Archive for January, 2014

Iraq, Iran plot to challenge Saudi domination of OPEC

Baghdad (UPI)

Jan 29, 2013

Hussein Shahristani, Iraq’s energy chief, says Baghdad is working with Iran to boost oil exports, a move by these two Shiite-majority powers that could lead to a major challenge of Sunni Saudi Arabia and its domination of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

Shahristani, Iraq’s deputy prime minister for energy, told a conference Tuesday at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, a London think tank: “We feel the world needs to be assured of fuel for economic growth.”

The Daily Telegraph of London reported he disclosed Iraq is collaborating with Iran, its traditional Arab enemy until the Americans toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, to help it attract investment ahead of the possible lifting of U.S.-led sanctions as Tehran moves toward detente with the West.

International oil companies are reported to be lining up to secure big contracts with Iran to rebuild its long-underfunded energy industry, an endeavor that could cost as much as $200 billion.

“Iran has been in touch with us,” Shahristani said. “They want to share our contracts model and experience” in opening up to international oil companies for investment, expertise and access to advanced technology as Iraq has done since 2003.

Iraq, heavily dependent on its oil exports, currently produces about 3 million barrels per day, with exports of about 2.2 million bpd.

Shahristani, who as oil minister was the architect of Iraq’s drive to rebuild its dilapidated energy industry following Saddam’s ouster, says Baghdad aims to triple production to 9 million bpd by 2020.

That’s a step down from its earlier target of 10 million to 12 million bpd by 2017, a level energy insiders dismissed as wildly ambitious and beyond Iraq’s capabilities.

But even the scaled-down target is considered beyond reach within the stated time frame, and for the same reasons: bureaucratic bungling, infrastructure delays and a worsening security crisis.

On the Iranian side, Tehran appears to be moving toward a resolution with the United States and its allies related to its contentious nuclear program, which would lead to the easing and possible lifting of sanctions that have crippled Iran’s oil production.

But its energy industry has long been in poor shape and is in dire need of massive investment that will have to come from foreign oil companies, a process that will likely take years to have an impact.

Iran has seen its oil exports cut in half because of sanctions, falling from 2.5 million bpd in June 2011 to 1.2 million bpd in September 2013, the International Energy Agency in Paris reports.

That has cost Tehran an estimated $80 billion in oil revenues since 2012. Now it wants to get back to its pre-sanctions level of 4.2 million bpd, and then boost that to 6 million bpd.

At OPEC’s annual meeting in December, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh, called on Riyadh, which has been making billions by covering the loss of Iranian and Libyan production over the last couple of years, to cut back its production to accommodate Tehran.

Saudi Arabia, which is engaged in a potentially explosive intelligence war with Iran, is unlikely to help the Islamic republic willingly. It’s been producing a record 10 million bpd, well above its long-observed level of 8 million bpd.

As the only swing producer, this has enhanced its control of the purse strings on global oil prices and so, all things considered, it’s not expected to relinquish that without a struggle, particularly as it will have to contend with growing U.S. shale oil production, now running at an estimated 8 million bpd.

The shale challenge aside, the U.S. global security consultancy Stratfor observes that “in the long term, Iran and Iraq’s production is the key issue” in OPEC remaining a cohesive force in the global energy industry.

“Should Iran and Iraq together boost production to a reasonable achievable level of 11 million bpd by 2020 that would represent an increase of 5 million to 6 million bpd above present levels,” it said.

“OPEC’s export quotas have already been a source of tension among its members, but producers have always found ways to skirt around them. That may no longer be possible.”

Source: Energy-Daily.


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Oman orders NASAMS air defense system

Tewksbury, Mass. (UPI)
Jan 27, 2014

An advanced surface-to-air missile system developed by Raytheon and Norway’s Kongsberg Defense Systems is being purchased by the Sultanate of Oman.

The purchase order — a direct sales contract — is valued at $1.28 billion and includes provisions for the supply of ground support equipment, training and technical assistance, Raytheon reported.

