousands of precision-guided missiles by now but instead had “at most, a few dozen”, according to Netanyahu.

In a separate speech to parliament, Netanyahu focused on four tunnels uncovered this month, whose presence was confirmed by UNIFIL peacekeepers and which Israel says were to be used for infiltrations of its northern villages.

Hezbollah has not commented on the tunnels.

A man stands next to a drill as Israeli military personnel continue work on exposing and thwarting cross-border tunnels dug from Lebanon into Israel, as seen on the Israeli side of the border, near the town of Metula December 19, 2018 REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

A man stands next to a drill as Israeli military personnel continue work on exposing and thwarting cross-border tunnels dug from Lebanon into Israel, as seen on the Israeli side of the border, near the town of Metula December 19, 2018 REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

“This is not merely an act of aggression. It is an act of war,” Netanyahu said.

Lebanon is fully committed to the U.N. resolution that ended the 2006 war, its Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The ministry called on the Lebanese army “to take all necessary measures to ensure (the resolution) is well implemented in coordination with UNIFIL forces, especially in light of the tensions at the border in recent days.”

It added that it had not seen any “engineering works” being done on its side of the border.

Netanyahu accused UNIFIL of inaction, saying Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal has grown tenfold since 2006 and that every third home in southern Lebanon was being used by the guerrillas.

The Security Council, he said, should ensure “UNIFIL is not restricted by Hezbollah or the Lebanese army in any way, and reports on any obstructions” of the peacekeepers’ mandate to enforce the 2006 Lebanon ceasefire.

Israel has itself violated the truce with overflights of Lebanon for surveillance or Syria sorties.

(Additional reporting by Ellen Francis; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller/Mark Heinrich)

Israel may expand anti-tunnel operation into Lebanon, minister says

FILE PHOTO: Israeli drilling equipment is seen next to the border with Lebanon, near the Lebanese village of Kfar Kila, seen from the Israel's side December 4, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel is prepared to take action in Lebanon against Hezbollah cross-border tunnels if necessary, an Israeli cabinet minister said on Friday.

Israel’s military said earlier this week that it had found a number of passages dug across the Israel-Lebanon border to be used in carrying out attacks inside Israel. The Israeli military sent mechanical diggers, troops and anti-tunneling equipment to the border to shut them down.

The Israeli military, which launched the operation on Tuesday, has said its activity would, for now, stop on the Israeli side of the border.

But Israeli news media on Thursday quoted an unnamed senior official saying that Israel could extend its activity into Lebanon, and on Friday Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz reiterated that messages.

“If we think that in order to thwart the tunnels that one needs to operate on the other side – then we will operate on the other side of the border,” Katz told Radio Tel Aviv 102FM.

What form the action would take was not clear. Over the past year, at least 15 tunnels from the Gaza Strip into Israel were found and destroyed, the Israeli military said.

The United Nations peacekeeping Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), confirmed the existence of a tunnel near the “blue line” frontier between the two countries on Thursday, describing it as a “serious occurrence”.

In the aftermath of the Israeli tunnel announcement, the situation has remained calm on both sides of the border. But the Israeli operation has brought renewed attention to a frontier across which Israel and Hezbollah last fought a war in 2006.

The Israeli military said in a statement on Thursday that it “holds the Lebanese government, the Lebanese Armed Forces and United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon responsible for all events transpiring in and emanating from Lebanon.”

It added that an Israeli military commander had shown one of the tunnels to the head of UNIFIL, Major-General Sefano Del Col, and it urged UNIFIL and the Lebanese army to clear the area of tunnels.

UNIFIL said in its statement it was “engaged with the parties to pursue urgent follow-up action”.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has instructed the country’s envoy to the U.N. to complain that Israel is waging “a diplomatic and political campaign against Lebanon in preparation for attacks against it”, Hezbollah’s l-Manar TV said.

Since the 2006 war, Israel has largely refrained from striking at Hezbollah on Lebanese soil, but it has carried out dozens of attacks in Syria against what it said were advanced weapons shipments to the Iranian-backed Shi’ite group.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell, editing by Larry King)

Netanyahu says Israel will continue operations in Syria against Iran

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem September 16, 2018 Sebastian Scheiner/Pool via Reuters

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday Israel would continue its military operations in Syria, after Russia announced it would supply an advanced anti-aircraft system to its Syrian ally.

“We will continue to act to prevent Iranian military entrenchment in Syria and we will continue the military coordination between the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) and the Russian army,” Netanyahu told reporters before boarding a flight to New York, where he will address the U.N. General Assembly.

