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December 03, 2017

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albanian authorities say that despite less rainfall and lower river levels, thousands of homes and scores of schools have been damaged, and agricultural land is still submerged.

The government said Sunday that 600 families were evacuated Saturday in two southwestern districts. More than 3,000 homes, 56 schools and 16,000 hectares (40,000 acres) of agricultural land have been flooded. Many roads and 28 bridges have been damaged.

Authorities have started calculating the damage to consider financial compensation. At least one person has died in the last several days of heavy rainfall that has flooded many parts of Albania. Ports and the only international airport were temporarily closed for part of the weekend.

Schools were closed Friday and the Education Ministry will make a decision soon about Monday’s classes.

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December 3, 2017

Five Jordanian nationals have gone missing in Saudi Arabia, according to a Jordanian foreign ministry source.

The five were on a hunting trip in the northwestern Tabuk region when they disappeared, the source told Anadolu Agency, requesting anonymity because he was unauthorized to speak to media.

He, however, denied reports that the five had been found dead.

There was no comment from Saudi authorities on the report.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20171203-5-jordanians-go-missing-in-saudi-arabia/.

November 29, 2017

Independent bodies which deal with the fight against corruption, journalists’ rights and human rights in Tunisia have today united to condemn the government’s attempts to “marginalize” them by “emptying them of their content and reviewing their regulatory laws in order to control them”.

In a joint press conference, member of the Independent High Authority for Audiovisual Communication, Hisham Snoussi, said: “It has become clear to us that the executive authority decided to circumvent the Constitution and to empty the authorities of their content by introducing laws that contradict rights and freedoms. There is a real decline in the authorities’ role.”

Speaking to the Anadolu Agency, Snoussi added: “All the authorities feel that the retreat implies the government’s power and contempt for the Constitution, especially when President Beji Caid Essebsi expressed his intention to amend the Constitution, criticizing the authorities’ role.”

On 6 September, Essebsi said in an interview with a local government newspaper that “constitutional authorities exercise absolute powers without supervision, under the right of independence, and they threaten the state’s unity and existence.”

National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists Director, Naji Baghouri, said: “All authorities have concerns about marginalizing and emptying them of their content and authority, by reviewing their regulatory laws.”

He added that “the authorities play an important role in the process of democratic transition.”

The Tunisian National Instance for the Fight Against Corruption, the Independent High Authority for Audiovisual Communication, the Information Access Authority, along with the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists and the Tunisian Human Rights League have all condemned the government’s actions.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20171129-tunisia-government-trying-to-control-independent-bodies/.

December 1, 2017

The African Union has chosen Algeria as the coordinator of its counterterrorism strategy. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his country were named by the chairperson of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki, in an official announcement made in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on Thursday.

Faki said that Algeria was chosen because of its “pioneering experience” in this area and its effective policy to combat extremism. “All African countries could follow Algeria’s experience in the fight against terrorism,” he added.

The AU official congratulated Algeria and President Bouteflika for their efforts in coordinating the bloc’s efforts towards preventing and combating terrorism.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20171201-african-union-chooses-algeria-as-counterterrorism-coordinator/.

November 30, 2017

Algeria has joined Iran, Syria and Iraq and refused to join the Saudi-led Muslim Military Alliance, The Algeria Daily reported on Wednesday.

Saudi Arabia leads two alliances including one against Houthi rebels in Yemen in addition to the Muslim Military Alliance.

While Saudi Arabia and its allies brand Lebanese Hezbollah and Houthi rebels in Yemen as terrorist organizations, Algeria does not agree with this position and maintains relations with Saudi Arabia at the same time with its rival, Iran.

The newspaper reported retired Algerian Colonel, Abdul Hamid Al-Sharif as saying that the alliance is an alliance of aggression that represents the conflicts of interests raging in the region which Algeria refuses to be part of.

Meanwhile, security expert, Ahmad Azimi said in a statement that the Muslim Military Alliance does not mean anything to Algeria because the member states are under Western influence.

“If the goal of the alliance is to liberate and defend Arab countries then we welcome it, but if it aims to attack Muslim countries then Algeria cannot be part of its”.

Saudi Arabia announced on December 14, 2015 the formation of the Anti- Terrorism Muslim Military Alliance with the participation of 41 countries, including Turkey, Pakistan, Malaysia and Egypt.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20171130-algeria-refuses-to-join-saudi-led-muslim-military-alliance/.

December 05, 2017

KUWAIT CITY (AP) — Kuwait’s emir on Tuesday quickly called an end to a planned two-day meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council within hours of its start amid the ongoing diplomatic dispute surrounding Qatar.

