Iranian Delegation Pressures Baghdad to Recognize Soleimani as State Guest

A member of Iraq’s PMF stands guard in front of a banner depicting slain Iraqi deputy chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani (AFP)
A member of Iraq’s PMF stands guard in front of a banner depicting slain Iraqi deputy chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani (AFP)
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Iranian Delegation Pressures Baghdad to Recognize Soleimani as State Guest

A member of Iraq’s PMF stands guard in front of a banner depicting slain Iraqi deputy chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani (AFP)
A member of Iraq’s PMF stands guard in front of a banner depicting slain Iraqi deputy chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani (AFP)

An Iranian delegation arrived in Baghdad last week to pressure the Iraqi government to recognize that General Qassem Soleimani, who was assassinated in 2020, was an official guest of Iraq, Iraqi sources reported.

According to the sources, the delegation included diplomats and jurists from Tehran, all of whom were commissioned by Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.

They exerted great pressure on the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia' al-Sudani to issue an official document recognizing that Soleimani was an official guest of Iraq when he was assassinated at dawn on January 3, 2020, sources told Asharq Al-Awsat.

The Iraqi government asked its experts to study the request and figure out a way to issue the document without angering Washington.

Shiite parties backing al-Sudani’s government fear that Soleimani’s case will affect Baghdad’s relationship with the US, which they see as “necessary for the stability of the prime minister’s position.”

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, two days after Soleimani’s assassination, affirmed that he was slated to meet the slain Iranian general. He said Soleimani was meant to deliver an Iranian response to a letter from Saudi Arabia regarding truce negotiations in the region.

Sources close to the government offices claimed that al-Sudani wants to please the US and Iran at the same time, and this pushes him to search for a compromise regarding Soleimani’s file.

Moreover, sources pointed to Iraqi officials’ shock at “the Iranian rush regarding the recognition, especially its political timing.”

Pro-Iranian Shiite parties are not enthusiastic about Tehran’s demand. Even the leader of the Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq movement does not now want a confrontation with Washington, sources affirmed.

An Iraqi legal expert, who requested anonymity, said that the request indicates Iranian intent to draft a judicial file based on violating Iraq’s sovereignty in accordance with international law. Tehran wants to accuse Washington of assassinating a figure who was labeled an official guest.

This will lead Iraq, according to the expert, to be a binding party in bringing any lawsuit before the international courts against the US.



US Navy Says Iran Revolutionary Guard Fast-Attack Boats ‘Harassed’ Ship in Strait of Hormuz

This still image taken from surveillance video from a US Navy Boeing P-8 Poseidon shows three Iranian Revolutionary Guard fast-attack vessels near a commercial ship in the Strait of Hormuz Sunday, June 4, 2023. (US Navy via AP)
This still image taken from surveillance video from a US Navy Boeing P-8 Poseidon shows three Iranian Revolutionary Guard fast-attack vessels near a commercial ship in the Strait of Hormuz Sunday, June 4, 2023. (US Navy via AP)
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US Navy Says Iran Revolutionary Guard Fast-Attack Boats ‘Harassed’ Ship in Strait of Hormuz

This still image taken from surveillance video from a US Navy Boeing P-8 Poseidon shows three Iranian Revolutionary Guard fast-attack vessels near a commercial ship in the Strait of Hormuz Sunday, June 4, 2023. (US Navy via AP)
This still image taken from surveillance video from a US Navy Boeing P-8 Poseidon shows three Iranian Revolutionary Guard fast-attack vessels near a commercial ship in the Strait of Hormuz Sunday, June 4, 2023. (US Navy via AP)

The US Navy said Monday its sailors and the United Kingdom Royal Navy came to the aid of a ship in the crucial Strait of Hormuz after Iran's Revolutionary Guard “harassed” it.

Three fast-attack Guard vessels with armed troops aboard approached the merchant ship at a close distance Sunday afternoon, the US Navy said in a statement. It offered black-and-white images it said came from a US Navy Boeing P-8 Poseidon overhead, which showed three small ships close to the commercial ship.

