The latest U.S. State Department advisory simply warned: “Do not travel to Iraq”

From the Washington Post

BEIRUT — Two Saudi Arabian oil tankers and a Norwegian ship were damaged over the weekend near the Persian Gulf in what Saudi Arabia claimed Monday was an “act of sabotage,” further heightening regional tensions with Iran.

There was no immediate indication as to who may have been responsible or why the damage was inflicted, but the incidents occurred at the same time and place off the coast of the United Arab Emirates only days after the United States has dispatched warships and bombers to the area to deter alleged threats from Iran.

The location is near a sea lane critical to the world’s supply of oil, and the incidents followed a warning to commercial shipping by U.S. maritime authorities that Iran might seek to disrupt commercial shipping in the area.

One of the Saudi tankers had been preparing to deliver oil to the United States, and both incurred “significant damage” as a result of the apparent attack at around 6 a.m. Sunday morning, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said in a statement reported by the official Saudi news agency.

[Iranian threats led to White House’s deployment announcement, U.S. officials say]

A statement from Thome Ship Management, the owners of the Norwegian-flagged vessel, said an “unknown object” had created a hole in the hull of one of its ships, the MT Andrea Victory. Photographs of the ship showing a hole just above the waterline have been published, according to the Associated Press.

A photo made available by the U.S. Navy shows the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln transiting the Suez Canal on May 9.

Neither Saudi Arabia nor the United Arab Emirates produced photographs to support claims that Saudi tankers had been damaged. Falih said the apparent attacks did not cause any casualties or oil spills, and they did not attribute blame for the apparent sabotage.

The incidents coincide, however, with a surge in U.S.-Iranian tensions after the United States said last week that it has received intelligence that Iran was planning some kind of attack on U.S. forces in the Middle East.

In response to the threat, the Pentagon dispatched reinforcements to the Persian Gulf, including an aircraft carrier, a Patriot missile battery and a squadron of B-52 bombers. The moves prompted Iran to warn that it is prepared to retaliate if it is attacked.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry condemned the possible shipping attacks as “alarming and regrettable” and said it would have a “negative effect” on shipping safety and maritime security, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency.

Abbas Mousavi, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, suggested that the sabotage might have been carried out as part of a conspiracy to ignite conflict in the region. He cautioned against what he called “plots by ill-wishers to disrupt regional security” and called for an inquiry.

Rouhani announces ‘reduction not withdrawal’ from Iran nuclear deal

In a May 8 televised address, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his country would stop complying with parts of the landmark nuclear deal.

Iran also announced last week that it would pull out of parts of its 2015 nuclear deal with major world powers and step up uranium enrichment, raising concern among the accord’s remaining signatories that it will soon collapse altogether.

Speaking in Brussels, British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt warned of the risk that the tensions could trigger an unintended conflict in the region.

“We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident with an escalation that is unintended,” he told reporters ahead of a European Union meeting later Monday about ways to salvage the deal.

The spike in tensions comes after the Trump administration’s decision to lift sanctions waivers from eight countries that import Iranian oil, in a bid to bring Iran’s exports down to “zero,” according to U.S. officials. Iranian imports had already plunged after the U.S. reimposed sanctions in November, following the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear accord. The expiration of the waivers is expected to inflict further pain on Iran’s already reeling economy.

It was not immediately clear whether the two Saudi vessels that were damaged were among four ships that the United Arab Emirates said Sunday were sabotaged in the same area. Hours before the UAE reported the damage to the ships, Iran-linked news outlets had circulated reports that a big attack on the port at Fujairah had set fire to seven ships. Those have since been proved false.

The U.S. maritime authority reissued an earlier warning after the Sunday attacks that Iran might seek to target commercial shipping in the area, the Associated Press reported.

“Since early May, there is an increased possibility that Iran and/or its regional proxies could take action against U.S. and partner interests, including oil production infrastructure, after recently threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz,” said an earlier warning issued last week. “Iran or its proxies could respond by targeting commercial vessels, including oil tankers, or U.S. military vessels in the Red Sea, Bab-el-Mandeb Strait or the Persian Gulf.”

The State Department also updated a travel advisory to U.S. citizens in Iraq on Monday that was issued in the wake of the rising tensions last week. Among other threats, the advisory cautioned Americans of the risk posed by “anti-U.S. sectarian militias,” a reference to the Iranian-backed Shiite militias that play a powerful role in Iraq.

The latest advisory simply warned: “Do not travel to Iraq.”

Iraq is one of the locations where Iran may be plotting to attack U.S. interests, U.S. officials have told American news outlets.

From the U.S. State Department

Iraq Travel Advisory

Travel Advisory
April 9, 2019

Iraq – Level 4: Do Not Travel

Do not travel to Iraq due to terrorism, kidnapping, and armed conflict.

