Archive for June, 2013

Saudi to expel Hezbollah supporters over Syria war

June 20, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — In the latest sign of the fissures growing in the Arab world over the Syrian civil war, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Beirut has announced that the kingdom plans to deport Lebanese who supported Hezbollah, one of Damascus’ key allies.

The warning comes as the Lebanese Shiite militant group takes an increasingly prominent role in the Syrian war, fighting alongside President Bashar Assad’s troops in a key battle earlier this month. Saudi Arabia is a strong backer of the mostly-Sunni Syrian opposition trying to remove Assad from power. Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

It follows the decision earlier this month by the Gulf Cooperation Council — which includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates — to crack down on Hezbollah members in the Gulf and limit their “financial and business transactions.”

Hezbollah says it has no businesses in the Gulf nations. However, there are more than half a million Lebanese working in the Gulf Arab nations, including tens of thousands in Saudi Arabia, some of whom have been living in the kingdom for decades. Many of those Lebanese are Shiites.

Saudi Arabia will deport “those who financially support this party,” Ambassador Ali Awad Assiri told Lebanon’s Future TV late Wednesday. He did not elaborate on whether other actions could be also considered support for Hezbollah.

“This is a serious decision and will be implemented in detail,” Assiri said, without specifying when the deportations would begin. “Acts are being committed against innocent Syrian people.” Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour told reporters Thursday he was in contact with Gulf officials over the matter. Hezbollah and its allies dominate Lebanon’s current government, which resigned March 22, but continues to run the country’s affairs in a caretaker capacity.

Syria’s 2-year civil war, which has killed nearly 93,000 people, is increasingly pitting Sunni against Shiite Muslims and threatening the stability of Syria’s neighbors. Assad draws his support largely from fellow Alawites as well as other minorities including Christians and Shiites. He is backed by Shiite Iran, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiites.

U.S. officials estimate that 5,000 Hezbollah members are fighting alongside Assad’s regime, while thousands of Sunni foreign fighters are also believed to be in Syria — including members of Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida affiliate that is believed to be among the most effective rebel factions. Public opinion in Sunni states is often sympathetic to the rebels.

Fighting between pro- and anti-Syrian groups has broken out in Lebanon, and Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria is deepening tensions at home. Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, who has been increasingly critical of the group recently, said in remarks published Thursday that he is against Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria and that Hezbollah fighters should return to Lebanon.

“I told them from the start that I am against this act,” he was quoted by al-Safir daily as saying. In Syria, activists reported violence between government forces and rebels in different parts of the country on Thursday, mostly near the capital Damascus and in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest urban center and its commercial hub.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 11 rebels were killed in a battle with government troops in Aleppo, where the opposition has controlled whole neighborhoods and large swathes of surrounding land since last summer.

Pro-regime media outlets announced earlier this month that troops had launched an offensive to build on the momentum of their Qusair triumph to retake Aleppo and other areas of the north. Another activist group, the Syria-based Aleppo Media Center, said rebels launched an attack on army positions in the city’s Suleiman al-Halabi neighborhood. There were no immediate reports of casualties on the government side in the fighting.

Amateur videos showed gunmen shooting and firing rockets at army positions in the neighborhood. The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting on the events depicted. Meanwhile, Syria’s main Western-backed opposition group said 40,000 civilians in two northern districts of Damascus in which government forces have been operating are suffering food shortages and lack medical supplies.

“After six months of continuous siege, (and ) military checkpoints … the neighborhoods of Qaboun and Barzeh are at risk,” the Syrian National Coalition said in a statement. It said the government forces conduct frequent raids in the two districts and there is fear that such army operations will result in a “massacre.”

Also on Thursday, the Observatory urged the International Committee of the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations to intervene and take medicine and food to Aleppo’s central prison. Heavy fighting around the prison has raged for weeks and there have been casualties among the prisoners, the activists said.

The Observatory, which has a network of activists around the country, said three detainees died this week from tuberculosis and that scabies was spreading in the jail, which holds thousands of prisoners.