The US Navy's guided-missile destroyer USS McFaul and the Royal Navy's frigate HMS Lancaster responded to the incident, with the Lancaster launching a helicopter.

“The situation deescalated approximately an hour later when the merchant vessel confirmed the fast-attack craft departed the scene,” the Navy said. “The merchant ship continued transiting the Strait of Hormuz without further incident.”

The Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Arabian Gulf, sees 20% of the world's oil pass through it.

While the Navy did not identify the vessel involved, ship-tracking data from MarineTraffic.com analyzed by The Associated Press showed the Marshall Islands-flagged bulk carrier Venture erratically changed course as it traveled through the strait at the time of the incident. Its location also matched information about the incident given by the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, a British military operation overseeing traffic in the region. The vessel also resembled the images released by the Navy.

The ship's registered manager, Trust Bulkers of Athens, Greece, did not respond to a request for comment.

Iran's state-run IRNA news agency later quoted Guard Rear Adm. Abbas Gholamshahi claiming that his vessels simply responded to the distress signal from the ship. However, the signal came because armed men were seen aboard the small vessels identified by the Navy as belonging to the Guard.

This latest incident comes after a series of maritime incidents involving Iran following the US unilaterally withdrawing from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers in 2018.


UN Nuclear Chief, Facing Israeli Criticism on Iran, Says His Agency ‘Very Fair but Firm'

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi attends a news conference during an IAEA board of governors meeting in Vienna, Austria, June 5, 2023. (Reuters)
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi attends a news conference during an IAEA board of governors meeting in Vienna, Austria, June 5, 2023. (Reuters)
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UN Nuclear Chief, Facing Israeli Criticism on Iran, Says His Agency ‘Very Fair but Firm'

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi attends a news conference during an IAEA board of governors meeting in Vienna, Austria, June 5, 2023. (Reuters)
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi attends a news conference during an IAEA board of governors meeting in Vienna, Austria, June 5, 2023. (Reuters)

The International Atomic Energy Agency will “never politicize” its work in Iran, the head of the UN nuclear watchdog said Monday, insisting after Israel’s prime minister accused it of capitulating to Iranian pressure that his agency has been “very fair but firm."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's comments came after a confidential report from the IAEA last week said that its investigators had closed off their investigation of traces of man-made uranium found at Marivan, near the city of Abadeh, about 525 kilometers (325 miles) southeast of Tehran.

Analysts had repeatedly linked Marivan to a possible secret Iranian military nuclear program and accused Iran of conducting high-explosives tests there in the early 2000s.

“Iran is continuing to lie to the International Atomic Energy Agency. The agency’s capitulation to Iranian pressure is a black stain on its record,” Netanyahu told his Cabinet in televised remarks on Sunday.

“If the IAEA becomes a political organization, then its oversight activity in Iran is without significance, as will be its reports on Iran’s nuclear activity," Netanyahu said.

Asked on Monday about that criticism, IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said that his agency’s work is “neutral, it is impartial, it is technical.”

“We will always say things as they are,” Grossi told reporters on the first day of a regular meeting in Vienna of the IAEA board of governors.

Grossi added that he would “never enter into a polemic” with the head of government of a member of the IAEA. “We never politicize. We have our standards and apply them always,” he said.

“The politicization is in the eye of the beholder,” Grossi added.

Israel considers Iran to be its greatest enemy, and Netanyahu has repeatedly said that he wouldn't allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. He has said international diplomacy should be accompanied by a serious military option, and hinted that Israel would be prepared to strike Iran on its own if necessary.

Before Netanyahu's comments, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lior Haiat said in a statement on Friday that the explanations provided by Iran for the presence of nuclear material at the Marivan site are “not reliable or technically possible.”

But Grossi insisted that the IAEA will “never, ever” water down its safeguards standards.

“We have been strict, technically impartial and, as I like to say, very fair but firm,” he said.

Analysts had repeatedly linked Marivan to a possible clandestine Iranian military nuclear program that the IAEA, the West and other countries say was abandoned in 2003. They had accused Iran of conducting high-explosives tests there in the early 2000s.

Last week's IAEA report said that “another member state” operated a mine at the area in the 1960s and 1970s under the rule of then Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, without elaborating.

