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9547Middle East and North Africa (MENA): News from Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Lebanon, Yemen

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  • Zafar Khan
    Aug 25, 2014

      Scores killed in Iraq bombings
      At least 42 killed in bombings in Baghdad and Kirkuk, a day after deadly attack on mosque heightened sectarian tensions.
      Last updated: 24 Aug 2014 06:09


      Iran 'sent soldiers to fight in Iraq'
      Hundreds of Iranian troops crossed border to join battle against Islamic State group, sources tell Al Jazeera.
      Last updated: 23 Aug 2014 19:32


      Iraq crisis: The Yazidi - a persecuted people driven to the edge
      They have been forced to seek sanctuary from Isis among the Kurds, but their lives are still in danger
      HERMIONE GEE LALISH, KURDISTAN Sunday 24 August 2014


      Isis takes Iraq’s largest Christian town as residents told – 'leave, convert or die'
      Tens of thousands of terrified people have been displaced as Christians flee Qaraqosh
      FERNANDE VAN TETS BEIRUT Thursday 07 August 2014


      Isis fighters trap thousands of Iraqis up a mountain – and they're dying of thirst
      Most of those stranded have run out of battery life on their mobile phones, but the few who can still communicate give grim updates
      LOVEDAY MORRIS Author Biography BAGHDAD Wednesday 06 August 2014


      Iraqi Yazidis: 'If we move they will kill us'
      Surrounded by Islamic State fighters, members of the Yazidi religious minority fear an onslaught of violence.
      Mohammed A Salih and Wladimir van Wilgenburg Last updated: 05 Aug 2014 14:35


      Iraqis fear food crisis under Islamic State
      The Islamic State group's control of a trade route linking Baghdad to Turkey has cut supplies and caused prices to soar.
      Annabell Van den Berghe Last updated: 03 Aug 2014 07:15


      Islamic State evicts Iraq farmers
      The group's takeover of farms in Qaraqosh, 30km from Mosul, has caused fear among residents, and a jump in food prices.
      Sophie Cousins Last updated: 29 Jul 2014 08:18


      Dozens dead in Baghdad suicide blast
      Officials say at least 31 people killed and 58 injured in suicide car bombing at police checkpoint in Iraq's capital.
      Last updated: 23 Jul 2014 09:00


      Christians flee from Islamic State threats
      Hundreds of families reported to have left Iraqi city Mosul after group said they must convert, leave, pay tax or die.
      Last updated: 19 Jul 2014 21:07


      Why Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is an impostor
      If there were a real caliphate today, Baghdadi would have been declared an apostate.
      Last updated: 14 Jul 2014 06:17


      Kurds on Iraq's new faultline feel destiny beckoning
      Fighters defending territory against Isis predict that Iraq will soon cease to be a nation and become three provinces again
      Luke Harding in Mariam Bek
      The Guardian, Saturday 12 July 2014


      On one side were Kurdish fighters, dug in behind a series of ramparts and trenches reminiscent of the first world war. Five hundred metres away, over a muddy canal and past a farm, were the jihadist fighters of Isis (Islamic State).

      Offering a pair of binoculars, first lieutenant Noman Osman, a Kurdish soldier, pointed to the Isis checkpoint. It was a canopied shed. Nearby, on a deserted road, was a burnt-out lorry. There was also an American Humvee, looted from Iraqi forces by the Islamist fighters. Beyond that, a ridge of feathery trees from where Isis snipers had been taking potshots at Kurdish positions.

      "Our mission is defensive. We are defending our land from terrorists," Osman explained. "We don't venture beyond the canal." What did he think of his opponents, who now control much of Sunni Iraq? "Isis are traitors," he declared. "No cars cross here. But two days ago a Sunni sheikh came to visit. He says he wants to fight Isis, that locals are fed up with them."

      From a Kurdish watchtower – reached via a metal ladder – a few civilian vehicles were visible in the far distance. The agricultural landscape revealed sunflower fields, irrigation ditches, and a line of pylons. The stillness was deceptive. Removing his hat, Osman showed off a bullet wound. A jihadist militant shot him last month, he said. "After two weeks in hospital, I went back to the front," he added.

      This frontline at Mariam Bek marks the new 1,000km faultline along which Iraq is fracturing. On one side is the Islamic State, the new caliphate proclaimed by Isis, across Syria and Iraq. On the other, a possible future state of KurdistanIsis and the Kurds now confront each other across a swathe of territory from Sinjar region in the northwest, next to Syria, through to Khanaqin, close to the border with Iran. Most of the villages here are Kurdish. But they are also home to Yazidis, Christians, Turkmens and Arabs.

      "When the British set up this country in the 1920s they didn't do a good job," said Colonel Ghaleb Taha Ismail, the chief of police in Kirkuk's Kurdish Rahim Awa neighbourhood. "Before they were three provinces – Baghdad, Mosul and Basra. I think it will be three provinces again. History will go back to its original format."

      Why? "Iraq has been a country for 90 years. Throughout this period, these three provinces haven't been able to live together."

      Ismail, a Kurd, who took over as police chief in January, said he presided over a multi-ethnic force. It included Kurds and other groups. "The people of Kirkuk should vote to decide their future. I believe in democracy," he said. Meanwhile, his uniform still bore the insignia of Iraq's interior ministry. Hanging in the entrance lobby were framed portraits of officers murdered in the line of duty. They had been killed in the on-off insurgency waged by Sunni militants, since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, he said.

      Kurdish moves to peel away from Baghdad's rule are multiplying. They have announced a referendum, and on Friday said they were pulling out of Iraq's national government, no longer sitting in the cabinet or ministries.

      Central to this new reality is Kirkuk, an oil-rich, mainly Kurdish city of around a million people, which lies outside the Kurdish autonomous region. But the Kurds have largely controlled it since 2003.

