Middle East and North Africa (MENA): News from Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Morocco
Lebanon fears a firestorm as old rifts that led to civil war open up again
Violence spilling over from Syria revives ancient resentments
Martin Chulov Beirut
The Observer, Sunday 26 August 2012
A respite from almost a fortnight of clashes in Lebanon's second city, Tripoli, raised hopes yesterday that the release of some kidnapping victims would ease a growing threat of unchecked violence spilling over from the Syrian civil war.
But the lull failed to douse an enduring fear elsewhere in Lebanon that the enmity in the north will inevitably spread to other parts of the country. Another day of soaring violence in neighbouring Syria instead fuelled concerns that the raging civil war would further spill beyond the borders of its unstable neighbour.
Turkey yesterday announced that one of 11 Lebanese Shia men kidnapped north of Aleppo in Syria in May had been released in what was hailed by his captors as an "act of good will". Hussein Ali Omar's release came after a request by the head of the Committee of Muslim Scholars in Lebanon, Sheikh Hasan Qaterji.
Hours later a leader of the country's Meqdad clan, which kidnapped 20 Syrians inside Lebanon earlier this month, said all but four would soon be freed in a bid to defuse tensions.
Lebanese leaders say that they don't fear a return to the dark days of the civil war that ravaged the country for 16 years from 1975. "We've lived through it and no one wants to do it again," said the leader of Lebanon's Druze sect, Walid Jumblatt. "The crisis in Syria is being driven by different things."
However, on the streets of Tripoli and of the capital, Beirut, there is a strong sense that the sectarian faultlines that drove the Lebanese civil war are driving the current tensions.
"People are talking Sunni and Shia again," said Wissam Awada in Beirut's Hamra district. "People here have always cared about where other Lebanese came from, but this time there is an edge to their questioning, more of a feeling than usual that you are being judged by where you are from."
In Tripoli, where the clashes have taken place between an Alawite community in the Jebel al-Mohsen district and conservative Sunni groups in the nearby Bab al-Tabanneh district, there is little reason to believe that incendiary tensions will disappear any time soon.
"It has been happening here since May," said Maher Anwar, a visitor from the nearby Akkar region. "And every few months things flare up between the groups. The hatred there is growing."
Tripoli's Alawites are staunchly supportive of the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Most of the city's Sunnis remain implacably opposed to the regime and supportive of the Syrian rebel army, now locked in a fight to the death with loyalist forces little more than 100 kilometres away.
Tripoli has become a microcosm of many Syrian cities, especially Homs just to the east, with whose residents many in northern Lebanon share ancestral links. The clashes there have been been driven both by sectarian enmity and a social fabric and history that have long cast each side as protagonists.
Tripoli's geopolitical history had always meant that its citizens would be unable to separate themselves from the crisis in Syria. Lebanon's leaders have more room to move on this score but, despite appearances, have seemed unwilling to use it.
"The official state policy is one of distance from Syria's troubles," said the head of one Lebanese sect. "But that's just a cloak. Everyone is involved in the same old Lebanese ways. Don't forget that the Syrian regime only physically left Beirut in 2005 [after the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, for which Syrian security chiefs have been blamed]. But they haven't really left at all."
Early this month Lebanon's former information minister, Michel Samaha, was arrested in his home and accused of transporting explosives from Syria at the request of Bashar al-Assad and his head of national security, Ali Mamlouk.
Accusations since levelled against Samaha, a staunch supporter of Assad and the 8 March political alliance in Lebanon, led by Hezbollah, include that he was told to ensure that the bombs were detonated in Akkar — a move that would have heightened already considerable sectarian tensions.
The arrest of Samaha, an unusual move in Lebanon, where security forces remain unable or unwilling to assert their independence from the whims of politicians, has drawn little response from Hezbollah, or the pro-Assad Christian bloc, led by the former general, Michel Aoun.
Both groups have joined the anti-Assad 14 March bloc in urging that civil obedience be restored in Beirut, where the airport road has three times in the past fortnight been obstructed by masked men, and in Tripoli, where gunmen continue to roam despite the presence of the army.