Iran had argued the uranium traces could have come from “laboratory instruments and equipment” used by miners at the site. The IAEA called the answer “a possible explanation.”

The IAEA is still seeking explanations on the origin and current location of the man-made uranium particles found at two other sites in Iran, Varamin and Turquzabad.

Tehran has long denied ever seeking nuclear weapons and continues to insist that its nuclear program is entirely for peaceful purposes.


Russia’s Prigozhin Says Ukraine Has Retaken Part of Settlement North of Bakhmut

Ukrainian artillery fires towards the frontline during heavy fighting amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near Bakhmut, Ukraine, April 13, 2023. (Reuters)
Ukrainian artillery fires towards the frontline during heavy fighting amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near Bakhmut, Ukraine, April 13, 2023. (Reuters)
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Russia’s Prigozhin Says Ukraine Has Retaken Part of Settlement North of Bakhmut

Ukrainian artillery fires towards the frontline during heavy fighting amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near Bakhmut, Ukraine, April 13, 2023. (Reuters)
Ukrainian artillery fires towards the frontline during heavy fighting amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near Bakhmut, Ukraine, April 13, 2023. (Reuters)

Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Monday that Ukrainian forces had retaken part of the settlement of Berkhivka, north of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, calling it a "disgrace".

Prigozhin's private Wagner militia captured Bakhmut last month after the longest battle of the war and handed its positions there to regular Russian troops. Ukrainian forces have continued to attack areas close to the city.

"Now part of the settlement of Berkhivka has already been lost, the troops are quietly running away. Disgrace!" Prigozhin said in an audio message published by his press service.

He urged Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov, to come to the front to rally the troops.

"Come on, you can do it!" he said. "And if you can't, you'll die heroes."

Prigozhin has waged a public feud with Shoigu and Gerasimov for months, frequently accusing them of failing to provide sufficient ammunition and support for Wagner in the field, and so causing it to suffer needlessly heavy losses.


Israel’s Netanyahu Appoints New Media Advisor, Journalist Who Had Called Biden ‘Unfit,’ Report Says 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs a cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, on June 4, 2023. (AFP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs a cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, on June 4, 2023. (AFP)
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Israel’s Netanyahu Appoints New Media Advisor, Journalist Who Had Called Biden ‘Unfit,’ Report Says 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs a cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, on June 4, 2023. (AFP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs a cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, on June 4, 2023. (AFP)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has appointed a new media advisor who has tweeted critically against President Joe Biden, the daily Haaretz reported.

The appointment comes at a time when US-Israel relations are strained.

Gilad Zwick, a journalist with a conservative Israeli TV station, has in his tweets called Biden “unfit” to rule and said that he was “slowly but surely destroying America." He also posted tweets suggesting he supported President Donald Trump's false claims that the 2020 US election was rigged. The tweets were still online Monday.

Both Netanyahu's office and Zwick did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Zwick previously worked for Israel Hayom, a pro-Netanyahu daily.

Zwick's appointment comes as ties between Israel and its closest ally, the United States, are fraught over a contentious Israeli government plan to overhaul the judiciary and over the government's ultranationalist character.

Biden has publicly expressed concern over the Netanyahu government's plan to reshape the legal system, which has sparked mass protests that continue weekly even after the plan was put on hold.

The Biden administration has also voiced unease about Netanyahu’s government, made up of ultranationalists who were once at the fringes of Israeli politics and now hold senior positions dealing with the Palestinians and other sensitive issues.

Amid the tensions, Biden has so far denied Netanyahu a typically customary invitation to the White House after his election win late last year.

Critics accuse Netanyahu of gradually shifting Israel from a bipartisan matter to a wedge issue in US politics. They point to him appearing to openly support Republican candidates as well as his 2015 speech to Congress which was seen as a slight to the Obama administration over its nuclear deal with Iran. Netanyahu says Israel's bond with the US is unbreakable and downplays any rifts as disagreements between friends.

Last month, Israel's parliament hosted US House speaker Kevin McCarthy, who became just the second House speaker to address the Knesset, after Republican Newt Gingrich in 1998.


