Archive for June 29th, 2013

Jordan seeks energy security with shale oil plant

Amman, Jordan (UPI)

Jun 27, 2013

Jordan is pushing ahead with plans to build the Middle East’s first shale oil-fired power plant, a major step toward achieving energy security by the resource-poor Hashemite kingdom.

Its fragile economy had long been shackled by dependence on imported energy, a problem sharply accentuated by high oil prices during the past three years and the turmoil in the Arab world since early 2011.

The kingdom, whose economy has largely survived on hefty handouts from the United States and the petro-monarchies of the Persian Gulf, sits on top of an estimated 100 billion barrels of shale oil — the fourth-largest shale oil reserves in the world after the United States, China and Russia.

Moves to develop the deposits began in 2006, but the high price of extraction was a major drawback.

The steep rise in oil prices in 2008 and the political convulsions of the Arab Spring in 2011 hit Jordan hard.

The loss of low-cost Egyptian natural gas via a pipeline across the Sinai Peninsula, totaling about 80 percent of Jordan’s electricity generating fuel needs, meant Amman had to rely on expensive oil imports for power generation.

That cost the equivalent of about 25 percent of the kingdom’s gross domestic product.

“Energy is the Achilles heel of the Jordanian economy, it’s a huge vulnerability for Jordan,” Nemat Shafik, deputy head of the International Monetary Fund observed during a recent visit to Amman.

The energy issue has assumed even greater political importance in recent months as unrest within Jordan has grown.

About 400,000 refugees from the civil war in neighboring Syria have flooded into the country, overwhelming its already stretched resources, and engendering domestic discontent and demands for democratic reform that are increasingly posing a challenge to the Hashemite monarchy.

There are increasing signs Jordan may be dragged into the Syrian conflict on the side of rebels seeking to topple the Damascus regime of President Bashar Assad.

The United States has sent a Patriot missile battery and a squadron of F-16 combat jets to Jordan, and U.S. forces are training Syrian rebels in the kingdom.

Abdullah II, whose great-grandfather founded the Hashemite kingdom set up by the British after World War I, has a lot riding on the shale oil operation, in which Royal Dutch Shell and British Petroleum are helping out.

The Middle East Economic Digest reports the Amman government has set a target of meeting 14 percent of the kingdom’s energy needs from shale deposits by 2020.

The proposed shale-fired power plant is scheduled to be operational by 2017, with a planned capacity of 500 megawatts, cutting the cost of Jordan’s electricity generation by nearly $500 million a year.

The power scheme will be operated by Estonia’s Enefit and Jordan’s Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources. More power plants are likely.

Amman has increasingly focused on the shale oil exploration. Along with the go-ahead on the power plant, several exploration contracts were signed in 2012.

“The success of the exploration program is not guaranteed,” said Gulf-based analyst Andrew Roscoe. “The cost of extracting shale oil means that it is only feasible when oil prices are high. However, the vulnerability of Jordan’s economy to external events has made the decision to tap its natural resources an easy one to take.

“With the kingdom’s overall fiscal deficit reaching 8.8 percent of gross domestic product in 212, Amman must ensure proposed schemes to reduce its energy bills come to fruition,” said Roscoe.

The Energy Ministry signed an agreement with Canadian Global Oil Shale Holdings in September 2012 to assess oil shale resources across 86 square miles of the Attarat Um Ghudran and Isphere al-Mahatain regions of southern Jordan.

Another possible source of energy may be opening up through neighboring Israel, with which Abdullah’s late father King Hussein, signed a peace treaty in 1996.

The first of Israel’s offshore gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean began production in March and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s cabinet approved exporting 40 percent of all gas produced.

The Israelis have a strategic interest in maintaining the Hashemite monarchy, even though the peace treaty is not popular with most Jordanians, so supplying Jordan via a relatively short pipeline would seem to be in the cards.

Source: Energy-Daily.

Link: http://www.energy-daily.com/reports/Jordan_seeks_energy_security_with_shale_oil_plant_999.html.

Advertisements

Lebanese troops disperse Sunni protesters

June 28, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese troops fired in the air Friday to disperse dozens of Sunni Muslims demonstrating in support of a hardline cleric who has been on the run since the military crushed his fighters earlier this week.

Lebanon is grappling with rising tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims linked to the more than 2-year-old conflict in neighboring Syria, which has sparked deadly street fighting on several occasions in Lebanese cities between the rival sects.

The Lebanese military moved Friday to break up the demonstration in the southern port city of Sidon after protesters tried to reach the mosque complex where the Sunni cleric Ahmad al-Assir used to give his sermons. There were similar protests by Sunnis in the capital Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon’s third largest.