However, the ever-worsening violence in Syria appears sure to further test the resolve of Lebanon's leaders and the patience of its citizens.
"Can the 8 March bloc sit back in the face of obvious provocations and blame it all on al-Qaida?" the sect leader said. "The Samaha issue is a test case. The evidence is strong and they can't reflexively defend him."
In the meantime, residents of both cities are fervently hoping that the ghosts of the civil war will somehow contain the enmity in the north. "It has to stop," said Nour Dagham in Beirut. "If it doesn't, Lebanon is just the first stop in a regional firestorm."
Lebanese rivals continue battles over Syria
Fighting between pro- and anti-Damascus groups in Lebanon has led to at least 12 deaths and 100 injured.
Last Modified: 23 Aug 2012 11:39
The death toll from fighting between rival pro- and anti-Damascus gunmen in the city of Tripoli has climbed to at least 12, in clashes that the city's residents described as some of the heaviest since Lebanon's civil war.
More than 100 people have been wounded in the fighting which erupted this week along a sectarian fault line between the Sunni district of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the Alawite area of Jebel Mohsen.
Al Jazeera's James Bays, reporting in Tripoli on Wednesday, said the city's mayor had convened a crisis meeting to try to negotiate an end to the fighting but that no solution had been reached.
And the army said it will open up talks with city elders to restore stability.
The latest round of fighting has rattled the already fragile security situation in Lebanon, which lived under three decades of Syrian domination and remains deeply divided between supporters and opponents of the Damascus government.
The dead included a 13-year-old boy, while another 100 people have been wounded, including a boy of six who was paralysed by a gunshot wound and 15 soldiers, security sources said.
The fighting first erupted late on Monday in Tripoli, home to a Sunni community hostile to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Alawites, an offshoot of the Shia sect to which the leader belongs.
The violence in Tripoli, Lebanon's second largest city, saw machine guns and anti-tank rockets fired.
Najib Mikati, the Lebanese prime minister who is a native of Tripoli himself, raised fresh concern on Wednesday over "efforts to drag Lebanon more and more into the conflict in Syria when what is required is for leaders to co-operate ... to protect Lebanon from the danger".
The authorities have instructed the army and security forces "to bring the situation under control, to prohibit any armed presence and to arrest those implicated" in the violence, he said in a statement.
Later, an army statement said: "Due to the gravity of the situation and in order to prevent attempts of dragging the whole of Lebanon into a state of unrest... the army command announces it will enter into dialogue with the city's leaders and officials, particularly in Bab al-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen."
France and United States have expressed concern over the latest flare-up and warned against a spillover of the Syrian conflict.
The latest unrest in Tripoli, which has been the scene of several deadly incidents over the past year, follows a wave of tit-for-tat kidnappings of Lebanese citizens in Syria and of Syrians living in Lebanon.
Last week, an armed Lebanese Shia clan claimed it had kidnapped about 20 Syrians in retaliation for the abduction of a family member by a Syrian rebel group, which accused him of being a sniper with the Shia movement Hezbollah.
Hezbollah, considered Lebanon's most powerful military force, has denied any connection with the clan member or the kidnappings.
Meanwhile, the opposition Syrian National Council has accused authorities of failing to act over the attacks and implicitly blamed Hezbollah which heads a ruling coalition in Lebanon.
Robert Fisk: Syria's conflict has crossed the border, and the ghost of Lebanon's civil war returns
Kidnappings in Beirut highlight a sectarian divide made worse by neighbouring violence
ROBERT FISK BEIRUT FRIDAY 17 AUGUST 2012
Lebanon aghast as return of sectarian kidnappings raises spectre of civil war
Spillover of Syrian war threatens to unravel regional certainties and exposes fragile foundations of Beirut's postwar settlement
Martin Chulov in Beirut
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 15 August 2012 20.17 BST
Lebanon revenge kidnappings raise tensions
Gulf nationals urged to leave the country after 23 people were seized in retaliation for earlier abduction in Syria.
