Two suicide bombers hit Hezbollah bastion in Lebanon, 43 killed


At least 43 people were killed and more than 240 wounded on Thursday in two suicide bomb blasts claimed by Islamic State in a crowded residential district in Beirut's southern suburbs, a stronghold of the Shi'ite Muslim group Hezbollah.

The explosions were the first attacks in more than a year to target a Hezbollah stronghold inside Lebanon, and came at time when the group is stepping up its involvement in the Syrian civil war — a fight which has brought Sunni Islamist threats and invective against the Iran-backed Shi'ite group.

Hezbollah has sent hundreds of fighters to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces in the four-year-old conflict over the border. Government forces backed by Hezbollah and Iranian troops have intensified their fight against mostly Sunni insurgents, including Islamic State, since Russia launched an air campaign in support of Assad on Sept. 30.

Syria's civil war is increasingly playing out as a proxy battle between regional rivals, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, which supports the rebels. The two foes also back opposing political forces in Lebanon, which suffered its own civil war from 1975 to 1990, and where a political crisis has been brought about by factional and sectarian rivalries.

The blasts occurred almost simultaneously late on Thursday and struck a Shi'ite community center and a nearby bakery in the commercial and residential area of Borj al-Barajneh, security sources said. A closely guarded Hezbollah-run hospital is also nearby.

Health Minister Wael Abu Faour said 43 people were killed and 240 people were wounded.

Islamic State said in a statement posted online by its supporters that its members blew up a bike loaded with explosives in Borj al-Barajneh and that when onlookers gathered, a suicide bomber blew himself up among them. The group said the attacks killed 40 people.

Hezbollah vowed to continue its fight against “terrorists”, warning of a “long war” against its enemies.

Medics rushed to treat the wounded after the explosions, which damaged shop fronts and left the street stained with blood and littered with broken glass.

Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said a third suicide bomber had been killed by one of the explosions before he could detonated his own bomb. His body was found nearby.

It was a blow to Hezbollah's tight security measures in the area, which were strengthened following bombings last year. The army had also set up checkpoints around the southern suburb entrances.

'UNJUSTIFIABLE ATTACKS'

A series of bomb blasts struck Lebanon in 2013 and 2014, including attacks on Hezbollah strongholds. Most of them were claimed by Sunni militants in response to Hezbollah sending fighters to Syria to fight in support of Assad.

Hezbollah's involvement has brought many threats against it in Lebanon.

Security forces say they have foiled a number of attacks inside the country recently and dismantled terror cells. A security source said a man wearing a suicide vest was arrested in Tripoli on Thursday, and a bomb dismantled in the northern city.

The attacks drew a wave of condemnation across the country's political spectrum, including some of Hezbollah's opponents. 

Lebanonese Prime Minister Tammam Salam condemned the attacks as “unjustifiable”, and called for unity against “plans to create strife” in the country, urging officials to overcome their differences. France's foreign ministry also condemned the attacks.

The war in Syria, with which Lebanon shares a border of more than 300 km (190 miles), has ignited sectarian strife in the multi-confessional country, leading to bombings and fighting between supporters of the opposing sides in Syria.

Gun battles broke out in Tripoli last year in clashes that involved the army and Islamist militants, and regular infiltrations of Islamists from Syria into a Lebanese border town still draw army or Hezbollah fire.

The bombers also struck as Lebanese lawmakers held a legislative session for the first time in over a year. A political crisis has left the country without a president for 17 months, with the government failing to take even basic decisions.

Religious leaders warned last year that in the absence of a head of state, sectarian strife was threatening a country that was gripped for 15 years by its own civil war.

Islamic State urges followers to escalate attacks in Ramadan


Islamic State urged its followers on Tuesday to escalate attacks against Christians, Shi'ites and Sunni Muslims fighting with a U.S.-led coalition against the ultra-radical group.

Jihadists should turn the holy month of Ramadan, which began last week, into a time of “calamity for the infidels … Shi'ites and apostate Muslims”, Isalmic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani said in an audio message. He urged more attacks in Iraq, Syria and Libya.

“Muslims everywhere, we congratulate you over the arrival of the holy month,” he said. “Be keen to conquer in this holy month and to become exposed to martyrdom.”

Adnani also called on Sunnis in Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia to rise against “tyrannical leaders” and warned them against advancing Shi'ites, pointing to the treatment of Sunnis under a Shi'ite-led government in Iraq and in Syria under the Alawites, the Shi'ite offshoot to which President Bashar al Assad belongs.

