Top News: United States Concerned Iranian Ships May Carry Arms to Yemen

The United States is concerned a group of Iranian cargo ships may be carrying advanced weapons to Yemen, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Wednesday, as he called on Iran to avoid “fanning the flames” of the conflict with arms deliveries. Carter acknowledged that the movement of the US warships, including the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, gave President Barack Obama “options.” He declined to say whether the United States might attempt to board the Iranian cargo ships, if needed. [Reuters, 4/23/2015]



No parliamentary elections before Ramadan, says minister
Transitional Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Ibrahim al-Heneidy announced that the parliamentary elections would not take place until after Ramadan, due to technical and security issues. “We are ‎back to square one again and I do not expect the poll to ‎be held anytime soon ahead of the holy Islamic month of ‎Ramadan [which is scheduled to begin on 18 June],” Heneidy told reporters on Wednesday. The final legislative draft is not ready yet, he added, as the drafting committee has received conflicting statistics about the number of voters in twelve ‎constituencies. Heneidy said the committee reached a preliminary decision last ‎week to increase the number of parliamentary seats from 567 to 592. [Ahram Online, Egypt Independent, 4/23/2015]

Justice ministry sends judges to disciplinary hearings for suspected Brotherhood ties
Justice Minister Mahfouz Saber referred several judges to disciplinary hearings on Wednesday for their alleged connection to the banned Judges for Egypt group. The government has accused Judges for Egypt of having direct ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, which was declared an illegal terrorist organization in December 2013. But members have identified themselves as an independent body unaffiliated to any political parties or movements. Judge Sameh Sayyed, the deputy president of the Egyptian State Lawsuits Authority, announced the disciplinary measures to the media. He did not elaborate on the number of judges who will stand before the disciplinary board, nor did he say when the hearings would take place. [Mada Masr, 4/22/2015]

Over 1,000 protests staged in 2015 according to Democracy Index
According to a report issued on Saturday by Democracy Index, affiliated with the Cairo-based International Development Center (IDC), Egypt has witnessed an increase in labor protests, as well as violent incidents at colleges and schools, in the first quarter of 2015. According to the report, 1,353 protests took place in the first three months of 2015, 40 percent of which were related to economic and social demands. Muslim Brotherhood supporters staged 552 protests, while laborers, business owners, and artisans staged 323 protests. School and university students staged 183 protests. Democracy Index reported that the number of detentions by Egyptian authorities and the number of terrorist incidents have also increased during the same period. [Egypt Independent, 4/23/2015]

One killed, four injured in North Sinai shelling
A rocket-propelled grenade landed on a residential home, killing one person and injuring at least four more on Thursday morning, state-owned news agency MENA reported. The residents were from the Northern Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid. The source of the shelling remains unidentified, as it is unclear whether the shelling was attributed to the armed forces or North Sinai’s militants. Clashes on Wednesday night between security forces and purported members of the Sinai-based Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis left six of the suspected militants dead, a military source said.  The clashes occurred south of Sheikh Zuweid, the source told Aswat Masriya, adding that security forces also arrested nine suspects. [DNE, Aswat Masriya, 4/23/2015]

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Tripoli warns Europe against unilateral action to stem migration, call for cooperative approach
Foreign Minister for the Tripoli-based government Muhammed al-Ghirani said Libya would confront any unilateral European Union moves to attack sites used by traffickers in Libya, urging the bloc to consult it over plans to deal with a migration crisis. Tripoli Prime Minister Khalifa Ghwell said his government would cooperate with the EU to stem the flow of illegal immigrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Ghwell expressed his government’s readiness to confront the migrant problems despite the lack of adequate resources, but any partnership with the EU must respect Libya’s sovereignty. Almost all embark from Tripoli-controlled ports, such as Zuwara, Zawia, Tajoura, Garabulli, and Misrata. Conditions are dire for migrants seeking to flee to Europe with starvation, rape, and abuse common while in the custody of smugglers. [Libya Herald, Reuters, 4/23/2015]

Haftar discusses military support with UAE; 90 percent of Libya’s arms from Russia
General Khalifa Haftar, the head of Libyan National Army allied with the Tobruk government, has arrived in Abu Dhabi for talks on military support from the Emiratis. The United Arab Emirates has been a major supporter of the Tobruk government in its struggle against the Tripoli government’s ally Operation Libya Dawn, Ansar Al-Sharia, and the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). The Tobruk government’s Acting Defense Minister Masoud Rahouma Muftah said that 90 percent of Libya’s arms originate from Russia. The Russians feared that Libya would not honor its arms purchasing agreements signed by the Qaddafi regime, however, Muftah assured that agreements were signed by states, not individuals, and that Libya would honor them. [Libya Herald, 4/22/2015]

