Archive for March, 2015


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.

By Natalia Zinets

March 20, 2015

KIEV (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan offered a $50 million loan to Ukraine and called for the rights of Crimean Tatars to be protected during a trip to Kiev on Friday, but avoided outright criticism of trade partner Russia.

In a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Erdogan said Turkey was also offering $10 million in humanitarian assistance on top of the loan, which is meant to help Ukraine cover its budget deficit.

“We have expressed our support for the territorial integrity, political union and sovereignty of Ukraine, including Crimea, in every platform,” Erdogan said, voicing support for the Minsk ceasefire brokered by Germany and France in February.

“We also wish for the continuation of Ukraine’s stance of protecting the rights of all ethnic and religious minorities, especially Crimean Tatar Turks, who have proved their loyalty to their country during this crisis,” he said.

Turks have close kinship bonds with the Muslim, Turkic-speaking Tatar minority in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula Moscow annexed from Ukraine a year ago. Erdogan has repeatedly warned that the instability could have regional repercussions.

But Turkey has deepening trade ties with Russia and has been reluctant to openly criticize Moscow’s actions in Ukraine. Erdogan spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week, discussing energy deals and the Ukraine crisis.

Russian gas exporter Gazprom said in January it planned to build an undersea gas pipeline via the Turkish-Greek border — a project informally known as “Turkish Stream” — as it seeks to supply Europe while by-passing Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials had been expected to seek assurances from Erdogan and Energy Minister Taner Yildiz during their trip that those ties will not harm Ukrainian interests.

Asked at the press conference about the Turkish Stream project, Erdogan gave no new details, saying simply that Turkey found the Russian proposal “reasonable” and that Russia remained its biggest natural gas supplier.

A senior Turkish official said ahead of the visit that Ukraine’s ambition to build a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant on the Black Sea coast would be on the agenda, but that Ankara still opposes the project on environmental grounds.

“Nobody should expect from this visit a step from Turkey that could strain ties with Russia,” a second official said ahead of the meetings with Poroshenko.

(Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Kiev, Orhan Coskun in Ankara, Humeyra Pamuk and Ece Toksabay in Istanbul; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Susan Fenton)

March 16, 2015

TORKHAM, Afghanistan (AP) — Crossing back into his native Afghanistan from Pakistan, Nezamuddin wept as he recounted the hardships his family of 11 had faced in their years as refugees, troubles that only grew insufferable after a recent terror attack there killed 150 people.

“Whenever there was a bomb blast they would arrest us for it, beat us up, take our money,” said Nezamuddin, who goes by one name like many Afghans. “Now I don’t know how I am going to look after my old father, myself and my mother.”

Since January, almost 50,000 Afghans like Nezamuddin’s family have passed through Torkham, double the amount of all refugees returning through the border town in 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration. Many like Nezamuddin say they fled Pakistan over increased harassment by police who told them to return to Afghanistan, a country many have never even seen, putting new pressure on both countries to find solutions to the decades-old flow of refugees.

There are some 1.6 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan — and up to an estimated 1.5 million unregistered Afghans live there, said Abdul Quadir Baloch, the Pakistani minister responsible for refugee issues. Exact figures remain elusive as tens of thousands cross the border daily.

Pakistan initially welcomed waves of Afghan refugees after the 1979 invasion by the Soviet Union. But as years progressed, attitudes hardened. Many now see Afghan refugees as criminals or militants — or taking jobs from Pakistanis.

Then came the Dec. 16 Taliban attack on an army-run school in Peshawar, in which 150 people, most of them children, were killed. Suddenly, Afghan refugees reported increased harassment by authorities checking their documents, demanding bribes and telling them they had to return to Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch said.

At Torkham, Afghan refugees now pour over the border with little more than the clothes on their backs. Some arrive on foot, others in rented trucks with family members huddled between bags, boxes, mattresses and suitcases.