He said his group was undeterred by the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, which has seized large areas of Iraq and Syria and proclaimed a caliphate.

“We will continue, God willing, in our path and will not care even if many nations gang up against us or how many swords we are struck by,” he said.

Adnani also warned U.S. President Barack Obama that Islamic State would retaliate for the attacks against it.

“Obama and your defeated army, we promise you in the future setback after setback and surprise after surprise,” he said.

Sunni tribes in Iraq were joining the militants after the Iraqi government and the United States had failed to bring them into Iraq's political process, Adnani said.

“The Sunni people are now behind the jihadists … the enemies have been petrified by the daily pledges of allegiance by the chiefs of tribes to the Mujahideen,” he said.

In response to the pleading of Iraqi tribal elders, Adnani said, Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al Baghdadi had given Sunnis working with the U.S.-led coalition and those who were still in the Iraqi army one last chance to repent.

In recent weeks, several major Iraqi tribes in the restive Anbar province announced their allegiance to the militants in recorded videos.

Adnani devoted the bulk of his 29-minute speech to an appeal to Iraqi Sunnis. He said their enemies were Western infidels and Shiites, who wanted to expel them from Iraq and turn it into a Shi'ite state. Iraqi Sunnis were being evicted en masse from areas taken over by Shi'ite militias supported by the Iraqi government, he said.

“Needless to say, you all know the kidnappings, evictions, killings of Sunnis that happen every day in Baghdad,” he said. “Thousands and thousands” were already jailed in prisons in the predominantly Shi'ite provinces of southern Iraq, he said.

Adnani also called on those insurgents fighting the militant group in north and northwestern Syria to stop battling them or face the consequences.

Obama weighs action in Iraq but rules out combat troops


President Barack Obama said on Friday he needs several days to determine how the United States will help Iraq deal with a militant insurgency, but he ruled out sending U.S. troops back into combat and said any intervention would be contingent on Iraqi leaders becoming more involved.

Obama did not describe the “range of options” he is considering to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, a group he described as “vicious” and a “terrorist organization” that could eventually pose a threat to Americans.

He said Iraqi leaders needed to set aside sectarian differences to deal with the threat, and said the United States would engage in “intensive diplomacy” in the region to try to prevent the situation from worsening.

“The United States is not simply going to involve itself in a military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis that gives us some assurance that they are prepared to work together,” Obama told reporters at the White House. He said he was concerned that ISIL could try to overrun Shi'ite sacred sites, creating sectarian conflicts “that could be very hard to stamp out.” The rebels are Sunni Muslims and the Baghdad government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is dominated by Shi'ites.

“This is a regional problem, and it is going to be a long-term problem. And what we're going to have to do is combine selective actions by our military to make sure that we're going after terrorists who could harm our personnel overseas or eventually hit the homeland,” Obama said.

Obama said he wanted to review intelligence on the situation in Iraq so that any U.S. actions are “targeted, they are precise, and they are going to have an effect.”

He also said he would consult with the U.S. Congress, where Republicans have been critical of Obama for failing to negotiate a deal with Iraq under which the United States would have left a small force there after pulling out troops at the end of 2011.

Obama's fellow Democrats are reluctant to see military intervention after the lengthy war, which began with the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to topple President Saddam Hussein.

“Look, the United States has poured a lot of money into these Iraqi security forces,” Obama told reporters before leaving on a previously scheduled trip to North Dakota. He was scheduled to spend the weekend in California.

Obama was expected to talk to foreign leaders about the situation over the weekend, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters traveling with Obama on Air Force One.

Earnest said the Obama administration had not yet discussed potential interventions with Iran, Iraq's neighbor to the east and a backer of Maliki.

Obama said the insurgency so far had not caused major disruptions to oil supplies from Iraq, but that if insurgents took control of refineries, other oil producers in the Middle East would need to help “pick up the slack.”

“That will be part of the consultations that will be taking place during the course of this week,” Obama said.

Reporting by Roberta Rampton, Steve Holland, Jeff Mason, Susan Heavey and Eric Beech; Editing by David Storey and Grant McCool

Nasrallah warns Israel that Hezbollah will avenge commander’s killing


Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on Friday vowed to avenge Israel for the killing of a senior Hezbollah commander in Beirut earlier this month.

Hassan Laqqis, who fought in Syria's civil war for the Lebanese Shi'ite militia, was shot dead outside his home on December 4.

