NEWS From MID-EAST
Iran seeking successor to Maliki: Official
DUBAI — Iran is trying to work with Iraqi factions for a replacement for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki to form a new government in Baghdad but there are few suitable candidates, a senior Iranian official said on Tuesday.
Iran has become the main power broker in its neighbor to the west since US forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011, leaving the country in the hands of a Shiite-led government headed by Maliki, a key ally of Tehran.
Maliki’s critics accuse him of fueling the Sunni insurgency that has overrun parts of northern Iraq, saying his anti-Sunni bias has inflamed sectarian tensions and allowed Islamic State rebels to cultivate support among Iraqi Sunnis.
“We have reached the conclusion that Maliki cannot preserve the unity of Iraq anymore, but Ayatollah (Ali) Sistani still has hopes,” said the Iranian official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, referring to Iraq’s top Shiite cleric.
“Now, Ayatollah Sistani also backs our view on Maliki.” The official said Tehran’s Iranian ambassador in Baghdad had held consultations with political factions and some potential candidates on the subject, but acknowledged that finding a suitable replacement for Maliki was difficult.
“There are not many candidates who can and have the capability to preserve the unity of Iraq,” the official said.
Maliki’s bloc won the most seats in a national election earlier this year but efforts to form a new government have been hindered by objections by other factions, especially minority Sunnis, to Maliki becoming prime minister for a third term.
Coalition-building has been further complicated by the rise of Islamic State insurgents who seized Sunni regions of northern Iraq in June almost unopposed, and have since declared a medieval-style caliphate enforcing the Shariah law.
Shiite Iran considers the Islamic State insurgency a major security threat and has increased its military presence in Iraq to counter it. At least three members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps have been killed in fighting with Sunni militants in Iraq since mid-June.
The United States and other Western powers hope that Iran will use leverage arising from its deep ties to both the Iraqi government and a number of Iraqi Shi’ite shrines to help defuse the Sunni insurgent crisis.
Iraq chaos catches up with Kurdistan
BAGHDAD — It was nearly the perfect heist. In June, Iraq’s Kurds snuck in behind retreating government troops to grab long-coveted land and watched from their new borders as Baghdad and militants fought over the rump state.
But the move dragged Kurdistan’s celebrated peshmerga out of their comfort zone and the cash-strapped force is now taking heavy losses along its extended front.
“They’ve bitten a whole chunk of cake that’s going to take a long, long time to digest,” said Toby Dodge, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.
The autonomous region of Kurdistan in northern Iraq expanded its territory by around 40 percent when it took the slipstream of soldiers fleeing the onslaught the Islamic State launched early last month.
Peshmerga troops initially took up positions right in front of IS territory and seemed determined not to get involved. One video posted on the Internet shows militants and peshmerga on either side of the same bridge, looking quite relaxed.
But over the weekend, IS fighters attacked several of the peshmerga’s new positions west and north of Mosul, killing several and forcing them to withdraw.
A statement the militant group issued on Monday appears to confirm that any non-aggression pact is over between the IS and the Kurds.
“Islamic State brigades have now reached the border triangle between Iraq, Syria and Turkey. May God Almighty allow his Mujahideen to liberate the whole region,” it said.
Influential Kurdish political commentator Asos Hardi said the Islamic State “is aware that the United States is backing plans for Sunni-Shiite-Kurdish cooperation” against them.
“They are trying to secure the area where the borders of Syria, Iraq and Turkey meet but that cannot be achieved without trying to expand into Kurdish regions,” he said.
Issam Al-Faily, a political scientist from Baghdad’s Mustansiriya University, said the Kurds should not assume that jihadists will not seek to enter their turf.
“Now IS is willing to expand on the land of Kurdistan, if they (the peshmerga) don’t put an end to it quickly, the situation could develop very dangerously,” he said.
The peshmerga are widely regarded as the most able military outfit in Iraq but the financial squeeze caused by their dispute with Baghdad over oil revenue is taking its toll.
