Middle East Updates EU Says Iran Nuclear Talks in 'Critical Phase'

At least 38 killed in attacks on Baghdad; Britain sends armed drones to help fight Islamic State in Iraq; Islamic State retreats from parts of Kobani amid U.S. air strikes; Malaysia arrests 14, including main Islamic State recruiters

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Residents wait to receive food aid distributed by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) at the besieged al-Yarmouk camp, south of Damascus on January 31, 2014.
Residents wait to receive food aid distributed by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) at the besieged al-Yarmouk camp, south of Damascus on January 31, 2014.Credit: Reuters
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Haaretz

Haaretz's latest Middle East analyses and opinions: Turkey’s radicalism poses opportunities for Israel (Sefi Rachlevsky) | Sissi's speech burst Netanyahu and Lieberman's bubble (Haaretz Editorial) | The adolescent phase of Islam (David Barzilai)

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Latest updates:

00:20 A.M. Iran, Russia hold joint naval exercise

Iran's state television says two Russian warships have left a northern Iranian port after the two countries held a joint, three-day naval exercise in the Caspian Sea.

Thursday's report on the TV's website quoted Iranian Adm. Afshin Rezaei Haddad, who is Iran's navy commander in the Caspian Sea, as saying that the Russian vessels departed from the northern Iranian port of Anzali on Wednesday. No further details were given.

It was the first visit in decades by a Russian fleet to an Iranian port in the Caspian Sea. In recent years Iran's navy has increased its bilateral relations with various countries, including China and Pakistan.

Last year, a Russian naval group docked in the southern Iranian port of Bandar Abbas on the way home from a Pacific Ocean voyage. (AP)

11:34 P.M. U.S. hold talks with Syrian Kurds

A U.S. State Department official held direct talks for the first time over the weekend with the main Syrian Kurdish political party as the United States builds a coalition against Islamic State militants, a State Department official said on Thursday. (Reuters)

10:20 P.M. EU says Iran nuclear talks in "critical phase", experts to meet soon

Efforts to reach a deal over Iran's nuclear programme are in a "critical phase" ahead of a late November deadline for an agreement to end the decade-old dispute, an EU spokesman said on Thursday after high-level negotiations in Vienna.

"We are trying hard to make progress and remain fully engaged to achieve a comprehensive solution" by the Nov. 24 deadline, said Michael Mann, spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

The talks in the Austrian capital included a six-hour meeting on Wednesday between Ashton, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Ashton coordinates talks with Iran on behalf of six world powers, including the United States.

Experts would meet in the coming days to continue technical work on the issue, said Mann. "Diplomatic efforts to find a resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue are now in a critical phase," his statement read. (Reuters)

9:30 P.M. U.S. holds first direct talks with Syrian Kurdish party

A U.S. State Department official held direct talks for the first time over the weekend with the main Syrian Kurdish political party as the United States builds a coalition against Islamic State militants, a State Department official said on Thursday.

"We have for some time had conversations through intermediaries with the PYD (Kurdish Democratic Union Party). We have engaged over the course of just last weekend with the PYD," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a briefing.

Psaki said the meeting involved a State Department official and took place outside the region.

The PYD has close ties to the PKK, a Turkish Kurdish party that waged a militant campaign for Kurdish rights and has threatened to abandon a peace process with Turkey in response to the current attack on the Syrian town of Kobani by Islamic State militants.

The PKK is considered a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and the United States.

Turkish warplanes were reported on Tuesday to have attacked Kurdish rebel targets in southeast Turkey after the army said it had been attacked by the PKK, risking reigniting a three-decade conflict that killed 40,000 people before a cease-fire was declared two years ago. (Reuters)

8:46 P.M. Red Cross delivers first medical aid in a year to Palestinians in Syria

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Thursday it had delivered its first medical supplies in a year to Palestinian refugees living in a camp in the Damascus suburb of Yarmouk in Syria.

Around 20,000 people are believed to be living in Yarmouk, once home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and Syrian nationals, where food and water supplies are now scarce. The camp is caught between Syrian government forces and opposition forces including the Nusra Front.

The supplies included enough medicines to treat chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease for 5,000 people for three months as well as items to help pregnant women deliver babies more safely and hygienically, the aid agency said.

"This is the first time in over a year that we have been able to deliver aid to the people in the camp, we hope to do more," Daphnée Maret, the deputy head of the ICRC delegation in Syria, who oversaw the operation, said in a statement.

