Middle East and North Africa (MENA): News from Algeria, Syria, Iraq
Algeria, Mali, and why this week has looked like an obscene remake of earlier Western interventions
We are outraged not by the massacre of the innocents, but because the hostages killed were largely white, blue-eyed chaps rather than darker, brown-eyed chaps
Friday 18 January 2013
Odd, isn’t it, how our “collateral damage” is different from their “collateral damage”. Speaking yesterday to an old Algerian friend in the aviation business, I asked him what he thought of his country’s raid on the In Amenas gas plant.“Brilliant operation, Robert,” he shouted down the phone. “We destroyed the terrorists!” But the innocent hostages? What about their deaths, I asked? “Poor guys,” he replied. “We had thousands of women and children killed in our war [in the 1990s] – terrible tragedy – but we are fighting terrorism.”
And there you have it. Our dead men didn’t matter in the slightest to him. And he had a point, didn’t he? For we are outraged today, not by the massacre of the innocents, but because the hostages killed by the Algerian army – along with some of their captors – were largely white, blue-eyed chaps rather than darker, brown-eyed chaps. Had all the “Western” hostages – I am including the Japanese in this ridiculous, all-purpose definition – been rescued and had the innocent dead all been Algerian, there would have been no talk yesterday of a “botched raid”.
If all those slaughtered in the Algerian helicopter bombing had been Algerian, we would have mentioned the “tragic consequences” of the raid, but our headlines would have dwelt on the courage and efficiency of Algeria’s military rescuers, alongside interviews with grateful Western families.
Racism isn’t the word for it. When George W Bush and Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara kicked off their war crimes with a full-scale invasion of Iraq, we didn’t care a damn about the Iraqis.Ten thousand dead in a year? Twenty thousand? Or as George Bush said, “Thirty thousand, more or less.” More or less what? But no problems with our precious dead. We know, for example, that since the Bush-Blair Iraqi adventure began, exactly 4,486 American military personnel died in the war.
So you know whom we care about. And whom we don’t care about. Watch carefully in the coming weeks, therefore, for the growing “Roll of Honour” of French troops in Mali, interviews in the French press with their relatives, statistics of the wounded. And don’t waste your time searching for details of dead Nigerian soldiers – or, indeed, dead Malian soldiers – because there will be no details of their sacrifice.
From the Middle East, the whole thing looks like an obscene television remake of our preposterous interventions in other parts of the world. French troops will be in Mali for only “several weeks”, Hollande and his cronies tell us. Isn’t that what we said when British troops first appeared on the streets of Northern Ireland, and then spent decades fighting there? Isn’t that what the Israelis said when they marched into Lebanon in 1982 and stayed for another 18 years? Isn’t this what we thought when we invaded Afghanistan? That our chaps might not even hear a shot fired in anger?
It was incredible to watch that old rogue Bernard Kouchner this week, mischievously demanding that British troops on the ground in Mali assist in France’s fight against Islamist “terror”. His eyes were alight with both cynicism and patriotism – a peculiarly French characteristic – as he played his 1914 entente cordiale “we’ll-be-in-Timbuktu-by-Christmas” routine.But why are “we”, the West, in Mali? How many readers – hands up, oh virtuous and honest folk, could actually name the capital of Mali two weeks ago?
I called up another friend, a French ex-legionnaire, yesterday. Why was France in Mali, I asked? “Well, they say that the Islamists would have reached Bamako and there would have been a Taliban-in-Kabul situation, a state that had fallen into extremist hands. But I myself don’t understand. Mali is an artificial state whose northern inhabitants, especially the Tuaregs, have always refused to be ruled by a black government in the south. It’s tribal, with a veil of ‘Islamism’ over the top of it – and now how do we get ourselves out of this mess?”
Maybe we should ask Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the presumed “mastermind” – note the comic-cuts language we have to use for these vagabonds – of the Algerian raid. This is the “legendary” – again, note the adjective – “Mr Marlboro”, whose interest in contraband and semtex explosive belts seems to outweigh his duties to Islam. North African journalists know a lot about Belmokhtar and his cross-border trade in cigarettes, weapons, 4x4s, drugs, diamonds and illegal migrants, and they are also appalled that Algeria – Belmokhtar’s own birthplace – should now be involved in the Western crusade in Mali.
France’s overflights have been bitterly criticised in the Algerian press – a fact largely ignored in London where “wars on terror” take precedence over local Algerian opinion – as a symbol of Algerian humiliation at the hands of the country’s former colonisers.
