Archive for June 18, 2013


June 15, 2013

BAGHDAD (AP) — The leader of al-Qaida’s Iraq arm defiantly rejected an order from the terror network’s central command to stop claiming control over the organization’s Syria affiliate, according to a message purportedly from him that was posted online Saturday.

The latest statement by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who heads the Islamic State of Iraq, reveals a growing rift within al-Qaida’s global network. It also highlights the Iraqi wing’s determination to link its own fight against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad with the cause of rebels trying to topple the Iran-backed Syrian regime.

His statement surfaced as rockets rained down on a Baghdad camp housing Iranian exiles, killing three people in the latest sign of growing unrest inside Iraq. The attack drew sharp condemnations from Washington and the United Nations.

In an audio message posted online, the speaker identified as al-Baghdadi insists that a merger he announced in April with Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra rebel group to create a cross-border movement known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will go on.

Al-Nusra is an al-Qaida affiliate that has emerged as one of the most effective rebel factions in Syria. Its head, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, has rejected the takeover attempt by al-Baghdadi. “The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will continue,” al-Baghdadi said. “We will not compromise and we will not give up.”

Al-Qaida’s global leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has tried to end the squabbling and bring the group’s local affiliates back in line. In a letter posted online by Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV last Sunday, al-Zawahiri declared that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will be abolished and that the Iraqi and Syrian groups would remain independent with al-Baghdadi and al Golani as leaders of their respective branches.

Al-Baghdadi is now defying that command. In his statement, he referred to “the letter attributed to Sheik al-Zawahiri,” suggesting he was calling into question the authenticity of the letter. “I chose the command of God over the command that runs against it in the letter,” al-Baghdadi said.

He urged his followers to rise up against Shiites, Alawites, and the “Party of Satan” — a reference to the Iran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah, which has been sending fighters to Syria to fight alongside President Bashar Assad’s regime. Assad comes from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

It was not possible to independently confirm whether the speaker was al-Baghdadi, but the man’s voice was similar to that of earlier recordings. Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, said there are indications that Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant are operating as distinct groups inside of Syria.

He described al-Baghdadi’s defiance as “a potentially very damaging split within al-Qaida’s senior leadership.” “Al-Baghdadi’s statement underlines an extent of division between himself and Zawahiri but also with another al-Qaida affiliate,” Lister said. “Fundamentally, al-Baghdadi appears to be acting according to his own interests, instead of those of his ultimate ’employer,’ al-Qaida.”

Violence has spiked sharply in Iraq in recent months, with the death toll rising to levels not seen since 2008. Al-Qaida in Iraq is thought responsible for many of the car bombings and other violent attacks targeting the country’s majority Shiites and symbols of the Shiite-led government’s authority.

Iraq risks growing more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war raging across its western border. Iraqi border posts along the Syrian frontier have come under attack by rebels, and Syrian truck drivers and soldiers have been killed inside Iraq.

Iraqi fighters are moving across the border, with Sunni extremists cooperating with the rebels and Shiite militants fighting alongside government forces. Also on Saturday, an Iranian exile group living in a camp near Baghdad airport reported multiple casualties when the compound, known as Camp Liberty, came under attack from rockets.

The group, the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, is the militant wing of a Paris-based Iranian opposition group that opposes Iran’s clerical regime and has carried out assassinations and bombings in Iran. It fought alongside Saddam Hussein’s forces in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, and several thousand of its members were given sanctuary in Iraq. It renounced violence in 2001, and was removed from the U.S. terrorism list last year.

Camp residents Kolthom Serahati and Javad Naghashan were killed and several others were wounded, according to the NCRI. Several Katyusha rockets struck the area, according to Iraqi security officials. Police and hospital officials said an Iraqi was also killed, and that the wounded included at least nine Iranians and seven Iraqis. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

Iraq’s government wants the MEK out of the country, and the United Nations is working to relocate residents abroad. Several residents moved to Albania last month. U.N. envoy Martin Kobler condemned the attack, which he said happened despite “repeated requests to the government of Iraq to provide Camp Liberty and its residents with protective measures.” He urged U.N. member states to do more to help resettle the residents abroad.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described the rocket strikes as “brutal, senseless, and utterly unacceptable.” He said in a statement that Washington has urged the Iraqi government to provide medical assistance, ensure residents’ safety and bring those responsible to justice.

“We must find a permanent and long-term solution that ensures their safety,” he said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Saturday’s attack. A similar deadly attack in February was blamed on Shiite militants. The head of one Shiite militia, the Mukhtar Army, later that month threatened further strikes on the compound.

