Top News: Iraq launches offensive against ISIS south of Mosul

Iraq’s armed forces started an offensive against ISIS in Nineveh province on Thursday in what a military statement described as the first stage of an operation aimed at liberating the city of Mosul. The assault was launched from the Makhmour area, to which thousands of Iraqi troops have deployed in recent weeks, setting up base alongside Kurdish and US forces around 60 km south of Mosul. Backed by air power from the US-led coalition and by Kurdish Peshmerga forces, Iraqi forces retook several villages on the outskirts of the town of Makhmour and raised the Iraqi flag there, according to the spokesman for the Joint Military Command, Brigadier General Yahya Rasool. Najat Ali, a Peshmerga Commander in Makhmour, confirmed that Kurdish forces continue to be on high alert to defend against counterattacks by ISIS as the push continues. [Reuters, AP, AFP, 3/24/2016]



New government-drafted NGO law to be submitted to parliament
Egypt’s Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Magdi al-‎Agati said on Tuesday that a new government-drafted ‎NGO law will soon be submitted to parliament.‎ Agati added that several laws will be ‎redrafted in the coming period to go in line with ‎Egypt’s new constitution. “The ‎new draft law will make it much easier to set up ‎NGOs,” Agati said. “The law states that NGOs can be set up ‎only by notification, with its founders and members ‎allowed to perform their activities with complete freedom, ‎and that they can only be dissolved or banned under ‎final judicial rulings.” ‎Agati also said the law ‎will help create a vibrant civil society in Egypt ‎capable of defending human rights and boosting ‎development.‎ “While we are ‎moving on the front of improving the human rights ‎situation, we are also working on another front, which ‎is stemming the tide of police violations of human ‎rights,” said El-‎Agati, indicating that “new ‎amendments of the police law aimed at stiffening ‎penalties on policemen accused of violating human ‎rights will soon be discussed by parliament.” [Ahram Online, 3/23/2016]

UN, NGOs express fear for rights groups in Egypt
The United Nations and global rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty urged Egypt on Wednesday to drop a renewed investigation of rights activists that has also strained ties with Washington. “NGOs who have played a valuable role in documenting violations and supporting victims will see their activities completely crippled if this continues,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in a statement. “This will stifle the voices of those who advocate for victims,” he said.  “Egypt’s civil society is being treated like an enemy of the state, rather than a partner for reform and progress,” Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa program, said in a joint statement issued by thirteen global rights groups. “The authorities should halt their persecution of these groups and drop the investigation,” the statement added. Human Rights Watch (HRW) also issued a statement on Wednesday, criticizing the Egyptian State for its punitive measures against rights defenders and NGOs. Tobias Ellwood, from the UK Foreign Office, issued a statement on Tuesday, expressing concern over “growing restrictions on civil society in Egypt.” [Ahram Online, AFP, AP, Mada Masr, DNE, 3/24/2016]

Egypt prosecution appeal rejected, ‘anti-torture T-shirt’ student to be released
A Cairo court rejected on Thursday the prosecution’s appeal against the Tuesday release order of Mahmoud Hussein, an Egyptian teenager who was arrested over two years ago for what his family says was his wearing a shirt with a revolutionary slogan. Mokhtar Mounir, Hussein’s lawyer, announced on his Facebook account on Thursday afternoon that the court upheld the decision to release Hussein and another detainee, Islam Talaat, on a bail of EGP 1,000 each pending trial. The 23-year-old Talaat was arrested with Hussein. They were accused by police of taking part in unauthorized demonstrations, possession of explosives, and paying money to others to take part in street protests. They were never formally charged during his two years in detention. Thursday’s court ruling cannot be appealed. The administrative procedures for the release may take several days. [Ahram Online, DNE, Egypt Independent, AP, Aswat Masriya, 3/24/2016]

Egypt police shoot dead gang abducting foreigners
Egyptian security forces Thursday in Cairo shot dead members of a criminal gang that specialized in abducting foreigners by posing as policemen, the Interior Ministry said in a statement. The only foreigner reported missing in Egypt in recent months was Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni, whose body was found in a ditch on the edge of Cairo, but the ministry made no mention of his case in its statement.  “The security forces on Thursday managed to track down a gang in new Cairo that used to pose as policemen. It specialized in abducting foreigners and robbing them,” the ministry said. “There was an exchange of fire with the police and all members of the gang were killed,” the statement said, without giving a toll. [AFP, 3/24/2016]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


