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Middle East and North Africa (MENA): News from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Morocco

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  • Zafar Khan
    Five Arab states top the most corrupt list Transparency International says political instability in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and Sudan allows abuses to
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 25, 2014
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      Five Arab states top the most corrupt list
      Transparency International says political instability in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and Sudan allows abuses to flourish
      Last updated: 03 Dec 2013 11:51

      http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/12/five-arab-states-top-most-corrupt-list-201312353328911685.html

      Five Arab countries are ranked among the top 10 most corrupt nations, according to Transparency International's newly released annual Corruption Perceptions Index, as instability in the region has profound effects on governance.

      The list, published on Tuesday, ranks countries on an index score that relates to perceptions of the degree of corruption as seen by country analysts and business people, and ranges between zero, which is highly corrupt, and 100, which is very clean.

      Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and Sudan all scored less than 20, as their governments deal with massive instability in the face of civil war and armed groups, or nations where the lead researcher of the study said the regime is not "functioning effectively".

      "Corruption is very much linked to countries that fall apart, as you see in Libya, Syria, two of the countries that deteriorated the most," Finn Heinrich told AFP news agency. "These are not countries where the government is functioning effectively, and people have to take all means in order to get by, to get services, to get food, to survive."

      But the problem is not just instability, but a lack of accountability, Emad Shahin, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo said.

      "There is no transparency as reflected by laws that would allow for freedom of information and people's access to it, even in Arab countries that would be considered more advanced in terms of democratic transition," Shahin told Al Jazeera, adding that "despite any kind of superficial appearances, societies in these countries also suffer from a lack of participation at all levels, from local politics to holding the judiciary responsible for governmental oversight."

      "While all these factors contribute to these results, corruption as an institution in and of itself cannot be ignored, as even those who address corruption cases are often manipulating them for political reasons, and not through a systematic will to uproot it," he said.

      Other countries ranked in the bottom three include Afghanistan and Somalia, where NATO and US special forces have intervened for several years now.

      Afghanistan, Heinrich said, is "a sobering story. We have not seen tangible improvements".

      "The West has not only invested in security but also in trying to establish the rule of law. But there have been surveys in the last couple of years showing the share of people paying bribes is still one of the highest in the world."

      Widespread worldwide corruption

      Meanwhile, the top 10 ranked nations include the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, Singapore, and British commonwealth nations Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

      But Huguette Labelle, the Chair of Transparency International, said that while "the top performers clearly reveal how transparency supports accountability and can stop corruption, [they] face issues like state capture, campaign finance and the oversight of big public contracts," especially with regards to corporate involvement in economic and governmental affairs.

      According to Transparency International's press release, "more than two-thirds of the 177 countries in the 2013 index score below 50", indicating that public institutions in particular require more openness and transparency in the decision-making.

      However, while corruption in public sectors such as political parties, the police and justice systems remains a massive challenge, according to the watchdog, "efforts to respond to climate change, economic crisis and extreme poverty will face a massive roadblock," unless "international bodies like the G20 crack down on money laundering, make corporations more transparent and pursue the return of stolen assets."
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      SAUDI ARABIA

      Saudi Arabia's foreign labour crackdown drives out 2m migrants
      Ethiopian workers face hostility amid 'Saudisation' campaign to control foreign labour and get more Saudi citizens into work
      Ian Black in Riyadh
      The Guardian, Friday 29 November 2013 12.52 GMT

      http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/29/saudi-arabia-foreign-labour-crackdown-migrants

      Under the watchful eyes of Saudi policemen slouched in their squad cars along a rundown street, little knots of Ethiopian men sit chatting on doorsteps and sprawl on threadbare grass at one of Riyadh's busiest junctions. These are tense, wary times in Manfouha, a few minutes' drive from the capital's glittering towers and swanky shopping malls.

      Manfouha is the bleak frontline in Saudi Arabia's campaign to get rid of its illegal foreign workers, control the legal ones and help get more of its own citizens into work. This month two or three Ethiopians were killed here after a raid erupted into full-scale rioting.

      Keeping their distance from the officers parked every few hundred metres, the Ethiopians look shifty and sound nervous. "Of course I have an iqama [residence permit]," insisted Ali, a gaunt twentysomething man in cheap leather jacket and jeans. "I wouldn't be standing here if I hadn't."

      But he didn't have the document on him. And his story, in broken Arabic, kept changing: he was in the process of applying for one; actually, no, his kafeel (sponsor) had it. It didn't sound as if it would convince the police or passport inspection teams prowling the neighbourhood.

      Until recently, of the kingdom's 30 million residents, more than nine million were non-Saudis. Since the labour crackdown started in March, one million Bangladeshis, Indians, Filipinos, Nepalis, Pakistanis and Yemenis have left. And the campaign has moved into higher gear after the final deadline expired on 4 November, with dozens of repatriation flights now taking place every day. By next year, two million migrants will have gone.

      No one is being singled out, the authorities say. Illegal workers of 14 nationalities have been detained and are awaiting deportation. But the Ethiopians, many of whom originally crossed into Saudi Arabia from Yemen, are widely portrayed as criminals who are said to be mixed up with alcohol and prostitution. "They'd rather sit here and do nothing than go home because maybe they will get some kind of work," sneered Adel, one of the few Saudis to brave Manfouha's mean streets. "In Ethiopia there is nothing for them."
      ...
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      What does Saudi Arabia want?
      Betrayed by the West's deal with Tehran, Saudi Arabia is weighing its options.
      Last updated: 26 Nov 2013 12:11
      Shashank Joshi

      http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/11/what-does-saudi-arabia-want-201311186368635816.html

      Even before Western powers and Iran agreed on a historic nuclear deal in Geneva over the weekend, Saudi Arabia saw a troubled region. Since 2011, the Middle East has witnessed its most turbulent phase in 25 years. The level of political instability and conflict rivals the period between the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the Gulf War of 1991. It may even surpass it. Today, satellite television and social media connect countries as never before; the 2003 US-led invasion knocked Iraq out of the region's balance of power, resulting in the long-term growth of Iranian power; and amid this turmoil, regional powers fear, more than ever, that the United States is set on a course of abandoning them for greener pastures in the Pacific.

      This is the backdrop to Riyadh's foreign policy woes. In the foreground are US-Iran talks of a scale unseen for 35 years. Saudi officials fear that, at best, the US is not interested in curbing Iranian influence and, at worst, actively seeking a return to the days of the Shah, with Iran serving as policeman of the Gulf at the expense of the so-called Sunni Arab monarchies.

