Top News: Pentagon announces more marines deployed to Iraq

The United States announced on Sunday it will put more troops on the ground in Iraq after a marine was killed in an ISIS rocket barrage on Saturday, making this the second US combat death in the fight against ISIS. The rocket barrage occurred in the autonomous Kurdish region and “several other marines were wounded and they are being treated for their varying injuries,” the Pentagon said in a statement. Troops from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit will add to US forces already in Iraq, and while it is unclear exactly how many Marines will be deployed, the move will bolster security at a coalition base near Makhmour on the frontlines with ISIS in northern Iraq. [Al Jazeera, NYT, Reuters, 3/21/2016]



US concerned by Egypt’s investigation of human rights groups; Nazra group summoned
US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday he was deeply concerned by the deterioration in the human rights situation in Egypt, including Egypt’s decision to reopen an investigation of non-governmental organizations. In a statement released by the State Department, Kerry said Egypt’s decision this week to investigate the NGOs documenting human rights abuses comes against a wider backdrop of arrests and intimidation of the political opposition, journalists, activists, and others. Amnesty International released a statement Friday, describing the move as the “latest tool to eradicate civil society.” The Deputy Speaker of Egypt’s parliament Soliman Wahdan told reporters on Saturday that Kerry’s statement represented another “American intervention in Egypt’s internal affairs,” an opinion that was echoed by many members of parliament. MPs demanded that a strict ban be imposed on foreign funding of NGOs operating in Egypt. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry responded to Kerry’s criticisms saying that Egypt does not accept the guardianship of foreign countries and that human rights are a national responsibility. The Cairo Criminal Court meanwhile adjourned Saturday to March 24 a session to rule on Thursday’s judicial order freezing the assets of four rights activists, including journalist Hossam Bahgat and lawyer Gamal Eid, on charges they received a total of $1.5 million in “illegal funds from foreign entities” after all defendants failed to appear in court. A statement issued Sunday revealed that Nazra for Feminist Studies is also being investigated for illegally receiving foreign funding in the same case. [Reuters, Aswat Masriya, Mada Masr, DNE, AMAY, Ahram Online, 3/20/2016]

UN recommends committee inspect human rights conditions inside Egypt’s prisons
The UN International Council for Human Rights held a conference on Thursday in Geneva during which a recommendation was issued calling for the establishment of an international committee to investigate conditions inside Egypt’s prisons. The UN conference discussed the status of detainees and the judicial system in a number of countries, including Egypt. The conference was attended by international human rights defendants, representatives from NGOs, and political activists. Several countries expressed their concerns about human rights violations allegedly committed by Egyptian security authorities against human rights defendants and activists. On behalf of the European Union, the Netherlands expressed its concerns about such violations in Egypt and asserted that the EU supports lawful counterterrorism efforts. Germany, Switzerland, and the United States agreed that the state of human rights in Egypt is deteriorating and expressed concerns about military trials for civilians and mass verdicts of capital punishment. State-run Al-Ahram reported statements from Egypt’s permanent UN representative Amr Ramadan who fired back against the criticisms, saying that allegations of human rights violations in Egypt are meaningless and lack credibility. [DNE, 3/19/2016]

Egyptian MPs to visit EU parliament to combat ‘lies’
The parliament has authorized an eight-member delegation to visit Brussels next month, to respond to the European Parliament’s recent resolution which condemned alleged human rights violations in Egypt. Independent MP Alaa Wali disclosed that the visit, approved by speaker Ali Abdel-Al, will be held between April 3 and 7 during which the European Parliament will be in session. Referring to the investigation into the murder of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni, Wali said, “We will try our best to convey to MEPs the most up-to-date and accurate legal and judicial information about Regeni’s death and respond to their attacks about the human rights situation in Egypt – particularly the issue related to what is called enforced disappearances.” The delegation to Brussels will be led by Ahmed Said,  a businessman and former chairman of the liberal-oriented Free Egyptians Party. Some MPs, however, have been critical of the planned visit. Mostafa Bakri, an independent MP, wondered why “the Egyptian parliament is making a lot of foreign visits at a time when the country is suffering from a severe shortage in foreign currency.” Bakri also raised strong doubts that the delegation to Brussels will have a positive impact. “It is a waste of time and money to conduct a dialogue with human rights fanatics in this arrogant European Parliament,” said Bakri. [Ahram Online, 3/19/2016]  