      On Friday peshmerga (Kurdish fighters) seized two nearby oilfields, Kirkuk and Bai Hassan, turfing out Arab workers and replacing them with their own staff. Baghdad's oil ministry was furious.

      The move consolidates the Kurds' hold on Kirkuk and its huge oil reserves. It suggests that the Kurdish fighters who entered the city a month ago are not planning to leave.

      They moved in after the Iraqi troops tasked with guarding it ran away. The alternative, the Kurds say, was an Isis takeover, followed by a bloodbath. Elsewhere, the peshmerga advanced somewhere between 20km and 40km beyond existing Kurdistan and deep into federal Iraqi territory. Kurdistan got bigger; so did its security headache.

      Despite heavy security around the city, a suicide car bomb blew up outside a police station in the Huzairan district on Friday, killing at least nine and injuring 21. Last month an Isis suicide bomber killed six.

      The Kurdish security agency Asayish says the situation inside Kirkuk is now "relatively calm". But it admits that Isis remains a potent threat.

      Spokesman Captain Farhad Hama Ali said fighting was going on in two areas immediately south of the city: the subdistrict of Mala Abdulla, which has a mixed population of Arabs and Turkmen, and the contested village of Besir. "Isis still wants to take Kirkuk. It wants to turn it into another Ramadi," he warned.

      According to Ali, politicians in Baghdad were to blame for the extraordinary rise of Isis. Ali said the Kurds had warned Baghdad five days before the fall of Mosul that Isis was on the march. The federal government ignored the tip and told the Kurds to stay out of the city, Iraq's second biggest. When Isis did surge in, Baghdad called and desperately asked for assistance. "By this point it was too late," Ali said.

      In theory, Kirkuk is still under central control. The Iraqi flag flies above the governor's heavily defended mansion together with the flag of Kurdistan. Photos in the lobby show Kirkuk's development over the past century: a brief period of British occupation in 1918; the discovery of oil in the 1920s; modernisation of what was once ancient Sumeria and Assyria. The ethnic balance continues to change. In the 1980s many Kurds fled Saddam's murderous Anfal campaign. Arab settlers arrived. Over the past decade, Kurds have come back.

      Many feel the moment of Kurdish destiny has arrived. Last week the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, called on the Kurdish parliament to hold a rapid referendum. It is likely to take place in two stages. The first will be a vote on whether Kirkuk and other disputed territories should join the autonomous Kurdish region. The second – to be held later this year, or possibly early next – will decide whether Kurdistan should break away from Baghdad.

      Iraq's disintegration has affected the city in multifarious ways. It has, for example, touched on the fortunes of Kirkuk's football club. Nowzad Qader, the head of Kirkuk's FA, said Iraq wasn't able to complete its league this year, with players unable to travel to Baghdad. It was too dangerous, he said, since Isis controlled the road. "Isis doesn't like humanity much, let alone football," he observed. "If Iraq still exists next season we'll resume."

      Nearby, youths kicked a ball around in the early evening heat.

      Qadar said the local FA reflected Kirkuk's tradition of coexistence, at odds with the sectarian mayhem in the rest of the country. He was a Kurd, his deputy a Turkman and the secretary an Arab. "It's like a microcosm of Iraq. We work together in brotherhood," he declared. Maureen Nikola, a volleyball coach, said girls who played on her team came from all of Kirkuk's ethnic groups. Some of her Christian players had emigrated with their families after 2003, she said. Nikola, a Christian herself, added: "If the peshmerga weren't here, we would have had to flee, like Mosul."

      Back at the frontline, first lieutenant Osman said morale was high among his men, who were posted along sandbagged embrasures or who sheltered under tarpaulins from the afternoon sun. He declined to say how many of them had been killed. "My request to Britain is to help the Kurds to defeat terrorism," he said. "We have old weapons. We need new ones." Osman said hi-tech military equipment given by the US to the Iraqi army had fallen into the hands of Isis. "We told them [the Americans] this would happen and it did," he said.

      Hadn't western military involvement in Iraq been a disaster, though? "We're not talking about Iraq. We are talking about Kurds," Osman said. "Kurds have always been friends of the UK. When the US and Britain came to Iraq, the Kurds welcomed them with flowers. The rest of Iraq welcomed them with IEDs."

      Either way, the rise of Isis was now the west's problem, he suggested. "They are a threat to the UK and other countries. There are 500 Brits fighting with Da-ash [Isis] right now," he said.

      On the Isis side of the canal, nothing moved. The Islamist fighters appeared to be having a break. On the peshmerga side, it was quiet too – other than a love song by the Kurdish-British singer Mazhar Khaleqi. "The Ba'athists want to set up their own region, their own fundamentalist state," Osman said. "We have our demands too: an independent country."

      Additional reporting by Fazel Hawramy

      Iraq crisis: Government forces execute 255 Sunni prisoners in revenge for Isis atrocities, says report
      LIZZIE DEARDEN Saturday 12 July 2014


      Iraqi forces have illegally executed at least 255 Sunni prisoners in the past month, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

      The group said it found evidence of summary killings by the Iraqi army and militias affiliated with the government since 9 June.

      In nearly all cases, soldiers, police or Shia militia members shot the prisoners dead, but in one case dozens of prisoners were reportedly set on fire and in another, grenades were thrown into locked cells.

      Five massacres were documented in Mosul and Tal Afar, in northern Nineveh province, in Baaquba and Jumarkhe, in Diyala, and in Rawa in Anbar province.

      The killings appeared to be retaliation for attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), which has seized large areas of Iraq and major cities.

      In all but one case, the alleged executions took place while the soldiers were fleeing Isis as it advanced, HRW said.

