Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Saudi Arabia says Iran talks waste of time; EU to enforce oil embargo on July 1st

Negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program is a “waste of time” and it should be pushed forward towards time-limited talks, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Fisal said on Monday, as Europe confirmed that a ban on oil imports from Iran will go ahead as planned on July 1.

The comments came during the joint ministerial meeting between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the European Union (EU) in Luxemburg.

“We have agreed on the importance of negotiating with Tehran for the sake of reaching a political solution. Based on our previous experience, negotiations for Iran might be a means to gain more time instead of reaching a result. I believe, planning a time-limit for the negotiations will push Iran to show its real policy. It is not important to talk about the nuclear potentials, but what is happening on the ground is more important,” Faisal said, according to Al Arabiya.
The West suspects Iran of seeking to make nuclear weapons under the guise of an energy program and wants it to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent, which brings it dangerously close to levels needed to make a nuclear bomb.

Prince Faisal praised the efforts exerted by “the (3+3) or (5+1) group that aims mainly at seeking a peaceful resolution to the Iranian nuclear crisis.” He underlined the rights of the countries in the region to seek nuclear power for peaceful purposes, based on the measure and standards laid by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Saudi Press Agency reported.

Prince Faisal expressed his depressions that Iran was not responding to all such efforts and its attempts to manipulate. The Saudi top diplomat underlined the importance of making the Middle East region free of mass-destruction weapons, SPA reported.

The EU confirmed earlier Monday that a ban on oil imports from Iran will go ahead as planned on July 1 due to the lack of progress in talks on Tehran’s contested nuclear drive.

“The latest package of EU sanctions against Iran will apply as earlier decided,” EU foreign ministers said in a statement referring to their January agreement to enforce an oil embargo failing a breakthrough in talks on Iran's nuclear program.

The 27-nation bloc agreed on Jan. 23 to immediately ban new oil imports from Iran and phase out existing contracts by July 1 after weeks of fraught talks on an embargo which is likely to hurt debt-straddled EU nations such as Greece.

“Following a review of the measures the council confirmed that they would remain as approved in January,” Monday’s EU statement added.

This meant on the one hand that contracts for importing Iranian oil that were concluded before Jan. 23 “will have to be terminated by July 1.”

“From the same date, EU insurers may no more provide third-party liability and environmental liability insurance for the transport of Iranian oil,” the statement said, according to AFP.

It added that “the objective of the EU remains to achieve a comprehensive, long-term settlement on the basis of meaningful negotiations between the E3+3 (global powers Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the U.S.) and Iran.”

Confirmation that the embargo will be enforced comes days after talks in Moscow between Iran and world powers on its nuclear program failed to reach a breakthrough.

Negotiators from permanent U.N. Security Council members Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, plus Germany, last week agreed with their Iranian counterparts to stage a new expert-level meeting in Istanbul on July 3.

Death toll mounts as Annan presses to invite Iran to meeting on Syria transition

United Nations envoy Kofi Annan has proposed inviting Iran to a high-level meeting this week to discuss a political transition in Syria but is leaving it up to the U.S. and Russia to decide whether Iran can participate, The Associated Press reported on Tuesday, as the U.S. described the U.N. Security Council as a “colossal failure” in protecting Syrian civilians, amid a continual rise in death toll nationwide.

U.S. officials said Monday that Annan wants an “understanding” between Washington and Moscow on Iran, other potential guests and the agenda, before he issues formal invitations to the meeting he intends to host in Geneva on Saturday. The U.S. is adamantly opposed to Iran taking part, while Russia supports its inclusion.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the diplomacy. They said Annan is seeking a U.S.-Russian agreement by later Tuesday.
Washington said late Monday that the U.N. Security Council has been a “colossal failure” in protecting Syrian civilians and made a new demand for sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad.

The council, which is divided on how to end the conflict, “continues to stand by, rather than to stand up,” Susan Rice, U.S. envoy to the United Nations, told the 15-nation body.

The Security Council is to get an update on the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) on Tuesday from Nasser al-Kudwa, deputy to Annan.

“The situation in Syria represents a colossal failure by the Security Council to protect civilians,” Rice told a council debate on civilians in conflict, according to AFP.

“For over a year, this council has not been willing to protect the Syrian people from the brutal actions of their government,” she added, saying the Assad government's crackdown “has grown ever more reprehensible and ever more dangerous to international peace and security.”

“It is a shame that this Council continues to stand by rather than to stand up,” Rice said.

“We must take meaningful steps, including by imposing binding sanctions under Chapter VII, to pressure” Assad to comply with Annan’s six point peace plan and work toward a political transition, the U.S. envoy added.

On the ground, as many as 80 people have been killed by the Syrian government forces, Al Arabiya reported citing activists at the Local Coordination Committees.

Kamal al-Labwani, one of the founders of the Syrian National Front, expressed to Al Arabiya his fear of a possible regional conflict as the fighting escalates in Syria. “What the [Syrian] regime is doing now is an attempt to direct the attention away from what is happening interiorly,” he said.

“The Assad regime now fears that Russia might change its stand,” Labwani told Al Arabiya.

While the United States, Britain, France and Germany have called for sanctions against Assad, Russia and China have twice used their powers as permanent members of the council to veto resolutions which hinted at sanctions.

Two other resolutions have been passed though setting up UNSMIS and calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops and heavy weapons from cities.

Britain, France and the United States are working on a new resolution which would call for sanctions on Syria, where activists say more than 15,000 people have died in the past 15 months of conflict. The U.N. put the number of people killed at 10,000.

In shell-shattered districts of Homs, the heart of the uprising against Assad, rebels battled troops as aid workers tried to evacuate civilians. Turkish television reported the desertion of a Syrian general and other officers across the border, according to Reuters.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it was again trying to arrange a safe evacuation of trapped civilians from Homs. But anti-government activists reported heavy shelling on central districts, including Jouret al-Shiyah and al-Qarabis. Video showed detonations and machinegun bursts from the skeletal remains of abandoned apartment blocks.

The activist Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Assad’s troops carried out raids and arrests in areas still under army control, and heavy fighting between government forces and rebel fighters was reported in the opposition centers of Idlib, Deir Ezzor and Deraa, the birthplace of the uprising.