Egypt courts uphold Jazeera suspension, six-month Ahmed Douma sentence
An Egyptian court upheld on Monday a ruling suspending the broadcast of the Egypt-focused television channel Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr from inside Egypt. The High Administrative Court also rejected two appeals against the ruling presented by State Lawsuits Authority and the Qatar-based Al Jazeera Channel. Today’s court ruling is final and cannot be appealed. A Maadi court on Saturday also upheld a six-month prison sentence for two well-known political activists, Ahmed Douma and Mohamed Adel, for assaulting police officers assigned to a court in Maadi in 2013 while they were on trial in another case. The misdemeanour court rejected an appeal by Douma, a well-known political activist, and Mohamed Adel, one of the founders of the now-banned 6 April Youth Movement. [Aswat Masriya, Ahram Online, DNE, 3/21/2016]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


Heavy gunfire in Libya capital as rivals clash
Heavy gunfire broke out in the Libyan capital Tripoli on Saturday after two rival armed groups clashed in the city over the killing of one of their fighters, a local security source and witnesses said. The clashes left several cars burning in the streets between the Zawiyat Addahmani area and Bab Azizziya before the capital later returned to calm, witnesses said. There were no immediate reports of casualties. The clashes were between Zawiyat Addahmani’s Alfirqa Assadisah or the Sixth Team Security brigade and Bab Azizziya’s Salah al-Burki brigade in Camp 77, a security source said. [Reuters, Libya Herald, 3/19/2016]

Tunisia’s Essebsi interviewed by Washington Post
Tunisian President Beji Caïd Essebsi called the ‘Arab Spring’ a European creation in an interview with the Washington Post. “Because the ‘Arab Spring’ is a European creation; it is neither a Tunisian nor an Arab creation. The first time I heard of it was during the G8 meeting in Deauville, France, in 2011. My reaction then was that there was no Arab Spring,” he said. He claimed that Tunisia today realized the hope of the uprising in 2011, saying that freedom and dignity were restored. He also said that one cannot ignore realities such as the Ennahda party in a democratic state. “If you are a democrat, you cannot tell them they don’t exist. We took this fact into consideration and now we have a stable state much better than in other countries. If Ennahda hadn’t worked with us, there was a risk of the Egyptian scenario.” He also urged more support from the international community, saying that Tunisia was practically defending its territory alone against terrorism. [Washington Post, 3/19/2016]

Tunisia dissident forms own political party
Mohsen Marzouk, former Nidaa Tounes general secretary, announced in front of thousands of supporters the creation of the Tounes Movement Project with policies based on those of Habib Bourguiba who led the North African country to independence. The new party also opposes the moderate Islamist Ennahda, which became the largest group in parliament after 22 lawmakers quit Nidaa Tounes in January. Nidaa Tounes had already been weakened by the departure of Essebsi, in line with the constitution, after he was elected president in December 2014. “Our party is open to women and young people and we call on them to participate actively in political life and to assume major responsibilities,” said the new party’s charter distributed to reporters. Nidaa Tounes had been riven by bad blood between Marzouk and the president’s son, Hafedh Caid Essebsi, in what insiders said was a battle for succession. [AFP, TAP, 3/20/2016]

