US Army paratroopers in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina prepare for deployment to the Middle East on January 4, 2019. Photo: Hubert Delaney III / US Department of Defense / AFP

The United States and Iran are escalating their trash talk.

President Donald Trump warned Saturday that the US is targeting 52 sites in Iran and will hit them “very fast and very hard” if the Islamic republic attacks American personnel or assets.

In a tweet defending Friday’s drone strike assassination of a top Iranian general in Iraq, Trump harked back to a four-decades-old grudge, noting that 52 represents the number of Americans held hostage at the US embassy in Tehran for more than a year starting in late 1979.

Trump said some of these sites are “at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!”

Meanwhile, a group claiming to be hackers from Iran breached the website of a little-known US government agency on Saturday and posted messages vowing revenge for Washington’s killing of top military commander Qasem Soleimani.

The website of the Federal Depository Library Program was replaced with a page titled “Iranian Hackers!” that displayed images of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Iranian flag.

“Martyrdom” was Soleimani’s “reward for years of implacable efforts,” read a graphic depicting US President Donald Trump being punched by a first emanating from Iran as missiles fly by.

“With his departure and with God’s power, his work and path will not cease and severe revenge awaits those criminals who have tainted their filthy hands with his blood and blood of the other martyrs,” it said.

“This is only a small part of Iran’s cyber ability!” another caption on the page read in white text on a black background.

This screengrab taken on January 4, 2019, shows the US Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) webpage after a group claiming to be hackers from Iran breached the website on January 4, 2019, and posted messages vowing revenge for Washington’s killing of top military commander Qasem Soleimani. Photo: AFP / Federal Depository Library Program

Trump took to Twitter after pro-Iran factions ramped up pressure on US installations across Iraq with missiles and warnings to Iraqi troops – part of an outburst of fury over the killing of Soleimani, described as the second-most-powerful man in Iran.

The attack has prompted fears of a major conflagration in the Middle East.

In the first hints of a possible retaliatory response, two mortar rounds hit an area near the US embassy in Baghdad on Saturday, security sources told AFP.

Almost simultaneously, two rockets slammed into the Al-Balad airbase where American troops are deployed, security sources said.

The Iraqi military confirmed the missile attacks in Baghdad and on al-Balad and said there were no casualties. The US military also said no coalition troops were hurt.

With Americans wondering fearfully if, how and where Iran will hit back for the assassination, the Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin that said “at this time there is no specific, credible threat against the homeland.”

The killing of Soleimani in a drone strike in Iraq early Friday brought a furious vow of revenge from Tehran.

Described as the second most powerful man in Iran, Soleimani oversaw wide-ranging interventions in regional power struggles.

Trump has said Soleimani was planning an “imminent” attack on US personnel in Baghdad.

US protests

Demonstrators chanting “no war on Iran” rallied Saturday in Washington, New York and across the US to protest the assassination of a top Iranian military commander in a US drone strike.

Outside the White House, around 200 people gathered as part of a wave of rallies called by left-leaning organizations. They chanted slogans including “No Justice, No Peace, US out of the Middle East.”

Organizers said demonstrations were convened in some 70 US cities to denounce the killing of Major General Qasem Soleimani early Friday in Baghdad on orders from President Donald Trump. The attack has prompted fears of a major conflagration in the Middle East.

“We will not allow our country to be led into another reckless war,” one speaker outside the White House said.

The protesters later headed toward the Trump International Hotel, which is just down the street from the presidential mansion.

“Need a distraction? Start of a war,” read a sign held by Sam Crook, 66.

Trump faces a looming trial in the Senate following his impeachment by the House of Representatives in the Ukraine scandal.

Crook described himself as concerned.

“This country is in the grip of somebody who’s mentally unstable, I mean Donald Trump, that is. He’s not right in the head,” Crook told AFP.

“He’s crazy, and has a childish reaction to everything. And I’m afraid he’s going to inadvertently – he doesn’t really want to, I think -– but I think he could easily start some sort of a real conflagration in the Middle East,” Crook added.

Shirin, a 31-year-old Iranian-American who would not give her last name, said she was worried about the possibility of war with Iran, which has vowed revenge for the death of Soleimani.

“We already spent trillions of dollars fighting unjust wars in Iraq and, you know, the longest war today in Afghanistan. And what do we have to show for it?” she said.

She argued that the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq caused instability throughout the region and strengthened Iran, “which is now, you know, a major political, social and cultural force in Iraq.”

At Times Square in New York, demonstrators marched with signs crying out against the prospect of war with Iran and calling for the withdrawal of the 5,000-odd US troops in Iraq.

“War is not a re-election strategy,” read one sign in that procession.

Demonstrators also marched in cities including Chicago and Los Angeles.

Pence ‘history challenged’

Speaking of old American grudges, an assertion by US Vice President Mike Pence that Soleimani had helped the September 11 terrorists has been sharply challenged in the US press.

In a Twitter message Friday, Pence said that Soleimani “assisted in the clandestine travel to Afghanistan of 10 of the 12 terrorists who carried out the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.”

When critics on Twitter noted that the 2001 terror attacks were carried out by 19 militants, and not 12, Pence spokeswoman Katie Waldman specified that Pence was referring only to the dozen who had “transited through Afghanistan.”

She then added that “10 of those 12 were assisted by Soleimani.”

But as the New York Times pointed out, Soleimani – who at the time was already heading the Quds Force, the foreign operations arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corp – is never named in the detailed 585-page report issued by the September 11 Commission.

‘Probably not aware’

The bipartisan commission of inquiry found that while “there is strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of al-Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11 … we have found no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack.”

The report added: “At the time of their travel through Iran, the al-Qaeda operatives themselves were probably not aware of the specific details of their future operation.”

The Washington Post noted that while it might be “technically correct to say that Iran ‘assisted’ in their travel,” that did not mean Tehran – or Soleimani in particular – was “knowingly assisting in what became the 9/11 attack.”

Moreover, 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were nationals of Saudi Arabia – a Sunni monarchy and regional rival of Shia Iran.

Pence went on, in an unusual series of a dozen tweets Friday, to list some of the “worst atrocities” attributed to Soleimani and carried out across a wide swath of the Middle East.

Other Trump administration figures issued similar defenses of the lethal attack on Soleimani.

Thus, the State Department tweeted that “Qasem Soleimani was responsible for killing at least 603 US service members and maiming thousands more in Iraq.”

It said 17% of the deaths of US personnel in Iraq from 2003 to 2011 could be attributed to the Quds Force under Soleimani.

– AFP

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