Archive for June 18th, 2013

Al-Qaida’s Iraq head defies boss over Syria fight

June 15, 2013

BAGHDAD (AP) — The leader of al-Qaida’s Iraq arm defiantly rejected an order from the terror network’s central command to stop claiming control over the organization’s Syria affiliate, according to a message purportedly from him that was posted online Saturday.

The latest statement by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who heads the Islamic State of Iraq, reveals a growing rift within al-Qaida’s global network. It also highlights the Iraqi wing’s determination to link its own fight against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad with the cause of rebels trying to topple the Iran-backed Syrian regime.

His statement surfaced as rockets rained down on a Baghdad camp housing Iranian exiles, killing three people in the latest sign of growing unrest inside Iraq. The attack drew sharp condemnations from Washington and the United Nations.

In an audio message posted online, the speaker identified as al-Baghdadi insists that a merger he announced in April with Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra rebel group to create a cross-border movement known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will go on.

Al-Nusra is an al-Qaida affiliate that has emerged as one of the most effective rebel factions in Syria. Its head, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, has rejected the takeover attempt by al-Baghdadi. “The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will continue,” al-Baghdadi said. “We will not compromise and we will not give up.”

Al-Qaida’s global leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has tried to end the squabbling and bring the group’s local affiliates back in line. In a letter posted online by Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV last Sunday, al-Zawahiri declared that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will be abolished and that the Iraqi and Syrian groups would remain independent with al-Baghdadi and al Golani as leaders of their respective branches.

Al-Baghdadi is now defying that command. In his statement, he referred to “the letter attributed to Sheik al-Zawahiri,” suggesting he was calling into question the authenticity of the letter. “I chose the command of God over the command that runs against it in the letter,” al-Baghdadi said.

He urged his followers to rise up against Shiites, Alawites, and the “Party of Satan” — a reference to the Iran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah, which has been sending fighters to Syria to fight alongside President Bashar Assad’s regime. Assad comes from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

It was not possible to independently confirm whether the speaker was al-Baghdadi, but the man’s voice was similar to that of earlier recordings. Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, said there are indications that Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant are operating as distinct groups inside of Syria.

He described al-Baghdadi’s defiance as “a potentially very damaging split within al-Qaida’s senior leadership.” “Al-Baghdadi’s statement underlines an extent of division between himself and Zawahiri but also with another al-Qaida affiliate,” Lister said. “Fundamentally, al-Baghdadi appears to be acting according to his own interests, instead of those of his ultimate ’employer,’ al-Qaida.”

Violence has spiked sharply in Iraq in recent months, with the death toll rising to levels not seen since 2008. Al-Qaida in Iraq is thought responsible for many of the car bombings and other violent attacks targeting the country’s majority Shiites and symbols of the Shiite-led government’s authority.

Iraq risks growing more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war raging across its western border. Iraqi border posts along the Syrian frontier have come under attack by rebels, and Syrian truck drivers and soldiers have been killed inside Iraq.

Iraqi fighters are moving across the border, with Sunni extremists cooperating with the rebels and Shiite militants fighting alongside government forces. Also on Saturday, an Iranian exile group living in a camp near Baghdad airport reported multiple casualties when the compound, known as Camp Liberty, came under attack from rockets.

The group, the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, is the militant wing of a Paris-based Iranian opposition group that opposes Iran’s clerical regime and has carried out assassinations and bombings in Iran. It fought alongside Saddam Hussein’s forces in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, and several thousand of its members were given sanctuary in Iraq. It renounced violence in 2001, and was removed from the U.S. terrorism list last year.

Camp residents Kolthom Serahati and Javad Naghashan were killed and several others were wounded, according to the NCRI. Several Katyusha rockets struck the area, according to Iraqi security officials. Police and hospital officials said an Iraqi was also killed, and that the wounded included at least nine Iranians and seven Iraqis. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

Iraq’s government wants the MEK out of the country, and the United Nations is working to relocate residents abroad. Several residents moved to Albania last month. U.N. envoy Martin Kobler condemned the attack, which he said happened despite “repeated requests to the government of Iraq to provide Camp Liberty and its residents with protective measures.” He urged U.N. member states to do more to help resettle the residents abroad.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described the rocket strikes as “brutal, senseless, and utterly unacceptable.” He said in a statement that Washington has urged the Iraqi government to provide medical assistance, ensure residents’ safety and bring those responsible to justice.