      This weekend's nuclear deal, the greatest breakthrough in the nuclear dispute in a decade, is therefore feared to be merely the first step on the road to a more uncertain and precarious era for the Saudi Kingdom. Saudis, according to the Telegraph newspaper report, felt betrayed and "lied" to by their Western allies. A senior advisor to the Saudi royal family has accused its Western allies of deceiving the oil rich kingdom in striking the nuclear accord with Iran and said Riyadh would follow an independent foreign policy. In an earlier statement the Saudi government gave a cautious welcome to the Geneva nuclear deal.

      Under these circumstances, the question going forward is; what are Saudi Arabia's options? Small countries with limited power must accept the world as is. Global powers can re-shape it to their advantage. Riyadh clearly considers itself to be in the latter category. Senior royals, including intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin-Sultan, have promised a historic shift in Saudi foreign policy to include a break with the US, a search for new allies, a willingness to act independently, and a new assertiveness. One might call this the Kingdom's Gaullist turn, akin to France's 1966 decision to pull out of NATO's military command. But is this a sound strategy?
      ...
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      Saudi police clash with foreign workers
      Two people killed and scores injured in riots in Riyadh as kingdom cracks down on illegal foreign workers, police say.
      Last updated: 10 Nov 2013 04:55

      http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/11/saudi-police-clash-with-foreign-workers-201311104197145869.html

      [VIDEO]
      ...
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      EGYPT

      Blasts hit Cairo as Egypt marks revolution
      At least four people dead in protests on third anniversary of Arab Spring uprising against Hosni Mubarak.
      Last updated: 25 Jan 2014 15:11

      http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/01/egypt-tense-ahead-arab-spring-anniversary-201412543612498946.html

      [VIDEO]
      At least four people have died during demonstrations across Egypt on the third anniversary of the nation's Arab Spring uprising.

      The health ministry confirmed two people were killed in Minya, in southern Egypt, a third in Cairo and one in Giza. At least 15 people have been injured in the protests.

      It comes as an explosion, reportedly caused by a rocket-propelled grenade, hit a police base in Suez. It was not immediately clear if anyone was hurt in the blast, which targeted a Central Security Forces camp.

      Interior ministry spokesman Hany Abdel Latif said assailants "fired an RPG and then opened heavy fire on the base."

      Earlier on Saturday, two explosions hit Cairo, as an on-edge Egypt braced for mass demonstrations on the anniversary of the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.

      One person was reported injured following blasts on Saturday in the Hadeek al Qubba area and a police building in eastern Cairo. The attacks come a day after four explosions targeting police in the capital killed six.

      Also on Saturday there were reports live rounds had been fired into the air by police to break up about 1,000 anti-government protesters, Reuters news agency reported.

      Tear gas and bird shot were also being used, the agency said.

      Opponents of the current army-backed interim government are held demonstrations on Saturday, with some calling for the return of the Islamist former president, Mohamed Morsi, who became the first elected Egyptian president in 2012 but was removed from power last year in a military intervention backed by popular support.

      Sources said anti-Muslim Brotherhood crowds gathered in Tahrir square, with more arriving throughout the day, chanting "the people demand the execution of the Brotherhood" and "the people demand the affirmation of the regime."

      There were further reports of clashes in Mohandiseen at an anti-government protest as security forces dispersed people coming out of a mosque.

      Security forces have blocked off areas of the capital. Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the popular revolt that toppled Mubarak in 2011, was closed on Saturday ahead of commemorations.

      Mubarak was forced to step down on February 11, 2011 after 18 days of demonstrations in which an estimated 850 people were killed.

      The tensions come a day after four bombs killed six people and injured more than 80 in attacks targeting security forces in the capital.

      'Plot to spark chaos'

      The first blast, at the police's central security directorate building, killed four people and wounded dozens, and left a crater in the ground. It brought down ceilings and damaged exhibits inside the Museum of Islamic Art.

      The second blast outside a metro station killed a security officer. The third attacked a police station, while the fourth outside a cinema killed one person.

      Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, an al-Qaeda-inspired group led by bedouin fighters in the Sinai Peninsula, said late on Friday that it carried out the attacks to avenge the deaths of Morsi's supporters since his removal.

      At least 1,000 people have been killed and thousands of Islamists have been arrested, while the military-installed authorities branded the Brotherhood a "terrorist" organisation in December following a deadly attack on the police.

      The interim government and the pro-Morsi National Pro-Legitimacy Alliance condemned the bombings.

      However, the interim interior minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, called for demonstrations in support of the government and to counter what he said was an Islamist "plot to spark chaos".

      Ibrahim also vowed security forces would respond with "firmness" to any attempt by the "Muslim Brothers to sabotage the ceremonies".
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      I'm no traitor, says Wael Ghonim as Egypt regime targets secular activists
      Figurehead of 2011 uprising, now in exile, defends himself as pro-regime TV channel claims he used revolution for own gain
      Patrick Kingsley in Cairo
      The Guardian, Thursday 9 January 2014 17.52 GMT

      http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/09/wael-ghonim-egypt-regime-targets-secular-activists

      One of the figureheads of Egypt's 2011 uprising says he is staying away from the country "as Egypt no longer welcomes those who are like me".

      Wael Ghonim's statement comes amid claims by fellow activists that Egypt's government has returned to the authoritarianism of the pre-2011 era.

      Ghonim – who is now based in the United Arab Emirates – first rose to global prominence during demonstrations that led to the fall of formerdictator Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. The founder of a popular Facebook group that criticised Egyptian police brutality, Ghonim used his considerable following on the social media site to promote the protests.

      His activism led to an 11-day spell in police custody during the uprising, and despite his protestations, Ghonim subsequently became a poster boy for the revolution, both in and outside Egypt. Among many other plaudits he was one of Time magazine's 100 people of the year.
      ...
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      HRW says Egypt broadens opposition crackdown
      Rights group accuses authorities of using new anti-protest law to arrest leaders of secular opposition movements.
      Last updated: 21 Dec 2013 06:50

      http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/12/hrw-says-egypt-broadens-opposition-crackdown-2013122152320550859.html

      Human Rights Watch has denounced the arrest of a prominent Egyptian activist during a raid by security forces on a domestic human rights organisation, which it described as a continuation of a crackdown on dissent.

      Police broke into the offices of the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights late Thursday and arrested six of its members who were blindfolded and detained in an undisclosed place for nine hours. Five of them were later released.

      Mohamed Adel, a founding member of the April 6 movement that contributed to the 2011 revolt against Hosni Mubarak, remains in custody.

      Police have in the past three weeks also gone after three other prominent activists of the Egyptian protest movement; Alaa Abdelfattah, Ahmed Maher and Ahmad Douma.

      Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East and North Africa director at HRW, said the pursuit of the activists is a deliberate effort to target "voices who demand justice and security agency reform".