“The Sultanate of Oman’s competitive selection of Raytheon’s National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System validates the superior performance, system adaptability and overall security that NASAMS provides,” said Dan Crowley, president of Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems. “Raytheon is committed to delivering the exceptional defense capabilities of NASAMS to Oman.”

NASAMS is a modular, networked ground-based medium to long-range air defense system for AIM 120 AMRAAM missiles. It works with the Patriot Air and Missile Defense System and the Hawk Air Defense system and is used by Norway, the Netherlands, Spain and Finland. It is also deployed by the U.S. military in the National Capital Region.

A NASAM system consists of missile launchers, radars, a fire control center and a tactical control vehicle.

Raytheon said work on supplying the system to Oman will be conducted by Raytheon at its Integrated Air Defense Center in Andover, Mass., and in Kongsberg, Norway.

Kongsberg is a sub-contractor of NASAMS elements to Raytheon. Its work on the Oman project is worth more than $440 million.

“The cooperation with Raytheon has over the years developed into a close and strong partnership with a large potential market for our air defense solutions,” said Walter Qvam, chief executive officer of Kongsberg. “This agreement with Oman is the single largest supply contract in Kongsberg’s history and is strong evidence of NASAMS’ international position.

Added Harald Annestad, president in Kongsberg Defense Systems: “NASAMS is the most sold air defense system in its class in the last 10 years. Its modularity and open architecture enable a continuous evolution in performance to meet the latest threats.”

The contract for the system was signed at a ceremony attended by Mohammed bin Nasser al-Rasbi, secretary general at the Omani Ministry of Defense, Air Vice Marshal Matar bin Ali al-Obaidani, commander of the Royal Air Force of Oman, and others.

Neither the number of systems ordered by Oman nor their schedule for delivery have been announced.

The original NASAMS program by Raytheon and Kongsberg began as a joint effort on behalf of the Royal Norwegian Air Force. It became officially operational in 1998.

Raytheon, in announcing the contract with Oman late last week, said it was awarded in the fourth quarter of last year.

Source: Space Mart.

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Bahraini police, protesters clash after funeral

MANAMA Sun Jan 26, 2014

(Reuters) – Bahraini police firing teargas and birdshot clashed with stone-throwing protesters in a village west of the capital on Sunday after the funeral of a young man who died in custody, witnesses said.

The tiny Gulf Arab island monarchy, a U.S. ally, has suffered unrest since mass protests led by majority Shi’ite Muslims erupted in early 2011 demanding reforms and a bigger share of power in the Sunni-led government.

Sunday’s violence following the death of 20-year-old Fadhel Abbas threatened to sour a new attempt to restart negotiations between Bahrain’s government, led by the ruling al-Khalifa family, and opposition groups.

Police said Abbas was detained on January 8 on suspicion of smuggling weapons and explosives and died late on Saturday.

The force’s statement, released on Sunday, said he was shot in a car while attempting to run over police who were trying to arrest him. Another person in the vehicle was in police custody, it added.

Hundreds of people attended his funeral in the village of Diraz on Sunday, said witnesses.

Afterwards, protesters blocked roads and set fire to debris in the streets, while security forces tried to break up the crowd. There were no initial reports of injuries.

The main opposition, Wefaq, said Abbas’ family had been prevented from visiting him in hospital – a report the government denied. Wefaq distributed photographs of his body appearing to show a large injury on the back of his head.

Last week, Bahrain’s crown prince restarted stalled talks with the opposition by meeting Wefaq’s leader Sheikh Ali Salman.

He also appointed a delegate from the ruling family to attend the dialogue, and agreed on a list of topics for discussion.

The last round of reconciliation talks was suspended last year with the government accusing Wefaq of secretly backing violent attacks on police, and the opposition accusing the authorities of cracking down on its members.

Bahrain is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet.

(Reporting by Farishta Saeed; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Sami Aboudi)

Source: Reuters.

