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.

End of the Houthis?


This artice first appeared on The Media Line.

Thirteen months ago the Iranian-backed Houthi stormed into Sana’a taking control over large swathes of Yemen in the process. Attempts between the group and the incumbent President Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi to cooperate eventually collapsed leading to the premier’s escape into exile in February of this year. An air campaign led by Saudi Arabia followed, reversing much of the territorial gains made by the Shi’ite militia.

As a result the Houthi have recently announced that its fighters will withdraw from the remaining territory they hold, signaling what could be the beginning of the end of the country’s civil war. The Media Line spoke to Yemenis and representatives of the group to ask them what they believed had been achieved in the year-long Houthi rule. 

The group’s first achievement was in preventing Saudi Arabia from breaking Yemen into numerous small regions, Abu Mohammed Al-Marwani, a Houthi leading figure, told The Media Line. “We are fighting a war to define the fate of Yemen: either we escape (Saudi) control or remain slaves to them. We are determined to defeat them in order to have the right to decide our destiny,” Al-Marwani said.

The Houthi commander also claimed that his organization had contributed to the fight against al-Qa’ida by pushing the group into the province of Hadramout.

“The US and other parties were able to kill the leader of al-Qa’ida in Yemen, Nasser Al-Wuhaishi. If we had not cornered them in Hadramout, America would not have been able to kill him,” Al-Marwani argued. The local franchise of the jihadist organization, known as al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was for some time considered the most dangerous branch of the Sunni extremist network, having attempted a number of sophisticated bomb attacks against US interests. 

Al-Marwani added that his organization had done much to reduce banditry in Yemen which previously plagued rural roads and had tackled corruption within government ministries.

“The Houthi made a huge mistake when they entered Sana’a at gunpoint and turned against the government,” Hussam Murshed Badi, an expert who follows armed organizations, told The Media Line. Badi accused the Houthi of orchestrating an energy crisis and of allowing a black market to flourish in order to provide back channel funds to its fighters. As part of this process all gas stations were closed down so that demand on the illegal market, and thus prices would soar, Badi alleged.

“We used to accuse the former regime of corruption,’ he said. “But those (the Houthis), the least we can call them is thieves. They have made millions of people homeless and hundreds of thousands unemployed.’ 

While Badi conceded that the Houthi did help suppress AQAP in some parts of the country, he suggested that elsewhere the group had expanded. Its enemies distracted and fighting each other, al-Qa’ida rearmed and expanded in the Hadramout area, Badi said. 

“It’s true that the Houthis have caused destruction, but if they were given a chance, they would have achieved things,” Mohammed Al-Anesi, a citizen in Sana’a, told The Media Line.

Mohammed Al-Qadri, another resident of Sana’a, agreed with Al-Anesi describing an incident where his taxi, his primary source of income, was stolen at gun point by ten armed men. Local police refused to help Al-Qadri retrieve his automobile. But when the Houthi arrived in the city they quickly enacted justice, Al-Qadri said, explaining, “I got my car back and the bandits were detained.”

Other Yemenis support the Houthi not for their appreciation of the group or its ideology but because of a desire to hit back at Saudi Arabia, who they see as an aggressor towards their country.

“The Houthis are the cause of all the blights of Yemen… but I am fighting for them right now, (because) we have a common enemy – Saudi Arabia,” Mujahid Al-Anesi, a resident of Dhamar, told The Media Line. Women, children and elderly people being killed by Saudi bombs had motivated Al-Anesi to fight against the Saudis, but later it would be the turn of the Houthi, the fighter said. 

“There is an old Yemeni proverb that says my cousin and I are enemies until the stranger comes, and then we fight him together,” Al-Anesi explained.

Several citizens said they were not originally sympathetic to Houthi rule but had come around to supporting the group due to their anger at Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Some individuals have even joined the fighters of the Houthi as a result.

The Houthi declared that they will withdraw from Sana’a and relinquish territory previously taken in order to end the suffering of the people of Yemen, Mohammed Al-Bukhaiti, a member of the organization’s political office, told The Media Line. The Houthi will comply with the United Nations’ Security Council (UNSC) directive 2216 providing it is overseen by the UN itself, Al-Bukhaiti said. 

“We made concessions to end the suffering of Yemenis caused by the Saudi bombardment that spared nothing and no one,” the Houthi political officer declared.

However an exclusive source within Prime Minister Khaled Mahafoudh Bahah’s cabinet divulged to The Media Line that the government had no faith in the Houthi’s word. 

“The legitimate government does not believe the Houthi, therefore (President) Hadi’s government and the coalition will condition that their forces replace the Houthi’s to ensure that the latter’s forces will actually withdraw,” the source said.

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.

Iraq deploys tanks as Islamic State tightens grip on Ramadi


Iraqi security forces on Tuesday deployed tanks and artillery around Ramadi to confront Islamic State fighters who have captured the city in a major defeat for the Baghdad government and its Western backers.

After Ramadi fell on Sunday, Shi'ite militiamen allied to the Iraqi army had advanced to a nearby base in preparation for a counterattack on the city, which lies in Anbar province just 70 miles northwest of Baghdad.