      "It should come as no surprise that with the persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood well underway, the Ministry of Interior is now targeting leaders of the secular protest movement," Whitson said in a statement released on Saturday.

      "The Egyptian government has sent a strong signal with its attack on a human rights group, and these arrests and prosecutions, that it is not in the mood for dissent of any kind," Whitson said.

      Anti-protest law

      With Adel's arrest, the number of prominent political activists arrested by Egypt's security forces in the past three years has risen to a total of five.

      Ahmed Maher, founder of the April 6 youth movement and a 2011 nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, is among those put in jail since the government passed a law outlawing the calling for protests without first attaining approvals from the Ministry of Interior.

      Along with Adel, Maher and activist Ahmed Douma are on trial on charges relating to a protest on November 30, with a verdict scheduled for December 22.

      Prosecutors also recently referred Alaa Abdelfattah, one of the most vocal critics of the police and the military, to trial on charges of organising a demonstration without notification.

      Human Rights Watch accused the police of using "the deeply repressive" law to arrest scores of political activists on grounds that they failed to seek advance permission for their demonstrations.

      "The government claims that, instead of criminal penalties, the new law sets fines - of 10,000 - 30,000 Egyptian Pounds (US$ $1,500 - 4,300) under article 21 - for failing to get advance permission," the HRW statement said, adding: "Yet the new law incorporates the existing restrictive assembly laws, including Law 14 of 1923, which carries with it a prison sentence for participation in an unauthorised demonstration."
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      Rapper Mayam Mahmoud challenges Egyptian expectations of veiled women
      Teenager whose songs tackle harassment and victim-blaming has built a following through appearances on Arabs Got Talent
      Patrick Kingsley in Cairo
      theguardian.com, Sunday 1 December 2013 17.32 GMT

      http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/01/egypt-rapper-mayam-mahmoud

      Since she first performed on television in October, Mayam Mahmoud's new fans have been posting up to 50 supportive messages a day on Facebook. But there have also been a few unwelcome messages. "Some say I'm creating a bad name for Islam," she says. "Or even that I'm an infidel."

      A hijab-wearing rapper, Mahmoud has challenged some Egyptians' expectations of how women – and hijab wearers in particular – are meant to behave. Mahmoud, 18, is not Egypt's first veiled rapper, or even its most experienced. But through her appearances on Arabs Got Talent, a variety show that has become a primetime success across the Middle East, she is one of the few to attract something approaching mainstream attention.

      "It's got a lot of people talking about whether it's possible for a veiled girl, or even a girl, to do this," says Mahmoud, who says her veil is a personal choice and has little relevance to her music. "If a girl has a dream to work in a field where many girls don't work, or to do post-graduate study, or to work in a position higher than her husband – all these things often can't be done."

      Rapping is a case in point, she says. It is by no means a conventional path for Egyptian men, but for women it is twice the battle. "The girls in this field are thought to have bad morals. It's known that when a girl tries to record a track, she will just be one girl in the studio with a lot of guys for a long time. So it's hard to find someone to work with her, to create a beat, to master the track."

      Mahmoud, an economics undergraduate from Cairo, says she tries not to listen to listen to western hip-hop. Her biggest influence is her mother, who introduced her to poetry aged 12 and encouraged her to write her own work. When her poetry turned into rap, her parents were initially sceptical because they felt it was not a sufficiently feminine activity for her. But gradually they grew convinced, and eventually they allowed her to record a track in Alexandria, Egypt's second city, while they waited in a cafe around the corner.

      Her appearances on television constituted her first public performances. Interest in her music grew quickly, and she has since played five concerts to enthusiastic university audiences who say they find her empowering. "The other day a woman came up to me and said she'd been watching me on TV with her friends," Mahmoud recalls. "She said: keep on talking about all the things that we don't have the courage to talk about. You've become the hope. You are pushing people to start doing stuff."

      Mahmoud's fans find her inspiring not just because she is a woman but because her work centres on sexual harassment, a local taboo. Harassment is an endemic problem in Egypt: 99.3% of Egyptian women reported being sexually harassed, with 91% saying they felt insecure in the street as a result, according to a UN survey published in April.
      ...
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Egyptian women get jail terms over protests
      Group of 21 women, including minors, face 11 years in jail for rally, as interim PM defends state response to protests.
      Gregg Carlstrom Last updated: 28 Nov 2013 08:05

      http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/11/egyptian-women-jailed-years-over-protests-20131127144529599809.html
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Abdul Fattah al-Sisi: Egyptian general is idolised for deposing former President Mohamed Morsi, but can his popularity last?
      ROBERT FISK Author Biography Friday 15 November 2013

      http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/abdul-fattah-alsisi-egyptian-general-is-idolised-for-deposing-former-president-mohamed-morsi-but-can-his-popularity-last-8940476.html
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Revealed: Egypt is the worst Arab country for women
      EMILY DUGAN Author Biography Tuesday 12 November 2013

      http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/revealed-egypt-is-the-worst-arab-country-for-women-8933608.html

      The fallout from the political upheaval in Egypt has made it the worst country in the Arab world to be a woman in, according to research published exclusively today in The Independent.

      Increasingly commonplace sexual violence has combined with plummeting female representation in parliament and a growth in more extreme Islamic views to push the country to the bottom of the region for women’s rights. Egypt was ranked 22nd – below Iraq and Saudi Arabia – in polling on 22 Arab states’ treatment of women by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

      The island nation of Comoros, where women hold 20 per cent of ministerial positions and wives generally keep land or the home after divorce, came out on top. It was followed by Oman, Kuwait, Jordan and Qatar. More than 300 gender experts in the 21 Arab League states and Syria rated the countries according to different issues affecting women, including politics, reproductive rights and gender violence. Iraq was ranked second-worst after Egypt, followed by Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen.

      In politics, Egypt’s uprisings have brought disappointment for women, with female representation in parliament falling from 12 per cent to just 2 per cent following the abolition of quotas. It was hoped that the Arab Spring would present fresh opportunities for women, but instead the situation has got worse for many, as revolts have brought conflict and instability.

      The Egyptian columnist and feminist Mona Eltahawy believes the legacy of Hosni Mubarak, the country’s ousted dictator, is living on in the country’s abysmal record on women. She said: “We removed the Mubarak from our presidential palace but we still have to remove the Mubarak who lives in our minds and in our bedrooms.

      “As the miserable poll results show, we women need a double revolution: one against the various dictators who’ve ruined our countries and the other against a toxic mix of culture and religion that ruins our lives as women.”