World's Intelligence Chiefs Meet in Secret Conclave in Singapore

Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Li Shangfu delivers his speech on the last day of the 20th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia's annual defense and security forum, in Singapore, Sunday, June 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Li Shangfu delivers his speech on the last day of the 20th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia's annual defense and security forum, in Singapore, Sunday, June 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
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World's Intelligence Chiefs Meet in Secret Conclave in Singapore

Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Li Shangfu delivers his speech on the last day of the 20th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia's annual defense and security forum, in Singapore, Sunday, June 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Li Shangfu delivers his speech on the last day of the 20th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia's annual defense and security forum, in Singapore, Sunday, June 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Senior officials from about two dozen of the world's major intelligence agencies held a secret meeting on the fringes of the Shangri-La Dialogue security meeting in Singapore this weekend, five people told Reuters.

Such meetings are organized by the Singapore government and have been discreetly held at a separate venue alongside the security summit for several years, they said. The meetings have not been previously reported.

The US was represented by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, the head of her country's intelligence community, while China was among the other countries present, despite the tensions between the two superpowers.

Samant Goel, the head of India's overseas intelligence gathering agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, also attended, an Indian source said.

"The meeting is an important fixture on the international shadow agenda," said one person with knowledge of the discussions. "Given the range of countries involved, it is not a festival of tradecraft, but rather a way of promoting a deeper understanding of intentions and bottom lines.

"There is an unspoken code among intelligence services that they can talk when more formal and open diplomacy is harder - it is a very important factor during times of tension, and the Singapore event helps promote that."

All five sources who discussed the meetings declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.

A spokesperson for the Singapore Ministry of Defence said that while attending the Shangri-La Dialogue, "participants including senior officials from intelligence agencies also take the opportunity to meet their counterparts."

"The Singapore Ministry of Defence may facilitate some of these bilateral or multilateral meetings," the spokesperson said. "Participants have found such meetings held on the sidelines of the (dialogue) beneficial."

The US Embassy in Singapore said it had no information on the meeting. The Chinese and Indian governments did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand operate what is called the Five Eyes network to gather and share a broad range of intelligence, and their intelligence officials meet frequently.

Larger meetings of the intelligence community are rarer, and almost never publicized.

Although few details were available on the specific discussions in Singapore, Russia's war in Ukraine and transnational crime figured in the talks on Friday, the person with knowledge of the discussions added. On Thursday evening, the intelligence chiefs held an informal gathering.

No Russian representative was present, one of the sources said. Ukraine's deputy defense minister, Volodymr V. Havrylov, was at the Shangri-La Dialogue but said he did not attend the intelligence meeting.

Another of the sources said the tone at the meeting was collaborative and cooperative, and not confrontational.

At the main security dialogue, more than 600 delegates from 49 countries held three days of plenary sessions, as well as closed-door bilateral and multilateral meetings at the sprawling Shangri-La Hotel.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese gave the keynote address while US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu and counterparts from Britain,

Japan, Canada, Indonesia and South Korea also spoke.

Haines was among the official US delegates to the Shangri-La Dialogue. At a discussion on cybersecurity in the main meeting, she said in response to a question from a Chinese military officer that cooperation between countries was essential.

"It is absolutely critical, even when there is distrust, and even when you are facing in effect adversaries, that you still try to work through and cooperate on issues of mutual interest and also try to manage the potential for escalation," she said.

US officials said on Friday that CIA Director William Burns visited China last month for talks with Chinese counterparts as the Biden administration seeks to boost communications with Beijing.


Ukraine Claims Advances as Russia Says Offensive Repelled

FILE PHOTO: Russian service members guard the entrance to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant during a visit of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expert mission in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict outside Enerhodar in the Zaporizhzhia region, Russian-controlled Ukraine, March 29, 2023. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Russian service members guard the entrance to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant during a visit of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expert mission in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict outside Enerhodar in the Zaporizhzhia region, Russian-controlled Ukraine, March 29, 2023. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko/File Photo
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Ukraine Claims Advances as Russia Says Offensive Repelled

FILE PHOTO: Russian service members guard the entrance to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant during a visit of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expert mission in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict outside Enerhodar in the Zaporizhzhia region, Russian-controlled Ukraine, March 29, 2023. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Russian service members guard the entrance to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant during a visit of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expert mission in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict outside Enerhodar in the Zaporizhzhia region, Russian-controlled Ukraine, March 29, 2023. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko/File Photo

Ukraine said Monday that its troops were advancing around Bakhmut while playing down the importance of its "offensive actions", after Russia said it had repelled a large-scale attack.