In another attack, Sunni cleric Khalil al-Fahdawi was killed when a bomb stuck to his car exploded late the previous night near Ramadi, police said Saturday. The cleric has been a supporter of Sunni anti-government protests that have been raging for months and exacerbating sectarian tensions.

Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed reporting.

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June 15, 2013

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s Islamist president announced Saturday that he was cutting off diplomatic relations with Syria and closing Damascus’ embassy in Cairo, decisions made amid growing calls from hard-line Sunni clerics in Egypt and elsewhere to launch a “holy war” against Syria’s embattled regime.

Mohammed Morsi told thousands of supporters at a rally in Cairo that his government was also withdrawing the Egyptian charge d’affaires from Damascus. He called on Lebanon’s Hezbollah to leave Syria, where the Iranian-backed Shiite militant group has been fighting alongside troops loyal to embattled President Bashar Assad against the mostly Sunni rebels.

“Hezbollah must leave Syria. This is serious talk: There is no business or place for Hezbollah in Syria,” said Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president. Assad’s regime, he said, will have no place in the future of Syria after committing what Morsi called “horrors” against its people.

Morsi’s address, particularly his call on Hezbollah to leave Syria, and the fiery rhetoric used by well-known Muslim clerics this weekend point to the increasing perception of the Syrian conflict as sectarian. At least 93,000 people have been killed since turmoil there began more than two years ago.

The rally that Morsi addressed on Saturday was called for by hardline Islamists loyal to the Egyptian president to show solidarity with the people of Syria. Morsi addressed the rally after several hardline Islamist clerics spoke, all of whom called on him to do everything he could to help the Syrian rebels. Those attending the rally, about 20,000, chanted for solidarity with the Syrians, but occasionally deviated to shout slogans in support of Morsi.

The Egyptian president picked up a flag of the Syrian revolution and another of Egypt and waved them to the crowd as he entered the indoor stadium in a Cairo suburb. Morsi also used the occasion to warn his opponents at home against the use of violence in mass protests planned for June 30, the anniversary of his assumption to power. Before he spoke, one hardline cleric, Mohammed Abdel-Maqsoud, recited an often repeated Muslim prayer against the “enemies” of God and Islam but used it to refer to the June 30 protesters.

The climate in the Cairo indoor stadium where the rally was held appeared to further entrench the division of Egypt into two camps: one led by Morsi, his Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, and the other grouping the secular and liberal opposition together with moderate Muslims, minority Christians and a large percentage of women.

In his address, Morsi repeated the allegation that Egyptians loyal to the now-ousted regime of autocrat Hosni Mubarak were behind the planned protests and that they were working against the January 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak. As customary since taking office, he spoke of himself as a guardian and protector of the revolution, an assertion hotly disputed by his critics.

“Some who are delusionary want to pounce on the January revolution and think that they can undermine the stability that is growing daily or undermine the resolve that people have clearly forged with their will,” said Morsi.

“We will deal with them decisively and there will never be a place for them among us,” he told his supporters. Morsi’s government is widely thought to have failed to tackle any of the seemingly endless problems facing the country, from power cuts and surging crime to unemployment, steep price rises and fuel shortages. The declared aim of the June 30 protests is to force Morsi out and hold early presidential elections.

Morsi’s allies say the protests have no legal basis and amount to a coup against his legitimate rule. They have been calling on opposition leaders to enter a national political dialogue to resolve the crisis, but the opposition has turned down the offer, claiming that previous rounds of dialogue did not yield results.

Spearheading the opposition to Morsi’s rule now is a youth protest movement called Tamarod, or rebel, which claims to have collected millions of signatures of Egyptians who want Morsi to step down. Organizers say they aim to collect the signatures of more people than those who voted for Morsi in the June 2012 election.

Some of the hard-line clerics who support Morsi have branded Tamarod activists as infidels or heretics and sought to frame their movement as an act against Islam.

June 17, 2013

ISTANBUL (AP) — Riot police cordoned off streets, set up roadblocks and fired tear gas and water cannon to prevent anti-government protesters from converging on Istanbul’s central Taksim Square on Sunday, unbowed even as Turkey’s prime minister addressed hundreds of thousands of supporters a few kilometers away.

The contrasting scenes pointed to an increasing polarization in Turkish society — one which critics say Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has fueled with the fiery rhetoric he has maintained since they began more than two weeks ago.

A police crackdown Saturday evening that ended an 18-day peaceful sit-in at Taksim Square’s Gezi Park sparked daylong unrest on the streets of Istanbul, while police also broke up demonstrations in the capital, Ankara, and the southern city of Adana.