New law to ban attacks on armed forces in Tunisia sparks outcry
A new bill banning attacks against the armed forces, their families, or their property has aroused condemnation from political parties and civil society groups after being approved by the Council of Ministers. The bill would protect the armed forces against physical attacks, with punishment of up to twenty years in prison and a fine of 100,000 dinars. Attacks against state’s secrets, including theft or release of classified information, data and documents related to national security is also punishable by up to ten years of imprisonment and a fine of 50,000 dinars. The National Union for Journalists, the Union of Tunisian Workers, Tunisian League for Human Rights, and the Popular Front have all expressed their disagreement with the proposed legislation as a restriction of freedom of the media. [Tunisia Live, 4/22/2015]

Tunisian civil society advocates for gender equality
The problem of gender equality persists in Tunisia prompting sixteen organizations to advocate for more equality in positions of responsibility in the public sector. Currently, 37.4 percent of women work in the public sector, yet only 0.76 percent are represented in positions of responsibility. The Nissa Tounsiyat association has pushed for legislation to change attitudes and allow women to participate in the future of Tunisia. Female legislators have presented a bill calling for more equality among the civil service and another bill meant to fight gender discrimination in recruitment. [L’Economiste Maghrebin (French), 4/22/2015]


Rebels launch new offensive in northwestern Syria
Several Syrian rebel groups, including Ahrar al-Sham, Ansar al-Sham, Jund al-Sham, and Jabhat al-Nusra, pushed a new offensive against government forces in Syria’s Idlib and Hama provinces in al-Ghab Plain on Thursday, less than a month after seizing control of the provincial capital of Idlib. The forces are coordinating a multi-pronged campaign whose main target appears to be the town of Jisr al-Shughour. Opposition fighters are also attacking government checkpoints in a sprawling agricultural plain south of the town as well as nearby military facilities. The opposition groups taking part in the new operation posted a statement online late Wednesday announcing the start of the offensive, which they call Ma’arakat al-Nusr (Battle of Victory). The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday the rebels have taken five checkpoints since the offensive began, including two near Jisr al-Shughour. [AP, 4/23/2015]

Erdogan says ISIS seeks to destroy Muslim world
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday launched one of his strongest attacks yet against Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), saying the organization was a “virus” working to destroy the Muslim community. Ankara has been repeatedly criticized in recent months for not doing enough to halt the advance of ISIS to its borders. Erdogan said after meeting Iraqi President Fuad Masum that the group had to be confronted, stressing that ISIS “is working to divide and destroy the ummah.” He said other groups had followed the same path but that ISIS had proved more adept and serious in using its resources. “An international strategy is essential to drain this swamp. Even if ISIS is destroyed, something will emerge under a different name… Where do its weapons and financing come from? We need to focus on this.”[AFP, 4/22/2015]

Rebel-ISIS clashes in Qalamoun area kill at least forty-two
More than forty people are reported to have been killed in clashes between Syrian Islamist rebels and ISIS militants in Qalamoun north of Damascus. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighting in the eastern Qalamoun Mountains had left thirty rebels and twelve jihadists dead since Tuesday. Qalamoun is divided into a western portion, which borders Lebanon and is mostly controlled by the Syrian regime and Hezbollah. Fighting erupted after ISIS had captured the village of al-Mahsa in the eastern Qalamoun Mountains from a coalition of rebel groups Tuesday, reportedly cutting off a key desert supply line running from Jordan into the Damascus countryside. [The Daily Star, BBC, 4/23/2015]

US-led strikes have killed 2,079 people in Syria
Airstrikes by the US-led coalition in Syria have killed 2,079 people since the start of the aerial campaign against ISIS last September, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Observatory said 1,922 were ISIS fighters. At least sixty-six civilians, including ten children and six women, have died in the campaign. The toll also includes ninety fighters from the Nusra Front, most of whom were killed in coalition strikes on their strongholds in northern Syria. [Reuters, AFP, 4/23/2015]


Yemen situation “catastrophic,” aid needed, says ICRC
Robert Mardini, who heads the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) operations in the Middle East, warned Wednesday that food supplies were fast depleting, hospitals and health centres virtually non-functional and vital medicines were unavailable. “Sana’a has had no electricity for nine entire days,” he said, adding that the situation was far worse in the rest of the country. He said the Red Cross was in negotiations with the Saudi-led coalition and the forces on the ground, including those loyal to exiled President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi and the Houthi rebels, to ensure respect for international humanitarian law and help facilitate the supply and distribution of vital aid. [AFP, Red Cross, 4/23/2015]

