Daesh extremists step up as Iraq, Syria, grapple with virus

Daesh extremists step up as Iraq, Syria, grapple with virus
Daesh militants in Iraq and Syria are stepping up attacks, taking advantage of governments preoccupied with the economic and health impact of the coronavirus. (File/AP)
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Updated 03 May 2020

Daesh extremists step up as Iraq, Syria, grapple with virus

Daesh extremists step up as Iraq, Syria, grapple with virus
  • The renewed mayhem is a sign that the militant group is taking advantage of governments absorbed in tackling the coronavirus pandemic
  • The virus is compounding longtime concerns among security and UN experts that the group would stage a comeback after its “caliphate”

BAGHDAD: The man wearing an explosive vest emerged from a car and calmly marched toward the gates of the intelligence building in Iraq’s northern city of Kirkuk. When he ignored their shouts to halt, guards opened fire, and he blew himself up, wounding three security personnel in the first week of Ramadan.
Days later, a three-pronged coordinated attack killed 10 Iraqi militia fighters in the northern province of Salahaddin — the deadliest and most complex operation in many months.
The assaults are the latest in a resurgence of attacks by the Daesh group in northern Iraq. The first was a brazen suicide mission not seen in months. The second was among the most complex attacks since the group’s defeat in 2017. In neighboring Syria, Daesh attacks on security forces, oil fields and civilian sites have also intensified.
The renewed mayhem is a sign that the militant group is taking advantage of governments absorbed in tackling the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing slide into economic chaos. The virus is compounding longtime concerns among security and UN experts that the group would stage a comeback after its “caliphate,” which once encompassed a third of Iraq and Syria, was brought down last year.
In Iraq, militants also exploit security gaps at a time of an ongoing territorial dispute and a US troop drawdown.
“It’s a real threat,” said Qubad Talabani, deputy prime minister of the northern Kurdish region of Iraq. “They are mobilizing and killing us in the north and they will start hitting Baghdad soon.” He said Daesh was benefiting from a “gap” between Kurdish forces and federal armed forces caused by political infighting.
Intelligence reports say the number of Daesh fighters in Iraq is believed to be 2,500-3,000.
In northeast Syria, Kurdish-dominated police have become a more visible target for Daesh as they patrol the streets to implement anti-virus measures, said Mervan Qamishlo, a spokesman for US-allied Kurdish-led forces.
Daesh fighters in late March launched a campaign of attacks in government-held parts of Syria, from the central province of Homs all the way to Deir Ezzor to the east, bordering Iraq.
Some 500 fighters, including some who had escaped from prison, recently slipped from Syria into Iraq, helping fuel the surge in violence there, Iraqi intelligence officials said.
Daesh is shifting from local intimidation to more complex attacks, three Iraqi military officials and experts said. Operations previously focused on assassinations of local officials and less sophisticated attacks. Now the group is carrying out more IED attacks, shootings and ambushes of police and military. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Multiple factors help the militants. The number of Iraqi military personnel on duty has dropped 50% because of virus prevention measures, the military officials said.
Also, territorial disputes between Baghdad and authorities from the northern Kurdish autonomy zone have left parts of three provinces without law enforcement. The rugged landscape is difficult to police.
The uptick also coincides with a pullout of US-led coalition forces from bases in western Iraq, Nineveh and Kirkuk provinces in line with a drawdown conceived in December.
“Before the emergence of the virus and before the American withdrawal, the operations were negligible, numbering only one operation per week,” said a senior intelligence official. Now, he said, security forces are seeing an average of 20 operations a month. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
Coalition spokesman Col. Myles B. Caggins III said Daesh attacks were increasing in reaction to operations against its hideouts in the mountains and rural areas of north-central Iraq.
Iraqi military officials believe the improved, organized nature of the attacks serves to cement the influence of new Daesh leader Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Quraishi, who was named after his predecessor was killed in a US raid late last year. One military official said more operations are expected during Ramadan to demonstrate the new leader’s strength.
In Syria, one of the most significant attacks occurred April 9, when Daesh fighters attacked government positions in and near the town of Sukhna. The government brought in reinforcements for a counterattack backed by Russian airstrikes.
Two days of fighting left 32 troops and 26 Daesh gunmen dead, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the country’s nine-year war.
Days later, the government said that because of the security situation in the desert several gas wells in the fields of Shaer and Hayan were damaged, leading to a 30% drop in electricity production.
Back in Iraq, the green pastures of the northern village of Kujalo conceal a hidden enemy that keeps resident Nawzad up at night. His farming community lies in a disputed territory that has witnessed a sharp increase in attacks, including a nearby ambush earlier this month that killed two peshmerga officers.
He said the militants have local collaborators. “They know everything about each farm in Kulajo and they know to whom each house belongs,” he said, asking to be identified only by his first name, fearing reprisals.
The militants also receive shelter, supplies, food and transport from local sympathizers, said Kurdish Brig. Kamal Mahmoud. His peshmerga forces are based on part of the front lines there, but can’t operate in other parts run by government troops — and there, he said, the overstretched security forces control only main roads with no presence in villages and towns.
On April 1, a federal police officer was killed, and a battalion commander and brigadier general wounded in a security operation in the Makhoul mountain range in Diyala. Two days later, an IED attack targeted a patrol of a commando regiment of the Diyala Operations Command in the outskirts of Maadan village.
Sartip, a Kujalo resident, said he fears the militants’ improved capabilities.
“IS has been carrying out attacks in Kurdish areas for a long time, but now they are more organized and have more people,” he said.