As pressure mounted for action to retake the city, a local government official urged Ramadi residents to join the police and the army for what the Shi'ite militiamen said would be the “Battle of Anbar”.

Sunni Islamic State fighters had set up defensive positions and laid landmines, witnesses said. As the group tightened its grip on the city, Islamists went from house to house in search of members of the police and armed forces and said they would set up courts based on Islamic Sharia law.

They released about 100 prisoners from the counter-terrorism detention center in the city.

Saed Hammad al-Dulaimi, 37, a school teacher who is still in the city, said: “Islamic State used loudspeakers urging people who have relatives in prison to gather at the main mosque in the city center to pick them up. I saw men rushing to the mosque to receive their prisoners.”

The move could prove popular with residents who have complained that people are often subject to arbitrary detention.

Sami Abed Saheb, 37, a Ramadi restaurant owner, said Islamic State found 30 women and 71 men in the detention center. They had been shot in the feet to prevent them escaping when their captors fled.

Witnesses said the black flag of Islamic State was now flying over the main mosque, government offices and other prominent buildings in Ramadi.

Jasim Mohammed, 49, who owns a women's clothing shop, said an Islamic State member had told him he must now sell only traditional Islamic garments.

“I had to remove the mannequins and replace them with other means of displaying the clothes. He told me that I shouldn't sell underwear because it's forbidden,” he said.

Islamic State had also promised that food, medicine and doctors would soon be available.

Dulaimi said Islamic State fighters were using cranes to lift blast walls from the streets and bulldozers to shovel away sand barriers built by security forces before they fled.

“I think they (Islamic State) are trying to win the sympathy of people in Ramadi and give them moments of peace and freedom,” he said.

SECTARIAN HOSTILITY

The decision by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is a Shi'ite, to send in the militia, known as Hashid Shaabi or Popular Mobilisation, to try to retake the predominantly Sunni city could add to sectarian hostility in one of the most violent parts of Iraq.

The Abadi government had pledged to equip and train pro-government Sunni tribes with a view to replicating the model applied during the “surge” campaign of 2006-07, when U.S. Marines turned the tide against al Qaeda fighters – forerunners of Islamic State – by arming and paying local tribes in a movement known as the Anbar Awakening.

But a repeat will be more difficult. Sunni tribal leaders complain that the government was not serious about arming them again, and say they received only token support.

There are fears that weapons provided to Sunni tribes could end up with Islamic State. Islamic State has also worked to prevent a new Awakening movement by killing sheikhs and weakening the tribes.

Iraqi ministers on Tuesday stressed the need to arm and train police and tribal fighters. Abadi called for national unity in the battle to defend Iraq.

A spokesman for Iraqi military operations, Saad Maan, said the armed forces controlled areas between Ramadi and the Habbaniya military base about 30 km (20 miles) away where the militia fighters are waiting.

“Security forces are reinforcing their positions and setting three defensive lines around Ramadi to repel any attempts by terrorists to launch further attacks,” Maan said.

“All these three defensive lines will become offensive launch-pads once we determine the zero hour to liberate Ramadi.”

The International Organization for Migration said 40,000 people had been forced to flee Ramadi in the past four days.

About 500 people were killed in the fighting for Ramadi in recent days, local officials said.

Islamic State gains in Ramadi mean it will take longer for Iraqi forces to move against them in Mosul, where militants celebrated victory in Anbar by firing shots into the air, sounding car horns and playing Islamic anthems, residents said.

Shi’ite Militias Head to Ramadi


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

Shi’ite militias, many of them backed by Iran, are streaming into the provincial capital of Ramadi, to try to help wrest the city back from Islamic State which captured it over the weekend. The loss of Ramadi, just 60 miles from Baghdad, threatens to weaken the Iraqi government further and has led to fears of growing sectarian violence which has already killed tens of thousands of Iraqis.

Islamic State forces continued east toward Baghdad, heading for an army base where Shi’ite fighters were massing to try to take back Ramadi. Islamic State’s takeover of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, presents new challenges to the Iraqi government, as well as to US policy. The victory came as a surprise to many, and has led to fears of new sectarian violence between the Sunni inhabitants of Anbar province and the incoming Shi’ite fighters. Some analysts described it as the worst setback for the Iraqi government in the past year.

“For the last few months the narrative has been that Islamic State is on the defensive,” Renad Mansour, a non-resident fellow at the Carnegie Center for Middle East Peace told The Media Line. “This shows that the battle isn’t as easy as it seems and will take much longer.”

He said that there had been speculation that Iraqi attempts to retake Mosul could begin as early as this summer. Now that timetable will be pushed back. Since last month at least 120,000 residents are the area are reported to have fled.

Reports from Ramadi say that at least 500 fighters and civilians have been killed, and thousands have fled the area. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was convinced that US-backed forces would succeed in retaking the area.

“I am convinced that as the forces are redeployed and as the days flow in the weeks ahead that’s going to change, as overall [Isis] have been driven back … I am absolutely confident in the days ahead that will be reversed,” Kerry said.

