Archive for March 27, 2015


March 06, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi forces pressed their offensive against the Islamic State group Friday, expecting to reach the outskirts of the militant-held city of Tikrit within hours, a day after the extremists reportedly “bulldozed” a famed archaeological site in the area.

The battle to wrest Tikrit — Saddam Hussein’s hometown — from the Islamic State is a major test for the Iraqi forces and allied Shiite militias fighting on heir side. The governor of Salahuddin, Raed al-Jabouri, said that Iraqi forces expect to reach Tikrit later Friday. He told The Associated Press they still have not made it to Tikrit’s east airport as some reports have suggested.

Tikrit, 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad, has been under the control of the Islamic State group since June, when the Sunni militants made a lightning advance across northern Iraq, prompting Iraqi troops to flee and abandon their weapons.

On Monday, Iraqi security forces launched a large-scale operation in an effort to retake the city from the militant group, but the offensive was stalled somewhat, with military officials saying the militants strategically lined roads leading to the city with explosives and land mines.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said late Thursday that the IS militants “bulldozed” the renowned archaeological site of the ancient city of Nimrud in northern Iraq. The destruction is part of the group’s campaign to enforce its violent interpretation of Islamic law, destroying ancient archaeological sites it says promoted apostasy.

The ministry’s report could not be immediately independently confirmed. Nimrud was the second capital of Assyria, an ancient kingdom that began in about 900 B.C., partially in present-day Iraq, and became a great regional power. The city, which was destroyed in 612 B.C., is located on the Tigris River just south of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, which was captured by IS in June.

Earlier this week, a video emerged on militant websites showing Islamic State militants with sledgehammers destroying ancient artifacts at the museum in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city that also fell into IS hands last year.

The IS extremists’ rampage against priceless cultural artifacts has sparked global outrage. Also Thursday, the IS militants set fire to some oil wells outside Tikrit, an Iraqi oil official said, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to the media. The smoky fires were apparently meant to obscure targets from government bombing runs, part of the wide-scale operation that began Monday.

The Ajeel oil field, about 35 kilometers (22 miles) northeast of Tikrit, was one of at least four fields seized by the militants as a source of crude oil to sell to smugglers to finance their operations.

By W.G. Dunlop and Ammar Karim

Albu Ajil, Iraq (AFP)

March 13, 2015

Thousands of Iraqi forces have laid siege to jihadists holed up in Tikrit but the Islamic State group shrugged off setbacks by welcoming Nigeria’s Boko Haram group into its “caliphate”.

After making major gains in and around the city Wednesday, commanders were confident that Baghdad’s biggest victory yet against IS was only a matter of time.

“Now we are moving to the second phase of our plan,” Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi told reporters in Salaheddin province, of which Tikrit is the capital.

“We are very keen for our losses to be as low as possible. Time is on our side, we have the initiative,” he said Thursday, the 11th day of the offensive.

No one involved has provided casualty figures since the start of this latest and largest operation to retake Tikrit, which has been in IS hands since June.

But dozens of bodies are being driven south to Baghdad and the Shiite holy city of Najaf almost every day and, while government forces have had the upper hand, IS has done damage with suicide car bombs, booby traps and snipers.

“We don’t want to be rushed because we want to avoid casualties,” police Staff Major General Bahaa al-Azzawi told AFP in Albu Ajil, a village from which Tikrit can be seen across the Tigris River.

“Tikrit is sealed off from all sides,” he said.

All towns and villages on the river’s eastern bank were under the control of anti-IS forces Thursday.

Black and white IS flags on walls had been painted over with slogans cursing the jihadist group or praising Shiite militia groups.

Tikrit is on the west bank and, until sappers throw floating bridges across the river, the nearest bridge is in Samarra, nearly 50 kilometers (30 miles) to the south.

– Sunni tribes fighting –

Tikrit was the hometown of dictator Saddam Hussein, remnants of whose Baath party collaborated with the jihadists when they took over almost a third of the country last June.