Gebran Bassil ‘coerced’ my father to apologize, says Lebanese woman hailed for confronting MP

Gebran Bassil ‘coerced’ my father to apologize, says Lebanese woman hailed for confronting MP
Updated 8 min 2 sec ago

Gebran Bassil ‘coerced’ my father to apologize, says Lebanese woman hailed for confronting MP

Gebran Bassil ‘coerced’ my father to apologize, says Lebanese woman hailed for confronting MP
  • Yasmine Masri tells Arab News what led her to shout ‘shame on you’ at reviled politician
  • Activist captures anger of young Lebanese towards corrupt politicians and vows to ‘never shut up’

BEIRUT: A Lebanese woman hailed as a hero for confronting the widely despised MP Gebran Bassil, has vowed to remain defiant despite claiming her father was forced to apologize for her actions.

On Sunday, a video was widely shared of Yasmine Masri scuffling with bodyguards working for the head of the Free Patriotic Movement [FPM] after she heckled him with a cry of “shame on you.”

The brawl took place at a restaurant in Bassil’s home town of Batroun, northern Lebanon.

Masri said she was assaulted and had her phone broken by his security entourage but she told Arab News she was proud to confront Bassil. However, she said her father had been “coerced into apologizing” for her the bust up.

On Tuesday, a photo of the MP and the 31-year-old woman’s father was published in Lebanese media along with a story saying he met Bassil and apologized for his daughter’s behavior.

Masri says she was assaulted and had her phone broken by MP's security entourage but says she was proud to confront Bassil. (Supplied)

Masri was having lunch with friends in a newly-opened restaurant in Batroun when she saw Bassil and his entourage.

Lebanese are furious with the ruling elite and blame them for plunging the country towards economic collapse.

As the son-in-law of Lebanese President Michel Aoun and a strong political ally of Iran-backed Hezbollah, Bassil in particular has come to symbolize the country’s corrupt self-serving politicians. 

Last year, the US issued sanctions against him, accusing him of being “notorious for corruption.”

Speaking to Arab News, Masri said Bassil “forced her father in to apologizing under threat, blackmailing and shaming him.” She preferred not to give details of the nature of the blackmail.

“I have received physical threats,” she said. “Just now, shortly before responding to this interview my mother called and asked me to stop; saying she doesn’t want to pick me up injured from a hospital.” 

But Masri, who like many young Lebanese is broiling with anger over the country’s plight, vowed not to stop expressing herself.

The food and drink manager was angered that Bassil had the audacity to show up in public as if he had no responsibility for the country’s woes.

Recounting what happened, she felt within her rights to shout “shame on you” in Arabic.

She said Bassil sent his bodyguards over to her and they threatened to beat her.