U.S. citizens in Iraq are at high risk for violence and kidnapping. Numerous terrorist and insurgent groups are active in Iraq and regularly attack both Iraqi security forces and civilians. Anti-U.S. sectarian militias may also threaten U.S. citizens and Western companies throughout Iraq. Attacks by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) occur frequently in many areas of the country, including Baghdad.

The U.S. government’s ability to provide routine and emergency services to U.S. citizens in Iraq is extremely limited. On October 18, 2018, the Department of State ordered the temporary suspension of operations at the U.S. Consulate General in Basrah. The American Citizens Services (ACS) Section at the U.S. Embassy Baghdad will continue to provide consular services to U.S. citizens in Basrah.

U.S. citizens should not travel through Iraq to Syria to engage in armed conflict, where they would face extreme personal risks (kidnapping, injury, or death) and legal risks (arrest, fines, and expulsion). The Kurdistan Regional Government stated that it will impose prison sentences of up to ten years on individuals who illegally cross the border. Additionally, fighting on behalf of, or supporting designated terrorist organizations, is a crime that can result in penalties, including prison time and large fines in the United States.

Due to risks to civil aviation operating within or in the vicinity of Iraq, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) and/or a Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR). For more information, U.S. citizens should consult the Federal Aviation Administration’s Prohibitions, Restrictions and Notices.

Read the Safety and Security section on the country information page.

From The Wall Street Journal

Two Saudi Arabian oil tankers were sabotaged in an attack over the weekend near the Strait of Hormuz, the kingdom’s energy minister said, sending oil prices higher amid heightened military tensions in the Persian Gulf.

The Saudi tankers were attacked at 6 a.m. Sunday in the Gulf of Oman off the eastern coast of the United Arab Emirates as they prepared to cross into the Persian Gulf, the minister, Khalid al-Falih said Monday. The attacks resulted in “significant damage to the structures of the two vessels,” Mr. Falih said, though it didn’t result in an oil spill. He referred to the incident as sabotage.

The U.S. said last week that it is sending an aircraft carrier, bombers and a Patriot antimissile battery to the Persian Gulf to counter what the Trump administration says is a growing threat from Iran. Washington has placed crippling economic sanctions on Iran and is trying to push its oil exports to zero in a bid to force it to give up regional influence, scale back its military activities and stop threatening Israel.

Some Iranian officials have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in response to the sanctions, but there has been no follow through. Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi described Sunday’s incident as “dreadful” and called for an investigation, according to the semiofficial ISNA news agency.

“Such incidents have negative impact on maritime transportation security,” he said, adding that countries in the region should be “vigilant against destabilizing plots of foreign agents.”

A senior Saudi official not authorized to speak publicly about the issue said Riyadh and Abu Dhabi don’t know who was behind the attacks and doubted Iran was behind it because of the risk of escalation with the U.S. An American official focused on Iran issues said the U.S. hadn’t determined what had happened in the attack.

“It would be very clumsy from the Iranians,” the U.S. official said.

Still, the threat of attacks on oil vessels near a strategic chokepoint for crude supplies caused prices to rise Monday. Brent crude, the global oil benchmark, was up 1.54% at $71.71 a barrel in London. West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. oil standard, was last up 1.18% at $62.39 a barrel.

A third of the world’s liquefied natural gas and of the oil shipped by sea flows through the strait for export from Persian Gulf countries. One of the ships was headed to the Saudi port of Ras Tanura on the Persian Gulf to load oil bound for the U.S., Mr. Falih said.

The attack on Saudi ships happened the day the U.A.E. reported attacks on four commercial vessels near its territorial waters off the coast of the eastern emirate of Fujairah.

Fujairah is the only Emirati terminal on the country’s eastern Gulf of Oman coast, a site the UAE is trying to build into the world’s largest oil storage site. It allows tankers to pick up from and unload into tanks without passing through the Strait of Hormuz

Exactly what happened to the tankers was difficult to ascertain.

One of them, a Saudi-flagged tanker called Al-Marzoqah, suffered an explosion after its main engine caught on fire, said officials involved with the vessel. The officials said the fire’s cause remained unknown Monday.

The Marzoqah gave its destination as the Gulf of Oman port of Fujairah in the UAE, laden with oil picked up at the Saudi Red Sea port of Yanbu, according to

Saudi oil tankers have in the past been vulnerable to attacks from regional foes.

Twice last year, Houthi rebels attacked Saudi tankers off the Red Sea coast of Yemen. After the second attack, in July, Saudi Arabia halted oil exports through the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, a key waterway for oil shipments.

An attack on an oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman waters off the UAE is a rare event, said Robin Mills, chief executive of Qamaar Energy, a Dubai consultancy. “Security is tight,” he said.

