Top News: United States moving to increase troops in Iraq

The Pentagon said Friday it was moving to increase the number of US troops in Iraq amid new strikes this week that killed the ISIS’s finance minister and other senior leaders. US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said the US progress in eliminating members of the ISIS “cabinet” was hampering the group’s ability to conduct and inspire attacks against the West. General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Pentagon reporters that recommendations on ways to increase US support for Iraq’s ground fight against ISIS will be discussed with President Barack Obama soon. “The secretary and I both believe that there will be an increase in US forces in Iraq in coming weeks, but that decision hasn’t been made,” Dunford said, though he did not specific how big that increase might be. Dunford and Carter said accelerating the campaign against ISIS will include more assistance like the artillery fire and targeting help that US Marines provided earlier this week to Iraqi forces advancing on Mosul. [AP, 3/25/2016]



Italy rejects Egypt’s claim to have found student’s killers, MOI backtracks
Italy rejected on Friday Egypt’s claim that it had identified the killers of an Italian graduate student whose tortured body was recovered last month, and Rome vowed to press on with its own murder investigation. Egyptian authorities said a criminal gang that had been killed in a shootout was in possession of Giulio Regeni’s bag and passport. Italian investigators said Friday there was “no definitive element confirming” the claim, and pointed to “inconsistencies” in the latest information in the case provided by Egypt. They said it was unlikely that Regeni’s kidnappers would hold on to “compromising evidence” months after his death. Italy’s Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, meanwhile, said Sunday that Egyptian investigators agreed to extend the investigation after pressure from Rome. Egypt’s Interior Ministry denied the Italian government’s statements, saying that its original claims had been misrepresented in the media. On Saturday, Interior Ministry Spokesperson, Abu Bakr Abdel Karim said the discovery of Regeni’s belongings in the apartment of a gang member did not mean the gang was responsible for his abduction and murder. Abdel Karim said the ministry had never attributed the crime to the gang members, despite media claims to the contrary. According to Ahram Online, however, Cairo prosecution ordered Friday the detention for four days pending investigations of three family members related to one of the alleged gang members linked to Regeni’s murder. Interior Minister Magdi Abdel-Ghaffar also said Sunday that the case has become “very difficult” because of the “hostile campaigns” that consistently raise doubts about the Egyptian interior ministry’s efforts in its handling. [Ahram Online, Reuters, DNE, Mada Masr, AMAY, 3/28/2016]

Courts sentence Egyptians for joining ISIS, Jund al-Sham
The Cairo Criminal Court sentenced a man to 15 years in prison on Saturday for joining Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria. Prosecutors said that between June 30, 2013 and November 23, 2013, the man, Ahmed Fawzy, joined a “terrorist group” outside Egypt named “Lions of the Caliphate”, which is allegedly following the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), and received military training. The same court sentenced Mohamed Samir to life imprisonment in absentia on Saturday, on charges of joining the Syrian rebel militant group Jund Al-Sham. Another defendant, named Ahmed Abdel al-Wahab, received a ten-year prison sentence. The two defendants were charged with joining the group in 2013 and planning “terrorist attacks”. [Aswat Masriya, DNE, 3/26/2016]

ISIS claims it killed 15 soldiers in Sinai; Armed Forces kills 60 militants
Aamaq, a news agency affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) claimed that its Egypt affiliate, the Sinai State, killed 15 Egyptian soldiers by planting explosive devices on roads situated in Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah. The agency reported early Sunday that Sinai State militants intercepted a counter-attack by the Egyptian Armed Forces and captured two tanks. The reports could not be independently verified. This comes as clashes between the Egyptian Armed Forces and Sinai State are on the rise in North Sinai. Armed Forces Spokesman Mohamed Samir said in a statement Friday that military forces in Sinai killed 60 militants and injured another 40 in clashes in Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah. He added that 27 4×4 trucks and 32 weapons depots were destroyed. [DNE, Ahram Online, AP, Aswat Masriya, 3/27/2016]

NGOs, academics express solidarity with Nazra
Fifteen Egyptian women’s and rights organizations published a statement Saturday in solidarity with Nazra for Feminist Studies and demanded that the National Council for Human Rights (NHCR) stand against the recent crackdown on local NGOs. The statement also highlighted the need for dialogue between NGOs and the state to address women’s issues. The signatories included the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and El Nadeem. Meanwhile, 125 academics expressed their support for Nazra head Mozn Hassan in a letter after she was summoned for investigation and charged in the reopening of the 2011 NGO foreign funding case. The majority of the academic signatories are professors at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and others include professors and researchers working at universities abroad. [DNE, 3/28/2016]