      The extremist group violently ascribes to Sunni Islam, whereas the majority of Iraqi soldiers are Shias, as is the central government.

      Isis has shot and beheaded unknown numbers of captured soldiers, police officers, Shia religious minorities and members of militias who tried to resist them.

      In pictures: Iraq crisis
      Joe Stork, the deputy Middle East director of HRQ said gunning down prisoners is an “outrageous violation of international law”.

      He added: “While the world rightly denounces the atrocious acts of ISIS, it should not turn a blind eye to sectarian killing sprees by government and pro-government forces.”

      The group called on an international commission to investigate the alleged executions and human rights breaches by all sides in the continuing Iraq crisis.

      Iraq’s ethnic and religious groups are being pulled apart by the sectarian conflict, where Sunni Isis is pitted against the Shia Iraqi government and Kurds have taken control of an area in the north of the country.

      Kurdish forces have continued to grow in strength, seizing two oilfields in northern Iraq and taking over operations from a state-run oil company on Friday.

      Kurdish politicians have further weakened Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government by suspending their participation after they were accused of harbouring extremists.

      Hoshiyar Zebari, Iraq’s Foreign Minister, told Reuters the country is divided into three states, “Kurdish, a black state [Isis] and Baghdad".

      Splits emerge among Iraq's Sunni rebels
      Reports suggest Islamic State group is arresting former Baathists and other rebels who do not share its vision.
      Last updated: 10 Jul 2014 11:36


      Islamic State's 'caliph' lauds Iraq rebellion
      Video emerges of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Mosul mosque delivering sermon justifying fighting Baghdad government.
      Last updated: 06 Jul 2014 07:18


      Sunni rebels declare new 'Islamic caliphate'
      Armed group ISIL changes name to Islamic State, and says its empire extends from Diyala in Iraq to Syria's Aleppo.
      Last updated: 30 Jun 2014 07:53


      Sunni rebels form uneasy alliance with ISIL
      Sunni fighters say Maliki government's sectarian policies have forced them to in to an alliance with ISIL.
      Last updated: 29 Jun 2014 06:19


      The 'Sykes-Picot' borders ISIL wants gone
      Borders set up by allied powers after the defeat of the Ottomans are a source of resentment for many in the region
      Last updated: 29 Jun 2014 07:22


      Iraq crisis: Sectarian hatred stalks Baghdad as the rise of Isis widens the gulf between Shia and Sunni
      The city has long been a divided society. But the murder of a Sunni doctor – two bullets to the head – demonstrates a new chapter in the killings
      PATRICK COCKBURN Author Biography BAGHDAD Friday 27 June 2014


      ISIS Winning The War In Iraq With A Not So Secret Social Weapon
      Posted: 21/06/2014 23:51 BST


      We are living in the era of the most visceral, dangerous war photography in history, where the latest digital cameras, satellite phones and high speed internet have propelled incredible front line images into lounge rooms around the world - all in high definition.

      But no matter how graphic or gruesome the images from international news agencies like Reuters, AP or Getty, it is the iPhone snaps of piled bodies, taken by the perpetrators, that make the front pages. Iraq 2014, in many ways, has become a 'selfie' war.

      From Baba Yar in Ukraine, to My Lai in Vietnam, the mass killings of soldiers or civilians has historically been covered up by the perpertrators, the site obscured, the images blurred if they exist.

      But posted on sites like JustPaste.it, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, are the most iconic pictures of the conflict, the rows of men with bowed heads and hands bound, the trenches dug for bodies, the smoke from a rifle, the moment a bullet enters the head of a cowed soldier. The pictures are snapped on camera phones, not by professional, impartial photographers.

      "Photography is a saturated market," said photographer Rick Findler, who spoke to HuffPost UK from Iraq, where he is embedded with the Kurdish peshmerga fighting the radical jihadists of ISIS. "Everyone has a mobile phone camera with the ability of taking high quality pictures - even terrorists and other enemies."

      The horrors which appear almost casual through the frame of Instagram or Twitpic are limitless. Just last week, ISIS militants posted footage of an Iraqi police officer being abducted from his home before he was beheaded. A picture of the severed head was then shown with the caption: "This is our ball. It's made of skin #WorldCup."


      Hundreds dead as Islamic State seizes Syrian air base
      Reuters | Aug 25, 2014, 11.02 AM IST


      BEIRUT: Islamic State militants stormed an air base in northeast Syria on Sunday, capturing it from government forces after days of fighting that cost more than 500 lives, a monitoring group said.

      The Syrian observatory for human rights said at least 346 Islamic State fighters were killed and more than 170 members of government forces had died since Tuesday in the fight over Tabqa base, making it one of the deadliest confrontations between the two groups since the start of Syria's war.

      The observatory, which monitors violence in Syria through sources on the ground, said fighting raged inside the air base on Sunday. It was the Syrian army's last foothold in an area otherwise controlled by Islamic State, which has seized large areas of Syria and Iraq.

      In nearby Raqqa city, an Islamic State stronghold, there was celebratory gunfire and several mosques announced through their loudspeakers that the base had fallen to the Islamists and cheered "God is greatest", a witness told Reuters.

      IS fighters displayed the severed heads of Syrian army soldiers in the city square, the witness said, adding that Syrian warplanes were heard over Raqqa following the air base attack. Earlier on Sunday the Syrian air force had bombed areas around the base.

      Syrian state television said that after fierce battles, the military was "regrouping".

      Citing a military source, it said there was a "successful evacuation of the airport" and that the army was continuing strikes on "terrorist groups" in the area, which it said had suffered heavy losses.

      Syrian state media gave no figure for the number of people killed in the clashes.