Last Modified: 16 Aug 2012 12:45
Several Gulf Arab states have told their citizens to leave Lebanon immediately, after armed men kidnapped more than 20 people in retaliation for the capture of one of their kinsmen in Syria.
The Meqdad clan, one of Lebanon's powerful Shia Muslim families, said its military wing kidnapped 23 people on Wednesday in a bid to secure the release of Hassan al-Meqdad. The clan said it would kill all the hostages if he was not set free.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar told their citizens to leave Lebanon after the kidnappings and threats to seize more citizens of countries that have backed the uprising against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.
The Meqdad clan says it is seeking to put pressure on the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to release Hassan al-Meqdad by targeting both Syrians it says are part of the rebel force and citizens of Turkey, one of the rebels' regional sponsors.
The clan is holding one Turk and the rest of its captives are Syrians. But Maher al-Meqdad, spokesman for the clan, said the number of Turkish captives "was likely to rise".
"If Hassan is killed, the first hostage we will kill is the Turk," Maher al-Meqdad said.
"Regarding Saudis, Qataris and Gulf nationals, they are not targets for the Meqdad clan."
The kidnappings led to demonstrations in Lebanon, with protesters briefly blocking Beirut's main highway to the airport on Wednesday. Passengers were forced to walk to the airport terminal, and some flights were temporarily disrupted.
Abu Ali al-Meqdad, a Meqdad clan member, said on Wednesday the hostages "were kidnapped because a member of our family was taken the day before yesterday in Syria".
According to local media reports, Abu Ali said that the Meqdad family was working closely with other families in the region, and would reveal a "big catch" on Thursday.
Arab television reports said a Syrian rebel group claimed it had kidnapped Hassan al-Meqdad on Monday, accusing him of being a sniper and a member of Hezbollah.
They claimed he had been sent to Syria by Hezbollah to aid Assad. Hezbollah has been one of Assad's regional allies for decades.
Maher al-Meqdad said his kinsman had travelled to Syria more than a year and a half ago, before the outbreak of the uprising, and had no links to the fighting in Syria.
"He is neither a sniper nor a member of Hezbollah," Abu Ali said. "All the accusations are a lie ... our demand is not political, this is a humanitarian issue."
Hezbollah spoke out on Tuesday and denied Hassan al-Meqdad was a member of the party.
In remarks to Lebanon's National News Agency, Hassan al-Meqdad's brother Hatem said "the snowball would grow", and gave warning to "Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey and their citizens".
"We do not take part in any harassment of innocent Syrians, but any supporter of the Free Syrian Army is a legitimate target for us," Hatem al-Meqdad said to a local Lebanese channel on Wednesday.
"Tomorrow the number may rise to 50, because it is the only way to save the life of Hassan," he said. "And those who ordered his kidnapping will pay dearly."
Egypt's Morsi 'empowered' by army shake-up
Egyptian media hails president's decision to dismiss powerful defence minister and curb military's sweeping powers.
Last Modified: 14 Aug 2012 05:27
Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi has emerged empowered after a "revolutionary" decision to dismiss his powerful defence minister and curb the military's sweeping powers, the country’s media has said.
In a surprise move on Sunday, Morsi retired the powerful defence minister, Field Marshal Tantawi, 76, and armed forces chief of staff Sami Anan, and scrapped a constitutional document that gave the military legislative and other powers.
The state-run Al-Akhbar newspaper said the dismissal of Tantawi, who headed the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) for more than a year after massive streets protests forced Mubarak to step down, was a "revolutionary decision".
"The Brothers officially in power," declared the independent Al-Watan daily, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group which backs Morsi and through whose ranks he rose before his election triumph.
However, not all media welcomed the move, in Cairo, the independent daily Al-Shorouk expressed concern over the action, saying it meant that Morsi was accumulating "much bigger prerogatives than those of Mubarak".
Egypt defence chief Tantawi ousted in surprise shakeup
Hussein Tantawi dismissed as Egyptian president extends powers, with showdown predicted at constitutional court
Abdel-Rahman Hussein in Cairo
The Guardian, Monday 13 August 2012
Traffic chaos blights Egypt's capital
Problem finds second spot in president's priorities list in country where accidents kill thousands every year.