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Tripoli tense as Sarraj’s GNA fails to enter capital; clashes close Mitiga airport
Tripoli locals woke up to the rumors that PM-designate Fayez Sarraj and his Government of National Accord (GNA) were again on their way to the capital, following similar rumors on Friday and Saturday. Residents jokingly share the “news flash” that militias have set up a giant fan in the desert to create a sandstorm to prevent Sarraj’s plane from landing. One caricature circulating on Twitter shows the prime minister-designate arriving in a UN-marked parachute. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is likely to meet Sarraj during his two-day Tunis visit starting on Monday. UNSMIL, currently relocated from Tripoli to Tunis, has made no announcement of any scheduled meeting between Ban and Sarraj, but one diplomat said that he was sure that there would be at least one encounter. Tripoli’s authorities closed Mitiga and Misrata airports without prior notice. All inbound and outbound traffic had been suspended. A statement later in the day by the administration said that the airspace had been closed for “technical reasons.” However, security and aviation sources in Tripoli reported that armed militias had forced aviation personnel to leave their posts in the early morning hours. Airline staff were advised not to turn up to work at Mitiga. A Libyan Airlines source confirmed that the closure this morning was purely for safety reasons due to the heavy gunfire near Mitiga airport. The heavy gunfire, including anti-aircraft guns, has continued into this morning. [Libya Herald, AFP, 3/27/2016]

Ageela Saleh calls for HoR quorum for key GNA debate Monday
House of Representatives (HoR) President Ageela Saleh has called on its members to turn up on Monday and Tuesday to debate the proposed Government of National Accord and the constitutional amendment. In a statement reported today by the Beida-based LANA, Saleh appeared to deplore the fact that the HoR has so far lacked a quorum that would enable it to consider and vote on the two issues. It has been the absence of Saleh himself on various foreign trips, most recently to the UAE, that has been one of the reasons that a debate has not yet been held. He has insisted that no session could be held without his presence. It remains uncertain that enough representatives are likely to go to Tobruk. [Libya Herald, 3/26/2016]

Libya coastguard stops 600 migrants crossing to Europe
The Libyan coastguard on Sunday stopped three boats carrying 600 migrants including pregnant women trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, an official said. The coastguard “intercepted three large dinghies off the coast of Sabratha” around 70 km (45 miles) west of Tripoli, Colonel Ayoub Qassem, a spokesman for the Tripoli government’s navy, said. He said all the migrants were from Africa, adding “there were 80 women including some who were pregnant.” The colonel rejected a statement from French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Thursday that some 800,000 migrants were in Libya hoping to cross to Europe. “The number is exaggerated,” he said. [AFP, Libya Herald, 3/27/2016]

More ISIS murders in Sirte
Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) militants apparently murdered three Libyan army soldiers yesterday in Sirte, though pictures released by the terrorists show only two men being killed with a shot to the back of the head. It is unclear where the soldiers were captured. One report says that they were picked up in their home town of Ajdabiya where they had gone on leave from Benghazi. ISIS also posted pictures of floggings yesterday, carried out, like the executions, after Friday prayers. Meanwhile in Tripoli, two Bangladeshis have been kidnapped, it is feared, by ISIS. [Libya Herald, 3/26/2016]

United States to fund Tunisia border surveillance
The United States has agreed to fund a multi-million-dollar project to install an electronic security surveillance system on Tunisia’s border with strife-torn Libya, the US embassy said Friday. In a statement, the diplomatic mission said that the US was disbursing the first instalment of the $24.9 million project to strengthen security along the frontier. The US Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) awarded the contract to American construction group BTP and consulting and engineering firm AECOM, a diplomatic source said. [AFP, TAP, 3/25/2016]

Tunisia’s Ennahda moves to accept state authority over religious affairs
The Islamist Ennahda Party will make a separation between its religious and political activities and accept state authority over handling state affairs, a leading Ennahda figure told Tunisia’s Al-Sharouq newspaper. Fathi Al-Ayadi — speaking ahead of this summer’s party conference — said that Ennahda will focus on its political activities within an Islamic frame of reference, in accordance with the Tunisian constitution. Al-Ayadi noted that religious affairs should be handled by state authorities and civil society, a statement that reflects Ennahda’s refusal of partisan interference in such issues. [Ahram Online, 3/26/2016]