The prison, which is besieged by rebels, relies on food and medicine brought in drop-offs by army helicopters. The Observatory said more than 100 detainees have been killed since April when the fighting around the prison began.

Meanwhile, Syrian rebels and Kurdish gunmen reached an agreement to end a rebel siege of the northern predominantly Kurdish region of Afrin that triggered a shortage of food and medicine there, the Observatory said.

The Afrin flare-up began when rebels wanted to pass through it to attack the predominantly Shiite villages of Nubul and Zahra, controlled by Assad loyalists, the head of the Observatory, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said. After Kurdish groups refused, rebels attacked Kurdish checkpoints and laid siege beginning on May 25.

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Special Report: How Syria’s Islamists govern with guile and guns

By Oliver Holmes and Alexander Dziadosz
RAQQA, Syria | Thu Jun 20, 2013
(Reuters) – The Syrian boys looked edgy and awkward. Three months ago their town, the eastern desert city of Raqqa, had fallen to rebel fighters trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Now the four boys – clad in tight jeans and bright T-shirts – were whitewashing a wall to prepare it for revolutionary graffiti.
“We’ll make this painting about the role of children in the revolution,” one of the boys told two journalists.
A white Mitsubishi pulled up and a man in camouflage trousers and a black balaclava jumped out and demanded that the journalists identify themselves. He was from the Islamic State of Iraq, he said, the Iraqi wing of al Qaeda linked to an Islamist group fighting in Syria called Jabhat al-Nusra.
The boys kept quiet until the man pulled away, and then started talking about how life has changed in the city of around 250,000 people since the Islamists planted their flag at the former governor’s nearby offices.
“They want an Islamic state, but most of us want a civilian state,” the boy said. “We’re afraid they’re going to try to rule by force.”
As he finished his sentence, the same white car roared back round the corner. This time two men, both in balaclavas and holding Kalashnikov assault rifles, stepped out.
“Painting is forbidden here,” one fighter said. The graffiti was too close to the group’s headquarters. One of the boys made a brief, almost inaudible protest.
“We’re sorry,” the fighter said. “But painting is forbidden.” His comrade stroked his long beard and said: “We are not terrorists. Don’t be afraid of us. Bashar is the terrorist.
The encounter captures an important shift underway in rebel-held Syria. Using a mix of intimidation and organization, alliances of Islamist brigades are filling the vacuum in areas where Assad’s army has withdrawn and more secular rebels have failed to provide order, a 10-day visit to rebel-held Syria by Reuters journalists showed.
The Islamist groups include al Qaeda affiliates and more moderate partners, so the nature of their rule is complex. They administer utilities, run bakeries and, in a town near Raqqa, operate a hydroelectric dam. They are also setting up courts and imposing punishments on those judged transgressors.
The United States and other Western powers support the Syrian National Coalition, a group of opposition figures based in Cairo. But the coalition has very little influence on the ground in Syria, so locals are increasingly turning to the Islamists as their best alternative to chaos.
“WE DRESS NORMALLY”
Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham aim to create an Islamic mini-state in rebel-held territory, and Jabhat al-Nusra ultimately envisions a wider Islamic caliphate.
U.S. and European security officials say Jabhat al-Nusra is being financed by wealthy families from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Syrian Islamist rebels say foreign fighters bring in money and that Syrian expats and Gulf-based individuals who want to overthrow Assad are helping them. Members of Ahrar al-Sham, which has fewer foreign fighters than Jabhat al-Nusra, told Reuters that they make money through business ventures and by taking over banks.
So far the Islamists have won sympathy from many residents in Raqqa – including those who oppose their vision of a narrow moral code and an Islamic caliphate – with their apparent restraint.
Billboards put up by Jabhat al-Nusra show a figure in full veil and tell women “you are like a pearl in your chastity.” Yet unveiled women can still walk openly on Raqqa’s streets and one resident said he had no problem getting whiskey, as long as he drank it in private.
