Archive for June 21, 2013

By Tom Perry and Alastair Macdonald

CAIRO | Fri Jun 21, 2013

(Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Islamist supporters of Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi gathered in Cairo after Friday prayers to show support for the elected head of state before protests that his opponents hope can force him from office.

Crowds converged on a mosque in the suburb of Nasr City, many waving the national flag, some carrying pictures of the bearded president, in what is intended to demonstrate the Islamists’ strength of numbers ahead of the opposition rallies set for June 30, the first anniversary of Mursi’s inauguration.

“Yes to respecting the will of the people!” read some banners.

“There are people seeking a coup against the lawful order,” said demonstrator Gaber Nader, 22, his head protected from the burning sun by a green banner from Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood, the movement whose organizational strength has won it successive elections since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

“Dr Mursi won in free and fair elections like in any state in the world,” Nader said, shrugging off concerns among the less well organized opposition that the Brotherhood is aiming for a monopoly of power and to install Islamic rule and social order.

“Secular parties are eating the democracy God gave them.”

Mursi’s opponents say they have gathered about 15 million signatures – more than the 13 million votes that elected Mursi a year ago – on a petition calling on him to step down; they say new elections could end the paralyzing polarization of society, though no obvious leader has emerged to build consensus.

Mursi’s opponents have attracted support from many Egyptians who are less politically engaged but exasperated by economic stagnation under the Islamists.

Supporters of the Brotherhood feel their electoral success is under siege from unelected institutions and vested interests rooted in the Mubarak era, when their party was banned. Reflecting this, some in Friday’s crowd – mostly men, with a few heavily veiled women – chanted for “A purge of the judiciary!” and “A purge of the media!”

There was no trouble evident in Cairo, where people packed streets for hundreds of meters around the rallying point at the mosque; there were scuffles in Alexandria when Mursi supporters and opponents faced off briefly in Egypt’s second city.

In Cairo, Brotherhood members armed with green staves said they were ready to protect demonstrators from “thugs”.

“The other side will take this as an excuse for anarchy,” said one man on guard, 26-year-old preacher Amr Hamam, pointing to dozens of injuries in scuffles across Egypt in the past week.


Friday’s rally was held close to the spot where Islamists gunned down Mubarak’s predecessor Anwar Sadat in 1981. The Brotherhood had by that time renounced violence but suffered in a crackdown after Sadat died, as did hardliners from al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, which was involved in the assassination.

Unable, or unwilling, to draw more liberal figures into his administration, and losing the full support of the conservative Salafi Islamist Nour party, Mursi has turned to more radical groups for backing – notably to Gamaa al-Islamiya, one of whose members he made governor of the tourist town of Luxor this week.

That appointment infuriated many who fear further eroding of tourism revenues, since Gamaa al-Islamiya is associated with the massacre at a pharaonic temple in Luxor in 1997 of dozens of foreign visitors, although it has also now renounced violence,

On Friday, dozens of Gamaa al-Islamiya supporters joined the rally for Mursi. Waving their party banner, men chanted their demand for the imposition of Islamic law and rejection of “liberal violence”: “The people want God’s law,” they repeated.

One woman, in black veil and green Islamic headband, said she feared the removal of Mursi would return Egypt to the army rule under which her son was tortured: “They destroyed his mind,” Zeinab Abdullah, 54, said. Such fears among Islamists have led some to warn of civil war if the generals who oversaw the transition from Mubarak to elections move against Mursi.


Opposition groups range from the young liberals who first took to Tahrir Square in January 2011 to challenge Mubarak, to conservatives yearning for the stability of army rule. Many in Egypt’s 10-percent Christian minority also fear the Islamists.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the former top U.N. diplomat who is a leader of the opposition “Rebel!” campaign, told Al-Hayat newspaper that economic problems, including power cuts as summer heat takes hold, were fuelling support for a movement which he said hoped to end the “total polarization in Egypt”.

ElBaradei said a united opposition push could bring an early presidential election that would unseat Mursi, though he himself would not run: “The division of the opposition put Mursi in power and I believe it has realized this mistake,” he said.

Rhetoric has grown more toxic in recent days: one Islamist cleric referred to Mursi’s opponents as “infidels” during a rally attended by the president last week. The opposition are billing it as Mursi’s last days in office, hoping for a repeat of the uprising that toppled Mubarak two and half years ago.

But lawyer Ahmed Farrag, 60, who came from Alexandria to rally for Mursi in Cairo on Friday, said: “It is a coup against the legitimate authorities by counter-revolutionaries present among the opposition parties and remnants of the regime.”

(Additional reporting by Shadia Nasralla; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; editing by David Stamp)

Source: Reuters.