Last Modified: 16 Aug 2012 09:35
Crowds in Cairo praise Morsi's army overhaul
Thousands gather in Tahrir Square to support move to replace defence minister and army chief by President Mohamed Morsi.
Last Modified: 13 Aug 2012 13:48
Egypt vows strong response to Sinai attack
President pledges to retake control of Sinai after 16 Egyptian guards killed in armed attack near the Israeli border.
Last Modified: 06 Aug 2012 13:25
Gaddafi loyalists held over deadly blasts in Libyan capital
Security officials make 32 arrests after two people killed in explosions near interior ministry and security buildings in Tripoli
Ben Quinn and agencies
guardian.co.uk, Monday 20 August 2012 19.45 BST
Libyan security officials say they have arrested 32 members of an organised network loyal to the country's deposed leader, Muammar Gaddafi, in connection with explosions that killed two people in the capital on Sunday.
The car bombings, which were the first fatal attacks of their kind since Gaddafi's overthrow and death, took place near interior ministry and security buildings in Tripoli on the eve of the anniversary of the fall of the city to rebel fighters.
Ambulances and firefighters rushed to the scenes of the blasts, while a large numbers of police were deployed to cordon off the sites and remove the charred vehicles and other debris.
The first bomb blew up near the interior ministry's administrative offices in Tripoli but caused no casualties, security sources told Reuters. On arriving at the site, police found another car bomb that had not blown up.
Minutes later, two car bombs exploded near the former headquarters of a women's police academy, which the defence ministry has been using for interrogations and detentions, the sources said, killing two civilians and wounding three.
"The [victims] were two young men in their 20s. They drove past the police academy precisely at the time of the explosion," a security source said.
The blasts, which caused minor damage to the buildings and shattered windows of nearby cars and buildings, took place early in the day as worshippers prepared for mass morning prayers marking Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim celebration that marks the end of the fasting month, Ramadan.
The 32 people were arrested after security forces raided several locations in and around Tripoli, tipped off by what a security official said were leads from "closed-circuit street cameras and intelligence".
The official, from the supreme security committee, which has been supervising security matters since Gaddafi's fall, told Reuters that links between the group and the attacks "have been established".
The BBC reported that Tripoli's security chief, Col Mahmoud Sherif, blamed Gaddafi supporters for the attacks, claiming they received financial backing from contacts based in neighbouring countries.
The latest attacks will test the mettle of the national assembly, which made improving security a priority when it assumed control this month from the national transitional council of opposition forces that toppled Gaddafi. Its main task will be containing various armed groups, mostly militias that took part in the uprising and refuse to lay down their weapons.
Some observers in Libya have pointed out that the government has blamed violent attacks in the past on Gaddafi loyalists as security forces try to assert control over some of these armed groups.
A small bomb on Monday hit the car of an Egyptian diplomat in Libya's second city, Benghazi, according to the Libyan authorities, although it was unclear if the incident was related to Sunday's bombings.
No one was hurt in the Benghazi incident, which hit the car of the deputy at the Egyptian consulate in an upmarket Benghazi district that houses foreign diplomats.
Maged al-Urfi, Benghazi internal security spokesman, told Reuters that a small amount of explosives was in the device, not enough to injure passengers. "This is meant to send a message, not hurt," he said.
Attack on prison in Libya capital frees eight
Prison break in Tripoli follows murder of senior military official who defected during revolt that ousted Gaddafi.
Last Modified: 11 Aug 2012 23:48
Mohammed el-Megarif elected as Libya's interim president
Former opposition leader lived as a fugitive overseas for many years under late dictator Muammar Gaddafi's rule
guardian.co.uk, Friday 10 August 2012 01.08 BST
Gaddafi opponent elected Libya assembly chief
National Assembly chooses Mohammed Magarief, seen as moderate Islamist, to head 200-member congress.
Last Modified: 10 Aug 2012 03:40
Iraq youth orchestra finds harmony abroad
Youth orchestra that cans eldom play at home due to safety concerns finds new audience in Scotland.