Protesters briefly closed the highway linking Beirut with Tripoli Friday afternoon and damaged a Lebanese army statue near the northern city, the state-run National News Agency said. Al-Assir’s compound has been under army control since Monday following two days of fighting between troops and al-Assir’s followers that left dozens of people dead.

The cleric’s rapid rise in popularity among Sunnis underscored the deep frustration of many Lebanese who resent the influence Shiites have gained in government via the powerful Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

Al-Assir has been one of Hezbollah’s harshest critics in Lebanon and had called on fellow Sunnis to go fight in Syria against President Bashar Assad’s forces. His calls intensified earlier this year after Hezbollah fighters joined Assad’s forces against the Syrian opposition, which is dominated by Sunnis.

Syria’s conflict has increasingly taken on sectarian overtones. The rebels fighting to remove Assad are primarily Sunnis, and have been joined by Sunni fighters from other Muslim countries. Assad’s regime, in contrast, is led by the president’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and his forces have been bolstered by fighters from Hezbollah, a factor that has helped fan the sectarian nature of the conflict.

Lebanon and Syria share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries that are easily enflamed. Lebanon, a country plagued by decades of strife, has been on edge since the uprising in Syria against Assad erupted in March 2011.

Sidon, located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Beirut, had largely been spared from violence plaguing Lebanon’s border areas where Syria’s civil war has been spilling over with increasing frequency.

On Friday, troops fired into the air with heavy machine guns mounted on armored personnel carriers to disperse the protesters. People ran in fear in the streets as cars sped away from the area. Fighting in the Mediterranean city began Sunday after troops arrested an al-Assir follower. The army says the cleric’s supporters opened fire without provocation on an army checkpoint.

Official reports said at least 18 soldiers were killed and 50 wounded in the fighting, while more than 20 of al-Assir’s supporters died in the battle. Some Sunni activists said the army was joined by Hezbollah fighters in the battle against al-Assir, a claim that the army denied.

Sidon’s demonstration started after thousands attended Friday prayers in a mosque in the city center. The prayer was attended by a prominent ultraconservative Sunni Salafi cleric from northern Lebanon, Daia Al-Islam Al-Shahal, and the Sunni mufti of Sidon, Sheik Salim Soussan.

Soussan urged the army to open a “fair, objective and legal investigation” into the fighting in Sidon. “We totally reject that some illegitimate armed groups take part in the raids, provocations and interrogation of people,” Soussan said in an apparent reference to Hezbollah. “We put the state responsible for that.”

Earlier in the day, a roadside bomb went off on a highway near the eastern city of Zahleh, in the Bekaa Valley, without causing casualties. Local TV stations said the morning bomb hit three SUVs carrying Hezbollah members.

There have been two other similar incidents in the eastern Bekaa Valley over the past weeks.

Lebanese troops secure hardline cleric’s complex

June 25, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese troops detonated booby traps at a complex captured from followers of a hardline Sunni cleric on Tuesday, securing the area after two days of fighting that left dozens dead in the port city of Sidon.

Soldiers who blocked off several office and residential buildings around the mosque where Ahmad al-Assir once preached told reporters they were clearing the complex of explosives. An Associated Press photographer on the scene heard several explosions and saw black smoke billowing during the operation.

The fate of Al-Assir, a maverick Sunni sheik who controlled the complex for about two years, is unknown. His rapid rise in popularity among Sunnis underscored the deep frustration of many Lebanese who resent the influence Shiites have gained in government via the militant group Hezbollah.

Official reports said at least 17 soldiers were killed and 50 were wounded in the fighting while more than 20 of al-Assir’s supporters died in the battle, according to a security official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to reporters.

The fighting, some of the worst involving Lebanese troops in years, was seen as a test of the weak government’s ability to contain the furies unleashed by the civil war in neighboring Syria. Despite the heavy death toll, the military appeared to have successfully put down the threat from al-Assir and his armed supporters by late Monday.

The officials said troops raided several apartments around Sidon on Tuesday in search of al-Assir’s followers. Security was tight in hospitals where wounded militants were being treated, they added, with even relatives prevented from visiting them.

“I was surprised. This was not a mosque. It was a security center,” outgoing Interior Minister Marwan Charbel told reporters after touring the Bilal bin Rabbah complex in Sidon where al-Assir’s supporters had been holed up. He said among the detainees who were fighting with al-Assir were foreigners.

“They brought in foreigners to kill Lebanese,” Charbel said, without giving nationalities other than a Sudanese who was detained Tuesday. President Michel Suleiman said in a statement that army command has been given the “political support” to retaliate against groups that threaten national security.

By noon, streets around al-Assir’s complex were packed with people who came to inspect their homes and shops, many of which were damaged during the fighting. Lebanese commandos patrolled streets littered with cars that were burnt-out and riddled with bullets.