      Genital cutting is also commonplace in Egypt, with some 27.2 million women falling victim to it, the largest number in a single country in the world, according to Unicef figures.

      Anecdotally it appears that cases of sexual assault and harassment are becoming more common in Egypt, though there are scant statistics from previous decades to use as a comparison. More than 99 per cent of women and girls have experienced some form of sexual harassment, according to United Nations research published earlier this year.

      It is through individual stories that you get an idea of how quickly things have changed. When a girl was sexually harassed in downtown Cairo in daylight in the 1990s, academics say her case was then notorious enough to provoke outrage and she became known to as the “el Ataba girl”. Now reports of incidents seem to come along in their hundreds, particularly during religious festivals and political protests.

      At last year’s Eid celebrations, for example, there were records of more than 700 cases of sexual harassment across the country. In the four days of mass protests which resulted in the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi on 3 July, more than 90 women reported being sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square alone.

      The country’s centre for women’s rights has called the soaring number of rape and harassment cases a “social cancer”. Describing the severity of incidents, Diana Eltahawy, an Amnesty International researcher in North Africa, said: “We’re talking about women being surrounded by crowds of men in public and having their clothes ripped off and being touched and penetrated. In some case people were raped too.”

      Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow on the Middle East and North Africa at Chatham House, was surprised that Egypt came out worse than Saudi Arabia for women, but believes changing representation in politics has a crucial role to play.

      She said: “Saudi Arabia probably has the most discriminatory laws for women but one thing that has become worse in Egypt than Saudi is the number of women in parliament. Under the Mubarak regime there used to be a quota for women but they got rid of it when they had elections. Thanks to a top-down decision from the King, Saudi is doing much better with about 20 per cent of seats represented by women.”

      Ms Kinninmont said that dramatic improvements for Kuwaiti women over the last 10 years were likely to be behind the country’s position as the third-best in the region. “Previously it might have come out fairly similarly to Saudi Arabia, but within the last decade women have got the right to vote and the right to travel and get their own passports without needing permission from a male relative.”

      Egypt’s ranking will be a further blow for the country’s international reputation ahead of its appearance on Thursday before the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Geneva. It will be the first time Egypt has appeared before a UN human rights body since the revolution in 2011.

      Amongst the issues the country’s representatives will be questioned on is how the revolution has failed to improve lives for women and how, in many cases, it has made it worse.
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


      LEBANON

      Beirut bomb blasts kill 23: Iranian Embassy is the target in a widening war between Shia and Sunni
      ROBERT FISK Author Biography BEIRUT Tuesday 19 November 2013

      http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/beirut-bomb-blasts-kill-23-iranian-embassy-is-the-target-in-a-widening-war-between-shia-and-sunni-8948809.html

      It was a message, of course: the two bombs only metres from the Iranian embassy, the Iranian cultural attaché dead, the explosion heard across Beirut and all the vile detritus of the event; the leg under the broken balcony, the bits of teeth, the jaw with beard attached, the blood swamping the road.

      At least 22 others were slaughtered. But how could you tell amid this horror? This was Shia Muslim territory in Beirut and the burning cars and smashed buildings of Jnah in south Beirut were quickly surrounded by uniformed Hezbollah militiamen and young men waving silver pistols.

      A suicide bomber, we were told. There was another story. A small bomb to lure people into the street and then a massive car bomb to cut them down. Then one of the black-uniformed men said he believed a suicide bomber had set off the first, smaller bomb. Iranian embassy guards had tried to prevent the second blast – which tore the embassy gate from its hinges. At least 160 people were wounded in the two explosions.

      Click here to see more images from the scene

      In the days of Twitter, who can trust a self-proclaimed al-Qa’ida outfit called the Abdullah Azzam brigades, which claimed the bombings and told Hezbollah to leave Syria? But could there be a more obvious target for those who curse Hezbollah’s military support for Bashar al-Assad in Damascus? Could there be a more ruthless way of hitting at the Shias of Lebanon than to go for the jugular and set off bombs so close to the embassy of a country which has sent its own Shia fighters to Syria? Offices of pro-Syrian television stations stand – or did stand – around the street. Only a week ago, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, warned that Lebanon was heading for a grave crisis. He was right.

      Who could forget amid the burning cars and shoes and remnants of flesh that 66 Lebanese have been killed in the bombing of Shia and Sunni targets here in recent weeks. Now the figure is nearer 90. There is no government in Lebanon and the Lebanese army remains the only state institution functioning – apart from the central bank – and after the bombings Lebanese troops were outnumbered amid the smoke and rubble by the scores of Hezbollah men. Were the Hezbollah now the army of Lebanon? Or are they – as their Sunni Muslim opponents would say – now the army of Syria?

      It is difficult to underestimate the seriousness of these sectarian bloodbaths. In the city of Tripoli, Sunnis have been blaming the Shia Hezbollah and the Syrian Alawites for bombs that killed 47 worshippers at two mosques in the city. Today, it was the Shia’s turn. They blamed the Saudis – who are trying, not very successfully, to overthrow Assad – and they blamed Saudi Arabia’s Gulf allies. The Syrian National Socialist Party’s former leader Fayed Shakr – a Shia from the Bekaa Valley – turned up to blame the Lebanese Christian leader Samir Geagea and the Sunni ex-prime minister Saad Hariri’s Future Party.

      Interestingly and rather oddly, the Iranian ambassador, Ghazanfar Rokanabadi, who confirmed the death of his cultural attaché, Sheikh Ibrahim al-Ansari – a diplomat who had only been in Lebanon for a month – blamed the “Zionist regime” for the bombings, although he did not explain how Israel could be involved. There were rumours that Iranian embassy guards, most of whom are members of Hezbollah, were also killed.

      The embassy is well-defended and looks more like a fortress than a diplomatic compound, although diplomats do live there. Nor is this any ordinary embassy. Over the years, I’ve seen a few well-known rogues pass through its portals – I collect my Iranian visas there – and if US embassies contain their share of spies, you can bet that the Iranian embassy in Beirut has some of their own intelligence men among its 28 staff.

      The black flags of Ashura were still flying after the bombings in the streets around the embassy, marking the commemoration of the martyrdom of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet, whose sister Zeinab is also revered by Shias and is buried in Damascus. The Hezbollah have, for months, been protecting her shrine there.

      “This is an attack on Zeinab,” a young man shrieked. And there’s the problem. The political divisions in Lebanon have become synonymous with the country’s religious divisions. If they become identical, then the danger is great indeed.

      Profile: Abdullah Azzam Brigades

      Known to be active in Lebanon and the Arabian Peninsula, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades (AAB) has been linked to al-Qa’ida and is designated a Foreign Terrorist Organisation by the US State Department.