With crucial military backing from neighboring Iran and a 60-nation US-led coalition, Baghdad has rolled back some of the losses.

It started with operations to secure the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf and bolster Baghdad’s defenses, then worked its way north, retaking Diyala province earlier this year.

Commanders see the recapture of overwhelmingly Sunni Arab Tikrit as a stepping stone for the reconquest of second city Mosul further north, which once had a population of two million.

Analysts say the battle for Tikrit is also a key test of how well the regular army can work with the myriad of militia groups and prevent reprisals against Sunnis.

The defense minister, himself Sunni, said he was impressed with the level of cooperation and played down concerns that victory in Tikrit could further alienate the minority community.

“What caught my attention and was very positive, was that I met a number of fighters, maybe more than 250, who are all sons of Tikrit,” he said.

“It sends a very positive message to the Iraqi people and lifts the spirit of the security forces.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry was due to discuss the ongoing fight against IS with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on the sidelines of an investment conference in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt later Friday.

– Boko Haram accepted –

IS has countered every military loss lately by ramping up its propaganda war with ever more shocking videos of child fighters executing prisoners or of the destruction of some of the world’s most precious heritage sites.

On Thursday, the group released an audio recording presented as a speech by top IS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani in which he formally welcomes Boko Haram into the IS fold.

Boko Haram had pledged allegiance to IS on Saturday but the move had yet to be formally accepted by IS supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for the Nigerian extremist group to become part of the “caliphate”.

“We announce to you to the good news of the expansion of the caliphate to West Africa,” Adnani said.

He insisted the group was “sure of its victory” regardless of the challenges.

“God is on our side and give us the strength to combat this armada of Crusader countries,” he said.

The group also released a video in which eight men from the region along the Euphrates River straddling Iraq and Syria are beheaded.

The video gives their names and accuses them of spying for a Syria-based rebel group opposed to IS, of supplying intelligence to the Iraqi forces and of torturing an IS member.

In Syria, where IS has also seized swathes of territory, more than 50 regime soldiers and jihadists were killed in heavy fighting in Latakia, President Bashar al-Assad’s home province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/IS_readies_for_Tikrit_last_stand_but_expands_to_Nigeria_999.html.

16 March 2015 Monday

The European Union gave the green light on Monday to a long-awaited pact with Bosnia, a first step towards possible membership of the bloc after years of political and economic stagnation.

The move is part of a new drive, led by Germany and Britain, to spur reform and address the anger and frustrations among ordinary Bosnians that fueled unprecedented civil unrest in February last year.

The Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) is a pre-accession pact that brings much-needed EU funds and a framework for further integration.

Bosnia, which is still trying to overcome the legacy of a 1992-95 war in which 100,000 people died, languishes behind its ex-Yugoslav peers on the road to EU accession. Its development has been stifled by a highly decentralized post-war system of government that divided power along ethnic lines and spawned huge networks of political patronage.

The SAA was originally signed in 2008, but sat gathering dust until Germany and Britain offered a plan for its formal adoption in exchange for a written commitment from leaders of Bosnia’s Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats to press ahead with reform.

Foreign ministers of the 28-nation EU said they had agreed to “proceed with the conclusion and entry into force” of the SAA.

They called on Bosnia’s leadership “to fully uphold its commitments and obligations … and to remain engaged with the European Union under the renewed approach and maintain the positive momentum by developing an initial agenda for reforms in consultation with the European Union.”

Brussels first wants to encourage economic reform to address high unemployment and widespread poverty, before tackling the thorny issues of political reform.

Progress may result in a formal application to join the EU.

Source: World Bulletin.

Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/todays-news/156639/eu-moves-ahead-with-bosnia-membership.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Hundreds of Palestinians from all levels of society have taken to the streets several times this week in protest at the severe electricity crisis hitting the Gaza Strip, QudsNet reported on Tuesday. Most of the demonstrators headed for the headquarters of the sole electricity plant in the center of the coastal enclave, which has been targeted several times by the Israel Defense Forces since 2006.