“I told them go ahead and they started beating me … then I took back my phone and followed them and took a video. Then they beat me again and threw my phone on the floor and broke it,” she added.  

Masri said FPM supporters chased her for up to four hours around Batroun after the initial clash and would not let her leave the area.

“Batroun’s pompous blowhards [supporters of FPM and Bassil] were spitting at me, insulting me and threatening me all over the place,” she said.

Masri describes herself as a politically-independent civil society activist, who became active during widespread anti-government protests in October 2019.

When asked if she was going to tone down her criticism for her dad’s safety, she replied: “No, definitely not. I will not play the game as I don’t go with threats … and if they will go violent, they will lose.”

On whether she plans to initiate legal action, Masri said she had consulted a lawyer.

Bassil’s media office said on Sunday that he and his family were about to leave in their car when a woman used foul language against him.

His entourage responded ‘naturally, peacefully and modernly” to stop her from cursing.

The statement said: “The era of leaving swearwords unanswered is over” and urged FPM supporters to “respond accordingly.”

After hearing the news of her father’s apology, Masri posted a statement saying: “I hereby confirm to you that I will never shut up … I will never hide what I think in the face of fear, threats and terrorism … my father was threatened … all he is doing is in order to protect me.”

International Lebanese artist Elissa said on Twitter “every hand that beats a woman should be broken.”


Expelled Jordanian MP Osama Al-Ajarmeh arrested

Expelled Jordanian MP Osama Al-Ajarmeh arrested
Updated 21 min 17 sec ago

Expelled Jordanian MP Osama Al-Ajarmeh arrested

Expelled Jordanian MP Osama Al-Ajarmeh arrested

LONDON: A Jordanian MP expelled from parliament for inciting riots, has been arrested Jordan News Agency reported on Wednesday.
Jordanian MPs voted earlier this month to remove Osama Al-Ajarmeh from the lower house after violence erupted in the suburb of Naour, a stronghold of the Ajarmeh tribe in southwest Amman. 
Four police officers were wounded in clashes with supporters of the MP.
Al-Ajarmeh was seen in a video insulting King Abdullah II while carrying a sword and a gun in a shoulder holster.


Lebanon govt hopes collapse amid heated exchanges

Lebanon govt hopes collapse amid heated exchanges
Updated 16 June 2021

Lebanon govt hopes collapse amid heated exchanges

Lebanon govt hopes collapse amid heated exchanges
  • Aoun has demanded a third of all Cabinet seats, effectively giving his team veto power over government decisions

BEIRUT: Efforts to form a government and end the political stalemate gripping Lebanon reached a dead-end on Wednesday amid heated exchanges between President Michel Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.

After Aoun’s political team, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), an ally of Hezbollah, announced that it had rejected Berri’s initiative to form a new government, the parliamentary speaker responded with a strongly worded statement accusing the Lebanese president of doing “what he has no constitutional right to do” by insisting on the blocking third in the government.

Aoun has demanded a third of all Cabinet seats, effectively giving his team veto power over government decisions.

Berri said that he had put forward the initiative “to help the Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri,” and accused Aoun of backing out of a pledge to support the formation of a new government.

“The president has no constitutional right to even one minister. He does not participate in voting, so how can he indirectly have votes?” Berri asked.

“The country is collapsing, institutions are deteriorating, and the people are suffering,” he added.

Addressing Aoun, the parliamentary speaker said: “You openly say that you do not want Hariri as prime minister. This is not your right; the decision to assign him is not yours, and the Parliament has voiced its decision loud and clear.”

In response, Aoun’s office issued a statement criticizing “statements and positions from various officials interfering in the process of forming a government.”

The statement also highlighted what it claimed were “abuses and direct targeting of the powers of the president.”

With hopes of a new government dashed, government and private sector trade unions called for a strike on Thursday to rescue Lebanon from the political deadlock and threat of economic collapse.

According to political observers, Aoun’s team prefers to keep the caretaker government in place to allow the country’s affairs to be run by the Baabda Palace and through the Supreme Defense Council, chaired by Aoun.

MP Mohammed Al-Hajjar told Arab News: “We are going through a very difficult stage. The president and the FPM do not value the constitution and are insisting on obstructing the formation of the government, taking the Lebanese people hostage for their personal interests.”

