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US officials say attacks on Saudi pipeline last month originated in Iraq: WSJ

Iraqi government says it found no evidence that drone strikes launched there
Outside Saudi Aramco's Natural Gas Liquids plant in Empty Quarter near United Arab Emirates (AFP/File photo)

Drone strikes on a major oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia last month originated in Iraq, unidentified US officials told the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), a finding that contradicts a separate investigation led by the Iraqi government.

US officials familiar with the intelligence reports said the drone attacks in May originated in southern Iraq and were most likely carried out by Iran-backed militias in the region, the newspaper reported on Friday.

The WSJ did not provide any additional information about its sources, or the intelligence it relied on to make its assessment.

Still, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has urged Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi to take steps to ensure that Iraq isn't used as a staging ground for attacks against US forces, the newspaper said.

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The report comes amid heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran, which the US has accused of planning to attack American forces in the Middle East.

But the US assessment appears to contradict the Iraqi government, which earlier this week said it had found no evidence or proof of Iraqi involvement in the drone strikes.

At a news conference on Tuesday, the Iraqi prime minister said none of the country's intelligence or military services that monitor its air space detected any launches at the time of the incidents.

"All of our intelligence services and our air force denied these reports because the air space is known," Mahdi was quoted by Reuters as saying.

"As far as we are concerned, we have no proof and we have no evidence in this matter."

No 'conclusive evidence'

Meanwhile, Iraqi officials have requested more information from the US about the claim that the drones originated from its territory, the WSJ said in its report.

They, so far, "have yet to see conclusive evidence", the newspaper said.

The drone strikes in question were carried out on 14 May, hitting two important oil pumping stations on the East-West pipeline in Saudi Arabia.

The massive oil pipeline was forced to temporarily shut down as a result of the incident, AFP reported.

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At the time, a television station run by Yemen's Houthi rebels said the group had launched the drone attacks on Saudi installations, but did not identify the targets.

Saudi Arabia's deputy defence minister, Khalid bin Salman, also accused Iran of ordering the Houthis to carry out the strikes.

"The attack by the Iranian-backed Houthi militias against the two Aramco pumping stations proves that these militias are merely a tool that Iran's regime uses to implement its expansionist agenda in the region," he wrote on Twitter.

But US officials have poked holes in that claim, telling the WSJ that the drone strikes "were more sophisticated than previous ones launched by Houthi forces in Yemen".

An Iranian government spokesman did not immediately respond to the WSJ's request for comment on its report.

The Saudi embassy in Washington also didn't immediately respond to a request for comment, the newspaper said.

A series of attacks

Struggling to recover from the conflict against the Islamic State group (IS), whose territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria was declared earlier this year, Iraqis have been looking on anxiously as tensions between Washington and Tehran have worsened.

On Wednesday, Iraqi President Barham Salih said both sides needed to "cool down", warning that Iraq does not want to find itself embroiled in a conflict between the US and Iran. 

"We don't want to become a footnote of yet another conflict," Salih said.

A timeline of US-Iran tensions

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Tensions have skyrocketed between the Washington and Tehran since US President Donald Trump announced last May that he was pulling out of the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal.

Here's a timeline of key events that have led to, and marked, the recent escalation:

8 May 2018: US President Donald Trump announces plans to pull out of a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Under that agreement, the Iranian government agreed to curb its nuclear programme in exchange for a lifting of international sanctions.

Trump also says Washington will reimpose "the highest levels of economic sanctions" on Tehran.

5 November 2018: The US reimposes sanctions on Iran's oil, banking and transport sectors. At the same time, Trump says he wants to gradually impose sanctions on the Iranian oil industry, citing concerns about upsetting energy markets and causing global price spikes.

8 April: The Trump administration blacklists Iran's elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The move marks the first time Washington has formally labelled another country's military a terrorist group.

30 April: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani signs a bill into law that declares all US troops in the Middle East as terrorists, and defines the US as a state-sponsor of terrorism.

2 May: The US stops issuing waivers to countries that import oil from Iran. Those waivers had allowed certain states, including Turkey, China, Japan, India and South Korea, to keep buying Iranian oil, despite American sanctions - and provided a lifeline for Tehran.

6 May: US National Security Adviser John Bolton announces that the Trump administration is deploying an aircraft carrier, as well as ships and bombers, to the Gulf. The move was meant to send a "clear and unmistakable message" to the Iranian government, Bolton said, amid intelligence reports that Tehran was planning attacks against American troops in the region.