The fight over Ramadi can also be seen as the fight between two different approaches – the Iranian one which favors deploying Shi’ite militias to fight the Sunni Islamic State, and the US-backed one of trying to restructure the Iraqi military.

“The US believes that in the long run the popular Shi’ite militias will have a negative effect on Iraq because they will use any military achievements as springboards for political ambitions like Hizbullah did in Lebanon,” Michael Eisenstadt, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told The Media Line. “Our model is the patient retraining of the Iraqi security forces to create a professional army to reclaim areas taken by Islamic State and return them to government control.”

While the loss of Ramadi is an important victory for Islamic State, the Iraqi government has succeeded in reestablishing control over several important areas including Takrit. Eisenstadt said the Defense Department recently issued a map showing that 25 percent of the territory taken over by IS in Iraq has been recaptured. But the fall of Ramadi could have an important psychological effect.

“As long as IS had no major victories we could claim that the tide has turned against them and they are a spent force,” Eisenstadt said. “This could undermine these claims and challenge the validity of the US approach.

The fighting in Iraq seems to get worse each year. In 2014, at least 17,000 civilians were killed, roughly double the number recorded in 2013. Going back to 2003, and the beginning of the US and British invasion of Iraq, estimates for the number of civilian deaths range from 138,000 to 157,000 civilians killed.

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

Wave of car bombings target Iraqi Shi’ites, killing 60


Car bombs ripped through busy streets and markets in Iraq on Monday, killing at least 60 people in predominantly Shi'ite areas in some of the deadliest violence since Sunni insurgents stepped up attacks this year.

The 17 blasts, which appeared to be coordinated, were concentrated on towns and cities in Iraq's mainly Shi'ite south, and districts of the capital where Shi'ites live.

Militant groups including al Qaeda have increased attacks in recent months in an insurgency against the Shi'ite-led government as a civil war in neighboring Syria heightens sectarian tensions.

The violence has raised fears of a return to full-blown intercommunal conflict in a country where ethnic Kurds, majority Shi'ites and Sunni Muslims have yet to find a stable way of sharing power.

In Baghdad's Shi'ite stronghold of Sadr city, police and witnesses said a minivan drew up to a group of men waiting by the side of the road for day work, and the driver told them to get in before detonating an explosive device in the vehicle.

“The driver asked laborers to get into the van, then he disappeared and minutes later the truck exploded, flinging the laborers' bodies back,” said Yahya Ali, a worker who was standing nearby.

“Somebody tell me please why poor laborers are targeted? They want only to take food to their families!”

Monday's attacks underscore deteriorating security in Iraq, where nearly 4,000 people have been killed since the start of the year, said violence monitoring group Iraq Body Count. In July, more than 810 people were killed in militant attacks.

SECTARIAN STRIFE

“I am deeply concerned about the heightened level of violence which carries the danger that the country falls back into sectarian strife,” said acting United Nations envoy to Iraq, Gyorgy Busztin.

“Iraq is bleeding from random violence, which sadly reached record heights during the holy month of Ramadan.”

At least 10 people were killed when two car bombs blew up near a bus station in the city of Kut, 150 km (95 miles) southeast of the capital, police said.

Four more were killed in a blast in the town of Mahmoudiya, about 30 km (20 miles) south of Baghdad, and two bombs in Samawa, further south, killed two.

The rest of the bombings took place across Baghdad, in the districts of Habibiya, Hurriya, Bayaa, Ur, Shurta, Kadhimiya, Risala, Tobchi and Abu Dsheer.

An assault on Abu Ghraib prison last week raised questions about the ability of Iraq's security services to combat al Qaeda, which has been regrouping and striking with a ferocity not seen in years.

“Today's attacks are closely linked with the Taji and Abu Ghraib prison breaks, which have encouraged terrorist groups to launch further attacks in areas of a specific sect to put more pressure on the government and undermine security force morale”, Hakim Al-Zamili, a senior member of the security and defense committee in parliament, told Reuters.

Insurgents have been recruiting from the country's Sunni minority, which increasingly resents Shi'ite domination since the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, in 2003.

The Syrian conflict has drawn Shi'ites and Sunnis from Iraq and beyond into battle against each other.

On Monday, a roadside bomb killed a senior police officer, his aide and two guards when it hit their convoy near Baiji, 180 km (112 miles) north of the capital, and five roadside bombs targeted a police patrol in Baghdad's Palestine Street.

Reporting by Kareem Raheem in Baghdad, Aref Mohammed in Basra, Jaafar al-Taie in Kut and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Elizabeth Piper

Saudi Arabia says Syrian war on rebels is ‘genocide’


Saudi Arabia said on Tuesday the Syrian government's attempts to suppress a rebellion amounted to “genocide” and called for rebels to get military aid to defend themselves, in a sharp escalation of rhetoric over the conflict.

Speaking at a news conference with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Jeddah, Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal criticized Iran, Russia and Hezbollah for backing and arming Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“Syria is facing a double-edged attack. It is facing genocide by the government and an invasion from outside the government … (It) is facing a massive flow of weapons to aid and abet that invasion and that genocide. This must end,” he said.

