Top News: Top ISIS Militants Killed in Airstrikes; More US Troops Headed to Iraq

US-led air strikes against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq have killed three of the militant group’s top leaders but not senior commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, US officials said on Thursday. Among those killed was Abd al-Basit, whom officials described as the group’s military chief and Haji Mutazz, a deputy to Baghdadi.

Words of the deaths came after outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel signed orders Wednesday to deploy 1,500 more US forces into Iraq. The additional soldiers will support the training of Iraqi security forces as they prepare for operations to regain contested areas such as Mosul. [APDaily Star, 12/18/2014]




Obama raises concerns with Sisi; New US ambassador arrives in Egypt
The White House says President Barack Obama has voiced concern to Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi over mass trials and the imprisonment of journalists and peaceful activists in Egypt. In a phone call to the Egyptian leader Thursday, Obama encouraged Sisi to attend to the “political, economic and social aspirations of the Egyptian people.” The White House readout added that “the two leaders agreed on the importance of continuing their countries’ close military and intelligence relationships.” Obama also extended condolences to the Egyptian people over recent terrorist attacks. Egypt’s presidential spokesman Alaa Youssef said Obama “hailed” Egypt’s crucial role in fighting terrorism, noting that the US will continue its support for Egypt to upgrade its ability to counterterror. Meanwhile, the new US ambassador to Egypt, Robert Stephen Beecroft, arrived in Cairo on Thursday, sixteen months after previous ambassador Anne Patterson had vacated the post. [AP, Ahram Online, Egypt Independent, 12/19/2014]

Egypt’s parliamentary constituencies law waits president ratification
Egypt’s electoral constituencies law was presented to the President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi on Thursday for a final procedural ratification, the last step needed before parliamentary elections. The cabinet endorsed a final draft after the both State Council’s ‎Department of Legislations and Edicts and the Higher Election ‎Committee (HEC) approved it.‎ If ratified, the HEC will ‎start preparation for the final election procedures and set ‎a date for candidate registration in the polls. The elections will take place in two or three stages. The Salafi Nour Party, however, was critical of the law, and accused the government of hastily issuing it. “They did not wait for the political parties to study it,” party spokesman Nader Bakkar said. [Ahram Online, 12/19/2014]

Egypt courts acquit 130 ‘Brotherhood’ members
Over 100 alleged Muslim Brotherhood members were acquitted on charges of violence, unauthorized protests and sabotage from two Egyptian courts on Thursday. Cairo criminal court acquitted thirty people on charges of violence that took place in the eastern district of Moqattam in front of the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood in June. The prosecution had charged the defendants with possession of weapons, ammunition and explosives. Another court in the Nile Delta city of Kafr al-Sheikh acquitted 100 people, with only twenty of them present and the rest tried in absentia, from various charges including breaching the protest law. [Ahram Online, 12/18/2014]

Fact-finding committee says 12,800 arrested in June 30 events
Approximately 12,800 people were arrested in the aftermath of the ouster of former Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi, according to the June 30 fact-finding committee. In a press statement, the committee’s secretary general said, as of July, 1,697 were convicted and are serving prison sentences, 3,714 were acquitted and 7,389 have been detained pending investigation, according to the Prisons Department records. The committee also announced that fifteen students were killed and 257 suspended during the previous academic year. While the number of students killed has not been disputed, a nationwide student campaign reports that the number of suspensions are at least twice that given by the committee. [Egypt Independent, Mada Masr, 12/18/2014]

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Twenty-five killed in eight days of fighting in Benghazi; City strives for normalcy
Medics say that at least twenty-five people have been killed and 103 wounded in the past eight days of fighting between pro-government forces and Islamist groups in Benghazi. The latest violence bringing the death toll to around 475 since the army and forces led by former general Khalifa Haftar started a campaign against Islamists in the port city in mid-October. Police and other government institutions have resumed work in some districts where the army is in control, but fighting has continued in the port. Benghazi residents are trying to restore normal life, with the Libyan Red Crescent Society organizing family friendly festivals and young Libyans cleaning streets and decorating sidewalks. [Reuters, Magharebia, 12/18/2014]

Tunisia temporarily closes border with Libya ahead of presidential runoff
Tunisian authorities say they will close the Ras Jedir and Dhehiba border crossings with Libya for several days in anticipation of the upcoming second round of presidential elections. According to Tunisian media outlets, they closed at midnight on Thursday and will remain closed until Wednesday, December 24. Access will only be permitted in “urgent and humanitarian cases.” The runoff will be between Beji Caid Essebsi, the elderly leader of Nidaa Tounes, and Moncef Marzouki, the incumbent interim president. [Libya Monitor (subscription), ANSAmed, 12/19/2014]