ISIS driven out of Syria’s ancient Palmyra city
Syrian government forces backed by heavy Russian air support drove the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) out of Palmyra on Sunday, inflicting what the army called a mortal blow. The loss of Palmyra represents one of the biggest setbacks for ISIS. The army general command said that its forces took over the city opening up the huge expanse of desert leading east to the ISIS strongholds of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said clashes continued on the eastern edge of Palmyra, around the prison and airport, but the bulk of ISIS forces had withdrawn and retreated east, leaving the city under President Bashar al-Assad’s control. Russia and Iran along with UN Chief Ban Ki-Moon congratulated Assad on regaining Palmyra and removing ISIS. Russia will be sending troops and equipment later this week to demine the archaeological site. Syrian antiquities experts said Monday they were deeply shocked by the destruction the extremists had carried out inside the town museum, with scores of priceless relics and statues demolished. [Reuters, AFP, NYT, WSJ, 3/28/2016]

Russian air force to continue supporting Syrian army offensive
Russian ground forces did not take part in the Syrian army’s operation to drive ISIS fighters out of the city of Palmyra, but the Russian air force did and it will continue assisting Syrian government troops, the Kremlin said Monday. Meanwhile, Putin continued military withdrawal with three heavy attack helicopters leaving to Moscow’s Hemeimim airbase in Syria for Russia, Russian state TV channel Rossiya-24 reported on Monday. [Reuters, 3/28/2016]

UN specialist could oversee release of Syrian detainees
The United Nations may appoint a specialist to oversee the release of Syrian detainees, and ensure the naming of the detainees does not lead to their harm or to their relatives being attacked. Syrian prisoner exchanges, seen as critical to further confidence-building between the parties, were identified as a priority at last week’s meeting between Vladimir Putin and Secretary of State John Kerry in Moscow. They were repeatedly raised at the Geneva peace talks last week, but with little sign of progress. The initial focus will be on women, children, and the injured. It is not clear how many pro-Assad troops have been detained by the opposition because of the difficulties of obtaining accurate figures for missing or imprisoned individuals. An Amnesty International report released in November found that at least 65,116 people had been “forcibly disappeared” since 2011. [Guardian, 3/28/2016]

Dozens killed in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast
A local elected official was killed in southeastern Turkey on Monday after a weekend of violence that also claimed the lives of almost 30 militants and soldiers, according to security sources. Ibrahim Inco, the village leader in Sarioren in Sanliurfa province, was shot after suspected Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants hijacked his car, the sources said. They were fleeing after detonating an explosive targeting a military vehicle. Three soldiers were hurt in the explosion. The military said 25 PKK militants were killed in the towns of Nusaybin, Sirnak, and Yuksekova in clashes over the weekend. [Reuters, 3/28/2016]

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


Iraqi Prime Minister has until Thursday to reshuffle cabinet as Sadr joins sit-in inside Green Zone
Iraqi Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr entered Baghdad’s Green Zone, the heavily-fortified center of the capital housing government buildings and embassies, on Sunday to keep up pressure on the government to enact reforms. Sadr is urging Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to move ahead with a plan announced more than six weeks ago to replace current ministers with unaffiliated technocrats in a bid to tackle systemic political patronage that has abetted graft. Sadr reportedly met with Abadi on Sunday night and on Monday, Iraq’s parliament issued Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi a deadline of Thursday to present a new cabinet of technocrats in response of Sadr’s continued protests. “Parliament is the legitimate representative of the people and it declared that Thursday is the final deadline for the government to present a new ministerial line-up,” according to a statement from the speaker’s office. Sources in parliament have confirmed that 170 lawmakers out of 245 present voted in favor of the deadline. [Reuters, AFP, 3/28/2016]

Suicide bomber kills 31, wounds 71 south of Baghdad
A suicide attacker detonated an explosive belt in a park outside Baghdad on Friday, killing 26 people and wounding 71, said the security head in Babel province. ISIS claimed the blast in Iskandariya, a mixed Sunni and Shia town 25 miles south of the capital, at the end of an amateur soccer game, according to Amaq news agency, which is affiliated with the group. Many of the dead are young boys who were in a trophy ceremony, and the suicide bomber is also thought to be a teenager. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in Iraq for talks with the government, expressed his condolences to the families of the victims and urged Iraqi leaders to step up reconciliation efforts between Shias and Sunnis in order to defeat ISIS. The president of the world football federation FIFA, Gianni Infantino, also offered his condolences to those killed. “Around the world, football unites people. It is a very sad day, when people, going to a match together, become the victims of such violence,” Infantino said in a statement. [NYT, Reuters, BBC, 3/26/2016]