Last Modified: 25 Aug 2012 12:49
The Iraqi National Youth Orchestra formed three years ago. Since then, the country's uncertain security situation has made it difficult for them to perform in their home country.
Despite the troubles, now they have found a new audience in Scotland.
Al Jazeera's Barnaby Phillips reports.
Iraqi attacks kill close to 100
Al-Qaida offshoot, the Islamic State of Iraq, suspected to be behind string of attacks across Iraq ahead of Eid al-Fitr holiday
Associated Press, Baghdad
guardian.co.uk, Friday 17 August 2012 13.22 BST
Iraqi officials say a string of attacks have killed at least 93 people, as the extent of the violence grows clearer and mourners start to bury their dead.
The attacks began early on Thursday in the north of Iraq and ended with deadly bomb explosions near busy markets, restaurants and ice-cream parlours shortly before midnight.
It was Iraq's deadliest day in more than three weeks. The attacks seemed intended to strike fear into Iraqis and undermine faith in the Shia-led government's security measures ahead of what was supposed to be a Eid al-Fitr holiday weekend.
More than 190 people have been killed in violence across Iraq since the start of August, showing that insurgents led by al-Qaida's Iraqi franchise remain a lethal force eight months after the last US troops left the country.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Co-ordinated bombings and related attacks are a favourite tactic of the al-Qaida offshoot, known as the Islamic State of Iraq.
Among the higher casualty numbers disclosed on Friday were 21 people killed when a car bomb detonated shortly before midnight near an ice-cream shop in Baghdad's predominantly Shia Zafaraniya district, according to police and hospital officials.
Another bomb exploded near an ice-cream parlour and vegetable stalls in the capital's Sadr City, another poor Shia district. A black, mangled car sat in the middle of the street. Broken chairs and blood-stained fixtures littered the pavement. That blast killed 14, the authorities said.
Officials are tightening security ahead of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. They are hoping to thwart further violence as crowds gather in public places such as parks, shrines and mosques to mark the occasion.
Thursday's attacks were the most deadly in weeks. On 23 July, a string of co-ordinated bombings and shootings left more than 100 dead.
Baghdad a far cry from past glories after 1,250 years
AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
Saturday 11 August 2012
Baghdad was once the capital of an empire and the center of the Islamic world, but at 1,250 years old, the Iraqi city is a far cry from its past glories after being ravaged by years of war and sanctions.
Construction of the city on the bank of the Tigris River began in July 762 AD under Abbasid Caliph Abu Jaafar Al-Mansur, and it has since played a pivotal role in Arab and Islamic civilizations.
“Baghdad represented the economic center of the Abbasid Empire, and it was used as a starting point for controlling other neighboring regions to enhance Islamic power,” said Issam Al-Faili, a professor of political history at Mustansiriyah University.
“Baghdad witnessed a renaissance of thought through translation, which was usually mastered by Jews and the Christians, and became a destination for intellectuals, poets and scholars from all parts of the world, and a center for craftsmen and a city of construction,” Faili said.
“Baghdad today, after it was the capital of the world, has become one of the most miserable cities,” he said.
British consultancy firm Mercer ranked Baghdad as the worst place in the world to live in its 2010 Quality of Living Survey.
The city has been conquered several times in its history, the first in 1258 when the Mongols destroyed Baghdad.
It was captured in 1831 by the Ottomans, in 1917 by the British, and in 2003 by a US-led coalition that overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein but also ended up unleashing internecine violence that killed tens of thousands of people. Baghdad was a modern capital known for its nightlife in the 1970s, but it has fallen into gloomy disrepair in the years of conflict since.
Saddam started a war with Iraq in 1980 that lasted for eight years, and then launched a disastrous invasion of Kuwait in 1990 only to be forced out in 1991.
Iraq was hit by a harsh regime of international sanctions over the Kuwait invasion, and later lived under an ever-present threat of bombings, assassinations, gun battles and death squad killings in the years after 2003.