"The Bakhmut sector remains the epicenter of the hostilities. We are advancing there on a rather wide front," Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Ganna Malyar said.

"We are having some success."

The now largely destroyed city of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine has been the scene of the longest and one of the bloodiest battles of the war.

The contrasting claims came as Pope Francis's peace envoy, Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, arrived in Kyiv for two days of talks.  

Ukraine says it has been preparing a major offensive, after months of stalemate, to recapture territory lost since Russia began its invasion of the pro-Western country in February last year.  

But Kyiv, which has been reinforced by supplies of advanced weapons from its allies, said there would be no formal announcement about the start of the offensive.  

On Sunday, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov posted a cryptic tweet, quoting lyrics from Depeche Mode's song "Enjoy the Silence".  

"Words are very unnecessary," he tweeted. "They can only do harm."  

'Large-scale offensive'  

The war has escalated in recent weeks, with increased attacks on both sides of the border with Russia.

Military experts expect Ukrainian forces to test Russian defenses for weaknesses before starting a full-blown offensive.  

Early on Monday, Russia's defense ministry said "the enemy launched a large-scale offensive in five sectors of the front" on Sunday in the south of the Donetsk region.  

"A total of six mechanized and two tank battalions of the enemy were involved," it said in a Telegram post.  

"The enemy did not achieve their tasks. They had no success."  

The ministry posted what it said was a video of the battle, showing Ukrainian armored vehicles coming under heavy fire.  

Putin's top commander in Ukraine, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, "was at one of the advanced command posts", the ministry said.  

Both the Russian and Ukrainian claims could not be independently verified.  

A high-profile Russian war correspondent, Alexander Kots, said "battles have been going on" around Vugledar, in the south of the Donetsk region, and further north in Soledar and Bakhmut, which were occupied by Moscow's forces after months of fighting.

Kots said Ukrainian forces were "conducting offensive operations" in and around Bakhmut, which mercenary group Wagner last month claimed had fallen to Moscow.  

Kots suggested Kyiv had not yet "introduced the main forces into battle".  

Pro-Moscow war blogger Alexander Khodakovsky said Ukrainian troops had deployed Leopard tanks in the east.  

'Disgrace'  

Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Monday that Ukraine's troops had made gains near Bakhmut.  

Russian troops, he said, were "slowly" leaving the village of Berkhivka near Bakhmut.  

"Disgrace!", he said, challenging Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to come to the front.  

"Come on! You can! And if you can't, die a hero," he said.  

A Moscow-installed official said Ukrainian troops were on the offensive in the southern region of Zaporizhzhia, home to Europe's largest nuclear plant, which has been partly under the control of Russia's forces since the start of Moscow's offensive.

"It looks like the die has been cast and the next couple of months will clear up a lot. The fight will be serious because there is a lot at stake," Vladimir Rogov said.  

Large parts of Donetsk have been held by pro-Moscow separatists since 2014.  

It is one of four eastern Ukrainian territories that Russia formally annexed in September last year, along with Lugansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.  

Speaking to reporters in New Delhi, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the Ukrainian authorities would make an announcement "at the right time".  

"We can talk about what we're seeing -- and we're seeing continued operations in and around the Bakhmut area," he added.  

The Vatican said Pope Francis's peace envoy Zuppi, the head of the Italian bishops' conference, had headed to Kyiv on Monday for talks on the war with the Ukrainian authorities.  

Ukraine's ambassador to the Vatican, Andrii Yurash, said on Twitter he hoped Zuppi's visit would help find "appropriate answers" for a peaceful solution.  