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On charm offensive, Iran leader sets lofty goals

January 23, 2014

DAVOS, Switzerland (AP) — In a charm offensive to the global political and business elite, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani set lofty ambitions for his country, including becoming one of the world’s top 10 economies.

The first Iranian leader in a decade to visit the World Economic Forum, Rouhani took top billing Thursday at the World Economic Forum, drawing crowds to hear a speech in which he promised greater engagement with the world.

Touting the potential investment opportunities of the oil-rich land to the business tycoons in the audience, Rouhani said his country could, with the gradual easing of sanctions, enjoy an economic boom.

And Tehran, he said, is committed to honoring a deal to curb its nuclear program in the hope that will lead to a permanent lifting of economic sanctions, which have battered the Iranian economy over recent years.

“I see the status of Iran pursuing policies of moderation, prudence and hope in the future global economy,” said Rouhani. “Iran’s economy has so far the potential to be among the world’s top 10 in the next three decades.”

For 2012, the International Monetary Fund judged Iran to be the 21st biggest economy in the world in terms of annual economic income, or nominal gross domestic product. To get into the top 10 it would have to leapfrog the likes of Switzerland, Turkey and Spain.

Rouhani’s attendance was eagerly awaited as it coincided with the lifting of some of the sanctions, as well as the country’s exclusion from Syrian peace talks being held just a few hours’ drive away. The forum, which brings together about 2,500 political and business leaders, was the perfect stage for Rouhani to deliver a diplomatic message while seeking to engage with potential investors.

And in an attempt to soften concerns that sanctions will remain a feature of life for Iran, Rouhani emphasized that Tehran will abide by the terms of a deal with world powers to limit its nuclear program. The two sides will try to make the deal permanent over the next six months.

“We intend to reopen trade, industrial and economic relations, with all of our neighbors,” Rouhani said. Iran, he claimed, is “fully prepared and ready to engage with all neighboring countries” to reach solutions on issues including business ventures, environmental concerns, Palestinian rights, Persian Gulf security and Syria’s humanitarian crisis.

Iran has huge riches at its disposal, particularly oil and gas, the work force is skilled and the country has untapped potential for tourism. But the country has largely been cut off from international business since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The sanctions, which have grown in recent years in response to Iran’s nuclear program, have hit the economy hard.

“Rapprochement with the West will help stabilize Iran’s economy,” said Bryan Plamondon, senior economist at IHS. Rouhani said he hopes Iran’s historical deep economic ties with Europe will be normalized and suggested that negotiations with the U.S. could pave the way to better relations. He reiterated that Iran has no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons but has the right to continue pursuing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

In a sign of the normalization of relations, the International Monetary Fund is sending a mission to Tehran in two days — for the first time in years — for an in-depth review of the economy. “I am very pleased we can reset the relationship on a sound footing,” Christine Lagarde said in a discussion in Davos.

She said she met Rouhani at the United Nations General Assembly in New York last year and found him to be “a sensible policymaker, one that is well-versed in economic matters, who seems to be very much aware of the challenges, who has ambition for a reset of Iran vis-a-vis the rest of the world.”

One leader who was not taken in by Rouhani was Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who told the forum in a speech of his own that Iran remains a concern across the region, not just for Israel.

“They say they oppose nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said. “Why do they insist on maintaining the ballistic missiles and the plutonium, and the advanced centrifuges that are only used for the production of nuclear weapons?

“I wish it was real. It isn’t real,” he said. Netanyahu has been a fierce critic of the U.S.-led efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program, saying they don’t go far enough to put the brakes on a country that supports Hezbollah, the militant group that has been vying with Israel for control of the region’s power balance.

The Israeli leader also blamed Iran for being involved in the violence in Syria. “Iran, with the Revolutionary Guards, on the ground in Syria, is facilitating the mass slaughter,” Netanyahu said, referring to Iran’s elite military unit.

