Archive for December 26, 2014

December 21, 2014

MOUNT SINJAR, Iraq (AP) — With coalition warplanes circling overhead, Kurdish fighters pushed into the contested northern Iraqi town of Sinjar on Sunday, touching off heavy clashes with Islamic State militants who have controlled the area for months.

The battle for Sinjar and the surrounding areas has become the latest focus in the campaign to take back territory lost to the Islamic State group during the militants’ summer blitz that captured much of northern and western Iraq. IS also controls a large chunk of neighboring Syria.

Last week, Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters launched the operation to retake Sinjar. So far, they’ve managed to open up a passageway to Mount Sinjar, a long, rugged mountain that overlooks the town. That push allowed some of the thousands of Yazidis trapped on the mountain since the town’s fall in August to evacuate.

On Sunday, pershmerga fighters said they advanced into Sinjar itself. Loud explosions and intense gunbattles could be heard echoing from inside the town as U.S.-led coalition warplanes bombed Islamic State militants from the sky.

“We were fighting inside Sinjar. There were snipers everywhere inside,” said 28-year-old Kurdish fighter Nabil Mohammed. “One of them fired a rocket-propelled grenade at us. I ran into a house and I was hit by a sniper’s bullet in my thigh.”

Mohammed spoke in a field hospital on Mount Sinjar, where he and many of the 20 wounded Kurdish fighters were brought for treatment. Ambulances rushed the wounded to the clinic. Inside, fighters wept as the body of one man killed by a sniper’s bullet was placed into a body bag.

Earlier Sunday, the president of the self-ruled northern Kurdish region, Masoud Bazani, toured Kurdish positions on Mount Sinjar, where he vowed to defeat the Islamic State group. “Most of the districts are under our control,” Barzani told peshmerga troops. “We will crush the Islamic State.”

At least 15 Kurdish fighters wounded in Sunday’s clashes were brought from the front-lines to a makeshift clinic on the mountain. The spokesman for the Kurdish forces, Jabbar Yawar, said the fighters were still facing resistance from pockets of Islamic State militants still inside the town and that it is “far from cleared.” He declined to provide more details on the ongoing operation.

Meanwhile, Iraqi counter-terrorism forces launched an offensive Saturday to retake the military airport near the town of Tal Afar from the IS group, said a Baghdad official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media.

Tal Afar is a mixed Shiite-Sunni city of some 200,000 located strategically near the Syrian border to the east of Sinjar. In Syria, meanwhile, the U.S.-led coalition carried out at least a dozen airstrikes against IS-controlled towns in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The group monitors the conflict through a network of activists on the ground.

The Local Coordination Committees also reported the strikes near the town of Dabiq. There was no word on casualties. Mainstream rebels as well as al-Qaida-linked fighters have been battling IS northeast of the city of Aleppo for months, while also trying to fend off an advance by Syrian government forces to encircle the opposition-held areas of the city.

In Baghdad, police said roadside bombs hit four busy commercial areas, killing 11 people and wounding 30.

Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report from Baghdad.


By Abdelhamid Zebari

Nahyat al-Ayadhiya

Iraqi Kurds claimed Thursday to have broken a siege on a mountain where Yazidi civilians and fighters have long been trapped as the US said air strikes killed several Islamic State leaders in recent weeks.

Officials said the twin successes dealt heavy blows to IS’s command and control as well as their supply lines, and were the latest in a string of apparent setbacks for the group in recent weeks.

The Kurdish advances came during a two-day blitz into the Sinjar region involving 8,000 peshmerga fighters and some of the heaviest air strikes since a US-led coalition started an air campaign four months ago.

Masrour Barzani, the son of the Kurdish president and the intelligence chief for the Iraqi autonomous region, said the peshmerga advance had broken the siege on Mount Sinjar.

“Peshmerga forces have reached Mount Sinjar, the siege on the mountain has been lifted,” he told reporters from an operations center near the border with Syria.