But attacks have in fact intensified in recent weeks, with the latest and most striking being the regular shelling and cross-border incursions from Ukraine in Russia's southern Belgorod region.  

The border breaches have been claimed by Russian anti-Kremlin ultra-nationalists.  

Ukraine has consistently denied responsibility for cross-border attacks on Russian soil.  

Fighting on Russia's border with Ukraine has forced thousands of residents to flee.  

In the latest development, Russian authorities were forced to issue denials on Monday after several radio stations were hacked and played a fake President Vladimir Putin speech announcing an invasion by Kyiv's troops and emergency measures in three border regions.


Ukraine's Military Urges 'Silence' Ahead of Expected Counteroffensive

FILE PHOTO: A Ukrainian military helicopter takes off to carry out a mission, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, during military drills in the north of Ukraine, June 1, 2023. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: A Ukrainian military helicopter takes off to carry out a mission, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, during military drills in the north of Ukraine, June 1, 2023. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich/File Photo
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Ukraine's Military Urges 'Silence' Ahead of Expected Counteroffensive

FILE PHOTO: A Ukrainian military helicopter takes off to carry out a mission, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, during military drills in the north of Ukraine, June 1, 2023. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: A Ukrainian military helicopter takes off to carry out a mission, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, during military drills in the north of Ukraine, June 1, 2023. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich/File Photo

The Ukrainian military on Sunday renewed its plea for operational silence around a long-awaited counteroffensive against Russian forces, the latest in a stream of messages by Kyiv as it prepares for the assault.

Anticipation has mounted around what is expected to be a broad attack by Ukrainian forces to retake Russian-occupied territory in the east and south.

But Ukrainian officials have repeatedly discouraged public speculation over the operation, saying it could help the enemy.

Authorities in recent days have also cracked down on citizens sharing images or footage of air defense systems shooting down Russian missiles.

"Plans love silence. There will be no announcement of the start," the ministry said in a video posted to official Telegram channels, apparently referring to the counteroffensive.

The sleekly-produced footage featured masked and well-armed front-line troops holding their fingers against their lips, gesturing for silence amid the distant rumble of artillery and gunfire, Reuters reported.

It ended with images of soaring F-16 fighter jets - long coveted by Kyiv as it seeks to boost its air defense against Russian missiles and drones.

Kyiv's Western allies in recent months have provided weapons, armor and ammunition for the counteroffensive, which military experts have said could prove difficult against dug-in Russian forces.

In an interview published on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Kyiv was prepared for the operation but avoided making any predictions.

"To be honest, it can go a variety of ways, completely different," he told the Wall Street Journal. "But we are going to do it, and we are ready."

Other senior officials, including Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, have similarly sought to tamp down expectations.

In some cases, however, the military has also fed the anticipation. Social media outreach by Kyiv has often been intended to intimidate the Kremlin.


Netanyahu Accuses UN Nuclear Watchdog of 'Capitulating' to Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: Israeli government
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: Israeli government
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Netanyahu Accuses UN Nuclear Watchdog of 'Capitulating' to Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: Israeli government
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: Israeli government

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the International Atomic Energy Agency on Sunday of ineffectually policing Iran's nuclear activities and suggested the UN watchdog risked becoming politicized and irrelevant.

The unusual criticism followed an IAEA report last week that Iran had provided a satisfactory answer on one case of suspect uranium particles and re-installed some monitoring equipment originally put in place under a now-defunct 2015 nuclear deal.

With Iran having enriched enough uranium to 60% fissile purity for two nuclear bombs, if refined further - something it denies wanting or planning - Israel has redoubled threats to launch preemptive military strikes if international diplomacy fails.

"Iran is continuing to lie to the International Atomic Energy Agency. The agency's capitulation to Iranian pressure is a black stain on its record," Netanyahu told his cabinet in televised remarks, according to Reuters.

"If the IAEA becomes a political organization, then its oversight activity in Iran is without significance, as will be its reports on Iran's nuclear activity."

The IAEA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On Wednesday, it reported that after years of investigation and lack of progress, Iran had given a satisfactory answer to explain one of three sites at which uranium particles had been detected.