By Jonathon Burch

KONYA, Turkey | Fri Jun 21, 2013

(Reuters) – “This Nation Is With You” declares a small billboard in the center of this conservative central Turkish city, the words emblazoned on an image of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and a sea of his flag-waving supporters.

Cosmopolitan Istanbul or the avenues of the capital Ankara, rattled by weeks of anti-government protest, seem a world away from Konya, an industrial city in Turkey’s pious Anatolian heartland, where support for the premier appears resolute.

The wave of riots has highlighted an underlying tension in Turkish society between a modern, secular middle-class, many living in Istanbul or on the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, and a more conservative, religious population that forms the bedrock of support for Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party.

Konya, a city of 1.1 million with a dynamic economy steeped in Islamic tradition, epitomizes Erdogan’s reformist vision.

Few restaurants serve alcohol, the Islamic headscarf is more in evidence than in the main cities, and tourists are drawn to the tomb of Rumi, a 13th century Sufi mystic, rather than to any wild nightlife.

But it is also modernizing fast. One of the “Anatolian Tigers”, cities whose small industries have flourished under a decade of AK Party rule, Konya’s highways have been widened and a fast train line has put Ankara less than two hours away.

There is little sympathy here for the protesters of Istanbul, Ankara or Izmir, the country’s three biggest cities and the main centers of unrest.

“There is no other party to vote for but the AK Party. Eighty percent of Konya thinks the same as me, go and ask them,” said Yasar Bilen, a central heating salesman who has seen business thrive over the past ten years.

A pious self-made entrepreneur, Bilen, in his 60s, has prospered like many of Erdogan’s grassroots supporters.

“I have changed the car I drive, I have changed the house I live in, I have changed my lifestyle, I have changed the education of my children, I have changed the shoes and clothes I wear,” he said, a black and white picture on his wall of himself with a young Erdogan in 1974.

“The AKP has worked hard and lifted us out of a quagmire.”


Erdogan could hardly have put it better himself.

His forceful, emotional style and common touch have won him unprecedented support in the conservative heartland, enabling him to dominate Turkish politics like no leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the modern republic 90 years ago.

He has made many democratic reforms, taming a military that toppled four governments in four decades, starting entry talks with the European Union and forging peace talks with Kurdish rebels to end a near 30-year war.

Per capita income has tripled in nominal terms and business boomed, with the Anatolian Tigers reaping much of the benefit.

On the electoral map, nearly all of Turkey – apart from the Aegean coast, the mainly Kurdish southeast corner and a small region on the European continent – is AK Party orange.

So Erdogan takes the protests as a personal affront.

But even in AK strongholds, his domineering leadership style and what is seen as his meddling in private lives is beginning to grate – from his declaration of a non-alcoholic yoghurt as the national drink over the potent aniseed spirit raki, to his suggestion that women should bear three children.

There were two or three small protests in Konya in the early days of the unrest, but unlike demonstrations elsewhere, the police stepped in not to break the group up but to protect the protesters from stick-wielding gangs.

“Am I completely happy with Erdogan? Of course not,” said Sinasi Celik, 46, a waiter in the city of Nevsehir, some 200 km (120 miles) east of Konya. “I don’t like his ‘I do what I want’ style … There’s been too much pressure over personal things like how many kids we should have.

“But I’ll tell you, the election outcome here, it wouldn’t change. Because before, there were no roads, no proper hospitals. It’s different now, people are better off.”


A small-scale environmental protest in late May over government plans to develop an Istanbul park quickly spread into the broadest show of public defiance against Erdogan’s government during his decade in power.

Police fired teargas and water cannon to disperse stone-throwing protesters night after night in cities including Istanbul and Ankara, unrest in which four people died and some 7,500 suffered injuries ranging from cuts to breathing difficulties, according to the Turkish Medical Association.

The protesters saw his plan to build a replica Ottoman-era barracks on one of central Istanbul’s few remaining green spaces as symptomatic of an arrogant and overbearing government, the final straw after restrictions on alcohol sales and a police show of force to prevent May Day demonstrations a month earlier.

Those who took to the streets were from all walks of life – doctors and lawyers to leftists and nationalists – but they were predominantly young, often too young to remember the series of military coups and crumbling coalition governments that preceded the AK Party, when Turkey was an economic backwater.

“They want to take our nation back to the dark ages,” said Naci, a 77-year old retired civil servant and resident of Nevsehir, a smaller central Anatolian town.

“I want to ask those protesters: let’s say Erdogan is gone. Who will replace him? That (Kemal) Kilicdaroglu? He can’t even manage a building, let alone govern a nation,” he said of the leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

It is a question even the Istanbul protesters have struggled to answer. The AK Party’s dominance derives, at least in part, from a lack of robust opposition. The center-left CHP has been largely sidelined from government since the 1970s and now holds just 134 seats in the 550-seat parliament.

