Sunday, September 30, 2012

Baghdad to transfer oil payments to Iraq Kurds

Oil payments from Baghdad to Iraq's Kurdish region will be transferred today, Kurdish Energy Minister Ashti Hawrami said on Sunday, ending a heated tug-of-war over the issue, at least for now.
Baghdad and Kurdistan agreed earlier this month to draw a line under a dispute over oil payments after the latter pledged to continue exports and Baghdad said it would pay foreign companies working there.
Kurdistan has riled Baghdad by signing deals with foreign oil majors, such as Exxon and Chevron, contracts the central government rejects as illegal.
"Payments will be transferred to the Kurdish regional government today: that's what I've been told in Baghdad today," Hawrami told reporters in the Iraqi capital.
Hawrami was in Baghdad for a meeting also attended by Iraqi Oil Minister Abdul-Kareem Luaibi, at which they were due to discuss a long-awaited oil and gas law.
More than nine years after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the OPEC member still has no binding hydrocarbon law. A 2007 draft national oil law that aims to resolve the disputes over crude has been caught up in political infighting.
The oil contracts row is part of a broader battle between the Baghdad government and Kurdistan over oil rights, territory and regional autonomy that is straining Iraq's uneasy federal union.

U.N. inaction gives Assad green light, Saudi Deputy FM tells General Assembly

The Saudi Arabian deputy foreign minister said on Friday that Security Council inaction on the Syrian civil war gave the Bashar al-Assad regime “a green light” to attack his own people.

Abdul Aziz Bin Abdullah told the U.N. General Assembly on Friday that the al-Assad regime was “in a race against time to accomplish its objectives using the most advanced means of killing and destruction,” according to the Associated Press.
Opposition groups say more than 30,000 people have been killed since the uprising began with street demonstrations 18 months ago. Egypt has sought to engage the Saudis along with Turkey and Iran in finding a path to end the fighting. So far, the Saudis have not participated and Iranian leaders claim they are trying to put together a working group of non-aligned countries.

At least 32 people have been killed across Syria by security force gunfire on Saturday, according to the Local Coordination Committees activist group.

Fighting was reported in a neighborhood in Rif Dimishq, or Damascus countryside, where a public execution of eight people was reported by the Syrian Media Center.

On Friday, opposition fighters unleashed barrages of mortar fire against troops in the city of Aleppo Friday, residents said, as Washington unveiled new funding for humanitarian aid and the civilian opposition.

Residents of neighborhoods previously spared the worst of the two-month-old battle for the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's commercial capital, told AFP news agency the violence was unprecedented.

The Security Council, meanwhile, has been deadlocked, with Russia and China blocking three attempts to pass resolutions that would sanction Syria.

“We regret that this regime continues to believe that it can proceed with its suppressive procedures to control the situation without any due regard to the high humanitarian losses,” Abdullah said.

“The Security Council, which is entrusted with the responsibility of keeping peace and security, has failed so far to take a decision about the Syrian crisis and to stop the bloodshed therein. This matter gave the Syrian regime a green light to proceed with its crimes against the Syrian people, in a race against time, to accomplish its objectives using the most advanced means of killing and destruction.”

Abdullah called on the council to support Syria peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, and said he needs to go beyond the failed six-point plan of his predecessor, Kofi Annan. That plan called for a ceasefire that never happened, and was supposed to end with a political transition.

“We believe that the success of his mission will require implementing a new strategy and a clear plan that aims to achieve a peaceful transition of power” and surpasses the six-point plan which the previous envoy was not able to implement any of them,” Abdullah said.

“Needless to say that the new representative will not be able to move forward unless the Security Council provides him with the necessary support he needs to deal with the Syrian crisis at both political and humanitarian levels,” the Saudi official added.

Libya launches weapons collection drive

Hundreds of Libyans turned over their weapons at collection points in the capital and the eastern city of Benghazi on Saturday following rallies which called for disarmament and the disbanding of militias.

A steady trickle of men surrendered their weapons to national army troops stationed in Tripoli’s Martyrs Square and in Benghazi’s Freedom Square, AFP journalists reported.

“We are astonished by the positive turnout,” said Colonel Hussein Abdullah Khalifa in Tripoli, adding that the initiative was galvanized by anti-militia rallies pressing for a united army held in Libya’s two largest cities this month.

Tripoli campaign organizer Ziad Hadia told AFP that “more than 100 people had turned in light, medium and heavy weapons as well as ammunition ranging from bullets to tank shells” in the first half of the day.

“We also received three heat-seeking missiles,” he added, while one person had come forward with a tank which is to be delivered to the army later at an undisclosed location.

In Benghazi, the army tallied more than 200 weapons, an AFP journalist said.

Those numbers represent just a tiny fraction of the arms that spilled out of the arsenals of toppled dictator Muammar Qaddafi but it was seen as a step forward in a country where many cling to their weapons citing insecurity.

“To achieve security we must take the first step ourselves,” said Mustafa Abu Hmeid, a 23-year-old mechanic clutching a rifle, a treasured spoil of the 2011 conflict which ended in Qaddafi’s ouster and death.

Housewife Mariam Abu Swera expressed relief: “As long as there are arms on the streets, I can’t move freely or go about my normal life, so we really welcome this step.”

The collection drive is a collaboration between the national army and private television station al-Hurra, which drummed up support through its live broadcasts from Tripoli and Benghazi.

Organizers in both cities will raffle off prizes, including two cars, at the end of the day-long collection. They said the process was not a one-off event and would be repeated to include other cities.

A Sept. 11 attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi, including the US ambassador, was followed by mass anti-militia protests in the city, increasing pressure on Libyan authorities to tackle insecurity.

On Friday, hundreds of people rallied in Tripoli in support of a national army and against armed groups.

New FJP chairman to be elected 19 October

The high committee of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) announced on Sunday it would elect a new chairman during the party's general assembly on 19 October.

