Quneitra, Aug. 31
In a picture taken from the Golan Heights August 31, smoke bellows from the Syrian village of Quneitra following an explosion during fighting between forces loyal to Assad and rebels. Photo by AFP
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Haaretz's latest analyses and opinions on the Middle East: The real threat from Islamic State isn't in the Middle East (Anshel Pfeffer); Enough hysteria about European jihadists (Khaled Diab).

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See Wednesday's Middle East Updates

Latest updates:

8:06 P.M. A car bomb killed 12 people and wounded 30 in Baghdad's mainly Shi'ite Muslim Kadhamiya neighbourhood on Thursday evening, police said. The explosion was the fourth attack in Shi'ite districts of the capital in two weeks. "Cars are set ablaze...this place has been targeted several times as it's very crowded," a policeman near the blast scene said. He said the bomb detonated near shops and restaurants. (Reuters)

5:14 P.M. Iran's central bank has received a total of $1 billion of previously frozen oil revenue from Japan under the terms of an extended nuclear agreement with six world powers, state news agency IRNA reported on Thursday.

Iran and the United States, China, France, Germany, Britain and Russia agreed in July to extend a six-month interim accord until Nov. 24 after they failed to meet a July 20 deadline for reaching a long-term deal to end their nuclear dispute. In return for continuing action to curb its nuclear programme, Iran would receive $2.8 billion during the four-month extension of its funds held in foreign banks, in addition to $4.2 billion paid during the January-July period.

U.S. officials say more than $100 billion of Iran's funds are held abroad and are difficult to access because of tightening sanctions on the major oil producer in recent years. The U.N. nuclear agency confirmed on Aug. 20 that Iran was moving to meet the requirements of the extended agreement, paving the way for some of the money to be released.

Citing the central bank's public relations office, IRNA said Japan made the payments in two instalments, and the funds were deposited at the central bank's settlement. (Reuters)  

4:47 P.M. A quarter of a million people have fled because of recent fighting and serious human rights violations in Libya, the UN human rights office said on Thursday in Geneva. At least 100,000 Libyans have become refugees in their own country, while 150,000 people - including many migrant workers - have left Libya, according to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In recent months Libya has experienced its worst violence since dictator Moamer Gaddafi was toppled in 2011. Rival militias have been battling each other, mainly in Tripoli and Benghazi. There is evidence that armed groups have resorted to indiscriminate shelling in those two cities, leaving at least 214 people dead, said the UN report, which covers the period between mid-May and late August. "Indiscriminate attacks constitute war crimes, as are attacks on civilians or civilian objects, such as airports," it said. (DPA)

4:06 P.M. Islamic State militants kidnapped 40 men from a town in Iraq's northern province of Kirkuk on Thursday, dragging the men into cars before driving off, residents said.

Residents of the Sunni Muslim town of Hawija said by telephone they did not know why the men had been taken, from a district on the edge of the town. They added that Islamic State, which controls Hawija, had not faced any resistance from its inhabitants.

Islamic State has seized hundreds of Iraqi and Syrian soldiers as well as members of other insurgent groups, journalists and civilians. Some have been sold for ransom and others have been killed. (Reuters) 

3:03 P.M. A Norwegian human rights group says two of its British employees have gone missing in Qatar while researching migrant worker issues in the Gulf nation that is due to host the 2022 World Cup.

The Global Network for Rights and Development said Thursday that researcher Krishna Upadhyaya and photographer Ghimire Gundev were supposed to leave Qatar on Sunday, and that their fate is unknown. The group earlier said the pair arrived in the Qatari capital of Doha on August 27 and disappeared after allegedly being harassed by police.

A British Embassy official speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government policy said the mission is aware of reports that two British nationals have been detained and is investigating the matter. Qatari officials could not immediately be reached for comment. (AP)

3:01 P.M. Israel hit a Syrian army position with a Tammuz missile Thursday afternoon, the Israel Defense Forces spokesman has confirmed, in response to mortar fire in the area of the Golan Heights. One of the mortars was found on the Israeli side of the border with Syria.

The army attacked "a Syrian army position in response to errant fire from internal Syrian fighting, next to the fence, which is transpiring in Syria," the IDF spokesman stated. The IDF confirmed a direct hit on the target, and added that the army views "the Syrian army responsible for any shooting into Israel.(Gili Cohen and Eli Ashkenazi) Read the full article

2:18 P.M. A United Nations report says four months of fighting by militias in Libya's two biggest cities, Tripoli and Benghazi, has forced some 250,000 people to flee, including 100,000 who have been internally displaced.

The report released Thursday by the U.N. Support Mission in Libya and the U.N. Human Rights Office estimated that some 150,000 people, including migrant workers, have fled the country. The report says a "climate of fear" has made citizens reluctant to speak about militia abuses.