But why should we care about the Algerians when they treat our dead with the disdain we have always shown for the Muslim dead of Iraq, Afghanistan or, for that matter, Palestine? Syria, please note, is temporarily in a different category, since our desire to destroy Bashar al-Assad allows us to turn all his victims into honorary Westerners. Odd, that. For among the rebels facing the ruthless Assad are folk very similar to Mr Belmokhtar and his merry Islamists, the very men who rouse the anger of Crusader Kouchner.
Do I sniff a bit of old-fashioned colonial insanity here? Carry on up the Niger? French troops battle rebels. “Terrorists” in retreat. Daily headlines from 1954 until 1962. In a country called Algeria. And I promise you, the French didn’t win that war.
Assad troops 'kill 106 in one village'
AP THURSDAY 17 JANUARY 2013
Up to 106 people, including women and children, were killed as forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad swept through a small farming village, torching houses and shooting and stabbing residents, activists claimed today.
The assault on Haswiyeh, near Homs, took place on Tuesday but came to light only today. The attack appeared to have sectarian motives and bore a resemblance to one last May that killed 108 people in the nearby village of Houla.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said some of the dead were “burnt inside their homes”. A government official flatly denied the report, saying no such killings took place.
106 dead in new Homs massacre, says Syrian monitor
British-based group says women and children among victims after army or pro-Assad militia stormed Basatin al-Hasawiya
Reuters in Beirut
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 17 January 2013 12.06 GMT
'It's only fit for rats': Syrian refugees on brink of disaster
UN warns of a 'staggering humanitarian disaster' as families flee civil war
LOVEDAY MORRIS MINIEH MONDAY 14 JANUARY 2013
Syria rebels seize 'game-changing' arms cache
Rebel commander tells Al Jazeera that weapons captured at Taftanaz airbase could change course of conflict.
Last Modified: 14 Jan 2013 21:45
Syria bombs rebels bases in Damascus suburbs
Eight children reported killed in airstrikes southwest of capital, amid calls for Syria to be charged with war crimes.
Last Modified: 14 Jan 2013 21:35
Syrian women and girls allege use of sexual violence in civil war
Women interviewed for International Rescue Committee report tell of attacks involving kidnap, rape, torture and murder
The Guardian, Monday 14 January 2013
Nusra Front sees Islamic state in Syria
Anti-Assad rebels blacklisted by US for alleged ties to al-Qaeda discuss their vision.
Last Modified: 09 Jan 2013 17:42
UN unable to feed one million hungry Syrians
UN food agency says unable to reach needy people inside Syria due to difficulty of getting supplies into conflict zones.
Last Modified: 09 Jan 2013 09:03
Army was the target audience of President's theatre at the opera house
The message for Syrians was clear: the army is the bedrock of power
Sunday 6 January 2013
Deadly car bomb strikes Damascus fuel station
Activists say at least 11 people are killed and 40 are wounded in capital's Masakin Barzeh neighborhood.
Last Modified: 04 Jan 2013 17:36
Will Assad's 'Lionesses' save him?
Video posted online shows soldiers in all-women battalion during military parade with Assad's photo in background; Syrian army chief tells soldiers 'continue holy operations'
Published: 01.05.13, 09:52 / Israel News
Syria refugees endure winter in Turkish camps
Freezing weather adds to plight of displaced Syrians who already lack basic medical supplies and food.
Last Modified: 04 Jan 2013 06:31
Hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians have fled from civil war to neighbouring countries, where they often face poor living conditions in refugee camps.
Turkey plays host to about 150,000 Syrian refugees. In the southern Turkish city of Antakya, winter is intensifying challenges for displaced Syrians, who say they are quickly running out of food and medicine.
There are also about two million people internally displaced in Syria due to the government's heavy attacks on civilian areas across country.
Al Jazeera's Hashem Ahelbarra reports from Antakya.
Syrian bakeries forced to operate during dark
With dozens of bakeries bombed by government forces, employees work through night to provide crucial supplies.
Last Modified: 03 Jan 2013 20:12
'Many killed' in Syria fuel station airstrike
Warplane destroys petrol station near Damascus, killing and wounding dozens and igniting huge fire, activists say.
Last Modified: 03 Jan 2013 06:44
UN says Syria death toll has passed 60,000
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says number of deaths since conflict began in March 2011 "is truly shocking".
Last Modified: 02 Jan 2013 21:18
The civil war's threat to Damascus
The spirit of Syria's capital lies in its diverse people and exquisite buildings. Both are in great peril
Old Aleppo, frontline ghost town of ruined treasures
By Yara Bayoumy
ALEPPO, Syria | Sun Dec 30, 2012 5:02am EST
(Reuters) - A 13th century mosque is shuttered, its tottering minaret struck at the base by a shell. Snipers fire from nests atop the immense stone walls of the citadel, where ancient Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab and Turkish warriors once perched.