      Founded in 2009, the group promotes itself as a protector of Sunni Muslims, and has spoken out against Hezbollah’s domination of Lebanon. The group claimed responsibility for the attacks, according to a statement posted on the Twitter account of Sirajuddin Zurayqat, an AAB spokesman, and a militant website.

      It also said the group would continue such attacks until Hezbollah withdraws its forces from Syria.

      One of AAB’s senior leaders is Saleh al-Qarawi, a Saudi Arabian citizen who is on the list of global terrorists subject to US sanctions. Interpol has issued an Orange notice for him.

      Qarawi is believed to have fought against US forces in Fallujah, Iraq. According to the US State Department, while there, he worked with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former head of al-Qa’ida in Iraq, who was responsible for the beheading of the kidnapped British engineer Ken Bigley in 2004.

      The AAB has in the past claimed responsibility for rocket attacks into northern Israel, the 2010 bombing of a Japanese oil tanker in the Persian Gulf, and a 2005 rocket attack that narrowly missed a US amphibious ship docked at Jordan’s Aqaba Red Sea resort.
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      IRAQ

      Al-Qaida's brutal effort to build a caliphate prompts growing fury
      Falluja, the Iraqi city that endured two brutal assaults by US forces, is now held by jihadi fighters. But the ruthlessness of the Isis group, now engaged in action in three neighbouring states, may lead to its ultimate downfall
      Peter Beaumont
      The Observer, Saturday 11 January 2014 12.30 GMT

      http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/11/al-qaida-repeats-mistakes-falluja-tragedy

      The details were barely reported at the time by the world's media: the killing on 21 December in the west of Iraq's Sunni-dominated Anbar province of 24 Iraqi army personnel, including the commander of the 7th Division.

      According to one account, the men were killed by a massive roadside bomb while chasing al-Qaida fighters. A second version said the soldiers were in the town of Rutba when three men detonated suicide belts among them.

      It is what happened next that is crucial. Twenty-four hours later, Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, announced a new operation against the mounting threat posed by jihadi militants. In a moment of political opportunism before elections in Iraq in April, Maliki could not resist dangerously conjoining two issues. As he made a speech a day after the attack, it was not only al-Qaida camps in the western desert that he had in mind, but the year-long Sunni protest movement centred in the towns of Ramadi and Falluja, in Anbar province. The protest camp in Ramadi was, Maliki averred, an al-Qaida headquarters.

      The inevitable attack on that camp that followed his speech triggered a cascade of events in a country where for a year now, political competition that has preyed on sectarian interests has been exacerbated by the war in Syria next door.

      In doing so it has thrust to centre stage once again the town of Falluja, earliest cradle of Iraq's insurgency after the US-led occupation when, in 2003, residents began arming themselves against American forces. This time, in the immediate aftermath of the assault on the Ramadi protest camp, Falluja was seized by al-Qaida fighters.

      If the latest conflict over Falluja – the target of two brutal assaults by US forces – has a wider significance, it is because the events in Anbar over the past year are a microcosm of the regional emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), the al-Qaida affiliate led by Iraqi-born Sunni fundamentalist Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

      On paper at least, Baghdadi's group has been the most successful of the al-Qaida affiliates. Until a rebel counter-offensive against it at Christmas, triggered by the murder of a physician and fighter in its custody, it controlled whole towns in Syria and had claimed its first major suicide bombing, in a Shia suburb of Beirut. The reported capture of Falluja and Ramadi in Iraq last week added to the group's mystique and reputation.

      Paradoxically, however, Isis's recent successes have underlined not its strength but rather its structural weaknesses, as once again an al-Qaida franchise has attempted to impose its own austere and brutal caliphate in captured territory.

      And it is in Falluja's bloody history that lie indicators of its probable future, and the fate of Isis across the region.

      Even before the first battle of Falluja – the US marine-led assault on the city in April 2004 following the murder of four US contractors – the "city of mosques" concealed complex realities under the banner of "resistance" to US occupation.

      When I first visited the city a decade ago, in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein, I found a conservative but hospitable place. Western journalists could work there independently. Within a year, however, its jumble of metal shops would be making bombs, the first generation of largely nationalist and tribal insurgents already being replaced by a more dangerous group of jihadi fighters.

      In truth, this ancient city on a bend of the Euphrates has long bridled at outsiders. Under the Ottoman Turks Falluja was developed as an administrative centre to control the powerful Dulaimi tribe, and it was here in 1920 that the explorer and British colonial official Gerard Leachman was murdered.

      By the time of Saddam Hussein, this city, 50 miles from Baghdad, had become, along with other locations in what US officials would later call the Sunni Triangle, an important centre of Saddam's Sunni-dominated Baathist regime, providing a disproportionate number of security personnel and other officials. Even then its tribal leaders could be restive, forcing Saddam – more than once – to buy their loyalty.

      What is now largely forgotten is that it was not inevitable that Falluja would become associated with violence. It was largely untouched by the 2003 invasion and the wave of looting that convulsed Iraq immediately afterwards, and the first American troops to enter Falluja found a local defence force in place and a mayor willing to work with them.

      All of that changed on 28 April 2003, when US paratroopers fired indiscriminately into a noisy demonstration outside a school they were occupying, killing 17 civilians. A year later, in the aftermath of the first battle of Falluja, the Coalition Provisional Authority would issue its infamous de-Baathification order, throwing tens of thousands of Sunnis who had once worked for the regime out of work, and effectively excluding them from the political process.

      The consequences of those two acts cast a very long shadow, one that persisted even beyond the withdrawal of US combat troops.

      The reality is that, despite its depiction at the time by America, armed opposition to the US occupation was never a simple affair. Even as the insurgency grew in size and pace, it was defined by competition and changing allegiances between groups – Baath nationalists against the first jihadis, who would become al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), which a decade later would later morph into Isis, and which has at various times included a large contingent of international fighters – and between local leaders vying for prominence, not least in the Buessa tribe.

      Through the rise of al-Qaida in Iraq to the second battle of Falluja and the emergence of the Sunni Awakening Movement – which began in 2006 and saw substantial numbers of tribal fighters turn against al-Qaida and join forces with the US – those tensions persisted. As Brian Fishman, director of research at the Combating Terrorism Centre at the US's West Point military academy, noted in November, when he comparing al-Qaida in Iraq in the previous decade and its rebranded version in Syria (and now again in Iraq), the militant group originally foundered for reasons that remain valid.