One evening in June, residents held an exhibit of homemade crafts to raise money for poor families. Men and women mingled as music played over a stereo system.
Reema Ajaji, a veiled women who helped organize the event, said the media had unfairly maligned Jabhat al-Nusra. “They’re called terrorists, and we don’t accept this,” she said. “They’re our sons. Us and them, we’re one thing. They defend us, and we defend them.”
She waved around the room, indicating the women in brightly colored headscarves and dresses, some unveiled. “We dress as we want. Do you see these girls?” she said. “Everyone is free to choose.” If Jabhat al-Nusra had wanted to impose their law on people, they would have shut down the exhibition, Ajaji said.
Other residents pointed to the university, which shut for about a month after rebels took the city but is now operating more or less normally. Inside the gated campus, young men and women chatted in the hallways and shared meals in the packed cafeteria. Armed groups are not allowed to enter.
Ahmed Jaber, a 22-year-old chemistry student and member of the student union, said some 80 percent of students were attending classes and exams were going ahead. Life in Raqqa had improved over the past few months, he said, although there were disputes between Islamist brigades and more secular units.
“It’s in everyone’s interests to resolve these differences,” Jaber said. After the rebels took Raqqa, some residents held protests to demand a civilian state. Others, siding with Jabhat al-Nusra, called for an Islamic government. But since then, they have agreed to hold protests calling only for Assad’s downfall.
“After the hell of the regime, we consider this an excellent situation,” Jaber said. “Yes, there’s a security vacuum, there’s chaos, and sometimes there are disputes. But it’s much better than before.”
Selwa al-Janabe, a veiled 27-year-old student, said the Islamists’ ideology was beside the point – at least for now.
“I’m worried about something bigger than hijab or niqab,” she said, referring to the Islamic headscarf and the fuller veil, which covers the face. The important thing now, Janabe said, was “liberation and freedom. Real freedom.”
Mohammed Shaib, a 26-year-old member of a secular activist group, said he was skeptical of the Islamists but saw no alternative for now. “Right now we’re working under the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” he said.
“WE HAVE OTHER GOALS”
Ask anyone in Raqqa who runs the town, and they’ll usually tell you it’s Ahrar al-Sham, an umbrella group of conservative Islamist factions which has taken the most active interest among fighting groups in the problems of civilian administration.
The group, which works closely with Jabhat al-Nusra, has taken to calling itself a “haraka,” or “movement,” rather than a “liwa,” or “brigade.” The point, members say, is to make clear the struggle for Syria is not just about waging war.
“From the very beginning we wanted to create justice and security, things like distributing bread. This was a founding idea,” said Abu Muhammed al-Husseini, the 30-year-old head of Ahrar al-Sham’s political office in Raqqa.
The group helps provide electricity and water and its fighters secure grain silos, while others ensure that supply chains, from wheat fields to bakeries, function smoothly.
Much of the town still works as it did before the area was taken by rebels, Husseini said. “There are some groups that only care about fighting, we have other goals,” he said. They include making sure services are provided “side by side with the armed campaign against Bashar.”
He said Ahrar al-Sham had no major disagreements with Jabhat al-Nusra, who differed with them more on “operational details.” He declined to discuss what the future government of Syria might look like, but said Islam “has a vision for building a society.”
Of all the public services the rebels have set up, the Sharia Authorities, which function as a rudimentary justice system, are the most central. They help provide essential services and are the closest thing rebel-held areas have to a government.
The authorities are generally staffed by older men from the area. Community leaders hold discussions and appoint members from their own ranks, some members said. Each of the area’s largest fighting brigades sends representatives, who often work as civilians at the body. Islamist brigades tend to be represented much more heavily than secular groups, both because of their relative size and prowess and because they were among the first to get involved in setting them up.
For many Westerners, the term “sharia” can carry connotations of oppressed minorities, curtailed women’s rights, and punishments like stoning, lashing and beheading. But for Syrians in the conservative Sunni regions that rebels control, the perception is very different.