Until a few months ago, Old Aleppo was both a living museum and a breathing city, where souk shoppers haggled over spices, books and olive-oil soap beneath wrought-iron filigree balconies and wooden lattice screens.
Aleppo is Syria's largest city and economic hub. Its old district, with towering fortifications built by the medieval dynasty of Saladin after his 12th century victory over the crusaders, is also a UNESCO heritage site, its architecture declared a marvel of human achievement by the United Nations cultural body.
Today it is a war zone and a ruin. Corrugated iron sheets pocked with bullet holes cover alleyways housing shuttered, burnt or demolished market stalls. Rebel fighters zigzag around in cars blasting revolutionary music.
"Old Aleppo was the foundation of this world," said Haj Amer, who owns a printing press in the old bazaar. "What really upset us are the mosques that were destroyed."
"This area is my roots, my life since 1975," he added. "I'll always stay."
Syria's civil war has killed an estimated 44,000 people and driven half a million from their homes. It reached Aleppo with full wrath six months ago, and though rebels now control much of the city, parts of it remain a battleground.
U.N. officials who declared Old Aleppo a heritage site have catalogued some of the wonders to be found here.
"The 13th century royal palace, with its fine stalactite and honeycomb entrance porch, is inlaid with white marble," they wrote. "The throne room, dating from the Mameluke period (15th-16th centuries) has been tastefully restored: Syrian artists and craftsmen have recreated the luxurious setting of the court - the ceiling with its decorated beams and caissons, lighting, windows, polychrome columns - all are a tribute to their skill. There are around 200 minarets, some squat like defensive towers, others slender as needles."
During a walk through the old town, residents show the damage and describe their own heartbreak.
At the al-Uthmaniya mosque, a gaping hole has been blown through a dome dating to 1728. Concrete floors bear the marks of a shell, and the glass that decorated the tall arches at the entrance to the prayer hall has gone, shattered.
"There were no gunmen in this mosque," said 70-year-old Abu Mohammed, a local man dressed in traditional robes, who often prays here.
"Two weeks ago, we were leaving afternoon prayers, and sitting in the shade when a shell blasted into the courtyard."
Further on, at an Ottoman-era bathhouse that bustled before the war, the dank stench of an abandoned swimming pool fills the domed stone underground rooms.
A shell has blasted through the atrium dome, and bits of broken colored glass lie scattered around a fountain. Iron-lattice lanterns lie on the floor. An empty vending machine stands near white marble basins and colored ceramic mosaics.
People have slowly begun to return to the ruins of the old city.
"We came back because there was nowhere else for us to go," said 12-year-old Riham, accompanying her grandmother down a cobbled alley to a clinic. "We don't even recognize the alleyways any more."
In the bazaar, a few surviving stalls are open selling sweets and sodas. Men drink tea outside workshops.
"Bashar al-Assad destroyed the mosques and old souks, one of the oldest souks in the world," said Abu Othman, a fighter in the rebel Free Syria Army's al-Tawheed Brigade, wearing the group's green fatigues.
"We haven't seen water and electricity in two months," he said. "It's as if this man has enmity between himself and the ruins: the souks and the mosques. And even with the sellers. Because they did not hail his oppressiveness, he got his revenge by burning all their property."
Iraq finance minister escapes bomb attack
Roadside bomb explodes near convoy carrying Sunni minister who has been a central figure in anti-government protests.
Last Modified: 13 Jan 2013 21:43
Iraq's finance minister, who has been locked in dispute with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has escaped an apparent assassination attempt when his convoy was struck by a roadside bomb, his office and security sources say.
Rafa al-Essawi's convoy had been travelling between the towns of Fallujah and Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad, when the bomb went off at around 7pm local time (16:00 GMT) on Sunday, the officials said.
"A roadside bomb exploded near his convoy. His car was not hit and he is safe, but two guards were wounded," a spokesman for Essawi's office said.
Police sources confirmed the convoy had been hit by shrapnel, but said there had been no injuries.
The blast comes amid a political crisis between the Shia prime minister and his mainly Sunni coalition partners in the federal government.
Essawi has been a central figure in more than two weeks of protests by minority Sunnis against the Shia-dominated Baghdad government after his bodyguards were arrested on terrorism charges. He has publicly called for Maliki to be replaced.
Sunnis have lead protests in the cities of Fallujah, Ramadi and Samara blaming the government of discrimination. Rare demonstrations on the main highway between Iraq and Syria have caused disruptions.
Earlier this month, Maliki warned demonstrators to stop their protests and ordered the release of more than 700 female prisoners, a key demand of the demonstrators.
The protests come with barely three months to go before provincial elections, a key barometer of support for Maliki and his opponents ahead of a general election next year.