That has constrained the Kurdish Regional Government’s ability to pay and equip its troops properly.
“Militarily they’re not capable, trained or funded in a way that would allow them to have control of that extra” territory, Dodge said.
In the town of Jalawla, which sits on the other extreme of the peshmerga stretched frontline, 130 km northeast of Baghdad, Kurdish troops have taken some of their heaviest losses in recent days.
On several occasions, they fought for hours to hold a position, only to pull back for lack of ammunition.
In a matter on hours on Saturday, the peshmerga abandoned their positions in Zumar, two oil fields, the large town of Sinjar and other smaller towns and positions.
The Syrian Kurdish group PYD that crossed the border to come to their rescue on Monday said it briefly took in 700 peshmerga back into Syria to regroup.
“The peshmerga are well-trained, well-equipped and motivated, but definitely more efficient fighting in defensive positions, on their own terrain, than projecting into the plains of Arab Iraq,” said Peter Harling, from the International Crisis Group think tank. “Quite simply, they were never meant for that,” he said.
40 Yazidi children reported killed after Iraq attack: UN
BAGHDAD — Forty children from northern Iraq’s Yazidi minority are reported to have died as a result of a militant attack on the Sinjar region, the United Nations Children’s Fund said Tuesday.
“According to official reports received by UNICEF, these children from the Yazidi minority died as a direct consequence of violence, displacement and dehydration over the past two days,” a statement said.
On Sunday, fighters from the Islamic State (IS) militant group that controls much of northwestern Iraq took over Sinjar, which had been under the control of Kurdish troops.
The town, near the Syrian border, is a hub for Iraq’s Yazidis, a very closed community that follows an ancient faith rooted in Zoroastrianism and referred to by militants as “devil worshipers”.
Sinjar was also a temporary home for thousands of displaced people from other minorities, such as Shiite Turkmen who had fled the nearby city of Tal Afar when IS launched its offensive on June 9.
The attack on Sinjar sent thousands of people running from their homes in panic, some of them scurrying into the mountains with no supplies.
“Families who fled the area are in immediate need of urgent assistance, including up to 25,000 children who are now stranded in mountains surrounding Sinjar and are in dire need of humanitarian aid, including drinking water and sanitation services,” UNICEF said.
Pictures posted on the Internet by members of the Yazidi community show little clusters of people gathering on the cave-dotted flanks of a craggy canyon in the Sinjar mountains.
Yazidi leaders and rights activists have said the very existence of the multi-millennial community on its ancestral land was at risk as a result of the latest violence and displacement.
Thousands of Yazidi families have fled the northern Iraqi town fearing all-out assault from the IS militants who have already taken over large swates of land from the government forces.
Moussa suggests incursion into Libya
CAIRO — The Egyptian government should consider a military solution for the unrest in Libya, Amr Moussa said in a statement issued this week.
The former Egyptian foreign minister raised speculation that Egypt is considering an armed incursion into Libya, where fierce fighting continues between rebel groups and security forces.
The current unrest in Libya, Egypt’s neigbor to the west, poses threats to Egyptian national security, the statement added.
“The situation in Libya is a major concern for Egypt, Libya’s neighboring countries, and the Arab world at large,” Moussa said.
“Statelets, sects and extremist factions in Libya directly threaten Egypt’s national security. I call for a broad public debate to sensitize public opinion to the risks, and to build the necessary support in case we have to exercise our right to self-defense.”
Egypt’s foreign affairs spokesman declined to comment on Moussa’s statement.
These remarks are given great weight considering Moussa’s high profile in Egyptian politics, in addition to his close ties with President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi. His statements are an indicator that an Egyptian military operation in Libya is on the table. “Libya burns, and Egypt approaches a military solution”, Al-Masry Al-Youm, one of Egypt’s largest private newspapers, printed as a headline.
Security analyst and former army officer Khaled Okasha is one critic of the intervention. “A seasoned politician should know the limits of state intervention in other countries, even if they represent a threat to us,” he told Al-Watan newspaper in comment to Moussa’s remarks.
