Arab rifts may complicate search for Gaza truce


The push for a Gaza ceasefire risks becoming mired in a regional tussle for influence between conservative Arab states and Islamist-friendly governments, with rival powers competing to take credit for a truce, analysts and some officials say.

The main protagonists are Arab heavyweight Egypt and the tiny Gulf state of Qatar, on opposite sides of a regional standoff over Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, and its ideological patron the Muslim Brotherhood.

Both camps suggest the other is motivated as much by a desire to polish diplomatic prestige and crush political adversaries as by the humanitarian goal of protecting Palestinian lives from the Israeli military.

“Gaza has turned very suddenly into the theater in which this new alignment within the Arab world is being expressed,” said UK-based analyst Ghanem Nusseibeh.

“Gaza is the first test for these new alliances, and this has affected the possibility of reaching a ceasefire there.”

He was referring to Qatar, Turkey, Sudan and non-Arab Iran, the main members of a loose grouping of states which believe Islamists represent the future of Middle East politics.

That camp stands in increasingly overt competition with a conservative, pro-Western group led by Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, most of whom are intent on crushing the Brotherhood and see it as a threat.

That cleavage is now apparent in the diplomacy over Gaza.

CEASEFIRE PLAN

Qatar bankrolled the elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, who was overthrown by the military a year ago. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have since poured in money to support strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who led the takeover and has since been elected president after outlawing and suppressing the Brotherhood.

Under his rule, Egypt has tightened its stranglehold on the southern end of the Gaza Strip, closing tunnels to try to block supplies of weapons and prevent militants crossing.

Egyptian officials suspect Qatar encouraged Hamas to reject a ceasefire plan Cairo put forward last week to try to end an Israeli assault that has now killed more than 500 Palestinians as well as 18 Israeli soldiers and two Israeli civilians.

Palestinian officials said the proposal contained little more than Israeli and U.S. terms for a truce. Hamas has its own demands for stopping rocket fire into Israel, including the release of prisoners and the lifting of an economic blockade.

With Egypt's initiative sidelined, all eyes turned to Doha, where visiting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday met Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who lives in the Qatari capital, a senior Qatari source told Reuters.

An official in Cairo said the Gaza battle “is part of a regional conflict between Qatar, Egypt and Turkey.

“Hamas … ran to Qatar, which Egypt hates most, to ask it for intervention, and at the end we are sure Hamas will eventually settle with an agreement that is so similar to a proposal that Egypt had offered, but with Doha's signature.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, due in Cairo late on Monday, is likely to have to mediate between Egypt and Qatar in a bid to end the fighting in Gaza.

“The dilemma is now to get Egypt and Qatar to agree. It is obvious that Hamas had delegated Qatar to be its spokesman in the talks,” said an Egyptian diplomat. “Kerry is here to try to mediate between Qatar and Egypt to agree on a deal that Hamas would approve.”

Another foreign ministry source said: “Egypt will be asked by Kerry to add in Hamas' conditions and then Kerry will go to Qatar and ask it to ask Hamas to approve the amended deal.”

For reasons of history and geography, Egypt has always seen itself as the most effective mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in neighboring Gaza.

But critics say Egypt's strongly anti-Islamist government is trying to pressure Hamas into accepting a truce offering few concessions for the group. Its aim, they say, is to weaken the movement and allied Islamist forces in Egypt.

Hamas leaders said they were not consulted on the Egyptian move, and it did not address their demands.

With peace efforts delicately poised, Gaza now appears to be a test of strength in a regional struggle for power.

INTERFERENCE

Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla said Gaza mediation had seen “a lot of political interference”.

“Qatar was unhappy with the Egyptian ceasefire (plan). They are very uncomfortable that it came from Egypt. The Qataris are trying to undermine Egypt politically, and the victim is the ceasefire that Egypt has proposed.

“The terms of the problem is — who will present the ceasefire? Who will win the first political match between those two new camps within the Arab world?” Abdulla said.

At the root of the rift are opposing attitudes to the Muslim Brotherhood, which helped sweep Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt in 2011 only to be ousted itself last year.

Its ideology challenges the principle of conservative dynastic rule long dominant in the Gulf: Some of its leading members are based in Qatar and broadcast their views via the country's media, angering other Gulf Arab states

Qatar is accused of using its alliance with Hamas to elbow its way into efforts to mediate between the movement and Israel.