The protests began in Gezi Park more than two weeks ago and spread to dozens of cities across the country. Erdogan has blamed them on a nebulous plot to destabilize his government. Five people, including a policeman, have died and more than 5,000 have been injured, according to a Turkish rights group.

Elected to his third term just two years ago with 50 percent of the vote and having steered his country to healthy economic growth, the protests are unlikely to prove an immediate threat to Erdogan’s government. But they have dented his international image and exposed growing divisions within Turkish society. Never before in his 10-year tenure has Erdogan faced such an open or broad expression of discontent.

Critics have accused him of an increasingly autocratic way of governing and of trying to impose his conservative Muslim views on the lifestyles of the entire population in a country governed by secular laws — charges he vehemently denies.

“They say, ‘Mr. prime minister, you are too harsh,’ and some (call me) ‘dictator’,” he said during his speech in his second political rally in as many days. “What kind of a dictator meets with people who occupy Gezi Park as well as the sincere environmentalists?” he questioned, referring to a meeting Thursday night with protest representatives.

Erdogan defended his decision to send police in to end the occupation of the park, where protesters had set up a tent city complete with a library, food distribution center, infirmary, children’s activity area and plant nursery. Water cannon and tear gas forced thousands to flee, and cleanup crews ripped down the tents and food overnight.

“I did my duty as prime minister,” he told his supporters. “Otherwise there would be no point in my being in office.” About 10 kilometers (six miles) away in the center of the city, police fired tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets to disperse thousands of protesters trying to converge on Taksim Square. In some neighborhoods, protesters set up barricades across streets while youths threw stones at police.

In others, police broke up demonstrations with dense clouds of stinging tear gas that sent protesters fleeing into side streets. Some took refuge in nearby cafes and restaurants, where waiters clutched napkins to their faces to ward off the gas.

Similar scenes developed in Ankara, where around 50 demonstrators were injured, including a 20-year-old woman who was in critical condition after being hit in the back of her head with a tear gas canister, according to Selcuk Atalay, secretary-general of the Ankara Medical Association.

In the southern city of Adana, police clashed with stone-throwing demonstrators, the state-run Anadolu Agency said. A fight broke also broke out between the demonstrators, with one group trying to prevent the other from throwing stones at police.

Anadolu said a total of 105 people were detained in Ankara, including a Russian and an Iranian. Rights group Amnesty International said more than 100 people were believed to have been detained during Saturday’s demonstrations in Taksim and nearby districts, and said police were refusing to give details of their whereabouts.

Some among the thousands who fled Gezi Park during Saturday night’s police operation had still not managed to return home by Sunday afternoon, fearing being arrested by the police. Erdogan has repeatedly labeled those who attended the park protests as troublemakers and illegal groups, although he has also said he understood the complaints of those who had truly environmental concerns at heart.

One young man who had been demonstrating for days in Taksim Square and Gezi Park, said that as he and his friends fled the police operation in Gezi Park, they ran into a group of men armed with iron bars who chased them through the streets. It was unclear who they were.

Kenan, who spoke on condition his full name not be used for fear of arrest or being targeted in reprisals, said the group took refuge in an apartment building, where they were still hiding late Sunday afternoon.

Labor unions called for a one-day strike that would include doctors, lawyers, engineers and civil servants in support of the protesters. Strikes, however, often have little visible impact on daily life in Turkey.

In a potentially worrying development suggestive of a possible escalation in the violence, Erdogan said two police officers had been injured by bullets fired during the overnight unrest. “(One) was shot with a bullet in the stomach, the other was shot in the leg,” he said.

On Sunday, TV footage showed police detaining white-jacketed medical personnel who had been helping treat injured protesters, leading them away with their hands cuffed behind their backs. Istanbul Gov. Huseyin Avni Mutlu denied they were medical staff.

“They wore doctors’ white coats but had nothing to do with medicine or health. In fact, one of them had seven separate criminal records for theft,” he said on his Twitter account, contradicting earlier comments in which he had said several doctors had been detained.

Amnesty International noted that the health minister had previously stated that the improvised infirmaries set up by protesters to treat those injured in clashes or during police intervention were illegal and that doctors could face prosecution.

“It is completely unacceptable that doctors should be threatened with prosecution for providing medical attention for people in need,” Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s researcher on Turkey, said in a statement. “The doctors must be released immediately and any threat to prosecute them removed.”

Fraser reported from Ankara. Burhan Ozbilici and Jamey Keaten in Ankara contributed to this report.