ISIS suicide attackers storm army base in Iraq
On Saturday, ten ISIS suicide attackers stormed Ain al-Assad military base in Anbar province and killed at least 18 soldiers. An Iraqi defense ministry spokesman said that eight of the suicide attackers were killed by soldiers, and the other two had managed to blow themselves up, though none of them were reportedly able to reach the facilities under the control of the US military. Ain al-Assad is one of the biggest army bases in Iraq and at least 300 US military advisers and trainers remain there to support Iraqi troops. [Al Jazeera, 3/27/2016]


Thousands of Yemenis mark a year of war, denounce Saudi-led offensive
Tens of thousands of Yemenis took to the streets of the capital Sanaa on Saturday to mark the first anniversary of the war between the Saudi-led coalition against Iran-allied fighters who had overthrown the government. The demonstration, one of the biggest in Yemen since mass protests in 2011 forced President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down, took place ahead of a ceasefire and UN-sponsored peace talks next month. Saleh made a rare appearance at the demonstration, his first since the war began, offering an olive branch to the Saudi-led coalition. “We extend a hand of peace, the peace of the brave, for the direct talks with the Saudi regime without a return to the (UN) Security Council, which is incapable of resolving anything,” Saleh told flag-waving supporters who also held up large posters of the former president. Later on Saturday, Houthi supporters also held a separate protest to mark the anniversary. “Today, all Yemenis, from all different sects, regardless of their political affiliations, came out today in mass to show the world that the Yemeni people can never be shaken nor defeated,” said Houthi leader Ibrahim al-Ubaidi. [Reuters, 3/26/2016]

Suspected US air strikes in Yemen kill 14 militants
Air raids killed 14 men suspected of belonging to al-Qaeda in southern Yemen on Sunday in one of the largest US-led assaults on the group since the civil war broke out a year ago. The air strikes took place as fresh signs emerged that tensions were easing between the Iran-allied Houthis and Saudi-led forces after a year of fighting that has killed more than 6,200 people. Residents in southern Yemen said an aircraft bombed buildings used by al-Qaeda in the southern coastal Abyan province and destroyed a government intelligence headquarters building in the provincial capital Zinjibar that the militants had captured and were using as a base. Medics said six people were killed. [Reuters, 3/28/2016]

Saudi-led alliance confirms Yemen prisoner swap
The Saudi-led military coalition on Monday said it had completed a prisoner swap in Yemen, exchanging nine Saudi prisoners for 109 Yemeni nationals ahead of a planned truce and peace talks aimed at ending the year-long war with Houthi rebels. The statement did not say which group the deal was made with, but the Iran-allied Houthi movement said on Sunday it had exchanged prisoners with its enemy Riyadh, as a first step towards ending a humanitarian crisis prompted by the conflict. Saudi Arabia received its nationals on Sunday, the coalition statement published on Saudi Arabia’s state news agency SPA said. The alliance “hopes to begin a truce in conflict areas of the Republic of Yemen,” it added. Yemeni media said that the nine men were soldiers. The released Yemenis had been detained during operations in Yemen. [Reuters, 3/28/2016]

Saudis most concerned about online government surveillance
Saudi nationals are the most concerned about online government surveillance in the Middle East and North Africa region, new research has found. The survey by Northwestern University in Qatar, which polled nationals in Egypt, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the UAE, found that 43 percent of Saudis are worried about governments checking what they do online. That compares with 32 percent in Qatar, 29 percent in Tunisia, 26 percent in Lebanon and 22 percent in the United Arab Emirates. 52 percent of respondents in Saudi Arabia, 45 percent in Tunisia, 36 percent in the UAE, and 35 percent each in Lebanon and Qatar also admitted worrying about companies monitoring their online activity. “In many Western countries, more respondents to these same questions say they are concerned about online government surveillance,” said assistant professor of the Journalism Program at Northwestern University in Qatar Justin Martin. “Regional respondents, however, report the opposite: more express concern about online corporate surveillance than monitoring by governments.” [Gulf Business, 3/28/2016]