Rouhani suggested that “the best solution is to organize free and fair elections.” Iran’s Shiite-led government and financial support is central to President Bashar Assad’s grip on power. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be another a point of focus of talks at Davos, particularly for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was also at the event, fresh from the Syrian peace conference in the nearby cities of Montreux and Geneva.

Both sides resumed peace talks in July under heavy American pressure, the first time they had done so in almost five years. There have been virtually no signs of progress, however. Kerry is working to get a framework deal in April.

Adam P. Pemble contributed to this report.

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Iran says 20% uranium enrichment suspended

Tehran (AFP)
Jan 20, 2014

Iran on Monday suspended the production of 20 percent uranium enrichment in the presence of UN nuclear watchdog inspectors, a senior official announced.

“In line with the implementation of the Geneva joint plan of action, Iran suspended the production of 20 percent enriched uranium in the presence of UN nuclear watchdog inspectors at Natanz and Fordo sites,” Mohammad Amiri, director general for safeguards at Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, told the official IRNA news agency.

“The connections between the twin cascades at Natanz and Fordo for 20 percent production have been disconnected,” Amiri said.

“The process of diluting and turning the 196-kilogram (430-pound) stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium into oxide has also started,” he added.

Amiri warned the P5+1 powers — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China plus Germany — that Iran would reverse these steps if the other parties do not keep their end of the bargain.

The UN atomic watchdog has confirmed that Iran’s partial nuclear freeze began on Monday as planned, diplomats told AFP.

“It’s all fine, all their requirements have been fulfilled,” one envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency said in Vienna, in comments echoed by other diplomats.

The diplomats said that an IAEA report had been sent to member states confirming the start of the freeze.

The IAEA declined to comment.

Under the terms of the November 24 deal, Iran has pledged to limit uranium enrichment to low purities for a period of six months, convert its medium-enriched uranium and not make further advances at its nuclear facilities.

In exchange Western powers will slightly loosen crippling sanctions in a package worth between $6-7, according to the White House, including $4.2 billion in frozen overseas foreign exchange assets in eight installments starting February 1.

During the six months, Iran and the P5+1 powers — the US, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany — are due to hammer out a long-term “comprehensive accord” aimed at ending once and for all the standoff over Iran’s nuclear work.

This six-month period can however be extended by mutual agreement. According to the November 24 interim deal, the parties aim to conclude negotiating and begin implementing it within a year.

Source: Space War.

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Iran prepares for start of landmark nuclear deal

January 20, 2014

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Ahead of the start of a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, an official in the Islamic Republic called limiting uranium enrichment and diluting its stockpile the country’s “most important commitments,” state radio reported Sunday.

The comments by Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman of Iran’s atomic department, show how the government of moderate President Hassan Rouhani welcomes the deal, which begins Monday. International inspectors also already have arrived in Tehran, preparing for the government opening its facilities to them.

“Implementation of mutual commitments in the framework of the Geneva deal will begin from tomorrow,” Kamalvandi said. “Under the agreement, suspension of 20-percent enrichment of uranium — and the diluting of the current stockpile of enriched uranium — are the most important commitments of our country.”

Iran struck the deal in November with the so-called P5+1 countries — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States. Negotiators agreed to final terms of the deal Jan. 13. Under the agreement, Iran will limit its uranium enrichment to 5 percent — the grade commonly used to power reactors. The deal also commits Iran to stop producing 20 percent enriched uranium — which is only a technical step away from weapons-grade material — and to neutralize its 20 percent stockpile over the six months.

In exchange, economic sanctions Iran faces would be eased for six months. Senior officials in U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration have put the total relief figure at some $7 billion. During the six months, negotiations between Iran and the world powers would continue in hopes of reaching a permanent deal.

The West fears Iran’s nuclear program could allow it to build an atomic weapon. Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, like power generation and medical research. On Saturday a team of international inspectors arrived in Tehran in preparation of beginning their inspections. They will visit Fordo, where Iran enriches its 20 percent uranium, as well as its Natanz facility, which produces 5 percent enriched uranium, to ensure the country complies with the deal.