Tunisian security forces kill two militants near Libyan border
Tunisia’s government says security forces have killed two gunmen hiding in a town near the Libyan border, where a manhunt followed an unusually violent attack earlier this month. Three civilians and a member of the national guard were wounded by shots fired by the gunmen in Saturday’s standoff outside Ben Guerdane, the Interior Ministry said in a statement. Seven civilians, 12 security forces and 49 assailants have been killed in the area since gunmen attacked Ben Guerdane on March 7, according to the government. Security and military forces raided the house near Ben Guerdane on Saturday after the shortly after the clashes began. Two charred bodies were found in the house, four people were slightly wounded, and three civilians and a security officer were admitted to the hospital. [AP, TAP, 3/19/2016]

UN staffers pull out of Western Sahara mission
Dozens of UN international staffers pulled out of their Western Sahara mission on Sunday after Morocco demanded they leave because of remarks by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon about the disputed territory. This week Morocco ordered the United Nations to withdraw 84 international civilian personnel from its peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara, MINURSO. Rabat accused Ban earlier this month of no longer being neutral in the Western Sahara dispute. A Moroccan official source said 73 UN staffers had left, 10 would leave in the afternoon, and one would remain for now because she was pregnant. Morocco said it would also stop its voluntary contribution to the mission estimated at $3 million. Neither military personnel, nor the ceasefire monitoring units, nor the head of the mission are affected by the cuts. The United States supports Morocco’s autonomy plan for the disputed territory of Western Sahara, considering it both credible and realistic, said US-UN spokesman Kurtis Cooper on Twitter on Saturday. Nonetheless, declared US support for the peacekeeping mission. Ban’s spokesman said on Friday that he was disappointed by the UN Security Council’s failure to take a strong stand in the dispute. Diplomats said that Security Council members argued against a strong statement of support of Ban and in favor of countries dealing with the issue bilaterally. They included Morocco’s traditional ally France along with Spain, Egypt, and Senegal. [Reuters, AP, 3/20/2016]

Algerian army kills militants behind Krechba gas plant attack
Algeria’s army has killed four militants authorities believe were responsible for Friday’s attack on the Krechba gas facility operated by state oil company Sonatrach with BP and Statoil, a security source said on Sunday. Al-Qaeda’s North Africa branch claimed responsibility for the rocket attack on the gas plant in central Algeria that caused no casualties or damage. BP had initially said the plant had been shut down as a safety precaution, but a top Sonatrach source said on Sunday production was unaffected by the assault. An Algerian security source who also did not want to be identified told Reuters that four militants were killed and three others wounded by the army in the desert region of Ain Saleh, where Krechba is located. The Algerian defence ministry has not yet confirmed the operation. [Reuters, AP, 3/20/2016]


Pro-regime fighters killed battling ISIS near Palmyra
Over 25 regime-allied fighters were killed on Monday fighting the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) as Damascus stepped up a bid to recapture the ancient city of Palmyra, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). “[ISIS] thwarted an offensive by Syrian regime loyalists as they pressed an advance some four kilometers (two and a half miles) from Palmyra, and at least 26 fighters were killed. … Warplanes believed to be Russian meanwhile struck parts of Palmyra city and its surroundings in the east of Homs province, as well as al-Qaryatain in the southeast,” SOHR said. Syrian troops and allied militia launched an offensive to retake the city earlier this month. SOHR Director Rami Abdel Rahman said that progress had been been slow, despite some 800 air strikes by Russia and the regime. [AFP, 3/21/2016]

Syria peace talks grind toward pivotal Assad question
Syrian government negotiators at Geneva peace talks are coming under unaccustomed pressure to discuss something far outside their comfort zone—the fate of Assad—and are doing their best to avoid it. The Syrian opposition said on Sunday that it rejected any delay in the next round of peace talks in Geneva based on a government effort to postpone them due to parliamentary elections set for April 13. Spokesman of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) Salim al-Muslat told reporters in Geneva, “We won’t accept a postponement to hold illegitimate elections. We didn’t receive anything from Mr. Staffan de Mistura calling for a delay.” [Reuters, AFP, 3/20/2016]