Saudi reporter jailed for five years for insulting rulers
Saudi Arabia sentenced a journalist to five years in jail for insulting the kingdom’s rulers and “inciting public opinion” on Twitter, Amnesty International said on Sunday. Amnesty described the sentencing of Alaa Brinji on Thursday as “a clear violation of international law” and said it showed intolerance of the right to peaceful expression. Officials at Saudi Arabia’s Justice Ministry could not be reached for comment over the weekend. The sentencing against Brinji, who worked for Saudi Arabian newspapers al-Bilad, Okaz, and al-Sharq, came after a guilty verdict on March 24. Amnesty said the court had also found Brinji guilty of ridiculing Islamic religious figures and of making accusations against “security officers of killing protestors in Awamiya,” an area in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. [Reuters, 3/27/2016]


Egypt launches program to increase growth, bring in aid, investment
Egypt unveiled a long-awaited economic program on Sunday that aims to reduce the budget deficit, protect the poor, and increase foreign aid and investment. Prime Minister Sherif Ismail said the government would target 5-6 percent economic growth and a budget deficit below 10 percent by the end of fiscal year 2017/18. The plan also calls for the adoption of a value-added tax and the sale of stakes in government companies. Ismail said the government would also push ahead with reforms to Egypt’s subsidies program, but did not provide specific details. “It is up to us to take several hard decisions that have long been delayed, (but) any economic steps will be accompanied by the requisite social protections,” Ismail said. “The ‎status quo is indefensible and we cannot go back to previous conditions. We all have to ‎live up to the expectations of all Egyptians,” he said. Egypt’s parliament has 30 days to vote on whether to approve the government’s policy agenda. No date has been set for the vote. [Reuters, Bloomberg, Ahram Online, Aswat Mariya, 3/27/2016]

Egypt attracts foreign investment after pound devaluation
Governor of the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) Tarek Amer said Saturday that Egypt attracted foreign investment worth $500 million in treasury bills after devaluing the pound. Amer also said that the CBE pumped $22 billion into the banking system to clear goods piled at ports. “There is no currency crisis, there is merely a crisis in managing the foreign exchange market, and we will roll out an alternative plan for managing the market in the next three months,” Amer said. Regarding the devaluation of the pound, he said, “The decision wasn’t a devaluation, it was correcting the situation and we had planned for it in advance.” Amer said he expects at least $5 billion in portfolio investments within the next four months. Foreign direct investment from China alone could reach $30 billion in the next two years, he added. Amer also announced that Egypt will pay back $1.8 billion owed to Qatar and the Paris Club nations in July. [Reuters, Bloomberg, 3/26/2016]

World Bank to extend $100 million loan to Jordan
Jordan will receive a $100 million loan to help create 100,000 jobs for Syrian refugees and its own citizens, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said Sunday. Kim’s announcement followed the introduction of a $100 million in financing for Lebanon to ensure universal school enrollment for Lebanese and Syrian refugee children by 2017. Kim said the aid for Jordan and Lebanon comes from a special fund normally reserved for the poorest countries. “We are taking money from that fund and giving it to a middle income country because Jordan has taken such extraordinary measures [in hosting refugees].” Kim did not say how soon the 100,000 jobs could be created and how many of them would go to refugees. [AP, Petra, 3/27/2016]

UAE banks agree “mini insolvency law” to help struggling SMEs
Banks in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will suspend legal action against small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) struggling to repay debt for up to three months to prevent a surge in defaults that may jeopardize the economy. The initiative, through which businesses will work with lenders to restructure their loans, is intended to give more space to SMEs to maneuver. “What we have put on the table is a mini insolvency law,” said Chairman of the UAE Banks Federation Abdul Aziz al-Ghurair. The plan will be open to companies that have borrowed 50 million dirhams or more from a number of banks and are showing signs of financial stress. The federation will coordinate requests from companies with the lending banks to produce an agreement ensuring that no lender will take preemptive action for a period up to 90 days. The lenders will then agree how to manage or restructure the borrower’s debt. [Reuters, 3/28/2016]

Turkey eyes over $1 bln investment promise from US companies
Turkey will seek an investment of over $1 billion from US companies during President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s official trip to the United States, the head of Turkey’s Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEIK) Omer Cihad Vardan said. Erdogan will arrive on March 29 for a four-day visit. He is expected to meet with CEOs from the 25 largest US companies at a gathering organized by DEIK, the Turkish Prime Ministry’s Investment Support and Promotion Agency (IPSAT), and the US-Turkey Business Council. “We expect an investment promise of over $1 billion from that roundtable meeting,” DEİK Chairman Vardan said. ISPAT President Arda Ermut said potential US investors would meet Erdogan. “The energy, informatics, food, finance, and health sectors will be on the agenda,” he added. [Anadolu Agency, Daily Sabah, 3/27/2016]