A previously unknown group, Ahrar al-Sunna Baalbek brigade, claimed responsibility at the time of the attack, but Hezbollah quickly blamed Israel, with which it fought a 34-day war in 2006.

“All the indicators and clues points to the Israeli enemy,” Nasrallah said, in his first public comments since the attack.

“Our killer is known, our enemy is known, our adversary is known … When the facts point to Israel, we accuse it,” he said in televised remarks to supporters in southern Beirut.

Israel has denied any role in the shooting and hinted that the motive may have been Hezbollah's military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad in his war with mainly Sunni Muslim rebels.

The 2-1/2 year-old civil war in Syria has polarized the Middle East between Sunni Muslim powers, such as Turkey and the Gulf Arab states who support the rebels, and Shi'ite Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, who back Assad.

The president's Alawite faith is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Hezbollah has sent several thousand fighters to Syria, helping to turn the tide in Assad's favor this year. But Nasrallah said on Friday that would not prevent it from avenging the killing of Laqqis.

“If the Israelis think … that Hezbollah is busy and that Israel will not pay the price, I say to them today, 'You are wrong',” he said.

“The killers will be punished sooner or later and the blood of our martyrs – whether large or small – will not be wasted. Those who killed will not be safe anywhere in the world. Vengeance is coming.”

The open role of Hezbollah fighters in the Syrian civil war and the steady flow of Lebanese Sunnis joining the anti-Assad rebels have fuelled sectarian strife in Lebanon.

Car bombs killed dozens of people in Beirut in August and a twin suicide attack on the Iranian embassy in the Lebanese capital killed at least 25 people last month.

But Nasrallah mocked critics who he said blamed Lebanon's woes – from sectarian tension to the flooding of a road during winter storms – on Hezbollah's intervention in Syria.

“Why isn't there a government? Because Hezbollah entered Syria. Why haven't we held elections? Hezbollah is in Syria. Why is the economic situation like this? Hezbollah is in Syria. Why did the tunnel on the airport road become a lake? Because Hezbollah is in Syria. This of course isn't logical.”

Reporting by Laila Basasm and Stephen Kalin; Editing by Mike Collett-White

Israel says it bombed Lebanon in retaliation for rocket attack


Israel's air force bombed a militant target in Lebanon on Friday in retaliation for a cross-border rocket salvo on Thursday, a spokesman said.

An Israeli military source said the “terror site” bombed was near Na'ameh, between Beirut and Sidon, but did not immediately provide further details.

Four rockets fired on Thursday caused damage but no casualties in northern Israel. They were claimed by an al Qaeda-linked Sunni Muslim group rather than Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite militia that holds sway in south Lebanon.

“Israel will not tolerate terrorist aggression originating from Lebanese territory,” military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said in a statement announcing Friday's air strike.

Israel and Lebanon are technically at war. Israel briefly invaded Lebanon during an inconclusive 2006 conflict with Hezbollah. The Israelis now are reluctant to open a new Lebanese front, however, given spiraling regional instability.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Bill Trott

Ten car bombs kill 39 in Iraqi capital


Ten car bombs exploded across the Iraqi capital on Monday, killing nearly 40 people in markets and garages on the evening of a Shi'ite Muslim celebration, police and medical sources said.

Some of the attacks targeted districts where Shi'ites were commemorating the anniversary of the birth of a revered Imam, but there also were explosions in mixed neighborhoods and districts with a high population of Sunnis.

The violence reinforced a growing trend since the start of the year, with more than 1,000 people killed in militant attacks in May alone, making it the deadliest month since the sectarian bloodletting of 2006-07.

Waleed, who witnessed one of Monday's explosions in which five people were killed in the Shi'ite stronghold of Sadr City, described a scene of chaos: “When the explosion happened, people ran in all directions.”

“Many cars were burned, pools of blood covered the ground, and glass from car windows and vegetables were scattered everywhere.”

Eight people were killed in two car bomb explosions in the central district of Karada, one of them in a car garage. Two car bombs exploded simultaneously near a market in the western district of Jihad, killing eight.

Separately, a bomb placed in a cafe in the northern city of Mosul killed five people, pushing Monday's death toll over 40.

Insurgents, including al Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate, have been recruiting from the country's Sunni minority, which feels sidelined following the U.S.-led invasion that toppled former dictator Saddam Hussein and empowered majority Shi'ites.

Since the withdrawal of U.S. troops in December 2011, critics say Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has consolidated his power over the security forces and judiciary, and has targeted several high-level Sunni leaders for arrest.

