Archive for November 7, 2014

April 08, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s electoral commission said on Tuesday that there will be no balloting in parts of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province engulfed in clashes between security forces and al-Qaida-inspired militants.

Since late December, the western Anbar province has seen fierce fighting between government troops and allied tribal militias on one side, and militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaida spin-off group, on the other.

The militants have seized and are continuing to hold parts of the provincial capital, Ramadi, and nearly all of the nearby city of Fallujah. The exclusion of major Sunni cities such as Ramadi and Fallujah — where most of the fighting is underway as Iraqi forces try to wrest back areas overrun by militants — from the April 30 voting for Iraq’s new parliament could deepen Sunni fears of being marginalized by the country’s Shiite majority.

In a press conference in Baghdad, a member of the Independent High Electoral Commission, Muqdad al-Shuraifi, said the “commission cannot send its employees and balloting-related equipment, as well as logistics, to the areas where security operations are underway.”

He did not specifically name the areas seized by the militants but assured families displaced by the fighting that they will be allowed to vote in areas deemed “safe” or in parts of the province where they found shelter or in other provinces where some of them ended up.

According to the United Nations, about 400,000 people have been uprooted by the ongoing violence in Anbar. More than 9,000 candidates will vie for 328 seats in the parliamentary elections, the first balloting in Iraq since the withdrawal of U.S. troops in late 2011.

Also on Tuesday, gunmen in a speeding car shot and killed six men gathered in a street outside the city of Mosul, about 360 kilometers (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad, a police officer and a medical official said.

The men were two brothers and four of their cousins, and it was not clear why they were targeted, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to talk to the media.

And in the in the northern town of Tuz Khormato, a suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden car into a police checkpoint, killing four policemen and wounding 13 other people, mayor Shalal Abdoul said. Tuz Khormato is located about 200 kilometers (130 miles) north of Baghdad.

Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.

Baghdad (AFP)

March 25, 2014

The board of Iraq’s electoral commission resigned en masse on Tuesday in protest at political and judicial “interference”, throwing a general election due next month into disarray.

The sudden decision comes with doubts already swirling over whether the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) could organize polling nationwide on April 30 with anti-government fighters in control of a city on Baghdad’s doorstep.

Much is at stake in the election, as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki bids for a third term with his security credentials thrown into question by a surge in violence to levels not seen since 2008, with 37 more people killed on Tuesday.

The nine-member IHEC board handed in its resignation in protest at what it said were conflicting rulings from parliament and the judiciary on the barring of would-be candidates for the election.

“The commission is today caught between two authorities — the legislative and the judicial — and the two have issued contradictory decisions,” IHEC spokesman Safa al-Mussawi told AFP.

“We are stuck in the middle, so we have decided to resign.”

An aide to IHEC chairman Sarbat Rashid told AFP that he backed the decision. An IHEC board member, who did not want to be identified, said the same.

“They are very frustrated with this judicial panel for the elections… excluding candidates,” a diplomatic source said on condition of anonymity.

“They are very unhappy with judicial interference, with political interference.”

The resignations still have to be approved by parliament, the source added.

Several candidates have been barred in recent weeks on the grounds of alleged ties to now executed dictator Saddam Hussein’s Baath party.

But a greater source of frustration for the IHEC board has been the exclusion of scores of hopefuls on the basis of what critics say is a vague provision in Iraq’s electoral law that requires that parliamentary hopefuls be “of good reputation”.

Those barred, who include former finance minister Rafa al-Essawi, a Maliki opponent, have no obvious avenue of appeal against the judicial panel’s decision.

Parliament has meanwhile reportedly ruled that IHEC must not bar any candidates unless they have criminal convictions, a decision the IHEC spokesman said was at odds with that of the judicial panel.

‘Message not to interfere’

It was not immediately clear what impact the resignation of the IHEC board would have on next month’s election, which all major parties are agreed must take place on schedule.

One analyst said the resignations themselves were unlikely to disrupt the timetable.

“The election will go ahead on time, whatever the situation, because there is no way parliament will approve these resignations,” said Ihsan al-Shammari, a politics professor at Baghdad University.

“The resignations are a message to the two authorities… not to interfere in their work,” he said.

“The conflict between the two authorities has put pressure on IHEC … and forced them to present their resignations.”

The looming vote has been a factor in the rising bloodshed in recent months, analysts and diplomats say.

Maliki and other Shiite political leaders have been determined to be seen to take a hard line against militants, rather than reach out to the Sunni Arab minority in a bid to undercut long-term support for militancy.