Awal Khan, a father of seven, spent 35 years in Pakistan, arriving as a baby when his parents fled after the 1979 invasion. Khan said he worked as a daily laborer, earning just enough to feed his family.

Serious harassment began after the school attack, he said. “They went house to house, looking for Afghan refugees. They forced us to leave,” he told The Associated Press. “I have no house to live in and no money to rent one. We will have to live in a tent.”

Syed Liaqat Banori, who heads the Islamabad-based Society for Human Rights and Prisoners’ Aid, said authorities often harass Afghan refugees following security incidents but this time was much worse. “They are not asking them to leave the country but if they are harassed, they are asked to leave their houses, they are asked to leave the schools, colleges and close their businesses,” Banori said. “What they will do?”

The Pakistani government denies systematic harassment targets Afghan refugees. “No harassment whatsoever is going to be cast on the unregistered Afghan refugees who are living here,” said Baloch, the government minister. “We are going to take care of them.”

Pakistani officials announced last week that they plan to register all unregistered Afghans in the country. Pakistan and Afghanistan also have discussed new financial incentives to get more refugees to return home.

Sayed Hussain Alemi Balkhi, Afghanistan’s minister for refugees and repatriation, told journalists Saturday that registration of Afghan refugees in Pakistan will begin with a month. “The Afghan government wants all Afghan refugees to come back to their country, but returning all Afghans at once would create many problems,” he said.

But even the current flood of returnees is proving overwhelming for aid groups like the International Organization for Migration at Torkham, spokesman Matthew Graydon said. “The capacity here was designed for maybe 10 to 15 families a day and we are having much more than that,” he said. “What we have here is a large gap in assistance that we are struggling to meet.”

Associated Press writers Rebecca Santana in Islamabad and Lynne O’Donnell in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.

18 March 2015 Wednesday

The Joint Arab List – a coalition of four Arab political groups led by Aiman Ouda – won 14 seats in Tuesday’s polls, coming in third after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party and the center-left Zionist Union alliance.

The 14-seat win will mean the largest Arab presence in Israel’s Knesset since the first Knesset polls in 1949, which were held one year after Israel’s establishment on occupied Palestinian territory.

The Arab Alliance is comprised of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash), the National Democratic Assembly (Balad), the Islamic Movement in Southern Israel, and the United Arab List.

Dov Khenin, a left-leaning Jewish politician who ran on the Joint Arab List’s ticket, managed to clinch a seat at the new assembly.

Israeli-Arab parties won 11 seats in 2013 polls, before early elections were ordered in late 2014 due to rifts within Netanyahu’s coalition government.

Nearly 1.6 million Arabs live in Israel, accounting for more than 20 percent of the self-proclaimed Jewish state’s roughly eight-million-strong population.

Israeli-Arab party leaders note that Arab turnout in previous Knesset polls had usually hovered at around 50 percent.

The Palestine Liberation Organization, for its part, expressed disappointment over the victory of Netanyahu’s Likud.

Veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said earlier Wednesday that the poll results had “buried” the Palestine-Israel peace process.

Source: World Bulletin.

Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/news/156721/arabs-make-unprecedented-gains-in-knesset.

March 16, 2015

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood has formally split after 70 years — a breakup blamed on long-running ideological disputes, but also on a government attempt to further weaken what was once the country’s main opposition group.

The split deals a new blow to the region-wide Brotherhood movement, which has been outlawed as a terror group by close Jordan allies Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In Jordan, some warned that the government’s apparent divide-and-control policy could backfire by pushing more Brotherhood supporters into the ranks of extremists like the Islamic State group, seen as the main threat to the country’s stability.

The new, officially licensed Brotherhood offshoot defines itself as a strictly Jordanian group, saying it cut ties with the regional movement to avoid being branded as militant. “We were concerned that we would be considered as a terrorist organization if we continued to be a branch of an organization branded as a terrorist group,” the group’s leader, Abdel-Majid Thnaibat, told The Associated Press.