BRUSSELS (AP) — Syria's downing of a Turkish military jet has the feel of a turning point that could drag Western powers into a conflict that is spiraling out of control.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has vowed to hold Syria to account, while Britain's foreign minister said Damascus won't be allowed to act with impunity.
But for all the hard talk, the prospect of Western military intervention in Syria remains remote, at best.
For one thing, military action is unlikely to get the support of either the U.N. Security Council or the Arab League, and outside intervention without the blessing of both of those bodies is all but unthinkable. And there is little appetite among the 28 NATO countries — of which the U.S. is the largest — for another war in the Middle East.
Libya was hard enough, and for a many nervous months it looked as if that conflict might end in an embarrassing stalemate for the West. And Syria would be tougher than Libya. Syrian President Bashar Assad's army is better equipped, better trained, better paid and far more loyal than was that of late Libyan leader Moammar Gaddhafi.
So for the moment, despite the increasing violence and the staggering number of deaths, action by the international community seems to be limited to sanctions and strong words.
And so it was on Monday, when foreign ministers from the 27 European Union countries condemned Syria's downing Friday of a Turkish jet, but said the bloc would not support military action in the troubled country.
"What happened is to be considered very seriously," said Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal. Having gotten his denunciation out of the way, he let the other shoe drop: "We do not go for any interventions."
Turkish officials have said the jet mistakenly strayed into Syrian airspace, but was warned to leave by Turkish authorities and was a mile (1.6 kilometers) inside international airspace when Syria shot it down. The Turkish pilots are still missing.
Turkey immediately called a meeting of the North Atlantic Council, NATO's governing body, on Tuesday to discuss the incident. Any NATO member can request such consultations if their territorial integrity has been threatened.
An alliance diplomat said ambassadors will discuss Turkey's concerns — and would likely condemn the downing.
"But there won't be anything more specific than that," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of standing rules.
Turkey, too, appeared to be attempting to moderate the situation, trying to balance a response that would assuage domestic outrage over the shooting, while avoiding a conflict. Turkey has been one of the fiercest critics of Assad's crackdown. But at this point, it has no wish to inflame already-heightened tensions.
A Turkish government official said the government was trying to ratchet up diplomatic pressure on Syria, where activists say more than 14,000 people have been killed in the 15-month uprising. He said the country was still working out what steps to take — though they would not include military intervention.
"We are not talking about war, but we will keep the pressure on Syria and give it no chance to catch its breath," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government rules.
Mustafa Kibaroglu, a professor of international relations at Istanbul's Okan University, said that by calling Tuesday's emergency meeting, Turkey was trying to show Syria that it has the full support of NATO and the European Union.
But he dismissed the possibility the alliance would activate a rule in its founding treaty — Article 5 — that declares that an attack against any NATO country shall be considered as an attack against them all.
"Unless there is another ... act of provocation (from Syria), there will be no activation of Article 5," Kibaroglu said.
Syria has said it was unaware that the F-4 Phantom jet belonged to Turkey, and that it was protecting its air space against an unknown intruder. In the past, Israeli warplanes have penetrated Syrian airspace by flying over the Mediterranean coastline.
Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said the downing was an accident, caused by the "automatic response" of an officer commanding an anti-aircraft gun. The man saw a jet coming at him at high speed and low altitide and opened fire, Makdissi said.
Analysts said that, although the latest incident will likely be contained, the conflict in Syria is now threatening to draw in other nations.
"Syria's apology will probably quell the immediate outrage," said Barak Seener, a Middle East expert at the Royal United Services Institute, a British military think tank.
"But it's increasingly clear that as the conflict escalates there will be a spillover effect with regional consequences," he said. "While NATO will not get involved yet, this illustrates that international actors will increasingly be sucked into the conflict."
Still, there is a sense of war-weariness in NATO, an aversion to any more involvement in the Middle East after last year's conflict over Libya.
The alliance's primary focus remains the costly war in Afghanistan, where the alliance still has about 130,000 troops, a decade after the ouster of the Taliban regime. Although NATO forces enjoy overwhelming superiority in numbers, firepower and mobility, the guerrillas are showing no sign of giving up.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has repeatedly said that the alliance would need a clear international mandate, and regional support, before it embarked on a mission in Syria.
Last year, the alliance launched air attacks on Libyan government targets only after receiving a mandate from the U.N. Security Council, along with backing from the Arab League.
But in Syria's case, the Arab League hasn't been able to agree on the need for military intervention. Even Syria's different opposition groups are riven by divisions over whether outside military intervention would help or hurt. Some in the Syrian opposition argue that it would reduce their country to rubble, leaving them nothing on which to build a new future once Assad was gone.
And Russia and China — both veto-wielding members of the Security Council — have consistently shielded Assad's regime from international sanctions over its violent crackdown on protests. Russia also has continued to provide Syria with arms, despite Western calls for a halt in supplies.
Last week, President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the Syrian crisis on the sidelines of a Group of 20 economic conference in Mexico.
The meeting ended without apparent agreement on how to end the violence.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Israel vows tough action on Gaza if truce fails

Since last Monday, 15 Palestinians have been killed and several dozen others have been wounded, most of them militants, in multiple Israeli air strikes. (AFP)
Since last Monday, 15 Palestinians have been killed and several dozen others have been wounded, most of them militants, in multiple Israeli air strikes. (AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israeli troops had responded “forcefully” to rocket fire from Gaza and could step up their response if a fragile truce failed to hold.

“Regarding the situation in the south, the Israeli army acted forcefully against those who try to attack us and, if necessary, the army will act more forcefully still,” Netanyahu warned at the start of a cabinet meeting.

“Our policy is to use force to restore security and calm to the residents of the south,” he added.

Netanyahu spoke as a fragile second attempt at a truce between Israel and armed groups in Gaza wobbled, with the Israeli military saying three rockets fired from the Palestinian territory landed in the southern Eshkol region.

The rockets caused no damage or injuries, a military spokeswoman told AFP, but they threatened the prospects for the ceasefire that began at midnight on Saturday.
A previous truce, announced on Wednesday, had begun to unravel with Gaza rulers Hamas threatening to call it off altogether, as Palestinian officials said three people were killed and dozens wounded in seven Israeli air strikes on Saturday.

An army spokeswoman said that by Saturday evening 28 rockets had slammed into southern Israel that day and on Friday, with another 10 brought down by Israel's Iron Dome air defense system.

The current round of Israeli attacks and Palestinian retaliation began with air strikes on June 18, just hours after gunmen from Sinai carried out an ambush along Israel's southern border with Egypt, killing an Israeli civilian.

Israel has said its sudden spike in Gaza operations was “in no way related” to the Sinai border incident, with the military saying the air force was targeting militants poised to attack the Jewish state.

Since last Monday, 15 Palestinians have been killed and several dozen others have been wounded, most of them militants, in multiple Israeli air strikes.

At least 152 rockets and mortar rounds have been fired into Israel from Gaza, wounding five Israelis including four border policemen.

Sudan police orders firm dispersal of protests

Sudanese protesters are rejecting a government austerity plan that slashed subsidies and doubled the price of fuel and food. (Reuters)
Sudan’s top police chief ordered his forces Saturday to quell “firmly and immediately” anti-government demonstrations that have entered their seventh day, while opposition groups reported a security crackdown on their leading members.

Gen. Hashem Othman al-Hussein told his aides to confront the “riots ... and the groups behind them,” the official SUNA news agency reported. It was a rare acknowledgement by the state media of demonstrations that have been concentrated in Khartoum but have also spread to a provincial capital.