But despite widely trumpeted operations against insurgents, bloodletting has continued, with more than 400 people killed so far this month, and upwards of 2,100 this year, according to an AFP tally.

On Tuesday alone, 37 people were killed nationwide, including eight who were killed in a gun attack on an army patrol and 15 others who were killed in car bombs in and around the capital.

The April 30 poll is also seen as opportunity to break years of political deadlock between Maliki and his opponents, which has resulted in little significant legislation being passed.

Source: Space War.


March 23, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi newspapers have not printed Sunday’s edition to protest the killing the previous day of a well-known radio journalist by a guard of the country’s Kurdish president.

The strike was called for by the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate just hours after the death of Radio Free Iraq’s Baghdad bureau chief Mohammed Bdaiwi on Saturday. Police say Bdaiwi was shot in Baghdad by a junior officer at a checkpoint near the president’s residence during what they say was a quarrel.

Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council says it’s investigating the incident — the first involving the ethnically Kurdish security forces, dubbed the peshmerga, who guard Kurdish VIPs in Baghdad. President Jalal Talabani suffered a stroke last year and is being treated in Germany. Few details have been released about his health since then.

October 20, 2014

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Joko Widodo completed a journey from riverside shack to presidential palace on Monday, cheered through the streets following his inauguration by tens of thousands of ordinary Indonesians in a reminder to the opposition-controlled parliament of the strong grass-roots support that swept him to power.

The 53-year-old must make tough decisions to stand a chance of boosting economic growth in Indonesia, a sprawling nation of 250 million people. Fears that any reforms he tries to enact could be blocked by a hostile opposition led by the Suharto-era general he defeated in July’s election have seen the rupiah weaken and stock market fall in recent weeks.

But those thoughts were put aside momentarily Monday when Widodo and his deputy traveled from the parliament building to the presidential palace in an organized public party, the first in the country’s history following an inauguration. After a few kilometers (miles), he left his car and took a horse and cart, flashing victory signs and shaking countless hands.

“To the fishermen, the workers, the farmers, the merchants, the meatball soup sellers, the hawkers, the drivers, the academics, the laborers, the soldiers, the police, the entrepreneurs and the professionals, I say let us all work hard, together, shoulder to shoulder, because this is a historic moment,” Widodo said in his inauguration speech, witnessed by regional leaders and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Widodo, better known by his nickname of Jokowi, was elected with 53 percent of the vote, with most of his support coming from poor, non-urban Indonesians attracted by his simple demeanor and record of hard work as Jakarta governor.

The son of a furniture maker, he grew up in a rented bamboo shack on the banks of the river Kalianyar in Solo, a town on Java Island, and is the first Indonesian leader not to come from the country’s super rich, and often corrupt, political, business and military elite.

“I was moved by Jokowi’s inauguration speech this morning, it was so beautiful,” said Rukasih Wanti, standing under a blue umbrella with her two kids waiting for the president. “He deserves to get the people’s respect and a celebration the likes of which has never happened in the past.”

Police estimated that 50,000 people attended the street party. Many more were expected later in the day when Widodo, a heavy metal fan and guitarist, was to attend an open air rock concert headlined by some of the country’s biggest bands.

Indonesia is the biggest economy in Southeast Asia, and about 90 percent of its 250 million people are Muslims, more than any other nation. After years of dictatorship, the country was convulsed by political, ethnic and religious unrest in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Since then, it has consolidated its democratic transition. While most of the country remains poor and inequality is rising, it is home to a rapidly expanding middle class.

Outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s two terms in office saw democratic consolidation and a focused fight against Islamist militancy. But economic growth on the back of a commodities boom has slowed, and a recovery is being hampered by weak infrastructure, rampant corruption and red tape.

Widodo is targeting 7 percent growth in the coming years. To get close to that, he will need bold reforms to attract foreign investment, as well as favorable external conditions. A looming problem is expected hikes next year in what are record-low U.S. interest rates, which could suck funds from the country, pressurizing the rupiah and spooking the markets.

Economists say Widodo must soon make a decision on how much to cut subsidies on fuel that unless trimmed will cost the government a budget-busting $30 billion-plus this year. The move will likely stoke protests from political opponents and could trigger street demonstrations.

He also can expect resistance from opposition parties still smarting from the election defeat of their candidate, Prabowo Subianto. The coalition against Widodo already has captured most of the important positions in parliament and last month voted to end direct regional elections, a key plank of the country’s democratic transition since Suharto was ousted in 1998.