The prince did not spell out what he meant by genocide but the kingdom has accused Assad of using air and artillery strikes against heavily populated civilian areas.

The Syrian war has also become increasingly sectarian, pitting the president, from an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, against rebels mostly from the country's Sunni Muslim majority.

The fighting has accentuated sectarian divisions across the region. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states have already sent arms to the insurgents, while analysts and diplomats say Shi'ite power Iran, along with Russia, is among Assad's main suppliers.

Prince Saud said the world's top oil exporter “cannot be silent” at the recent decision by Lebanese Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah to send fighters into Syria to back Assad – the latest sign of how Syria's neighbors are getting entangled.

“The most dangerous development is the foreign participation, represented by Hezbollah and other militias supported by the forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard,” the prince said, repeating a call for rebels to be armed.

“The kingdom calls for issuing an unequivocal international resolution to halt the provision of arms to the Syrian regime and states the illegitimacy of the regime,” he added.

KERRY TALKS

Kerry has returned to the Middle East after a two-day visit to India and, his aides say, will continue efforts to strengthen the Syrian opposition and revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

In Jeddah, Kerry held discussions with Prince Saud and Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who coordinates the kingdom's efforts to topple Assad.

The discussions included Washington's plans for providing direct military support to General Salim Idriss of the Supreme Military Council, the military wing of Syria's main civilian opposition group.

U.S. President Barack Obama has said he will arm the rebels but has not disclosed what type of assistance he will provide.

Kerry is trying to ensure that the aid to the rebels is properly coordinated among the allies, in part out of concern that weapons could end up in the hands of extremist groups.

“Our goal is very clear, we cannot let this be a wider war. We cannot let this contribute to more bloodshed and prolongation of the agony of the people of Syria,” he said at the conference.

A meeting between Kerry and European and Arab counterparts in Doha last week agreed to increase support for Syria's rebels although there was no consensus over providing arms, with Germany and Italy strongly opposed.

More than 93,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict, which began as a protest movement against Assad.

Reporting By Mahmoud Habboush and Lesley Wroughton, Editing by Angus McDowall and Andrew Heavens

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

Fearful Syrian voters will keep Assad in power, Hezbollah deputy leader says


Syrian President Bashar Assad is likely to run for re-election next year and win, with Syria remaining in military and political deadlock until then, said the deputy leader of Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah group.

Sheikh Naim Qassem, who predicted a year ago that Assad would not be dislodged from power, said the Syrian leader would win a vote because his supporters understood that their communities' very existence depended on him.

“I believe that in a year's time he will stand for the presidency. It will be the people's choice, and I believe the people will choose him,” said the bearded, turban-wearing Shi'ite cleric, speaking carefully and deliberately.

“The crisis in Syria is prolonged, and the West and the international community have been surprised by the degree of steadfastness and popularity of the regime.”

Citing rifts among Assad's foes inside and outside Syria, as well as disagreements among world powers over Assad's future, Qassem said any talk of political solutions was futile for now.

“It will take at least three or four months” for any such solution, he said in a meeting with Reuters editors. “Maybe things will continue until 2014 and the presidential election.”

The two-year-old revolt against Assad is the bloodiest and most protracted of the Arab uprisings. At least 70,000 people have been killed and the violence has stoked tensions across the Middle East between the two main branches of Islam.

Shi'ite Iran and Hezbollah have supported Assad, whose Alawite sect derives from Shi'ite Islam. The mainly Sunni rebels are backed by Sunni powers Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

Some Western leaders have long predicted Assad's imminent demise, but Qassem said he was likely to be re-elected in 2014.

BLACKED-OUT WINDOWS

Wearing brown robes and a white turban, he spoke in a windowless office in Hezbollah's southern Beirut stronghold.

Journalists were driven to the undisclosed venue in a car with blacked-out windows, a security precaution in violence-prone Lebanon. Three Hezbollah leaders have been assassinated in the past two decades; the group blames Israel for the killings.

Hezbollah, the most accomplished military force in Lebanon, fought Israel to a standstill in a 2006 war and, with its mainly Shi'ite and Christian allies, now holds a majority of cabinet seats in Prime Minister Najib Mikati's government.

Mikati has tried to insulate his country from the fighting in Syria but Lebanese Shi'ites and Sunnis have both been drawn into the fighting. Hezbollah denies accusations that it has sent its forces into Syria to fight alongside Assad's troops.

Despite significant and sustained rebel gains, Qassem said the Syrian authorities had scored a string of military successes since insurgents launched attacks in Damascus a few months ago.

“The regime has started winning clearly, point by point,” he said. “And the tensions among the countries supporting the armed (rebel) groups have become clearer.”

Assad's forces still control central Damascus and large parts of the cities of Homs, Hama and Aleppo to the north. But they have lost swathes of territory in the rural north and most of the eastern towns and cities along the Euphrates River.

In such areas, the Syrian military relies heavily on missiles, artillery and air strikes to pin back rebel advances.