Protesters are rejecting a government austerity plan that slashed subsidies and doubled the price of fuel and food. But they also appear to be inspired by Arab uprisings in neighboring Egypt and Libya and are demanding the ouster of longtime Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.
Some videos shared on social websites show protesters chanting: “We won’t be ruled by a dictator.”

Gatherings have been quickly broken up by troops using tear gas, activists say, and in a new development, police have raided homes of the opposition.

Sudan’s Ummah party said in a text message that at least three of its members were detained, including a member of its political bureau, Adam Gereir.

Siddique Tawer, a member of the Sudanese Baath party, said the party’s spokesman Mohammed Diaa Eddin was arrested at his home early Saturday.

The arrest raids and new police directives are a sign of nervousness, Tawer said. “They are afraid of street action. They are trying to terrorize people,” he said by telephone from al-Ubbayid, provincial capital of Northern Kordofan to the southwest. “They can't stop these protests. They are legitimate, against the government's economic policies, corruption and repression of freedoms.”

In al-Ubbayid, a small number of university students demonstrated outside their campus on Saturday and were joined by passers-by, he said. Police fired gas canisters to break up the protests.

State-run radio had said earlier that 150 protesters attacked a group of policemen overnight, damaging one police vehicle and forcing the police to use tear gas to disperse them.

NATO to discuss downing of Turkish plane by Syria

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) -- NATO leaders will meet this week to discuss whether and how to respond to Syria's downing of a Turkish jet in what Turkey insists was international airspace. The incident has spiked regional tensions caused by the conflict in Syria, where reports Sunday said nearly 40 people died in new clashes between rebels and regime forces.
The jet's wreckage was found in the Mediterranean at a depth of 4,265 feet (1,300 meters), Turkish state media reported Sunday. The two pilots remain unaccounted for.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the jet was on a training flight to test Turkey's radar capabilities, not spying on Syria. He said the plane mistakenly strayed into Syrian airspace Friday, but was quickly warned to leave by Turkish authorities and was a mile inside international airspace when it was shot down off the coast of Latakia.
Syria insisted Saturday that the shooting was "not an attack" and that the aircraft had violated its airspace. But Turkish authorities say Syria didn't warn the Turkish plane nor send its own jets to confront it. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was expected to make a statement Tuesday and might announce some retaliatory steps.
"No one should dare to test Turkey's capabilities," Davutoglu said Sunday.
Meantime, at the request of Turkey, NATO's governing body will meet Tuesday to discuss the incident, said Oana Lungescu, a NATO spokeswoman. The consultations will focus on article 4 of NATO's founding Washington Treaty.
"Under article 4, any ally can request consultations whenever, in the opinion of any of them, their territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened," Lungescu said. The North Atlantic Council - the ambassadors of the 28 NATO countries - will decide whether to respond, she said.
The last time article 4 was invoked was nine years ago - also by Turkey - after tensions with neighboring Iraq escalated. However, that case did not lead to the invocation of article 5, which declares that an attack against any single NATO country shall be considered as an attack against them all.
Despite some opposition leaders' calls for Western military intervention in Syria, the United States and allies have been hesitant to get involved in what could prove a protracted conflict, preferring the diplomatic route. Syrian allies Russia and China have already shielded Syria from U.N. sanctions and stridently oppose any military intervention.
It's unlikely the downing of the Turkish plane will change those calculations, despite Ankara's appeal for the NATO meeting.
In October 1989, two Syrian MiG-21s violated Turkish air space and shot down a Turkish plane on a geographical survey mission, killing all five crew members. Syria at the time promised to severely punish the pilots, who disregarded Turkish orders not to enter Turkish airspace.
Dogu Ergil, a professor of political science at the Ankara University, told private NTV television that Turkey had repeatedly sent its jets across the Syrian border for several weeks to show its military muscle at the time.
Turkey has been one of the most vociferous critics of Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime as it has cracked down over the past 15 months on an increasingly armed popular uprising. Opposition activists say the conflict has killed 14,000 people, most of them civilians.
The plane's downing has already drawn international criticism from other countries pushing Assad to stop his crackdown.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Sunday he was "gravely concerned by the Syrian regime's action in shooting down" the plane and that Davutoglu had told him no warning was given.
"This outrageous act underlines how far beyond accepted behavior the Syrian regime has put itself, and I condemn it wholeheartedly," Hague said in a statement. "The Assad regime should not make the mistake of believing that it can act with impunity. It will be held to account for its behavior."
Hague met last week with United Nations and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan for talks on plans for an international summit, while British officials discussed the issue in Geneva on Saturday with members of Annan's team. Hague noted Sunday that "The UK stands ready to pursue robust action at the United Nations Security Council."
Italy's foreign minister decried the shooting down of the plane as "a further, very grave and unacceptable action by the Assad regime." In a written statement, Giulio Terzi promised that Italy will play an active role in the NATO meeting Tuesday.
Syrian activists reported violence in different parts of the country Sunday, saying nearly 40 people were killed.
The deadliest incident was in the northern town of Ariha where a shell hit a home killing seven members of the same family, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.  A video posted online showed the seven men's bodies, some badly mutilated, including one who had part of his head blown off.
Activists also reported intense shelling and clashes between rebels and troops in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour and the central city of Homs, which has been under a government attack for the past two weeks.
Earlier Sunday, activists said rebels captured a military base in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo, confiscating large amounts of ammunition. The Observatory said 16 government troops died in the attacks on the base near the rebel-held town of Daret Azzeh and nearby checkpoints early Sunday.
Area activist Mohammed Saeed said the rebels had removed hundreds of artillery shells from the base. Saeed added via Skype that troops retaliated with intense shelling on the area using helicopter gunships.
On Friday, state media said 25 people were kidnapped by "terrorists" and killed in Daret Azzeh. Activists said the 25 killed were pro-regime gunmen known as shabiha.
Syria's state-run SANA news agency, meanwhile, said gunmen from Turkey clashed with Syrian border guards in Rabiah, a region in the coastal Latakia province. SANA said several infiltrators died in the late Saturday clash, while others reportedly returned to Turkey. It said several Syrian border guards were hurt, but didn't specify how many.
Turkey denies sheltering armed Syrian rebels, although many Syrian refugees have fled to camps on the Turkish side of the border.
Also on Sunday, Syrian opposition groups met in Brussels to hash out differences and plan for a democratic transition. The disparate groups are divided over whether outside military intervention would help or hurt and whether to engage in dialogue with Assad's regime. The conference, attended by some 50 people, will continue Monday.
Jordanian Information Minister Sameeh Maaytah, meanwhile, said Sunday that three other Syrian pilots had defected last week, even before a pilot flew his warplane into neighboring Jordan. He said the other three crossed overland into Jordan. He was unsure if the four pilots knew each other or had coordinated their escape from Syria.

