Archive for February 11, 2015

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Palestine’s Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, described on Friday the American criticism of the visit by its top leader Khalid Meshaal to Turkey as “shameless position.”

Anadolu News Agency reported Hamas Spokesman in Gaza Sami Abu-Zuhri saying in a press release: “The United States is a real enemy of the Palestinian cause.”

Abu-Zhuri reiterated that Turkey would not be affected with such a “shamefully racist position.”

Meshaal visited Turkey at the end of the last week and attended the annual conference of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party.

On Thursday, US State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters that Washington was concerned about relations between Hamas and Turkey.

“We have urged the Government of Turkey to press Hamas to reduce tensions and prevent violence,” Psaki said. She added that Washington’s position toward Hamas has not changed and classifies the Palestinian group as a “designated foreign terrorist organization that continues to engage in terrorist activity.”

Source: Middle East Monitor.


February 05, 2015

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Dozens of Jordanian fighter jets bombed Islamic State training centers and weapons storage sites Thursday, intensifying attacks after the militants burned to death a captured Jordanian pilot.

As part of the new campaign, Jordan is also attacking targets in Iraq, said Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh. Up to now, Jordan had struck IS targets in Syria, but not Iraq, as part of a U.S.-led military coalition.

“We said we are going to take this all the way, we are going to go after them wherever they are and we’re doing that,” Judeh told Fox News. Asked if Jordan was now carrying out attacks in both countries, he said: “That’s right. Today more Syria than Iraq, but like I said it’s an ongoing effort.”

“They’re in Iraq and they are in Syria and therefore you have to target them wherever they are,” he added. The militant group controls about one-third of each Syria and Iraq, both neighbors of Jordan. In September, Jordan joined the U.S.-led military alliance that has been carrying out air strikes against the militants.

The Jordanian military said dozens of fighter jets were involved in Thursday’s strikes on training centers and weapons storage sites. State TV showed footage of the attacks, including fighter jets taking off from an air base and bombs setting of large balls of fire and smoke after impact. It showed Jordanian troops scribble messages in chalk on the missiles. “For you, the enemies of Islam,” read one message.

The military’s statement, read on state TV, was entitled, “This is the beginning and you will get to know the Jordanians” — an apparent warning to IS. It said the strikes will continue “until we eliminate them.”

Jordan’s King Abdullah II was paying a condolence visit to the family of the pilot, Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, in southern Jordan when the fighter jets roared overhead. The king pointed upward, toward the planes, as he sat next to the pilot’s father, Safi al-Kaseasbeh.

Al-Kaseasbeh told the assembled mourners that the planes had returned from strikes over Raqqa, the de facto capital of the militants’ self-declared caliphate. His son had been captured near Raqqa when his F-16 fighter plane went down in December.

Earlier this week, Islamic State displayed the video of the killing of the pilot on outdoor screens in Raqqa, to chants of “God is Great” from some in the audience, according to another video posted by the militants.

Also Thursday, Jordan released an influential jihadi cleric, Abu Mohammed al-Maqdesi, who was detained in October after speaking out against Jordan’s participation in the anti-IS coalition, according to his lawyer, Moussa al-Abdallat.

Jordan’s Islamic militants are split between supporters of Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, the branch of al-Qaida in Syria. Last year, al-Maqdesi had criticized Islamic State militants for attacking fellow Muslims. However, after Jordan joined the military coalition, he called on his website for Muslim unity against a “crusader war,” a reference to coalition airstrikes.

February 04, 2015

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Jordan called Wednesday for a decisive battle against the Islamic State group, declaring “this evil can and should be defeated,” after the militants burned a Jordanian pilot to death in a cage and gleefully broadcast the horrific images on outdoor screens in their stronghold.

Waves of revulsion over the killing washed across the Middle East, a region long accustomed to violence. In mosques, streets and coffee shops, Muslims denounced the militants’ brutality and distanced themselves from their violent version of Islam.

Even a prominent preacher with close links to jihadi groups said Islamic State militants miscalculated if they hoped the images of the pilot’s agony would galvanize greater opposition to a U.S.-led military coalition that has been bombing targets of the group.

“After millions of Muslims were cursing every pilot (in the coalition), with this act, they (IS) have made the burned one into a symbol,” Abdullah al-Muhaysni, a Saudi sheik, wrote on his Twitter account.

The Islamic State group, which controls large areas of Iraq and Syria, has killed captives in the past, posting videos of beheadings and sparking widespread condemnation. However, the killing of Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, who crashed over Syria in December, also highlighted the vulnerability of Jordan, a key Western ally in the region, to threats from extremists.

Jordan was long considered an island of relative stability in a turbulent region, but in recent years had to absorb hundreds of thousands of war refugees, first from Iraq and then Syria, at a time of a sharp economic downturn.