RISK OF DISINTEGRATION

Qassem said Syria only had one viable option: “Either they reach a political solution, in agreement with President Assad … or there can be no alternative regime in Syria,” he said.

Asked whether Syria might fall apart, he replied: “Everything is possible.”

Syria's population includes Christians, Shi'ites, Alawites, Druze and Ismailis as well as majority Sunnis who include mystical Sufis and secularists as well as pious conservatives.

Qassem portrayed authorities as fighting to protect that diversity in the face of hardline Sunni Islamist rebels. “The regime is defending itself in a battle which it sees as an existential fight, not a struggle for power,” he said.

Assad also faced international opposition from countries trying to break the “resistance project,” a reference to the anti-Israel alliance of Syria, Hezbollah and Iran, he added.

Israel, which diplomats and regional security sources said bombed a convoy in Syria two months ago carrying weapons which may have been destined for Hezbollah, has warned that military action may be needed to stop Iran's nuclear programme.

Israel and Western nations suspect Iran is seeking atomic weapons, a charge it denies. Israel says a “clear and credible military threat” against Iran is needed to halt Tehran's work.

But Qassem said the United States was reluctant to get dragged into a “costly” conflict with Tehran.

“It would not halt Iran's peaceful nuclear programme but would just delay it for a few years,” he said. “In return America's interests in the region and those of its allies and Israel would be in great and unpredictable danger.”

Washington's caution over Iran had echoes in what he said was its equivocal position towards Syria.

Although the United States says it provides only non-lethal aid to the rebels, Qassem said the presence of U.S.-made weapons in Syria proved it had at very least given approval for third countries to ship arms to Assad's opponents.

But the prolonged fighting had put Washington in a dilemma about whether to “follow the political path” instead, he said.

“America has lost its way over the steps it wants to take in Syria. On the one hand it wants the regime overthrown, and on the other it fears losing control after the regime falls.”

Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Alistair Lyon

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.

Iran stirring tensions in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province


In the restive city of Qatif in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, the older Shiites are quiet. They had once cheered the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and had hoped their time had come for greater equality in the kingdom. But that dream has faded.

The younger generation is just angry. And now they are picking up where the elders have left off.

Since the Arab Spring swept the Middle East in late 2010 and early 2011, pressure has been building in the Eastern Province where an estimated 2 million Shiites live. For decades Shiites faced employment and religious discrimination under the Sunni monarchy, but hope arrived when King Abdullah assumed the throne in 2005. The anticipation for better employment opportunities, participation in government and freedom to practice their form of Islam, such commemorating the Day of Ashura to remember the martyr Husayn bin Al, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, heightened as Shiite leaders traveled to Riyadh to greet the new king and pledge their loyalty.

“Nothing ever happened after that visit with the new king, and we are impatient,” said Saeed, a 24-year-old Shiite Saudi who says he never held a job after graduating from secondary school. “We looked to our fathers to solve the problems with the king, but it’s been too long. It is up to us now.”

As a result, the Eastern Province has been wracked with occasional, but more frequent outbursts of violence. Emboldened somewhat by the revolutions in neighboring Arab countries, but also largely fueled by social media campaigns on Twitter and Facebook, young people have taken to the streets. Their numbers since early 2011 have grown from a few dozens to hundreds earlier this summer.

Shiite street demonstrations in Saudi Arabia are not unprecedented and have resulted in numerous deaths since the 1979 Islamic revolution.  Few Saudis point to the Arab Spring as a catalyst for the recent demonstrations, but to Iran.

In 1979, Shiites generally supported the Ayatollah Khomeini invectives against the Saudi royal family. Khomeini claimed a hereditary monarchy was illegitimate. Street demonstrations numbered in the thousands and Saudi clashes between security forces and rioters in November 1979 left 24 dead and hundreds arrested.

More than 400 people died in rioting in July 1987, when Shia pilgrims demonstrated in Makkah during the Hajj and clashed with police and National Guardsmen. The next day, Khomeini urged Shiites to overthrow the Saudi government.

Since March 2011, Shiites have been staging demonstrations demanding that political prisoners be released from Saudi jails. Security forces fired upon demonstrators in separate incidents over the past year,  killing at least six people. Some activists have said that as many as 10 are dead due to security crackdowns.

Saudis in other regions of the kingdom have largely ignored the violence in the Eastern Province. Saudi media gives it scant attention and limits its coverage to officials Saudi Press Agency reports.

A Sunni Saudi journalist, who declined to give his name for publication, wrote that he does not dispute that Shiites have historically experienced institutionalized discrimination, but he supports the security forces’ tough crackdown on demonstrators.

“Yes, they have had a difficult time for no other reason than they are Shiite,” the writer said. “But they are demonstrating with signs that have slogans and pictures of their masters in Iran. If that is not sedition and a threat to our national security, I don’t know what is.”