Gazans celebrate Islamic victory in Egypt

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- The Gaza Strip has erupted in celebrations following news that the Muslim Brotherhood candidate has won the Egyptian presidency.
People are pouring into Gaza City's streets in joy, gunmen are firing automatic weapons in the air, and mosque loudspeakers are ringing with prayers and praise to God. People are handing out candy on street corners.
Gaza is ruled by the Islamic group Hamas, a local offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood that draws inspiration from the Egyptian organization.
Egypt's ousted president, Hosni Mubarak, collaborated with Israel in a blockade of Gaza. Residents here are optimistic that the new Egyptian leader, Mohammed Morsi, will improve relations with the impoverished Palestinian territory.
Gaza has a 15-kilometer (9-mile) border with Egypt's Sinai desert and one official border crossing between the two.

Facts about Egypt as election results expected

AP Photo
CAIRO (AP) -- The following is a factsheet about Egypt, where the results of an election runoff for a new president are to be announced Sunday:
- Population: 82 million in the country, along with another estimated 8 million citizens living abroad.
- Religion: About 90 percent Muslim, 10 percent Christian.
- Land Area: About 1 million square kilometers (386,100 square miles); bordering the Palestinian Gaza Strip, Israel, Sudan and Libya. The population is concentrated on about 7 percent of the land, mostly along the Nile River.
- GDP growth in 2011: 1.8 percent.
- Unemployment rate in 2011: 10.4 percent.
- Literacy: 71.4 percent.
- Inflation in 2012: 8.3 percent, according to Central Bank of Egypt.
- Key moments in modern history:
Egypt was a monarchy until a 1952 military coup. Since then Egypt's last four presidents have all hailed from the military. The late President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by Islamist militants after signing the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state. His vice president at the time, Hosni Mubarak, assumed power.
Mubarak ruled for nearly 30 years, allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to contest parliamentary elections as independent candidates while banning the group from officially forming a party. Thousands of people were tortured and some died in the country's notorious prisons during Mubarak's rule. Many believe his son, Gamal, was being groomed to take over the presidency.
Corruption, widespread poverty and curbs on freedoms sparked the Jan. 25, 2011 uprising engineered by youth activists inspired by a successful revolt in Tunisia. Nearly 900 deaths and 18 days later, Mubarak was forced to step down and his longtime Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi heading a council of military generals assumed power.

Mursi declared winner of Egypt presidential vote

The Muslim Brotherhood candidate of the presidential election has been declared at Egypt's new president. (Reuters)
Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Mursi was on Sunday declared the first president of Egypt since a popular uprising ousted Hosni Mubarak, the head of the electoral commission announced.

Mursi, who ran against ex-prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, won 51.73 percent of the vote after a race that polarized the Arab world’s most populous nation.

“The winner of the election for Egyptian president on June 16-17 is Mohamed Mursi Eissa al-Ayat,” said Faruq Sultan.

Mursi won 13,230,131 votes against Shafiq who clinched 12,347,380.

The election, in which more than 50 million voters were eligible to cast their ballot, saw a 51.8 percent turnout.

Few troops were on the streets but security officials said they were ready to respond to trouble. Government workers around Cairo's Tahrir Square, where thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters had gathered, were encouraged to go home for the day.
Streets in the center of the capital were very quiet, shops were closed and people stayed indoors, anxious for news and assailed by rumors of results favoring both of the candidates.

The outcome will be historic for the Middle East, but will not end power struggles between the army, Islamists and others over Egypt's future.

Mursi says he won the race to lead the biggest Arab nation, even if the generals who have been in charge since Mubarak was ousted 500 days ago are not giving up their control just yet.

The Brotherhood and liberal-minded activists who galvanized the street last year against Mubarak may react angrily if the election committee announces the winner is instead Shafiq, a former air force commander and last prime minister of the old regime. Like Mubarak, every president for six decades has emerged from military ranks.

Many Egyptians, and millions across the region, would see a Shafiq win as a mortal blow to last year's Arab Spring revolt, despite his assurances of also wanting an inclusive government.

“Egypt waits for the president and prepares for the worst,” wrote Al-Masry Al-Youm daily in a front-page headline, referring to concerns about violence erupting. Echoing that, Al-Watan wrote:

“The Brotherhood prepares the stage for Mursi, and an intense security alert in case of a Shafiq win.”

The new president will emerge with fewer powers than the candidates, pruned by a first round of voting in May, had expected when the army promised civilian rule by July 1.

“Everyone in Egypt is worried. The army must know the result and must have taken precautions,” said Ali Mahmoud, a 44-year-old taxi driver, worried like many Egyptians that months of turmoil is not over yet. “If Shafiq wins, we will have a lot of problems. If Mursi wins then protests should be less.”

The ruling military council, which pushed Mubarak aside on Feb. 11, 2011 to appease the protesters in the streets, has stripped the presidency of many powers and dissolved the Brotherhood-led parliament elected in January.

Nagging Fears

Yet the presidency is still a prize, even if the vote may only open a new chapter in what has been a turbulent and often bloody transition overseen by the army since Mubarak fell.

An Islamist president of Egypt would be a major milestone for the Middle East, and near unthinkable 18 months ago. It is far from confirmed, but the military, Brotherhood and other officials have given signs they expect it to happen.

Mursi, a 60-year-old, U.S.-educated engineer and political prisoner under Mubarak, declared victory within hours of polls closing last Sunday - a move condemned by the generals. In a sign of continued confidence, he has already met other groups and drafted an accord to form a national coalition government.

His party issued a statement on Saturday saying it had called on “all partners in the nation, from all movements, to take part in this national platform, to guarantee the success of what we have achieved and their active participation in rebuilding the country in the manner it deserves”.

One of those involved, Abdel Gelil Mostafa of the reformist National Association for Change, told Reuters on Saturday: “We agreed on a general program, especially for if Mursi won.

By contrast supporters of Shafiq, 70, who was Mubarak’s last prime minister in his final desperate days, kept a low profile, although he did declare publicly on Thursday he was confident.

pts to keep a strong grip on power and said, “The military has to assume an appropriate role, which is not to try to interfere with, dominate or subvert the constitutional authority.”

U.S. officials had earlier expressed concern that a Shafiq victory could have dangerous fallout, with protests and ensuing instability that could lead the military to take even stronger measures. The officials spoke earlier on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Scores killed in Iraq attacks

At least 57 people have been killed in a series of bombings and shootings across Iraq, with many of the attacks targeting Shia pilgrims during a major religious festival, police and hospital sources say.
One of the deadliest blasts on Wednesday occurred in the Kadhimiyah area of north Baghdad, where tens of thousands had gathered to mark the anniversary of Imam Moussa al-Kadhim's death.
"A group of pilgrims were walking and passed by a tent offering food and drinks when suddenly a car exploded near them," said Wathiq Muhana, a policeman whose patrol was stationed near the blast.
"People were running away covered with blood and bodies were scattered on the ground," he said.
Three other blasts targeted pilgrims in Karada district, raising the total death toll in the capital to at least 30.
The annual pilgrimage sees hundreds of thousands of Shias converge on Baghdad on foot to commemorate the 8th century death of Imam Moussa al-Kadhim.
Two nearly simultaneous car bombs also killed seven pilgrims and wounded 34 in the Shia town of Balad, north of Baghdad, officials said.
Police targeted
In the southern mainly Shia city of Hilla, two bombs, including one detonated by a suicide car bomber, exploded outside restaurants frequented by police, killing 22 people and wounding 38.