Inside the complex, a seven-story building was pockmarked with shells and bullet holes and the top two floors appeared totally burnt. The small mosque where al-Assir preached appeared intact. Troops had avoided hitting it directly.

A woman who came to the area weeping asked to be allowed to enter the complex to see if her son was there. “I saw his picture on TV and he was dead,” she screamed, before soldiers directed her search to the hospital morgue.

Earlier Tuesday, the bodies of six fighters were found in the complex and on roofs of nearby buildings. They were later taken away in Lebanese Red Cross ambulances. The state-run National News Agency reported Tuesday that military prosecutor Saqr Saqr has asked military intelligence to open an investigation into the Sidon clashes and begin interrogating some 40 detainees. On Monday, Saqr issued arrest warrants for al-Assir and 123 of his supporters.

The U.S. embassy in Beirut urged Americans to avoid all travel to Lebanon because of safety and security concerns. “U.S. citizens living and working in Lebanon should understand that they accept risks in remaining and should carefully consider those risks,” it said.

“We condemn in the strongest terms the attacks by militants against the Lebanese Armed Forces, which have resulted in the deaths of a number of soldiers and civilians,” said U.S. State Department Acting Deputy Spokesperson Patrick Ventrell. He added that the U.S. is fully committed to Lebanon’s stability, sovereignty, and independence and said Washington will continue to assist and train security forces.

Sidon, located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Beirut, had largely been spared from violence plaguing Lebanon’s border areas where Syria’s civil war has been spilling over. Fighting in the Mediterranean city began Sunday after troops arrested an al-Assir follower. The army says the cleric’s supporters opened fire without provocation on an army checkpoint.

The fighting in Sidon is the bloodiest involving the army since the military fought a three-month battle in 2007 against the al-Qaida-inspired Fatah Islam group inside the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared in northern Lebanon. The Lebanese army crushed the group, but the clashes killed more than 170 soldiers.

Syria’s civil war has been bleeding into Lebanon for the past year, following similar sectarian lines of Sunni and Shiite camps. Overstretched and outgunned by militias, the military has struggled on multiple fronts in the eastern Bekaa valley and the northern city of Tripoli, where armed factions have fought street battles that often last several days.

Al-Assir, a 45-year-old cleric, supports the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad. Also Tuesday, a roadside bomb exploded on the key highway linking Beirut to the Syrian capital without causing casualties, security officials said. They said the small bomb went off early in the morning near the town of Barr Elias, a few kilometers (miles) from the border crossing point of Masnaa.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. It was the second such attack on the highway within weeks.

Clashes present test for Lebanon’s weak military

June 24, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s third-largest city of Sidon was turned into a battle zone Monday as the military fought heavily armed followers of an extremist Sunni Muslim cleric holed up in a mosque.

Residents of the southern port fled machine-gun fire and grenade explosions that shook the coastal area in one of the deadliest rounds of violence, seen as a test of the weak government’s ability to contain the furies unleashed by the civil war in neighboring Syria.

Official reports said at least 16 soldiers were killed and 50 were wounded in two days of clashes with armed followers of Ahmad al-Assir, a maverick Sunni sheik whose rapid rise is a sign of the deep frustration among many Lebanese who resent the ascendancy of Shiites to power, led by the militant group Hezbollah. More than 20 of al-Assir’s supporters were killed, according to a security official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to reporters.

The fierce battle that al-Assir’s fighters were putting up showed how aggressive Sunni extremists have grown in Lebanon, building on anger not only at Syria’s regime but also its allies in Hezbollah. “Sidon is a war zone,” said Nabil Azzam, a resident who returned briefly Monday to check on his home after having fled with his family a day earlier. “This is the result of all the sectarian rhetoric that has been building because of the war in Syria. It was bound to happen,” he said by telephone, a conversation interrupted by a burst of gunfire.

Machine-gun fire and explosions from rocket-propelled grenade caused panic among residents, who also reported power and water outages. Snipers allied with al-Assir took over rooftops, terrorizing civilians, and many were asking to be evacuated from the heavily populated neighborhood around the Bilal bin Rabbah Mosque, where al-Assir preaches and where the fighting has been concentrated.

The military appealed to the gunmen to turn themselves in, vowing to continue its operations “until security is totally restored.” By evening, the army had stormed the mosque complex, though not the mosque itself.

In addition to the more than 20 followers of the cleric who were killed, dozens of them were arrested, the security official said. There was no sign of al-Assir and it was unclear if he was in the mosque or had managed to escape.

The fighting in Sidon is the bloodiest involving the army since the military fought a three-month battle in 2007 against the al-Qaida-inspired Fatah Islam group inside the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared in northern Lebanon. The Lebanese army crushed the group, but the clashes killed more than 170 soldiers.