Kamalvandi said Sunday that Iran will use centrifuges now producing 20 percent enriched uranium to instead produce 5 percent enriched uranium to comply with the agreement. But suspicions remain high in both Tehran and Washington after decades of hostility dating back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran that ousted the U.S.-backed shah dynasty. Rouhani, Iran’s new reformist president, has reached out to the West, but must depend on support from Iran’s top decision-maker, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for his initiatives amid criticism from hard-line factions.

Hard-liners in Iran have already called the deal a “poison chalice” and are threatening legislation to increase uranium enrichment. Meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers have threatened to pass new sanctions legislation against Iran that would take effect if Tehran violates the interim nuclear deal or lets it expire without a follow-up accord.

Writing a post on his Facebook page Sunday, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reassured the world that the deal will begin on time. “I am hopeful that implementation of the first phase will have positive results for the country and peace and stability in the region and the world while preparing the ground for essential talks on a final solution,” Zarif wrote.

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Al-Qaida asks Iraqis in embattled city for support

January 16, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Members of al-Qaida’s branch in Iraq handed out pamphlets in Fallujah on Thursday, urging people to take up arms and back them in their weekslong fight against government troops for control of the city.

While the militants battled Iraqi security forces in and around Fallujah and Ramadi, police outside the capital, Baghdad, found the bullet-riddled bodies of 14 Sunni men who had been abducted from a funeral by gunmen wearing military uniforms. It was a grim reminder of similar slayings at the height of the war about six years ago.

Iraqi forces and allied Sunni tribesmen have been fighting to recapture key territories overrun by al-Qaida militants in the country’s Sunni-dominated Anbar province, including its two main cities, Fallujah and parts of the provincial capital, Ramadi, which are west Baghdad.

Violence has escalated in Iraq over the past year, particularly since late last month after authorities dismantled an anti-government Sunni protest camp and arrested a Sunni lawmaker on terrorism charges. To alleviate the tension, the army pulled back from the two cities, but that allowed al-Qaida militants to seize control.

Speaking to The Associated Press by telephone, Fallujah residents said al-Qaida militants distributed pamphlets with the emblem of their group — the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — at main city intersections Wednesday and Thursday.

The pamphlets called on Fallujah residents to join the fight, give money or open their homes as shelters, the residents said. They spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for their safety. Another pamphlet announced that al-Qaida would form a Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice that would look into the disputes among residents of Fallujah, 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of Baghdad.

Clashes between the militants security forces continued in two Fallujah neighborhoods from late Wednesday to early Thursday, the residents said. A medical official said the city hospital received the bodies of seven men killed in the fighting and that 13 were wounded. He was unable to provide a breakdown of how many of the dead were militants and how many might have been civilians caught up in the clashes.

Elsewhere in the province, Iraqi state television said security forces and allied tribal fighters clashed with militants inside and around Ramadi on Thursday, retaking several areas captured earlier by al-Qaida fighters. No more details were given.

Two senior military officials said that one soldier was killed and three others were wounded by sniper fire during a clash in the village of al-Bubali, between Fallujah and Ramadi. The officials said that the militants have booby-trapped some houses in the village to slow the advance of the army troops.

In a particularly grisly discovery Thursday, police found the bullet-riddled bodies of 14 men — including nine from the same family — in an orchard near the Sunni-dominated town of Mishahda. Authorities said gunmen wearing military uniforms kidnapped the men from a funeral Wednesday night. It wasn’t clear who rounded up and killed the men.

In Baghdad’s eastern suburb of Nahrawan, a bomb exploded in an outdoor market, killing three civilians and wounding six, a police officer said. Another bomb went off in a commercial area of Baghdad’s western Ghazaliyah neighborhood, killing two civilians and wounding nine, he said.

All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to journalists.

Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.