Subianto attended Monday’s inauguration ceremony and met with Widodo last week to offer qualified support for his administration. Much uncertainty remains over how effective Widodo will be in negotiating with the opposition, and how much of a disruptive role it will play. Subianto’s initial refusal to accept the election results and the comments of some of his supporters led to speculation among analysts that he would seek to topple Widodo midterm.

In his inauguration speech, Widodo pledged to maintain the country’s “free and active” foreign policy, a stance that has seen it slowly taking up more of a leadership role in Southeast Asia. Working to stop the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria, managing relations with China and keeping often testy ties with Australia on an even keel will be key tasks.

“I’m very encouraged by everything that President Jokowi has said up until now. He’s obviously a charismatic and inspirational figure,” said Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who flew to Jakarta for the ceremony. “I think there’s a wave of confidence and renewal sweeping Indonesia right now.”

By Jakarta Globe

Aug 03, 2014

Jakarta. More Indonesian Muslim groups and public figures have voiced their rejection against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. Some urge the government to take firmer action against the possible spread of a growing movement in Indonesia, while others suggest that a lack of media attention would reduce interest in the extreme religious campaign.

“We strongly condemn the violence and terror waged by ISIS; they go against Islamic teachings,” Teguh Santosa, deputy chairman of Indonesia’s second-largest Muslim organization, Muhammadiyah, said in a press statement on Saturday.

“We cannot stand silent as we witness this [movement]. It’s true that forming and joining a group is the right of every citizen, but we cannot tolerate violence. The government must take firm action [against ISIS’s influence].”

Teguh warned Indonesian Muslims not to be duped by the hardline Muslim crusaders of ISIS, saying that the group is merely donning an Islamic mask but do not carry the true religious teachings of the prophet, given its notoriety for brutal force and violence.

ISIS, also known for its extreme interpretation of an offshoot of Islam called Wahabism, has reportedly been targeting Shiites and Christians in Iraq, one of two countries where the group currently operates — the other being war-torn Syria.

Teguh, who is also an international relations lecturer at the Islamic State University (UIN) Syarif Hidayatullah in Jakarta, theorizes that ISIS had possibly been developed by an “anti-Islam” movement that aimed to benefit from the escalating tension and fighting in battle-worn Middle East.

The Islamic Student Union (HMI), meanwhile, condemns Indonesian Muslims condoning and adhering to ISIS’s extremist ideology, following the recent upload of a YouTube video featuring an Indonesian man who claims to be a member of the radical movement, calling on local Muslims to stage jihad and support ISIS by migrating to a trans-national caliphate it claims to have established.

“Indonesians who inhabit [the space] between Sabang and Merauke, we weren’t born in Iraq or Syria,” HMI secretary-general Muhammad Chairul Basyar said on Friday, referring to the eastern and western extremes of Indonesia.

“In our homeland, people of all backgrounds enjoy religious freedom,” he added. “Citizens who act as though they don’t live in Indonesia, as though they are foreigners in their own homeland, disgust us.”

Teguh and Chairul made their statement following a written warning by Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, in which he stated the government will strip any citizen pledging allegiance to the ISIS caliphate, of their Indonesian citizenship.

The country’s largest Muslim group, the Nahdlatul Ulama, has also joined the chorus of rejection of the un-Islamic “extremist movement.”

An unwarranted fear?

Syarifuddin Jurdi, the head of the political department at UIN Alauddin in Makassar, is worried that some Muslim groups in Indonesia that have been campaigning for an Islamic caliphate will be interested in joining ISIS.

“Since the fall of the Turkish Ottoman [Empire], fights to re-establish the caliphate have continued. ISIS emerges as a response to the crisis in the Middle East, and the virus is spreading across the Muslim world,” Syariffudin said.

“ISIS is a transnational movement of whose development we must remain alert. Those who aren’t satisfied with the current political condition of this nation may join ISIS. The government and community groups must try to anticipate that,” he added.

However, Qasim Mathar, a professor of Islamic studies also at UIN Alauddin, believes Indonesia’s fear of ISIS was “too raw,” and that blowing the issue out of proportion might trigger unnecessary suspicion among local Muslim groups.

Hardline Islamic groups Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) and the Indonesian Islamic State (NII) may be in danger of becoming the subject of such paranoid fears. HTI has on previous occasions voiced the idea of a pan-national Islamic caliphate, while NII is known to be running its own pseudo-Islamic state inside Indonesia.

Neither group is known to be affiliated with ISIS, said Qasim.