Jordan receives hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid a year, but grinding social problems persist, including high unemployment among young men, a reservoir of potential IS recruits. Experts estimate Islamic State and other jihadi groups have thousands of supporters in the kingdom, with an upswing last year after the militants declared a caliphate in the areas they control.

The United States and Israel are particularly concerned about any signs of turmoil. Israel views Jordan as an important land buffer and the two countries share intelligence. In Washington, congressional support built Wednesday for increased U.S. military assistance to the kingdom. Currently, the United States is providing Jordan with $1 billion annually in economic and military assistance.

Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Jordan’s King Abdullah II — who met with lawmakers and President Barack Obama on Tuesday — must be given “all of the military equipment” he needs to combat the group. He said Abdullah did not ask for ground troops.

At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said the administration would consider any aid package put forward by Congress, but that the White House would be looking for a specific request from Jordan’s government.

Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he expected his panel to swiftly approve legislation. He repeated his criticism that the Obama administration has “no strategy” for dealing with the Islamic State group, and said he hoped the video of al-Kaseasbeh’s death will galvanize not only U.S. leadership but “the Arab world.”

Abdullah rushed home after his Washington meetings, cutting short his U.S. trip, to rally domestic support for an even tougher line against the militants. In September, Jordan joined the U.S.-led military coalition that began bombing Islamic State group targets in Syria and Iraq.

The decision was not popular in Jordan, with the bombing campaign widely seen as serving Western, not Jordanian interests. During weeks of uncertainty about the fate of the airman, some of his relatives and supporters chanted against Jordan’s role in the coalition.

On Wednesday, Hammam Saeed, the leader of Jordan’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, visited relatives of the pilot in the southern tribal town of Karak, and called on Jordan to pull out of the anti-IS coalition, saying that “we have no relations with this war.”

Jordanian government spokesman Mohammed al-Momani on Wednesday urged the international community to work together and deliver a decisive blow to Islamic State militants. Jordan believes that “this evil can and should be defeated,” he said.

In an initial response, Jordan executed two Iraqi al-Qaida prisoners, Sajida al-Rishawi and Zaid al-Karbouly, before sunrise Wednesday. Over the past week, Jordan had offered to trade al-Rishawi, a failed female suicide bomber, for the pilot, but insisted on proof of life it never received. Al-Momani said Wednesday that Jordan now believes the pilot was killed in early January.

Dozens more suspected Islamic State sympathizers are in detention in Jordan, most rounded up during a crackdown in recent months. Public outrage over the pilot’s death and calls for revenge against IS could help Abdullah broaden support for the coalition, said Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis at Stratfor, a global intelligence and advisory firm in Austin, Texas.

“Sentiments (about the airstrikes) are going to start changing across the Middle East after people see the video, especially the Jordanian people,” he said. Stewart said a similar shift occurred a decade ago in Iraq after Sunni Muslim tribes turned away from a local branch of al-Qaida, a precursor of the Islamic State group, over its brutality.

Marwan Shehadeh, a Jordanian expert on jihadi groups, said he expects the opposite outcome. “Public opinion rejected the IS behavior, but at the same time, more voices are questioning the participation of Jordan in the international coalition,” he said. “The killing (of the pilot) will drive more people to question that.”

The Islamic State militants appeared to be goading Jordan. In the northern Syrian city of Raqaa, the Islamic State group’s de facto capital, the militants showed graphic footage of al-Kaseasbeh’s slaying on outdoor screens, with some chanting “God is great!” according to militant video posted online Wednesday that conformed to Associated Press reporting of the event.

In the 20-minute video of the killing, the pilot displayed signs of having been beaten, including a black eye. Toward the end of the clip, he stood in the outdoor cage in an orange jumpsuit and a masked militant lit a line of fuel leading to him. The AP could not independently confirm the authenticity of the video.

A senior Iraqi Kurdish official, meanwhile, echoed Jordan’s appeal for a decisive campaign against the militants. Fouad Hussein, chief of staff to Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, said U.S.-led coalition airstrikes are helpful, but “to finish ISIS … you need to finish it on the ground,” he said, using an alternate acronym for the militant group.

“And on the ground, we are most of the time alone. So we need partners,” he said. “It means advisers. It means special forces. It means a collective fight against ISIS. It means equipment, it means munitions.”

Though Islamic State fighters have been forced to retreat from Kobani, a strategic town on Syria’s border with Turkey, the battlefield picture suggests they are far from beaten in northern Iraq, where harsh winter weather and thick mud underfoot hampers military moves.

The Kurdish peshmerga fighters have struggled for months to inch ahead, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.

Associated Press writers Omar Akour in Amman, Hamza Hendawi in Cairo, Zeina Karam and Diaa Hadid in Beirut and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to the report.