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A nervous calm grips Fallujah, but clashes nearby

January 11, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Residents started to trickle back to the besieged city of Fallujah on Friday as militants and government forces both appear to be preparing for a long standoff. Al-Qaida-linked fighters and tribal gunmen are camped on the outskirts of the city, with Iraqi army and police stationed nearby.

A tense calm has settled over the city, although sporadic street fighting rattled Ramadi and surrounding areas in Sunni-dominated Anbar province, a vast desert region west of Baghdad that was once a major battleground for U.S. troops.

The extremist militants, emboldened by fellow fighters’ gains in the civil war in neighboring Syria, have tried to position themselves as the champions of Iraqi Sunnis angry at the Shiite-led government over what they see as efforts to marginalize them.

Violence spiked after the Dec. 28 arrest of a Sunni lawmaker sought on terrorism charges and the government’s dismantling of a year-old Sunni protest camp in Ramadi, the provincial capital, and Iraqi police were forced to retreat from the city centers as black masked gunmen overtook Fallujah and parts of Ramadi last week, burning down police stations and posting guards outside strategic areas.

Iraqi troops have taken up positions in and around both cities but have not launched major urban offensives, fearing that likely civilian casualties could incite Sunni anger and push moderate tribal leaders to side with the extremists.

Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari told The Associated Press on Friday that the government’s patience would not last forever. “If there is no other solution, then the security forces and allied tribal fighters will enter these cities,” al-Askari said.

Clashes broke out again Friday, this time between Iraqi special forces and militants in the village of al-Bubali, between Fallujah and Ramadi. Roadside bombs planted around the village damaged several army vehicles, a police officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. There was no immediate word on casualties.

Central areas of Fallujah, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad, have been calm in recent days, according to accounts from residents and international observers. That could be an indication that at least some al-Qaida fighters heeded a call by influential tribal leaders earlier in the week to pull out of town or face confrontations not only with the army but also with fellow armed Sunnis who want the outsiders gone.

Many of the al-Qaida fighters and some armed local tribesmen who want to keep government forces out are now stationed in largely unpopulated areas on the outskirts of Fallujah, overlooking approaches to the city from the main highway that connects Baghdad with Syria and Jordan.

But other anti-government gunmen, their faces hidden by scarves, remain on the streets of the city in an intimidating show of force meant to prevent Iraqi forces from militarily retaking the city and deter would-be bank robbers and other looters.

Some residents have started to return to Fallujah, often only briefly to check that their houses are safe. Markets have begun to reopen as well, restoring some sense of normalcy to the city. But the situation remains tense, with many police stations abandoned after they were torched by militants and health care facilities running short on supplies.

“The government services and medical situation in Fallujah is very bad because of the absence of civil servants and policemen. The tribal gunmen are in control of the city,” said Dhari al-Arsan, deputy governor of Anbar, who lives in Fallujah.

International observers have warned of shortages of food, fuel and other necessities, particularly in Fallujah. United Nations records show that more than 11,000 families have been uprooted by the fighting throughout Anbar.

The U.N. envoy to Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, described the situation in Fallujah as “very, very fluid” and said the city remains under the control of various armed groups. “Restoring order to Fallujah, pushing the terrorist elements out of the cities, delivering humanitarian aid: these would be the immediate priorities,” he said in an interview.

He praised the level of cooperation at both the national and local level in finding a way out of the crisis. “The U.N. is getting very good cooperation with the government, the local authorities and the tribes,” he said.

Pawel Krzysiek, a Baghdad-based spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the “humanitarian situation is still dire” in Fallujah, though not as dramatically so as during the peak of the fighting. The Red Cross has managed to deliver some emergency supplies in Anbar but needs greater access from all sides to ensure aid gets through, he said.

On Friday evening the U.N. Security Council held a public meeting to read out a statement condemning the Ramadi and Fallujah attacks by an al-Qaida affiliate, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, and praised Iraqi security forces, local police and tribes in Anbar combating them.