Tripoli armed brigades say no to UN-imposed government
Commanders of Libya Dawn in Libya’s capital Tripoli have rejected the UN-imposed government and denounced the efforts being exerted by some parties to bring that government to the capital. The leaders urged the international community not to favor one party over another and to help the Libyan parties to find a real accord government. They agreed to set up a joint operations room and a military force to reopen blocked roads, free oil ports and fields, and secure state institutions. The joint force will be tasked with arresting criminals and those who undermine the capital’s security and stability, the statement indicated. The commanders also vowed to fight terrorism of all its forms, but called on the international community to stop regional and foreign interference in Libya’s internal affairs. In a warning tone, the commanders urged the governor of Central Bank of Libya to settle the cash crisis in the country. Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry called on Libya’s parliament to hold an urgent meeting in order to authenticate the newly formed government of national unity. Along with representatives from other Arab countries at a meeting in Tunisia, Shoukry said the parliament must provide the necessary legitimacy to the newly formed government. [Libya Observer, MENAFN, 3/24/2016]

Libya’s governments condemn Brussels attacks; ISIS in Sirte celebrates
All three Libyan governments have condemned yesterday’s attacks on Brussels airport and metro carried out by so-called Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). In ISIS-controlled Sirte, however, the carnage has been applauded. Gunmen drove through Sirte in armored vehicles Wednesday afternoon waving black flags and firing in the air in celebration of the slaughter. The Beida-based and Tripoli-based governments quickly issued their separate condemnations. Meanwhile, Prime Minister-designate to the national unity government Fayez Sarraj sent a letter of condolence to Belgium’s King Philippe. In Tobruk, members of the House of Representatives also issued a statement condemning the attack. [Libya Herald, 3/23/2016]

French minister says 800,000 migrants in Libya seeking to come to Europe
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Thursday that some 800,000 migrants are in Libya hoping to cross to Europe. Le Drian said in an interview with Europe 1 radio that “hundreds of thousands” of migrants were in Libya, having fled conflict and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere, adding that the figure of 800,000 was “about right.” [AFP, 3/24/2016]

Morocco dismantles ISIS cell tied to Libya branch
Morocco said on Thursday it had dismantled a suspected militant cell linked to the ISIS affiliate in Libya and that some of the nine men arrested were planning attacks in the kingdom. It was the latest in a series of radical Islamist groups Morocco says it has broken up. An Interior Ministry statement said the cell was operating in the city of Marrakesh, the coastal town of Sidi Bennour and in Smara, in neighboring Western Sahara. It said the nine group members were inspired by another militant from Sidi Bennour who was killed in the Libyan capital Tripoli when militants attacked a prison in September 2015. The statement gave no details on what type of operations might have been planned. It said the group was also planning to head to Libya to join ISIS training camps to gain “combat experience.” [AP, Reuters, Morocco World News, 3/24/2016]

Tunisia government announces Anti-Terrorism Commission; police raid ISIS recruitment cell
Prime Minister Habib Essid announced the creation of the National Anti-Terrorism Commission on Wednesday as part of the effort adopted by the government to counter terrorism in the short- and medium-term. Essid noted the Commission’s role in raising awareness by organizing cultural and educational campaigns associated with civil society groups, assess decisions by the concerned UN structures as part of Tunisia’s international commitments, and propose implementation mechanisms for anti-terrorism measures. The announcement comes as Tunisian police recently raided a cell set up to recruit ISIS fighters in Libya, authorities said. “Our counterterrorism unit forces dismantled a cell which included 12 extremists who were recruiting young people to send into Libya to join Daesh [ISIS],” the Interior Ministry said in a statement late on Monday. It said those arrested had helped jihadists who attacked Ben Guerdan this month to infiltrate to Libya to join Islamic State. [Reuters, TAP, 3/23/2016]


Syria army fights ISIS at gates of Palmyra
Syrian government troops backed by intense Russian airstrikes, battled Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) militants on Thursday on the edge of Palmyra. ISIS has called on residents of Palmyra to flee the town as pro-regime forces continue their advances. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported Thursday morning that ISIS members issued a call across loudspeakers for the remaining residents of the town to “leave as a result of the fighting reaching the outskirts of the city.” SOHR added that “fierce clashes resumed in the morning at the southern and southwestern entrances of Palmyra . . .” SOHR went into details on fighting that was raging in the Palmyra Groves directly south of the archeological complex of ancient ruins as well as in the Mutaqaadin area to the west of the city. “Russian and Syrian warplanes are conducting heavy airstrikes in the locations where the fighting is raging,” SOHR said. [AP, AFP, BBC, NYT, Guardian, Al Arabiya, 3/24/2016]