An exception, he said, was the 2010 bomb attack on a Japanese tanker called the M Star. A terrorist group that said it was inspired by al Qaeda claimed responsibility.

Mr. Falih called on the international community to protect maritime navigation and oil tankers, noting the knock-on danger to energy markets and the global economy if they come under threat.

Meanwhile, European foreign ministers warned Monday of the risks of escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran, while even Washington’s closest allies said Tehran must not be “set back on the path” towards obtaining nuclear weapons.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is due in Brussels later Monday for meetings with some European counterparts to discuss Iran and his upcoming trip to Russia.

Ahead of Mr. Pompeo’s arrival, U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he would share with his U.S. counterpart his concerns “about the risk of a conflict happening by accident” between the U.S. and Iran.

“I think what we need is a period of calm to make sure everyone understands what the other side is thinking,” he said. “And most of all, we need to make sure we don’t end up putting Iran back on the path to re-nuclearisation.”

From Bloomberg

Saudi Arabia said two of its oil tankers were attacked while sailing toward the Persian Gulf, adding to regional tensions as the U.S. increases pressure on Iran. Crude rose as much as 2%.

The tankers were damaged in “a sabotage attack” off the United Arab Emirates coast on Sunday, state-run Saudi Press Agency reported. The vessels were approaching the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most important chokepoint for oil shipments.

The U.A.E. foreign ministry on Sunday reported an attack on four commercial ships. No one has claimed responsibility. Two of the targeted tankers were registered in Saudi Arabia, one was flagged in the U.A.E. and the other in Norway, according to a U.A.E. government official.

The precise nature of the incident remained unclear — neither Saudi Arabia nor the U.A.E. said exactly what happened or identified potential culprits. The U.S. deployed an aircraft carrier, bomber planes and defense missiles to the region last week amid worsening friction with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival. U.A.E. stock markets posted their steepest decline in more than three years.

Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih said the incident aims “to undermine the freedom of maritime navigation, and the security of oil supplies to consumers all over the world,” according to SPA. He urged the international community to ensure the security of oil tankers “to mitigate against the adverse consequences of such incidents on energy markets, and the danger they pose to the global economy.”

Antagonism between the U.S. and Iran intensified this month after President Trump ended exceptions to U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil sales. The Islamic Republic has threatened to block oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz if the U.S. halts Iranian energy exports and to scale back its obligations under the 2015 nuclear deal.

Crude Rises

Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Abbas Mousavi described the maritime incident as “concerning and regrettable” and called for efforts to shed light on what exactly happened, the semi-official Tasnim News reported. He warned against “foreign seditious plots to upset the region’s security and stability.”

Global crude benchmark Brent for July settlement rose as much as $1.38 on Monday to $72 a barrel on the London-based ICE Futures Europe exchange. Oil had been losing ground since late last month on signs that Saudi Arabia would pump more to make up for lost Iranian barrels and a looming trade war between the world’s two largest economies, the U.S. and China.

Rising geopolitical tension has also weighed on stock markets in the Gulf this week. Dubai’s benchmark dropped 4%, the most among major gauges tracked by Bloomberg globally. Saudi Arabia’s Tadawul All Share Index retreated 1.8%, and shares of Bahri, the kingdom’s biggest owner of oil tankers, dipped as much as 4.1% to their lowest value since 2013. Bahri owns the two Saudi tankers, according to data complied by Bloomberg.

Tanker War

The U.A.E.’s foreign ministry said it’s investigating the tanker incident with local and international parties. No one was hurt, and no fuel or chemicals were spilled, the state-run WAM news agency quoted the ministry as saying. One of the two Saudi tankers was on its way to the port of Ras Tanura to load oil for shipment to the U.S., according to SPA.

The targeted vessels were the Amjad, Al Marzoqah, A. Michel and Andrea Victory, according to the U.A.E. government official.

Attacks on oil tankers in the turbulent Gulf have been rare since 1991. Saudi Arabia continued shipping through the Strait of Hormuz during the so-called tanker war, a phase of the 1981-88 conflict between Iraq and Iran when both foes attacked vessels in the Gulf. Oil exports flowed also during the first Gulf War in 1990-91.

A Japanese tanker, the M. Star, was damaged in a bomb attack in 2010 when it was docked about 14 miles (22 kilometers) off the U.A.E. coast near the port of Fujairah. The Brigades of Abdullah Azzam, a militant jihadist group, claimed responsibility.

The Strait of Hormuz connects the Gulf to the Indian Ocean. Iran lies to the north and the U.A.E. and Oman to the south. Hormuz is the single most important waterway for global oil shipments, with tankers hauling about 40% of all the crude traded internationally every day. All oil exports from Kuwait, Iran, Qatar and Bahrain, more than 90% of those from Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and 75% of shipments from the U.A.E. pass through the strait.

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