The sudden end of the meeting in Kuwait City raised new questions about the future of the GCC, a six-member Gulf Arab regional bloc formed in part to be a counterbalance to Shiite power Iran. Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah’s decision came after the United Arab Emirates earlier in the day announced a new partnership with Saudi Arabia separate from the GCC.

The Emirati Foreign Ministry said the new “joint cooperation committee” was approved by the UAE’s ruler and president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nayhan. The ministry said the new committee “is assigned to cooperate and coordinate between the UAE and Saudi Arabia in all military, political, economic, trade and cultural fields, as well as others, in the interest of the two countries.”

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have cultivated close ties in recent years. Emirati troops are deeply involved in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Abu Dhabi’s powerful crown prince, Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nayhan, also is believed to be close to Saudi Arabia’s young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Emirati announcement did not say whether any other Gulf Arab countries would be invited to join the new group, but the development puts pressure the GCC, whose members — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Emirates — are all U.S. allies.

The United States and its European allies have told the council’s members that the region remains stronger with them working together as a whole, while the countries themselves still appear divided over their future.

The fact the GCC meeting in Kuwait was to take place at all is a bit of a surprise, given the unusually sharp criticism among the typically clubby members of the GCC pointed at Doha. The dispute began in June, following what Qatar described as a hack of its state-run news agency and the circulation of incendiary comments attributed to its ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Soon after, GCC members Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates closed off their airspace and seaports to Qatar, as well as the small peninsular nation’s sole land border with Saudi Arabia.

The boycott initially riled Doha, though it soon replaced food products with those flown in from Turkey and Iran. However, Qatar’s foreign reserves have dropped by some $10 billion — a fifth of their value — since the dispute began. Those reserves are crucial in supporting the nation’s riyal, which is pegged to the U.S. dollar, as well as funding the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup that Doha will host.

The boycotting nations allege Qatar funds extremist groups and has too-cozy ties to Iran. Qatar has long denied funding extremists but it restored full diplomatic ties with Iran during the crisis. Doha shares a massive offshore natural gas field with Tehran that gives its citizens the highest per-capita income in the world.

A similar dispute involving Qatar erupted in 2014. But this time positions have hardened against Qatar, whose support for Islamist opposition groups has angered the Arab nations now boycotting it. The UAE in particular views Islamists as a threat to hereditary rule in its federation of seven sheikhdoms. Egypt, angered by Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the nation’s deposed President Mohammed Morsi, is also boycotting Doha.

The U.S., which has some 10,000 troops stationed at Qatar’s sprawling al-Udeid Air Base as part of its campaign against the Islamic State group and the war in Afghanistan, also has sought to end the crisis. Its military has halted some regional exercises to put pressure on the GCC to resolve the crisis. However, President Donald Trump in the meantime made comments seemingly supporting the Arab nations’ efforts at isolating Qatar, complicating those efforts.

A Trump-prompted call in September between Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim and the Saudi crown prince that offered a chance at negotiations also broke down in mutual recriminations. Kuwait’s 88-year-old emir, Sheikh Sabah, has tried to mediate the dispute, so far without success.

Tuesday’s meeting in Kuwait City was to be a summit of the region’s rulers. However, only Qatar and Kuwait were represented by their ruling emirs, sparking anger online by Kuwaitis that the nations boycotting Qatar had slighted their leader.

Despite the troubles, Sheikh Sabah tried to stay positive. “I would like to congratulate all the people of the GCC nations for our success in holding this summit, proving how committed we are to this establishment and continuity,” he said.

After a closed-door meeting lasting around 15 minutes, Sheikh Sabah announced the end of the summit to applause.

Associated Press writers Hussain al-Qatari and Malak Harb contributed to this report.

By Alaa Shahine

November 29, 2017

Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, one of the most senior Saudi royals detained in the kingdom’s corruption crackdown, has been released after reaching a settlement deal believed to exceed the equivalent of $1 billion, an official involved in the anti-graft campaign said.

Prince Miteb, who headed the powerful National Guard until earlier this month, was released Tuesday, the official said on condition of anonymity in discussing matters under the supervision of the public prosecutor. At least three other suspects have also finalized settlement deals, the official said. It wasn’t immediately possible to reach Prince Miteb, son of the late King Abdullah, for comment.

The public prosecutor has decided to release several individuals and will proceed with the prosecution of at least five others, the official said. The prosecutor has complete authority over the investigation, including whether to accept or reject any settlement proposal and whether to take any suspect to court, the official said.

Prince Miteb’s release, less than a month since his arrest, shows the speed at which Saudi Arabia wants to settle the corruption probe that involved the sudden arrests of royals and billionaires such as Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. The crackdown has shaken the kingdom and reverberated across the world as analysts, bankers and diplomats assess its impact on power in the world’s biggest oil exporter.