The peshmerga said they recaptured eight villages on the way and killed about 80 IS fighters in the initial phase of the offensive launched from Rabia on the Syria border and Zumar on the shores of Mosul dam lake.

They also lost seven men on Wednesday in Qasreej village when they failed to stop a suicide attacker who rammed an explosives-laden armored vehicle into their convoy, officers at the scene said.

“This operation represents the single biggest military offensive against IS and the most successful,” a statement from Barzani’s office said.

A devastating IS attack on the Yazidi minority’s Sinjar heartland in August displaced tens of thousands of people and was one of the reasons put forward by US President Barack Obama for launching a campaign of air strikes in September.

Amid fears of a genocide against the small Kurdish-speaking minority, tens of thousands of Yazidis fled to the mountain and remained trapped there in the searing summer heat with no supplies.

Kurdish fighters, mostly Syrian, broke that first siege but remaining anti-IS forces were subsequently unable to hold positions in the plains and retreated back to the mountain in late September.

– Breaking the siege –

The peshmerga commander for the area said troops had reached the mountain and secured a road that would enable people to leave, effectively breaking the siege. Several thousand are still thought to be trapped there.

“Tomorrow most of the people will come down from the mountain,” Mohamed Kojar said, explaining the offensive had secured a corridor northeast of the mountain.

A Yazidi leader atop the mountain, however, said he could see no sign of a military deployment. A peshmerga commander explained that any evacuation would only begin on Friday.

Kurdish officials said the operation had dealt the jihadists a blow by cutting their supply lines and forcing them to retreat to urban bastions such as Tal Afar and Mosul, their main hub.

Jihadists still control the town of Sinjar, on the southern side of the mountain, and many of the surrounding villages.

In Washington, meanwhile, the Pentagon announced that three top IS leaders in Iraq had been killed in US air strikes in recent weeks.

“I can confirm that since mid-November, targeted coalition air strikes successfully killed multiple senior and mid-level leaders” in the IS, spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said in a statement.

“We believe that the loss of these key leaders degrades ISIL’s ability to command and control current operations,” he added.

The most significant figure was identified as Haji Mutazz, better known as Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, who was deputy to the group’s chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

There was no hint that Turkmani had been killed on the jihadist social media accounts and forums that usually relay such information.

The jihadist group proclaimed a “caliphate” over parts of Iraq and Syria nearly six months ago after sweeping through Iraq’s Sunni heartland and throwing the country into chaos.

A second wave of attacks in August against Sinjar and towards the borders of Kurdistan triggered a US intervention that has now grown into a 60-nation anti-IS coalition.

The strikes were extended into Syria on September 23.

The military fightback appears to have gradually turned the tide on the jihadists, who have suffered a string of setbacks in Iraq in recent weeks.

Battle lines are more static in Syria, where the West is not coordinating its air campaign with the regime.

Source: Middle East Online.


Fri Dec 26, 2014

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood movement says it will not negotiate with military-backed rulers in the country and will continue to organize its peaceful anti-government demonstrations, Press TV reports.

The outlawed Egyptian group made the remarks in a statement published on its official website.

The Muslim Brotherhood said it would not adhere to regional and international efforts aimed at finding a compromise until those responsible for the deaths of revolutionaries were brought to justice.

It added that the Brotherhood and its supporters would defeat what it called domestic and international sponsors of the military coup last year, referencing countries such as Saudi Arabia, Israel, United Arab Emirates, and the United States.

This came a day after supporters of ousted Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mohamed Morsi held anti-government protests in Cairo and the city of Fayoum.

Similar protests have been held across the country in recent months.

Egypt has witnessed regular protest rallies since the July 2013 ouster of Morsi, who was the country’s first president democratically elected after the overthrow of long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

According to rights groups, the army’s crackdown on pro-Morsi demonstrations has led to the deaths of over 1,400 people and the arrest of 22,000 others, including some 200 people who have been sentenced to death in mass trials.