In part, rebel-run courts have been successful because much of what they deal with is mundane. They handle financial disputes, provide forms of property registration and, in some cases, licenses for exporting and importing goods to and from rebel-controlled territory.
Even with serious crimes, most courts are not imposing harsh punishments because of a provision in Islamic law that such penalties can be suspended or lightened during wartime. Almost all cases are resolved by the payment of a fine to the victim or by a light jail sentence.
A Sharia Authority member in Raqqa who called himself Abu Omar stressed that the body did its best to be fair; it was not strictly Islamist and it worked regularly with non-Islamic groups. He flipped through a file of resumes of applicants for the emerging police force, noting they were nearly all university graduates, and said a Christian headed its wheat bureau. “We benefit from debate with all groups,” he said.
Nevertheless, the influence of Islamists on the courts is unmistakable.
ORDER OUT OF CHAOS
In Salqin, a town in the northwestern Idlib province, Samer Raji is deputy head of the police. He said the main local rebel brigades, apart from Jabhat al-Nusra, sent officers to staff the police force of 30 men; but he added that the police sometimes called on the Islamist group as a “last resort” to enforce their rulings.
“One call from the emir of Jabhat al-Nusra to the commander of a brigade with a wanted man and he’ll show up at court.” He pointed to an unresolved case of a van being stolen, saying that Jabhat al-Nusra could be called on to get it back.
Members of the rebel-run authorities say the brigades are accountable to them, but fighters have sometimes taken the law into their own hands and their punishments can be severe.
In Aleppo on June 10, Islamic State of Iraq fighters executed a 15-year-old boy in front of his parents for making a comment they regarded as heretical, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad monitoring group. The Observatory quoted witnesses as saying gunmen whipped the boy, Mohammad Qataa, then brought him to a wooden stand and shot him in the face and neck.
“Whoever curses even once will be punished like this,” witnesses quoted an Islamic State of Iraq member as saying, according to the Observatory report.
The Islamist influence is notably strong in rebel-held areas of Aleppo. Jabhat al-Nusra has set up in the old children’s hospital there, hanging a black flag bearing the Islamic declaration of faith in white calligraphy: “There is no god but God and Mohammad is His prophet.”
The local Sharia Authority, which Aleppans simply call “the Authority,” is housed in the old national hospital next door. One sign outside warns that unveiled women will not be allowed to enter.
Inside, men and women shuffled through dark, cramped corridors, clutching papers. Abu Baraa, a 22-year-old fighter from Ahrar al-Sham who now works to register the names of prison inmates, told Reuters the court “doesn’t have limits,” and could arrest anyone who does something wrong. Such decisions are up to an executive body composed of members from each of the area’s four main brigades, including Jabhat al-Nusra.
Abu Baraa said the authority worked to the tenets of ultraconservative Islam and, while it had so far refrained from most harsh punishments, he hoped it would become stricter after the war. In some cases, people had been sentenced to lashings, he said, and three men were imprisoned for a couple days after they were caught drinking.
Asked about rape cases, he said he could only think of one, which was unresolved. The man was denying it, and so the court was investigating, asking about the woman’s reputation.
“If she is a good person, the girl, she wouldn’t accept to get laid with someone strange,” he said in English.
What goes on in this building, and the ambitions of people such as Abu Baraa running this nascent government, show what the future in rebel-controlled regions in Syria might look like.
Aleppo’s authority had started with around a dozen people who “wanted to do justice,” Abu Baraa said. Now it has about a dozen branches in the city and several more across Aleppo province. Eventually, Abu Baraa said, he hopes it will become the state.
“There has to be someone in charge,” he said. “We all were from Ahrar al-Sham. And then the other brigades joined us, and we were bigger and bigger. That’s how things work. You start small and get bigger and bigger.”
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington; Editing by Richard Woods and Simon Robinson)
Source: Reuters.