For the protesters of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, that leaves the AK Party free to impose its will, which many fear includes an agenda of creeping Islamisation.

In Konya, there is little sense of such a threat. Instead, many see in Erdogan a liberator after decades of militantly secularist rule in a nation of 76 million people, the overwhelming majority of whom are Muslims.

“If there’s interference in anyone’s life then it is the Muslims of this country that have suffered … Headscarved girls could not go to university, bearded men could not get employment in state institutions. On the other side, anyone wearing a mini skirt and high heels, no-one said a word,” said Bilen.

“Those that say there is oppression are lying.”

(Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Nevsehir; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Peter Graff)

Source: Reuters.


By Dominic Evans

BEIRUT | Fri Jun 21, 2013

(Reuters) – The Lebanese army sealed off Beirut’s parliamentary district with razor wire and threatened stern action against violence on Friday after a night of unrest stoked by the war in Syria and political paralysis at home.

Around 100 protesters, angered by the postponement of June’s parliamentary election until next year, scuffled with police on Thursday night near parliament. Twenty camped out overnight outside the ring of barbed wire, vowing to maintain the protest.

As the largely peaceful demonstration unfolded in central Beirut, protesters blocked roads with burning tires elsewhere in the capital and in Bekaa Valley towns in eastern Lebanon.

Demonstrators said they were acting in solidarity with residents of the Sunni Muslim Bekaa town of Arsal, which they say has been cut off by security forces investigating the shooting of four Shi’ite Muslim men on Sunday.

Sectarian violence has intensified across Lebanon and particularly in the Bekaa region because of the conflict raging across the border in Syria, where Lebanon’s Shi’ite militia Hezbollah and Lebanese Sunni gunmen have joined opposing sides of the 27-month-old civil war.

Rockets from suspected Syrian rebel positions have hit Shi’ite towns in Lebanon since Hezbollah intervened decisively to recapture the Syrian border town of Qusair for President Bashar al-Assad’s forces earlier this month.

The army also discovered a rocket launcher in an area east of Beirut on Friday. The rocket was still in place, and apparently had not gone off due to a technical fault, a security source said.

The fighting in Syria has already driven half a million Syrian refugees into Lebanon and worsened a political stalemate which forced the election delay and held up efforts to form a new government. Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a Sunni leader, warned this week of the potential for “state collapse”.

President Michel Suleiman has appealed to Hezbollah to bring its fighters home from Syria, saying that further entanglement there by the Iranian-backed movement will fuel instability in Lebanon, still scarred by its own 1975-1990 civil war.


The army said several military posts and patrols were targeted on Thursday night by protesters, some of them armed, and four soldiers were wounded in exchanges of gunfire.

Security sources said at least two demonstrators were hurt in a protest near the main border crossing with Syria at Masnaa.

“The army leadership again urges citizens to be calm and not to follow rumors and sectarian emotions,” the military said in a statement. “It will not be lenient in confronting with force any outlaws or those who harm the armed forces.”

The statement said gunmen fired on army posts in three towns close to the Masnaa border crossing early on Friday. The army returned fire and arrested 22 suspects in raids following the incidents.

Travelers trying to reach Lebanon from Syria on Friday morning said the frontier was closed for several hours due to the skirmishes, but reopened later in the day.

Army commander General Jean Kahwaji was quoted by the local As-Safir newspaper as saying the military would not tolerate any threats to Lebanon’s security during what he described as “very critical and very difficult” times.

In central Beirut, activists said they would keep up their protest against the 17-month extension of parliament, agreed by politicians after they failed to break a deadlock over planned changes to the electoral law.

“We called for a protest yesterday against the extension and against the violation on Lebanon’s democracy,” protester Marwan Maalouf said. “This is a new coup against the republic.

“Security forces used force against the protesters so we decided to set up tents here in a peaceful way to protest the extension. There is a year and a half, we won’t let them rest.”

(Editing by Alistair Lyon)

Source: Reuters.


June 19, 2013

BEIRUT, Lebanon, June 19 (UPI) — Lebanese leaders need to work quickly to prevent sectarian conflict from erupting as the threat from Syria’s war moves closer, the speaker of Parliament said.

Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said Wednesday there were growing concerns about “sectarian strife” in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s political structure is divided along religious lines. Those divisions have been strained by the role Shiite movement Hezbollah has played in Syria’s civil war.

Hezbollah says it is fighting alongside pro-government forces in Syria to protect Lebanon from Syrian rebel groups, some of which are aligned with al-Qaida. Conflict has erupted, however, between pro- and anti-Syria elements near Lebanese-Syrian border.