The new chairman will replace Mohamed Morsi, who resigned from the position when he became president in June.
Morsi vowed to step down as FJP chairman if he was elected president so he could represent all segments of Egyptian society.
Essam El-Erian, the party's current de-facto chairman, will reportedly stand for the role, despite earlier indicating he did not want to continue in the position.
During Saturday’s high committee meeting, it was decided that the party's foreign relations committee leader, Amr Darrag, would be put forward for the chairmanship.
Also under discussion was replacing current executive bureau head, Kamilia Helmy, with Seham El-Gamal. This decision comes after El-Gamal won more votes than any other woman candidate for a role on the party's executive bureau during the last internal poll.
A new general secretary will also be elected to replace Mohamed El-Beltagy.


KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) -- A group of Muslims suspected of ransacking a Hindu temple in southern Pakistan may be charged with blasphemy, police said Sunday. The case is a rare twist on the use of the country's harsh blasphemy laws, which are more often invoked against supposed offenses to Islam as opposed to minority faiths.
The laws, sections of which carry the death penalty or life imprisonment, have drawn renewed international scrutiny this year after a young Christian girl in Islamabad was alleged to have desecrated the Muslim holy book, the Quran. A Muslim cleric now stands accused of fabricating evidence against the girl, who has been freed on bail and whose mental capacity has been questioned.
Police officer Mohammad Hanif said the anti-Hindu attack took place Sept. 21. The government had declared that day a national holiday - a "Day of Love for the Prophet" - and called on people to demonstrate peacefully against a U.S.-made anti-Islam film that has sparked protests throughout the Muslim world. Those rallies took a violent turn in Pakistan, and more than 20 people were killed.
Hanif said dozens of Muslims led by a cleric converged on the outskirts of Karachi in a Hindu neighborhood commonly known as Hindu Goth. The protesters attacked the Sri Krishna Ram temple, broke religious statues, tore up a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture, and beat up the temple's caretaker, Sindha Maharaj.
"The attackers broke the statues of (Hindu deities) Radha, Hanuman, Parwati and Krishna, and took away the decorative gold ornaments," Maharaj said. "They also stormed my home and snatched the gold jewelry of my family, my daughters."
Maharaj and other Hindu leaders turned to the police, who registered a case against the cleric and eight other Muslims. But none of the suspects had been found as of Sunday, Hanif said.
The police officer said the case against the attackers was registered under Section 295-A of the blasphemy laws, which covers the "outraging of religious feelings." That section of the law can carry a fine or up to 10 years imprisonment, but, if the case were to proceed, it's unclear exactly what punishment would be imposed.
Court decisions in the past have often confused what penalties should be applied in blasphemy cases in Pakistan. And although many blasphemous acts are said to require the death penalty, Pakistan is not known to have executed anyone under the law. Still, many of the accused have been killed by extremists outside the courts.
Human rights activists say the blasphemy laws are too broad and vague, and that they often are used by people seeking to settle scores with rivals, or as a means of targeting Christians, Hindus and other members of minority religions. Pakistan has some 180 million people and is 95 percent Muslim.
Islamic conservatism, as well as extremism, is on the rise here, and even speaking out against the blasphemy laws can put people in danger. Two prominent politicians, including the sole Christian member of the federal Cabinet, were assassinated in 2011 for urging reform of the law.


ANKARA, Turkey (AP) -- Turkey's leader is delivering a major speech that celebrates a decade of electoral success for his ruling party and touts the rising power's regional stature and strong record of economic growth.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is addressing thousands of delegates in a sports arena at which the ruling Justice and Development Party will lay the groundwork for what it hopes is the continued domination of Turkish politics in the years ahead.
At the party congress Sunday, many people enthusiastically applauded Erdogan and some were even moved to tears. Turkey, however, faces tough challenges, including an increase in attacks by Kurdish militants and challenges presented by the war in neighboring Syria.


KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- An Afghan soldier turned his gun on American troops at a checkpoint in the country's east, killing two Americans and at least two fellow members of Afghanistan's army in a shooting that marked both the continuance of a disturbing trend of insider attacks and the 2,000th U.S. troop death in the long-running war, officials said Sunday.
The string of insider attacks is one of the greatest threats to NATO's mission in the country, endangering a partnership key to training up Afghan security forces and withdrawing international troops.
Saturday's shooting took place at an Afghan army checkpoint just outside a joint U.S.-Afghan base in Wardak province, said Shahidullah Shahid, a provincial government spokesman.
"Initial reports indicate that a misunderstanding happened between Afghan army soldiers and American soldiers," Shahid said. He said investigators had been sent to the site to try to figure out what happened.
An Afghan official speaking on condition of anonymity said three Afghan soldiers were killed in the clash. It was not clear if the assailant was among the dead.
The attack happened about 5 p.m. in Sayd Abad district, Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Zahir Azimi said in an emailed statement. He did not provide further details, saying he would wait for a report from investigators.
NATO forces announced the assault early Sunday morning, saying only that it was "suspected insider attack" and that a NATO service member and civilian contractor were killed.
One U.S. official confirmed that the service member killed was American, while another confirmed that the civilian was also American. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the nationality of the dead had not yet been formally announced.
Afghan soldiers and policemen - or militants in their uniforms - have gunned down more than 50 foreign troops so far this year, eroding the trust between coalition forces and their Afghan partners. An equal number of Afghan policemen and soldiers also died in these attacks, giving them reason as well to be suspicious of possible infiltrators within their ranks.
The attacks are taking a toll on the partnership between international and Afghan forces, prompting the U.S. military to restrict operations with small-sized Afghan units earlier this month.
The close contact - with coalition forces working side by side with Afghan troops as advisers, mentors and trainers - is a key part of the U.S. strategy for preparing the Afghans to take the lead in security operations as the U.S. and other nations prepare to pull out their last combat troops at the end of 2014, just 27 months away.
The number of American military dead reflects an Associated Press count of those members of the armed services killed inside Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion on Oct. 7, 2001.


KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- U.S. military deaths in the Afghan war have reached 2,000, a cold reminder of the human cost of an 11-year-old conflict that garners little public interest at home as the United States prepares to withdraw most of its combat forces by the end of 2014.
The toll has climbed steadily in recent months with a spate of attacks by Afghan army and police against American and NATO troops, and questions about whether allied countries will achieve their aim of helping the Afghan government and its forces stand on their own after most foreign troops depart in little more than two years.
A U.S. official confirmed the latest death Sunday, saying that an international service member killed in an apparent insider attack by Afghan forces in the east of the country late Saturday was American. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the nationality of those killed had not been formally released.
A civilian contractor with NATO and at least two Afghan soldiers also died in the attack, according to a coalition statement and Afghan provincial officials. The nationality of the civilian was not disclosed.
At least 1,190 more coalition troops have also died in the Afghanistan war, according to, an independent organization.
According to the Afghanistan index kept by the Brookings Institution, 40.2 percent of the deaths were caused by improvised explosive devices, with the majority of those after 2009 when President Barack Obama ordered a surge of 33,000 troops to combat heightened Taliban activity. According to the Washington-based research center, the second highest cause, 30.6 percent, was hostile fire
Tracking civilian deaths is much more difficult. According to the U.N., 13,431 civilians were killed in the Afghan conflict between 2007, when the U.N. began keeping statistics, and the end of August. Going back to the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, most estimates put the number of Afghan deaths in the war at more than 20,000.
The number of American dead reflects an Associated Press count of those members of the armed services killed inside Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion on Oct. 7, 2001. Some other news organizations use a count that also includes those killed outside Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, the global anti-terror campaign led by then-President George W. Bush.
The 2001 invasion targeted al-Qaida and its Taliban allies after the Sept. 11 attacks, which claimed nearly 3,000 lives in the United States.
Victory in Afghanistan seemed to come quickly. Kabul fell within weeks, and the hardline Taliban regime was toppled with few U.S. casualties.
But the Bush administration's shift toward war with Iraq left the Western powers without enough resources on the ground, so by 2006 the Taliban had regrouped into a serious military threat.
Obama deployed more troops to Afghanistan, where casualties increased sharply in the last several years. But the American public grew weary of having its military in a perpetual state of conflict, especially after the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq at the end of last year. That war, which began with a U.S.-led invasion in 2003 to oust Saddam Hussein, cost the lives of nearly 4,500 U.S. troops, more than twice as many as have died in Afghanistan so far.
"The tally is modest by the standards of war historically, but every fatality is a tragedy and 11 years is too long," said Michael O'Hanlon, a fellow at the Brookings. "All that is internalized, however, in an American public that has been watching this campaign for a long time. More newsworthy right now are the insider attacks and the sense of hopelessness they convey to many. "
Attacks by Afghan soldiers or police - or insurgents disguised in their uniforms - have killed 52 American and other NATO troops so far this year.
The so-called insider attacks are considered one of the most serious threats to the U.S. exit strategy from the country. In its latest incarnation, that strategy has focused on training Afghan forces to take over security nationwide - allowing most foreign troops to go home by the end of 2014.
Although Obama has pledged that most U.S. combat troops will leave by the end of 2014, American, NATO and allied troops are still dying in Afghanistan at a rate of one a day.
Even with 33,000 American troops back home, the U.S.-led coalition will still have 108,000 troops - including 68,000 from the U.S. - fighting in Afghanistan at the end of this year. Many of those will be training the Afghan National Security Forces that are to replace them.
"There is a challenge for the administration," O'Hanlon said, "to remind people in the face of such bad news why this campaign requires more perseverance."


AMMAN, Jordan (AP) -- Syrian activists say fighting between rebels and government forces has killed five people in the country's embattled largest city of Aleppo.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the dead included a man who has been shot by a sniper near the city's medieval citadel on Sunday. Aleppo is home to 3 million people and was once a bastion of support for President Bashar Assad.
Syria's state news agency says Assad's troops have carried out an operation in western Aleppo against "terrorist gatherings" - a reference to the rebel Free Syrian Army. It says several have been killed, but gave no numbers.
On Saturday, a fire sparked by battles between Assad's troops and rebels tore through Aleppo's centuries-old covered market, the worst blow yet to the city's historic center.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Israelis kill Palestinian fisherman in Gaza: Medics

The Israeli navy have killed a Palestinian fisherman and wounded another in the northern Gaza Strip, Palestinian medical officials said on Saturday.

"Fahmi Abu Rayash and his brother arrived wounded at Beit Lahiya hospital late on Friday morning. Fahmi, who suffered a gun shot wound to the leg, lost a lot of blood and died before midnight," the official told AFP.
The brothers had been near the coast off Beit Lahiya along with other fishermen when the naval forces fired on their boats, the Gaza fishing union said.
An Israeli military spokesman was unable to confirm the shooting.
Israel imposes a strict maritime blockade of the Gaza Strip, restricting the access of Palestinian fishermen to three nautical miles of the Mediterranean Sea.