The last four months have seen a renegade general battle Islamic militants in the eastern city of Benghazi -- cradle of the 2011 uprising that toppled Moammar Gadhafi -- and powerful regional militias fight for control of the international airport in Tripoli. Islamist-allied militias have seized virtually all of the capital. (AP)

1:47 P.M. Government forces and helicopters belonging to a Libyan renegade general bombed ammunition sites of suspected Islamist militants in the eastern city of Benghazi, a military commander and residents said.

Islamist forces have been trying to take the civilian and military airport from government forces in the port city, a confrontation forming part of a broader picture of anarchy in the North African country three years after the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi.

Western powers and Libya's neighbours fear the oil producer will turn into a failed state. A weak government is unable to control former rebels who helped topple Gaddafi but now fight each other for power.

Wanis Bukhamada, commander of army special forces in Benghazi, told Reuters his forces had attacked with artillery several ammunition stores in camps held by Islamists late on Wednesday.

Residents also heard helicopters and huge blasts lighting up the night sky in a Benghazi suburb. On Thursday war planes could be also heard. (Reuters)

1:20 P.M. Sirens sound in the Israeli side of the Golan Heights. Two shells fall in the Syrian side of the border. (Eli Ashkenazi)

12:44 P.M. NATO would seriously consider any Iraqi request for help in its fight against the militant Islamic State organization, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen says.

"I am sure that if the Iraqi government were to forward a request for NATO assistance, that would be considered seriously by NATO allies," he says on arrival in Newport, pointing to a possible resumption of training activities.

"I do believe the international community as a whole has an obligation to stop the Islamic State from advancing further." (DPA)

12:07 P.M. World powers and Iran will hold a new round of nuclear talks in New York on Sept. 18, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said on Wednesday.

Ashton's office added the New York talks will be preceded by bilateral meetings at the level of political directors.

"The E3/Iran bilateral will take place in Vienna on 11 September (at PD level)," said Michael Mann, spokesman for EU High Representative Catherine Ashton.

Iran and the United States began bilateral nuclear talks in Geneva on Thursday, the second time the two sides have met since Iran and six world powers failed to meet a July 20 deadline to resolve differences in the long-standing dispute. (Reuters)

10:32 A.M. Britain is considering providing arms and training to Kurdish forces to help its fight against Islamic insurgents, Prime Minister David Cameron said on Thursday.

Britain has so far carried out aid drops and surveillance and transported military supplies to Kurdish regional forces allied with the Baghdad central government.

Other European countries, including Germany, France and Italy have already agreed to send Kurdish forces a quantity of light weapons to use against the militants who have swept into northern Iraq.

"We're prepared to do more and we're considering actively whether to give them arms ourselves and whether we can more directly to train Kurdish militia, we're already playing a role there but we can do more," Cameron told ITV. (Reuters)

10:13 A.M. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), one of Washington's closest allies in the Middle East, has called for a "unified effort" to root out radical militancy in regional hotspots including Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Afghanistan.

In a statement issued on the eve of a Sept. 4-5 NATO summit in Wales which the UAE will attend as an observer, the foreign ministry said the Gulf Arab oil and business hub wanted cooperation and coordination against what it called the global scourge of terrorism, especially in Iraq and Syria.

"An international undertaking ought to apply to other regional countries as well, including Yemen, Somalia, Libya and Afghanistan, who also suffer from the radical ideology and incitement to violence emanating from the Islamic State and Al-QaIda," said the statement, issued late on Wednesday.

It did not specify the kind of action that could be taken but said a clear strategy was necessary.

"It is important that this strategy does not stop with Iraq and Syria, but seeks to tackle the phenomenon of terrorism wherever it arises. Only through such a unified effort will it be possible to combat terrorist groups and put a stop to their violence," it said. (Reuters)

4:30 A.M. The United States is open to a new UN resolution on Gaza - but only if it contributes to sustaining the Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire, U.S. envoy to the United Nations Samantha Power said Wednesday.

A resolution must "do no harm" to the cease-fire that has been holding in recent days and Israeli-Palestinian talks that are scheduled to resume in Cairo, and should "play a positive role in supporting a durable solution," Power told reporters.

"Nothing underscores the urgency of securing ... a negotiated two-state solution like the crisis in Gaza and the heartbreak that so many people on both sides suffered throughout that crisis," she said.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior figure in the Palestine Liberation Organization, told a news conference here Tuesday that the Palestinians are demanding a commitment to the 1967 borders and a deadline for the end of Israel's occupation, adding when pressed that "within three years, the occupation should end."

She also criticized the failed U.S. peace initiative by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, saying it allowed Israel "to persist in policies" that she characterized as unilateral and abusive.