Death toll climbs from air strikes on ISIS-held Raqqa
The death toll from purported Russian air strikes on the ISIS-held city of Raqqa in the past 24 hours has climbed to at least 55, mostly civilians, Syrian opposition activists, and ISIS said Sunday. The anti-ISIS activist group, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, specified the air strikes were by Russian warplanes and put the number of deaths at 60, whereas the ISIS-affiliated news agency Aamaq said 43 were killed and 60 wounded. Aamaq released a video that purports to show the “massacre committed by Russian aircraft in one of Raqqa’s most congested streets.” The video shows what appears to be dead babies, bombed-out buildings, burning cars, and wreckage. [AP, Reuters, Asharq al-Awsat, Guardian, 3/20/2016]

Russia says might use force against ceasefire violators in Syria
Russia warned the United States that it will start responding to ceasefire violations in Syria unilaterally starting Tuesday if the United States refuses to coordinate rules of engagement against the violators. Russia’s general staff of the armed forces proposed to hold an urgent meeting with US representatives to agree on the mechanism of controlling the ceasefire. A US official contended the issues were being discussed “in a constructive manner.” The Russian military have accused the United States of dragging its feet on responding to Moscow’s proposals on joint monitoring of the ceasefire. A top Russian general said this weekend that further delays are leading to civilian casualties, including 67 civilians reportedly killed in Aleppo by militant fire since the truce started. [AP, 3/12/2016]

Suicide bomber kills four, wounds 36 in Istanbul shopping district
A suicide bomber struck at the heart of Istanbul’s most popular avenue on Saturday, killing at least five people, including two Americans, and wounding 36, officials said. It was the latest in a string of urban terrorist attacks that have underscored Turkey’s vulnerability as the country faces a revitalized Kurdish insurgency and a deeper involvement in Syria’s war and refugee crisis. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Saturday’s attack, but through forensic evidence Turkish officials identified the bomber as a Turkish member of ISIS. Turkish Interior Minister Efkan Ala said on Sunday the attacker was Mehmet Ozturk, a Turkish citizen born in 1992 in the southern city of Gaziantep. All of the victims of the attack were foreign nationals. Another four people injured in the blast remain in intensive care. The attack in Istanbul came six days after a suicide car bomb attack in the heart of the capital city of Ankara, which killed 37 people. [Reuters, NYT, Al Jazeera, Hurriyet, Daily Sabah, Anadolu Agency, 3/21/2016]

EU-Turkey deal to return refugees from Greece comes into force
Greece and the European Union scrambled on Sunday to put in place the people and the facilities needed to carry out a new deal intended to address the migrant crisis that is roiling Europe, as hundreds of migrants in rubber dinghies continued to land on the Greek islands from Turkey. The accord, struck between the union and Turkey on Friday, set a 12:01 a.m. Sunday deadline for Turkey to stem the flow of people making clandestine journeys across the Aegean Sea to Greece in an attempt to enter Europe, and required Greece to begin sending back migrants who are not eligible for asylum. Yet processing centers on the Greek island of Lesbos and on several other Greek islands were not adequately staffed to comply immediately with the new measures, and officials said they were waiting for the European Union to follow through on a pledge to send at least 2,300 European police and asylum experts to help. Monitors from Turkey have arrived on the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios to help supervise an agreement aimed limiting the number of refugees flowing into the European Union via smugglers’ boats. Greece’s prime minister warned Monday that an international agreement to limit the number of refugees traveling to Europe could not be properly implemented unless smugglers on the Turkish coast are stopped. [NYT, AP, Guardian, 3/21/2016]