Critics suspect Qatar wants to repair an international image clouded by months of allegations of poor labor rights, alleged corruption over the 2022 World Cup and political tensions with its Gulf Arab neighbors.

But Western governments see Qatar, maverick though it be, as a potentially significant regional mediator because of its links to Islamist movements in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere.

Qatar denies any ulterior motive and notes that Washington has openly asked it to talk to Hamas. Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyah said on Sunday Qatar’s role was just to facilitate communication.

“BLOODSHED NEEDS TO STOP”

A source familiar with the matter said Qatar will not press Hamas to change or reduce its demands.

In Saudi Arabia, where suspicion of Hamas is particularly strong, as an ally of the Brotherhood and of Iran, Riyadh's main regional adversaries, newspapers have abandoned a tradition of blaming Israel alone to also attack the Palestinian group.

“The Hamas leadership, from Egyptian blood to Palestinian blood,” was the headline of an opinion article by Fadi Ibrahim al-Dhahabi in the daily al-Jazeera newspaper on Sunday.

He argued that Hamas was stoking the war in Gaza not for the sake of Palestinian liberation, but as part of a wider Muslim Brotherhood campaign against Egypt's government and to win favour with Iran.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, part of a recently formed national unity government intended to overcome rivalry between Hamas and the more secular Fatah nationalist movement, told Reuters he had seen no tug-of-war among Arab states.

“This is not the case. There is no competition between Arab countries, they all want to stop the bloodshed,” he said.

“All Arab countries want to bring an end to this fountain of blood in Gaza, Turkey, Qatar and Egypt are all in agreement. And the leaders of these country's have put their differences aside and all agree that the bloodshed needs to stop”.

Iranian warships dock in Sudan, report says


Two Iranian warships docked in Sudan on Monday, Iran's official IRNA news agency reported, less than a week after Khartoum accused Israel of attacking an arms factory in the Sudanese capital.

Two people were killed after fire broke out late on Tuesday at the Yarmouk arms factory in the south of Khartoum. Sudanese Information Minister Ahmed Belal Osman said four military planes attacked the Yarmouk plant and Israel was behind it.

Asked by Israel's Channel Two News about Sudan's accusations, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said: “There is nothing I can say about this subject.”

IRNA said the helicopter carrier Khark and the destroyer Shahid Naqdi were carrying: “the message of peace and friendship to neighbouring countries and were ensuring security for shipping lanes against marine terrorism and piracy”.

Iran's semi-official Fars news agency said that the vessels docked in Port Sudan on the Red Sea and the fleet's commanders were scheduled to meet Sudanese navy commanders.

Sudan, with close ties to Iran and Sunni jihadis, has long been seen by Israel as a conduit for weapons smuggled to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, via the Egyptian Sinai desert.

In May, Sudan's government said one person had been killed after a car exploded in the eastern city of Port Sudan. It said that explosion resembled a blast last year it had blamed on an Israeli missile strike.

Israel declined to comment on the May incident or the 2011 blast, which killed two people. It also neither admitted nor denied involvement in a similar incident in eastern Sudan in 2009.

Iran said in June it had plans to build more warships and increase its presence in international waters, particularly to protect its cargo ships around the world.

Pirates in the Gulf of Aden in January hijacked an Iranian ship carrying 30,000 tonnes of petrochemical products to a North African country.

Anti-American fury sweeps Middle East over film


Fury about a film that insults the Prophet Mohammad tore across the Middle East after weekly prayers on Friday with protesters attacking U.S. embassies and burning American flags as the Pentagon rushed to bolster security at its missions.

The obscure California-made film triggered an attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya's city of Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans on Tuesday, the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 al Qaeda attacks on the United States.

In Tunis, at least three people were killed and more than two dozen wounded, state television said after police gunfire near the U.S. embassy in the city that was the cradle of last year's Arab Spring uprisings for democracy. At least one person died in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, a doctor said, after some of thousands of protesters had leaped into the U.S. embassy.

As U.S. military drones faced Islamist anti-aircraft fire over Benghazi, about 50 marines landed in Yemen a day after the U.S. embassy there was stormed. For a second day in the capital Sanaa, police battled hundreds of young men around the mission.

In Khartoum, wider anger at Western attitudes to Islam also saw the German embassy overrun, with police doing little to stop demonstrators who raised a black Islamist flag. Violence at the U.S. embassy followed protests against both Washington and the Sudanese government, which is broadly at odds with the West.