“The Security Council reiterates that no terrorist act can reverse the path towards peace, democracy and reconstruction in Iraq,” it said. Determining exactly who all the gunmen are and where their loyalties lie remains a challenge. It is in many ways a parallel to the various factions of Sunni fighters among the rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.

In addition to the al-Qaida fighters who overran Fallujah and Ramadi last week, many of whom do not hail from the cities, local anti-government tribesmen have taken up arms. Some but perhaps not all claim to oppose al-Qaida’s extremist ideology.

Other armed tribesman are firmly opposed to al-Qaida’s presence in the area. Among them are members of the Sahwa, a government-supported militia that joined the U.S.-led fight against al-Qaida insurgents during in the years following the 2003 invasion and is widely credited with helping beat back al-Qaida in the past. In many cases, those tribesmen may have family links with the anti-government local militiamen and for now appear to be avoiding clashing with them.

“The situation is so complicated because you’ve got the tribal groups who are allied with the government … and other groups … against the government who are fighting Iraqi government forces and al-Qaida,” said Erin Evers, a Mideast researcher for Human Rights Watch, which has been monitoring the fighting by speaking with residents in the affected areas. “We don’t have a clear enough picture or even clear casualty figures. People who are ending up in the hospital, we don’t know who killed them.”

Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha, a powerful Anbar tribal leader who heads the Sahwa, told the AP on Friday that he believes he has enough fighters and weapons, some supplied by the Iraqi army, to confront the al-Qaida militants.

He alleged that some of the militants have been using civilians as human shields, making his men reluctant to try to confront them head-on because of concerns about civilian casualties. The situation in Ramadi remains more volatile. Burned-out armored vehicles and police cars line the highway where an anti-government protest camp stood until it was demolished by government forces in late December.

Scattered clashes continue to erupt in different parts of the city, including a number of gunbattles that broke out late Thursday and again on Friday, according to local and international officials. The risk of violence has persuaded residents to shelter indoors at night.

“Ramadi turns into a ghost town after sunset,” al-Arsan said.

Schreck reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Associated Press writer Peter James Spielmann contributed reporting from the United Nations.

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Iraq: Fighters urged to go as supplies run short

January 09, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Tribal leaders in the besieged city of Fallujah warned al-Qaida-linked fighters to leave to avoid a military showdown, echoing a call by Iraq’s prime minister Wednesday that they give up their fight as the government pushes to regain control of mainly Sunni areas west of Baghdad.

The warning came as gunmen attacked an Iraqi army barracks in a Sunni area north of Baghdad, killing 12 soldiers. Seven soldiers were wounded in the assault in Diyala province, authorities said. The United Nations and the Red Cross, meanwhile, said Fallujah and nearby areas are facing mounting humanitarian concerns as food and water supplies start to run out.

Sectarian tensions have been on the rise for months in Sunni-dominated Anbar province as minority Sunnis protested what they perceive as discrimination and random arrests by the Shiite-led government. Violence spiked after the Dec. 28 arrest of a Sunni lawmaker sought on terrorism charges and the government’s dismantling of a year-old anti-government Sunni protest camp in the provincial capital of Ramadi.

Last week, al-Qaida-linked gunmen seized control of Ramadi and nearby Fallujah, cities that were among the bloodiest battlefields for U.S. forces during the Iraq war. The militants overran police stations and military posts, freed prisoners and set up their own checkpoints.

The United States and Iran have offered material help for the Iraqi government but say they won’t send in troops. Speaking in his weekly television address, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hinted of a possible pardon for supporters of al-Qaida’s local branch, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, if they abandon the fight.

“The war that is being fought by the Iraqi security forces, tribes and all segments of Iraqi society against al-Qaida and its affiliates is a sacred war,” he said. “I call on those who were lured to be part of the terrorism machine led by al-Qaida to return to reason.”

In exchange, he promised that his government will “open a new page to settle their cases so that they won’t be fuel for the war that is led by al-Qaida.” Iraq’s government has rushed additional troops and military equipment to Anbar and has been carrying out airstrikes in an effort to dislodge the militants.

