Videos show an assured Assad driving himself to Syria battle

This screengrab from video shows Syrian President Bashar Assad driving himself to the newly captured areas of Eastern Ghouta, near the capital Damascus, Syria. (Photo: Syrian Presidency Facebook Page via AP)
Updated 19 March 2018
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Videos show an assured Assad driving himself to Syria battle

BEIRUT: Smoothly and confidently, Syrian President Bashar Assad merged into traffic at a large roundabout in Damascus before driving himself to the suburbs where his forces are battling rebels.
The traffic around him and pedestrians making their way across the busy Umayyad Square gave no indication of knowing who was behind the wheel of the Honda sedan.
His low-profile trip was captured in videos filmed inside the car and released by his office late Sunday and early Monday. They show the president calm and assured as his forces appear close to clinching one of their most significant victories in the civil war.
Syrian troops are on the verge of retaking eastern Ghouta, the last major rebel bastion on the outskirts of the capital, where residents took to the streets against the Assad family’s decades-long rule in the early days of the 2011 uprising.

As he drove, Assad, wearing sunglasses, narrated his route to the camera and gave his thoughts on the battle he was going to visit. He said the images of civilians streaming out of eastern Ghouta through a corridor manned by Syrian authorities showed that his government was still popular.
A white pickup seen in several of the videos appeared to be his only escort.
Before the war, Assad was known for driving in Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, and dining out with his wife. He has maintained a steady, sophisticated propaganda machine on social media throughout the war.
Half of Aleppo now lies in ruins after his forces, with unsparing support from Russia and Iran, destroyed the eastern part of the city to drive out rebels in 2016. Thousands of civilians fled with them and have not been able to return.
The scenario is repeating itself in eastern Ghouta, where government forces are waging a fierce air and ground campaign against a collection of suburbs that have resisted returning to government rule through seven years of war.
Close to 1,500 civilians have been killed in a month of heavy shelling and airstrikes. The government now controls 80 percent of the area held by the opposition in February.
Tens of thousands of civilians have crossed over to government-held areas as the army has advanced in recent days. It is unclear where the government will house them. The fate of thousands of men wanted for military conscription and held on suspicion of desertion or fighting for the enemy remains unknown.
“The painful thing, despite the pride and happiness of this visit, is to see people who have been forced out of their homes and to live rough, because of the war and the terrorists,” said Assad as he entered eastern Ghouta. Outside the window, the landscape turned steadily to wreckage and ruin.


Iraq lays cornerstone to rebuild iconic Mosul mosque

Updated 16 min 52 sec ago
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Iraq lays cornerstone to rebuild iconic Mosul mosque

  • More than a year after Daesh lost control of Mosul, the iconic mosque still lies in ruins
  • In June 2014, it became infamous as the site where Baghdadi declared Daeh’s “caliphate” just days after the extremists seized Mosul in a lightning assault

MOSUL: Iraqis on Sunday laid the cornerstone in rebuilding Mosul’s Al-Nuri mosque and leaning minaret, national emblems destroyed last year in the ferocious battle against the Daesh group.
The famed 12th century mosque and minaret, dubbed Al-Hadba or “the hunchback,” hosted Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s only public appearance as Daesh chief, when he declared a self-styled “caliphate” after the extremists swept into Mosul in 2014.
The structures were ravaged three years later in the final, most brutal stages of the months-long fight to rid Iraq’s second city of Daesh.
On Sunday, dozens of government officials, religious figures, United Nations representatives and European ambassadors gathered in the large square in front of the battered mosque to see the foundation laid.
Abu Bakr Kenaan, the head of Sunni Muslim endowments in Nineveh province, set down the stone in a simple ceremony.
It bore a black Arabic inscription: “This cornerstone for the rebuilding and restoration of the Al-Hadba minaret and the Great Al-Nuri Mosque was laid on December 16, 2018.”
More than a year after Daesh lost control of Mosul, the iconic mosque still lies in ruins. The stone gate leading up to its courtyard and the greenish dome now covered in graffiti are virtually the only parts still erect.
All that is left of the minaret is part of its rectangular base, the rest of it sheared off by fighting.
Kenaan told AFP remnants of the minaret would be preserved, while other parts of the mosque would be built afresh, along with a museum about its history and adjacent homes.
The five-year project will be financed by a $50.4 million (44.6 million euro) donation from the United Arab Emirates.
The first year will focus on documenting and clearing the site, while the next four years will see the physical restoration, the UN’s heritage agency UNESCO has said.
The mosque’s destruction “was a moment of horror and despair,” said UNESCO Iraq representative Louise Haxthausen.
“Today as we lay the foundation stone of the Nuri mosque, we are starting a journey of physical reconstruction,” she told those gathered.
The mosque takes its name from Nureddin Al-Zinki, who ordered it built in 1172 after unifying Syria and parts of northern Iraq.
Its cylindrical minaret, which featured several levels of ornamental brickwork capped by a small white dome, started listing centuries ago.
It is featured on Iraq’s 10,000-dinar banknote and gave its name to countless restaurants, companies and even sports clubs.
But in June 2014, it became infamous as the site where Baghdadi declared Daeh’s “caliphate” just days after the extremists seized Mosul in a lightning assault.
That capture prompted three years of ferocious fighting to wrest back Mosul and other Iraqi cities overrun by Daesh.
In June 2017, as Iraqi forces closed in on a shrinking Daesh-held pocket in Mosul’s Old City, the extremists blew up both the Al-Nuri mosque and its leaning minaret.
Daesh itself blamed a US-led strike for the destruction.
When the rest of the Old City fell back under state control, Iraqi forces celebrated at the mosque, holding Daesh’s black flag upside down and tauntingly calling out, “Where is Baghdadi?“