The larger Brotherhood faction, still loyal to the regional movement, alleged the government engineered the division to weaken the group. “This is a coup sponsored by the regime,” spokesman Murad Adaileh told the AP.

Jordan’s government has declined to address the allegation. The split was formalized earlier this month when the government licensed Thnaibat’s breakaway faction, and the core movement promptly expelled the defectors.

The status of the second faction now remains unclear. A government official said that while Thnaibat’s group registered with the authorities, the other faction “did not correct” its status, suggesting it is legally vulnerable. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue with reporters.

It’s not clear if Jordan’s authorities eventually will outlaw the original movement, which is deeply rooted in Jordanian society through its social outreach and welfare system. There have been some signs of a crackdown in recent months, including the arrests of about two dozen activists and the sentencing of the group’s No. 2 — Zaki Bani Ersheid — to 18 month in prison for criticizing the Emirates.

The problems have put the Brotherhood in Jordan at its lowest point in years. It has no representation in parliament because of self-imposed election boycotts and is losing some of its young to extremist groups.

“The Brotherhood, by relative standards, is fairly innocuous, it’s not a significant threat to the kingdom,” said David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank. “Many are asking what (is the) utility of kicking the Brotherhood when it is down.”

The division was preceded by long-running ideological disagreements between “doves” and “hawks,” exacerbated by 2007 Gaza takeover of the Islamic militant Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood.

The doves emphasize their Jordanian identity, want to keep Hamas at arm’s length, appear more willing to play by the restrictive rules set by the monarchy and want to focus on “dawa,” or preaching. The hawks criticize government policies more openly, particularly Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel, embrace Hamas and see the Brotherhood as a transnational movement.

Tribal identities also appear to play a role, as Thnaibat and some of his key supporters are members of Jordan’s Bedouin tribes, while some of the leading hawks are descendants of Palestinian refugees.

For years, the Brotherhood was Jordan’s largest and most cohesive opposition group, seeking political reform, but stopping short of seeking the ouster of the king. With the hawks in charge, friction between the Brotherhood and the government has grown in recent years.

At the same time, the Jordanian Brotherhood has been weakened by regional developments in recent years, including the growing ideological competition from Islamic extremists following the outbreak of the Arab Spring uprising in 2011.

Some warn the government crackdown could radicalize Brotherhood supporters and help swell the ranks of the Islamic State group. Jordan has taken on a high-profile role in a U.S.-led military coalition that carries out airstrikes against the militants, after they burned a captive Jordanian pilot to death in a cage. Jordan’s King Abdullah II has framed the battle as an ideological fight to the finish.

Others say the Brotherhood is responsible for losing supporters. “The Muslim Brotherhood failed to deal with the young generation and to lead them in the right direction,” said Mahmoud al-Kharabseh, a pro-government legislator.

Analyst Labib Kamhawi said the Brotherhood’s troubles offered an opportunity for the government to encourage the split. “Jordan is simply trying to trim the Brotherhood in power and size, to be able to manage it easily,” he said.

It’s not clear how the rival factions will now deal with each other, and whether court battles over the Brotherhood brand and the movement’s properties, such as hospitals and real estate, are looming.

Adaileh alleged that trying to entangle the Brotherhood in legal battles is part of the government’s alleged strategy of weakening the movement. Thnaibat left open the possibility that his group will participate in future elections after the Brotherhood boycotted the last two rounds over claims the system favored tribal candidates. He also said his group would try to persuade the rank and file to join them.

“We are going to contact our Brothers in the provinces to explain to them why a Brother shouldn’t stay in an illegal organization,” he said.

Daraghmeh reported from Ramallah, West Bank.

March 20, 2015

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — The two gunmen who killed 21 people at a museum in Tunis trained in neighboring Libya before carrying out the deadly attack and were known to authorities, Tunisian security officials said Friday.

The attack at the National Bardo Museum Wednesday has raised concerns about the spread of extremism in North Africa and particularly in Tunisia — the only country to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings with a functioning democracy.