7 May: Iran says it plans to withdraw from parts of the 2015 nuclear agreement with major world powers. The move comes one year after US President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal.

8 May: The Trump administration announces a new round of economic sanctions that will target Iran's metals trade - iron, steel, aluminium and copper, specifically.

9 May: As the drums of war began to beat louder in certain circles in Washington, Trump tells reporters that he "would like to see them [Iran] call me" - a sign the US president is perhaps seeking to de-escalate the situation.

12 May: The United Arab Emirates says four oil tankers were damaged in "acts of sabotage" off the coast of Fujairah, just outside the Strait of Hormuz. The UAE did not assign blame for the incident, but said it would launch an investigation into what happened.

13 May: Mike Pompeo makes a surprise visit to Brussels, where he seeks to get European leaders on board with Washington's "maximum pressure" strategy against Tehran. The US secretary of state gets a lukewarm reception, however, with the European Union's foreign policy chief instead urging the US to show "maximum restraint".

14 May: Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei says the country will not go to war with the US. "Neither we nor they - who know war will not be in their interest - are after war," Khamenei says.

15 May: Anwar Gargash, the UAE's minister of state for foreign affairs, says the country is committed to "de-escalation" with Iran, while refusing to assign blame for the 12 May "sabotage" of the oil tankers.

That same day, the US orders non-emergency government employees to leave Iraq, citing fears of an imminent attack by Iranian-backed proxies in that country.

19 May: A Katyusha rocket is fired into Baghdad's Green Zone, an area that houses government offices and foreign diplomatic missions, including the US embassy in Iraq.

21 May: A previously unknown Iraqi group claims responsibility for the rocket fired into the Green Zone. The Operations of Martyr Ali Mansour says the attack is retaliation for Trump's decision to pardon a soldier who killed an Iraqi detainee in 2009.

In Washington that same day, US lawmakers are briefed by members of the Trump administration about its claims that Iran poses a threat to the country. Several members of Congress tell reporters they left the meetings unconvinced.

24 May: Washington announces plans to deploy 1,500 additional troops to the Middle East to counter Iranian threats, a decision Iran blasted as "extremely dangerous".

28 May: US National Security Adviser John Bolton says the attack on four vessels off the Emirati coast was caused by "naval mines almost certainly from Iran".

30 May-1 June: Saudi Arabia hosts a summit in Mecca to discuss recent tensions with Iran. On the eve of the talks, Riyadh blasts what it called Iranian "interference" in the region and demanded "firmness" over attacks in the Gulf.

7 June: The US imposes sanctions on Iran's largest petrochemicals holding group, accusing Persian Gulf Petrochemical Industries Company of providing financial support to an engineering firm with ties to the IRGC.

13 June: Two oil tankers suffer damage after an unspecified attack in the Gulf of Oman. Hours after the incident, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo points the finger at Iran, without providing evidence to back up his claim.

Iran immediately denies it was involved in the attacks, accusing Washington of seeking to derail diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the situation.

14 June: The head of the United Nations calls for an independent investigation into the incidents in the Gulf of Oman.

Earlier in the day, US Central Command releases a video that it says shows Iranian IRGC members removing an unexploded mine from one of the damaged ships. That comes after Trump himself says the incident has Iran "written all over it".

Meanwhile, the owner of the Japanese vessel says crew members reported seeing objects flying towards them - which would appear to refute the US's version of events. "The crew told us something came flying at the ship and they found a hole," the owner says. "Then some crew witnessed the second shot."

17 June: The US will send roughly 1,000 additional troops to the Middle East, Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan announces.

20 June: Iran says it shot down a US military drone entering Iranian airspace near the Straits of Hormuz. A US official confirms that a drone was shot down but says it was in international airspace.

21 June: US President Donald Trump says he ordered and then aborted a military strike on Iran roughly 10 minutes before the operation took place.

Fighter jets were in the air to strike multiple Iranian military installations in response to Iran's shooting down of an unmanned US drone a day earlier, according to US media reports.

Trump says he called off the strike after US generals reportedly told him the attack would kill 150 Iranians. The US operation was "not proportionate", the US president says.

24 June: The US imposes a new round of sanctions on Iran, this time targeting the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

25 June: Trump threatens Iran with "obliteration" if the country were to strike American targets. His comments come after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the White House "mentally retarded" and vowed that Tehran would not back down from US sanctions. 

