Britain has raised the threat level for UK forces and diplomats in Iraq because of what sources say is a heightened security risk from Iran, Sky News can reveal.
The UK has also put its personnel and their families in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar on an increased state of alert.
The UK assessment appears to be similar to US claims of a heightened threat amid escalating tensions between Donald Trump’s administration and Tehran.
One Whitehall source said Britain believes there is an increased likelihood of Iran or its proxies taking action against British, US or other allied interests in the region in a way that can be plausibly denied so as to avoid triggering an all-out war.
The targets would most likely be soft such as oil infrastructure or other civilian targets, the source said.
The aim would be to cause disruption but not to do something that could be directly linked back to the regime and therefore trigger a hard US response.
The source said the goal would be to signal Iranian anger at renewed US sanctions on Iran, which are hurting, and to push for them to be eased.
This analysis was confirmed by two other sources with knowledge of the UK understanding of the situation.
The Ministry of Defence raised the threat level for service personnel in Iraq before a senior British military officer played down warnings of any new Iranian risk posed to British, US and other forces in the country, according to an informed source.
The comments on Tuesday by Major General Chris Ghika, the top UK military officer in the US-led coalition against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, were seen by a number of media outlets as a sign of a rift between the threat assessments of the UK and the US on Iran.
But the informed source told Sky News that Major General Ghika had been aware of the increased security risk as he had seen a number of intelligence reports setting out the situation.
When asked to comment at a media briefing, he had not known whether he was authorised to disclose this information, which is why he instead struck a more cautious tone, the source said.
The heightened security risk spreads beyond Iraq, with British officials and a number of civilians working in sectors such as the oil industry in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait also put on a heightened state of alert because of the Iranian threat, sources said.
Contingency plans in case the UK decides it has to remove personnel from all or any of these countries have started to be activated, though this is only at a very early stage and is currently precautionary in case the crisis escalates, a number of sources said.
In one example, families based in Kuwait have been advised against weekend days out in remote areas because of the heightened risk.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Iran unit is in “full crisis mode” because of the increased threat from Iran and the US response, with the movement of an American aircraft carrier task group, B-52 bombers and a missile defence system into the Gulf region.
Sky News understands that the government’s National Security Council discussed Iran as a “hot topic” on Tuesday.
A lot of diplomatic efforts by Britain are going on behind the scenes to try to resolve the standoff between the United States and Iran peacefully.
Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, spoke on Wednesday evening by phone with his Omani counterpart. Oman has good relations with Iran.
They “exchanged views on what is going on”, a Whitehall source said.
The foreign secretary urged Oman to use its influence to push for calm, the source said.
“We all want to avoid escalation,” the source added.
The foreign office and the MoD declined to comment.
Hong Kong: Police use water cannon for first time against protesters | World News
Hong Kong police have used water cannon against anti-government protesters for the first time during a second straight day of demonstrations.
There have been skirmishes between activists and officers following a pro-democracy march in an area known as the New Territories where tens of thousands took to the streets.
A large crowd then attended a rally in a park but another group of protesters took over a main street, putting up barricades with traffic barriers and cones.
Police tried to disperse them by firing tear gas but protesters reacted by throwing bricks and other objects towards the officers.
The violence came a day after similar clashes in the Kowloon Bay district where authorities arrested 29 people for offences including unlawful assembly, possession of offensive weapons and assaulting police officers.
According to the South China Morning Post, the custom-built French trucks have 15 high-pressure cannons.
Two cannons on the roof can fire more than 1,200 litres of water a minute over a distance of 50 metres. The water can be mixed with tear gas or liquid dye as well.
According to guidelines, the cannons should only be aimed at the lower limbs of the protesters.
An assistant commissioner of police overseeing operations is allowed to authorise deployment of the water cannon after assessing threats.
The trucks arrived in the city in May last year.
Australia to block websites hosting terror content during attacks | World News
Websites and social media companies that host terrorist material during attacks will be blocked, Australian officials have said.
The government plans to crack down on extremists exploiting digital platforms to post very violent content.
And it is considering bringing in legislation to force the platforms to improve safety.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: “We are doing everything we can to deny terrorists the opportunity to glorify their crimes.”
The clampdown comes after suspected gunman Brenton Tarrant allegedly live-streamed on Facebook an attack on two mosques in March which claimed 51 lives in the New Zealand city of Christchurch.
This led to increased scrutiny of websites and social media companies.
Internet domains hosting any abhorrent violent material – content showing murder, attempted murder, rape, torture, or kidnapping – recorded by those involved would also be blocked, the government said.
A crisis coordination centre would also be set up to monitor the online world for extreme violence or terrorist material.
Mr Morrison is outlining his plans at the G7 summit in the French town of Biarritz, where the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and US gathered.
He is trying to push countries to take more action against terrorist and violent extremist material during a series of meetings on the sidelines of the summit.
The Australian government has not elaborated on what legislative options would be used if digital platforms failed to improve safety.
Tech giants including Facebook, YouTube, Amazon, Microsoft and Twitter, and telecoms firms Telstra, Vodafone, TPG and Optus are set to tell the government next month how they plan to carry out the recommendations.
North Korea test-fires ‘super-large multiple rocket launcher’ | World News
Kim Jong Un has overseen the test-firing of what North Korea has called a “newly developed super-large multiple rocket launcher”.
The weapons test was successful and the leader said the launcher was “indeed a great weapon”, according to the country’s Central News Agency.
Photos released by state media showed rockets launching from large tubes mounted on the back of an eight-wheel vehicle.
South Korea’s military said the North fired two suspected short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast and they flew for 236 miles (380km) at a maximum height of 60 miles (97km).
It was the seventh known weapons test in about a month.
And analysts said it appeared to be at least the fourth new missile system unveiled by Pyongyang since denuclearisation talks stalled at a February summit in Vietnam between Mr Kim and US President Donald Trump.
The head of the secretive state said on Saturday his country must step up the development of new strategic and tactical weapons to combat “ever-mounting military threats and pressure offensive of the hostile forces”.
The “hostile forces” are thought to refer to the US and South Korea – two countries which recently carried out annual military drills that infuriated Pyongyang.
The North has called the drills a rehearsal for an invasion and has hit back by conducting a number of missile and rocket tests.
Mr Kim also claimed the country’s young defence scientists who developed the missiles are a “precious treasure and wealth of the country which cannot be bartered for anything”.
Experts have said North Korea is showing off its weapons to try to get an upper hand before a possible restart of negotiations with the US over Pyongyang’s controversial nuclear weapons programme.
Mr Kim and Mr Trump met at the Korean border in late June and agreed to resume talks.
The president played down the latest launch, saying: “Kim Jong Un has been, you know, pretty straight with me… He likes testing missiles but we never restricted short-range missiles. We’ll see what happens.”
Meanwhile, South Korea’s military has begun two days of drills around a group of islets that are also claimed by Japan.
The action sparked a protest from Tokyo just days after Seoul scrapped an intelligence-sharing pact with its neighbour amid worsening relations.
The two countries have long argued over the sovereignty of the islets, called Takeshima in Japanese and Dokdo in Korean, which are located halfway between the countries in the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea.
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