      Islamic State had also trapped around 150 retreating Syrian soldiers in an area near the base and was believed to be holding them captive, the Observatory said.

      The Syrian army sent reinforcements to the base overnight on Friday to fight Islamic State, which controls roughly a third of northern and eastern Syria.

      Syrian television had shown footage of army forces defending the base on Saturday who had said it was safe from Islamic State's advances. Many of the Islamic State fighters died after Syrian warplanes bombarded the area, the observatory said.

      Military Bases

      Islamic State, a radical offshoot of al Qaeda, has taken three Syrian military bases in the area in recent weeks, boosted by arms seized in Iraq.

      Syria is calculating that the IS push to reshape the Middle East will eventually force the West to deal with President Bashar al-Assad as the only way to tackle the threat, sources familiar with Syrian government thinking have said.

      Elsewhere in Syria, the group withdrew from northern areas it controlled outside the city of Homs on Sunday and retreated east after coming under attack from rival Islamist fighters, the Observatory said.

      Fighters from the group withdrew from a headquarters north of Homs on the orders of their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Observatory said, citing sources in the area.

      They said IS gave up the territory to Nusra Front, al Qaeda's official wing in Syria.

      As well as Nusra Front, Western-backed rebels have also been fighting IS in Syria but have regularly been defeated by the group, which in June declared an "Islamic caliphate" in the territory it controls.

      Activists have accused the Syrian army of avoiding confrontations with IS because it has weakened rival rebel groups also battling Assad.

      With Syria buried in the news, hopes fade for ending world’s bloodiest war
      Syria’s violence is setting tragic records as the world’s attention shifts focus to Gaza, Iraq, Ukraine and even Libya
      August 1, 2014 7:00AM ET
      by Michael Pizzi


      Syria’s civil war is buried beneath the headlines these days, as Israeli forces pound the Gaza Strip, Ukraine struggles with the downing of a commercial jet with 298 people on board and much of Iraq has been taken over by Al-Qaeda-inspired extremists. Libya, meanwhile, is literally going up in flames.

      Even with 1,400 Gazans killed over the past few weeks, Syria has not lost its title as home to the world’s deadliest conflict. During a 10-day stretch in mid-July, a record 1,800 people were killed, as the death toll from three years of fighting climbs past 170,000. And as the United States wrangles for a cease-fire to stem the latest violence in Gaza, there seems less hope than ever for a diplomatic solution to Syria’s bloodshed.

      The difficulty with Syria is not just that international diplomacy is bogged down elsewhere, working to stave off violence that is viewed as more solvable than the Syrian stalemate. The problem, analysts say, is that for quite a while now, Western resolve to pressure the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has all but dissolved.

      Washington and its allies are unwilling to front the tens of billions of dollars or decades of commitment that would be required to guarantee a rebel victory. After three disastrous rounds of peace talks and the resignation of a frustrated United Nations mediator, many in the rebel camp feel their most important backers are ready to let the chips fall where they may.

      “The international community knows very well that there is nothing called a diplomatic solution to the Syrian war,” said Ali al-Amin al-Suweid, a political officer with the Syrian Revolution General Commission, an opposition group. “They just use this refrain to justify delaying any action in Syria.”

      In part, the problem is one of geopolitical priorities. While Assad has enjoyed the unwavering support of Iran and Russia, Washington and its allies have been unable to muster comparable willpower to keep Syria’s floundering opposition alive. In Israel, Washington has no choice but to back its staunchest ally in the region. In Ukraine the West wants to combat Russian aggression by backing the pro-European government in Kiev. Washington even has a reluctant ally in Baghdad and is deeply committed to keeping oil-rich Iraq together, given U.S. complicity in the current turmoil.

      In Syria, however, “there’s no good choice,” according to Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “Its a broken country with no future, no resources and a lot of militias that are diametrically opposed to American values,” he said.

      “We armed the mujahedeen [against the Soviets] in Afghanistan in the ’80s and lived to regret that decision. We should’ve let Russia keep it. Now we look at Syria and say, ‘Why take that away too?’”

      Isis winning its war on two fronts: Militants conquered Sunni regions of Iraq and are now consolidating hold on north-east Syria
      While the world has been understandably focused on events in Gaza and Ukraine, the Islamist force has been extending its self-styled caliphate and consolidating its previous gains
      PATRICK COCKBURN Author Biography Thursday 31 July 2014


      Isis uses humility as tactic for conquest
      By Erika Solomon in Beirut
      July 27, 2014


      The black and white flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) now flutters over much of Syria’s eastern city of Deir Ezzor but few of its fighters have a presence on the ground, say other rebels.
      The group controls the city at arm’s length, using local forces to impose order. “They came and said: ‘No one will bother you. But if you need anything, we are here’,” said Mundhir Saffan of Deir Ezzor’s Hamza Brigade.
      Like many rebel groups fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, Mr Saffan’s unit has kept working even as Isis, an al-Qaeda breakaway, claims to control 90 per cent of its province. “They let our battalions run the area just like before,” he said.
      An important element of Isis’s lightning expansion across much of Syria and Iraq is how little military force it employs to maintain its hold on the territory it has captured. Isis appears to be perfecting a model mixing fear, divisiveness and soft power tactics to slowly seize control from under the feet of other rebel groups.