Syria war parties to agree on UN basic principles paper
Syrian government and opposition parties at peace talks in Geneva are expected to agree on Thursday to a document drawn up by a UN special envoy outlining basic principles. With a fragile ceasefire in place in Syria, negotiations are due to adjourn on Thursday after almost two weeks of discussions and to resume in April. “Basic principles have been laid out. De Mistura wants to announce that all sides have agreed so that he can move on to the transition issue at the next round,” said a senior Western diplomat. “It’s a baby step, but a necessary step. It’s not a bad result.” The diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the document contains 10 to 12 points ranging from agreeing to a united national army, the need to fight terrorism, and ensuring a democratic non-sectarian state with equal rights for all. [Reuters, 3/24/206]

Kerry tells Russia he wants further reduction in Syria violence
Secretary of State John Kerry said in Moscow Thursday a fragile partial truce in Syria had reduced levels of violence there, but that he wanted to see a further reduction as well as greater flows of humanitarian aid. Kerry said there was a hope that his meetings in Moscow could “further find and chart the road ahead so that we can bring this conflict in Syria to a close as fast as possible.” Kerry said he was looking forward to constructive conversations with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin, and said it was encouraging that Russia and the United States were able to cooperate “despite differences . . . in the face of this urgency to do what is necessary to meet the challenge.” [Reuters, 3/24/2016]

Turkey informed Belgium over attacker’s terrorist links
Turkey formerly informed Belgian authorities about the terrorist links of one of the attackers in the March 22 Brussels bombings, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday. “One of the perpetrators of the Brussels attack is a person whom we detained in June 2015 in [the southeastern province of] Gaziantep and deported,” Erdogan said at a joint press conference with his Romanian counterpart in Ankara. “We informed the Brussels Embassy of the deportation process of the attacker with a note on July 14, 2015. However, the Belgians released the attacker despite his deportation,” Erdogan said. Despite this information, the Belgians could not determine any ties with terrorism, he said. Erdogan also referred to the Netherlands, saying Turkey deported the attacker there in June 2015 and informed the Netherlands via a note. The president also said the world has to “redefine terror, terrorism and terrorists.” [Hurriyet, Reuters, Daily Sabah, 3/24/2016]

For more in-depth Syria news and analysis, please visit SyriaSource.


Victims of ISIS chemical attacks to receive treatment in Turkey
Arshad Salihi, a Turkman member of Iraqi Parliament, confirmed that the Turkish government has agreed to give medical treatment to 15 Kurdish civilians injured by recent ISIS chemical attacks in Taza Khurmatu. All of the patients will be transferred to Turkey for treatment, and seven of patients remain in critical condition from not receiving proper medical care in Iraq. [Bas News, 3/23/2016]


Yemen combat to halt April 10, as one year anniversary approaches
The warring parties in Yemen have agreed to a cessation of hostilities starting at midnight on April 10, a week before peace talks in Kuwait begin, UN Special Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed said on Wednesday. There have already been several failed attempts to defuse the conflict in Yemen since a Saudi-led coalition began an air campaign on March 26, 2015. “This is really our last chance,” Ahmed told reporters in New York. “The war in Yemen must be brought to an end.” The UN Security Council welcomed the announcement and urged parties to the conflict to “immediately reduce violence and refrain from any action that could lead to increased tensions, in order to pave the way for a cessation of hostilities.” Ahmed said Saudi Arabia is “fully committed to make sure that the next talks take place and supports a cessation of hostilities.” [Reuters, AFP, 3/23/2016]

Asiri speaks on year of war in Yemen, points to political solution
Spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition Brig. Gen. Ahmed al-Asiri said Thursday 90 percent of Yemeni territory is under the control of government forces. Asiri said military operations will continue until Sana’a is under government control. He also said on Wednesday that the leadership of the coalition believed that there will ultimately be a political solution to the crisis in Yemen through a national agreement among all parties, including the Houthis, without interference from Saudi Arabia.
[Al Masdar, 3/24/2016]

Houthis escalate fighting around Taiz
Houthi militants recaptured a strategic road that connects Taiz with Aden, residents and government officials said on Thursday. Almost a week after losing many positions in the western suburbs of the city to government forces, the Houthis and forces loyal to ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh recaptured the main road and other areas in the last two days. Locals said the Houthis built a concrete wall on the road to prevent reinforcements and locals from entering the city. [Gulf News, 3/24/2016]