US diplomat affirms US support for Tunisia’s runoff election
US Ambassador Jacob Walles, reiterated, on Wednesday, the US commitment to continue supporting Tunisia in its final democratic transition phase. Ambassador Walles spoke at a meeting with Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Faisal Gouia, and the President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Tunisia (AmCham-Tunisia) Amel Bouchamaoui where he expressed his appreciation for Tunisia’s new strategic vision and the prospects of cooperation and partnership offered for both countries. [All Africa, 12/17/2014]


Top ISIS militants killed in airstrikes; More US troops headed to Iraq
US-led air strikes against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq have killed three of the militant group’s top leaders but not senior commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, US officials said on Thursday. Among those killed was Abd al-Basit, whom officials described as the group’s military chief and Haji Mutazz, a deputy to Baghdadi. Words of the deaths came after outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel signed orders Wednesday to deploy 1,500 more US forces into Iraq. The additional soldiers will support the training of Iraqi security forces as they prepare for operations to regain contested areas such as Mosul. [AP, Daily Star, 12/18/2014]

Pershmerga forces free hundreds trapped in the ISIS siege on Mt. Sinjar
Kurdish peshmerga fighters have fought their way to Iraq’s Sinjar mountain and freed hundreds of people trapped there by ISIS fighters, a Kurdish leader said Thursday. The assault, backed by US airstrikes, ended the months-long ISIS siege on Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority, who had been stranded on the mountain since ISIS stormed Sinjar and other Kurdish-controlled parts of northern Iraq in August. The chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council, however, noted that Iraqi forces did not contribute to the operation, stressing that requests to Baghdad for ammunition for the operation went ignored. [Daily Star, AP, 12/18/2014]

UN calls for rebel, government forces to cease fighting near Golan buffer zone
The UN Security Council on Thursday urged Syrian government forces and rebel groups to stop fighting in the buffer zone between Syria and Israel and withdraw from the area which is patrolled by UN peacekeepers. The Security Council extended the existing mandate for the peacekeeping force, known as UNDOF, to June 30 and acknowledged that some adjustments to the force’s mandate were required to maintain its operation in an increasingly volatile area. The Council also reaffirmed its readiness to consider sanctions against individuals and groups providing support to the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, which have been active in the region and harassed UN peacekeepers on several occasions. [AP, 12/18/2014]

Botched cyber-attack on Syrian dissidents blamed on the Islamic State
A botched cyber-attack aimed at unmasking Syrian dissidents has experts worried that the Islamic State group is adding malicious software to its arsenal. The November 24 attack came in the form of a booby-trapped email sent to an activist collective in Raqqa, Syria, that documents human rights abuses in the Islamic State group’s de facto capital. The Islamic State has previously expressed interest in electronic surveillance. Last week, a post to a pro-Islamic State forum carried a proposal for a project named “Eye of the Caliphate” that would task a team of computer experts with hacking into the caliphate’s enemies, according to the SITE Intelligence Group. [AP, 12/18/2014]

Airstrikes by coalition partners in Syria plunge; US responsible for 97 percent of December airstrikes
As US fighter jets pound ISIS targets in Syria, America’s coalition allies appear increasingly absent from the air war. Nearly 97 percent of the strikes in December have been carried out by the United States alone, with coalition forces conducting only two airstrikes compared to the sixty-two executed by US fighter jets. The decline in coalition participation began shortly after the start of the campaign when US allies carried out 38 percent of the strikes. It quickly dropped to 8 percent in October and 9 percent in November. US and regional officials have insisted that political tensions within the coalition have had minimal effect on the dwindling coalition airstrikes. [Daily Star, 12/19/2014]

WHO highlights deteriorating health crisis in Syria; Stateless refugees on the rise in Lebanon
One million people have been wounded during Syria’s civil war and diseases are spreading as regular supplies of medicine fail to reach patients, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Syria representative said Wednesday. A plunge in vaccination rates from 90 percent before the war to 52 percent this year and contaminated water have added to the woes, allowing typhoid and hepatitis to advance. As poor water access and deepening poverty worsen the health crisis, the official faulted the Assad regime for blocking medical access into rebel-held areas. Syria’s ballooning refugee crisis has also spread into Lebanon where nearly 30,000 Syrian children born as refugees are in a legal limbo, not registered with any government, exposing them to the risk of a life of statelessness deprived of basic rights. [AP, Daily Star, 12/19/2014]


Suicide bombers kill at least seven in al-Hudaydah
Suicide attackers set off two car bombs in Yemen’s Red Sea port city of Hodeida on Thursday, killing themselves and seven other people, Houthi and medical sources said. At least fifteen were wounded in the attack. Members of a local security patrol killed three other suspected bombers before they were able to attack, the Houthi sources said. “The bombs rocked the city. They were targeting a building that belonged to Houthi movement officials,” said a resident. A Twitter account belonging to Yemen’s Ansar al-Sharia, a Sunni militant group affiliated to al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the attack. [Reuters, 12/18/2014]