Iran to send 4,000 troops to aid President Assad forces in Syria

SUNDAY 16 JUNE 2013

World Exclusive: US urges UK and France to join in supplying arms to Syrian rebels as MPs fear that UK will be drawn into growing conflict

Washington’s decision to arm Syria’s Sunni Muslim rebels has plunged America into the great Sunni-Shia conflict of the Islamic Middle East, entering a struggle that now dwarfs the Arab revolutions which overthrew dictatorships across the region.

For the first time, all of America’s ‘friends’ in the region are Sunni Muslims and all of its enemies are Shiites. Breaking all President Barack Obama’s rules of disengagement, the US is now fully engaged on the side of armed groups which include the most extreme Sunni Islamist movements in the Middle East.

The Independent on Sunday has learned that a military decision has been taken in Iran – even before last week’s presidential election – to send a first contingent of 4,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards to Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad’s forces against the largely Sunni rebellion that has cost almost 100,000 lives in just over two years. Iran is now fully committed to preserving Assad’s regime, according to pro-Iranian sources which have been deeply involved in the Islamic Republic’s security, even to the extent of proposing to open up a new ‘Syrian’ front on the Golan Heights against Israel.

In years to come, historians will ask how America – after its defeat in Iraq and its humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan scheduled for 2014 – could have so blithely aligned itself with one side in a titanic Islamic struggle stretching back to the seventh century death of the Prophet Mohamed. The profound effects of this great schism, between Sunnis who believe that the father of Mohamed’s wife was the new caliph of the Muslim world and Shias who regard his son in law Ali as his rightful successor – a seventh century battle swamped in blood around the present-day Iraqi cities of Najaf and Kerbala – continue across the region to this day. A 17th century Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbott, compared this Muslim conflict to that between “Papists and Protestants”.

America’s alliance now includes the wealthiest states of the Arab Gulf, the vast Sunni territories between Egypt and Morocco, as well as Turkey and the fragile British-created monarchy in Jordan. King Abdullah of Jordan – flooded, like so many neighboring nations, by hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees – may also now find himself at the fulcrum of the Syrian battle. Up to 3,000 American ‘advisers’ are now believed to be in Jordan, and the creation of a southern Syria ‘no-fly zone’ – opposed by Syrian-controlled anti-aircraft batteries – will turn a crisis into a ‘hot’ war. So much for America’s ‘friends’.

Its enemies include the Lebanese Hizballah, the Alawite Shiite regime in Damascus and, of course, Iran. And Iraq, a largely Shiite nation which America ‘liberated’ from Saddam Hussein’s Sunni minority in the hope of balancing the Shiite power of Iran, has – against all US predictions – itself now largely fallen under Tehran’s influence and power. Iraqi Shiites as well as Hizballah members, have both fought alongside Assad’s forces.

Washington’s excuse for its new Middle East adventure – that it must arm Assad’s enemies because the Damascus regime has used sarin gas against them – convinces no-one in the Middle East. Final proof of the use of gas by either side in Syria remains almost as nebulous as President George W. Bush’s claim that Saddam’s Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

For the real reason why America has thrown its military power behind Syria’s Sunni rebels is because those same rebels are now losing their war against Assad. The Damascus regime’s victory this month in the central Syrian town of Qusayr, at the cost of Hizballah lives as well as those of government forces, has thrown the Syrian revolution into turmoil, threatening to humiliate American and EU demands for Assad to abandon power. Arab dictators are supposed to be deposed – unless they are the friendly kings or emirs of the Gulf – not to be sustained. Yet Russia has given its total support to Assad, three times vetoing UN Security Council resolutions that might have allowed the West to intervene directly in the civil war.

In the Middle East, there is cynical disbelief at the American contention that it can distribute arms – almost certainly including anti-aircraft missiles – only to secular Sunni rebel forces in Syria represented by the so-called Free Syria Army. The more powerful al-Nusrah Front, allied to al-Qaeda, dominates the battlefield on the rebel side and has been blamed for atrocities including the execution of Syrian government prisoners of war and the murder of a 14-year old boy for blasphemy. They will be able to take new American weapons from their Free Syria Army comrades with little effort.