The wave of indignation and rage over the film, which portrays Mohammad as a womanizer and a fool, coincided with Pope Benedict's arrival in Lebanon for a three-day visit.

The protests present U.S. President Barack Obama with a new foreign policy crisis less than two months before seeking re-election and tests Washington's relations with democratic governments it helped to power across the Arab world.

He was at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington to greet a flight bringing home remains of the four dead from Benghazi.

It also emerged that Libya had closed its airspace over the second city's airport for a time because of heavy anti-aircraft fire by Islamists aiming at U.S. reconnaissance drones flying over the city; Obama vowed to bring the ambassador's killers to justice.

The closure of the airport prompted speculation that the United States was deploying special forces in preparation for an attack against the militants who were involved in the attack.

A Libyan official said the spy planes flew over the embassy compound and the city, taking photos and inspecting locations of radical militant groups who are believed to have planned and staged the attack on the U.S. consulate.

There were protests in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

MARINES TO YEMEN

The Pentagon said it had sent a “fast” platoon of Marines to Yemen to bolster U.S. embassy security after clashes in Sanaa.

U.S. embassies were the main target of anger and protest but most embassy staff were not at work because Friday is the Muslim weekend across the Arab World.

The frenzy erupted after traditional Muslim Friday prayers. Fury over the film has been stoked by Internet video footage, social networks, preachers and word-of-mouth.

Protesters clashed with police near the U.S. embassy in Cairo. Two Islamist preachers in Egypt told worshippers that those who made the movie deserved to die under Islamic law but they urged protesters not to take their anger out on diplomats.

In the restive Sinai peninsula, militants opened fire on an international observer base near El Gorah, close to the borders of Israel and the Gaza Strip, and burned tires blocking a road to the camp, a witness and a security source reported. The source said two members of the force were wounded.

The Sudanese who broke into the German embassy in Khartoum and hoisted an Islamic flag, while one person was killed in protests in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.

Police in the Sudanese capital had fired tear gas to try to disperse 5,000 protesters who had ringed the German embassy and nearby British mission. A Reuters witness said police stood by as a crowd forced its way into Germany's mission.

Demonstrators hoisted a black Islamic flag saying in white letters “there is no God but God and Mohammed is his Prophet”. They smashed windows, cameras and furniture in the building and then started a fire.

Staff at Germany's embassy were safe “for the moment”, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Berlin. He also told Khartoum's envoy to Berlin that Sudan must protect diplomatic missions on its soil.

Sudan's Foreign Ministry had criticized Germany for allowing a protest last month by right-wing activists carrying caricatures of the Prophet and for Chancellor Angela Merkel giving an award in 2010 to a Danish cartoonist who depicted the Prophet in 2005 triggering protests across the Islamic world.


Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa, Samia Nakhoul in Beirut, Ulf Laessing and Khalid Abdelaziz in Khartoum, Gareth Jones in Berlin, Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Benghazi, Marie-Louise Gumuchian in Libya, Sami Aboudi in Dubai, Raissa Kasolowsky in Abu Dhabi, Aref Mohammed in Basra, Iraq, Siva Sithraputhran in Kuala Lumpur, Anis Ahmed in Bangladesh, Regan Doherty in Doha, Roberto Landucci in Italy and Mirwais Harooni in Kabul; Writing by Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Peter Millership and Alastair Macdonald

Flame computer bug may have been released by Israel, minister says


A computer virus attacking computers in Iran and the West Bank may have been created with Israeli involvement, a government minister hinted.

Israeli vice prime minister Moshe Ya’alon said in an interview Tuesday on Israel Radio that “Anyone who sees the Iranian threat as a significant threat would be likely to take various steps, including these, to harm it.”

“Israel was blessed as being a country rich with high-tech, these tools that we take pride in open up all kinds of opportunities for us,” Ya’alon also said.

The discovery of the Flame virus was announced Monday by the Kaspersky Lab in Russia. It was discovered in high concentrations in Iranian computers and also in the West Bank, Syria and Sudan.

The virus was created to collect data, and may have lain dormant for several years and is controlled by a remote computer, which can turn it on and off at will. It is being called “the most sophisticated virus of all times,”

It reportedly shares some characteristics with the Stuxnet virus, which damaged Iranian nuclear centrifuges before it was discovered in 2010.

Experts believe that it took a sophisticated programming team and state resources to create the program.