Also on Tuesday, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif tweets an article written by John Bolton in 2017, which outlines how the US should back out of the nuclear deal and detailing why the Iranians would not want to negotiate once the US withdraws.

28 June: The US Senate votes down an amendment that sought to bar Trump from being able to declare war on Iran without authorisation from Congress.

4 July: A supertanker suspected of carrying Iranian crude oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions is detained in Gibraltar. Senior Iranian officials deny claims the tanker was headed to Syria. 

5 July: A senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander suggests that Iran should seize a British oil tanker if the Iranian vessel detained off Gibraltar is not released immediately.

9 July: General Joseph Dunford, a top US general, announces plans to set up a coalition of allied countries willing to patrol key waterways in the Gulf region. 

Dunford says the US military would provide command ships and surveillance technology, while its allies would escort ships and patrol the Strait of Hormuz and Bab el-Mandeb.

11 July: British officials say three Iranian boats attempted to "impede the passage" of a British oil tanker in Gulf waters, forcing a UK warship to intervene. Iran denies the accusation

Meanwhile, Gibraltar police announce the arrest of the captain and chief officer of the Iranian supertanker on suspicion that the ship had breached EU sanctions on Syria on 4 July. 

Police also seize documents and electronic devices from the ship, which remains in custody. 

12 July: US lawmakers approve a measure that would force President Donald Trump to seek congressional approval before ordering military strikes against Iran.

16 July: Iran says it has ruled out entering into negotiations over its ballistic missile programme, directly contradicting statements made by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier that same day.

18 July: Trump says American warship USS Boxer downed an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz. But top Iranian officials deny the report.

31 July: Washington imposes sanctions on Iran's Foreign Minister Zarif. Zarif tells Saudi Arabia that Iran is "ready for dialogue". 

5 August: The UK becomes the first country to join Washington's maritime security mission in the Gulf.

8 August: Iran's defence minister warns of  "disastrous repercussions" if Israel were to join the US maritime security coalition in the Gulf. 

15 August: The US Justice Department issues a warrant for Iran's Grace 1 after Gibraltar says it is ready to release the tanker.

18 August: The Grace 1, renamed the Adrian Darya-1, is released from Gibraltar after a five-week standoff.

19 August: Bahrain joins the US-led mission in Gulf waters.

21 August: Australia becomes the third country to join Washington's maritime security mission in the Gulf. 

27 August: US President Donald Trump and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif both attended the G7 conference but do not meet. 

28 August: The US Treasury Department issues sanctions against two networks it says are tied to Iran's missile proliferation programme. Meanwhile, the US's joint maritime security initiative in the Gulf officially launches.

3 September: France says it is prepared to offer Iran $15bn in credit lines to help ease Washington's economic pressure against the country - but the proposal hinders on US approval.

4 September: Iran's President Hassan Rouhani gives European powers another two months to save the 2015 nuclear deal, but warns that Iran is still preparing to breach the pact in ways that would have "extraordinary effects".

6 September: Two sources tell MEE that the Iranian oil tanker that was held by British authorities in Gibraltar for five weeks has delivered its cargo to Syria.

7 September: Iran seizes a tugboat and arrests 12 Filipino crew members in what it says is a fuel-smuggling ring in the Strait of Hormuz.

10 September: US President Donald Trump sacks national security adviser John Bolton, seen as the architect of recent US-Iran tensions. Meanwhile, the UK says Iran broke its promise by transferring oil to Syria aboard the Adrian Darya I several weeks after Gibraltar released the supertanker. 

The attacks on the Saudi pipeline are a part of a string of incidents in the Gulf that have fuelled talks of a regional war between the US and Iran.

Earlier this month, Iranian forces shot down a US surveillance drone in the Strait of Hormuz, claiming - despite denials from Washington - that it had entered their country's airspace. 

Six commercial tankers also suffered damage in two separate incidents near the Strait over the past several weeks.

While the US accused Iran of carrying out the attacks, Iran has repeatedly denied the allegations.

Relations between the US and Iran began deteriorating rapidly last year, after US President Donald Trump pulled Washington out of a multinational agreement that drastically scaled back Iran's nuclear programme in exchange for economic sanctions relief.

After pulling out of the nuclear deal, the US then began reinstating a string of crippling sanctions on the Iranian government and other high-level officials, including the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.