Russia said on Monday it would supply an S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Syria in two weeks despite strong Israeli objections, a week after Moscow accused Israel of indirectly causing the downing of a Russian military jet in Syria.

Russia, which fights in Syria to support the government against rebels and militants, has said Syrian anti-aircraft batteries shot its IL-20 surveillance plane down by mistake shortly after Israeli jets hit a nearby target.

Moscow accused Israel of creating dangerous conditions that caused the incident.

Israel, which has carried out air strikes in Syria many times during the civil war, said after the incident it would work to improve “deconfliction” of its missions with Russian forces, but would not halt them.

Netanyahu spoke by telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday. In his remarks on Tuesday, Netanyahu said he had agreed with Putin “that the working teams from the IDF and the Russian army will meet soon”.

The Israeli leader made the remarks after convening his security cabinet to discuss the tensions with Moscow.

“Over the past three years, Israel has been highly successful in preventing the Iranian military entrenchment in Syria and Iranian attempts to transfer lethal weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Netanyahu said.

But he said there had been occasions when things had not gone smoothly, calling Syria’s downing of the Russian plane “tragic”.

Israel has long lobbied Moscow not to provide the S-300 to Syria, fearing this would hinder its aerial capability to strike the forces of Iran and its Hezbollah allies in Syria.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Ari Rabinovitch and Andrew Roche)

Iran puts on ‘show of strength’ military exercise in Gulf

FILE PHOTO: Russian-made Sukhoi fighter jets of the Iranian army fly past during a military parade to commemorate army day in Tehran April 17, 2008. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – The Iranian Revolutionary Guards and army carried out a joint aerial military drill in the Gulf on Friday in what official media said indicated the “pounding reply” that awaited the country’s enemies.

Tehran has suggested in recent weeks that it could take military action in the Gulf to block other countries’ oil exports in retaliation for U.S. sanctions intended to halt its sales of crude.

Washington maintains a fleet in the Gulf that protects oil shipping routes.

“In addition to a show of strength, this ceremony is a message of peace and friendship for friendly and neighboring countries,” Colonel Yousef Safipour, the deputy commander of the army for public relations said, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).

“And if the enemies and arrogant powers have an eye on the borders and land of Islamic Iran they will receive a pounding reply in the fraction of a second.”

Mirage, F-4 and Sukhoi-22 jets took part in the exercise on Friday, according to IRNA.

The Islamic Republic has a large naval military drill, including approximately 600 naval vessels, planned on Saturday, IRNA reported.

Separately, a prominent Iranian cleric said Friday that the time had come for Israel to say goodbye. He did not give any further information on what that could mean.

“Mr. Netanyahu, you and your intelligence services know well that the time to say goodbye has arrived and what position of strength the resistance of Hezbollah and the people of Gaza are in,” Hassan Abu-Torabi Fard, the temporary Friday prayers leader in Tehran, said, according to Fars News.

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh)

Islamist militants adapted after losses: U.S. State Dept.

By Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The State Department warned on Wednesday that Islamic State, al Qaeda and its affiliates have adapted by dispersing and becoming less vulnerable to military action after the United States and its partners made “major strides” against the armed Islamist groups last year.

In an annual report on the U.S. anti-terrorism fight worldwide, the State Department said militant attacks decreased globally in 2017 by 23 percent from 2016, with a 27 percent reduction in fatalities.

The drops were due mostly to “dramatically” reduced extremist attacks in Iraq, said Nathan Sales, the U.S. counter-terrorism coordinator, whose office produced the congressionally mandated report.

U.S.-backed forces and Iraqi militias liberated nearly all of the territory that Islamic State, also known as ISIS, once controlled in Iraq and Syria, including the major Iraqi city of Mosul.

The United States and its partners also stepped up pressure on al Qaeda to prevent its resurgence, it said.

Islamic State, al Qaeda and their affiliates, however, “have proven to be resilient, determined and adaptable, and they have adjusted to heightened counterterrorism pressure in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere,” the report said.

The groups “have become more dispersed and clandestine,” used the Internet to inspire attacks by their followers, and as a result, “have made themselves less susceptible to conventional military action,” it continued.

Militant groups retain “both the capability and the intent to strike the United States and its allies,” Sales told reporters.

The report said Iran remained “the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism” in 2017, using its elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Lebanese Hezbollah, the Shi’ite Muslim militia movement, to undertake “terrorist-related and destabilizing activities.

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Mary Milliken and Alistair Bell)