US points to Iranian dissent in wake of deadly drone strike as police accused of shooting protesters

WASHINGTON (AP) - Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other administration officials joined President Donald Trump in trying to draw attention to dissent in Iran instead of lingering questions about the scale of the threat used to justify a drone strike on Iran’s top military leader.

Esper added to the uncertainty over the intelligence behind last week’s killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani when he said Sunday that he had seen no hard evidence that four American embassies had been under possible threat.

Trump said last Friday that Soleimani had been planning such an attack.

U.S. officials say that their troops were informed of an imminent attack hours before a barrage of Iranian ballistic missiles struck a key Iraqi airbase hosting American forces.

One U.S. army officer described on Monday giving the order for American troops at Ain al-Asad air base, in western Iraq, to go on lockdown and later into bunkers before Iranian missiles started slamming into the area.

Officials said no U.S. troops were killed or injured, although one officer said several were treated for concussions.

The attack was in retaliation for the U.S. drone strike near Baghdad airport that killed Soleimani, prompting angry calls to avenge his slaying.

An Associated Press crew touring the Ain al-Asad base Monday saw large craters in the ground and damaged military trailers and housing units.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats have questioned the strategy behind Trump’s order to kill Soleimani, which was made without prior approval from Congress, pointing to potential consequences of heightened tensions that could endanger U.S. troops and lead to war with Iran.

A flurry of diplomatic visits and meetings crisscrossing the Persian Gulf are driving urgent efforts to defuse the possibility of all-out war after the U.S. killed Iran’s top military commander.

Global leaders and top diplomats are repeating in recent days the mantra of “de-escalation” and “dialogue,” yet none have publicly laid out a path to achieving either.

The United States and Iran have said they do not want war, but fears have grown that the crisis could spin out of Tehran’s or Washington’s control.

Qatar’s emir visited Iran warning that it was “a very sensitive time for the region.” Japan’s premier has been touring oil-producing Arab Gulf states, while Iran’s foreign minister visited Oman, traditionally a mediator between the U.S. and Iran.

As the administration struggled with its justification for the strike, Esper and others tried to refocus attention on voices of dissent inside Iran.

Demonstrators continue to protest against the Islamic Republic’s initial denial that it shot down a Ukrainian jetliner. Online videos purport to show Iranian police and security forces firing both tear gas and live rounds to disperse them.

The videos obtained by The Associated Press on Monday show protesters gathered near Tehran’s Azadi, or Freedom, Square on Sunday night. They show tear gas being fired on what appears to be a peaceful crowd, which then turns to run away. Gunfire can be heard in the background.

Another clip shows a woman being carried away as a crowd shouts that she’s been shot.

Iranian state media did not immediately report on the incident.

Trump addressed the country’s leaders in a tweet Sunday, saying “DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTERS.” He tweeted a message of support for the protesters the day before.

Iran had deployed riot police in Tehran in anticipation of the protests. Videos suggested similar protests were taking place in other Iranian cities.

Esper says street protests show the Iranian people are hungry for a more accountable government.

After initially blaming the Ukrainian plane’s crash on a technical failure, Iran authorities finally admitted Saturday to accidentally shooting it down in the face of mounting evidence and accusations by Western leaders.

Canada’s Transportation Safety Board says that Iranian officials have invited it to participate as an observer in analysis of the voice and flight data recorders from the Ukrainian jetliner shot down by a missile.

A military statement says the plane was mistaken for a “hostile target." The crash killed all 176 people including 57 Canadians.

TSB Chair Kathy Fox said Monday the TSB is working to build trust with the Iranians and hopes to play a larger role.

Canadian experts also have been invited to inspect the wreckage and the crash site. Two investigators have obtained visas to travel to Iran and a second team with expertise in recorder download and analysis will be sent.

The plane was shot down just hours after Iran launched ballistic missiles on two American bases in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Soleimani.

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