The journalist’s attitude illustrates the apathy for Shiites who some Saudis say have taken a route that violates the Islamic principle that citizens do not rise against a Muslim ruler, especially one considered to be a positive force in society. Instead of airing grievances directly to the king or the Shoura Council—Saudi Arabia’s advisory quasi-legislative body—demonstrators prefer citing allegiance to rulers of Shiite-dominated countries, such as Iran, the journalist said.

“When I and my brothers are ignored our entire lives by the government we are supposed to love and respect, it’s only natural to look to someone else for answers,” said a 29-year-old Shiite woman, who lives in Dammam and says she does not participate in protests.

She also denied that Iran influences demonstrators. “We don’t need outsiders to tell us we are treated like dogs here,” she said.

A Saudi analyst, who said he did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak about sectarian strife, said the Ministry of Interior is on high alert with all personnel on call due to the instability in the Eastern Province.

Yet an uprising on the scale of Saudi Arabia’s neighbors is virtually impossible, he said.

“Shiites only make up 10 or 12 percent of the population, so their numbers are insufficient to really pose a serious security threat,” he told The Media Line. “But the government also recognizes the protests for what they really are: an external security threat to the stability of our country. Young people may say it is about jobs and participation in Saudi society, but it’s Iran that is stirring things up.”

Tensions between Sunnis and Shiites further increased with the July 8 shooting and arrest of Shiite Sheikh Nimr Baqr Al-Nimr near his home in Al-Awamiyah. Al-Nimr is the spiritual leader of the Shiite community and a frequent critic of the royal family, especially against Prince Nayef, the minister of interior, who died on June 16. Security forces arrested Al-Nimr on previous occasions for his outspoken views. He remains in custody and is said to be on a hunger strike.

Al-Nimr’s arrest was recorded on YouTube showing him bloodied from his wounds and laying in the backseat of a car as he was rushed to the hospital.

One Twitterer wrote after Al-Nimr’s arrest: “People of alqatif are cancel there widdings and partys Grief because the martyrs and because the goverment arrested shikh nimr al nimr.”

Another tweeted, “He is the moderate cleric who reasonably, bravely, religiously and loudly criticize the #Saudi government.”

King Abdullah has made efforts to soothe Saudi Arabia’s rocky relationship with Iran by inviting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the recent Islamic Solidarity Conference in Makkah. The king perhaps spent more time with Ahmadinejad than with other Muslim leaders. The king later sent his condolences to the Iranian leader following the recent earthquake that cost the lives of more than 300 people.

“I think the Saudi government truly wants Ahmadinejad as a friend of Saudi Arabia so Iran stops its meddling with the people in the Eastern Province,” said the Saudi analyst. “So it’s Iran’s move now.”

The Arab Spring springs surprises


When a popular uprising started in Tunisia less than two years ago, it took the world by surprise. Not many observers had anticipated the outbreak, let alone the success, of popular uprisings in a region far better known for the longevity of its tyrants and despots.

Contrary to what some analysts have stated, the region loosely known as “the Arab world” had in fact seen important, albeit failed, uprisings: the Muslim Brotherhood’s revolt against Hafez Al-Assad’s regime in Hama, Syria, was brutally put down in 1982. The mass uprisings in both the northern and southern parts of Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf War of 1991 were crushed just as mercilessly by the Saddam Hussein regime.

This time, however, it was different. The Tunisians succeeded with breathtaking speed in overthrowing Zine El-Abidine’s dictatorial and corrupt regime. But what turned those events into something really unique in the modern Arab world was the domino effect which followed. Shortly after the Tunisians won their battle with their government, there ensued a confrontation between the Egyptians and their own government. Before long, Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, was forced to step down. The ripple effect of those cataclysmic developments was subsequently felt in other Arab countries, such as Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and, later, Syria.

Despite the apparent similarities noted in the Arab rebellions taking place in the Middle East, there were nevertheless some notable differences in the way the uprisings happened in the aforementioned Arab countries: the relatively benign dictatorships-Tunisia and Egypt- collapsed much more easily than did the far more ruthless tyrannies in Libya and Syria. One reason may be that Zine El-Abidine’s regime in Tunisia was caught napping by the sudden nature of the revolt in that country. And while Hosni Mubarak’s regime had some forewarning of the possibility of similar developments taking place in Egypt, this was not early enough for members of the Egyptian political elite to successfully contain and defuse the situation.