Sunnis took to the streets last December in protest against Maliki, but the demonstrations have thinned and are now being eclipsed by intensifying militant activity.

Sectarian tensions have been inflamed by the civil war in Syria, which is fast spreading into a region-wide proxy war, drawing in Shi'ite and Sunni fighters from Iraq and beyond to fight on opposite sides of the conflict.

Political deadlock in Baghdad has strained relations with Iraq's ethnic Kurds who run their own administration in the north of the country, and are at odds with the central government over land and oil.

Reporting Kareem Raheem; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Michael Roddy

Shiites in Jordan maintained low profile while marking Ashura observance


[KARAK] Sectarian tensions in Syria have tainted this year’s marking of the Ashura day of mourning among Shiites in Jordan, as conservative tribes in the south of the kingdom threatened to demolish a Shiite Husaynya, a place of worship currently under construction.

When Shiite Muslims marked Ashura on November 24, visitors to their shrines managed to conduct the regular prayer service, but did not dare to carry out rituals common in its observance, such as hitting themselves with chains or bars. Worshipers often beat their chests, lash themselves with metal chains and even cut their heads with swords in remorse of their inability to save the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, Imam Hussein, who was killed by the armies of the Caliph Yazid during the battle of Karbala in 680 A.D.

Solemn prayers echoed around mosques in Al-Mazar near the southern city of Karak. The town, some 120 kilometers (72 miles) south of the capital Amman, is home to centuries-old tombs revered by Shiites that attract visitors from around the kingdom, Iraq and Lebanon.

“We only fasted for two days, prayed and called for forgiveness over the killing of the Imam,” Kathem Jabar, an Iraqi businessman who was visiting the tomb of Hussein’s companion, Ja’far bin Abi Talib in Al-Mazar, told The Media Line.

While a small number of Shiite Muslims were able to show up at the shrines, the majority marked the occasion in at home. Shiites in Jordan admit that the war in Syria has cast a gloomy shadow over the annual rituals. “People associate Shiites with [Syrian President Bashar] Al-Assad’s killing machine,” said Um Saber, a Lebanese Shiite who is married to a Jordanian. The mother of five said she was unable to travel south to mark the holy occasion for fear of harassment. “In the past, when Hizbullah used to bring nightmares to Israel through its rockets, we openly said we are Shiites. Now, we hide our identity,” she said from her house in eastern Amman.

Jordan, the majority of whose population is Sunni Muslim, sympathizes with the revolution to topple Al-Assad, who is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shia. The kingdom’s pro-Western monarch has been warning against the so-called “Shia Crescent” and has called on Assad to relinquish his powers.

Iran this week charged that Jordan bars Iranians, who are majority Shiites, from visiting shrines in southern part of the country. But Jordians insist the kingdom is open to all Shiites, including Iranians.

Earlier this month, residents of Al-Mazar called on the government to take action when they discovered that a Husaynya, where Shiites perform rituals, was being built in the town. An eyewitness, Al-Mazar resident Amer Taranweh, told The Media Line that he had noticed Shiites attending a building that was under construction and said that followers, who are also Jordanians, have refused community residents’ demand that construction be halted. They complained to officials of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and requested an investigation. The local residents said they will give the government – which said it was not aware of the construction of a Husaynya – to react, but if there is no action taken, the community will take the matter into their own hands.

Tarawneh, a Sunni Muslim, said, “We will not allow a symbol of Shia in our territories, at whatever cost.”

Relations between Shiites and Sunnis soured to an all-time low after the execution of Saddam Hussein. Tribes in the Sunni-dominated town blame Shiites, and particularly Iran, for executing the former Iraqi dictator, who is seen as a national hero among ordinary Jordanians. Town officials have decided to rename the main street leading to the Shiite shrines “Martyr Saddam Hussein Street.”

One Al-Mazar Sunni, who gave his name only as Ahmed, said the tension between the local residents is political, noting that Sunnis and Shiites have lived together in this part of the country for hundreds of years.

Meanwhile, Ali, a Jordanian Shiite activist, said that Lebanon-based Hizbullah head Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s position and Iran’s support of Assad’s forces have not helped their cause. He said the future looks bleak for Shiites in Jordan, and he worries that the war in Syria will not allow the tensions to heal.

“With the killings and suffering in Syria, we will not be able to even visit Shiite shrines soon,” he told The Media Line.