Morsi and his aides are currently on trial in several cases and could face the death penalty if convicted.  They are standing trial for what the military-backed court calls the destabilization of Egypt through collaborating with such groups as Palestinian resistance movement Hamas and Lebanese movement Hezbollah and leaking confidential information to foreign countries.

Source: PressTV.


December 22, 2014

CAIRO (AP) — The Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera news network on Monday shut down its Egypt channel, quieting a major source of tension between the two countries at a time when regional efforts are underway to reconcile between the two countries over the Gulf nation’s support for Islamists.

Qatar has been the main supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and was a powerful backer of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s Islamist president who was ousted last year by the military. Egypt has accused Al-Jazeera in general — and its Egypt affiliate, Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr, in particular — of doing Doha’s bidding by serving as Islamists’ mouthpiece at a time of a ferocious crackdown on their ranks. The station denies any bias, saying it is simply covering Islamist protests.

The most dramatic manifestation of the tensions has been the arrest, trial and prison sentences for three journalists from Al-Jazeera’s English channel on terrorism-related charges for allegedly helping the Brotherhood.

Al-Jazeera said Monday it will incorporate Mubasher Misr into a new region-wide station. It said the Egyptian station will only resume its work when it can get proper licenses in Egypt “in coordination with Egyptian authorities.”

The decision Monday came only two days after a Qatari envoy met with Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the first such meeting since he was elected in June. El-Sissi’s office said Egypt hoped the meeting, which was attended by a Saudi royal envoy, was the beginning of a “new era” that puts the past disagreements between the two countries behind.

Last month, Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, reached a reconciliation agreement with Qatar aimed at easing regional tensions linked to Doha’s support for Islamist groups throughout the region.

Tensions with Egypt were the most public manifestation of the disagreements with Doha. Egyptian authorities have cracked down on the Brotherhood, arresting thousands of its members, and putting them on trial, including Morsi. Many senior figures in the Brotherhood, which Egypt declared a terrorist organization, found refuge in Qatar, though some have since left.

The crackdown extended to Al-Jazeera. A local court declared Mubasher Misr a threat to national security and ordered it shut down soon after Morsi’s ouster. The channel, whose name means “Egypt Live” in Arabic, has broadcast ever since from studios in the Qatari capital.

In December last year, Egyptian authorities arrested and swiftly tried the three Al-Jazeera English journalists, accusing them of providing a platform for the Brotherhood. Australian Peter Greste, Egyptian-Canadian Mohammed Fahmy, and Egyptian Mohammed Baher, were sentenced to at least seven years in prison on terrorism related charges. A half dozen other Al-Jazeera English journalists were sentenced in absentia in the trial, which was described as a sham by rights groups.

Fahmy said he and his colleagues were “victims of a real ongoing cold war between Egypt and Qatar,” in the letter published earlier this month by Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. Egyptian TV on Monday hailed the shutting down of Al-Jazeera’s local branch as the first sign of restoring good relations with Qatar.

“This is a translation of the Saudi initiative to restore warmth to Egyptian-Qatari relations,” a broadcaster on the private Egyptian CBC station said. An Al-Jazeera station employee denied it has succumbed to political pressure, saying the station makes its decisions based on its editorial policies. The employee said the decision to stop broadcasting was because of the “challenges” the channel faced in operating out of Egypt. The employee spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Friday 7 October 2011

CAIRO: Egypt’s leading liberal party Wafd has scrapped an electoral alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest political force, because it wants to field more candidates than the tie-up would have allowed, said a senior Wafd official.

The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Brotherhood’s political wing, and Wafd led an alliance of 34 parties from across the political spectrum that planned to coordinate on lists of candidates for the first elections since President Hosni Mubarak was ousted from office in a popular uprising.

“The party’s higher committee unanimously decided to contest elections in a separate list and member parties of the alliance should choose to join either (the FJP or Wafd) lists,” Essam Sheha, member of Wafd’s higher committee, told Reuters.

Egyptian politics were dominated for decades by Mubarak’s now defunct National Democratic Party which was widely accused of ballot stuffing, vote buying and intimidation.

The well-organized Brotherhood was banned from formal politics but fielded candidates as independents.