Berri was quoted by the official National News Agency as calling “for doubling efforts to put an end to such attempts that threaten [to destabilize] the country.”

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said from Beirut the refugee crisis was compounding the issue for Lebanon. He said Lebanon is on pace to host more than 1 million Syrian refugees by the end of the year.

Guterres said the threat of spillover from the Syrian war “is now becoming a harsh reality” for countries like Lebanon.

“The international community must overcome its divisions and come together to stop the fighting if we want to prevent the flames of war from spreading across the Middle East,” he said in a statement.

Source: United Press International (UPI).


Friday 21 June 2013

Dubai has added a new item to its top ambitions such as building the world’s largest Ferris wheel and bidding for an Angry Birds theme park — a site honoring the Holy Qur’an.

The estimated $7.3 million project will include a garden with plants mentioned in the holy book and an air-conditioned tunnel depicting events from the Qur’an.

The park should be ready in September 2014, reports said. It will be in Al-Khawaneej and, according to Dubai Municipality, it has been specially designed in the Islamic perspective to introduce the miracles of Qur’an through a variety of surprises for the visitors.

The park will include all available plants mentioned in the Qur’an, along with facilities such as main entrance, administration building, Islamic garden, play areas, Umrah corner, outside theater, areas for miracles of the Qur’an, fountains, bathrooms, desert garden and palm oasis. It will also have a lake, running track, cycling track and sandy walking track.

Source: Arab News.


June 19, 2013

BEIRUT, Lebanon, June 19 (UPI) — Forces loyal to embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad are reported tightening a cordon around the northern city of Aleppo, once the country’s commercial heart, in a major offensive against rebels who hold 60 percent of the city.

The regime, dominated by the minority Alawite sect, is massing tanks and artillery around the ancient city that was once part of the famed Silk Road to China, for the coming showdown military analysts say could determine the course of the civil war, now in its third year.

Assad’s troops were greatly buoyed by their capture of the strategic town of Qusair in central Syria’s Homs province June 5 after a three-week battle.

The town, which controls supply routes from neighboring Lebanon, had been held by rebel forces for more than a year, cutting off Damascus from the Alawite heartland in the northwest.

The fall of Qusair after fierce fighting opened the way for the regime to push into central Syria in a drive to recapture territory held by the rebels, including Homs, the provincial capital, and Aleppo, the big prize.

The regime needs to take control of Aleppo to undercut the rebellion that erupted March 15, 2011, and to reassert dominance of Syria’s main population centers.

A rebel defeat in Aleppo would mean a critical and possibly terminal setback for those seeking to end Assad’s rule.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision Thursday to arm rebel forces — although it’s not clear whether arms would include urgently needed anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles — could make a critical difference if the flow starts quickly.

The U.S. move overturned two years of reluctance by the West to get directly involved in the Syrian fighting, which threatens to spill over into neighboring states like Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.

Indeed, it was the regime’s conquest of Qusair, largely due to fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah who spearheaded the assault, that convinced Obama U.S. aid should be increased from medicine and supplies to include arms.

Much will depend on how swiftly the Americans can start the arms flowing to the rebels through Jordan and Turkey.

Rebels report Syrian warplanes attacked their positions around the contested Kweiras airbase near Aleppo Tuesday amid heavy ground skirmishes.

The regime’s command of the air is a major problem for the rebels, and unless they get surface-to-air missiles they will face serious problems in the looming battle for Aleppo.

The air force has carried out a series of aerial resupply operations in the region in the last two months that rebels have been powerless to prevent.

But it’s not all clear sailing for the regime forces either.

They face major obstacles in the push on Aleppo from well-entrenched rebel blocking positions, which are being supplied with weapons through Turkey, Syria’s northern neighbor, funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Loyalist forces have seized several villages in Homs province in recent days to consolidate their Qusair victory.

“Troop movements and bombardment patterns suggest the regime will likely stage attacks on rebels in Homs city proper and around the towns of Rastan and Talbiseh along the M5 highway, which leads from the Jordanian border in the south, through Damascus and all the way north to Aleppo,” the U.S.-based global security consulting firm Stratfor says.

Analysts say the regime’s assault on Aleppo may be deferred until there’s a significant loyalist push from the south as well.

“For all the regime’s announcements of an imminent victory in Aleppo, it is important to remember the very significant obstacles,” Statfor stressed. “Many of these are in fact the same that prevented the regime from ousting the rebels from the city in the summer of 2012.”

The rebels are dug in along much of the M5, which the regime would need to control to supply a major mechanized force.