Tunisia sees budget deficit narrowing to 6 pct/GDP in 2013

Tunisia's budget deficit should narrow to 6 per cent next year from 6.6 per cent of GDP expected in 2012, the central bank governor said on Friday, indicating economic recovery in the cradle of Arab Spring revolts may take longer than anticipated.
Chadli Ayari, who took over in July after his predecessor was sacked, also said a 3.5 per cent economic growth in 2013 is achievable while the government bets on 4.5 per cent up from 3.5 per cent it expects this year.
Ayari did make direct references to the government's growth projections, but he went as far as predicting that the local economy, which is heavily anchored to the now-troubled euro zone, may not fully recover in 2014.
"2014 will not be the year of recovery for the Tunisian economy. It is still a year of transition that may see the premise of recovery," Ayari told reporters.
"A 3.5 per cent growth is possible (to achieve) in 2013," he added.
Government statistics show GDP growth stood at 3.5 per cent during the first half of 2012.
The Tunisian economy is gradually recovering from last year's political turmoil but faces problems as a result of the crisis in the euro zone, the main market for its exports and the source of a majority of tourist visitors.
It has however held a steady course on inflation, interest rates and exchange rates even in the turmoil that followed President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's ousting in January last year.
But a string of resignations, including that of the finance minister and the central bank governor, appears to indicate that holding that line may not be easy. For years, Tunisia has had the highest GDP per capita in the region and post-revolution expectations from its 10-million population are high.

Egypt PM Qandil inaugurates Taba seaport amid abrupt coverage ban

Egypt's prime minister inaugurated the opening of Taba seaport in South Sinai Saturday, amid a surprising last-minute ban on media coverage on orders of the Cabinet office.

Qandil also met with Jordanian ministers of tourism and transportation, and the governor of the Jordanian city of Aqaba during his visit Saturday. Prominent Egyptian businessman Samih Sawiris was also in attendance.
Media coverage for Qandil's visit was banned at the last minute, based on an order from the Cabinet, according to the secretary-general of South Sinai governorate Mahmoud Mostafa. The abrupt announcement reportedly angered media members, who were told they could not approach Taba seaport.
Qandil was appointed by President Morsi 24 July. He served as minister of irrigation and water resources in the interim government of former Prime Minister Kamal El-Ganzouri.

Egypt's Constituent Assembly wins back four liberal members

Egypt's Constituent Assembly, tasked with drafting a new constitution, has regained four members who recently walked out in protest against Islamist monopolisation of seats.

Constitutional law professor Gaber Gad Nassar, general coordinator of the National Association for Change (NAC) Abdel-Gelil Mostafa, head of the National Council for Woman's economic committee Soaad Kamel Rizk and Coptic Christian scholar Samir Morcos, had pulled out six hours after the assembly's second formation, protesting what they deemed the assembly's factional and unbalanced makeup, said returning member Abdel-Gelil Mostafa.
He noted that their seats had remained vacant until their return.
"We have decided to take on our role amid apprehension that has gripped the masses over the drafting, which threatens Egypt's culture and manner of living," added Mostafa.
According to a statement issued today, their u-turn came after the Constituent Assembly formed an advisory committee comprising a host of leading public figures.
The writing of the constitution has reached a critical juncture that requires those who walked out to yield to the calls of the public to engage in drawing up a constitution that balances authorities and preserves rights and freedoms without prejudice towards any faction or political or intellectual current, added the statement.
The members, however, underscored they will take up any stance their conscience dictates, so as to pursue the ultimate goal of writing a constitution that represents Egypt's cultural and historical pluralism.
The statement highlighted that the members' return is aimed at pursuing this goal by first electing substitute members in vacant seats to strike a balance in the assembly's makeup, and second, setting up a technical advisory commission comprising law and constitutional experts and independent intellectuals.
The makeup of the Constituent Assembly has been locked in stalemate since April when a court ordered the dissolution of a first, short-lived assembly because it was dominated by Islamists and failed to fairly represent Egypt's diverse social groups.
Most liberals and leftists have withdrawn from the second, replacement assembly, deeming it biased towards Islamists who dominated the dissolved People's Assembly that elected it.
The move by the four Assembly members comes as Nasserist Hamdeen Sabbahi and reform campaigner Mohamed ElBaradei called for boycotting the current constituent assembly on the grounds that it is incompetent during a meeting held on Friday.
The constitution-writing body held its first session in its reformed state 18 June. 
This Constituent Assembly has suffered a number of withdrawals since mid-June, when the Egyptian Bloc parties — including the Free Egyptians, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and the leftist Tagammu Party — initiated a mass walk-out, which was followed by the Karama Party, the Socialist Popular Alliance Party and the Democratic Front Party.
Their stated reason for resigning from the assembly was to allow greater representation for women, young people and Coptic Christians, while also registering their objection to perceived "Islamist monopolisation" of the constitution-writing committee.
The troubled assembly still faces the risk of dissolution by court order on grounds that it was drawn up by the subsequently dissolved People's Assembly, the lower house of Egypt's parliament.
In October, Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court is set to rule on the assembly's constitutionality.

Four members of former Yemen president’s party killed in ambush

Armed men killed four members of the political party of Yemen’s ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh in an ambush outside Sana’a on Friday night, the party said.

General People’s Congress officials were travelling on the road to Maareb province when attacked, the party’s website said. Eight were wounded.

It was not clear if the group was targeted because of its party affiliation and a tribal source in al-Jawf where some of the men worked said it could have been a tribal vendetta.

Saleh was forced to step down as president in February after a year-long uprising. Restoring stability in Yemen has become an international priority for fear that Islamist militants will further entrench themselves in a country neighboring top oil exporter Saudi Arabia and lying on major world shipping lanes.

Saleh was succeeded by his deputy Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who has U.S. backing for a transition process that aims to balance the interests of groups including a Shiite Islamist movement in north Yemen, southern secessionists and tribal and Sunni Islamist groups which benefitted under Saleh’s rule.

Saleh, who ruled for 33 years, remains head of the GPC which retains half the seats in a transitional cabinet.

‘Bibi and the bomb’: How Netanyahu’s U.N. sketch exploded online

A selection of photo-edited images mocking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech at the United Nations earlier this week. (Online sources)

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu whipped out a drawing pad, marker and a pre-prepared sketch to illustrate his speech at the United Nations this week, spoofs of the drawing went viral online.

Like a moth to the flame, Netanyahu’s “bomb cartoon” – used to depict the perceived Iranian nuclear threat – drew in the mocking masses.