He said that it is clear Aoun and his political team want a government that is subject to their decisions until presidential elections are held.

Al-Hajjar said that Hezbollah “is standing idly by and this is unacceptable.”

He added that Hezbollah could “facilitate the formation of the government by putting pressure on its ally, but it has another agenda.”

Meanwhile, Charles Jabbour, head of the Lebanese Forces’ Media and Communication Service, said that while Hezbollah wants to protect its ally Aoun and his political team, the FPM is dissatisfied with Hezbollah’s position.

“This was revealed by direct statements made by FPM officials against Hezbollah,” he said.

Jabbour said that Hezbollah is “no longer a major force in this field. It is politically paralyzed and unable to do anything.”

However, he voiced concerns that the political impasse would worsen.

“There is a struggle over power and political positions, and cooperation with Aoun’s team is impossible,” he said.


Yemenis demand end to Houthi siege of Taiz as part of peace plans

Yemenis demand end to Houthi siege of Taiz as part of peace plans
Updated 16 June 2021

Yemenis demand end to Houthi siege of Taiz as part of peace plans

Yemenis demand end to Houthi siege of Taiz as part of peace plans
  • Residents of the besieged southern Yemeni city of Taiz and human rights activists said, the Houthis should stop their military operations and continued shelling of the city
  • Yemeni activist Abdullah Al-Sharabe: Ending the siege of Taiz unconditionally is the demand of all Yemenis, and no one opposes this human desire except the Houthis

ALEXANDRIA: Yemen human rights activists, politicians, journalists, and residents of Taiz have demanded that government and international mediators include the lifting of the city’s siege by Iran-backed Houthis in any peace initiative to end the war in the country.

Fearing being shut out of the current UN-brokered peace initiative that largely focused on Sanaa, residents of the besieged southern Yemeni city and human rights activists said the Houthis should stop their military operations and continued shelling of the city’s densely populated districts under any deal to bring the conflict to a close.

In a tweet as part of an online campaign to focus world attention on the Taiz siege, Yemeni activist Abdullah Al-Sharabe said: “Ending the siege of Taiz unconditionally is the demand of all Yemenis, and no one opposes this human desire except the Houthi criminals who imposed the siege.”

According to Yemeni and UN officials, and Western diplomats, the UN-brokered peace initiative calls for an immediate nationwide ceasefire, the reopening of Sanaa airport, the lifting of restrictions on Hodeidah port, and the resumption of peace talks between the Yemeni government and the Houthis.

But Taiz residents claim too much focus has been placed on easing restrictions in Houthi-controlled areas without including the Houthi siege as one of the peace conditions.

However, UN Yemen envoy spokeswoman, Ismini Palla, told Arab News that the Houthis would lift their siege of Taiz at the same time as the warring factions put into place a ceasefire.

“The proposed nationwide ceasefire in that plan aims not only to halt all forms of fighting but also result in the opening of main roads connecting the country from north to south, including Taiz, for the free movement of civilians, commercial goods, and humanitarian aid,” she said.

The Yemeni government said it would not agree to any peace plan that did not include lifting the siege of Taiz and removing Houthi checkpoints from Yemeni cities.

“Opening roads, ensuring freedom of movement for citizens, and lifting the siege on cities, especially the city of Taiz, are among the basic issues that the government puts at the forefront of its priorities,” the Yemeni Foreign Ministry said.

Facing stiff resistance from army troops and resistance fighters in the city, the Houthis have imposed a siege on Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city, since early 2015, in the process disrupting the distribution of vital humanitarian and medical assistance to thousands of hungry residents and turning a deaf ear to international calls to lift the blockade.

At the same time, the group has reportedly deployed snipers near its checkpoints to shoot any residents trying to enter or leave government-controlled areas of the city.

Speaking to Arab News from Taiz, Aqmar, a housewife, said people had been forced to use dangerous and unpaved roads to get food and medicines into the city and that the Houthi siege had pushed up transportation fares and exacerbated the suffering of the people.

“We travel only when there is an extreme necessity as bus fares are between 10,000 Yemeni rials ($40) and 15,000 rials per passenger,” she added.