Activists say rebels have already sent blocking forces to key supply routes in anticipation of a regime push northward from Hama province.

The Iranian-backed Hezbollah will likely play a key role in the Aleppo offensive as a strike force, as it did in the battle of Qusair.

The Shiite movement, which has fought the Israelis for three decades, has proven to be a staunch ally of Assad’s Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Source: United Press International (UPI).


June 20, 2013

GRANADA, Spain (AP) — For the third time in a week, I’m touring the Alhambra, one of the most popular sites in the world’s fourth most-visited country, and finally I have it all for myself.

Not a pushy guide but a bullfrog in one of the fountains is the loudest sound on a late May night in this hilltop Islamic palace complex in southern Spain. I linger to stick my nose into the cabbage-size roses lining the pathways and to gaze over the floodlit red-tinged ramparts. Their massive simplicity belies the infinite intricacy of the palaces inside, and I can easily believe the legend that the last Muslim ruler wept as he left Granada. Centuries later, we can be grateful that the conquering Christian royalty left this masterpiece nearly intact.

Nowhere in Europe is the complex coexistence between Islam and Christianity more etched in historical landscapes and current customs than here, in Spain’s Andalusia, a vast region of snowy mountains, olive-studded valleys and desert coasts whose tip sits less than 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Morocco.

For nearly 800 years, caliphs ruled Andalusia. In 1492, the Catholic king and queen (and ultimate power couple), Fernando and Isabel, ended the last Islamic stronghold in Europe —a few months before signing off on Christopher Columbus’ trip to the new world, which also started here.

I’ve traveled through the region in fall, winter and spring to admire the Muslim-Christian monuments in the major cities of Granada, Cordoba and Seville. But this year, on a longer trip, I found the mingling of cultures in everyday life. In Granada, I bought almond cookies and orange wine through a wooden rotating tray from an unseen cloistered Catholic nun in a convent near re-created Arab baths, where I sipped mint tea and spent a silent hour steaming and soaking feet sore from climbing cobblestone alleys.

And it turns out that tapas are a classic example of the region’s cultural fusion, having originated in Andalusia centuries ago, even though internationally they have come to symbolize trendy modern Spanish cuisine.

Of course, Andalusia also offers all the other experiences that draw tourists to Spain: Channeling Hemingway at a bullfight, getting goose bumps from a wailing flamenco singer, mingling sacred and profane at the Eastertide processions and fairs, gorging on jamon iberico and whole fish baked in sea salt, and joining throngs of sunburned Northern Europeans on Mediterranean beaches.

But what’s unique about Andalusia is the trail of Islamic conquerors who arrived in the eighth century, and the Catholic monarchs who imposed their reconquista (reconquering) centuries later — vanquishing not just Islam but also eventually the Jews who had flourished under the Muslims’ tolerant rule.

CORDOBA Begin your visit with the earliest masterpiece, the bizarrely repurposed great mosque, now a cathedral, of Cordoba. From its massive size and horseshoe arches, the Mezquita’s exterior gives some hints that this is not your usual medieval cathedral, but walking in still stuns. Out of the darkness pierced by low-hanging lights is a multiplication of two-tiered arches in all directions, disorienting like a house of mirrors.

This forest of shiny columns and red-and-white arches, together with the kaleidoscope of golden mosaics, Arabic inscriptions, and carvings, show off what I see as the hallmarks of Andalusian Islamic art. Geometry and repetition play with light to create flowing motifs that both overwhelm with their richness and seem weightless.

Smack in the midst sits an unremarkable church, built in the 16th century. A much nicer reconquista touch is a few blocks away, in the 14th-century Alcazar, a fortress whose gardens lined by pools and rippling fountains mirror the centrality that water has in Islamic architecture.

The whitewashed homes around both monuments, covered by decorative iron grilles and bright potted plants, were part of Cordoba’s Jewish quarter, called the Juderia, a center of Jewish intellectuals before the Catholic takeover. The great philosopher Maimonides was born in Cordoba in the 12th century, and a modern statue of him is located in the quarter near a 14th century synagogue. But Maimonides did not die here; he fled to Egypt as the persecution of Jews began under the Catholic regime. Digging deeper into cultural fusion: The Roman philosopher Seneca was also born in Cordoba, and a restored bridge from around his time still crosses the wide river behind the Mezquita.

SEVILLE Less than 100 miles (160 kilometers) to the southwest, Seville’s grand cathedral also incorporated a Muslim element: La Giralda, the former 12th-century minaret, now bell tower, nearly identical to towers still standing in Rabat and Marrakech.