"We remain extremely concerned about the hardships being endured by the people living there, in particular the limited access to food, water and health care." (Reuters)

5:37 P.M. Russia plays down cooperation with U.S. against Islamic State

Russia played down comments by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday over sharing intelligence about Islamic State militants, saying Moscow refuses to be involved in coalitions that breach "international law".

Without denying that cooperation existed, a statement from the Foreign Ministry said clarification was needed on reports that Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had agreed on intelligence sharing.

Kerry, speaking after meeting Lavrov in Paris earlier this week, said the United States and Russia had agreed to "intensify intelligence cooperation with respect to ISIL and other counterterrorism challenges of the region."

The Russian ministry said Moscow already has been providing help to Syria and Iraq in their fight against "terrorism".

"Russia will continue those efforts but will not get involved in 'coalitions', which are being created in circumvention of the UN Security Council and are in breach of international law," the ministry said in a statement. (Reuters)

5:12 P.M. U.S. says it conducts 14 air strikes against Islamic State near Kobani

U.S. military fighter and bomber planes carried out 14 air strikes against Islamic State targets near the Syrian border town of Kobani on Wednesday and Thursday, the U.S. military's Central Command said.

The air strikes appear to have slowed the militant group's advances, but "the security situation on the ground in Kobani remains tenuous," it said in a statement on Thursday. (Reuters)

4:24 P.M. Attacks in Baghdad kill at least 38 people

Militants unleashed a wave of attacks on Thursday targeting Shiite areas in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, killing at least 38 people and wounding dozens, officials said.

The deadliest attack took place when two parked car-bombs exploded simultaneously in a commercial area in the northern Dolaie neighborhood, killing 14 civilians and wounding 34 others, a police officer said.

In the eastern neighborhood of Talibiyah, a suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden car into a police check point, killing at least 12 people, another police officer said. The dead in that attack included seven policemen and five civilians, he added. At least 28 other people were wounded.

Six other civilians were killed and 16 wounded in another car bomb explosion on a commercial street in the northern Hurriyah district, police said.

And in the northern Shula neighborhood, six civilians were killed and 18 wounded when mortar rounds rained down on a residential area, police added.

Medical officials confirmed the causality figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release information to the media.

The heavily guarded capital has been under nearly daily attacks by Sunni militants who have overrun vast areas in western and northern Iraq (as well as neighboring Syria) since early this year. The Islamic State group, an al-Qaida breakaway group, and other Sunni militant groups have vowed to destabilize and eventually take over Baghdad.

Thursday's explosions have brought the death toll from attacks since Sunday to at least 150 people, mostly in Baghdad, according to an Associated Press tally. No group has taken credit for Thursday's attacks. (Reuters)

4:00 P.M. Baghdad: Suicide attack kills at least 12 people

A suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden car into a police check point Thursday in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, killing at least 12 people, officials said.

The dead included seven policemen and five civilians, a police officer said. At least 28 other people were wounded.

The attack took place in the largely Shiite eastern neighborhood of Talibiyah. A medical official confirmed the causality figures. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release information to the media.

The heavily guarded capital has been under nearly daily attacks by Sunni militants who have overrun vast areas in western and northern Iraq (as well as neighboring Syria) since early this year. The Islamic State group, an al-Qaida breakaway group, and other Sunni militant groups have vowed to destabilize and eventually take over Baghdad. (AP)

2:31 P.M. Britain sends armed drones to Iraq to help fight Islamic State

Britain said on Thursday it was sending armed drones to Iraq to help it fight Islamic State militants and support British Tornado aircraft already conducting air strikes.

Britain is part of an international coalition, led by the United States and including Middle-Eastern partners, which is trying to counter the advance of IS fighters who have seized large amounts of territory in Iraq and Syria.

The "Reaper" drones, built by privately owned U.S. firm General Atomics, were being re-deployed from Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said in a written statement to parliament.

"As the U.K.'s only armed remotely piloted aircraft, Reaper will add to the strike capability we are already providing," Fallon said.

Their use would be bound by the existing rules of engagement, he added, meaning that their operations would only take place in Iraq.

1:49 P.M. Massive fire erupts at Cairo power plant

A top civil defense official says a massive fire has erupted at a power plant in northern Cairo, requiring 20 fire trucks to put it out.

Police Maj. Gen. Gamal Halawa said by telephone that Thursday's fire is now under control. The fire, he says, was caused by an explosion at a generator unit.