Fourteen Liberal and Leftist groups have formed a coalition called the “Egyptian Bloc” calling for a civil state in which the principles of Shariah are the main source of legislation.

Sheha denied that the decision to quit the electoral alliance was based on an ideological dispute. “We withdrew from the electoral alliance because we had a lot of candidates and the available places in the list weren’t enough,” he said.

Cooperation with the Brotherhood would continue in other areas, he said, and a meeting of the alliance would take place on Saturday.

Egypt’s military ruler, meanwhile, said the country is going through a critical period, particularly on the security and economic fronts, and urges unity to achieve a democratic state under civilian rule.

Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi said in a televised speech Thursday disagreements and mistrust have plagued the period following the uprising that forced former President Hosni Mubarak to step down in February.

Source: Arab News.


21 December 2014 Sunday

“We are struggling to put bread on the table. We put Turkish and Arabic signs in our workplace. I’m happy that I am able to continue my business here” says 32-year-old Mamun Fakri from Idlib, Syria.

For the past two years, Fakri has been running his business in Turkey’s southern city of Mersin nearly 300 kilometers from Syrian border. He is one of the more than 300 Syrians who own their businesses in the Mediterranean port city where the number of Syrian-owned business increased from 33 in 2011.

More than twenty-six percent of the new companies started up in Turkey by foreigners in the first 11 months of this year were set up by Syrians or partnered by Syrians, according to data from the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey.

According to the data, of the more than 53,329 new companies or associations started up in Turkey within first eleven months of this year, 4,249 foreign-partnered.

– Some 1,122 — over 26 percent of total — of foreign-partnered companies were founded directly by Syrians or as partners with local businessmen.

Out of the total number of foreign-funded companies in November, 118 were funded from Syria, 36 were Iranian-funded, and 23 were financed from Iraq.

Germans followed their Syrian counterparts, investing in 281 newly-established companies in Turkey, while Iraq-based firms ranked third with 248 start-up investments.

Muhammed Shreem, from Aleppo, is only one of thousands of Syrians who have fled their war-torn country.

Shreem has been trying to adapt to business life in Turkey, which currently hosts around 1.6 million Syrians, according to UN figures.

“We had a family company on import and export in Aleppo. We have opened a new company in Mersin, where our family harbored. We export construction materials and stationery from Turkey to Alleppo, one of the largest city in Syria and Idlib province in northwestern Syria,” says 43-year-old Syrian Shreem who has been in business in Mersin for two years now.

However, local business owners complain about unfair competition.

“Syrians who escape from the civil war and took refuge in Turkey should obey the rules of law in the country,” Talat Dincer from Mersin Tradesmen’s and Artisans’ Association said.

“Our goal is not to oppress them. We have some rules in business world here and we want everyone to obey them. We do not want a confrontation. We just do not want to see unfair competition and conflicts here,” Dincer said.

“The situation has gotten so worse that local shopkeepers cannot endure it anymore.”

Serafettin Asut, the president of Mersin Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said Syrian firms are in every sector from logistics to real estate.

“Mersin’s exports to Syria increased by 331 percent in last year thanks to the contribution by Syrian funded companies, their owners know local factors in Syria.”

Turkey has adopted an open-door policy, welcoming Syrians since the beginning of the civil war in March 2011. As the number of Syrians in Turkey reaches 1.6 million, the government considers crucial long-term plans to ease the effects of hosting so many Syrians in the country.

Turkey has spent more than $5 billion for Syrian refugees thus far, according to the country’s Finance Ministry.

The Turkish Ministry of Labor and Social Security has recently confirmed that work permits would be granted to Syrians on Turkish soil.

Source: World Bulletin.


December 26, 2014

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — The father of a Jordanian pilot captured by the Islamic State group in Syria pleaded for his son’s release on Thursday, asking the group to treat him well in captivity as a fellow Muslim.