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


Iraq begins ‘broad operation’ against ISIS in Anbar
Iraqi forces have launched a broad offensive to retake the cities of Heet and Kubaysa from ISIS in the western province of Anbar, Major General Ali Ibrahim Daboun, head of the Al-Jazeera Operations Command, reported on Saturday. Led by the elite Counterterrorism Service, forces from the police, army and local tribal fighters made a final push to retake Heet, 90 miles west of Baghdad. Daboun said Iraqi security forces and tribal fighters had retaken a cement plant west of Kubaysa and raised the Iraqi flag there. He furthered that Iraqi aircrafts and jets from the US-led international coalition were providing air support. [AFP, 3/19/2016]

British ISIS hostage appears in new video
British journalist John Cantlie has appeared in a new video released by ISIS on social media late on Saturday. In the video, Cantlie, one of about a dozen Western hostages held by the group over the past four years, is reportedly in the Iraqi city of Mosul. The journalist has fronted a series of ISIS propaganda films, but had not appeared in any for more than a year, raising fears that he had been killed. In the latest undated clip, Cantlie talks about what he says are ineffective US-led coalition airstrikes on ISIS targets in the city. [Al Jazeera, Rudaw, 3/20/2016]

ICRC reaches thousands clinging to life amid Iraq’s worst devastation
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) sent a convoy of aid to western Ramadi in Anbar Province for the first time last week, ICRC officials said. ICRC spokesperson in Iraq Ralph el-Hage said, “The destruction is more than anything we’ve seen yet anywhere in Iraq and ICRC staff constantly visit many places in Nineveh, Salahuddin, Kirkuk, Diyala, Anbar and other areas which witnessed heavy fighting … They are isolated from any source of clean water, food, or healthcare.” Hage explained that ICRC staff reached the area for the first time this month, delivering emergency relief to 1,200 families, including cooking supplies, hygiene items, and blankets. [Rudaw, 3/21/2016]


UN envoy denies ceasefire agreement, peace talks to resume in Kuwait
UN envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed denied on Monday media reports of any ceasefire agreement reached between the Houthis and the Yemeni government. Media outlets on Sunday reported that the Houthis and the Yemeni government had agreed to begin a ceasefire ahead of the next round of negotiations in Kuwait. Ahmed announced late Sunday, after two days of closed-door meetings with rival parties, that peace talks are set to resume in Kuwait “very soon.” He described the talks as “fruitful.” [Al Masdar, AP, Gulf News, 3/21/2016]

Israel brings in 19 Yemeni Jews in final immigration push
Israel brought in 19 Jews from war-ravaged Yemen in what immigration officials described as the last covert operation to move members of a dwindling Jewish community dating back two millennia. Seventeen people arrived late on Sunday, including a man who doubled up as the rabbi and kosher butcher in the northern Yemeni town of Raydah, carrying a 500-year-old Torah scroll, said officials. Two others came in a few days earlier. The sacred manuscript’s departure from Yemen marked the de facto end of a community that has lived alongside its Muslim neighbors for centuries, only to be driven out by a surge in fighting and political turmoil. [Reuters, 3/21/2016]

Yemeni forces capture cities in Marib and Shabwa, fighting rages in Taiz
Yemeni government forces on Sunday seized control of two cities in Marib and Shabwa, a day after the army launched a major offensive in Houthi-controlled territories in the two provinces. In the central province of Marib, government forces stormed the city of Hareb and the surrounding mountainous regions after brief clashes with Houthi militants. Government forces also took control of Ousylan in the southern province of Shabwa. Elsewhere, fighting raged over the weekend in the outskirts of Taiz as the Houthis attempted to retake positions lost in recent weeks to pro-government forces, military sources said. At least 55 people, including 14 civilians, have been killed in the two days of fighting. [Gulf News, AFP, 3/21/2016]

Iran reaches out to Kuwait to ease tensions
Iran reached out to Kuwait to help improve its relations and ease tensions with other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, a Kuwaiti daily reported Saturday. Al Rai reported that Kuwaiti Interior Minister Sheikh Mohammad al-Khalid relayed to GCC leaders Iran’s message of wanting to start a new chapter in its relations with gulf countries based on the principle of “settling issues through dialogue.” Gulf sources said that Iranian Minister of Intelligence Mahmoud Alavi recently visited Kuwait and gave government officials a written message from President Hassan Rouhani about relations with the Gulf and an earnest desire to reach a settlement of regional issues with the people of the region and without foreign interference. [Gulf News, 3/19/2016]