$100 Billion Settlement

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s predominant leader known as MBS, said the majority of those being detained had agreed to pay back some of the money they had gained illegally in exchange for their freedom. The prince said authorities could recover as much as $100 billion in settlements.

Some suspects started making payments to settle cases in exchange for freedom, people with knowledge of the matter said last week. Businessmen and officials signed agreements with authorities to transfer a portion of their assets to avoid trial and have started to transfer funds from personal accounts to government-controlled accounts, the people said, asking not to be identified because the discussions are private.

“Most princes arrested will certainly try to buy their way out, and we will see more of them doing just that to avoid jail time,” said Raihan Ismail, an associate lecturer at the Centre for Arab & Islamic Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra. “This process lacks accountability and integrity. I doubt that detailed charges will ever be released, especially if settlements are reached.”

Five-Star Prison

The crackdown has turned the palatial Ritz Carlton in Riyadh, which hosted U.S. President Donald Trump in May, into a five-star detention center for about 200 of Saudi Arabia’s richest and most influential people.

The country’s Attorney General Sheikh Saud Al Mojeb said suspects had been granted legal access. His office, however, has yet to release details of the charges or allow access to the suspects and their lawyers, making it difficult to independently asses the cases.

King Salman fired Prince Miteb shortly before midnight Nov. 4 and announced the formation of an anti-corruption commission headed by the crown prince. Prince Miteb’s arrest fueled speculation that the crackdown was more about tightening the crown prince’s grip on power, a claim he dismissed as “ludicrous” in an interview with the New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman this month.

The opacity of the system doesn’t take away “from the political capital that MBS probably earned from this from the Saudi public” by declaring war on corruption, Hani Sabra, founder of New York-based Alef Advisory wrote in a report. “We continue to believe that MBS’s risky domestic gambits are likely to succeed.”

— With assistance by David Tweed

Source: Bloomberg.

Link: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-11-28/saudi-prince-released-after-1-billion-settlement-official-says.

November 30, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — Europe’s Muslim population will continue to grow over the next several decades even if all immigration to the continent should stop, according to a study published Thursday. The Pew Research Center report modeled three scenarios for estimating the number of Muslims who would be living in Europe by 2050. All three used a mid-2016 estimate of 25.8 million as a baseline, but assumed different future migration rates.

Under the “zero migration” scenario, an estimated 30 million Muslims would make up 7.4 percent of Europe’s population by 2050 compared to the 4.9 percent they comprised last year, the report projected. The researchers said that is mostly because Muslims are on average 13 years younger than other Europeans and also have a higher birthrate, the Pew researchers said.

The study estimates 58.8 million Muslims would account for 11.2 percent of the population in a “medium migration” scenario that has migration maintaining a “regular speed” — defined by the Pew researchers as migration motivated by economic, educational and family reasons — but not for seeking asylum as a refugee.

In the “high migration” scenario, the study projects that the record flow of migrants who came to Europe between 2015 and 2016 would continue indefinitely, resulting in 75 million Muslims in Europe, a 14 percent increase, by the middle of the century.

Even with the most immigration, Muslims would “still be considerably smaller than the populations of both Christians and people with no religion in Europe,” the researchers concluded. Muslim immigrants have been a politically sensitive topic in Europe following the influx of newcomers in 2015 and 2016. Some countries have seen backlashes that have included populist parties campaigning on anti-Islam messages.

The study was based on census and survey data, population registers, immigration data and other sources. The 30 countries it covered include the 28 European Union members, plus Norway and Switzerland.

Not all countries would be affected evenly by future immigration, according to the Pew report. In the high migration scenario, Germany and Sweden would have the biggest increases because both countries took in the most asylum-seekers during the height of the refugee crisis two years ago.

While Muslims made up 6 percent of Germany’s population last year, their proportion would go up to 20 percent by 2050. Sweden’s Muslims, who were at 8 percent in 2016, would account for 31 percent of the population in that same scenario.

Meanwhile, some countries that had comparatively few Muslim residents in 2016 would continue to have few by 2050 in all three scenarios.

October 04, 2017

IRBIL, Iraq (AP) — Flags flew at half-staff across Iraq’s northern autonomous Kurdish region on Wednesday as Iraqi Kurds began observing a week of mourning following the death of the country’s former president, Jalala Talabani, once a symbol of unity.