Skirmishes between Iraqi forces and militants broke out on the outskirts of Fallujah and Ramadi again Wednesday, according to witnesses, and militants blew up a small bridge on the edge of Ramadi, officials in Anbar said. There was no immediate report of casualties.

At least four crew members were killed when a military helicopter crashed in Anbar, according to army and government officials in the province and state TV. The officials said the cause was poor weather conditions in the area and there was no indication militants brought it down. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to release the information.

Influential tribal leaders have been meeting to try to find a way out of the crisis and demanded that al-Qaida members holed up in Fallujah get out of town, said provincial spokesman Dhari al-Rishawi.

“They agreed on expelling ISIL from Fallujah. The told them to withdraw … or face an attack by the tribes and the army,” he said. That message was echoed over mosque loudspeakers late Tuesday, which also called on fleeing families to come back.

Al-Rishawi and residents reached by phone in Fallujah said at least some of the militants had left the city, which is about 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad. It was not clear how many had gone, or whether they were taking up new positions in different parts of the city.

“We, the residents and the tribes, don’t want al-Qaida in the city. We don’t want to see the same violence we saw when the Americans were here,” said Ayad al-Halbosi, a 22-year-old teacher in Fallujah.

Markets in the city began reopening Wednesday and some families returned to their homes, though residents complained of shortages of fuel and cooking gas. Civilian cars and trucks were seen on the road and traffic policemen were on the streets.

The militant gains in Anbar are posing the most serious challenge to the Shiite-led government since American forces withdrew in late 2011 after years of bitter warfare following the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime and propelled the formerly repressed Shiite majority to power.

Vice President Joe Biden spoke to al-Maliki for the second time this week, voicing support Wednesday for the Baghdad government’s effort to regain control of Fallujah. The White House said Biden encouraged al-Maliki to continue talks with local, tribal and national leaders and said Biden welcomed al-Maliki’s affirmation that Iraqi elections will occur as scheduled in April.

The U.N. envoy to Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, warned that the humanitarian situation in Anbar is likely to worsen as military operations continue. Food and water supplies in Fallujah are beginning to run out, and more than 5,000 families have fled to neighboring provinces to escape the fighting, he said.

“The U.N. agencies are working to identify the needs of the population and prepare medical supplies, food and non-food items for distribution if safe passage can be ensured,” Mladenov said in a statement.

The International Committee of the Red Cross also voiced concerns about the growing risks to Anbar residents, particularly in Fallujah. Patrick Youssef, head of the Red Cross delegation in Iraq, warned that ongoing power outages and dwindling medical supplies could leave health care facilities unable to provide proper care.

“We are ready to deliver more life-saving supplies and other humanitarian aid immediately to the areas hardest hit,” Youssef said. “But we need to be given easier access and the necessary security guarantees.”

Tensions have been simmering in Iraq since December 2012, when the Sunni community staged protests to denounce what they say is second-class treatment by al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government. Al-Qaida militants, emboldened by the civil war in neighboring Syria, have sought to position themselves as the Sunnis’ champions against the government, though major Sunni tribes in Anbar and elsewhere oppose the group’s extremist ideology and are fighting against it.

Schreck reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin contributed reporting.

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Attacks in Iraq kill 4 as siege in Anbar continues

January 07, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Officials say attacks in Iraq have killed at least four people as government troops continue their siege of two cities overrun by al-Qaida in western Anbar province.

Maj. Raid Emad Rasheed says a suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden truck into a police station in the northern city of Kirkuk, killing two people there and wounding 55, some critically. A police officer says a roadside bomb struck an army patrol southeast of Baghdad, in the Madain area, killing one soldier and wounding another.

The officer says another bomb hit a patrol of pro-government, Sunni militiamen in Baghdad’s southeastern suburb of Jisr Diyala, killing one fighter and wounding four. A medical official confirmed the casualty figures. Both spoke on condition of anonymity as they are not authorized to talk to media.

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