Those particles could be explained by the presence of a Soviet-operated mine and lab there and the IAEA had no further questions, a senior diplomat in Vienna said.

In an apparent reference to this, Netanyahu said: "Iran's excuses ... regarding the finding of nuclear material in prohibited locations are not only unreliable, they are technically impossible."

However, the Vienna diplomat also told Reuters the IAEA's assessment remained that Iran carried out explosives testing there decades ago that was relevant to nuclear weapons.

After then US President Donald Trump quit the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, Tehran ramped up uranium enrichment. Israeli and Western officials say it could switch from enrichment at 60% fissile purity to 90% - weapons-grade - within a few weeks.

In a 2012 UN speech, Netanyahu deemed 90% enrichment by Iran a "red line" that could trigger preemptive strikes. Experts are divided, however, on whether Israel - despite having an advanced military believed to be nuclear-armed - can deal lasting damage to Iran's distant, dispersed and well-defended facilities.

"In the event that we reach decision-point, where the two options are the Iranians breaking out to a bomb or us taking action, we will take action," Israeli Energy Minister Israel Katz, a member of Netanyahu's national security cabinet, said.


Khamenei Slams West, Blames Protests on 'Thugs and Villains'

Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Photo: Supreme Leader's website
Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Photo: Supreme Leader's website
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Khamenei Slams West, Blames Protests on 'Thugs and Villains'

Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Photo: Supreme Leader's website
Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Photo: Supreme Leader's website

Iran's supreme leader on Sunday defended his tough approach to the West, saying compromise would only invite further hostility from Iran's enemies and blaming recent anti-government protests on “thugs and villains.”

Ali Khamenei's remarks come amid an intensifying standoff with Western countries over Iran's nuclear program, which has made major advances in the five years since then-President Donald Trump withdrew the US from an international accord that restricted it.

Trump restored crippling sanctions on Iran that have contributed to a severe economic crisis without forcing any concessions from its leaders. Iran has also lent support to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, supplying armed drones that have wreaked havoc on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

“Some people are mistaken to think if we back down from our stances in certain cases that will cause the enmity of the US, the global arrogance, or Israel toward us to diminish," said Khamenei, who has the final say on all major Iranian policies. "This is a mistake."

He spoke at an annual speech marking the death of Ruhollah Khomeini, his predecessor.

Khamenei alluded to nationwide protests last fall sparked by the death of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, who had been detained by the morality police for allegedly violating the country's strict dress code.

Iranian authorities have blamed the protests on a foreign conspiracy, without providing evidence, while the demonstrators said they were protesting over decades of repression and economic mismanagement.

“Thugs and villains did what they did and malicious individuals chanted such slogans," Khamenei said. "According to their plot they thought the Islamic Republic was finished and they could take the Iranian nation as servants. These fools, once again, were wrong. Once again, they failed to know our people.”


Belgian Prime Minister Briefly Knocked Out in Bike Fall

FILE PHOTO: Belgium's Prime Minister Alexander De Croo arrives for a European Union leaders' summit in Brussels, Belgium December 15, 2022.  REUTERS/Johanna Geron/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Belgium's Prime Minister Alexander De Croo arrives for a European Union leaders' summit in Brussels, Belgium December 15, 2022. REUTERS/Johanna Geron/File Photo
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Belgian Prime Minister Briefly Knocked Out in Bike Fall

FILE PHOTO: Belgium's Prime Minister Alexander De Croo arrives for a European Union leaders' summit in Brussels, Belgium December 15, 2022.  REUTERS/Johanna Geron/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Belgium's Prime Minister Alexander De Croo arrives for a European Union leaders' summit in Brussels, Belgium December 15, 2022. REUTERS/Johanna Geron/File Photo

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo fell from a bicycle and briefly lost consciousness but hospital tests revealed no lasting effects, national news agency Belga reported.
The incident happened when De Croo, 47, was on a bike ride with his son late on Saturday afternoon near his home in the Flanders region, according to Belga, citing the prime minister's office.
De Croo lost consciousness for a few moments and was taken to hospital for checks, Belga reported.
The accident was not expected to affect the premier's schedule for the coming week, Belga said.