"When a minibus packed with policemen stopped near the restaurants, a car exploded near the bus," said Maitham Sahib, owner of a restaurant in Hilla near the blast. "It's heart breaking. It is just sirens, and screams of wounded people."
Separately in the capital, three federal policemen were assassinated by unknown gunmen at their checkpoint in Saidyiah district. 
Another person was killed in the northern city of Kirkuk when three more bombs exploded, one of them outside the political office of a prominent Kurdish leader.
The attacks made Wednesday the deadliest day in Iraq since 68 people were killed in Iraq on January 5.
The attacks on Shias were the third occasion pilgrims were targeted in a week.
On Sunday at least six people were killed when two mortar bombs struck a Baghdad square packed with Shia Muslim pilgrims.

On Monday, 26 people were killed and more than 190 wounded when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive-rigged car outside a Shia religious office in the capital.
Al-Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate, Islamic State of Iraq, claimed responsibility for the attack on the religious office.

Political tensions have been high in Iraq since the last American troops left in December, with the country's fragile government, split among Sunni-backed, Shia and ethnic Kurdish blocks, feuding over their power-sharing accord.

Egypt Christians rally behind rival of Islamists

In the small southern Egyptian town of Azaziya, where almost all the residents are Christians, few doubt that nearly everyone who can is going to vote for Ahmed Shafiq, ousted leader Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister and his longtime friend, in this weekend’s presidential election.

Shafiq’s candidacy has dismayed many Egyptians who believe the Mubarak-era veteran will preserve the old regime’s authoritarianism. But even if some Christians share those reservations, they view his opponent in the race as far worse: Mohammed Mursi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt’s Christian minority fears will turn the country into an Islamic state.

“Our goal is a civil state. We don’t see anyone else who can protect this except for him,” Montaser Qalbek, the son of Azaziya’s town leader, said of Shafiq.
In last month’s first round of the presidential election, which narrowed the field from 13 candidates to two, Shafiq received nearly all of the 4,500 votes cast in Azaziya, a town in the southern province of Assiut. Qalbek said he expects more than twice that number to turn out for the Saturday-Sunday run-off and that they will again overwhelmingly back Shafiq.

That determination is likely to be mirrored across the Christian community, which makes up 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 85 million. Many Christians see the vote as a clear-cut choice between a secular state and one in which an Islamist agenda slowly takes root. Leaders of the Orthodox Coptic Church, to which most Egyptian Christians belong, and Christian activists have been working hard to get the community to the polls, said Yousef Sidhom, editor of the weekly Watani newspaper and a Coptic Church official.

While they have been cautious not to use the pulpit, priests and influential congregants have been expressing support for Shafiq at church-related activities, Sidhom and other Christians said.

Those Christians who vote will back Shafiq because they are fearful of the Brotherhood’s “hidden agenda,” Sidhom said.

“There is a Brotherhood strategy to work toward building an Islamic country.”

Sidhom says there are concerns the Brotherhood will keep Christians out of some government positions, tax non-Muslims, base education around Islam and create a foreign policy that favors Muslim over non-Muslim nations.

The Brotherhood has long insisted it won’t discriminate against Christians. In his run-off campaign, Mursi has vowed Christians will have full rights equal to Muslims’ and said he might appoint a Christian as one of his vice presidents.

“We don’t believe this,” said Sidhom. “They just want to lure people to vote for Mursi.”

The campaign has already turned bitter, reflecting what could be a close race. Mursi and Shafiq each won about a quarter of the vote in the first round, with Mursi coming out ahead by a hair.

Mursi has sought to appeal to moderate and secular Muslims by drumming up fears of a continued Mubarak-style, military-backed police state if Shafiq wins.

Shafiq, a former military man like Mubarak, is stoking fear of the Brotherhood. “The Brotherhood represents darkness and secrecy,” he said at his first press conference after first round results were announced. “They don’t want to take us 30 years back, but all the way back to the dark ages.”

The message resonates with Christians. They are already feeling insecure with the recent death of their leader, Pope Shenouda III, on top of the post-Mubarak rise of Islamists and a lapse in security across the nation, which saw a rash of sectarian violence. In a gesture of solidarity, Brotherhood leaders attended Shenouda’s last Christmas service, in 2011, and in his sermon the pope said Copts and Islamists would work together for Egypt’s sake. But the event did little to reduce Christians' mistrust of the group.

The region’s turmoil has deeply unsettled the Middle East’s Christians. Syria’s Christian minority, for example, has largely stuck by President Bashar Assad, fearing the strength of Muslim hard-liners in the uprising against his rule. For a worst-case scenario, Christians can look to Iraq, which many Christians have fled after their community and others were repeatedly targeted by extremist militants in the chaotic years after Saddam Hussein's 2003 toppling.

Mubarak’s regime was hardly ideal in many Christians’ eyes. They complained of discrimination and suffered sectarian violence, culminating in the bombing of a church in Alexandria that killed 21 people at a New Year’s Mass more than a year ago. Young Christians played an active role in last year’s 18-day uprising against Mubarak and in protests against the military generals who took Mubarak's place in power.

Still, Mubarak was seen by many in the community as their protector against Islamists, and Shenouda strongly backed him.

Some of that strongman image seems to have rubbed off onto Shafiq. In the first round, there were other secular candidates, such as former foreign minister Amr Moussa and socialist candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi, but they did not get the mass Christian support Shafiq did.

In Azaziya, Qalbek -- once a member of Mubarak’s ruling party -- said he urged fellow townspeople to back Shafiq because of his military background, which many believe makes him the generals’ preferred candidate and gives him the needed strength to blunt Islamists.

“Yes, there was injustice in the old regime,” said Qalbek. “But why should I turn to something new? What does something new hold for me?”

Support for the divisive Shafiq has caused a backlash. Christians complain that after the first round, they have been harassed in the streets and at work. Witnesses in Assiut say a Muslim baker refused to sell bread to Christians.

Revolution-minded Christians -- and Muslims -- who want neither an old regime figure nor the Brotherhood are left in a quandary.

Farid Edward, a 21-year-old activist, said he voted for Sabbahi in the first round because “he represented a secular state and the revolution.” Now he is joining a growing movement to boycott the runoff.

“If I am thinking just about Christians, of course I will vote for Shafiq not Mursi. But if I am thinking also as an Egyptian and what is best for the country I won't vote for either Shafiq or Mursi,” he said.

While the Coptic Church says it takes no official position on candidates, Edward says some local church leaders urged people to back Shafiq.

“I feel that not all the church officials have that revolutionary sense and understand us as youth,” he said.

The generational divide among Christians spilled over into the streets in October, when youth defied their leadership by protesting outside Maspero, the state TV building in Cairo, against attacks on churches. A violent military crackdown on the protest left 27 people dead.