From now on, therefore, every suicide bombing in Damascus – every war crime committed by the rebels – will be regarded in the region as Washington’s responsibility. The very Sunni-Wahabi Islamists who killed thousands of Americans on 11th September, 2011 – who are America’s greatest enemies as well as Russia’s – are going to be proxy allies of the Obama administration. This terrible irony can only be exacerbated by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s adamant refusal to tolerate any form of Sunni extremism. His experience in Chechnya, his anti-Muslim rhetoric – he has made obscene remarks about Muslim extremists in a press conference in Russian – and his belief that Russia’s old ally in Syria is facing the same threat as Moscow fought in Chechnya, plays a far greater part in his policy towards Bashar al-Assad than the continued existence of Russia’s naval port at the Syrian Mediterranean city of Tartous.

For the Russians, of course, the ‘Middle East’ is not in the ‘east’ at all, but to the south of Moscow; and statistics are all-important. The Chechen capital of Grozny is scarcely 500 miles from the Syrian frontier. Fifteen per cent of Russians are Muslim. Six of the Soviet Union’s communist republics had a Muslim majority, 90 per cent of whom were Sunni. And Sunnis around the world make up perhaps 85 per cent of all Muslims. For a Russia intent on re-positioning itself across a land mass that includes most of the former Soviet Union, Sunni Islamists of the kind now fighting the Assad regime are its principal antagonists.

Iranian sources say they liaise constantly with Moscow, and that while Hizballah’s overall withdrawal from Syria is likely to be completed soon – with the maintenance of the militia’s ‘intelligence’ teams inside Syria – Iran’s support for Damascus will grow rather than wither. They point out that the Taliban recently sent a formal delegation for talks in Tehran and that America will need Iran’s help in withdrawing from Afghanistan. The US, the Iranians say, will not be able to take its armor and equipment out of the country during its continuing war against the Taliban without Iran’s active assistance. One of the sources claimed – not without some mirth — that the French were forced to leave 50 tanks behind when they left because they did not have Tehran’s help.

It is a sign of the changing historical template in the Middle East that within the framework of old Cold War rivalries between Washington and Moscow, Israel’s security has taken second place to the conflict in Syria. Indeed, Israel’s policies in the region have been knocked askew by the Arab revolutions, leaving its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, hopelessly adrift amid the historic changes.

Only once over the past two years has Israel fully condemned atrocities committed by the Assad regime, and while it has given medical help to wounded rebels on the Israeli-Syrian border, it fears an Islamist caliphate in Damascus far more than a continuation of Assad’s rule. One former Israel intelligence commander recently described Assad as “Israel’s man in Damascus”.  Only days before President Mubarak was overthrown, both Netanyahu and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called Washington to ask Obama to save the Egyptian dictator. In vain.

If the Arab world has itself been overwhelmed by the two years of revolutions, none will have suffered from the Syrian war in the long term more than the Palestinians. The land they wish to call their future state has been so populated with Jewish Israeli colonists that it can no longer be either secure or ‘viable’. ‘Peace’ envoy Tony Blair’s attempts to create such a state have been laughable. A future ‘Palestine’ would be a Sunni nation. But today, Washington scarcely mentions the Palestinians.

Another of the region’s supreme ironies is that Hamas, supposedly the ‘super-terrorists’ of Gaza, have abandoned Damascus and now support the Gulf Arabs’ desire to crush Assad. Syrian government forces claim that Hamas has even trained Syrian rebels in the manufacture and use of home-made rockets.

In Arab eyes, Israel’s 2006 war against the Shia Hizballah was an attempt to strike at the heart of Iran. The West’s support for Syrian rebels is a strategic attempt to crush Iran. But Iran is going to take the offensive. Even for the Middle East, these are high stakes. Against this fearful background, the Palestinian tragedy continues.

Source: The Independent.

Link: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iran-to-send-4000-troops-to-aid-president-assad-forces-in-syria-8660358.html.