Talabani’s death at a Berlin hospital on Tuesday afternoon, at the age of 83, came just days after the Iraqi Kurds’ controversial referendum on independence that has angered Baghdad and the region. A longtime Kurdish guerrilla leader, Talabani in 2005 became the head of state of what was supposed to be a new Iraq two years after the country was freed from the rule of Saddam Hussein. He was seen as a unifying elder statesman who could soothe tempers among Iraq’s Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

Talabani suffered a stroke in 2012, after which he was moved to Germany for treatment and faded from Iraq’s political life. Sadi Ahmed Pire, a spokesman for the Kurdish party which Talabani headed, said on Wednesday that Talabani’s burial would take place in the city of Sulaimaniyah over the weekend.

Following news of Talabani’s passing, leaders across Iraq and beyond released statements expressing their condolences. Talabani was “a long standing figure in the fight against dictatorship and a sincere partner in building a new democratic Iraq,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement posted to Facebook on Tuesday.

The Kurdish regional president and longtime Talabani rival, Masoud Barzani, described him as a “comrade” in a statement posted to Twitter, also on Tuesday. Barzani also extended his condolences to the Kurdish people and Talabani’s family.

The United Nations described Talabani as “a leading voice of moderation, dialogue, mutual understanding and respect in Iraq’s contemporary politics” and a “patriot of unique wisdom and foresight.” “From the battlefront trenches in the 1980s during the struggle against dictatorship to the halls of power in Baghdad in the past decade, ‘Mam Jalal’ worked for and promoted national rights,” said Jan Kubis, the U.N.’s special representative to Iraq in a written statement late Tuesday night, using Talabani’s Kurdish nickname that translates to Uncle Jalal.

But the Sept. 25 Kurdish referendum reflected how hopes for a unified Iraq have faded over the years. At the time of the vote, Talabani had been out of politics for nearly five years, but his death was a reminder of the country’s frayed sectarian and ethnic ties, now nearly at the point of unravelling.

The Kurds voted overwhelmingly in support of breaking from Iraq to form an independent state, sending tensions spiraling with the central government in Baghdad and with Iraq’s neighbors, who fear similar Kurdish separatist sentiment on their soil.

The referendum vote, which was led by Barzani, is not expected to lead to a Kurdish state anytime soon and has further isolated the small land-locked region. Iraq and its neighbors have rejected the vote, and Baghdad has banned international flights and threatened to take control of the autonomous Kurdish region’s borders.

“I wish I could ask Mam Jalal how to try and control this fire,” said Pire, the spokesman for Talabani’s political party, referring to the escalated tensions with Baghdad and the Kurdish region’s neighbors stoked by the referendum vote.

“He was a singular figure that cannot be replaced,” Pire added, “he was a president for all of Iraq, not just the Kurds.” From Tehran, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed his condolences and said that “Talabani was definitely a distinguished figure,” the semi-official ISNA news agency reported Wednesday.

Rouhani also said that Talabani “had an important role in the national cohesion and unity of Iraq, and strengthened the political process to promote Iraq’s regional and international status.” Talabani joined the Kurdish uprising against the Iraqi government in the 1960. When the revolt collapsed in 1975, he broke off from the Barzani-headed Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, to form the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK.

Though united in the push for independence, Kurdish politics in Iraq remain to this day dominated by the two families: the Barzanis in Irbil and the Talabanis in Sulaimaniyah. In 1976, Talabani again took up arms against the central government and eventually joined forces with Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. In the late 1980s, Saddam launched the Anfal Campaign, in which more than 50,000 Kurds were killed, many by poison gas attacks.

Associated Press writer Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.

Sep 24, 2017

Hawija (IraqiNews.com) Iraq’s military command said Sunday it completed a first phase of operations to recapture Islamic State’s last holdout in Kirkuk.

The Joint Operations Command’s field commander, Abdul-Amir Yarallah, said government forces, backed by the Popular Mobilization Forces, completed a first stage of operations recapture the town of Hawija, which launched last Thursday, taking over al-Zab river region,  the northern part of Makhoul mountains and several villages west of Tigris River.

So far, operations managed to retake the town of Shirqat, an IS stronghold in neighboring Salahuddin, and dozens of surrounding villages.

Parallel operations were launched last week targeting IS havens in western Anbar.

A wide-scale campaign launched with the backing of a U.S.-led coalition in 2016 to recapture areas occupied by IS since 2014, when the militants declared a self-styled “caliphate” rule in Iraq and neighboring Syria based in Iraq’s Mosul.

Iraqi government, coalition and paramilitary forces recaptured Mosul and the neighboring town of Tal Afar early July and late August.

Commanders say more than 200 militants have been killed in the current operations.

Source: Iraqi News.

Link: https://www.iraqinews.com/iraq-war/iraqi-forces-end-phase-1-hawija-offensive/.