      Activists and residents of Isis-controlled areas say the group begins planning for governance before it even starts a military attack. Sleeper cells of combatants and activists prepare not just for the initial strike but for administrative and social projects to gradually cement their hold.
      To soften resistance, Isis first shares control of territory with nonaligned but unthreatening local groups, like Mr Saffan’s Hamza Brigade, and the thousands of rebels who pledged their loyalty to the group as it advanced.
      “It’s like the Arabic expression, ‘be humble to conquer’. They make allies as they spread and firm their hold. After that, they can impose full control,” said Rami Abdelrahman, head of monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
      Now calling itself the “Islamic State”, Isis claims to be building a caliphate. It has become one of the wealthiest and most powerful jihadi groups in history by capturing oilfields, banks and military sites. In areas under its full control, Isis implements strict interpretations of Islamic law that impose amputations for theft, face and hair coverings for women, and enforce a subjugated status on religious minorities.
      With these tactics the group has managed to advance on four different fronts – Syria’s north and oil-rich east, and northern and western Iraq.

      Isis’s progress has been helped by its ability to keep other Sunni insurgents engaged in fighting their shared opponents – Mr Assad in Syria and the Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq.
      Accepting the group’s arrangement is a mistake, say residents in Syria’s northern Raqqa province. Raqqa was the first province to fall completely to opposition forces but Isis forced its rivals out in January.
      “At first, everyone ignored their strict religious rulings . . . Isis played nice while they tested the water. They worked slowly to divide and conquer. Eventually, the rebels collapsed and withdrew,” said Saleh, a shopkeeper in Raqqa who asked not to be named in full.
      “Days after the rebels left, Isis began beating women who weren’t wearing the niqab (face veil).”
      Events in Mosul, one of Iraq’s biggest cities that fell to militants on June 10, suggest that the pattern established in Raqqa may be repeating itself.
      Initially, it was unclear who was in control in Mosul. Rules based on Isis’s strict interpretations of Islamic law were announced, but largely ignored. Many insurgent groups appeared to be patrolling the streets.
      A month later, there are signs that Isis has consolidated power. The first public lashings were reported in the past week and the remaining members of Mosul’s historic Christian community have fled – reportedly after they were given a choice to convert or leave.
      With Isis’s limited numbers, psychological tools are critical to maintaining power.
      Pictures posted on its social media sites show fighters handing out food and cuddling kittens but also shooting prisoners in mass graves and posing with beheaded corpses – sending a message that those who accept its rule are safe but those who do not face a brutal end.
      Despite its excesses, Isis has been accepted and even welcomed by many Syrian civilians exhausted by war.
      “Under the rebels, the kidnappings and looting were out of control,” said Saleh in Raqqa. “Isis crucifies and beheads criminals – and its opponents. But it leaves the rest of us alone.”
      Unlike other groups, Isis has allowed medical and humanitarian aid to pass into opponents’ areas, activists say. And this week, after Isis seized every oil well in Deir Ezzor, worth millions of dollars in monthly revenue, it forced salesmen to refine and sell fuel at affordable prices.
      “To a civilian, Isis seems more humane than the rebels,” Karam said. “They work and think like an army, not like gangs the way rebels did.”

      Islamic State 'seizes main Syria oil fields'
      Al-Omar and Tanak oil fields on Iraq border fall to the Islamic State after rival fighters withdraw, activists say.
      Last updated: 04 Jul 2014 12:24



      Grand Mosque Minaret Threatens Zamzam
      OnIslam & Newspapers
      Friday, 08 August 2014 00:00


      CAIRO – The construction of the world’s two highest minarets at the Grand Mosque in Makkah has ignited debates after experts warned that the new constructions could dry up Zamzam water resources.

      The new minarets, constructed by the Saudi Binladin Group, would be 420-meter high as part of the ongoing Grand Mosque expansion.

      The first minaret will be constructed on the northeast side, while the other will be located in the northwest side.

      The foundations for the new minarets can now be clearly seen and each covers 900 square meters.

      The structures will rise up to about half the height of the Makkah Clock Tower, the tallest concrete building in the world at 817 meters high and the second tallest tower in the world after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which is 828 meters high.

      Suspicions surrounding the construction erupted after consultancy studies pointed that work in the area could dry up Zamzam water resources.

      Starting several months ago, photos of the expansion project spread across engineers and social media, sparking lots of discussions and debates about the negative effects of these structures.

      Citing international consulting offices, critics say they could have a negative effect on the sources of Zamzam water.

      The studies revealed that the construction of high-rise buildings and explosives used in removing mountains around the Grand Mosque can have a damaging affect on the sources of Zamzam water.

      The blessed Well of Zamzam has been gushing for hundreds of years.

      Allah created the Zamzam well to provide Hajar, the wife of Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham), and her baby son Isma`eel with water in the hot, dry valley of Makkah.

      In her desperate search for water, Hajar ran seven times back and forth in the scorching heat between the two hills of Safa and Marwa to provide for her thirsty baby.

      The act remains a necessary rite of pilgrims must complete.

      Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) has recommended drinking from the blessed water, saying it serves whatever purpose it is being used for.

      In September, 2010, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz inaugurated Zamzam Water Project, which aims to ensure a constant supply of pure Zamzam water, to preserve the spring itself, and to package and distribute Zamzam water in a modern way.

      Each year, pilgrims return to their home countries after successfully finishing hajj with bottles of Zamzam water atop their favorite list of gifts.

      Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country
      A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany


      How far is Saudi Arabia complicit in the Isis takeover of much of northern Iraq, and is it stoking an escalating Sunni-Shia conflict across the Islamic world? Some time before 9/11, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, once the powerful Saudi ambassador in Washington and head of Saudi intelligence until a few months ago, had a revealing and ominous conversation with the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove. Prince Bandar told him: "The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will be literally 'God help the Shia'. More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them."
      The fatal moment predicted by Prince Bandar may now have come for many Shia, with Saudi Arabia playing an important role in bringing it about by supporting the anti-Shia jihad in Iraq and Syria. Since the capture of Mosul by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) on 10 June, Shia women and children have been killed in villages south of Kirkuk, and Shia air force cadets machine-gunned and buried in mass graves near Tikrit.