Jordan’s World Cup dream alive as win sets up Uzbekistan playoff

June 19, 2013

(Reuters) – Jordan’s hopes of a first World Cup finals appearance remain alive after they beat Oman 1-0 at home on Tuesday to book a qualifying playoff against Uzbekistan in September.

Striker Ahmad Ibrahim scored the winning goal in the 57th minute, stooping low to head home a cross from Khalil Bani Ateyah that drew wild celebrations at the King Abdullah Stadium in Amman.

The victory, in the last of the Asian group stage matches, meant Jordan leapfrogged Oman into third place in Group B on 10 points, one ahead of Paul Le Guen’s side.

Jordan will now take on Uzbekistan, who finished third in Group A, with the first leg to be played on September 6 and the second on September 10.

The winners advance to play another two-leg playoff against the fifth-placed South American side in November for a place at the finals.

Few predicted Jordan would still be in contention after they were hammered 6-0 away to Japan in their second group match last year, but they defied their FIFA ranking of 75th with strong performances at home.

Having dispatched Australia and Japan in Amman, Jordan knew another three points were required against Oman to claim the playoff berth but they started Tuesday’s match in scratchy fashion.

With Jordan guilty of defensive lapses, Oman failed to take advantage wasting numerous chances to score in an open first half.

Oman forward Abdulaziz Al Muqbali ran wide instead of shooting when clear on goal in the sixth minute, while Qasim Hardan saw his far post shot blocked by Jordanian goalkeeper Amer Sabbah.

Jordan’s Mohammad Aldmeiri came close to snatching the lead for the home side in the 29th minute, but his flicked header from a quickly taken corner flashed just over the crossbar.

Further chances came and went for Oman before halftime with the Jordanians taking a grip of the match in the second period before Ibrahim’s goal.

Oman’s desperation for an equalizer led to some sloppy approach play with Sabbah making routine saves in the final stages as Jordan hung on for another famous home win.

(Reporting by Patrick Johnston in Singapore; Editing by Mark Pangallo)

Source: The Star.

Link: http://football.thestar.com.my/2013/06/19/jordans-world-cup-dream-alive-as-win-sets-up-uzbekistan-playoff/.

Hamas calls for unity, end to internal Palestinian feuds

Gaza, June 15 : Islamic Hamas movement Saturday called for unity and ending the internal Palestinian feuds and division on the sixth anniversary for its violent takeover of the Gaza Strip, reported Xinhua.

The Hamas movement, which has ruled the Gaza Strip since June 2007, said in a statement that six years had passed “while the world still imposes its unfair requirements on the movement,” referring to international conditions that the militant group recognizes Israel and renounces violence if it wants to open to the world.

“Hamas reiterates that unity and reconciliation are strategic and the movement is looking forward to finalize it in order to devote more time to the conflict with the occupation,” said the statement.

The statement blamed Israel on hindering any chance for Palestinian unity, saying that: “For six years, the crimes of the (Israeli) occupation against our people have been going on, and these crimes mount every time we are getting close to achieve unity and reconciliation.”

Meanwhile, Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum slammed the security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority, which is based in the West Bank.

“The policy of the security coordination with the occupation caused and would cause lots of harms to our just Palestinian cause,” Barhoum said, adding “the Palestinians should exert more efforts to unite and resist the occupation.”

Hamas won the last legislative elections held in the Palestinian territories in January 2006.

As it could not agree on a partnership with the mainstream Fatah party, headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, it routed pro-Abbas forces and ousted Fatah, keeping them confined to the West Bank and deepening political split between the two territories.

Over the past six years, Egypt and then Qatar have been mediating between Hamas and Fatah to end their division and form a transitional unity government that prepares for new presidential and legislative elections.

So far, the Arab efforts to end the Palestinian split have all but failed due to substantial differences on security issues, general elections and unity government.

Source: New Kerala.

Link: http://www.newkerala.com/news/story/30337/hamas-calls-for-unity-end-to-internal-palestinian-feuds.html.

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.

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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