“[The attention surrounding ISIS] may turn Indonesian Muslims against each other; it has the potential to divide our people,” Qasim said. “Furthermore, [the fear of] ISIS might shift the country’s focus from humanitarian problems and Israel’s strike against Gaza. Let’s ignore the ISIS issue in Indonesia until we receive proof of law enforcers arresting members of ISIS here.”

HTI has also denounced ISIS’s version of a caliphate on its website, saying the group has not used the “right methods” for establishing a separate Islamic state.

Chairul, too, suggested that a heavy focus on ISIS may foster unnecessary worries and fear among Indonesians.

“We must not take heed of people spreading animosity and spite,” he said.

Source: The Jakarta Globe.


July 22, 2014

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Jakarta Gov. Joko Widodo, who captured the hearts of millions of Indonesians with his common man image, was declared the winner Tuesday of the country’s presidential election, calling it a victory for all of the nation’s people.

A former furniture exporter known to most as “Jokowi,” Widodo was the first candidate in a direct presidential election in Indonesia with no ties to the former dictator Suharto, who ruled for 30 years before being overthrown in 1998.

“This is a victory for all Indonesian people,” Widodo, who received 53 percent of the vote, according to the Election Commission, said in a televised speech. “We hope this victory will pave the way to build Indonesia to be an independent economy.”

The other contender in the July 9 election, former Gen. Prabowo Subianto, declared he was withdrawing from the contest shortly before the final numbers were released by the commission, saying there was massive fraud during the election, and that it was unfair and undemocratic.

Indonesia is a sprawling archipelago of about 17,000 islands and 240 million people, and the commission needed two weeks to count all the votes. Widodo had maintained a slim lead of about 4 percentage points in unofficial “quick counts” by polling agencies released after the election. But Subianto, who has declared assets of $140 million and was on his third bid for the presidency, repeatedly claimed that polling firms with links to his campaign showed he was ahead.

“We reject the 2014 presidential election, which is illegitimate, and therefore we withdraw from the ongoing process,” he said Tuesday. Observers of the election said they were generally fair and free, with minimal abnormalities. Maswadi Rauf, a political professor at the University of Indonesia, said he saw no sign of significant fraud, as alleged by Subianto.

Subianto’s rejection of the results “reflects the real attitudes of the elite, who are not yet ready to accept losing,” Rauf said. “We are still in a transition to democracy, which is indeed not our culture. And what is happening indicates we are still immature, we need to learn.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry congratulated Widodo on his election victory, and said the U.S. and Indonesia share common values, including respect for human rights and rule of law. “The United States looks forward to working with President-elect Widodo as we deepen our partnership,” Kerry said in a statement.

In Jakarta, there were no immediate reports of violence Tuesday. About 100 Subianto supporters held a peaceful protest about 300 meters (yards) from the Election Commission building in the city’s downtown, chanting “Prabowo is the real president” and holding banners saying that the commission should stop cheating.

The building was surrounded by thousands of policemen to maintain security after a particularly nasty presidential campaign marred by smear tactics from both camps. Widodo blamed his drop in opinion polls in the weeks before the election on character assaults that accused him, among other things, of not being a follower of Islam — which he denounced.

Indonesia has the world’s fourth-largest population and is the most populous Muslim country. Despite Widodo’s lack of experience in national politics, he built a reputation as being a man of the people and an efficient leader who wants to advance democratic reforms, and was elected to run Jakarta, the capital, in 2012. He is widely viewed as untainted by the often corrupt military and business elite that have run Indonesia for decades.

Subianto, meanwhile, a general in the Suharto regime and the late dictator’s former son-in-law, came from a wealthy, well-known family. He had a dubious human rights record during his military career, but was seen as a strong and decisive leader. His campaign was better financed and he got endorsements from most of the country’s major political parties, including that of outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who served two terms lasting 10 years and was constitutionally barred from seeking re-election.

Final results showed that Widodo, from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, received just under 71 million votes, or 53 percent of the more than 133 million valid ballots cast, while Subianto got 62.6 million votes, or 47 percent.

Voter turnout was 71 percent, down slightly from the 2009 presidential election, when it was 72 percent.

July 11, 2014

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — A day after Indonesia’s presidential elections failed to produce a clear winner, Jakarta’s police chief promised to prevent violence by cracking down on anyone celebrating prematurely. With both candidates continuing to claim victory, the next leader of the world’s third-largest democracy could be decided in court.

Wednesday’s third direct presidential vote went smoothly, but fears of unrest surfaced after Jakarta Gov. Joko Widodo and ex-army general Prabowo Subianto both declared a win after the quick count results were released.