Pulling out a red marker at one point, Netanyahu drew a thick red line across the bomb graphic, showing what he said was an unacceptable threshold being approached by Iran; 90 percent of the way to the uranium enrichment needed to make an atomic bomb, according to the Associated Press.

But while some, perhaps more analytical, commentators believed Netanyahu had scored major PR points, others decided to take jabs at his attempt by drawing their own versions of what has been described as the “Bibi Bomb.”

In the photo-edited images, parts of the Israeli premier’s sketch are replaced by cartoon characters.

One shows the bomb being swapped with an “Angry Bird,” a popular cartoon game character which is repeatedly flung mid-game, much like a bomb.

In another image, lran takes on the character of Looney Tunes’ wily “Road Runner,” while Netanyahu is replaced with an image of the witless “Wile E. Coyote” - the message being, perhaps: Israel is on a fruitless chase for the quick-moving Iran.

“Bugs Bunny” also makes a cameo appearance in one of the teasing images, while in another “Batman” is seen grasping a bomb similar to that showed by Netanyahu.

And perhaps as a curtain-closer, an image which seems to mock the sketch the most, shows a frazzled Netanyahu, singed and blackened by a cartoon bomb set off by a beaming “Bugs Bunny.” The inset image says: “That’s All Folks!”

Benghazi consulate attack was planned, linked to al-Qaeda: U.S. intel

The top U.S. intelligence authority issued a public statement on Friday, declaring it now believed the Sept. 11 attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, was a “deliberate and organized terrorist attack.”

The statement, by the office of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, said the allegedly planned attack was linked to al-Qaeda, but stressed that “many unanswered questions” remained.

During the attack on two U.S. government compounds in the eastern Libyan city, four U.S. personnel, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed.

“It remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attack, and if extremist group leaders directed their members to participate,” Shawn Turner, spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said in a statement, according to AFP news agency.

“We do assess that some of those involved were linked to groups affiliated with, or sympathetic to al-Qaeda.”

Turner said that in the immediate aftermath of the attack, U.S. agencies came to the view that the Benghazi attack had begun spontaneously following protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo against a short film made in California mocking the Prophet Mohammed.

Turner said that as U.S. intelligence subsequently learned more about the attack, “We revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists.”

Rice to resign?

A top Republican lawmaker demanded Friday that U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice resign, charging she misled Americans over the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

Congressman Pete King’s intervention was the latest effort by Republicans to make the White House pay a political price over the fallout from the attack, according to AFP.

“I think Susan Rice should resign. She is America’s foreign policy spokesman to the world as ambassador to the U.N.,” the New York congressman told National Review Online.

King demanded the departure of Rice, a member of President Barack Obama’s inner circle, after she appeared on U.S. talk shows in the wake of the September 11 attack and dismissed suggestions it was a planned terrorist action.

“We don’t see at this point signs this was a coordinated plan, premeditated attack,” Rice said on “Fox News Sunday” on September 16.

“Obviously, we will wait for the results of the (FBI) investigation and we don’t want to jump to conclusions before then.”

Later Friday, on CNN, King said that Rice had been “irresponsible” to say there was no terrorist involvement in the Benghazi attack and argue instead that it evolved out of protests in the Arab world over an Internet video made on U.S. soil that denigrates Islam and its Prophet.

“The presumption should have been leaning toward it being terrorism,” said King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

The White House quickly came to the defense of Rice, seen as a top candidate for the secretary of state post if Obama wins a second term in November.

Fierce fighting reported in Syria's Aleppo

Syrian rebels have unleashed an unprecedented barrage of mortar fire against government troops in Aleppo after announcing a "decisive" battle for Syria's second city, residents and activists say.
Shells crashed down at a steady rate and clashes were widespread on Friday, leaving layers of dust and smoke over Aleppo, according to the residents and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the UK-based opposition watchdog.
"The fighting is unprecedented and has not stopped since Thursday. The clashes used to be limited to one or two blocks of a district, but now the fighting is on several fronts," the SOHR's Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP news agency.
Residents of Aleppo neighbourhoods previously spared the worst of the two-month-old battle for the city told AFP the violence was "unprecedented".
"The sound from the fighting ... has been non-stop," said a resident of the central district of Sulimaniyeh, who identified himself only as Ziad. "Everyone is terrified. I have never heard anything like this before."
Rebels claimed they had advanced on several fronts, particularly in the southwest, but admitted they had failed to make any significant breakthrough.
"On the Salaheddin front, we took one of the regular army bases," said Abu Furat, one of the leaders of the Al-Tawhid Brigade, the most important in the city.
But he admitted that the fighters had to retreat from Salaheddin because they were outgunned. "To win a guerrilla street war, you have to have bombs and we don't," he said.
Abu Furat said that 25 soldiers were killed in the assault, while another rebel fighter said 20 of his comrades died on the battlefield and 60 were wounded.
The accounts of violence could not be independently verified by Al Jazeera as Syria restricts access for journalists.
Civilian deaths claimed
The SOHR which gave initial estimates of 60 people killed across the country on Friday - half of them civilians - said at least five civilians and five rebels died in Aleppo.
By Friday afternoon the intensity of the fighting abated, as rebels appeared to focus their attention on other objectives, such as Omayyad Mosque in the centre of the Old City, an AFP correspondent said.
The SOHR's Abdel Rahman said the fighting was not yielding major gains for either side. "Neither the regime nor the rebels are able to gain a decisive advantage," he said.
The outgunned rebels, a force made up of mutinous soldiers and civilians who have taken up arms to oust President Bashar al-Assad's regime, declared an all-out assault for Aleppo on Thursday.