So far, there has been silence from the extremists about the fate of their captive, 1st Lt. Mu’ath al-Kaseasbeh, since gunmen from the group dragged him away following his crash Wednesday morning. Al-Kaseasbeh was carrying out air strikes against the militants when his warplane crashed near the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, the Islamic State group’s de facto capital. The group has executed captured Iraqi and Syrian Muslim soldiers in the past — it follows an extremist version of Islam that considers rivals, even some Sunni Muslims, as apostates. Still, the group may want to negotiate a prisoner swap or other concessions from Jordan.

The pilot’s father, Safi Yousef al-Kaseasbeh, made his plea while speaking to journalists in the Jordanian capital, Amman. “I direct a message to our generous brothers of the Islamic State in Syria: to host my son, the pilot Mu’ath, with generous hospitality,” he said. “I ask God that their hearts are gathered together with love, and that he is returned to his family, wife and mother.”

“We are all Muslims,” he added. The pilot is the first known military member to be captured from the international coalition that has been waging a bombing campaign against the Islamic State group for months, trying to break its control over territory stretching across Syria and Iraq.

After the crash, al-Kaseasbeh was pulled by gunmen from a body of water and hustled away, according to photos published by the Raqqa Media Center, which operates in areas under IS control. He appeared to be able to walk and the only visible injury was what appeared to be a spot of blood at his mouth.

The capture — and the potential hostage situation — presents a nightmare scenario for Jordan, which vowed to continue its fight against the group that has overrun large parts of Syria and Iraq and beheaded foreign captives and local rivals.

The cause of the crash was not immediately known. The U.S. military said Wednesday that evidence “clearly indicates” that the militants did not shoot down al-Kaseasbeh’s F-16. But the pilot’s uncle told journalists that the family had been told by the Jordanian government that his warplane was downed by a missile.

Speaking at a gathering of the al-Kaseasbeh family and extended tribe in the southern Jordanian town of Karak, Younes al-Kaseasbeh said that the family was told that his nephew was flying at a height of 400 feet on a bombing mission when the militants hit him with a heat-seeking missile and his plane went down in the Euphrates River.

He said three other warplanes in the same sortie had wanted to rescue him, but were wary of striking militants in the area for fear of killing al-Kaseasbeh and so were ordered to return home. The United States and several Arab allies have been striking the Islamic State in Syria since Sept. 23, and U.S. and other international warplanes have been waging an air campaign against the extremists in Iraq for even longer. The campaign aims to push back the jihadi organization after it took over much of Iraq and Syria and declared a “caliphate.”

Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are participating in the Syria airstrikes, with logistical support from Qatar. Jordan in particular has come under heavy criticism from militants for its participation.

Also Thursday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that government airstrikes in another Syrian stronghold of the Islamic State group killed over 21 people — including children.

The Observatory said Syrian military aircraft struck two locations in the northern town of Qabassen, including a market, causing the casualties. The death toll was likely to rise because people were still digging through the rubble to find bodies. The strike was also reported by another Syrian monitoring group.

Hadid reported from Beirut.

December 24, 2014

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Islamic State militants captured a Jordanian pilot after his warplane crashed in Syria while carrying out airstrikes Wednesday, making him the first foreign military member to fall into the extremists’ hands since an international coalition launched its bombing campaign against the group months ago.

Images of the pilot being pulled out of a lake and hustled away by masked jihadis underscored the risks for the U.S. and its Arab and European allies in the air campaign. The capture — and the potential hostage situation — presented a nightmare scenario for Jordan, which vowed to continue its fight against the group that has overrun large parts of Syria and Iraq and beheaded foreign captives.

The cause of the crash was not immediately known, but the U.S. military insisted the plane was not shot down. “Evidence clearly indicates that ISIL did not down the aircraft as the terrorist organization is claiming,” Central Command said in a statement.

U.S. Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, who is overseeing all coalition military operations in Iraq and Syria, condemned the pilot’s capture, saying in a statement: “We will support efforts to ensure his safe recovery and will not tolerate ISIL’s attempts to misrepresent or exploit this unfortunate aircraft crash for their own purposes.”