The apparent deadlock has raised fears of political instability in the world’s most populous Muslim nation and Southeast Asia’s biggest economy. It could not only stymie the economic development but also stall the nation’s young democracy, which has just begun to flourish after decades of authoritarian rule.

Widodo, known as Jokowi, came out ahead with 52 percent of the vote, according to the three most credible unofficial quick counts. But Subianto pointed to lesser-known surveys showing he came out on top, but later said he would consider the election commission’s announcement in two weeks as the “only formal result of the election.”

Both candidates met separately in private meetings with outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Wednesday night. Widodo emerged afterward to urge supporters, who were setting off fireworks, waving flags and riding motorbikes around the heart of the capital, to stand down.

“We appeal to the party’s members and sympathizers, volunteers and supporters, you don’t need to parade to celebrate the presidential election victory. It’s better for us to pray and give thanks,” he said. “We need to minimize friction that could arise.”

Yudhoyono also urged both sides to “restrain themselves” and not allow their supporters to publicly declare victory. “We will not hesitate to take firm action,” said Jakarta police chief Maj. Gen. Dwi Priyatno. He added that security forces were working closely with both camps “to anticipate everything that could cause friction among people and lead to massive rash acts.”

The election commission, which began tallying the votes, will produce the official results by July 22. But if either candidate refutes the outcome due to evidence of fraud or other voting irregularities, the case will go to the Constitutional Court. The judges have two weeks to make a ruling after receiving complaints.

Subianto, who has ties to the country’s political and business elite and was once married to former dictator Suharto’s daughter, has already raised concerns about the quick count’s legitimacy. The tally is a representative sample of votes cast around the country and civil society organizations have used the method to accurately forecast the results of previous elections.

“Prabowo-Hatta is leading the real vote count in many regions,” Subianto said, referring to his running mate Hatta Rajasa. “That is the situation.” Some analysts say that in a country plagued by corruption, there is plenty of room for bribery, intimidation or other tactics to sully the official count of more than 140 million ballots that must be transported to regional centers, often from remote areas scattered across Indonesia’s archipelago — spanning roughly the width of the United States.

“The Jokowi camp is clearly worried that there will be fraud in the aggregation process,” said Jakarta-based political analyst Paul Rowland. “There are plenty of opportunities there to change the numbers.”

Confidence in the Constitutional Court has also recently been shaken, though some are already predicting that’s where Indonesia’s next president will be decided. Last month, its former chief justice was jailed for life for accepting bribes while ruling on a regional election dispute.

“Considering victory claims from both candidates, it seems difficult to avoid a legal battle at the Constitutional Court,” said Denny Indrayana, deputy minister of Law and Human Rights. “The credibility of the Constitutional Court as the last decider of the presidential election’s results is at stake.”

But if it does go that far, others say they believe Subianto, 62, would accept the final ruling. “I think Prabowo’s main intention, main campaign platform was for the security, safety and stability of the nation,” said Tobias Basuki, an analyst from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which conducted one of the highly respected quick count surveys that determined Widodo as the winner. “I believe he will concede defeat, and the largest extent would be going to the Constitutional Court.”

The election has energized the country of 240 million. Turnout was estimated around 75 percent in a race that was polarized by two very different figures. Widodo, 53, of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, is the first candidate in a direct presidential election with no ties to former late dictator Suharto, who ruled for 30 years before being overthrown in 1998. Widodo is a former furniture exporter from humble beginnings who has built a reputation of being an efficient leader, getting elected to run the capital in 2012. He is seen as a man of the people and ran a more grassroots campaign.

Subianto, of the Great Indonesia Movement Party, comes from a wealthy, well-known family and is accused of widespread human rights abuses, including ordering pro-democracy activists kidnapped before Suharto’s fall. He surged forward in the polls just weeks before the election after picking up endorsements from most of the country’s major political parties and running a more well-oiled campaign. He appealed to many voters by vowing strong leadership that many believe has been absent with Yudhoyono, who was constitutionally barred from running after serving two five-year terms.

Associated Press writers Niniek Karmini and Ali Kotarumalos in Jakarta and Chris Brummitt in Hanoi, Vietnam, contributed to this report.

November 07, 2014

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Egyptian troops are pressing ahead with the demolition of hundreds of homes along the border with the Gaza Strip, cutting off electricity and firing warning shots in the air in a heavy-handed campaign to evict thousands of residents from the volatile area.