      "The determination to build an Islamic state," he wrote before the latest upsurge in violence in both Iraq and Syria, "put AQI out of step with many Iraqi Sunnis, who felt a sense of nationalism even as they were isolated from governing institutions. AQI's attempts to impose draconian social policies on a population unaccustomed to them alienated AQI from their would-be constituency, and that led the group to spend as much time fighting potential allies as it did trying to overthrow the Shia-led government. AQI's strategy aimed to provoke a Shia backlash against Sunnis that AQI would rebuke, thereby winning the hearts and minds of that constituency. Yet attempting to establish a jihadist state in a majority Shia country by challenging the existing tribal social framework was a course fraught with risk from the start."

      For those of us who covered the birth of the insurgency in Iraq, the events of the past year have prompted a striking sense of déjà vu.

      The Anbar protest movement that began a year ago in Falluja and Ramadi was fuelled by discontent that has stark parallels with that inflamed by the de-Baathification order of 2004. Politically marginalised, targeted often indiscriminately under Iraqi anti-terror laws and with little recourse in a corrupt judicial system weighted against them, what had begun as a legitimate civil rights movement became more dangerous in the face of the Iraqi prime minister's refusal to negotiate.

      Visiting Baghdad last March, both Sunni and Shia politicians were warning that, lacking the opportunity for a proper political dialogue, young Sunnis from the protest movement were drifting into the arms of the al-Qaida affiliate, disillusioned, even then, by the failure to make progress.

      It was a situation made even more combustible by the war in neighbouring Syria, in which Isis had emerged as a major player and exacerbated sectarian tensions.

      If Fishman appears to have been wrong about one thing, however, it was in his prediction that Isis – under Baghdadi – had learned from the mistakes of al-Qaida under Iraq's former emir, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in a US air strike in 2006 and who was Baghdadi's mentor. The reality, as had become clear in both Syria and Iraq, is that Baghdadi's al-Qaida in Iraq, rebranded as Isis in April last year as he vowed to declare war on the governments of both countries, had not changed its spots.

      In Syria its secret prisons, sharia courts, executions and assassinations of other rebels have provoked the recent powerful backlash. In Iraq, too, there are indications that the same Sunni forces that once coalesced to combat the first incarnation of al-Qaida in Iraq are gathering again.

      Given the history of Baghdadi, none of this should be surprising. Born in 1971 into a religious family in the city of Samarra, Baghdadi earned a doctorate in education from the University of Baghdad. After the US invasion in 2003 he was quickly drawn into the emerging al-Qaida under Zarqawi, getting involved first in smuggling foreign fighters into Iraq, then later as the "emir" of Rawa, a town near the Syrian border. There, presiding over his own sharia court, he gained a reputation for brutality, publicly executing those suspected of aiding the US-led coalition forces.

      In his rise to the leadership of al-Qaida in Iraq in 2010 – and later of Isis – he killed prominent Sunnis as well as Shia civilians in bombings, announcing unilaterally last year the creation of his new group and that it would be merging with the rival al-Qaida affiliate active in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra. This pronouncement was disputed by Jabhat, which appealed to al-Qaida Central's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who ruled against Baghdadi.

      It was an act of hubris in keeping with his group's ambitions and history of overreaching itself. In Syria, other rebels have complained, Isis appeared more interested in consolidating its rule over captured towns as part of Baghdadi's plan to establish his own caliphate. Facing pressure there, some analysts believe he may have made a fatal tactical mistake: moving fighters back across the border to Ramadi and Falluja, spreading his group's forces ever more thinly.

      Toby Dodge, an expert on Iraq at the London School of Economics, believes like a number of others that Baghdadi and Isis have once again seriously overreached themselves.

      "They are both opportunistic and hubristic," he said. "When al-Qaida in Iraq first emerged, there was no Iraqi army or state, and no proper politics. Now 933,000 men are under arms. If Maliki decides to move against them in Anbar, it won't last long."

      Dodge argues, too, that the re-emergence of al-Qaida in Anbar has been fuelled by multiple issues: a four-way power struggle in the province, the failure of Sunni politicians to benefit from contesting elections in 2010, and Maliki's crushing of the protest camps on at least three separate occasions.

      "They have also been more successful in Falluja – especially its suburbs – for historic reasons. Falluja is still deeply traumatised and, unlike Ramadi, has no social structures to rebuff al-Qaida.

      "But Maliki may feel it is more in his interest to let this play out until April and the elections then say to Shias in the south – you may not like me, but I am the hard man who can deal with this threat."

      Dodge also disputes the Iraqi government's narrative that it is Syria that has been destabilising Iraq. "It is Iraq which is still the net exporter of violence and extremism," he says.

      All of which suggests that the long agony of Falluja is far from over.
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      The road from Iraq to Damascus: Iraqis fight to the death to defend Shia shrines - they show less zeal for Assad's regime
      PATRICK COCKBURN Author Biography Wednesday 04 December 2013

      http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/the-road-from-iraq-to-damascus-iraqis-fight-to-the-death-to-defend-shia-shrines--they-show-less-zeal-for-assads-regime-8983559.html

      In Damascus, Shia men from Iraq fight to the death to defend the Shia shrine of Sayyida Zaynab, the daughter of Ali and Fatimah and the grand-daughter of the Prophet Mohamed. They battle with less enthusiasm, however, for the Baathist government of President Bashar al-Assad, which reminds them of the regime of Saddam Hussein.

      Sattar Khalaf, an Iraqi wounded in Damascus, says: “Fighting in Syria is to defend the shrines of the Prophet’s family and not the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the Baath Party.”

      This is not always a distinction easily made. Shia leaders say that at any one time there are between 3,800 and 4,700 Iraqi fighters in Syria, but new volunteers have not been registered for the last five months. The 20 million Shia Mulims in Iraq feel threatened by the Sunni-dominated opposition in Syria’s bid to overthrow the regime there, and its repercussions in Iraq. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), the al-Qa’ida umbrella organisation which has been fighting against Syrian regime forces, draws no distinction between its attacks on the Syrian army and non-Sunni Syrians. In Iraq, Shia and Kurdish civilians are its main target.

      But the Shia political and religious leadership in Iraq is reluctant to be drawn into the war next door despite Iranian promptings. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the Shia religious establishment have refused to issue a fatwa calling for Iraqi Shia to go to fight in Syria, though they have not condemned those who do volunteer. In contrast to the Iranian religious authorities in Qom, the message from their Iraqi counterparts in Najaf is more emphatic that Muslims should not fight Muslims.

      Iraqi fighters cross into Syria by land, though the road via the Sunni Anbar province is so dangerous that they fly instead by plane to Damascus from Baghdad or Najaf. Flights have been easier since the Syrian army cleared the area around the international airport. Sattar Khalaf, a 43-year-old from Baghdad who was part of 200-strong detachment travelling on five buses, says, “When we got into Syrian territory we were escorted by Syrian troops along the long road that was under the control of the army.”