      In Mosul, Shia shrines and mosques have been blown up, and in the nearby Shia Turkoman city of Tal Afar 4,000 houses have been taken over by Isis fighters as "spoils of war". Simply to be identified as Shia or a related sect, such as the Alawites, in Sunni rebel-held parts of Iraq and Syria today, has become as dangerous as being a Jew was in Nazi-controlled parts of Europe in 1940.

      There is no doubt about the accuracy of the quote by Prince Bandar, secretary-general of the Saudi National Security Council from 2005 and head of General Intelligence between 2012 and 2014, the crucial two years when al-Qa'ida-type jihadis took over the Sunni-armed opposition in Iraq and Syria. Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute last week, Dearlove, who headed MI6 from 1999 to 2004, emphasised the significance of Prince Bandar's words, saying that they constituted "a chilling comment that I remember very well indeed".

      He does not doubt that substantial and sustained funding from private donors in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to which the authorities may have turned a blind eye, has played a central role in the Isis surge into Sunni areas of Iraq. He said: "Such things simply do not happen spontaneously." This sounds realistic since the tribal and communal leadership in Sunni majority provinces is much beholden to Saudi and Gulf paymasters, and would be unlikely to cooperate with Isis without their consent.

      Dearlove's explosive revelation about the prediction of a day of reckoning for the Shia by Prince Bandar, and the former head of MI6's view that Saudi Arabia is involved in the Isis-led Sunni rebellion, has attracted surprisingly little attention. Coverage of Dearlove's speech focused instead on his main theme that the threat from Isis to the West is being exaggerated because, unlike Bin Laden's al-Qa'ida, it is absorbed in a new conflict that "is essentially Muslim on Muslim". Unfortunately, Christians in areas captured by Isis are finding this is not true, as their churches are desecrated and they are forced to flee. A difference between al-Qa'ida and Isis is that the latter is much better organised; if it does attack Western targets the results are likely to be devastating.

      The forecast by Prince Bandar, who was at the heart of Saudi security policy for more than three decades, that the 100 million Shia in the Middle East face disaster at the hands of the Sunni majority, will convince many Shia that they are the victims of a Saudi-led campaign to crush them. "The Shia in general are getting very frightened after what happened in northern Iraq," said an Iraqi commentator, who did not want his name published. Shia see the threat as not only military but stemming from the expanded influence over mainstream Sunni Islam of Wahhabism, the puritanical and intolerant version of Islam espoused by Saudi Arabia that condemns Shia and other Islamic sects as non-Muslim apostates and polytheists.

      In pictures: The rise of Isis

      Dearlove says that he has no inside knowledge obtained since he retired as head of MI6 10 years ago to become Master of Pembroke College in Cambridge. But, drawing on past experience, he sees Saudi strategic thinking as being shaped by two deep-seated beliefs or attitudes. First, they are convinced that there "can be no legitimate or admissible challenge to the Islamic purity of their Wahhabi credentials as guardians of Islam's holiest shrines". But, perhaps more significantly given the deepening Sunni-Shia confrontation, the Saudi belief that they possess a monopoly of Islamic truth leads them to be "deeply attracted towards any militancy which can effectively challenge Shia-dom".

      Western governments traditionally play down the connection between Saudi Arabia and its Wahhabist faith, on the one hand, and jihadism, whether of the variety espoused by Osama bin Laden and al-Qa'ida or by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's Isis. There is nothing conspiratorial or secret about these links: 15 out of 19 of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, as was Bin Laden and most of the private donors who funded the operation.


      Fighters overrun Libyan special forces base
      Forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar, who has been battling Ansar al-Sharia fighters, abandon base after coming under attack.
      Last updated: 30 Jul 2014 04:56


      A coalition of armed groups has overrun a major Libyan army base held by allies of a renegade general in the eastern city of Benghazi.

      Special forces troops of the Saiqa brigade, loyal to Khalifa Haftar, abandoned their base in southeast Benghazi on Tuesday after coming under attack, military officials and residents said.

      "We have withdrawn from the army base after heavy shelling," Saiqa official Fadel al-Hassi told Reuters news agency.

      The battle killed at least 30 people, according to agency reports.

      Benghazi has suffered months-long battles between militias and forces allied with Haftar, who launched a campaign aimed at crushing what he calls "terrorists" and "extremists" including Ansar al-Sharia.

      The official Twitter account of Ansar, a group inspired by al-Qaeda and dominant in Benghazi, posted that it had taken over the base.

      In the fighting, a jet crashed after Haftar's forces launched attacks on groups including Ansar.

      Mohammed Hegazi, a spokesman for Haftar's so-called National Army, claimed that the jet crashed due to a "technical failure" and that the pilot safely escaped.

      The base's fall came as a ceasefire brokered late on Monday between Libyan militias in Tripoli was reportedly broken.

      A shell has struck an oil depot tank in Tripoli's Sedi Bu-Salem district, an official with Libya's state-run oil corporation told the AP news agency. The tank did not catch fire.

      The ceasefire agreement was made on Monday to allow firefighters to battle an out-of-control fire near Tripoli's airport, which was devastated by shelling between the militias that have controlled it since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

      The confrontations have prompted many diplomats and foreigners, including the US ambassador in Libya, and staff from the UN and Canadian embassy, to flee the country.

      Libya violence escalates with 22 killed in battle for Tripoli airport
      Royal Navy reported to be preparing evacuation of Britons as heavily armed rebels shell ‘civilian targets’
      theguardian.com, Sunday 3 August 2014 07.16 BST


      Libyan fighting leaves scores dead
      Civilians die in clashes between troops and fighters in Benghazi, while rocket kills Egyptian workers in Tripoli.
      Last updated: 27 Jul 2014 11:19



      Saudis give $1bn to Lebanon amid fighting
      Saudi Arabia sends military aid to help Lebanon's fight against "terrorism", ex-prime minister Saad Hariri says.
      Last updated: 06 Aug 2014 08:49


      Saudi Arabia has given Lebanon's military $1bn to help its fight against self-declared jihadist fighters on the Syrian border.