The protesters called for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Rami Hamadallah to take responsibility for solving the problem of severe electricity shortages. They also called for the PA to deal with the Gaza Strip in the same way that it deals with the occupied West Bank.

According to the Head of Rafah municipality, Sobhi Abu-Ridwan, the shortages affect the work of local councils across the whole territory. “We are unable to run the sewage plants and water wells to fulfill the need of the residents,” he said. “This has led to massive problems in the service sector, and a lot of vital equipment has stopped working.”

Abu-Ridwan called for Abbas to step in immediately to put an end to the electricity crisis. He stressed that Gaza has been the victim of several Israeli wars and has been living under siege for eight years. “As such,” he insisted, “fuel for the electricity plant must be exempt from taxes.”

Representatives of several Palestinian factions were among the protesters. Fatah official Jalal Sheikh Al-Eid said that he took part to register his protest at the 20-hour electricity cuts every day in Gaza.

The leader of the Democratic Front, Nafeth Ghoneem, added: “If there is a political problem between Egypt and Gaza, its effect must not be extended to the livelihood of the people.”

The Egyptian city of Rafah supplies Gaza’s Rafah with a small amount of electricity. Last week, though, the Egyptian authorities cut the power line, only to reconnect it a few days later.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/17699-popular-protests-against-electricity-crisis-in-gaza.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Hamas military wing Al-Qassam Brigades organised a military parade in the center of the Gaza Strip on Monday to mark the 11th anniversary of Israel’s assassination of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Felesteen newspaper reported.

Hundreds of Al-Qassam fighters took to the streets holding pictures of Sheikh Yassin, while Gaza residents watched the parade.

The anniversary was also marked with the launch of the official Hamas website. Deputy Hamas Chief Ismail Haniyeh announced the launch of the Arabic website from the former home of Sheikh Yassin, which is now a small museum.

Hamas is to launch an official English website on 18 April, to mark the anniversary of the assassination of Hamas leader Abdul-Aziz al-Rantisi.

Sheikh Yassin was born in 1936 in Al-Jorah Village in Askalan, which is now known as the Israeli city of Ashkelon. He was forced to flee to Al-Shati Refugee Camp in Gaza.

He began his anti-occupation activities in the 1960’s and was sent to prison on many occasions as a result.

Yassin and a group of his close friends founded Hamas in 1987, the start of the first Palestinian Intifada.

On March 22 2004, the Israeli military targeted the elderly and wheelchair bound Yassin with three rockets just 70 meters away from a mosque. The attack also killed around 12 other residents.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/17682-qassam-brigades-marks-11th-anniversary-of-sheikh-yassins-assassination.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas have seized electronic insects that were flying the skies of the Gaza Strip, according to Al-Majd, a security website close to Hamas.

Al-Majd reports that the devices are used by the Israeli authorities for spying and monitoring the positions and bases of the Palestinian resistance in Gaza.

It is also believed they are being used to search for Israeli soldiers reportedly kidnapped during the latest Israeli war on the Gaza Strip.

An informed source told Al-Majd that Hamas electronic security units disassembled these insects and found pictures of the soldiers kidnapped during the war stored in their memories. They also revealed that they are being run and monitored via satellites.

“The electronic insects are the size of small birds and look as birds from far distances,” the informed source said. “They can easily fly and enter into buildings and other facilities through very small holes and fly easily inside them.”

The Israeli military launched a wide-scale offensive against the Gaza Strip last summer which resulted in the deaths of over 2,000 Palestinians. Around 73 Israelis were also killed, including six non-combatants. Two Israeli soldiers are reported to have been kidnapped by Hamas fighters in Gaza during the ground operation. However, the Israeli military have said that they were killed.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/17681-hamas-seizes-spying-israeli-electronic-insects-in-gaza.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Jordan and Russia signed a framework agreement on Tuesday for the construction and operation of the first nuclear power plant in the kingdom at a cost of $10 billion. The deal, which came after nearly a year and a half of talks, is “important” because it constitutes the legal and political framework of support for the kingdom’s nuclear power plant project and determines the general principles of cooperation between Amman and Moscow in this regard, said the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC).