      He joined a group whose overall leader was an Iranian colonel. “The day I entered the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab I joined a group of a dozen fighters and our job was to plant bombs on road sides surrounding the area where the shrine is.” Other fighters with him were told to make hit-and-run attacks using rocket-propelled grenade launchers or to take part in street fighting.

      He says, “In April I was hit in my shoulder while fighting near the airport and was taken back to Baghdad. Once I recover from my wound I will continue jihad in defending the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab.” He reckons between 12 and 20 Iraqi volunteers are being killed in Syria every month.

      The Iraqi volunteers fighting in Syria are not as significant militarily as the experienced and battle-hardened Hezbollah units from Lebanon. They have played an important role as assault troops in capturing the strategic town of Qusayr near Homs, and in aiding the Syrian army in its advance into rebel-held parts of south Damascus.

      Overall, foreign volunteers are less numerous among the pro-Assad forces than they are among the rebels. But the Iraqis’ presence underlines the degree to which Syria has become the main battle ground in the conflict between Shia and Sunni that is raging across the Muslim world. Last week, a jihadist group in Derna in Libya released a video of the shooting of an Iraqi Shia professor, Khalaf Hassan al-Sa’idi, shot in revenge for Sunni insurgents being executed by the Shia-led government in Baghdad.
      ...
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      In magical Najaf the old stories are still the best
      World View: The Shia record of governance here is not good, but the city's ancient heroes remain untarnished
      PATRICK COCKBURN
      Sunday 1 December 2013
      World View: The Shia record of governance here is not good, but the city's ancient heroes remain untarnished

      http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/in-magical-najaf-the-old-stories-are-still-the-best-8974991.html

      There is no city like Najaf, which stands on the edge of the desert a few miles west of the Euphrates in Iraq. It was in nearby Kufa in 661 that Imam Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Mohamed, was badly wounded by an assassin and, as he lay dying, instructed his followers to strap his body to the back of a white camel and, where the camel stopped, to dig his grave. On this spot grew up the shrine city of Najaf, a place of pilgrimage for the Shia and home to many of their leaders, such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
      In other religions, believers venerate martyrs who died many centuries ago, but Iraqi Shi'ism is unique because so many of its martyrs have been killed in the past 40 years. There is Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, revolutionary theologian and opponent of Saddam Hussein, who had him executed in 1980. In 1991, Shia rebels seized the city, and were slaughtered when it was retaken by Saddam's tanks. Later in the 1990s, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr created the Sadrist movement with its potent mix of revivalist religion, nationalism and social and political activism, before he was shot dead, with two of his sons, by killers sent by Saddam. In 2004, Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mehdi Army battled the US army street by street for control of the city.
      ...
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


      YEMEN

      Fatal air strike hits wedding convoy in Yemen
      Group was travelling to a wedding in central Yemen when it was allegedly mistaken for al-Qaeda fighters and hit by drone.
      Last updated: 13 Dec 2013 00:53

      http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/12/fatal-air-strike-hits-yemen-wedding-convoy-20131212191745347541.html

      At least 13 people have been killed on their way to a wedding in Yemen by a suspected United States drone strike, local officials have said.

      The air strike occurred on Thursday in the village of Qaifa, in Yemen's central al-Bayda province.

      A military official told Associated Press news agency that initial information indicated the drone operators mistook the wedding party for an al-Qaeda convoy. He said tribesmen known to the villagers were among the dead.

      Another security official said al-Qaeda fighters were suspected to have been travelling with the wedding convoy.

      Media reports said that the strike left charred bodies on the road and vehicles on fire.

      Yemen is among a handful of countries where the US acknowledges using drones, although it does not comment on the practice.

      The US considers Yemen's branch of al-Qaeda to be the most active in the world.

      Human Rights Watch said in a detailed report in August that US missile strikes in Yemen, including armed drone attacks, have killed dozens of civilians.

      On Monday, missiles fired from a US drone killed at least three others travelling in a car in eastern Yemen.
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Doctors killed in Yemen's ministry assault
      52 doctors and nurses were killed following the attack and 167 people have been wounded.
      Last updated: 05 Dec 2013 18:39

      http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/12/strong-blast-rocks-yemen-defence-ministry-201312565750185751.html

      A suicide bombing has rocked Yemen's defence ministry complex in the heart of the capital Sanaa, followed by a gun battle that left many casualties, according to the Yemeni Defence Ministry.

      Yemen's Higher Security Committee said 52 doctors and nurses were killed in Thursday's attack on the Ministry of Defence and around 162 people were injured.

      A suicide bomber and gunmen wearing army uniforms targeted the ministry compound in the capital Sanaa in the worst single attack in Yemen for 18 months.

      A statement by the committee said some of those killed were Germans. It did not give a number of officers and gunmen dead.

      The ministry said that the attackers had targeted and badly damaged a hospital inside the complex but that the situation was now under control. Foreign doctors and nurses are reported to be among the ones killed.

      The suicide explosion was caused by a bomber who drove a car packed with explosives into the gate, media reports quoted the defence ministry as saying. The blast was followed by another car of gunmen opening fire at the ministry.

      Plumes of smoke billowed across the complex, situated on the edge of the Baba al-Yaman neighbourhood.

      There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.

      Fighters emboldened

      Yemen has been plagued with a series of violent attacks, as the interim government grapples with southern secessionists, al-Qaeda-linked groups and northern Houthi rebels, as well as severe economic problems inherited from veteran President Ali Abdallah Saleh who was forced out of office following protests against his rule in 2011.

      Fighters were emboldened by a decline in government control over the country and seized several southern cities before being driven out in 2012 in an offensive supported by United States and drones.

      Al-Qaeda-linked fighters have killed hundreds of Yemeni soldiers and members of the security forces in a series of attacks since then.

      In July last year, a suicide bomber wearing a Yemeni army uniform killed more than 90 people rehearsing for a military parade in Sanaa. Al-Qaeda later claimed responsibility for the attack.

      Yemen's defense minister, Major General Muhammad Nasir Ahmad, escaped a car bomb on his motorcade in September 2012 that killed at least 12 other people.
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


      MOROCCO

      Morocco repeals 'rape marriage law'
      Controversial article previously allowed rapists to avoid charges if they married their victims.
      Last updated: 23 Jan 2014 03:28

      http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2014/01/morocco-repeals-rape-marriage-law-2014123254643455.html

      Morocco's parliament has unanimously amended an article in the penal code that allowed a rapist to escape prosecution if he married his underage victim.

      The amendment to Article 475 of the penal code, first proposed by the country's Islamist-led government a year ago, was amended by lawmakers on Wednesday, parliamentary sources said.