Just north of Aleppo, a Syrian shell crashed into a town on the Turkish side of the border, wounding a Turkish national, as fighting raged in a nearby Syrian town, a local official said.
Afterwards, mortars were fired about every 15 minutes into army-held areas, including Sulimaniyeh and Sayyid Ali.
The shell fired from the border town of Tall al-Abyad landed in Akcakale in the province of Sanliurfa, smashing into the walls of two buildings and slightly wounding one person.
Violence also raged in Damascus where troops attacked several rebel areas in both the north and the south of the capital, leaving three civilians dead, the SOHR said.
Despite the violence, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Aleppo and other cities in support of the unification of the Free Syrian Army as factionalisation appears to undermine the anti-regime revolt.
The SOHR said demonstrations were held after the main weekly Muslim prayers in the Fardus and Sukari neighbourhoods of Aleppo, as well as in the central province of Homs, Hama further north and Idlib in the northwest.
US announcements
The developments came as Leon Panetta, US defence secretary, said that the Syrian regime had moved some of its chemical weapons to safeguard the material.
Panetta, citing US intelligence, said in Washington DC on Friday that he believed that the main storage sites for Syria’s arsenal remained secure.
It was not clear when the movement took place, or even if it was recent, but Panetta said it had occurred in more than one case.

Israel PM in 'full agreement' with US on Iran

The US president and the Israeli prime minister have expressed agreement on the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, the White House said.
Barack Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu sought on Friday to ease tensions over how to deal with Iran's nuclear programme, presenting a show of solidarity over how to confront Tehran.

Netanyahu used his UN speech a day earlier to keep pressure on Washington to set a
 "clear red line" for Tehran.Obama, widely seen as having snubbed Netanyahu by not meeting face-to-face during the annual UN gathering, spoke instead by phone to the Israeli leader amid signs of movement toward a truce in their war of words.
But in a softening of his approach, he signaled that no Israeli attack on Iran was imminent before the November 6 US presidential election.
With an eye to the close US presidential race, Netanyahu also fielded a call during his New York visit from Obama's
Republican rival, Mitt Romney, who has accused the president of being too hard on a close US ally and not tough enough on Iran.
Military action'
At the same time, Israeli officials - mindful of the danger of antagonising the Jewish state's main ally and military aid Obama's aides were furious that Netanyahu was trying to put pressure on the president in the midst of the election campaign and refused to budge on the red line issue despite the risk of alienating pro-Israel voters in election battleground states like Florida and Ohio.
Iran's nuclear facilities [Al Jazeera]
Netanyahu dramatically ramped up pressure on Obama earlier this month when he insisted that the United States did not have a "moral right" to hold Israel back from taking action against Iran because Washington had not set its own limits on Tehran's nuclear developments.
Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, flew back for a short visit to Jerusalem last weekend, during which he urged Netanyahu to tone down public statements that could be construed as interfering in the US election or supporting Romney, according to sources in the Jewish community in Washington.
The Israeli desire to defuse the crisis may also have reflected an interpretation of recent US opinion polls showing
a widening of Obama's lead over Romney, who has suffered a series of campaign stumbles.
Romney, speaking to reporters on his campaign plane, said he and Netanyahu agreed that Iran must be denied nuclear
capabilities but did not agree on specific "red lines" to confront Tehran.
"I do not believe in the final analysis we will have to use military action," Romney said. "I certainly hope we don't have
to. I can't take that action off the table."
Netanyahu's praise for Obama's stern words for Iran in the US president's own UN speech on Tuesday - although it lacked any specific ultimatum - was also seen as a sign that the Israeli leader wanted a ceasefire in the unusually public dispute with Washington.


KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) -- Thousands of members of Pakistan's radical Islamic groups rallied on Saturday in the southern city of Karachi against an anti-Islam film that has sparked violence across the Muslim world.
"Innocence of Muslims" has enraged many Muslims for deprecating the Prophet Muhammad. At least 51 people, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, have been killed in violence linked to the film, which also has renewed debate over freedom of expression in the U.S. and in Europe.
Chanting "Down with America" and demanding expulsion of the U.S. ambassador, the participants gathered in the heart of the city's business district, where prominent radical leader Muneebur Rehman demanded stern punishment for the filmmaker. But he asked the protesters to remain peaceful.
Protests are dying down in many countries but continue in Pakistan, home to several powerful radical movements. Since 23 people died in Karachi last week during demonstrations against the film, however, marchers appear to have heeded calls by clerics and other public figures to avoid violence.
Rehman also urged the Pakistan government to seek U.N. help in making new international laws to "protect the honor" of Islam's religious personalities.
Senior police officer Asif Ijaz Sheikh estimated that the crowd numbered more than 15,000. He said the protesters dispersed peacefully.
A similar rally was also expected in Islamabad and some other parts of the country later Saturday.


MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) -- Al-Shabab rebels pulled out of a key port city in southern Somalia, the group said Saturday, a day after Kenyan troops invaded and marched toward the city center and seaside port that long served as the militants' key source of funding, officials said.
Residents in Kismayo said they woke to find police and government headquarters abandoned by the militants, sparking a looting spree of the government and police headquarters.
"They withdrew from here last night. The town is not under anyone's control now," Mohamed Hassan, a resident, said. "People feel some relief now. We hope no more fighting will take place."
The withdrawal came about 24 hours after Kenyan forces made a beach landing and as inland troops from Somalia and Kenya moved toward the port city from the west.
"Looting and chaos is going on here. Thugs are taking advantage of the vacuum," Maryan Hussein, another resident, said. "The abandoned houses are being ransacked and the streets are occupied by people carrying belongings."
Col. Cyrus Oguna, a spokesman for the Kenyan military, said five al-Shabab fighters were killed in a battle overnight. Two commanders were killed in the fighting, the military said.
He said the Kenyan forces are still verifying the reports that al-Shabab had pulled out of Kismayo. "For now we are treating it as a theory," he said.
The Kenyan troops landed by boats in the northern part of Kismayo on Friday and moved toward the port, he said. He said that al-Shabab lost "many, many militants, including some key commanders" during battles on Friday that involved helicopter gunships.
Al-Shabab used Twitter to announce the news it was leaving Kismayo.
"Last night, after more than 5 years the Islamic administration in Kismayo closed its office," the tweet said. "Kismayo shall be transformed from a peaceful city governed by Islamic Shari'ah into a battle-zone between Muslims" and invaders.
Al-Shabab found little popular support in Kismayo because of the conservative brand of Islam it tried to impose on residents. Al-Shabab carried out public executions, whippings and amputations as punishments, and enforced a conservative dress code.
Al-Shabab was forced out of Mogadishu in August 2011 and lost one of its major sources of funding when it could no longer tax businesses in the city's main market. Since then the taxes al-Shabab charged on goods coming into Kismayo's port were seen as its last major funding source.
As it no longer holds any major cities in Somalia, al-Shabab is expected to operate more as an insurgent force that carries out suicide and roadside bomb attacks.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Khartoum and Juba edge towards deal: Ethiopia