Next door is another much embellished Alcazar fortress, this one too visited by Fernando and Isabel as well as Columbus. Its style, called mudejar, is all about fusion, reflecting the taste and workmanship of Muslim artists in Catholic Spain. Around it is the former Jewish neighborhood, the barrio de Santa Cruz, centered on small, orange-tree lined squares with homes and palaces whose doors and windows are often bordered in blue and gold.

GRANADA Seville is the region’s largest, most cosmopolitan city. But my Andalusian favorite is Granada, framed by the improbably snowy Sierra Nevada mountain range. It’s a university city that is small enough for the tradition of free tapas with each drink (think giant chorizo sausage and heaping plates of fried whitebait for the price of a 2-euro frosted glass of beer). But its attractions are outsized — not only the Alhambra, arguably the most impressive secular medieval monument from the Muslim world, but its ideological counterpart, a triumphant cathedral with its royal chapel preserving the marble funeral monuments of, who else, Fernando and Isabel.

I most enjoyed my night visits to the Alhambra’s Nasrid Palaces, where every inch is covered in Koran and poetry inscriptions, star-patterned tiles, and gravity-defying ceilings decorated with pointed ornamentation called muqarnas, all deflecting light with a soothing, awe-inspiring effect that plays on the motto written all over: “Only Allah is victor.”

In the many marbled patios and sprawling Generalife gardens farther uphill, water fountains seem to trace in the air the same curves as Arabic script, bubbling and flowing with precise patterns. On the opposite hill is the Albaicin, the much restored Muslim quarter of whitewashed homes hiding scented gardens, or carmenes, watered by medieval cisterns, whose only outside signs are overflowing purple bougainvillea and austere cypress spires.

Nearby, two more churches show off Roman-inspired triumphalism, the convent of San Jeronimo with its giant altarpiece and the Cartuja’s small Baroque sagrario, which theatrically swirls with chubby angels and saints in a profusion of red marble and gold.

That Christian humanism sitting next to Islamic intellectualism is Andalusia’s own enchantment. Back in the Generalife, a guard watched me linger by water jets arching into a long pool. She was the daughter of a watchman there who raised his eight kids in a house on its property, and she’s worked in the Alhambra for 31 years.

“Magico, no?” she whispered. Three days later, I got back for visit number four.

DHAKA | Thu Jun 20, 2013

(Reuters) – A Bangladeshi court handed down death sentences on Thursday to 10 militants of an Islamist group with ties to Al-Qaeda over a 2005 suicide bomb attack that killed eight people, court officials and lawyers said.

Violent protests have gripped Bangladesh this year following the conviction of members of the overwhelmingly Muslim nation’s most prominent Islamist group, the Jamaat-e-Islami.

Thursday’s case involved a less well-known group, and the decision is unlikely to spark public anger. The convicted men have 30 days to appeal to the high court against their sentence.

“The JMB carried out the attack to create a panic among the people to press the government to enforce Islamic sharia,” said lawyer Rafiqul Islam, who presented the state’s case.

The 2005 attack on the bar association office in Gazipur, north of the capital Dhaka, was staged by the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), to lobby for the introduction of sharia, or Muslim religious law.

Eight people were killed, four of them lawyers, and 80 were injured. One JMB member died while carrying out the attack.

The JMB was led by Siddique ul-Islam, popularly known as “Bangla Bhai” or “Bengali Brother”, who battled alongside Afghanistan’s mujahideen in the Soviet intervention in the 1980s.

After a campaign of bombings in northern Bangladesh in 2005, he was caught and sentenced to death.

(Reporting By Serajul Quadir; Editing by Ron Popeski)

Source: Reuters.


June 20, 2013

BAGHDAD (AP) — Al-Qaida’s Iraq arm is gathering strength in the restive northern city of Mosul, ramping up its fundraising through gangland-style shakedowns and feeding off anti-government anger as it increasingly carries out attacks with impunity, according to residents and officials.

It is a disturbing development for Iraq’s third-largest city, one of the country’s main gateways to Syria, as al-Qaida in Iraq makes a push to establish itself as a dominant player among the rebels fighting to topple the Syrian regime.

The show of force comes as Mosul residents cast ballots in delayed local elections Thursday that have been marred by intimidation by militants. Al-Qaida’s renewed muscle-flexing is evident in dollar terms too, with one Iraqi official estimating that militants are netting more than $1 million a month in the city through criminal business enterprises.

Mosul and the surrounding countryside, from where al-Qaida was never really routed, have emerged as major flashpoints in a wave of bloodshed that has killed nearly 2,000 Iraqis since the start of April — the country’s deadliest outbreak of violence in five years. Gunbattles have broken out between militants and security forces, and several candidates have been assassinated.