She pointed out that over the years the siege had gone on, the Houthis had clamped down on freedoms of movement and that her sick grandmother who lived in a rural area outside of Taiz had died while on her way to the city to receive medical treatment.

Local rights groups claim Houthi shelling of the city has killed and wounded thousands of civilians over the past six years. Taiz Human Rights Center has put the civilian death toll from Houthi missile and artillery strikes at 1,462, including 443 children and 180 women, with 8,996 people left wounded.


Why Egypt’s Hamas policy changed after Israeli-Gaza conflict

Why Egypt’s Hamas policy changed after Israeli-Gaza conflict
Updated 16 June 2021

Why Egypt’s Hamas policy changed after Israeli-Gaza conflict

Why Egypt’s Hamas policy changed after Israeli-Gaza conflict
  • El-Sisi pledges half a billion dollars to rebuild besieged enclave after Cairo plays key role in brokering a ceasefire
  • Expert says country’s policy toward Gaza and official Egyptian relationship with Hamas are two different things

GAZA CITY: During the recent Israeli conflict with Gaza, a shift in Egyptian policy was evident in President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s pledge of half a billion dollars to rebuild the besieged enclave.
The unprecedented visit of the head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Service, Abbas Kamel, to Gaza, as an official envoy of El-Sisi, came as a major indication of the change in Cairo’s policy toward Hamas. 
The relationship deteriorated following the overthrow of former Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, in 2013.
Egypt played a key role in brokering a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas on May 21 following 11 days of cross-border fighting last month that left a trail of destruction with more than 250 dead and hundreds wounded. 
Cairo opened the Rafah crossing to dozens of Egyptian vehicles that entered Gaza to remove the rubble of destroyed buildings and pave the way for the reconstruction process. In addition, Cairo is also supplying goods to Gaza in light of strict Israeli restrictions.
However, Mukhaimer Abu Saada, professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, differentiates between the Egyptian policy toward Gaza and the official Egyptian relationship with Hamas.
He said Egypt’s role in Gaza is strategic due to the factors of history and geography. As for the country’s relationship with Hamas, it falls within the framework of “political tactics” to serve both sides.
Abu Saada believes the shift that appeared in the Egyptian policy toward Gaza rulers Hamas would not have taken place “without the green light from the US administration” following American President Joe Biden’s first phone call to El-Sisi. 
“Egypt and Hamas are beneficiaries of this transformation,” Abu Saada told Arab News. 
“Hamas, which has suffered greatly politically and financially after the years of estrangement that followed the overthrow of the late President Mursi, is keen to develop its relationship with the Egyptian regime.”
As for Egypt, Abu Saada said, it adheres to its position as a major regional player in the Palestinian arena, being the historical sponsor of Palestinian issues.
At the same time, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is not completely satisfied with the current Egyptian policy toward Gaza and the country’s openness to Hamas, he said, adding that this may be one of the main reasons behind the dialogue setback that was supposed to be launched in Cairo last Saturday.
“The PA, which has sought over the past four years to besiege Hamas politically and financially by imposing sanctions on Gaza, does not want Hamas to exploit the recent Israeli conflict in its favor through the Egyptian gate,” Abu Saada said.
Following Mursi’s ouster, the Hamas-Egypt ties deteriorated to the point that it was suggested in the Egyptian media that Hamas has supported the Salafists in Sinai and helped them carry out attacks in Cairo.
Ibrahim Al-Madhoun, a political analyst close to Hamas, believes that Egypt has a great opportunity to regain its regional weight. He also thinks Hamas is ready to identify with the Egyptian side if its demands are met, especially the lifting of the siege on Gaza and the cessation of Israeli attacks on Jerusalem.
Al-Madhoun does not see Egypt making a U-turn on Hamas, but he says it has raised the degree of its interest, concentration, and ability to move in vital files.
Hani Al-Basous, professor of political science and international relations, said the current Egyptian tactic with Hamas is based on recognizing it as a fait accompli. He said the Palestinian force has great weight, gained popular Arab momentum after the latest conflict, and it should be dealt with with new mechanisms and not with a new political orientation.