Sudan and South Sudan leaders are edging close to signing a deal on festering disputes between the rival neighbors on the fourth day of a presidential summit, Ethiopian officials said Wednesday.

“The final result of the negotiation between the two Sudans is expected to be made public by a press conference,” Ethiopia’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

However, diplomats suggested the former civil war foes were close to reaching a partial agreement, not a comprehensive deal as had been hoped.

The press conference is scheduled for 1030 GMT but there was no confirmation from either delegation a deal would be signed then.
President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and his Southern counterpart Salva Kiir began talks Sunday -- in what was originally billed as a one-day meeting -- with sticking points reported to be contested border regions and security issues.

Efforts had been made to strike a comprehensive deal tackling multiple issues including oil, security, a demilitarized border buffer zone and contested regions, but it is understood any deal signed Wednesday would be partial.

“There has been progress, not on all areas, but if a deal can be reached, it is a good step forward,” a Western diplomat said.

Amid international pressure to reach a deal -- after missing a U.N. Security Council deadline to settle by Saturday -- teams from each side have spent days locked in efforts to narrow positions, as mediators shuttled between them.

The leaders met late Tuesday for almost three hours for another round of direct talks alongside the African Union’s chief mediator, former South African president Thabo Mbeki.

The protracted talks under AU mediation began in the Ethiopian capital several months before South Sudan split in July 2011 from what was Africa's biggest nation, following an independence vote after decades of war.

Key issues include the ownership of contested regions along their frontier, especially the flashpoint Abyei region, and the setting up of a demilitarized border zone after fierce clashes.

A comprehensive deal -- as opposed to another stepping-stone agreement -- would have to include a settlement on Abyei, a Lebanon-sized border area currently controlled by Ethiopian peacekeepers.

The buffer zone would also potentially cut support for rebel forces in Sudan’s Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile regions that Khartoum accuses Juba of backing, just as the South accuses Sudan of arming rebels in its territory.

The U.N. set a deadline for a deal after border fighting broke out in March, when Southern troops briefly wrested the valuable Heglig oil field from Khartoum's control, and Sudan launched bombing raids in response.

But even among the most optimistic diplomats, there seemed little chance of a breakthrough to solve the growing humanitarian crises in Sudan's civil war states of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile.

However, it was hoped the deal would also settle the details of last month’s agreement to fix the oil export fees that landlocked South Sudan will pay to ship crude through Khartoum’s pipelines to the Red Sea.

At independence, Juba took two-thirds of the region’s oil, but processing and export facilities remained in Sudan. In January, the South shut off oil production after accusing Sudan of stealing its oil.

Iran correspondent killed, another wounded, in Syria: report

A reporter for Iran’s Press TV was killed by a sniper and the Damascus bureau chief for Iran’s Al-Alam channel wounded in the Syrian capital on Wednesday, their employers in Tehran said.

“Press TV correspondent Maya Nasser has been killed by sniper fire in the Syrian capital, Damascus,” Press TV said in a bulletin on its news website.

“Insurgents in the Syrian capital Damascus have attacked Press TV staff and killed one of our reporters,” said anchor Bardia Honardar on air, adding they were attacked while covering explosions in Damascus, Reuters reported.
Both Press TV and Al-Alam said on their websites that Al-Alam’s Damascus bureau chief, Hussein Mortada, a Lebanese national, was wounded.

Al-Alam said Mortada suffered a gunshot wound as he went to the site of two bomb blasts at the Damascus headquarters of the Syrian armed forces general staff, according to AFP.

It was not immediately known whether Nasser was with Mortada when he was killed. Press TV was not immediately able to give his nationality.

Both Press TV and Al-Alam are financed by the Iranian government, which is fully supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in its struggle against a widespread rebellion.

Muslim leaders call for clamp down on ‘Islamophobia’ at U.N.

Muslim leaders demanded international action to stop religious insults in a challenge to U.S. President Barack Obama’s defense of freedom of expression at the U.N. General Assembly.

Obama made a strong condemnation of “violence and intolerance” in his speech at the U.N. headquarters on Tuesday. He said world leaders had a duty to speak out against the deadly attacks on Americans in the past two weeks caused by an anti-Islam film made in the United States.
King Abdullah II of Jordan spoke out against the film. (Reuters)
King Abdullah II of Jordan spoke out against the film. (Reuters)
But Muslim kings and presidents and other heads of state said Western nations must clamp down on “Islamophobia” following the storm over the film which mocks the Prophet Mohammed, AFP reported.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, said the film was another “ugly face” of religious defamation.

Yudhoyono quoted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as saying that “everyone must observe morality and public order” and commented: “Freedom of expression is therefore not absolute.”

He called for “an international instrument to effectively prevent incitement to hostility or violence based on religions or beliefs.”