Even now, government employees, including high-ranking officers in the security forces, are frequently gunned down in the streets.
Concrete blast walls still surround official buildings, hotels, and other structures that could be the target of attacks.
Despite its long history, there are only fleeting signs of historic buildings on even its oldest streets. Ugly, uninspired concrete boxes are far more common.
Checkpoints cause massive traffic jams, and security forces in the city are armed for war, with equipment including assault rifles, machine guns and armored vehicles.
Baghdad’s streets are often strewn with rubbish and riven by potholes. What public works projects there are move at a glacial pace.
Spider webs of power cables criss-cross many streets, linking houses to private generators — a testament to the failure of the government electricity grid to provide citizens with consistent power.
The government is headquartered in a heavily fortified area known as the Green Zone, which is defended, among other things, by newly acquired US-made Abrams tanks.
Entry to the area requires passing through a Byzantine series of security checks, some of which are of questionable value in deterring attacks, and journalists’ cameras are regarded with deep suspicion.
While Baghdad was once the center of an empire, the Iraqi government has been paralyzed by political crises for almost eight months, during which it has accomplished little.
“Baghdad today is like Baghdad of yesterday in terms of the luxury that was enjoyed by the caliph and his family in the days of the Abbasid era, while the people were in misery,” Faili said.
Corruption is widespread, and while Iraq takes in billions of dollars a month in oil revenues, signs of it benefiting the general public are hard to find.
Iraq has made some efforts to return its capital to regional prominence, hosting a summit of Arab leaders in March and talks between world powers and Iran on the Islamic republic’s controversial nuclear program in May.
Preparations for those events cost around $1 billion, although the impact of that outlay for most Iraqis was limited.
Iraqi writer and journalist Rifaat Mahmud said that the “issue of restoring Baghdad to what it was is a difficult matter, and cannot be achieved in circumstances such as those in which the neglected city now lives.
“Baghdad needs what we can call a miracle to regain its form and heritage and at least a part of its past.”
Anti-government protesters rally in Morocco
Demonstrators accuse ruling party of not fulfilling its pledges to address social grievances and fight corruption.
Last Modified: 12 Aug 2012 13:12
Hundreds of activists have rallied in Morocco's main cities to protest against corruption, the high cost of living and other causes of discontent.
Rights groups, trade unionists and the February 20 protest movement had called the demonstrations, amid frustration at the perceived failure of the Islamist-led government to make good on its electoral promises.
In Casablanca, Morocco's largest city, nearly 1,000 people gathered, chanting anti-corruption slogans, denouncing the sharp rise in prices, and calling for the release of jailed activists, a witness said. The protest ended without incident at midnight, an activist reported on social media.
Around 300 people gathered near the main boulevard in Rabat, the capital, chanting slogans criticising Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane, and waving anti-government banners, AFP correspondents reported.
"Free the activists... Stop the repression of the people!" one banner read.
Members of the pro-reform February 20 movement have been jailed in recent months for participating in unauthorised protests.
A protest of around 100 people in Meknès ended in violence when protesters were beaten by police, according to an activist.
Other demonstrations, of up to 200 people, were also reported in the central city of Marrakesh, Tangier, the port city on Morocco's north coast, Tetouan and El Jadida, witnesses said.
Surge in cost of living
Activists blame the ruling PJD party for a surge in fuel prices - petrol jumped by 20 per cent in June when the government moved to cut its unaffordable subsidies bill - that has driven up the cost of food and other basic goods.
They also accuse the moderate Islamist party, whose leader Benkirane was appointed prime minister in January, of not fulfilling its campaign pledges to address social grievances and fight corruption.
But the February 20 movement, formed last year as Arab Spring uprisings swept other countries in the region, has lost much of its support since the PJD won most parliamentary seats in November elections and broke with it.
Saturday's demonstrations failed to attract the numbers witnessed in May, when tens of thousands took to the streets of Casablanca to complain of unemployment and other social woes.
According to a recent report published by the World Bank, around 30 per cent of young Moroccans between 15 and 29 - who account for 44 per cent of the working age population - are unemployed.