In the country’s capital Tunis, hundreds citizens on Friday thronged the main avenue where demonstrators overthrew dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali four years ago, celebrating independence day in defiance of the attacks that left 17 cruise ship tourists dead.

Some danced draped in Tunisian flags and others held aloft hand-written signs that read “JeSuisBardo” for “I am Bardo,” a slogan that has captured attention as an anti-terrorism rallying cry on social media.

“We are here to say ‘no’ to terrorism,” said Astal Marwen, a 19-year-old political science and law student, at the rally. “The attackers are part of a small minority, and they have the wrong conception of what Islam is.”

The attackers slipped out of the country in December and received weapons training in Libya which is awash in well-armed militias fighting for control, said Rafik Chelli, a top official in the Interior Ministry in a TV interview late Thursday.

One of them, Hatem Khachnaoui, 26, was from the central city of Sbeitla and had previously been arrested on terrorism charges before being released, according to Sabhi Jouini, a leading figure in the police union and a terrorism expert.

Sbeitla, home to some splendid Roman ruins, is in an impoverished region not far from the Algerian border where an al-Qaida-linked Tunisian group has carried out several attacks. Khachnaoui’s father and sister in Sbeitla were arrested Thursday along with two others from the region on suspicion of supporting the attackers. Another five people with direct connection to the attack were picked up around the capital.

Khachnaoui’s associate, Yassine Laabidi was only 20 years old and had less of a record with police, though he is known to have worked in a travel agency and hails from the working class Tunis neighborhood of Ibn Khaldun.

The Islamic State group, based in Iraq and Syria, has claimed responsibility for the Bardo attack. Several well-armed groups in Libya have pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State. Confronted with a poor economy, young Tunisians have disproportionately gone abroad to fight with extremist groups in Libya, Syria and Iraq, including some affiliated with the Islamic State. Tunisian authorities have estimated that of the 3,000 young people who left the country to fight with radical groups, about 500 have returned.

In claiming responsibility for the attack, IS issued a statement and audio on jihadi websites applauding the dead gunmen as “knights” for their “blessed invasion of one of the dens of infidels and vice in Muslim Tunisia.”

Analysts cautioned against seeing every such attack as evidence of a well-organized, centrally controlled entity spanning the Middle East, saying instead that small groups could merely be taking inspiration from the high-profile militant group.

Early Friday, victims’ families continued to arrive at Tunis’ Charles Nicolle hospital to help identify the dead and recover their bodies. The latest tally of victims included four Italians, three Japanese and three French, two Spanish and two Colombians and one citizen each from Britain, Poland and Belgium, said Samar Samoud, medical adviser to the Tunisian health minister. The nationalities of three victims remain unclear.

French President Francois Hollande confirmed the French dead and said two others were in intensive care while five were only lightly wounded and would be returning to France tonight. Two of the cruise ships that had passengers killed or wounded in the Tunis attack sailed into Spanish ports on Friday, with disembarking passengers telling reporters chilling tales of how they just missed being victims.

In Palma, Spanish cruise ship passenger Catalina Llinas told reporters she and her husband luckily chose a day trip Wednesday to the Roman ruins of Carthage near Tunis instead of the museum excursion. The couple’s tour bus, she said, passed by the Bardo museum just 10 minutes before the attacks.

“It could have been us,” she said. The deaths of so many foreigners will damage Tunisia’s tourism industry, which draws thousands of foreigners to its Mediterranean beaches, desert oases and ancient Roman ruins. The industry had just started to recover after years of decline. The two cruise ship lines who had passengers killed in Tunis on Wednesday announced they were dropping Tunis from their itineraries for now.

Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.

March 02, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — Backed by Iranian-supported Shiite militias, Iraqi forces launched a large-scale offensive Monday to retake Saddam Hussein’s hometown from the Islamic State group, the first in a series of campaigns to try to reclaim large parts of northern Iraq from the Sunni extremists.