King Abdullah II of Jordan, a close U.S. ally, spoke out against the film and the violence it sparked.
Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari demanded U.N. action. (Reuters)
Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari demanded U.N. action. (Reuters)
Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari condemned what he called the “incitement of hate” against Muslims and demanded United Nations action.

“Although we can never condone violence, the international community must not become silent observers and should criminalize such acts that destroy the peace of the world and endanger world security by misusing freedom of expression,” he told the assembly.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai took aim both at the anti-Islam video and publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad -- the latter occurring most recently in France.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai slammed the anti-Islam video and cartoons. (Reuters)
Afghan President Hamid Karzai slammed the anti-Islam video and cartoons. (Reuters)
Karzai called the insults to the faith of 1.5 billion Muslims, the “depravity of fanatics,” and added: “Such acts can never be justified as freedom of speech or expression,” according to Reuters.

“The menace of Islamophobia is a worrying phenomenon that threatens peace and co-existence,” he added in his address to the General Assembly.

Obama said he could not ban the video, reportedly made by Egyptian Copts, because of the U.S. Constitution which protects the right to free speech.

“As president of our country, and commander-in-chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so,” Obama told leaders at the U.N. summit.

“The attacks of the last two weeks are not simply an assault on America. They are also an assault on the very ideals upon which the United Nations was founded -- the notion that people can resolve their differences peacefully,” he added.

Obama has sought a new start in relations with the Muslim world during his first term, but the legacy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where U.S. troops will remain for more than a year have been hard to shake off.

Stewart Patrick, a specialist on international institutions for the Council on Foreign Relations think-tank, said the film furor had “exposed a huge fault line regarding the balance between free speech, which obviously is healthier in the United States, and the defamation of religion, which is really a red line for many people.”

But beyond the question of freedom of speech, some Muslim leaders also say the United States has still not gone far enough to balance its relations with Muslim nations.
Egypt’s President Mohamed Mursi said there should be mutual show of respect. (Reuters)
Egypt’s President Mohamed Mursi said there should be mutual show of respect. (Reuters)
Egypt’s President Mohamed Mursi said despite anti-U.S. demonstrations in Cairo that U.S. support for his country and others that have seen Arab Spring revolutions could be a chance for a mutual show of respect.

Over the past four decades, “Egyptian people see the blood of the Palestinians being shed. And they see that the U.S. administrations were biased against the interests of the Palestinians. So a sort of hate and sort of a worry rise out of that in Egypt and in the area,” Mursi said in an interview with Charlie Rose on PBS television this week.

“The demonstrations were an expression of a high level of anger and a rejection of what is happening,” added Mursi. “And the U.S. embassy represents the symbol of America as a people and government."

Obama’s efforts, said the Egyptian leader, were “the opportunity to take these worries, or this hate, out of the way and to build a new relationship based on respect, communication.”

Earlier on Tuesday in Geneva, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation -- the world’s largest Islamic body, representing 56 countries -- called for expressions of “Islamophobia” to be curbed by law in the same way as some countries restrict anti-Semitic speech or Holocaust denial.

Security forces targeted in Iraq attacks

A series of apparently co-ordinated attacks against Iraqi security forces in and around Baghdad have killed at least six police and soldiers, security and medical officials say.
The Associated Press news agency said nine people died and another 19 were wounded in Tuesday's attacks.
In Tarmiyah, north of the capital Baghdad, fighters attacked a police station with two car bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikov assault rifles, killing one policeman and wounding two, AFP news agency reported quoting an interior ministry official and a medical source.
Armed men also attacked a checkpoint in Zayouna in east Baghdad, killing two police and wounding three, the interior ministry official said.
In al-Amriyah neighbourhood of Falluja, 115km west of Baghdad, armed men killed army Brigadier-General Saleh Hassan Fezaa, while others attacked a checkpoint in al-Amil in the south of Baghdad, killing two soldiers and wounding three.
Medical officials confirmed the casualties. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk to the media.
While fighters opposed to the Iraqi government are regarded as weaker than in past years, they have shown they can strike at even the most highly secured sites in the country.
Targets in recent months included a military base, the anti-terrorism directorate in Baghdad, a prison, and an entrance to Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, where the Iraqi government is headquartered.
Violence in Iraq is down from its peak in 2006 and 2007, but deadly attacks are still carried out almost every day.
With the latest violence, at least 187 people have been killed and 685 wounded in attacks so far this month, according to a tally by the AFP news agency based on security and medical sources.

Egypt's President Morsi meets Brazilian counterpart in New York


Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on Monday met his Brazilian counterpart Dilma Rousseff in New York City, with whom he discussed means of boosting bilateral – especially economic – relations between the two countries.

Both leaders are in New York to attend the 67th General Assembly of the United Nations.
Rousseff, with whom the Egyptian president discussed the Brazilian experience in democratic transition, is the first South American leader that Morsi has met since becoming Egypt's first democratically-elected president.
Morsi on Monday also met with representatives of New York-based Islamic, Christian and Jewish organisations. Participants at the meeting, which was organised by Egypt's mission to the UN, reportedly discussed a proposed framework for encouraging religious tolerance and so-called interfaith dialogue.
According to Dalia Mogahed, director of the US-based Centre for Islamic Studies and former advisor to US President Barack Obama for interfaith issues, Morsi told his interlocutors at the meeting that, in Islam, "there is no such thing as a theocratic state."
Mogahed, who attended Morsi's meeting with religious figures, asserted via Twitter that the Egyptian president had downplayed recent Muslim-Christian clashes in Egypt as isolated incidents.
On Tuesday, Morsi is slated to attend the morning session of the UN General Assembly. The following day, he is scheduled to address the UN General Assembly, where he is expected to discuss important regional and international issues.
During his sojourn in New York, Morsi will hold meetings with no less than 15 heads of state from around the world, according to presidential spokesman Yasser Ali, including French President Francois Hollande and UK Prime Minister David Cameron. The Egyptian president will also meet with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.