The forced evacuations in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula are further alienating a restive population with longstanding grievances against the government of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, raising the risk of more violence in the lawless region.

The demolitions, meant to halt the smuggling of weapons and militants in and out of Gaza, have also put pressure on Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza and has long counted on smuggling tunnels as its lifeline.

Egypt announced the demolition plan last month after militants killed 31 Egyptian troops in an assault on a checkpoint 20 miles (30 kilometers) from Rafah. Egypt has long accused Islamic militants of using smuggling tunnels to move in and out of Gaza and announced it would clear out a 500-yard-wide (meter) buffer zone along the border.

In recent days, Egyptian forces have steadily cleared out residents and dynamited several homes each day. The goal is to raze 800 homes and force out 10,000 residents. Security officials say the operation is going smoothly and should be completed within two or three weeks.

Residents say there is little they can do. “We have no options but silence and lining up behind the military. This is not the time to clash with the state because any clash with the state will be perceived as a betrayal to Egypt,” said Said Aitaq. He lives about 1½ miles beyond the buffer zone, but says residents fear the area will be expanded to up to three miles.

Rafah was split into two halves — one Palestinian and one Egyptian — after Egypt signed its peace agreement with Israel in 1978. While Egypt has sealed off its side of the city and barred journalists from entering, scenes of the operation are visible from the Gaza side of the border.

The Egyptian side of the city is under curfew from dawn to dusk, and electricity and water are cut off during the day as homes are being demolished, residents reached by phone told The Associated Press.

Egyptian troops order people to leave with just a day’s notice, they said. “The situation is hellish. We don’t know where we will go. We put our things at the place of a friend until we know where we are going,” said one resident, who gave only his first name, Abu Mohammed, for fear he would be punished by the security forces or risk losing compensation.

“You can’t protest. They are strong and well-armed,” he said of the troops, who residents said are accompanied by dogs and occasionally fire into the air. Egypt has offered compensation of roughly $20,000 to $30,000 per home — a sum that residents say does not come close to replacing their losses. They say the compensation process is bureaucratic and there is little time to find new housing.

One man, who requested anonymity because of safety fears, said his 70-member extended family moved from a four-story building into a single-floor space of just 1,300 square feet after they were told their home would be destroyed.

“We are big families, extended families. We can’t just scatter and go away. We have been living here for decades,” he said. On Tuesday, an excavator could be seen flattening a home, followed by a loud explosion that rocked the area and elicited panicked screams from schoolchildren on the Palestinian side of the city. The students covered their faces with jackets to keep from inhaling the yellowish smoke.

As the air cleared, two flattened concrete homes could be seen. “The kids are always tense. In the day, there are the blasts. In the night, we hear heavy shooting,” said Majdi Yousef, a 38-year-old carpenter who lives in an apartment building on the Gaza side that overlooks the border.

Residents say the forces dynamite several apartment buildings a day, and bulldozers flatten another 20 homes. They say few people have received payouts yet. Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said families would receive a down payment to cover three months of rent and full compensation once their property is appraised. The ministry said 30 families had received compensation as of Sunday.

The state will pay up to $140 million in compensation, el-Sissi said earlier this week. He praised the people of Sinai and accused unnamed factions of “trying to sow discord between the people of Sinai and the Egyptian state.”

North Sinai is one of Egypt’s poorest districts, and the local population has complained of neglect and discrimination for decades. Aitaq said the forced evictions could lead some people to join militant groups.

“I am afraid that these groups will only find more supporters because of this plan,” he said. Over the past decade, the northern region of the Sinai Peninsula has become a hub for Islamic extremists, and the insurgency has spiked since last year’s military ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

No one has claimed responsibility for the deadly Oct. 24 attack. But el-Sissi has made no secret about his disdain for Hamas — the ideological ally of Morsi. Since taking power last year, el-Sissi’s government has destroyed most of Hamas’ smuggling tunnels. The new buffer zone appears to be aimed at stamping out the last remnants. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said security forces have found dozens of tunnels under evacuated houses.

The crackdown has been accompanied by Egypt’s closure of the Rafah border crossing — the main gateway for Gazans to the outside world. Hamas spokesman Salah Bardawil said the demolitions on the Egyptian side change little since the tunnels have already been closed for more than a year. “We say it’s Egyptian land and it’s the Egyptians’ right to do this,” he said.

Other Hamas officials said they believe Egypt is trying to crush the group, but refused to go on the record with those comments, for fear that criticism of the el-Sissi government would invite further sanctions.

Kennedy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank contributed to this report.