Previous attempts to capture the symbolic city have failed, and hours into Monday’s operation, the military said it still hadn’t entered Tikrit, indicating a long battle lies ahead. Retaking it will help Iraqi forces secure a major supply link for any future operation to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city which has been under militant rule since June.

State-run Al-Iraqiya television said that forces were attacking from different directions, backed by artillery and airstrikes by Iraqi fighter jets. It said the militants were dislodged from some areas outside the city, but several hours into the operation, it gave no additional details.

Tikrit, the provincial capital of Salauhddin province, 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad, fell to the Islamic State group last summer, along with Mosul and other areas in the country’s Sunni heartland.

U.S. military officials have said a coordinated military mission to retake Mosul will likely begin in April or May and involve up to 25,000 Iraqi troops. But the Americans have cautioned that if the Iraqis aren’t ready, the offensive could be delayed.

The U.S.-led coalition launching airstrikes targeting the Islamic State group was not involved in the Tikrit operation, Iraqi officials said. A Pentagon spokesman, Army Col. Steve Warren, said the U.S. was alerted to the offensive before it started Monday but was not asked to provide air power.

“Right now we are not providing any air power to support the Iraqi operation in the city of Tikrit,” Warren told reporters in Washington. “We did note the Iraqi government’s statements that they are emphasizing minimization of collateral damage, and we are continuing to monitor it.”

Iraqi forces apparently have the help of Iranian Gen. Ghasem Soleimani, the commander of the elite Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, who arrived two days ago, the Iranian semi-official Fars news agency reported.

The powerful general has emerged as the chief tactician in Iraq’s fight against the Sunni militants, working on the front lines alongside dozens of advisers from his country’s Revolutionary Guard to direct Shiite militiamen and government forces in the smallest details of battle.

Fars also reported drones were flying over Tikrit, without identifying whether they were Iranian or Iraqi. The military commander of Salahuddin region, Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, told state TV fighting was taking place outside Tikrit mainly on its eastern side.

“Until this moment we have not entered the city,” al-Saadi said. “God willing, we will enter, but we need some time as planned. … God willing, victory will be achieved and Salahuddin will be turned into a grave for all terrorist groups.”

Tikrit is an important test case for Iraq’s Shiite-led government, which is trying to reassert authority over the divided country. Islamic State fighters have a strong presence in the city and are expected to put up fierce resistance.

Past attempts to retake Tikrit have failed, as Iraq struggles with its armed forces, which collapsed in the wake of the Islamic State group’s offensive last summer. The offensive comes as momentum has begun to shift since Iraqi soldiers, backed by airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition, took back the nearby refinery town of Beiji in November. Any operation to take Mosul would require Iraq to seize Tikrit first because of its strategic location for military enforcements.

Iraq is bitterly split between minority Sunnis, who were an important base of support for Saddam, and the Shiite majority. Since Saddam was toppled in a U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the Sunni minority has felt increasingly marginalized by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, and in 2006 long-running tensions boiled over into sectarian violence that claimed tens of thousands of lives.

While state TV said Shiite and Sunni tribal fighters were cooperating in Monday’s offensive, Tikrit is an important Sunni stronghold, and the presence of Shiite forces could prompt a backlash among Sunnis. The Iraqi military is heavily dependent on Shiite militias that have been accused of abusing Sunni communities elsewhere in Iraq.

Hours after the offensive began, the U.N. special envoy in Iraq appealed to warring groups to avoid attacking civilians. “Military operations reinforced by international and Iraqi air support must be conducted with the utmost care to avoid civilian casualties, and with full respect for fundamental human rights principles and humanitarian law,” Nickolay Mladenov said in a statement.

Monday afternoon, a gasoline tanker rigged with a bomb exploded as soldiers and Shiite militiamen tried to dismantle it in the village of al-Jalam south of Tikrit, killing seven troops and wounding 15, police and hospital officials said.