Moussa’s statement is in-conjunction with Egypt’s concern over fighting in Libya, which has been exacerbated by the killing of 21 Egyptian soldiers last month in a checkpoint on the Egyptian-Libyan border.
Iran imprisons former student leader for acts against security
TEHRAN — A former student leader from Iran’s reformist movement has been jailed for six years for undermining national security and spreading propaganda, less than 12 months after returning from abroad
Serajeddine Mirdamadi “was sentenced to five years for acts against national security and one year for spreading propaganda against the regime,” Ghiti Pourfazel, his lawyer, told official IRNA news agency. “We will definitely appeal,” she added.
IRNA did not disclose any details of specific acts that led to the charges and conviction.
Mirdamadi was active in student politics and later worked in the Interior Ministry during the first term of reformist President Mohammad Khatami.
He left Iran in 2001, only returning from France last year after the election of President Hassan Rohani, who is seen as a moderate and who won power having pledged to push for reform.
His sentencing comes two days after reports that pro-reform activist Hashem Aghajari, a university professor, had been jailed for one year for spreading anti-regime propaganda.
Aghajari had been convicted of apostasy and given a death sentence in 2003 for declaring that Muslims were not “monkeys” who should “blindly follow” their religious leaders.
That sentence was commuted to five years imprisonment in 2004, but he was eventually cleared of all charges the following year.
Numerous reformists have been jailed in Iran in recent months for crimes against national security, raising concern about a push from the judiciary to clamp down on dissent.
Rohani took office last August and has since led moves to re-engage with the West, principally by seeking a deal with world powers over the Islamic republic’s disputed nuclear program.
However, his moves toward detente have faced heavy opposition from hardline conservatives and critics in the country’s judiciary.
As well as political activists, several journalists in recent months have been convicted or placed in custody for spreading anti-regime propaganda.
The announcement of Mirdamadi’s jailing comes two weeks after the Washington Post’s Iran reporter Jason Rezaian, his wife Yeganeh Saleh, also a journalist, and a photographer for the US newspaper were detained and placed under investigation.
Little is known about the circumstances of their arrest and no details have been released about what they are accused of, though Iran confirmed that a probe is under way.
A man who was arrested at the same time as Rezaian and Saleh has since been released on bail.
Arson in Iran prison kills 11
TEHRAN — Arson at a central Iranian prison killed 11 inmates, Iranian judicial officials announced Tuesday.
Monday’s fire broke out in the Shahr-e Kord prison killing 11 prisoners through suffocation before being brought under control, Abdullah Mousavi, a judiciary official, told the state news agency IRNA.
Iran’s head penal official, Asghar Jahangir said the fire was caused by arson and an investigation was underway.
“Cameras have recorded when the fire broke out in the prison and it was started by an individual intentionally,” he told the semi-official ISNA news agency.
“He survived and has been detected,” without identifying the person. Iranian news outlets said several people were also injured in the incident.
Dozens more police officers arrested in wire-tapping probe
Erdogan says purge just beginning
ISTANBUL — Dozens of Turkish police officers were detained on Tuesday in a widening probe of wiretapping allegedly targeting Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, and he said operations against his foes within the state apparatus were just beginning.
Police took 33 of their colleagues into custody on Tuesday in Istanbul, Ankara and across southeast Turkey, NTV said, days ahead of the country’s first presidential election which opinion polls forecast Erdogan will win.
More than 100 officers were detained in July in the same investigation, aimed at what Erdogan calls a “parallel structure” within the police, judiciary and other institutions loyal to US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Erdogan accuses Gulen, a former ally, of being behind a plot to oust him and has vowed to “go into their lairs” and carry out a “witch hunt” to catch those involved.
“The structure in the parallel police has started to emerge,” Erdogan said in an interview with Kanal 24 late on Monday, accusing Turkey’s main opposition parties of operating in tandem with Gulen.
