January 10, 2020 / 11:33 AM / a month ago

WRAPUP 1-Iraqi cleric condemns U.S. and Iran as fears of wider conflict persist

* Iraqi cleric criticises U.S., Iran for attacks in Iraq

* U.S. Congress votes to curb Trump powers

* Crash of Ukrainian plane complicates tense situation

* Middle East still on edge despite pause in hostilties

By Ahmed Aboulenein and Babak Dehghanpisheh

BAGHDAD/DUBAI, Jan 10 (Reuters) - Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite Muslim cleric on Friday condemned mutual U.S. and Iranian attacks on Iraqi territory and warned of deteriorating security in the country and the wider Middle East as a result of Washington’s confrontation with Tehran.

European foreign ministers were also meeting in Brussels to find ways to ease the precarious situation that has unfolded in the past week.

In Washington on Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to stop President Donald Trump from further military action against Iran.

But the Middle East remained tense as Iranian military commanders have threatened more attacks, fuelling worries that the apparent pause in hostilities could be short-lived.

The United States killed Iran’s top military commander, General Qassem Soleimani, in an air strike next to Baghdad airport on Jan. 3.

Iran responded on Wednesday by firing missiles at U.S.-led forces in Iraq. In the aftermath, both sides backed down from intensifying the conflict, the latest stage of a protracted shadow war between the two foes.

Neighbouring Iraq is a frontline of the conflict, caught in a bind as Washington and Tehran are also Baghdad’s main allies and vie for influence there.

In a message delivered through a representative speaking at Friday prayers in the holy city of Kerbala, Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said the series of attacks were a violation of sovereignty and that no foreign powers should be allowed to decide Iraq’s fate.

“The use of over-the-top methods by different sides which possess power and influence ... will only entrench the crisis and prevent a solution,” he said.

“The latest dangerous aggressive acts, which are repeated violations of Iraqi sovereignty, are a part of the deteriorating situation” in the region, he said.

Since the killing of Soleimani, Tehran has stepped up its calls for U.S. forces to leave Iraq, which like Iran is a mainly Muslim Shi’ite nation.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has said Iran’s retaliatory strikes were not enough and “what is important is ending the corrupting presence of America in the region”.

Analysts said Iran’s focus, for now, would likely be to put more pressure on Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government to keep pressing for a U.S. withdrawal and mobilising Tehran-backed militias in Iraq to harass U.S. forces.

Actions could expected to increase as long as Washington rejects calls to pull out, they said.

BATTLE IN WASHINGTON

The U.S. House of Representatives voted on Thursday to stop Trump from further military action, passing the resolution by 224-194 along party lines in the Democratic-controlled House with nearly all Republicans opposed.

It orders termination of Trump’s war powers to use U.S. armed forces against Iran without Congress’ consent. The measure now goes to the Senate, which is controlled by Trump’s Republican Party, and faces an uphill battle.

A White House spokesman called the measure “ridiculous” and politically motivated.

Trump said on Thursday that Soleimani was killed because he had planned to blow up a U.S. embassy.

“Soleimani was actively planning new attacks and he was looking very seriously at our embassies and not just the embassy in Baghdad, but we stopped him and we stopped him quickly and we stopped him cold,” Trump said at a campaign rally in Toledo, Ohio.

So far, the United States has provided only vague descriptions of the intelligence that drove its decision to kill Soleimini, which critics have called a reckless and inflammatory action.

Soleimani carved out a sphere of Iranian influence running through Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, challenging regional rival Saudi Arabia as well as the United States and Israel.

A national hero whose funeral drew vast crowds of mourners, the West saw him as a dangerous and ruthless enemy.

Potentially stepping up international pressure on Tehran, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. officials said they believed a Ukrainian passenger plane that crashed in Iran on Wednesday was brought down by Iranian air defences by mistake hours after Iran launched its missiles attacks.

Iran denied that its missiles had downed the plane.

PACT PULLOUT

The renewed hostilities followed months of ever-rising tension since Trump pulled the United States out of Iran’s nuclear pact with world powers in 2018 and reimposed sanctions that have driven down Tehran’s vital oil exports.

Trump said on Thursday it was time for world powers to replace the 2015 nuclear pact with a new deal. But Iran’s U.N. Ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi said Tehran could not trust any idea of dialogue when faced with the “economic terrorism” of sanctions.

Analysts say that in an election year, Trump, who was impeached last month, would want to avoid getting into a drawn-out conflict. In turn, Iran will try to avert direct confrontation with superior U.S. forces but can call on proxy militias across the region as U.S. sanctions bite.

In an emergency meeting, EU foreign ministers, to be joined by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, were meeting in Brussels on Friday to find ways to push the United States and Iran away from open conflict.

“Iran’s desire to prevent the crisis from escalating has bought us some time, it has the effect of cooling this down just a little,” a senior EU diplomat told Reuters. (Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Babak Dehghanpisheh and Parisa Hafezi in Dubai; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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