Just since the start of last week, attackers in and around the city have unleashed a rapid-fire wave of five car bombs, tried to assassinate the provincial governor and killed another local politician and four other people in a suicide bombing.

The violence increased as Thursday’s elections approached in Ninevah and neighboring Anbar province. Iraqis elsewhere went to the polls in April, but the Baghdad government postponed voting in the two provinces, citing security concerns.

Other Sunni militant groups, including Ansar al-Islam and the Army of the Men of the Naqshabandi Order, are also active in Ninevah. Mosul is the capital of the Sunni-dominated province. Al-Qaida’s growing power is particularly worrying because it is thought to be behind the bulk of the bombings across Iraq and because it is trying to assert itself as a player in neighboring Syria’s civil war. The head of al-Qaida’s Iraq arm last week defied the terror network’s central command by insisting that his unit would continue to lay claim to al-Qaida operations in Syria, too.

“We’re definitely concerned about it,” said a U.S. diplomat about the deteriorating security situation in Mosul. The diplomat, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record, said al-Qaida’s Iraq arm sees an opportunity to try to build support in the area and is “out blowing things up to show that the government can’t protect and serve the people.”

Al-Qaida’s growing strength in Mosul is painfully clear to businessman Safwan al-Moussili. Traders like him say they are once again facing demands from militants to pay protection money or face grave consequences. Merchants say that practice had largely disappeared by the time American troops left in December 2011.

“They tell us: ‘Pay this amount.’ And if it’s higher than before, they say something like: ‘You recently went to China and you imported these materials and you made such and such profits,'” he said. “It seems they know everything about us.”

Small-scale shop owners, goldsmiths, supermarkets, gas stations and pharmacies are all being hit up for money these days. Al-Moussili and his fellow businessmen feel they have little choice but to pay up. About two months ago, he recalls, one businessman refused to pay, and insurgents planted a bomb inside his shop that killed the man.

“That forced everybody to pay, because we don’t see the security forces doing anything to end this situation,” he said. A Mosul food wholesaler, who referred to himself only by the nickname Abu Younis out of concern for his security, said he and other traders resumed paying $200-a-month kickbacks to al-Qaida three months ago after finding threatening letters in the market hall where they operate.

Al-Qaida focused its operations in historically conservative Mosul following setbacks in Anbar province in 2006. It soon became the only major Iraqi city with a significant al-Qaida presence. The U.S. urged Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to focus his resources on Mosul to wipe out al-Qaida and prevent the insurgents from reorganizing there. Instead, the government shifted resources at a key moment to crush al-Maliki’s armed Shiite rivals in the southern city of Basra, which prevented a decisive defeat of al-Qaida.

Over time, the militants, exploiting ethnic tensions in the Mosul area between Arabs and Kurds, were able to reinforce their position. Michael Knights, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who closely follows regional security issues, said al-Qaida in Iraq has long generated cash from businesses such as trucking and real estate, and through extortion of large firms such as mobile phone companies.

“If they’re extending their extortion back out to local traders, that indicates they’ve got better street control,” he said. “It just shows they’re able to operate in the urban neighborhoods and don’t see a security force retaliation like they did two years ago. And they don’t fear informants identifying them.”

Abdul-Rahim al-Shimmari, a member of the Ninevah provincial council, agreed that extortion is making a comeback. He blamed rising political and sectarian tensions fueled in part by the civil war in nearby Syria, where mostly Sunni rebels are trying to topple President Bashar Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Al-Qaida is also enjoying increased sympathy in Mosul because of what al-Shimmari called the central government’s “brutal and irresponsible” handling of Sunni protests that have raged for months against the Shiite-led administration in Baghdad.

In March, security forces in Mosul opened fire on Sunni demonstrators demanding the release of a local tribal sheik who had been detained. At least one person was killed. Human Rights Watch recently urged Iraqi authorities to investigate allegations that federal police executed five people, including a 15-year-old boy, south of Mosul in early May. Residents discovered the bodies more than a week later in the same area where the five were last seen being led away by federal police, according to the rights group.

Maj. Gen. Mahdi al-Gharawi, the federal police 3rd Division commander who was named in the rights group’s report, called the allegations baseless. He said the five were no longer in police custody at the time of their deaths. He blamed al-Qaida for killing them in an effort to tarnish the image of the police.

A lack of trust from the people, who fear both the militants and the security forces, is hindering authorities’ fight against al-Qaida and other militants, according to Iraqi officials. “The problem is that nobody in Mosul will come forward and complain” about al-Qaida’s increasing abuses, said a senior military intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss operational matters with reporters.

He estimated that al-Qaida is able to pull in between $1 million to $1.5 million from Mosul alone each month — a considerable amount in Iraq. “We want to catch these people red-handed, but the local government is not cooperating with the security forces,” he complained.

Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed reporting.

June 20, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — In the latest sign of the fissures growing in the Arab world over the Syrian civil war, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Beirut has announced that the kingdom plans to deport Lebanese who supported Hezbollah, one of Damascus’ key allies.

The warning comes as the Lebanese Shiite militant group takes an increasingly prominent role in the Syrian war, fighting alongside President Bashar Assad’s troops in a key battle earlier this month. Saudi Arabia is a strong backer of the mostly-Sunni Syrian opposition trying to remove Assad from power. Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

It follows the decision earlier this month by the Gulf Cooperation Council — which includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates — to crack down on Hezbollah members in the Gulf and limit their “financial and business transactions.”

Hezbollah says it has no businesses in the Gulf nations. However, there are more than half a million Lebanese working in the Gulf Arab nations, including tens of thousands in Saudi Arabia, some of whom have been living in the kingdom for decades. Many of those Lebanese are Shiites.

Saudi Arabia will deport “those who financially support this party,” Ambassador Ali Awad Assiri told Lebanon’s Future TV late Wednesday. He did not elaborate on whether other actions could be also considered support for Hezbollah.

“This is a serious decision and will be implemented in detail,” Assiri said, without specifying when the deportations would begin. “Acts are being committed against innocent Syrian people.” Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour told reporters Thursday he was in contact with Gulf officials over the matter. Hezbollah and its allies dominate Lebanon’s current government, which resigned March 22, but continues to run the country’s affairs in a caretaker capacity.

Syria’s 2-year civil war, which has killed nearly 93,000 people, is increasingly pitting Sunni against Shiite Muslims and threatening the stability of Syria’s neighbors. Assad draws his support largely from fellow Alawites as well as other minorities including Christians and Shiites. He is backed by Shiite Iran, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiites.

U.S. officials estimate that 5,000 Hezbollah members are fighting alongside Assad’s regime, while thousands of Sunni foreign fighters are also believed to be in Syria — including members of Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida affiliate that is believed to be among the most effective rebel factions. Public opinion in Sunni states is often sympathetic to the rebels.

Fighting between pro- and anti-Syrian groups has broken out in Lebanon, and Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria is deepening tensions at home. Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, who has been increasingly critical of the group recently, said in remarks published Thursday that he is against Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria and that Hezbollah fighters should return to Lebanon.

“I told them from the start that I am against this act,” he was quoted by al-Safir daily as saying. In Syria, activists reported violence between government forces and rebels in different parts of the country on Thursday, mostly near the capital Damascus and in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest urban center and its commercial hub.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 11 rebels were killed in a battle with government troops in Aleppo, where the opposition has controlled whole neighborhoods and large swathes of surrounding land since last summer.

Pro-regime media outlets announced earlier this month that troops had launched an offensive to build on the momentum of their Qusair triumph to retake Aleppo and other areas of the north. Another activist group, the Syria-based Aleppo Media Center, said rebels launched an attack on army positions in the city’s Suleiman al-Halabi neighborhood. There were no immediate reports of casualties on the government side in the fighting.

Amateur videos showed gunmen shooting and firing rockets at army positions in the neighborhood. The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting on the events depicted. Meanwhile, Syria’s main Western-backed opposition group said 40,000 civilians in two northern districts of Damascus in which government forces have been operating are suffering food shortages and lack medical supplies.

“After six months of continuous siege, (and ) military checkpoints … the neighborhoods of Qaboun and Barzeh are at risk,” the Syrian National Coalition said in a statement. It said the government forces conduct frequent raids in the two districts and there is fear that such army operations will result in a “massacre.”

Also on Thursday, the Observatory urged the International Committee of the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations to intervene and take medicine and food to Aleppo’s central prison. Heavy fighting around the prison has raged for weeks and there have been casualties among the prisoners, the activists said.

The Observatory, which has a network of activists around the country, said three detainees died this week from tuberculosis and that scabies was spreading in the jail, which holds thousands of prisoners.

The prison, which is besieged by rebels, relies on food and medicine brought in drop-offs by army helicopters. The Observatory said more than 100 detainees have been killed since April when the fighting around the prison began.

Meanwhile, Syrian rebels and Kurdish gunmen reached an agreement to end a rebel siege of the northern predominantly Kurdish region of Afrin that triggered a shortage of food and medicine there, the Observatory said.

The Afrin flare-up began when rebels wanted to pass through it to attack the predominantly Shiite villages of Nubul and Zahra, controlled by Assad loyalists, the head of the Observatory, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said. After Kurdish groups refused, rebels attacked Kurdish checkpoints and laid siege beginning on May 25.