Spate of attacks kills 107 across Iraq


At least 107 people were killed in bomb and gun attacks in Iraq on Monday, a day after 20 died in explosions, in a coordinated surge of violence against mostly Shi’ite Muslim targets.

The bloodshed, which coincided with an intensifying of the conflict in neighboring Syria, pointed up the deficiencies of the Iraqi security forces, which failed to prevent insurgents from striking in multiple locations across the country.

As well as the scores of deaths, at least 268 people were wounded by bombings and shootings in Shi’ite areas of Baghdad, the Shi’ite town of Taji to the north, the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul and many other places, hospital and police sources said, making it one of Iraq’s bloodiest days in weeks.

No group has claimed responsibility for the wave of assaults but a senior Iraqi security official blamed the local wing of al Qaeda, made up of Sunni Muslim militants hostile to the Shi’ite-led government, which is friendly with Iran.

“Recent attacks are a clear message that al Qaeda in Iraq is determined to spark a bloody sectarian war,” the official said, asking not to be named.

“With what’s going on in Syria, these attacks should be taken seriously as a potential threat to our country. Al Qaeda is trying to push Iraq to the verge of Shi’ite-Sunni war,” he said. “They want things to be as bad as in Syria.”

Iraq, whose desert province of Anbar, a Sunni heartland, borders Syria, is nervous about the impact of the conflict in its neighbor where mainly Sunni rebels are fighting to end President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite-dominated rule.

The Iraqi government said on Monday it rejected Arab League calls for Assad to quit, saying it was for the Syrian people alone to decide his fate and others “should not interfere”.

Arab League foreign ministers meeting in Doha earlier in the day offered Assad a “safe exit” if he stepped down swiftly.

Baghdad advocates reform in Syria, rather than endorsing calls by Sunni-ruled Gulf nations for Assad’s removal.

The last two days of attacks in Iraq shattered a two-week lull in violence in the run-up to the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, which Iraqis began observing on Saturday.

Sectarian slaughter peaked in 2006-2007 but deadly attacks have persisted while political tensions among Iraq’s main Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish factions have increased since U.S. troops completed their withdrawal in December.

“I ask the government if security forces are capable of keeping control,” a man named Ahmed Salim shouted angrily at the scene of a car bomb in Kirkuk. “With all these bloody bombs and innocent people killed, the government should reconsider its security plans,” he told Reuters Television.

TRAIL OF DESTRUCTION

The security forces themselves were often the targets or victims of the assaults perpetrated across Iraq.

Gunmen using assault rifles and hand grenades killed at least 16 soldiers in an attack on an army post near Dhuluiya, 70 km (45 miles) north of Baghdad, police and army sources said.

In Taji, 20 km north of Baghdad, six explosions, including a car bombing, occurred near a housing complex. A seventh blast there caused carnage among police who had arrived at the scene of the earlier ones. In all, 32 people were killed, including 14 police, with 48 wounded, 10 of the police.

Two car bombs struck near a government building in Sadr City, a vast, poor Shi’ite swathe of Baghdad, and in the mainly Shi’ite area of Hussainiya on the outskirts of the capital, killing a total of 21 people and wounding 73, police said.

Nine people, including six soldiers, were killed in attacks in the northern city of Mosul, police and army sources said.

In Kirkuk, five car bombs killed six people and wounded 17, while explosions and gun attacks on security checkpoints around the restive province of Diyala killed six people, including four soldiers and policemen, and wounded 30, police sources said.

Other deadly attacks occurred in the towns of Khan Bani Saad, Udhaim, Tuz Khurmato, Samarra and Dujail, all north of Baghdad, as well as in the southern city of Diwaniya.

The orchestrated spate of violence followed car bombs on Sunday in two towns south of Baghdad and in the Shi’ite shrine city of Najaf that killed 20 people and wounded 80.

Last month was one of the bloodiest since the U.S. withdrawal, with at least 237 people killed and 603 wounded.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis took refuge in Syria from bloodshed that lasted for years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. Last week the Iraqi government urged them to return home to escape the violence in Syria.

At least 80 buses laden with returning Iraqi refugees crossed the border last week, a U.N. spokeswoman said.

Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government is also worried about the longer-term implications if Assad falls and Syria’s majority Sunnis overthrow the supremacy of the president’s Alawite sect, which traces its roots to Shi’ite Islam.

A sectarian struggle for control in post-Assad Syria could raise tensions across the border and damage Iraq’s chances of overcoming its own formidable security and political challenges.

Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Angus MacSwan