The scenes of soldiers aiming at gunmen holed up in residential buildings and armored personnel vehicles deployed in the streets evoked memories of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war. The challenges facing the Lebanese military resemble those that prevailed in that conflict, which eventually splintered the army along sectarian lines.

“It’s the memory of this destructive war that remains as a restraining force — for now,” said Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. Syria’s civil war has been bleeding into Lebanon for the past year, following similar sectarian lines of Sunni and Shiite camps. Overstretched and outgunned by militias, the military has struggled on multiple fronts in the eastern Bekaa valley and the northern city of Tripoli as armed factions fought street battles that often lasted several days.

In many cases, soldiers stood by helplessly and watched the violence. On Monday, however, the army moved against al-Assir after his followers opened fire on an army checkpoint unprovoked. Al-Assir, a 45-year-old bearded cleric who supports the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, is an unlikely figure to challenge the Lebanese army.

Few had heard of him until last year, when he began agitating for Hezbollah to disarm, taking advantage of the deep frustration among Lebanon’s Sunnis and a political void on the Sunni street following the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a powerful Sunni leader.

Last year, al-Assir set up a protest tent city that closed a main road in Sidon for a month in a sit-in meant to pressure Hezbollah to disarm. He kept local and international media entertained by pulling stunts such as riding his bicycle and getting his hair cut in public while he openly challenged and taunted Hezbollah like few had dared before. He even publicly criticized Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah — something few would do in Lebanon.

In February, al-Assir caused a stir when he and hundreds of his bearded supporters arrived in buses at a ski resort in the Christian heartland, where residents set up roadblocks to try to keep him out.

He teamed up with Fadel Shaker, a once-prominent Lebanese singer-turned Salafist, who took to reciting verses of the Quran at al-Assir’s protests. Shaker’s brother, a close aide to al-Assir, was killed in confrontations with the army Monday, the National News Agency said.

Despite his attention-seeking tactics, al-Assir’s rants against Hezbollah resonated with many Sunnis who are bitter about Hezbollah’s increasingly dominant role in Lebanese politics. Many in the Western-backed coalition known as March 14, headed by Hariri’s son, Saad, quietly backed al-Assir as he launched his anti-Hezbollah tirades, and several Sunni politicians attacked the army, accusing it of bias in favor of Hezbollah.

Last month, after Hezbollah openly joined Assad’s forces in the border town of Qusair, al-Assir called on Sunnis in Lebanon to enter the fight in in Syria, and posted pictures of himself allegedly in Qusair before its fall into government hands. He accused the army of inaction in the face of Hezbollah’s growing involvement in Syria.

But al-Assir appears to have overplayed his cards by attacking the army, the only trusted institution in the country, triggering a backlash. “The bravery of the army facing al-Assir’s well-armed supporters has shamed Lebanese politicians,” said Hisham Jaber, a retired army general who heads a Beirut-based think tank. He said the army appeared determined to remain neutral despite attempts by politicians to splinter it.

Sidon, located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Beirut, has largely been spared the violence plaguing border areas. The clashes began Sunday in the Mediterranean city after troops arrested an al-Assir follower. The army says the cleric’s supporters opened fire without provocation on an army checkpoint.

Many people living on upper floors moved downstairs for cover or fled to safer areas. Some were seen carrying children. Others stayed locked in their homes or shops, afraid of getting caught in the crossfire. Gray smoke billowed over parts of the city.

Hezbollah appeared to be staying largely out of the clashes, although a few of its supporters in Sidon were briefly drawn into the fight Sunday, firing on al-Assir’s supporters. At least one was killed, according to his relatives in the city who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared for their safety.

Last week, al-Assir supporters fought with pro-Hezbollah gunmen, leaving two dead. Fighting also broke out in parts of Ein el-Hilweh, a teeming Palestinian refugee camp near Sidon, where al-Assir has supporters. Islamist factions in the camp lobbed mortar rounds at military checkpoints around the camp.

Tension also spread to the north in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city. Masked gunmen roamed the city center, firing in the air and forcing shops and businesses to shut down in solidarity with al-Assir. Dozens of gunmen also set fire to tires, blocking roads. The city’s main streets emptied out, but there was no unusual military or security deployment.

“The Syrian fire is beginning to devour Lebanon, and the longer the conflict goes on, the more danger there is for Lebanon to implode,” Gerges said. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem blamed the violence in Lebanon on the international decision to arm the rebels, saying that it will only serve to prolong the fighting in Syria and will affect Lebanon.

“What is going in Sidon is very dangerous, very dangerous,” he told reporters in Damascus. “We warned since the start that the impact of what happens in Syria on neighboring countries will be grave.”

Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report.

Advertisements