Paul Sedra, an expert on Egypt and professor at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, said Copts feel more vulnerable now than they have in decades.

“We have a church basically without a leader, a community that suffered through the Maspero massacre ... and the Muslim Brotherhood ascendant in the political realm,” he said. “This gave them a far greater feeling of instability and that gave Shafiq far greater votes.”

In the province of Assiut, home to a large Christian community and birthplace of Pope Shenouda, Qalbek predicts unanimous support for Shafiq.

“All the votes of Christians in the run-off will go to Shafiq. That is what the revolution wanted, a civil state based on democracy,” he said.

Tunisia’s military court sentences Ben Ali to 20 years for ‘incitement of murder’

A military court in Tunisia sentenced ousted president Zine ElAbidine Ben Ali to 20 years imprisonment in absentia Wednesday on various charges including incitement to murder, the TAP news agency reported.

Ben Ali, who is exiled in Saudi Arabia, was found guilty of “inciting disorder, murder and looting,” the court said in its verdict over the deaths of four youths, shot dead in the town of Ouardanine in mid-January 2011.
Four protestors were shot dead in the eastern coastal town as they tried to prevent the flight of Ben Ali’s nephew Kais, a day after the strongman himself flew out of the country on Jan. 14.

The victims’ relatives have accused the security apparatus of ordering police to open fire on the crowd.

The court also slapped prison sentences of five to ten years, some in absentia, on several members of the security forces over the same incident.

A military prosecutor is also seeking the death penalty against the former dictator over a similar incident which saw at least 22 people killed in pro-democracy protests in the towns of Thala and Kasserine.

The weeks of protests that started in December 2010 toppled one of the most entrenched autocratic regimes in the Arab world and led to democratic elections in October that saw a moderate Islamist party rise to power.

The strongman’s ouster toppled the first domino in the wave of protests which became known as the Arab Spring and is still sweeping the region.

Ben Ali faces countless trials and has already been sentenced to more than 66 years in prison on a range of other charges including drug trafficking and embezzlement.

He and his wife are the subject of an international arrest warrant, but Saudi authorities have not responded to Tunisian extradition requests.

There is, however, little indication that Riyadh would be willing to extradite Ben Ali.

Tunisia’s government has faced persistent criticism over its failure to persuade Saudi Arabia to hand over Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi, a former hairdresser whose lavish lifestyle and clique of wealthy relatives came to be seen by many Tunisians as a symbol of the corrupt era.

Cyprus probes possible Hosni Moubarak funds

Cyprus said Tuesday it was investigating whether ousted Egyptian president Hosni Moubarak stashed away ill-gotten gains in secret accounts on the island.

Justice Minister Loucas Louca said a special unit called Mokas, which is tasked with combating financial crime and money laundering, was handling the issue.
“We don’t go around doing investigations on our own willy-nilly,” Louca told reporters when asked about the issue.

“A specific request comes to us from a country. There is an investigation underway to locate evidence of assets in banks but it’s not that simple.”
He said a search had to be done at the registrar of companies to see if there were companies on the island that belong to “these people”.
The minister did not elaborate.

According to local media, an Egyptian delegation was in Cyprus last week to track down state funds allegedly siphoned from Egypt to the island during the 30-year rule of Moubarak.

Reportedly, proceedings have been launched in Cyprus against four companies in a bid to find assets connected to the former regime.

Egyptian authorities have visited various European countries to follow the money trail of millions of dollars allegedly stashed in secret accounts.

A team met officials from the justice ministry and Mokas in a search for evidence against Moubarak-era figures.

“The meeting went very well. It was very productive. The Cyprus government is giving full support,” Egyptian ambassador Menha Mahrous Bakhoum told the Cyprus Mail on Sunday.

“There is nothing concrete yet. We are investigating,” she added.

Switzerland and Britain have already frozen an estimated 445 million euros worth of assets linked to former regime figures.

Israel to fly out first South Sudan deportees on Sunday

Israel is to fly a first planeload of South Sudanese deportees home on Sunday with more expected to follow later in the week, a spokeswoman for the Population and Migration Authority said.

“We have about 150 so far (for Sunday’s flight),” Sabine Hadad told AFP on Wednesday. “We want more planes (to go) during the week.”

On Tuesday, the authorities arrested 100 illegal immigrants, while another 300 people agreed to be repatriated voluntarily, she said, without saying which countries they were from.

She had no updated figures for Wednesday morning’s raids.
Since the current wave of arrests began at dawn on Sunday, 240 people have been detained for deportation, most of them South Sudanese.

Official figures show there are 60,000 Africans living in Israel illegally, most of them in run-down neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv.

Until last week, the estimated 1,500 South Sudanese living in Israel were protected from deportation by a policy which afforded them “temporary protection.”

But last Thursday, a Jerusalem court overturned that long-standing policy, ruling that they were no longer at risk in their homeland and clearing the way for their mass expulsion.

Israeli daily Haaretz said on Wednesday that a delegation of South Sudanese immigration officials was expected in Israel this week to coordinate repatriation of their citizens.

Rising tensions over the growing number of illegal immigrants in Israel exploded into violence last month when a protest in south Tel Aviv turned nasty, with demonstrators smashing African-run shops and property, chanting “Blacks out!”

Israel, which reportedly backed South Sudan through its 1983-2005 war with Khartoum, recognized the new nation and established full diplomatic relations with its government shortly after it declared independence in July last year.

The Jewish state does not have relations with Sudan, which it has accused of serving as a base for Islamic militants.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Iran's Ahmadinejad wounded but wily in final year