November 06, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — For a force that has built its reputation on an aura of momentum and invincibility, the Islamic State group is now dealing with a series of military setbacks in Iraq and a prolonged stalemate in the small Syrian border town of Kobani.

Gone are the days when IS was able to seize territory in both countries with relative ease. Its newfound problems, including a loss of oil revenue, raise questions about the extent to which it will be able to continue recruiting fighters who want to be with a winner.

“ISIS has run a very effective psychological campaign to intimidate its rivals and attract support and recruits,” said Faysal Itani, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, using an acronym for the extremists. But now, he said, the need to maintain its reputation is limiting the group’s options.

This is particularly true in Kobani, where a pre-emptive IS withdrawal in the face of U.S.-led bombings from the sky and ethnic Kurdish fighters on the ground could prove too costly. “They have invested a lot in this battle, and people are noticing. They will soon start asking what’s going on?” said Ayed, a Turkey-based Syrian activist who travels back and forth to the group’s stronghold in the Syrian city of Raqqa. He declined to give his full name.

The prolonged fighting in Kobani is also distracting IS from more strategically important areas in Syria and Iraq where the militant extremists are already stretched on multiple fronts. Nearly two months after IS launched its lightning assault on the Kurdish-dominated town near Turkish border, the group is bogged down in an increasingly entrenched and costly battle.

Syrian and Kurdish activists estimate nearly 600 Islamic State fighters have been killed — its heaviest losses since taking over large parts of Syria and Iraq in a summer blitz. Kurdish residents say the group appears to be struggling with personnel, bringing in inexperienced fighters and new recruits to reinforce the town. These include members of the IS police force known as Hisba, reassigned from nearby towns and cities, such as Raqqa and Manbij, under the group’s control.

“Many Hisba members have left Raqqa in the past two weeks, telling people they were headed to Kobani,” Ayed said. They are not fighters.” Kobani residents say recent U.S. airstrikes targeting IS in Kobani have inflicted heavy damage. “Their bodies are left for days rotting in the street without anyone picking them up,” said Farhad Shami, a Kobani-based activist.

In a move that some observers interpreted as a sign of weakness, the Islamic State group recently released a video showing a captive British photojournalist “reporting” from a place identified as Kobani. In the video, he says the battle for Kobani “is coming to an end” and IS is “mopping up.”

But despite seven weeks of fierce fighting and the reinforcements on both sides, fighting positions around Kobani remain much the same as they did several weeks ago, with IS controlling about 40 percent of the town, according to Syrian and Kurdish activists and observers.

IS has also recently suffered losses on several fronts in Iraq, where it is fighting government forces, peshmerga and Shiite militias aided by Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah group. Last week, Iraqi forces recaptured the town of Jurf al-Sakher. IS also lost Rabia, Mahmoudiyah and Zumar, a string of towns near the Syrian border, last month. Besieged Iraqi troops have also managed to maintain control of Iraq’s largest oil refinery outside the town of Beiji north of Baghdad, despite numerous attempts by the Islamic State group to capture it.

The group’s diminishing returns in Iraq partly reflects the fact that it already controls so much of the territory populated by minority Sunnis. It would have a much harder time conquering areas populated by Shiites.

But even in Sunni areas, IS is having to contend with dissent. Over the past few days, the group has massacred more than 200 Sunni tribesmen from the Al Bu Nimr tribe in what is likely to be revenge for the tribe’s siding with Iraqi security forces. The killings, in which the militants lined up and shot the men, suggest IS fighters now view them as a threat.

The group’s difficulties are striking considering the relative ease with which it seized other towns and cities in Iraq and Syria this past summer. In Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, Iraqi security forces quickly abandoned their positions and weapons in the face of the marauding militants, melting away quickly in humiliating defeat.

Most other towns in northern and western Iraq saw a widespread disintegration of the security forces, mostly because of the Islamic State group’s reputation alone in addition to grievances among the Sunni population that the militants were able to exploit.

In Syria, the group was able to capitalize on the chaos of the civil war to seize towns and villages abandoned by the government, routing out rival fighters in quick succession. By the time it got to Kobani in mid-September, IS was stretched on multiple fronts. Riding on the momentum, however, it captured dozens of Kurdish villages and a third of the town in lightning advances that sent waves of civilians fleeing across the border into Turkey. Expectations were that the town would fall to the militants within days.

But unlike in Iraq where the militants already had a substantial, years-long presence, the IS fighters in Kobani found themselves in an alien environment and unfamiliar terrain, fighting against highly motivated and surprisingly resilient Kurdish fighters, according to Syria observers as well as Syrian and Kurdish activists.