The agreement was signed by the President of the JAEC, Khaled Toukan, and the General Manager of Russia’s state-owned Rosatom Company, Sergei Kiriyenko. The two sides had initialed the agreement in late November, and it was approved by the Jordanian cabinet recently.

Jordan chose Rosatom in October 2013 as the best placed company among those who had tendered for the contract. When built, the power plant will produce 2,000 megawatts. The JAEC statement revealed that Rosatom will pay 49.9 per cent of the total cost; the Jordanian government will pay the remaining 50.1 per cent. The two 1,000-megawatt reactors will be built in Amra, in the north of Jordan.

Toukan said that the agreement preserves Jordan’s sovereignty, and Jordanian law will be in force during the 60 years expected lifespan of the plant. He stressed that the agreement protects the state investment, ensures the supply of fuel for the reactor, and gives a future option for the Jordanian government to return the used fuel to Russia. The deal will be submitted to the cabinet in Amman before being presented to parliament.

According to Kiriyenko, the Russians will employ their 70 years of experience in the field of nuclear power in the project. He referred to the high degree of professionalism employed by Jordan’s nuclear experts, which has won the respect of Russian technicians. He added that Russia is currently training Jordanian staff to work in the nuclear program which will pave the way for strategic cooperation and scientific research.

Russian technology is currently being used to construct at least 20 nuclear reactors, around half of which are in Russia itself. Kiriyenko stressed that they are built with the capability to withstand the devastating earthquakes which affect the region.

Russia was among the first countries with which the Jordanian government signed a nuclear cooperation agreement. Amman and Moscow signed a deal on 22 May 2009 for the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

In an earlier statement, Toukan said that the total amount spent by Jordan since the start of the project in 2008 up to 2013 was $93.2 million. Just under half of the $98.7 million borrowed from South Korea for this purpose was spent between 2001 and 2013.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/17697-jordan-and-russia-sign-10-billion-agreement-for-nuclear-power-plant.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Kuwaiti riot police have dispersed hundreds of Kuwaiti opposition activists who gathered outside parliament in the capital Kuwait City to demand the release of political prisoners and press for democratic reforms in the country.

The head of the Civil Democratic Movement, Tareq Al-Mutairi, said that: “everyone must assume his responsibilities towards reform… We are not asking the elected government for favors, only for our just rights. All we want is to run our own affairs, and we do not argue with the ruling party because we have democratic system in Kuwait.”

Activist Nawaf Alhandal said he was beaten by the Special Forces while the Ministry of Interior prevented the protesters from using chairs, carpets, microphones or banners at the protest venue.

The protest organizing committee said that the Interior Ministry attacked them and that the political forces will meet and issue a statement later.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/17669-kuwaiti-police-break-up-opposition-protest-calling-for-political-reform.

March 27, 2015

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (AP) — Arab leaders meeting this weekend in this Egyptian Red Sea resort are moving closer than ever to creating a joint Arab military force, a sign of a new determination among Saudi Arabia, Egypt and their allies to intervene aggressively in regional hotspots, whether against Islamic militants or spreading Iranian power.

Creation of such a force has been a longtime goal that has eluded Arab nations in the 65 years since they signed a rarely used joint defense pact. And there remains reluctance among some countries, particularly allies of Iran like Syria and Iraq — a reflection of the divisions in the region.

Foreign ministers gathered in Sharm el-Sheikh ahead of the summit, which begins Saturday, agreed on a broad plan for the force. It came as Saudi Arabia and its allies opened a campaign of airstrikes in Yemen against Iranian-backed Shiite rebels who have taken over much of the country and forced its U.S.- and Gulf-backed president to flee abroad.