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- Iran's president hardly seemed like a fading political force at a security summit in Beijing last week. Leaders from China and Russia carved out time to hold private talks with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and gave him center stage to unleash his pet theories about the unraveling of Western power.
But Ahmadinejad always seems to catch a second wind on the road. It's at home where his political wounds are most visible and his expiration date is already factored into high-stakes calculations.
The one-time favored son of Iran's theocracy - its flame-throwing populist in a common man's wind breaker or bureaucrat's off-the-rack suit - is now limping into his last year in office sharply weakened and in the unexpected position as an outcast among hard-liners.
"It may be hard to believe for those who just pay attention to the theatrics of Iranian politics, but Ahmadinejad has emerged - somewhat by process of elimination - as something of a moderate in relation to the archconservatives in the ruling system," said Salman Shaikh, director of The Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
"The reformers and opposition have been crushed or silenced," he added. "That leaves Ahmadinejad and his big political ego."`
Ahmadinejad lost a power struggle last year with the ruling system, which had helped him rise from the relative obscurity of Tehran's city hall seven years ago and stood by his side in 2009 amid the mass chaos from his disputed re-election.
Yet he still has some political ammunition in reserve. How he uses it will set the tone for Iran's internal policymaking as it struggles with big questions such as: how far to bend in the nuclear standoff with the West, how to counter deepening sanctions and what to do with the combative and ambitious Ahmadinejad after the June 2013 elections to pick his successor.
A pivotal element, analysts say, is whether Ahmadinejad will revive his challenges to the alpha-omega powers of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his backers, led by the Revolutionary Guard. The feud began last year with Ahmadinejad's drive to give the presidency more sway over key policies such as intelligence and foreign affairs - which are firmly in the hands of the clerics.
That fight is lost. He can still, however, battle for a political ally on the presidential ballot next year, which will be Ahmadinejad's last in office because of term limits. He also can attempt to nudge Iran's position in the nuclear talks with the U.S. and other world powers, which are scheduled to resume next week in Moscow.
Ahmadinejad is seen as possibly more open to deals with Washington that would accommodate both sides: allowing Iran to continue some level of uranium enrichment for reactor fuel but giving more room for U.N. inspections. The negotiations, however, are completely overseen by the ruling system. And it's even possible, some analysts say, that Khamenei wants to avoid any possible breakthroughs with the West until Ahmadinejad is out of office - fearing he could use it to gain political mileage.
"Ahmadinejad is a lame duck, and the ruling system wants to keep it that way," said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a Syracuse University professor who follows Iranian affairs. "They want to keep him on a short leash. He'll yank back, though. It's the classic case of a weak office occupied by a strong personality."
Iran's presidency guides the mainstream economy and many day-to-day functions. But major decisions, from international affairs to military priorities, are controlled by the theocracy. This is where Ahmadinejad made his ill-fated gamble last year.
Dozens of Ahmadinejad's allies were arrested or purged from politics, and he was effectively stripped of his ability to groom a successor. An angry Khamenei even hinted that Iran could one day abandon the directly elected presidency system in favor of a prime minister.
Elections in February reinforced the anti-Ahmadinejad ranks in parliament. In March, Ahmadinejad became the first Iranian president brought before lawmakers for grilling over his policies and confrontations with Khamenei - whose hard-core followers believe is answerable only to God.
It's left Ahmadinejad politically battered, but still with a sizable base of supporters among Iran's working classes and rural poor who see the ruling clerics as aloof and out of touch.
In a speech in May, Ahmadinejad indirectly took a swipe at the theocracy by praising the 1,000-year-old epic poem "Shahnameh," which recounts tales of Persia's pre-Islamic Zoroastrian religion. "Wherever there is justice, freedom and monotheism, there is Iran," he told the crowds.
"We will witness more hue and cry by Ahmadinejad," predicted independent Tehran-based political analyst Behrouz Shojaei.
This is what worries the ruling clerics.
It's not certain whether they fully sanctioned Ahmadinejad's most headline-grabbing statements over the years, including calling Israel a doomed state and questioning the extent of the Holocaust. But there is little doubt that Ahmadinejad's bluster has complicated negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, which Tehran insists is only for energy and medical research.
"Ahmadinejad is not likely to leave a shining legacy," said Ehsan Ahrari, a Virginia-based political analyst. "His rants about the so-called mythical nature of the Holocaust unnecessarily heightened tensions with Israel."
Gary Sick, an Iranian affairs expert at Columbia University, also believes all the bluster accounts for the world powers' tough negotiating stance in the nuclear talks. "The image he has created is that Iran is treacherous and extremely ideological by his loose talk and swaggering around," he said. "In many ways it's a false image, but he has reinforced this in the minds of the West."
Despite the heavy attention on Iran's external struggles - including the future of critical ally Bashar Assad in Syria - the coming year could be a highly inward-looking one for Iran. Ahmadinejad will be hunting for some type of post-presidency political role. Meanwhile, the ruling system will be vetting candidates for the next presidential election - with all expectations that only reliable and pliable figures will make the cut.
The theocracy holds all the cards. It clears all candidates for the presidency and parliament. The message these days: Reformists, liberals and any others likely to challenge the ruling system are out.
Front-runners at the moment include Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf and ex-Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei. All would likely strike a more milder tone on the world stage than Ahmadinejad.
Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born political analyst based in Israel, said Khamenei feels particularly burned by Ahmadinejad after coddling him as the "son he always wanted." And the Revolutionary Guard "will try their level best to convince Khamenei to choose a yes man," said Javedanfar, co-author of the Ahmadinejad biography "The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran."
The political freeze-out of Ahmadinejad, however, could free him up for greater grandstanding. Some believe he could go further with his challenges to the ruling system as a way to cater to his remaining supporters.
Still, Ahmadinejad is leaving people guessing. On his website last week, he wrote about how his concept of "justice" means not only facing enemies but also battling a "friend, comrade, party-mate and colleague."
It's unclear whether this was a warning shot of a new battle with the ruling clerics or a lament about how former conservative allies have abandoned him.
Of the five presidents since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, only two have moved onto prominent roles: Khamenei and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who also is a foe of Ahmadinejad dating back to the 2005 presidential election race. Ahmadinejad's predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, has been neutralized along with his reformist allies.
"Ahmadinejad does not want to fade away," said Sadegh Zibakalam, a Tehran University political science professor. "Considering his personality and character, it will be hard for him to leave the stage."