By contrast, the Qaddafi regime had ample time to prepare for such an eventuality, and the regime of Bashar Al-Assad had even more time than Qaddafi’s to brace itself for a similar insurgency occurring in Syria. Coupled with the horrifically brutal nature of both of these regimes, the spread of the “Arab Spring”, as it came to be known, lost momentum. Despite some initial successes achieved by anti-Qaddafi rebels in Libya, the tide was turned fairly quickly as Qaddafi’s forces rallied to roll back the rebels’ advance speedily and efficiently. Before long, Qaddafi’s fighters had overcome the rebels in Zawiya, laid siege to Misrata, and beaten the eastern region’s rebels from near Sirte, his own birthplace, all the way back to my own city, Benghazi. Terrified and thrown into panic by the merciless, ruthless nature of Qaddafi’s threats and his declared intention of vindictively seeking out his enemies “street-by-street, alley-by-alley, house-by-house”,  France, along with the United Kingdom and, after some hesitancy, the United States successfully obtained the Arab League’s consent to a possible aerial intervention in Libya in order to protect civilians from what looked like a potentially hair-raising massacre not very different from what had happened in Srebrenica in the ex-Yugoslavia back in the 1995. France, the United Kingdom, and the United States also succeeded in persuading reluctant members of the United Nation’s Security Council, most notably Russia and China, of the need to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. The French, the British, and the Americans also took advantage of the wording of UN Resolution 1973, especially one of the points authorizing all necessary means to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas, to justify the active, pre-emptive aerial attacks against the Qaddafi regime. The famous French air attack on Qaddafi’s lethal forces on the outskirts of Benghazi in March 2011 achieved the goal of preventing a large scale massacre of civilians in that city. Consequently, Qaddafi’s forces quickly retreated all the way back to Sirte. Buoyed up by such speedy withdrawal, the eastern rebels advanced just as speedily all the way to an area not very far from Sirte, while exuding their newly-found confidence that the Qaddafi regime would crumble in few weeks or less.  That, of course, did not materialize, and the Libyan conflict entered thereafter a phase of prolonged stalemate which lasted for many months before the Qaddafi regime collapsed in the city of Tripoli and Qaddafi himself was captured and killed near his hometown of Sirte in October 2011.

Once the Syrian people saw what was happening in other Arab countries, and how France, the United Kingdom, and the United States were striving for intervention in the Libyan conflict, they plucked up enough courage to launch mass protests against Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. This began when protesters called for the “Friday of Dignity” and Syrians initiated their first serious challenge against their own government. Unlike the Libyans before them, the Syrian protesters did not want outside intervention and were intent on fighting the Assad regime alone. When it gradually dawned on the Syrian rebels that overthrowing Bashar Al-Assad’s regime was not as feasible as they had imagined, they little by little started to have second thoughts concerning the idea of requesting external armed involvement.

Nonetheless, this time the situation in Syria was significantly different from the Libyan situation: First, both Russia and China objected to outside intervention à la Libyan case. Second, important regional players such as Iran, along with organizations like Hizbollah in Lebanon, backed up the Syrian regime and reportedly propped it up with arms, financial, personnel, and diplomatic support. Third, despite the longtime enmity between Israel and Syria, the Israelis, and quite a few of their American supporters, balked at the idea of Syria being run by an actively anti-Israeli, perhaps theocratic, government should the Assad regime disintegrate. After all, both Bashar Al-Assad and his father before him often barked at Israel, but they never did much biting. The anxiety concerning a possible Islamist takeover in Syria was compounded by the early results of regime change in the Arab Spring: Major Islamist successes in Tunisia and Egypt, and significant Islamist influence in Libya’s post-Qaddafi politics, scared outside powers which feared that, yet again, the “Arab Spring” in Syria could very well lead to an “Islamist winter”.

The differences between Libya’s situation and that of Syria did not emerge only in terms of geopolitical dynamics, but also extended to include internal differences: To an extent far greater than the national makeup of Libya, Syria’s is a mosaic of various religions, sects, and ethnic groups: Arabs, Assyrians, Kurds, Armenians, Turkmen, Circassians, Muslims, Christians, Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, and so forth. These groups had been held together by Hafez Al-Assad and later his son Bashar. If the son’s regime were to collapse, it is not inconceivable that this might bring about the fragmentation of the country, resulting in extensive massacres. The relations between Muslims and Christians in Syria are already very tense, as are many of those between Syria’s other ethnic and sectarian groups. But the Syrian regime’s most-intensely feared scenario is the fate of the Alawite minority, to which Bashar Al-Assad belongs. The end of their tight grip on power could very easily become a prelude to their mass murder at the hands of other groups, especially the Sunnis who have long resented being governed and oppressed by the Alawites. This is one of the most important reasons why the Bashar Al-Assad regime is fighting tooth and nail to hold on to power: what is at stake is not merely the regime’s survival, but above all that of the whole Alawite sect.

Having previously worked for several years as a university professor of political science, I am fully aware that forecasting in the area of international politics is a very difficult undertaking; there are far too many unknown quantities and variables involved for this to be easily doable. All the same, it does look at the moment as if the Syrian situation will continue to be a war of attrition, with neither side being able to gain the upper hand in a decisive and conclusive manner. One is then left wondering whether this might lead to yet another “Lebanon”.


Husam Dughman’s family was both educated and liberal.  They heroically stood up to the Qaddafi regime and endured the dire consequences. This gave him a first-hand experience of what dictatorship, bigotry, and intolerance are about, and what kind of price has to be paid in order to stand up to them.  Coupled with his experience of religious intolerance, Mr. Dughman resolved to fight against zealotry, hate, and extremism, come hell or high water. Thus, the idea for Tête-à-tête with Muhammad began to germinate in his mind.