“We must find a permanent and long-term solution that ensures their safety,” he said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Saturday’s attack. A similar deadly attack in February was blamed on Shiite militants. The head of one Shiite militia, the Mukhtar Army, later that month threatened further strikes on the compound.

In another attack, Sunni cleric Khalil al-Fahdawi was killed when a bomb stuck to his car exploded late the previous night near Ramadi, police said Saturday. The cleric has been a supporter of Sunni anti-government protests that have been raging for months and exacerbating sectarian tensions.

Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed reporting.

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Egypt cuts relations with Syrian government

June 15, 2013

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s Islamist president announced Saturday that he was cutting off diplomatic relations with Syria and closing Damascus’ embassy in Cairo, decisions made amid growing calls from hard-line Sunni clerics in Egypt and elsewhere to launch a “holy war” against Syria’s embattled regime.

Mohammed Morsi told thousands of supporters at a rally in Cairo that his government was also withdrawing the Egyptian charge d’affaires from Damascus. He called on Lebanon’s Hezbollah to leave Syria, where the Iranian-backed Shiite militant group has been fighting alongside troops loyal to embattled President Bashar Assad against the mostly Sunni rebels.

“Hezbollah must leave Syria. This is serious talk: There is no business or place for Hezbollah in Syria,” said Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president. Assad’s regime, he said, will have no place in the future of Syria after committing what Morsi called “horrors” against its people.

Morsi’s address, particularly his call on Hezbollah to leave Syria, and the fiery rhetoric used by well-known Muslim clerics this weekend point to the increasing perception of the Syrian conflict as sectarian. At least 93,000 people have been killed since turmoil there began more than two years ago.

The rally that Morsi addressed on Saturday was called for by hardline Islamists loyal to the Egyptian president to show solidarity with the people of Syria. Morsi addressed the rally after several hardline Islamist clerics spoke, all of whom called on him to do everything he could to help the Syrian rebels. Those attending the rally, about 20,000, chanted for solidarity with the Syrians, but occasionally deviated to shout slogans in support of Morsi.

The Egyptian president picked up a flag of the Syrian revolution and another of Egypt and waved them to the crowd as he entered the indoor stadium in a Cairo suburb. Morsi also used the occasion to warn his opponents at home against the use of violence in mass protests planned for June 30, the anniversary of his assumption to power. Before he spoke, one hardline cleric, Mohammed Abdel-Maqsoud, recited an often repeated Muslim prayer against the “enemies” of God and Islam but used it to refer to the June 30 protesters.

The climate in the Cairo indoor stadium where the rally was held appeared to further entrench the division of Egypt into two camps: one led by Morsi, his Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, and the other grouping the secular and liberal opposition together with moderate Muslims, minority Christians and a large percentage of women.

In his address, Morsi repeated the allegation that Egyptians loyal to the now-ousted regime of autocrat Hosni Mubarak were behind the planned protests and that they were working against the January 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak. As customary since taking office, he spoke of himself as a guardian and protector of the revolution, an assertion hotly disputed by his critics.

“Some who are delusionary want to pounce on the January revolution and think that they can undermine the stability that is growing daily or undermine the resolve that people have clearly forged with their will,” said Morsi.

“We will deal with them decisively and there will never be a place for them among us,” he told his supporters. Morsi’s government is widely thought to have failed to tackle any of the seemingly endless problems facing the country, from power cuts and surging crime to unemployment, steep price rises and fuel shortages. The declared aim of the June 30 protests is to force Morsi out and hold early presidential elections.

Morsi’s allies say the protests have no legal basis and amount to a coup against his legitimate rule. They have been calling on opposition leaders to enter a national political dialogue to resolve the crisis, but the opposition has turned down the offer, claiming that previous rounds of dialogue did not yield results.

Spearheading the opposition to Morsi’s rule now is a youth protest movement called Tamarod, or rebel, which claims to have collected millions of signatures of Egyptians who want Morsi to step down. Organizers say they aim to collect the signatures of more people than those who voted for Morsi in the June 2012 election.

Some of the hard-line clerics who support Morsi have branded Tamarod activists as infidels or heretics and sought to frame their movement as an act against Islam.

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