Eric Reidy

February 8, 2015

TUNIS, Tunisia — Tunisia’s largely peaceful transition toward democracy following its 2011 revolution stands in stark contrast to the conflict, repression and return of dictatorship seen in other countries that experienced Arab Spring protests. The Washington-based nongovernmental organization Freedom House acknowledged Tunisia’s progress in its annual Freedom in the World report, released Jan. 28, by singling it out as a “notable exception” in a year that otherwise saw the state of freedom worsen in virtually every region.

Based on a rubric drawn from international human rights norms that examines political rights and civil liberties, the report categorizes countries as “not free,” “partly free” or “free.” After jumping from “not free” to “partly free” following the overthrow of longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, Tunisia became the first Arab country since the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975 to be rated as “free” in the report.

Tunisia received perfect scores on indices related to the electoral process and political participation, and the highest overall score for the general category of political rights. For civil liberties, however, the country received a three out of seven, the same as in 2014.

The completion of free and transparent parliamentary and presidential elections at the end of 2014, as well as the adoption of a new constitution, the practice of dialogue and compromise among political leaders and strong civil society engagement were the primary reasons for the upgrade, according to Sarah Repucci, director of the Freedom in the World project.

Despite the progress, and as suggested by the lower rating on civil liberties, challenges persist in Tunisia, particularly those related to corruption and the rule of law. Local human rights activists also see much more work that needs to be done to expand and preserve the space of freedom within the country, and average Tunisians struggling in a stagnant economy are waiting to feel the tangible dividends of their newfound freedoms.

Tunisia is still grappling with the legacy of a political, economic and social system that was engineered over the course of decades to concentrate business and political power within a small handful of elites, according to a World Bank report released last year. These practices embedded nepotism and bribery as part of the culture. “When you have a corrupt society, that’s not going to change quickly with a new government, a new political system or a new constitution. It takes time for those institutions to take effect,” Repucci told Al-Monitor.

The country also has yet to undertake serious legal reform, leading to continued concerns about the independence of the judiciary, functioning of the court system and legal codes dating from the era of dictatorship, according to Repucci.

In a recent case highlighting the need for legal reform, a military court tried and sentenced controversial blogger Yassine Ayari in absentia to three years in prison on charges of defaming the military for blog posts he wrote in August 2014. Following an appeal, Ayari’s sentence was reduced to one year. “We can’t speak about freedom in a country like Tunisia when we have a blogger in jail because he is writing on his Facebook [page] about the army,” Henda Chennaoui, a prominent Tunisian human rights activist, told Al-Monitor.

Chennaoui also said that international organizations and reports tend to focus on major cities where conditions are generally better. Police repression of social movements in the interior of Tunisia, which is underdeveloped and politically marginalized compared to the coast, is often overlooked even by local organizations, Chennaoui added. Repucci did, however, acknowledge the persistence of regional inequalities in the application of law as an area of weakness for Tunisia.

Aside from freedom of speech, Chennaoui still feels that it is too early to speak of Tunisia being a free country. “Before the revolution we didn’t have any rights or any freedom to speak,” she said. “Now, we have a lot more space to move and to speak and to have political activities, but it’s not enough.”

Chennaoui is also concerned that the fear of terrorism that emerged after the revolution is giving authorities an excuse to curtail rights and freedoms. “The fight against terrorism is the most dangerous problem now about the freedom of expression and human rights,” she said. “The regime uses this argument to repress people, to put people in jail, and it is very, very dangerous.”

Student Adam Najmoui, 21, also thinks it is too early to consider Tunisia a free country. “I would say we are on our way. It’s going to take some time,” he said, emphasizing the limitations on social freedoms when it comes to personal beliefs and sexuality.

Sabrine Cherif, 27, who volunteered as an observer in the last elections, said that religion places some limitations on how far Tunisians can push their freedoms. But, she still viewed the country as being free. “Yes, absolutely, it’s a free country. I can say that and I’m proud,” she told Al-Monitor.

The persistence of economic difficulties, which were an underlying cause of the revolution, has led some in Tunisian society to question why they rose up in the first place. “Prices are getting higher and we are getting nowhere. … There is no democracy,” a Tunisian man, 55, who gave his name only as Abdallah, told Al-Monitor, highlighting that many people have yet to sense any real benefit despite the improvement of political freedoms.

In comparison to the rest of the Arab world, however, Tunisia’s progress stands out as exceptional. “It’s still operating in a very tough region,” Repucci said. “I think it is especially important for it not to slip back, both for Tunisians, but also to be an example in the region because it really is the shining example right now.”

But, Tunisia’s shining example is still a work in progress. Scratching at the surface of the democratic transition reveals that the old system inherited from the era of dictatorship is still largely intact when it comes to the security forces, the internal workings of government ministries, the economy and even people’s mentalities.

Tunisia’s upgrade to being a “free” country is deserved for the progress it has made on the political front. But, the long-term sustainability of the country’s transition is dependent on how willing political leaders will be to undertake the deep reforms necessary to transform the lingering structures of autocracy into a system that supports freedoms.

Source: al-Monitor.