Air strikes hit Houthi targets in south and central Yemen
Warplanes from a Saudi-led coalition struck Houthi targets in and around the Yemeni cities of Aden and Ibb early on Thursday, residents in the area said, after Riyadh indicated its campaign against the movement would wind down. Thursday’s targets included Houthi tanks in the villages near Aden. In Ibb in central Yemen, residents reported an intense series of strikes early on Thursday on Houthi positions and weapon warehouses in the region. In Aden late on Wednesday, five Houthi militiamen were killed at a checkpoint while fighting against local forces opposed to them. [Reuters, Gulf News, 4/23/2015]

United States concerned Iranian ships may carry arms to Yemen
The United States is concerned a group of Iranian cargo ships may be carrying advanced weapons to Yemen, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Wednesday, as he called on Iran to avoid “fanning the flames” of the conflict with arms deliveries. Carter acknowledged that the movement of the US warships, including the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, gave President Barack Obama “options.” He declined to say whether the United States might attempt to board the Iranian cargo ships, if needed. [Reuters, 4/23/2015]

Kuwait deports opposition figure to Saudi Arabia
Kuwait has deported an opposition figure to neighboring Saudi Arabia months after revoking his citizenship, his group said Wednesday. Saad al-Ajmi, former spokesman of the Popular Action Movement (PAM) and former correspondent for the pan-Arab satellite channel Al Arabiya, was arrested on Tuesday afternoon. As part of a crackdown on the opposition, the Kuwaiti government revoked Ajmi’s citizenship in September based on an article in the nationality law that bans dual citizenship. Local media said Ajmi was accused of holding Saudi citizenship, which he has denied. [AFP, Gulf News, 4/22/2015]

Arab League to set up panel on preparing regional force
Arab League military chiefs decided Wednesday to form a panel to examine all aspects of building a region-wide military force aimed at combating militants, including the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). Top brass gathered at League headquarters in Cairo decided “to set up a high-ranking committee under the supervision of army chiefs to examine all aspects of this issue,” said a statement at the end of their meeting. “The panel will examine the mechanisms and budget needed to set up the joint Arab military force, and also the legal framework.” It was not immediately clear when the committee would be formed, but the statement said it would meet in the next few weeks. [AFP, 4/22/2015]


ISIS fills coffers with Iraqi government cash, sells oil to Assad regime
The Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) is skimming money from its enemies in both Damascus and Baghdad, making millions out of selling oil to the Assad regime and taxing Iraqi government money sent to civil servants in its fiefdom, according to a new BBC documentary. The documentary says ISIS has adopted a pragmatic, “tax-and-spend” approach to financing, building up a war chest of an estimated $2 billion in the process. Crucial to its revenue is income derived from oil produced from large fields in eastern Syria, some of which it then sells on to the Syrian government. The Syrian government denies they do any energy deals with ISIS. [The Guardian, IBT, 4/22/2015]

Egypt receives $6 billion from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates deposited $6 billion with Egypt’s central bank on Wednesday, a sign the Gulf powers remain committed to propping up the Egyptian economy. The bank’s governor, Hisham Ramez, said that each of the three Gulf countries deposited $2 billion. Last month, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE and Oman jointly pledged $12.5 billion in aid, investments and central bank deposits at Egypt’s economic development conference in Sharm al-Sheikh. [Reuters, 4/22/2015]

Iraq’s 2015 oil output seen flat, next year a challenge
Iraq’s oil output in 2015 is likely to remain flat as Baghdad struggles to cope with a slump in crude prices that has slashed government revenue and forced the country to renegotiate its service contracts with oil companies. A boost in crude production next year will prove to be even more challenging if oil prices remain low and Baghdad fails to repay oil companies or approve field development plans on time. [Reuters, 4/22/2015]

Saudi earnings weaker than expected
Despite a strong performance by banks, Saudi Arabia’s first quarter corporate earnings were generally weaker than expected, a sign that foreign investors should be cautious as the stock market opens up to them this year. The Capital Market Authority has said the $552 billion market will open to direct foreign investment on June 15. Potential foreign interest in the market is intense, but Saudi corporate earnings currently face headwinds that had a negative impact on first quarter results. [Reuters, 4/23/3015]