Husam Dughman was born in Libya and educated in Libya and the U.K. He earned his B.A. and M.A. in Political Science from the University of Kent at Canterbury, where he won several awards for academic excellence and graduated with a First Class with Honours. In 1993, Mr. Dughman returned to Libya and was successful in securing a position as a university professor of Political Science. Due to political reasons, he left his university position in 1997 and subsequently worked in legal translation. He immigrated to Canada in 2002, where he has been helping new immigrants with their settlement.

Dughman’s new book, Tête-à-tête with Muhammad, is available for purchase at Amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, as well as other online booksellers.  To learn more visit: http://www.husamdughman.com

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

Israel Worried About U.S. Iraq Withdrawl


As Shiite and Sunni resistance to the American presence in Iraq intensifies, Israel’s defense establishment is worried that a U.S. withdrawal under fire could have devastating consequences for the battles against weapons of mass destruction and global terrorism.

And Israel could be one of the big losers: Israeli officials believe a loss of American deterrence would encourage Iran to continue its nuclear weapons program, and its support for terrorism could lead to a hardening of Syrian and Palestinian attitudes against accommodation with Israel and could spark more Palestinian and other terrorism directed against Israeli targets.

Without American deterrence and a pro-Western Iraq, the officials say, Israel might have to rethink its attitude on key issues like the concessions it can afford to make to the Palestinians, its readiness for a land war on its eastern front and the size of its defense budget.

But there is an opposing, minority view in Israeli academic and intelligence circles: The quicker the Americans leave, this view holds, the quicker the Iraqis will have to get their act together. And once they do, they will not necessarily pose a threat to Israel or the West.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz summoned a meeting in early April of Israeli intelligence services and other branches to discuss the implications for Israel of the unrest in Iraq. Some of the analyses were bleak.

When the United States launched a war on Saddam Hussein’s regime in March 2003, Israeli military planners hoped for several significant gains.

Saddam’s defeat and the destruction of the Iraqi war machine would remove the threat of hundreds of Iraqi and Syrian tanks rumbling across the desert to threaten Israel’s eastern border, officials believed. They also hoped for a domino effect that would lead Syria and the Palestinians to seek accommodation with Israel, countries like Iran and Libya to rethink their nuclear weapons programs and terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad to exercise restraint.

In the first year after the war, some of that seemed to be happening. Now some Israeli intelligence analysts fear a reversal of these processes, with all the attendant dangers for Israel.

In the meeting with Mofaz, there was a general consensus that if American deterrence in the region is weakened, Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad all will be encouraged to mount or incite even more terrorism against Israel.

Some officers expressed fear of possible Iranian intervention in southern Iraq on the side of the Shiites, if the situation degenerates into war between the Sunni and Shiite populations after a hasty American withdrawal. That could lead to a radical Shiite regime in Iraq, similar to the one in Iran.

If such a radical Iraq were to emerge, some officers suggested, Israel might have to reconsider the huge cuts in the size of its tank forces that it planned after the destruction of Saddam’s army last year. That could impact the key defense budget, which was slashed last year and again this year as part of a general government austerity program.

A loss of American prestige in the region, some officials said, also could impact countries with pro-American regimes like Egypt and Jordan, and might mean that American guarantees to Israel in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would carry less weight.

In general, American attempts to stabilize the Middle East would suffer a huge setback, with potentially harsh consequences for Israel and the West. The two main goals of the U.S.-led war — curbing the proliferation of nuclear weapons in rogue countries such as Iran and striking a blow against global terrorists such as Al Qaeda — could be reversed.

In an interview with the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Mofaz echoed these concerns, saying, "America’s success in Iraq is essential for world peace. If the Americans manage to stabilize the situation in Iraq — and we in Israel believe they will — that will have a positive impact on the Middle East as a whole, on the world oil market and on the prestige of the international community."

But, he cautioned, "if the Americans are forced to withdraw in the wake of terrorist pressure, a new and dangerous model of Arab regime will be created. The axis of evil will lift its head, and it could threaten world peace."

Some Middle East experts in Israeli academia and the military take a more sanguine view, however. They argue that if the Americans withdraw soon after the handover of power to the Iraqi Provisional Council, scheduled for June 30, Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites would reach a modus vivendi on shared rule to keep the country from plunging into chaos.

They ask: Would a new Iraqi regime — even if radical Shiites are a dominant part of it — adopt a provocative, anti-Western stance after what happened to Saddam? If they did, who would rearm them? And without sizable quantities of sophisticated weaponry, how could they threaten Israel or the Western world?

Surely, these experts reason, any new Iraqi regime would prefer to tap America’s willingness to reconstruct Iraq and allow oil revenues to create a basis for new prosperity. They argue that an orderly American withdrawal, announced well in advance, would do more for American prestige in the area than an ill-fated attempt to crush the dissident Iraqi militias.

But this is a minority view in Israel, and similar predictions of rational Arab moderation — such as the thinking that led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority — have proven wrong in the past. Most members of the government, the defense establishment and the intelligence community believe America should maintain its military presence in Iraq in an effort to create a Western-leaning regime there and through it, a new and more stable Middle East.

When President Bush says, "America will stay the course," they take heart.