Essawi is a leading member of the Iraqiya bloc, which, while a member of Maliki's unity government, has called for him to quit.
Sunnis have also decried alleged misuse of anti-terror laws to hold members of the minority community, and claim Sunnis are being targeted.
Former vice-president Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, was handed down a death sentence in absentia on charges of running a death squad, a charge he denounced.
Anti-government protests rage across Iraq
Minority Sunnis continue widespread protests to demand end to allegedly sectarian policies of Shia-led government.
Last Modified: 04 Jan 2013 13:33
Thousands of Sunni Iraqis have continued to protest in Fallujah and other in Iraqi cities against the Shia-led government in Baghdad.
Protesters after Friday prayers in the province of al-Anbar, the heartland of Iraq’s Sunni population, demanded the release of prisoners and the end to allegedly sectarian policies.
The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki released fourteen female prisoners a day earlier, but the measure did not seem to have defused tension.
"According to organisers of the protests and authorities in the Sunni community, the prisoners range between 40 to 50 thousand people, including men and women," Al Jazeera’s Omar al-Saleh, reporting from Fallujah, said.
"The government says this figure is not accurate. It puts the number of female prisoners at 900 and accuses them of criminal activity and terrorism charges," he said.
Protests have been going on for days. The rallies were sparked by the arrest on December 20 of bodyguards of Iraq's finance minister, a Sunni, and have spurred allegations that the government was using anti-terror legislation to target the Sunni minority.
Iraqi authorities had called for an end to what a senior official said were illegal and illegitimate protest rallies in Sunni-majority provinces including Salaheddin, Nineveh and Anbar.
Protesters are demanding an end to what they see as the marginalisation of Iraq's Sunni minority, which dominated the country until the US-led invasion of 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein.
"The crisis has been going on for years. Since the US invasion in Iraq, the Sunni community says they have been marginalized. So not it has reached the peak. They give examples of targeting their leaders, including the finance minister and the vice-president," al-Saleh said.
They say they want justice, equality and fair representation in state institution.
Echoing slogans used in popular revolts that brought down leaders in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia and Yemen, protesters have also called on Maliki to step down.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Alaa Makki, head of the Sunni Iraqiya bloc in parliament, said the government has a "last chance for reconciliation".
"This is the last chance for correction of all the [political] environment in Iraq, the political system and the judiciary system," he said. "They [the protesters] are waiting for the government to send somebody there, representing the governmental concerns."
The latest protests came a day after a car bomb explosion killed at least 27 Shia Muslim pilgrims in the town of Mussayab, south of Baghdad, as worshipers from around the world thronged Iraq's shrine city of Karbala to finish mourning rituals for a revered figure in Shia Islam.
Thursday's attack came despite a massive security operation mounted to safeguard the millions of pilgrims traveling to and from Karbala for the conclusion of Arbaeen commemorations.
Sunni protests continue in Iraqi cities
Demonstrations triggered by arrest of bodyguards for finance minister intensify amid calls for release of prisoners.
Last Modified: 30 Dec 2012 22:31
Sunni Muslims in Iraq are continuing their demonstrations against the Shia-led government, accusing the prime minister of marginalising non-Shia.
Thousands gathered on Sunday in Ramadi, 100km west of Baghdad, in Anbar Province, which has seen several days of protests.
The protests began last week with many demonstrators massing along a major highway near the city of Fallujah in the country's centre.
Al Jazeera's Omar al-Saleh, reporting from Ramadi, said the protests had been triggered by the arrest 10 days ago of nine bodyguards for the finance minister, Rafia al-Issawi, in Baghdad.
"They're not only protesting against the arrest of the bodyguards. They're also now protesting against the imprisonment of Sunnis," our correspondent said. "They say the Sunnis have been targeted by the Shia-led government."
"So they're demanding the release of female prisoners. They're demanding the release of male prisoners. And also they want an end to what they say is marginalisation and discrimination against Sunnis."
Nouri al-Maliki, the Shia prime minister, has denied all the allegations of injustice.
The rallies appear to be the largest yet in a week of demonstrations, intensifying pressure on the government.
During Friday's protests in the northern city of Mosul, around 3,000 demonstrators took to the streets to denounce what they called the sidelining of Sunnis.
As in protests earlier in the week, demonstrators there chanted the Arab Spring slogan: "The people want the downfall of the regime."
Thousands also took to the streets in the northern Sunni towns of Tikrit and Samarra, where they were joined by legislators and provincial officials, said Salahuddin provincial spokesman Mohammed al-Asi.
Many Sunnis accuse Maliki of refusing to share power and depriving the religious minority of equal rights.