      The Saudi gift came as Lebanon army's chief urged France to speed up promised weapons supplies and amid reports that a group of Muslim religious leaders were trying to mediate an end to the fighting.

      After fighting in the eastern area on Tuesday, where troops have been clashing with the fighters since Saturday, ambulances entered the town of Arsal amid reports of a temporary truce.

      Earlier, three out of 20 police officers detained by the fighters were released, according to police sources, reportedly as part of negotiations for a ceasefire.

      There was a brief lull in the fighting, but shelling and artillery fire resumed on Tuesday evening, an AFP correspondent said.

      The Arsal violence has left 16 soldiers dead and 85 wounded, while dozens of fighters are said to have been killed, along with three civilians.

      Another 22 soldiers are missing, possibly having been taken hostage.

      Tensions have also risen in northern Lebanon, where clashes killed a child and wounded 11 other people, including seven soldiers.

      Clashes also erupted in parts of the northern port city of Tripoli on Monday night and continued into Tuesday.

      More fighting took place in the Bab el-Tebbaneh district, where Sunni fighters regularly fire on the army and their pro-Syrian regime neighbours in the Jabal Mohsen area.

      A 12-year-old girl was killed in the clashes and 11 people were injured, seven of them soldiers hurt when armed men attacked their bus.

      The violence in Arsal erupted on Saturday after the arrest of a Syrian man who the army said had confessed to being a member of the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate battling Assad's forces.

      Saudi Arabia's aid to 'strengthen security'

      While France has said it will respond "quickly" to Lebanon's request to expedite weapons delivery, Saudi Arabia has gone further and handed Lebanon's army $1bn to strengthen security, according to Saad Hariri, former Lebanese prime minister.

      Saudi King Abdullah "has informed me of his generous decision to provide the Lebanese army ... with $1bn to strengthen its capabilities to preserve Lebanon's security," Hariri announced in Jeddah early on Wednesday.

      Speaking from King Abdullah's palace in the Saudi Red Sea city, Hariri - the Lebanese Sunni community's most prominent political representative - added that "we have received this aid".

      "This aid is very important especially at this time when Lebanon is fighting terrorism," he said.

      Saudi Arabia is already financing a $3bn package of French military equipment and arms for Lebanon's army.

      The fighting in Arsal is the worst violence to hit the volatile border region since the 2011 outbreak of the armed uprising in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad.

      Speaking to AFP, Lebanon's army chief General Jean Kahwaji said the military was hamstrung in its fight against the fighters.

      "This battle requires equipment, material and technology that the army doesn't have," Kahwaji said.

      "That's why we need to speed up the delivery of the necessary military aid by finalising the list of weapons requested from France under a Saudi-financed deal."

      French commitment

      In December, Saudi Arabia agreed to finance the $3bn package of French military equipment and arms for Lebanon's army.

      And in mid-June, at a conference in Rome, the international community pledged its backing for the Lebanese military.

      Details of what arms will be provided have not yet been finalised.

      France insisted on Tuesday that it stood behind the Lebanese army.

      "France is fully committed to supporting the Lebanese army, a pillar of stability and unity in Lebanon," Vincent Floreani, a foreign ministry spokesman, said.

      "We are in close contact with our partners to quickly meet Lebanon's needs."

      Lebanon is hosting one million Syrian refugees, and despite an official policy of neutrality over the Syria conflict, it has regularly seen the fighting spill over.

      Lebanon confirms troop deaths in clashes
      At least eight soldiers killed in eastern Sunni town of Arsal following reported arrest of Syrian armed group's member.
      Last updated: 03 Aug 2014 19:15



      Who are the Houthis in Yemen?
      Thousands of Houthi supporters have called for the fall of Yemen's government. But what do the Houthis really want?
      Saeed Al Batati Last updated: 21 Aug 2014 12:03


      Sanaa, Yemen - Thousands of supporters of Yemen's Houthi movement protested in the streets of the Yemeni capital in response to a call by the group's leader to force the government to step down.

      In a televised speech on August 17, Houthi leader Abdulmalek al-Houthi demanded that fuel subsidies, which had been cut significantly in late July, be reinstated, among other demands. He gave the government until Friday to meet the Houthis' demands, or said "other steps" would be taken.

      "This government is a puppet in the hands of influential forces, which are indifferent to the rightful and sincere demands of these people," al-Houthi said in his speech, referring to the United States.

      The Houthis are also demanding a more representative form of government that would reflect the seats allocated to political groups and independent activists during Yemen's 10-month National Dialogue Conference, a series of meetings to map out the political future of Yemen after its 2011 uprising.

      "Our demands are like the demands of the Yemeni people who seek a decent life, a good economy, security, stability, freedom of expression," Mohammed Abdul Sallam, a spokesperson for the group, told Al Jazeera, without getting into specifics.

      Meanwhile, Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi has called for dialogue with the Houthis, and invited the group to join a "unity government", according to AFP news agency.

      The Houthis, Hadi said on Wednesday, must "be committed to what all Yemenis agreed upon, and work to achieve their goals in the political framework that were guaranteed by the constitution, as well as the outcome of national dialogue".

      Officially known as Ansarallah [the partisans of God], the Houthi rebel group began as a theological movement that preached tolerance and peace in the early 1990s, according to Ahmed Addaghashi, a professor at Sanaa University and author of two books on the movement, Houthi Phenomenon and Houthis and their Political and Military Future.