Kuwait will not mediate talks between GCC and Iran
Kuwait’s Assistant Foreign Minister for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Affairs Nasser al-Mezyen on Thursday denied any mediation role by his country in the standoff between GCC countries and Iran. Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad on Saturday relayed Iran’s message to the GCC of its wish to begin a serious dialogue. “Kuwait will not step out of the GCC framework, and therefore conveying the messages does not mean the existence of a mediation effort,” Mezyen said. [Gulf News, 3/24/2016]


Turkish tourism and economy struggle due to bombings
Turkey’s tourism industry and economy are suffering following terror attacks in Istanbul and a chilling of the relationship with Moscow. Economists forecast that tourism revenue will tumble by a quarter this year, costing the country around $8 billion. While overall visitor numbers to Turkey fell by a relatively modest 1.6 percent last year, the signs are not good before the May to October peak season, when Turkey usually earns around 70 percent of its tourism revenues. Turkey has lost its number two market for tourism, Russians, amid an economic crisis at home and political tensions between Moscow and Ankara. There is also a risk that wealthier European tourists will choose to spend their holidays elsewhere. “Security concerns have the biggest impact on high-income tourist groups, who are most likely to change their plans to visit,” economist at Oyak Investment Mehmet Besimoglu said. Economists say the fall in tourism is so pronounced it could have a broad economic impact. The hit in tourism revenue could knock more than half a percentage point off economic growth, which the government is targeting at 4.5 percent for this year. [Reuters, 3/24/2016]

Kuwait says find new oil and gas field
Kuwait Oil Company (KOC) said it discovered a new oil and gas field in the Western part of the country. It said in a statement that preliminary tests suggest the new field in the al-Jathatheel region will provide a significant boost to the country’s resource reserves. The new field is expected to “constitute an important addition to the company’s capacity production capacity and country’s reserves from light crude and gas,” it said. It is forecast to “enrich the Kuwaiti oil reserves and enable the country [to] pursue crude oil production for decades to come,” KOC Chief Executive Officer Jamal Abdelaziz Jaafar said. The statement gave no estimate on the size of the field. [Reuters, AP, 3/24/2016]

Oman Oil in talks with banks on $1 billion loan for subsidiary
State-owned Oman Oil Company is seeking a $1 billion loan from banks for a subsidiary, Chief Executive Issam al-Zadjali said Thursday. Banks in Oman have been active in the loan market in the past few months, a potential sign that liquidity is becoming tighter due to low oil prices. The oil industry contributes around 44 percent to Oman’s economy, according to government estimates. Oman Oil would use the funds mainly to finance one of its subsidiaries, Oman Oil Company Exploration and Production, and for the development of the country’s Khazzan natural gas field, al-Zadjali said. The company signed an agreement last month with British Petroleum to develop the second phase of Khazzan, making the estimated investment in the project to $16 billion. Oman Oil is talking to both local and international banks about the loan, al-Zadjali said. He said the term of the loan was not yet decided. [Reuters, 3/24/2016]

Central Bank of Egypt sets term limit for bank CEOs
Chief executive officers of Egyptian banks will have to step down after nine years as part of measures to modernize the sector and “inject new blood,” the Central bank of Egypt (CBE) said Thursday.  The rule will apply to the CEOs of public and private banks as well as the heads of foreign banks operating in Egypt. Both consecutive and non-consecutive terms will count towards the limit, the CBE said. Around 40 public and private sector banks operate in Egypt. A senior banking official said the term limit will force eight of the country’s banking heads out of their positions. [Reuters, 3/24/2016]

Iraq oil exports hold steady in March
Iraq’s oil exports have held steady so far in March, according to loading data and industry sources, stemming the rapid supply growth that has increased downward pressure on prices. Baghdad has expressed support to an initiative by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and outside producers to freeze output in an effort to boost prices. Producers are due to meet on April 17 to discuss the plan. The lack of export growth is partly involuntary as it reflects disruptions on Iraq’s northern pipeline, offsetting near-record southern exports. Still, coupled with outages in other producers, it has supported a price rise this year. “The recent disruption in Iraq and Nigeria, alongside greater risk appetite in financial markets, has helped to lift the price,” said Global Head of Commodity Strategy at BNP Paribas Harry Tchilinguirian. “But that momentum is running out of steam. The global supply and demand imbalance is still large in the first half of 2016.” [Reuters, 3/23/2016]