The Yemen campaign marked a major test of the new policy of intervention by the Gulf and Egypt. The brewing Yemen crisis — and Gulf fears that the rebels are a proxy for Iranian influence — have been one motivator in their move for a joint Arab force. But it also signaled that they are not going to wait for the Arab League, notorious for its delays and divisions, and will press ahead with their military coordination on multiple fronts.

Egyptian officials said the Yemen airstrikes are to be followed by a ground intervention to further weaken the rebels, known as Houthis, and their allies and force them into negotiations. They have also moved ahead with action in Libya after its collapse into chaos since 2011 and the rise of militants there — including now an affiliate of the Islamic State group that has overrun much of Iraq and Syria. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have both carried out airstrikes against Libyan militants in the past year.

In their agreement Thursday, the foreign ministers called on the chiefs of staff of the Arab League’s 22-member nations to meet within a month to iron out details of the force, like its budget and mechanism, and report back to the organization.

The Egyptian military and security officials said the proposed force would be made of up to 40,000 elite troops and will be headquartered in either Cairo or Riyadh, the Saudi capital. The force would be backed by jet-fighters, warships and light armor. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Arab league officials said some Arab nations had reservations about the creation of a joint force, including Iraq, whose foreign minister, Ibrahim a-Jaafari, has counselled fellow ministers that more time was needed for planning. Iran holds massive influence with Iraq’s Shiite-led government and its military advisers are playing an active role in the fight by government troops and allied Shiite militias against militants of the Islamic State.

The Associated Press exclusively reported last November that the leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, all Sunni Muslim nations, were discussing the creation of a joint military alliance with a possible joint force to deal with the threat posed by Islamic militants in Libya and to combat the growing influence of Shiite, non-Arab Iran, particularly in Yemen. Jordan and Bahrain have since expressed their willingness to join the alliance.

Egypt’s president, soldier-turned-politician Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, was the first Arab leader to speak publicly about the plan. In a recent address, he said there was a pressing need now for a joint Arab force and repeated his assertion that Egypt was prepared to intervene militarily in support of its Gulf Arab allies. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have poured billions of dollars into Egypt’s emptying coffers since el-Sissi ousted Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 following mass protests against the rule of the Islamist president.

“The resolution sends a clear message that Arab nations can agree on a plan to defend themselves,” Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby told a news conference late Thursday in Sharm el-Sheikh. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri said the proposed force would undertake “quick and effective missions.”

Saudi Arabia, a staunch U.S. ally, views Yemen as strategically important to its national security and has traditionally patronized key players there like top politicians, military commanders and tribal chiefs to protect its interests. It fought a brief border war against the Houthis in 2009. Similarly, Egypt views neighboring Libya as vital to its own national interests. Last month, Egyptian warplanes struck Islamic State positions in eastern Libya in retaliation for its mass beheading of 21 Coptic Christian Egyptians.

Thursday’s resolution, however, will streamline military actions like those undertaken by the Egyptians and Saudis in Libya and Yemen respectively, allowing future actions to be carried out under Arab League cover. El-Sissi’s calls for a U.N.-backed force to intervene in Libya were stymied by the West on the grounds that more time should be given to U.N.-led efforts to reconcile Libya’s rival governments.

Egyptian forces have recently concluded large-scale war games near its border with Libya. Codenamed “Thunder,” the exercise involved navy warships, attack helicopters and beach landings by army commandos.

Moreover, Egypt and its Gulf Arab allies have over the past year held a series of joint war games, including several in the Red Sea, a tactic that the Egyptian officials said was necessary to create harmony between members of the proposed force.

Already, the officials said, Egyptian troops are embedded with Saudi forces on the kingdom’s border with Iraq, about a third of which is controlled by the Islamic State. Egyptian military advisers are also deployed near Saudi Arabia’s border with Yemen. As the crisis in Yemen worsened, Egypt has coordinated efforts with Sudan and Horn of Africa nation Eritrea to ensure the safety of shipping through the southern Bab al-Mandab entrance of the Red Sea, which Yemen overlooks.