A coalition official, who was not authorized to discuss the episode publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the pilot was in an F-16 fighter and was able to eject. Jordanian Information Minister Mohammad Momani earlier told the AP that the plane was believed to have been shot down.

“It is our expectation that the plane went down because of fire from the ground, but it is difficult to confirm that, with the little information we have,” he said. The Islamic State group is known to have Russian-made Igla anti-aircraft missiles. The shoulder-fired weapon has long been in the Syrian and Iraqi government arsenals; it was used during the 1991 Gulf War by Iraqi forces to bring down a British Tornado jet, for example. More recently, militants in Chechnya have used them to down Russian helicopters.

The warplane went down near the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto IS capital. Images showed the pilot — in a white shirt, naked from the waist down and sopping wet — being pulled by gunmen out of what appeared to be a lake. Another picture showed him surrounded by more than a dozen fighters, some of them masked. The images were published by the Raqqa Media Center, a monitoring group that operates in areas under the extremists’ rule with the group’s consent.

The plane’s glass canopy was taken by militants and put on display in the main square of Raqqa, according to the media center. Jordan identified the pilot as 1st Lt. Mu’ath Safi al-Kaseasbeh. His cousin Marwan al-Kaseasbeh confirmed to the AP that the photos were of Mu’ath.

The United States and several Arab allies have been striking the Islamic State in Syria since Sept. 23, and U.S. and other international warplanes have been waging an air campaign against the extremists in Iraq for even longer. The campaign aims to push back the jihadi organization after it took over much of Iraq and Syria and declared a “caliphate.”

Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are participating in the Syria airstrikes, with logistical support from Qatar. Jordan in particular has come under heavy criticism from militants for its participation.

IS has beheaded dozens of Syrian soldiers it captured around the country. The group has also beheaded three Americans and two Britons. In Iraq, it has shot down at least one Iraqi military helicopter, and the pilots died in the crash.

Moman, the information minister, vowed: “The war on terrorism will continue.” He praised the pilot as an “example of heroism.” Apparently seeking to blunt criticism of the country’s participation in the air campaign, Jordanian media published reports of al-Kaseasbeh’s family expressing support for Jordan’s King Abdullah.

Jordan’s military said that the pilot was taken hostage by IS and that the group and those who support it will be held responsible for his safety. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had confirmation from activists on the ground that the aircraft was shot down, either by a Russian-made anti-aircraft missile or by heavy machine-gun fire.

Activists say IS is widely known to have Igla missile systems, either captured or bought from rival Syrian rebels, who obtained them from international patrons or bought them on the international market. State arsenals in both Iraq and Syria have been looted, so that could also be a source of Iglas circulating among rebels.

IS is likely to try to target other planes, said military analyst Hisham Jaber, a retired brigadier general in the Lebanese military. “Inevitably, they will take down more,” Jaber said. He said that the anti-aircraft weapons require little training or expertise to employ and that aircraft flown by Arab countries are easier targets since they have less technology to avoid guided missiles.

Also Wednesday, a suicide bomber infiltrated a group of pro-government Sunni militiamen at a military base south of Baghdad as they gathered to collect their paychecks. The bomber detonated his explosives, killing at least 24 militiamen and soldiers and wounding 55 others, police said.

Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor and Josh Lederman in Washington and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

Hadid reported from Beirut.

December 24, 2014

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — The winner of Tunisia’s presidential election says he will resign from the leadership of his political party to focus on his new job.

Beji Caid Essebsi, who won 55 percent of the vote in a runoff election Sunday, distanced himself from the party he created and led to victory so that he can be “the president of all Tunisians.” A well-organized Islamist party won elections in 2011 following Tunisia’s revolution, prompting Essebsi to form his party Nida Tunis (Tunisia Calls) to oppose the winners.

In October, voters gave Nida Tunis the most votes in legislative elections, and the party must now form a ruling coalition and nominate a prime minister. Essebsi said Wednesday he will work with Nida Tunis to form a new government backed by a large consensus.