Iran earthquakes leave hundreds dead
Almost 300 people feared dead and 2,600 injured after quakes measuring 6.4 and 6.3 magnitude flatten villages
Yeganeh Torbati, Reuters, in Dubai
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 12 August 2012 16.42 BST
Overcrowded hospitals in north-west Iran struggled to cope with thousands of earthquake victims on Sunday as rescuers raced to reach remote villages after two powerful earthquakes killed nearly 300 people.
Thousands huddled in makeshift camps or slept in the street after Saturday's quakes in fear of more aftershocks, 60 of which had already struck. "I saw some people whose entire home was destroyed, and all their livestock killed," Tahir Sadati, a local photographer, said by telephone. "People need help, they need warm clothes, more tents, blankets and bread."
The worst damage and most casualties appeared to be in rural villages around the towns of Ahar, Varzaghan and Harees, near the major city of Tabriz.
Close to 300 people were believed to be dead with 2,600 injured, Ahar's local governor told the semi-official Fars news agency.
Tabriz resident Ahmad, 41, said his cousin living in a village near Ahar has been killed and his body recovered.
"Nobody knows what happened to his wife and two daughters," aged four and seven, Ahmad said. "We fear that if rescuers don't get to them soon, they will lose their lives too if they're still alive."
But Iranian officials said rescue operations had ended by Sunday afternoon, Iran's English-language Press TV reported.
About 16,000 people in the quake-hit area have been given emergency shelter, Red Crescent official Mahmoud Mozafar told Mehr news agency, and 44,000 food packages and 5,600 tents distributed by Red Crescent workers.
But Iranian MP Mohammad Hassan-Nejad warned that if relief efforts did not speed up, the death toll would rise swiftly.
"Relief groups have still not reached many villages, because in normal conditions some of these villages are several hours away," he told the Iranian Students' News Agency. "Currently the roads are closed and the only way to reach these villages is by air."
Photographs posted on Iranian news websites showed many bodies, including those of children, lying on the floor of a white-tiled morgue in Ahar and medical staff treating the injured in the open air as dusk fell on Saturday. Other images showed rescue workers digging people out of rubble – some alive, many dead.
Hospitals in Tabriz, Ardabil and other cities nearby took in many of the injured, residents and Iranian media said, and there were long queues of survivors waiting to be treated.
Aidin, another Tabriz resident, said he went to give blood at a local hospital on Saturday and saw staff struggling to cope with the influx of patients. Most had been taken there by their families, he said, indicating a shortage of ambulances.
Ahar's 120-bed hospital was full, said Arash, a college student and resident of the town. There were traffic jams on the narrow road between Ahar and Tabriz as victims tried to reach hospitals, he said by telephone.
"People are scared and won't go back into their houses because they fear the buildings aren't safe," he added.
The US Geological Survey measured Saturday's first quake at 6.4 magnitude and said it struck 37 miles north-east of Tabriz, a trading hub far from Iran's oil-producing areas and known nuclear facilities.
The second, measuring 6.3, struck 11 minutes later near Varzaghan, 30 miles north-east of Tabriz.
More than 1,000 villages in the area were affected by the earthquakes, said Ahmad Reza Shaji'i, a Red Crescent official. About 130 villages suffered more than 70% damage, and 20 villages were completely destroyed.
Iran is crisscrossed by major fault lines and has suffered several devastating earthquakes in recent years, including a 6.6 magnitude quake in 2003 that reduced the historic south-eastern city of Bam to dust and killed about 31,000 people.
Saturday's quakes struck in East Azerbaijan province, a mountainous region that neighbours Azerbaijan and Armenia to the north. Buildings in Tabriz, the provincial capital, are substantially built and ISNA reported nobody in the city had been killed or hurt.
Homes and business premises in Iranian villages, however, are often made of concrete blocks or mud brick that can crumble and collapse in a strong quake.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, sent a telegram to the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on Sunday expressing his sympathy and offering assistance, the Kremlin's press-service said. Pope Benedict XVI asked Christians to pray for the victims of the quakes.