Kuwait deports 14 accused of Hezbollah links
Kuwait deported 11 Lebanese and three Iraqis suspected of belonging to Hezbollah, a local newspaper reported on Monday, nearly three weeks after the country joined other Gulf Arab states in designating the Lebanese Shia group a terrorist organization. Al Qabas cited a security source as saying the 14 suspects were deported at the request of the state security service. The Interior Ministry was not immediately available for comment. [Reuters, 3/21/2016]


Egypt signs $1.5 billion Sinai development deal with Saudi Arabia
Egypt on Sunday signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia worth $1.5 billion to finance development projects in the Sinai during the fifth meeting of the Egyptian-Saudi coordination council in Riyadh, according to the Ministry of International Cooperation. The funds will be used for agriculture projects and to build 26 residential complexes that will include hospitals and schools. Minister of International Cooperation Sahar Nasr highlighted “the importance of sustainable development and offering work opportunities for the residents of Sinai, which is the most important way to eliminate extremism and terrorism.” A separate five-year agreement was signed between the Saudi Development Fund, the Egyptian Public Oil Authority, and Saudi company Aramco to help Egypt finance its petrol needs. [AFP, Ahram Online, 3/21/2016]

Saudi government to issue 20 billion riyals of bonds
The Saudi government has told local banks that it will sell them 20 billion riyals ($5.3 billion) of three-, five-, and seven-year bonds with floating and fixed rates, sources said on Sunday. Allocations of the bonds will be made on Monday. The government has been selling 20 billion riyals of bonds every month since last August to cover a budget deficit created by low oil prices. Last month, the government sold five-, seven-, and 10-year bonds. [Reuters, 3/20/2016]

Egypt considering tighter regulations on currency bureaus
The Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) is considering tougher regulations on foreign-exchange dealers as part of a broader effort to crack down on the black market. The CBE is seeking to reduce the number of foreign-exchange bureaus and introduce measures to improve transparency, an unnamed source said. A crackdown on currency traders has been widely predicted in Egyptian media. On Sunday, al-Shorouk reported that some currency bureaus may temporarily halt operations to avoid incurring losses from trading at the official price. Bankers and traders said the pound weakened on the black market on Sunday. Meanwhile, the CBE announced that it will hold only one foreign currency auction a week on Tuesdays for $120 million. The bank previously held three auctions a week for $40 million each. [Bloomberg, 3/20/2016]

Iraq exports first natural gas shipment
Iraq on Sunday exported the first shipment of natural gas in its history, as part of a joint venture between Iraq state-run South Gas Company, Shell, and Mitsubishi. The shipment has a cargo of about 10,000 standard cubic feet of gas in the form of condensates produced by the Basrah Gas Company, Oil Ministry Spokesman Assem Jihad said. Jihad did not reveal how much the cargo was worth or the buyer, but said that the next cargo would be shipped by the end of this month. [AP, Reuters, 3/20/2016]

BP pulls out staff from Algeria plants after attack
British Petroleum (BP) will pull out all its staff from the In Salah and In Amenas gas projects in Algeria over the next two weeks for the safety and security of its staff following an attack on Friday, it said on Monday. The Algerian joint ventures will continue to be supported “remotely,” the company said in a statement. Norwegian oil and gas company Statoil, which operates the plants together with BP, also announced plans to reduce staff after the rocket-propelled grenade attack on the In Salah plant which caused no casualties or damage. “It’s only been four days since shots were fired at In Salah. The production started again, but in the current situation we believe that this is the right decision to make,” said a Statoil spokesperson. [Reuters, 3/21/2016]