“The Iraqi army was a severely demoralized force that didn’t see a purpose in fighting for a central government whose credibility they questioned,” said Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.

The Kurds, on the other hand, “are fighting a truly existential battle,” he said. A group of 150 Iraqi Kurdish forces known as peshmerga deployed last week to Kobani with more advanced weapons including anti-tank missiles and artillery to help bolster their Syrian brethren defending the town. They have provided artillery cover for fellow Kurdish fighters, but it is too early to say whether this has already made any difference on the ground.

Bayan Jabr, an Iraqi cabinet minister, said IS was simply fighting too many battles. He predicted a Sunni uprising in Anbar province following the massacres targeting the Al Bu Nimr tribe. “I think Daesh is starting to fade,” he said, using the Arab acronym for the group.

Associated Press writer Vivian Salama contributed to this report from Irbil, Iraq.

November 06, 2014

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — In a blow to anti-Islamist factions, Libya’s highest court on Thursday ruled that general elections held in June were unconstitutional and that the country’s parliament and government, which resulted from that vote, should be dissolved.

The development further deepened the rift in the politically divided Libya, which has been mired in months-long clashes and turmoil that have left the country with two rival parliaments and governments, killed hundreds and displaced whole populations of war-torn cities and towns.

The Supreme Constitutional Court handed down the ruling in the capital, Tripoli, which is controlled by Islamist-allied militias from the powerful western coastal city of Misrata. The militias, which took Tripoli in August after bitter street battles, revived an earlier parliament that ran the country before the elections. They also forced the elected parliament, dominated by anti-Islamists, to leave the capital and convene in the far eastern city of Tobruk.

The fact that Libya’s top court ruled from Tripoli raises the question whether it did so under pressure from the militias. The ruling essentially declared illegal a March amendment to the country’s transitional constitution that allowed the June elections to take place. Thus, the ruling also rendered the parliament and government that resulted from that vote illegal.

The Tobruk parliament convened later Thursday and rejected the ruling, saying it was handed down “at gunpoint.” “Tripoli is out of control, ruled by militias outside the state legitimacy and therefore, the ruling was issued at gunpoint,” it said.

The parliament’s Facebook page reported that the house of Supreme Constitutional Court judge Bashir al-Ryani, who had withdrawn from the court Wednesday, was attacked and torched “for (his) refusing to participate.”

Abu-Bakr Baeira, a leading lawmaker in Tobruk, described the ruling as “politicized” and warned it would only further partition Libya. “We don’t recognize anything that comes out of it,” Baeira told The Associated Press over the phone.

In Misrata, rallies were held, complete with fireworks, to celebrate the ruling. Saleh al-Makhzoum, the deputy speaker of the Tripoli-based parliament, which is not internationally recognized, hailed the ruling as a “victory for the nation.”

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters that Washington was looking to obtain the full text of the ruling “to understand what the decision implies.” “We have long recognized the (Tobruk-based) House of Representatives as the legitimate parliamentary representative body, so we will take a look at the text and determine what that will mean,” she said.

The United Nations Support Mission in Libya, or UNSMIL, said it was studying the ruling and warned rival camps from taking actions that only “escalate the existing polarization or result in a further deterioration of the security situation.”

The Tobruk parliament was Libya’s second elected legislature since longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown and killed in a 2011 uprising against his rule. Since then, Libya has been gripped by unrest as authorities struggled to contain militias vying for power.

Thursday’s ruling comes against the backdrop of full-blown war underway in the eastern city of Benghazi — the birthplace of the uprising — where pro-government forces are battling Islamist militias for control of the city.

Also, another warzone has opened up in western Libya, where the Misrata militias and allied fighters from a handful of western towns are fighting pro-government forces, including the rival Zintan militia in the mountain town of Kikla.

In the past three weeks, at least 400 people have been killed in both areas of fighting, thousands wounded and thousands were displaced. Omar Homaidan, the spokesman for the Tripoli-based parliament, suggested that the supreme court’s reasoning for the ruling was the fact that the March amendment had been adopted without a needed majority in parliament, which was “under tremendous pressure” at the time.

Homaidan said a possible way out of the crisis was to wait for a 60-member panel to finish writing Libya’s new constitution, then call a referendum on it and hold elections after that. Libya never had a constitution under Gadhafi’s 42-year-rule and the turmoil that engulfed the nation since his ouster has stood in the way of the panel finishing its work.

__ Associated Press writers Maggie Michael in Cairo and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.