“God willing this will come to an end. But I have to say that we are just at the beginning of this business,” he said, describing Gulen’s movement as a threat to national security. “The judiciary has now started to do what is necessary.”
Gulen and his Hizmet, or ‘Service’, movement denies scheming against Erdogan, but the alliance between Hizmet and the government has crumbled in recent years.
Of the 115 officers detained in July, 31 have been remanded in custody pending possible trial. Many of them have said the case against them was politically motivated. The arrests follow a stream of purges targeting the police, judiciary and other state institutions this year which government critics have condemned as a symptom of Erdogan’s tightening grip on power.
Gulen, whose followers say they number in the millions, is believed to have built up influence in the police and judiciary over decades and leads a powerful worldwide Islamic movement from his self-imposed exile in the United States.
Those detained on Tuesday were largely low ranking officers, according to media reports. Senior anti-terror squad chiefs were among those held previously.
“I worked day and night and this is what I get for it,” one of the suspects was reported as saying by CNN Turk as he was led away by plain-clothed police from the organized crime squad. Police declined to comment on the investigation.
Kuwait steps up curbs on Islamic charities
KUWAIT CITY — Kuwait has stepped up controls on Islamic charities, including donations for war-ravaged Syria, as part of measures to curb funding for extremists, newspapers reported Tuesday.
Social Affairs and Labor Minister Hind Al-Sabeeh said the measures aim to “correct the course” of action of non-profit organizations, according to Al-Qabas newspaper.
The new measures “oblige charities to issue a transparency document identifying the source and final destination of the funds they have raised,” said Sabeeh.
The measures also require charities authorized to raise funds to “obtain officially stamped receipts from the ministry, otherwise the collection of donations would be considered illegal,” she said. “Any illegal work will not continue, and we will not tolerate it,” the minister said.
Sabeeh’s remarks came after the Gulf state’s cabinet discussed the issue at its weekly meeting on Monday.
The Islamic Affairs Ministry announced the same day it was suspending all types of fund-raising inside mosques, including for the “Syrian people”.
Kuwait imposed a ban on cash donations in 2004 and insisted funds be paid only through banks at the charities’ offices and not at mosques.
Lebanon army urges France to speed up arms’ delivery
BEIRUT — Lebanon’s army chief General Jean Kahwaji urged France Tuesday to speed up the delivery of weapons as his troops battle militants on the Syrian border.
“This battle requires equipment, materiel and technology that the army doesn’t have,” Kahwaji told AFP.
“That’s why we need to speed up the delivery of the necessary military aid by finalizing the list of weapons requested from France under a Saudi-financed deal backed by the Rome conference to support the army,” he said.
Last December, Saudi Arabia agreed to finance a $3 billion deal to purchase military equipment and weapons from France for Lebanon’s army, which has long complained of being sorely under-equipped.
And in mid-June, at an international conference in Rome, the international community pledged its backing for the Lebanese military.
But talks on the list of material to be furnished to the army under the Saudi-French deal have yet to be finalized.
Kahwaji’s request came as the Lebanese army battles militants in the Arsal region of eastern Lebanon on the border with Syria. He warned that “the situation in Arsal is dangerous.”
“The battle that the army is undertaking in the mountains of Arsal is just one in a series of confrontations against terrorism in all its forms and wherever it is,” he added.
At least 16 soldiers have been killed in the Arsal fighting, including two officers, according to security sources, and the army said 22 troops are missing, possibly taken hostage.
Another 20 policemen are also missing, security sources say, and 86 soldiers have been wounded.
“The army’s fight against the takfiris (extremists) is continuing and the army is determined to recover the missing soldiers,” Kahwaji said.
The fighting in Arsal erupted on Saturday after soldiers arrested a man accused of belonging to Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Al-Nusra Front.
In the northern city of Tripoli, a 12-year-old girl was killed and 11 people were injured, seven of them soldiers, in violence since Monday night linked to the Arsal clashes, a security source said.