      Addaghashi told Al Jazeera that the Houthi movement originally held a considerably broad-minded educational and cultural vision. A religious group affiliated with the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam, the Houthis maintain a stronghold in the northern province of Saada today.

      "The group started as a gathering called the 'Believing Youth Forum' in the early nineties. Then, it fell into internal strife between two lines; the first called for more openness, while the second urged sticking to the traditional legacy of the Shia sect," Addaghashi said.

      Ironically, said Addaghashi, Hussein Bader Addian al-Houthi, the founder of the group, was in favour of the first line. "The movement turned to arms in 2004 on grounds of self-defence when the first war with the government erupted."

      Addaghashi said that tensions between Yemeni security forces and the Houthis first flared when the group's supporters protested in mosques in the capital, which then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh saw as a challenge to his rule. Saleh ordered the arrest of some group members, and urged their then-leader Hussein Bader Addian al-Houthi to stop the protesters from disturbing worshippers.

      "The first war began when Saleh sent some troops to the province of Saada to arrest Hussein who refused to curb his supporters," Addaghashi said. Hussein al-Houthi was killed in 2004 after Saleh sent government forces into Saada. The years-long intermittent war ended in a ceasefire agreement in 2010.

      In 2011, the Houthis were among many forces that took part in the revolt against Saleh.
      The group has been strongly opposed to one of the central recommendations of the National Dialogue Conference: the transformation of Yemen into a federal state of six regions. Under the proposed refiguration, Saada province, which has historically been the Houthis' stronghold, would be linked to the Sanaa region.

      The Houthis have demanded a greater share of power in the federal government, and that the north be designated its own region. In documents released by whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, US defence analysts have suggested the Houthis are unlikely to demand independence, and would continue on their stated aim of regional autonomy.

      "The Houthis are capitalising on widespread frustration with the government and the recent rise in fuel prices to rally support and extract political concessions," April Longley Alley, a Yemen specialist with the International Crisis Group, told AFP news agency.

      "What is happening now appears to be increasingly dangerous political bargaining as part of the Houthis' bid to become a dominant political force in the north and in the national government," she said.

      RELATED: Yemen rage boils over 'unliveable' price hike

      The Houthis have recorded a series of important victories over government and rival tribal groups in recent months. In July, supported by the country's largest tribal federation, Bakil, the Houthis captured Amran from the Hashid tribal federation, and inflicted a humiliating defeat on the powerful al-Ahmar clan, co-founders of the rival Sunni Islamist Islah party.

      "What happened there [in Amran] will not harm the republic. The problem was a desire for trouble and criminal attacks by known parties," said Abdulmalek al-Houthi, in a televised speech broadcast by his group's television outlet, Al-Masira, referring to the Islah party.

      The Houthis' political rivals, the Islah party has accused the Shia rebels of being a proxy of Iran and trying to restore the Zaydi imamate that ruled Yemen until 1962. Islah has repeatedly accused the movement of creating unrest in Amran and other regions as part of a plan to seize control of the capital Sanaa.

      The Houthis have historically been concerned with reviving Zaydism amid the increasing influence of Salafism. Since Yemen's 2011 uprising, the Houthis appear to have participated in more sectarian conflicts.

      A year after the start of the revolt, which led to the overthrow of Saleh, the Houthis besieged a religious school controlled by Salafis in Saada. The Shia Muslim rebels said the institute was being used to recruit foreign fighters, but the Salafis said the incident was an attempt by the Houthis to strengthen their hold on the province.

      Hundreds died in the clashes, which ended when the Salafis agreed to leave the province.

      Later clashes, in cities closer to the capital, pitted the Houthis against the Sunni Islamist Islah party and army brigades allied to it.

      "The Islah party… fears Ansarallah [Houthis] will take revenge for [Islah's] participation in the former regime's [of Ali Abdullah Saleh] wars in Saada," Usama Sari, a pro-Houthi journalist, told Al Jazeera. According to Sari, the Houthis have accused Islah of inciting people against them, and allegedly encouraging some army regiments to fight them.

      Meanwhile, Hadi's government and other opponents have frequently accused Iran of arming the Houthis. The government said that it has seized arms cargoes originating from Iran that were heading to the rebels in the north, but the Houthis dispute accusations of foreign help.

      Unlike his predecessor, Hadi, who took power in 2012 following Saleh's removal, has taken a less confrontational stance towards the Houthis, prompting the ire of Islamist parties, who accuse him of closing his eyes to alleged Houthi crimes.

      Hadi has not addressed the criticism directly but his minister of defence, Mohammed Nasser Ahmed, said that the country's armed forces were "neutral and stand at an equal distance from everyone".

      Sami Ghaleb, a political analyst and founder of Al-Nida newspaper, said that the Yemeni president has common interests with the Houthis, and shares the same tribal and political opponents. "Hadi wanted to weaken the forces that derail his movement. The strongest one is the Islah party and its tribal and military allies," including former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Ghaleb said.

      Meanwhile, the Houthis have not been defeated militarily, and analysts have attributed rising levels of support from residents in northern Yemen to these victories.

      "The people found a growing party that was not involved in the corruption of the former regime and its war in the south," said Ghaleb, adding that the interim government's failure to address people's grievances has boosted support for the Houthis.

      The group has also moved into mainstream politics in Yemen, after it held 35 seats in the National Dialogue Conference. The political talks brought together 565 delegates from across Yemen's political spectrum, including tribal and religious groups, and independent women's and human rights activists.

      "The Houthis have doubled their ability to influence the decision-making process," he said. "Previously, the Houthis were not an important part of the transitional process, but now no one can bypass them."

      Faisal Edroos contributed to this report.