Hadramawt explosion kills three soldiers, wounds five
A suspected al-Qaeda bomb attack killed three Yemeni soldiers and wounded five others Friday, a military source said. This was the second attack in days on security forces in Yemen’s southeastern Hadramawt province. An explosive device planted in the town of Seyoun was detonated remotely as a vehicle carrying army personnel passed by, the source said. Three soldiers were killed on Wednesday in a similar bombing west of Seyoun. [AFP, 12/19/2014]

UN Security Council condemns bombings in Rida
The UN Security Council condemned in the strongest terms Tuesday’s bomb attacks in Rida in Yemen’s Bayda province, which claimed the lives of at least fifteen schoolchildren. The members of the Security Council reiterated, in a statement issued on Thursday, their condemnation of violations and abuses committed against children by terrorists in Yemen, and the frequency of attacks by al-Qaeda. The statement recalled that al-Qaeda in Yemen is included on the al-Qaeda Sanctions List and is thus subject to the asset freeze and arms embargo in UNSC resolution 2161 (2014). It further indicated that any individual or entity that provides financial or material support to the group is eligible to be added to the Al-Qaida Sanctions List and subject to sanctions measures. [SABA, 12/18/2014]

Saudi king denounces Pakistani school attack
King Abdullah strongly condemned the Taliban terrorist attack on an army-run school in Pakistan that killed 148 people including 132 children. “We have heard about the news of this terrorist attack with profound pain and grief,” said King Abdullah in a message to Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain.
Crown Prince Salman, deputy premier and minister of defense, also sent a similar message to the president. [Arab News, 12/19/2014]

Kuwaiti court jails three suspected Islamic State supporters
Kuwaiti court has jailed three Arab supporters of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) militant group, in a first for the Gulf emirate, newspapers reported Friday. The court sentenced a Kuwaiti to ten years in jail for urging support for the group and for insulting Kuwait’s ruler in public. An Egyptian and a Jordanian were handed four-year terms for helping him distribute pro-IS leaflets. The verdicts can be appealed but the men are in currently in prison. It was the first such Kuwaiti court ruling against supporters of IS. Kuwaiti courts are examining two similar cases. [AFP, 12/19/2014]


Gulf stocks rebound with Dubai closing up thirteen percent
Gulf equity markets made massive gains Thursday, with Dubai’s main stock market rising thirteen percent just two days after closing at its lowest point of the year. Abu Dhabi’s stock market closed 6.7 percent higher on Thursday while the Saudi index closed 8.9 percent higher. The upswing in Gulf equities comes on the back of a rise in the price of benchmark US crude, which closed fifty-four cents higher at $56.47 on Wednesday. Crude gained $1.17 to close at $61.18. On Thursday, crude fell after reaching $63.70 to trade back below $62 a barrel. [Asharq al-Awsat, 12/18/2014]

United Nations seeks $8.4 billion for Syrians
The United Nations is seeking $8.4 billion to help the millions of victims of the Syrian conflict in 2015. For the first time, the request at Berlin’s donor meeting included development aid for communities seeking refuge in neighboring countries. The demand for development aid represents an acknowledgment that the crisis may last for many years and has seriously affected the neighboring countries. [NYT, 12/18/2014]

Libya’s NOC insists it remains independent as production collapses
In a statement published by the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC) in order to reassure international firms, the corporation reaffirmed that it remains independent from the conflict between the Thinni and the Hassi government. It also stressed that it is the only legitimate seller of Libyan oil and gas. Recent figures released by the NOC show that oil output has plunged by two-thirds, standing now at 330,000 bpd, due to the ongoing conflict between the two governments. [Libya Monitor (subscription), Libya Herald, 12/19/2014]

Morocco and EU want to conclude Win-Win DCFTA
According to EU Commissioner for Trade, Morocco and the EU have the common goal of concluding as soon as possible a Win-Win Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA). Negotiations for the agreement have been ongoing since March 2013 in order to consider each party’s top priorities. The fifth round of talks was postponed in order for Morocco to conduct impact assessment studies for some sectors. [MAP, 12/18/2014]

United Nations defers Iraq’s Gulf War reparations to Kuwait
United Nations body agreed on Thursday to let Iraq postpone its final payment of reparations to Kuwait for the 1990-91 Gulf War, in an effort to help ease Baghdad’s cash-strapped budget. The consensus decision, reached by major powers at the UN Compensation Commission, means Iraq will have until January 2016 to begin paying its oil-rich neighbor $4.6 billion for oil fields destroyed during its invasion and seven-month occupation. [Reuters, Al-Manar, 12/18/2014]