Al-Jalam, a farming area that has been a stronghold of Sunni militants, is located outside the Sunni city of Samarra, 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.

Ahead of the operation, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite, called on Sunni tribal fighters to abandon the Islamic State extremist group, offering what he described as “the last chance” and promising them a pardon.

“I call upon those who have been misled or committed a mistake to lay down arms and join their people and security forces in order to liberate their cities,” al-Abadi said Sunday during a news conference in Samarra.

His comments appeared to be targeting former members of Iraq’s outlawed Baath party, loyalists to Saddam, who joined the Islamic State group during its offensive, as well as other Sunnis who were dissatisfied with Baghdad’s Shiite-led government.

Saddam, whose Sunni-dominated government ruled the country for some two decades, was executed after his ouster. Tikrit frequently saw attacks on U.S. forces during the American occupation of the country.

Associated Press writers Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Robert Burns in Washington and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

March 01, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s prime minister called on Sunni tribal fighters to abandon the Islamic State group Sunday, ahead of a promised offensive to retake Saddam Hussein’s hometown from the extremists.

Haider al-Abadi offered no timeline for an attack on Tikrit, the hometown of the late Iraqi dictator some 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad that fell into the hands of the Islamic State group last summer. However, Shiite militias and Iraqi security forces have stationed themselves around Tikrit as state-run media has warned that the city “will soon return to its people.”

But sending Shiite militias into the Sunni city of Tikrit, the capital of Iraq’s Salahuddin province, could reprise the bloody, street-by-street insurgent battles that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. On Saturday, two suicide car bombers killed 16 nearby Shiite militiamen and wounded 31.

Al-Abadi offered what he called “the last chance” for Sunni tribal fighters, promising them a pardon during a news conference in Samarra, 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad. His office said he arrived in Samarra to “supervise the operation to liberate Tikrit from the terrorist gangs.”

“I call upon those who have been misled or committed a mistake to lay down arms and join their people and security forces in order to liberate their cities,” al-Abadi said. Al-Abadi said the operation will see troops come from several directions, but he declined to give an exact time for the operation’s start. However, his presence in Samarra suggests it could come soon. A statement from his office late Sunday announced the start of a security operation to “liberate” Salahuddin province, though there were no initial reports of any military action underway.

The Iraqi military previously launched an operation in late June to try to wrest back control of Tikrit, but that quickly stalled. Other planned offensives by Iraq’s military, which collapsed under the initial Islamic State group blitz, also have failed to make up ground, though soldiers have taken back the nearby refinery town of Beiji, backed by airstrikes from a U.S.-led coalition.

Tikrit, which occasionally saw attacks on U.S. forces during the American occupation of the country, is one of the biggest cities held by the Islamic State group. It also sits on the road to Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which is also held by the extremists. Any operation to take Mosul likely would require Iraq to seize Tikrit first.

Al-Abadi’s comments appear to be targeting former members of Iraq’s outlawed Baath party, loyalists to Saddam Hussein, who joined the Islamic State group during its offensive, as well as other Sunnis who were dissatisfied with Baghdad’s Shiite-led government. The premier likely hopes to peel away some support from the Islamic State group, especially as Iraqis grow increasingly horrified by the extremists’ mass killings and other atrocities.

In February alone, violence across Iraq killed at least 1,100 Iraqis, including more than 600 civilians, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq said Sunday. U.N. envoy Nickolay Mladenov blamed the deaths on the extremist group, government forces and pro-government Shiite militias.

“Daily terrorist attacks perpetrated by ISIL continue to deliberately target all Iraqis,” Mladenov said, using an alternate acronym for the Islamic State group. “There are also concerning reports of a number of revenge killings by armed groups in areas recently liberated from ISIL.”

Last year was the deadliest in Iraq since its 2006-2007 sectarian bloodshed, with a total of 12,282 people killed and 23,126 wounded, according to the U.N.

Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.