NATO limits airstrikes on Afghan homes

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- The U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan is limiting airstrikes against houses to self-defense for troops, following a strike last week that killed women and children alongside insurgents, a spokesman for the alliance said Monday.
Such airstrikes are now being designated a weapon of last resort to rescue soldiers, cutting back their use.
Though airstrikes on homes are a small part of the international operations in Afghanistan, they have brewed resentment among Afghans, even when there are no casualties, because of the sense that homes and privacy have been violated.
Civilian deaths from such operations have threatened to derail the Afghan-U.S. alliance.
A pact signed by the Afghan government and the U.S. military in April putting Afghans in charge of joint raids in villages was supposed to ease these tensions, but the aftermath of Wednesday's airstrike against a home in eastern Afghanistan has shown that the Americans are still making the decisions on the ground.
Afghan officials have said that 18 civilians were killed in the strike. President Hamid Karzai rebuked U.S. forces for failing to consult their Afghan counterparts before calling for an airstrike in the house where insurgents had taken cover. NATO discovered that civilians had died the next morning when villagers piled the bodies into vans to display to Afghan officials.
Karzai demanded in a meeting Saturday night with NATO and U.S. forces commander Gen. John Allen that the international troops ban all airstrikes on homes.
A spokesman for the alliance, Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, said Monday that airstrikes were being severely curtailed.
"We will continue to conduction combat operations against insurgents who use civilian dwellings, but we will not use air-delivered munitions against civilian dwellings unless it is a question of self-defense for our troops on the ground," Cummings said.
Commanders previously could order airstrikes against insurgents on houses, as long as they were confident that there were no civilians present. Cummings says that the new restrictions mean commanders will not be able to call in a strike unless it is necessary to save the lives of their troops. This applies even if it is clear there are no civilians in the house.
"This restriction in no way limits our ability to take the fight to the enemy," Cummings said. He said that of about 3,000 NATO airstrikes in the past six months, only 10 of them were against civilian homes. Of those 10, seven resulted in civilian casualties, he said.
In addition, he said, NATO forces are in negotiations with Afghan officials about how to involve the Afghan military in decisions on airstrikes. Afghan forces have already had to sign off on joint operations in villages, but there has not been a procedure for involving them in the often split-second decision of when to call in air power.
Last year was the deadliest on record for civilians in the Afghan war, with 3,021 killed as insurgents stepped up suicide attacks and roadside bombs, according to the United Nations. The number of Afghan civilians killed dropped 36 percent in the first four months of this year compared with last year, though U.N. officials have said that a likely cause of the drop in violence was the particularly harsh winter.
Anti-government forces, including the Taliban and other militants, were responsible for 79 percent of civilian casualties in the first four months of this year, according to the U.N. tally, while Afghan and international forces were responsible for 9 percent.
Violence has started to increase with the warm summer weather, including regular reports of civilian casualties. Nine civilians were killed Monday in two separate incidents, including one in which an ambulance rushing a pregnant woman to a hospital struck a roadside bomb. The woman and four of her family members were killed in the blast in Sar-e-Pul province, the Interior Ministry said.
Another two women and two children were killed Monday in the east when a mortar fired by insurgents hit their home in Ghazni province's Gilan district, said Ghazni provincial spokesman Fazel Ahmad Sabawon. The militants appeared to be aiming for a government building nearby, he said.
In another development, the United Nations reported that it fired three Afghan officials as part of an investigation into allegations of fraud in the management of a $1.4 billion fund for the training and support of the Afghan police force. The program, which pays police salaries, is an important part of the effort to maintain security in Afghanistan as international forces draw down over the next two years.
"This ongoing investigation indicates zero tolerance toward fraud," said Brian Hansford, a spokesman for the U.N. Development Program, which oversees the Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan. He declined to give specific information on those fired or the exact accusations. It was not immediately clear how much money was involved.
Also in Kabul on Monday, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian met with Karzai and coalition officials, including Allen, as part of his trip to pay homage to four French soldiers who were killed on Saturday in eastern Kapisa province and visit the five other French soldiers who were wounded.
The recently elected French President Francois Hollande has promised to pull France's 2,000 combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year - well before the 2014 goal for the majority of NATO combat troops to leave the country.
The defense minister said the recent deaths had not altered France's withdrawal plan, but stressed that some French forces would stay to help train Afghan security forces and help manage the airport in Kabul. About 1,400 French soldiers are expected to remain.
"Our presence in the coalition will be maintained until the end of the coalition mission in 2014," he said.

Annan concerned about escalation of Syria violence

BEIRUT (AP) -- International envoy Kofi Annan said Monday he was "gravely concerned" about the escalation of fighting in Syria, citing the shelling of opposition areas in central Homs province and reports of mortar, helicopter and tank attacks near the Mediterranean coast.
Violence has spiked in recent weeks, as both sides ignore a cease-fire brokered by Annan that was supposed to go into effect April 12 but never took hold.
Annan demands both sides "take all steps to ensure that civilians are not harmed," said his spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi.
According to videos posted online, fireballs of orange flame and black rubble exploded in the air as waves of shells pounded residential buildings in Homs on Monday. The shells whooshed through the sky amid sporadic machine gun fire.
There also were reports of fierce clashes in northern Idlib province.
Activists reported more than 50 people killed across the country, but the death toll and the online videos were impossible to independently verify.
Sausan Ghosheh, a spokeswoman for U.N. observers in Syria, said there were reports that women and children were trapped inside Homs. Trying to flee?
"What we are seeing right now are fierce clashes as the Syrian army tries to take back positions held by the rebels," said Rami Abdul-Rahman of the Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which uses a network of sources on the ground.
"There are many deaths in the rebel ranks," he said.
Activists said Syrian troops with helicopter gunships attacked Rastan, a rebel-held town in Homs province, and shelled other restive areas across the nation. Rastan has resisted repeated government offensives for months, the activists said.
The Observatory and another activist coalition, the Local Coordination Committees, also reported government shelling in the southern region of Daraa, the northern province of Aleppo, along with suburbs of the capital, Damascus, and Deir el-Zour in the east.
The Observatory also said a bomb targeted a security force in the northern city of Idlib, killing seven soldiers and a civilian. There was no immediate confirmation from state media.
In Damascus, the state-run news agency SANA said authorities foiled an attempt to blow up a car rigged with 700 kilograms (1,500 pounds) of explosives in the Damascus suburb of Chebaa. Experts dismantled it Monday, SANA said.
Syrian activists say 13,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011. The situation has grown increasingly chaotic in recent months, and it is difficult to assign blame for much of the bloodshed. The government restricts journalists from moving freely, making it nearly impossible to independently verify accounts from either side.
The conflict is among the most unpredictable of the Arab Spring, in part because of Syria's web of allegiances to powerful forces, including Lebanon's Hezbollah and Shiite powerhouse Iran.
The bloodshed has led to broad condemnation of the regime, although Russia, Iran and China have stood by President Bashar Assad. Russia and China have vetoed two Security Council resolutions that threatened sanctions against Syria.
Russia has refused to support any move that could lead to foreign intervention in Syria, Moscow's last significant ally in the Middle East. Moscow's pro-Syria stance also is motivated by its strategic and defense ties to Damascus, including weapons sales.
On Monday, Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin defended his country's arms sales to Syria.
"Under no circumstances can the arms supplied to Syria be used against the civilian population," Rogozin was quoted as saying by the ITAR-Tass news agency.
"Weapons do not shoot all by themselves. It is people who shoot from them. Unlike its partners, Russia has never tried to add oil to the fire," he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is scheduled to visit Iran on Wednesday.
Despite Russia's strong stance, Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said Monday the U.K. will not rule out the use of an international military intervention.
"Each day reports emerge of savage crimes," Hague told lawmakers at the House of Commons. "The Syrian military are surrounding and bombarding towns with heavy weaponry, and then unleashing militia groups to terrorize and murder civilians in their homes. These deliberate military tactics are horrifyingly reminiscent of the Balkans in the 1990s."
He said Britain was focused on diplomatic efforts, but would "not rule out any other option which could at any stage stop the bloodshed."
Still, the U.S. and its allies have shown little appetite for getting involved in another Arab nation in turmoil. There also is a real concern of a spillover effect for other countries in the region.
In Israel, the deputy military chief warned that Syria's large chemical weapons stocks could be trained on the Jewish state. According to Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, Syria has the largest arsenal of chemical weapons in the world. If the Syrians had the chance, he said, they would "treat us the same way they treat their own people."
Syria has not acknowledged possessing chemical weapons, so the size of its arsenal is not known.
Israel has been watching the carnage in neighboring Syria with increasing concern. The two countries have fought major wars, and multiple attempts to reach a peace deal have failed.
On the other hand, the Israel-Syria border has been mostly quiet for decades under the regimes of Assad and his father.