      The article in question made international headlines in March 2012 when Amina al-Filali, 16, was forced to marry a man who had allegedly raped her.

      After seven months of marriage to the 23-year-old man, she committed suicide in 2012. Her parents and a judge had forced the marriage to protect the family honour.

      The incident sparked calls for the law to be changed. The traditional practise of forced marriage can be found across the Middle East and in countries such as India and Afghanistan, where the loss of a woman's virginity out of wedlock puts a stain on a family's honour.

      'It's not enough'

      Right activists hailed the amendment, while stressing that much more remained to be done to promote gender equality, outlaw child marriage and protect women from violence in the North African country.

      "It's a very important step. But it's not enough.... We are campaigning for a complete overhaul of the penal code for women," Fatima Maghnaoui, who heads a group supporting women victims of violence, told the AFP news agency.

      Global advocacy group Avaaz said it had handed a petition signed by more than a million people to Morocco's parliament demanding that the government adopt promised legislation to combat violence against women.

      Amnesty International said Wednesday's amendment was a step in the right direction but "long overdue," and urged a comprehensive strategy to protect women and girls from violence in Morocco.

      "It took 16-year-old Amina Filali's suicide and nearly two years for the parliament to close the loophole that allowed rapists to avoid accountability," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, the rights group's deputy regional director.

      "It's time to have laws that protect survivors of sexual abuse," she added.

      While the marriage age is officially 18 in Morocco, judges routinely approve much younger unions in the country.

      Activists have called for a complete revamping of the country's laws dealing with rape. However, in the case to the amendment of the existing article, only the language that stated the allowing of rapists to marry their victims to escape prosecution was deleted.

      "It is true that this is just a detail compared to all of our demands but it had to be done,'' said Nezha Aloui, of the Union for Feminist Work. "I salute the mobilisation and maturity parliament showed by voting unanimously.''

      As in numerous other Arab countries, sexual harassment of women is commonplace in Morocco, despite the adoption of a new constitution in 2011 that enshrines gender equality and urges the state to promote it.

      An official study published last month said nearly nine percent of Moroccan women have been physically subjected to sexual violence at least once.

      More than 50 percent of violence against women is thought to take place within marriage, and marital rape is not recognised as a crime.

      A bill proposed by the Moroccan government, threatening prison sentences of up to 25 years for perpetrators of violence against women, is still in the drafting stage.
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Morocco's maids: Abused and overworked
      On International Migrants Day some foreign domestic workers in the Middle East say they are routinely abused.
      Aida Alami Last updated: 18 Dec 2013 13:22

      http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/12/morocco-maids-abused-overworked-20131218103718595124.html

      Rabat, Morocco - Earlier this year, a group of Filipinos met in the headquarters of a workers' union in the Moroccan capital to share their experiences and find solidarity with one another.

      These maids, often recruited by wealthy families who want the prestige that comes with having an English-speaking nanny, say life far from home hasn't been easy. They feel particularly vulnerable in a country where they don't speak the language and where they aren't protected by labour laws.

      "[It's] easy to live here if you find the good [employers]," said Tessi, 38, who works for a family in Rabat. "If you find the good, they are very good, and if you find the bad, they are very bad."

      The Moroccan government has recently acknowledged that it needs to address the problems of a growing migrant population, and even pledged to offer residency to some who are here illegally. A few weeks ago, the Indonesian consulate spoke out against the abuse of its domestic workers in Morocco, and Human Rights Watch released a detailed report last year urging Morocco to create a legal framework for maids. There are about 3,000 Filipinos in the country.

      "What is happening in Morocco is a part of a broader pattern," said Nisha Varia, senior researcher at the women's division at Human Rights Watch. "A lot of them have to take out loans to pay for recruitment fees. They may be afraid to report the abuse because they have to make money to repay their recruitment fees at home."

      'Abused by employers'

      Many of the domestic workers have complained about being deprived of food, overworked, not given a day off and even physically and sexually abused by their employers.

      Hayat Baraho, a member of the Democratic Organisation of Workers, is one of the few people these women can turn to when in need of help. When domestic workers run away from abusive employers, many of them lack documents - their employers keep their passports as leverage to get back the money they paid the agency to hire them. While the maids are between jobs, some find themselves homeless. Baraho has welcomed them into her home due to a lack of shelters.

      "When we asked the honourary consul of the Philippines in Morocco for a shelter for these women, he simply replied, 'we don't have any money'," Baraho said. "Many of these women are not paid what they were promised in the contract or they get physically abused or food deprived by their employers, and there is no oversight by the authorities. Since their passports were confiscated, they're stuck in Morocco."

      According to Varia, these women are particularly at risk because they do not speak the language and they do not know where to look for another job. In addition, they are afraid of being deported or detained. They are potentially easy targets for slavery and sex trafficking, human rights officials add.

      The New York-based NGO insists that the Moroccan government needs to make sure that the country's laws are applied equally to migrants. "Morocco is considering changing labour law to include domestic workers," Varia said. "There is a conversation between governments and workers that really helped build an international consensus that this type of exploitation needs to be a part of the past."

      Earlier this year, the government pledged to look into the situation of illegal migrants and opened a Bureau for Foreigners. But there has yet to be a conversation about the status of domestic workers in a country that still faces big problems with child labour - especially with juvenile domestic workers.

      "Girls are being exploited, abused, and forced to work long hours for extremely low wages," said Jo Becker, children's rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, in a 2012 report. "Morocco has taken important steps to reduce child labour, but it needs to take targeted actions to protect these child domestic workers and enforce the law."

      'I just want to go home'

      Baraho's union also works to empower domestic workers to organise, to be aware of their rights, and to speak up against abuse. They also get help from their countrywomen who are in Morocco legally and are in a better financial situation. "We are asking the authorities to facilitate the return to the countries as long as there was no crime committed," she said.

      In the union's meeting room, the group of women who managed to get a short break from their employers are animated when talking to Baraho, whom they call "madame", about how to improve their lives. "The problem with the Filipino population in Morocco is a lack of solidarity among them, so we are teaching them to become stronger as a group," Baraho said.

      Among the group is a woman holding a baby - a product of rape in a country where sex outside of marriage is strictly forbidden by law.

      Michelle, 36, from Manila, said she was raped by a taxi driver after she ran away from her employers two years ago. She now works for a family in Rabat while sharing a room with another Filipina, paying one-fifth of her salary to a woman to watch her baby while she is at work.

      "I never reported the rape because I knew no one would believe me," said Michelle. "I want to go back home but my baby doesn't have a passport. So we are stuck here."
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
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