Officials at the power station say the fire was caused by a "technical failure" and that an investigation into the incident was underway. They do not suspect foul play.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.

Egypt has been beset by power outages that grew more frequent during the summer. Authorities say the outages are caused by poor maintenance and sabotage by supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi.

1:17 P.M. German man arrested over link to Nusra Front

German prosecutors say a German man who spent nearly a year in Syria has been arrested on suspicion of membership in an Al-Qaida branch there, the Nusra Front.

Federal prosecutors said the 27-year-old, identified only as Soufiane K. in line with German privacy rules, was arrested in Frankfurt on Wednesday.

They said Thursday that he traveled from his hometown of Ruesselsheim, near Frankfurt, to Syria in July last year and had joined the Nusra Front by September 2013. He's accused of undergoing battle training and carrying out guard duty with the group, as well as acquiring a Kalashnikov rifle and a machine gun.

Prosecutors say the man returned to Germany in June. He faces possible charges of membership in a foreign terrorist organization.

1:01 P.M. Morroco accuses father of bringing daughters to Islamic State

Morocco's government says a father has been detained as he tried to take his two small daughters to join the Islamic State group.

The group has been recruiting women and families as it seeks to create a state in Syria and Iraq. Morocco has been a large source of recruits for extremist groups.

The Moroccan state news agency MAP, quoting an Interior Ministry statement, reported Thursday that the Moroccan man was detained at the Casablanca airport on Wednesday with a 2-year-old and 4-year-old, both French citizens. Their French mother was not with them, it said.

The ministry statement said the man and the children were heading to Turkey to join the Islamic State group. Turkey is a major transit point for those joining the group in neighboring Syria.

12:44 P.M. Syrian Kurdish official calls on international community to allow weapons into Kobani for fight against Islamic State

A Syrian Kurdish official is calling on the international community to allow weapons into the border town of Kobani for the fight against Islamic State militants.

Idriss Nassan, deputy head of Kobani's foreign relations committee, says the Islamic State group can bring in reinforcements and weapons at any time and endanger the town near Turkey. He said airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition are not enough.

Nassan's comments on Thursday came a day after the Pentagon spokesman said Kobani remains in danger of falling to the Islamic State fighters.

Kirby said two weeks of airstrikes have killed hundreds of Islamic State fighters, and have stiffened Kobani's defenders. (AP)

12:15 P.M. Islamic State retreats from parts of Kobani amid U.S. air strikes

The Islamic State militia was retreating Thursday from areas of western Kobani, a key Kurdish town on the border with Turkey, as the jihadists faced a combination of coalition airstrikes and attacks by Kurdish fighters.

But US officials have warned Kobani, where fighting against the Islamic State group has been ongoing for a month, could still be overrun by the jihadists.

"It's important for people to understand: Kobani could still fall," Admiral John Kirby, Pentagon spokesman, said on Wednesday.

Kirby said it was not a strategic imperative to save the city but that the Islamic State continued to send fighters to Kobani, giving the coalition more opportunities to strike at the group. Nearly 40 airstrikes have been carried out this week.

Kurdish official say they are running low on ammunition, weapons, food and medical supplies.

"All essential supplies like bandages, antibiotics, anesthesia are running out," Idriss Nassan, an official in the Kurdish administration in Kobani, told dpa. (DPA)

11:55 A.M. Pakistan air strikes kill at least 21 militants in country's northwest

Pakistani fighter jets pounded suspected hideouts of Islamist militants in the country's north-west on Thursday, killing at least 21 insurgents, the army said.

Renewed air strikes come against the backdrop of a broader military offensive in the lawless North Waziristan region on the Afghan border, where the Pakistani army has been battling to contain the insurgency since June.

This week's fighting concentrated around the remote Tirah valley in the region known as the Khyber agency, where militants and their al Qaeda backers from across the mountainous area have been holed up since the start of the operation.

The army's press wing said in a statement that 21 suspected militants were killed and five "hideouts" were destroyed, but gave no details.

"The militants had established sanctuaries in Sepah and Akakhel and used to target security forces and local tribespeople," said one security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, in a reference to areas of the Khyber region.

Another security official said the dead belonged to Lashkar-e-Islam, an outlawed militant group active in the region.

The group was behind Wednesday's suicide attack on government-backed militia near the Afghan border in which seven people were killed, the official added.

The army maintains that it conducts air strikes only in response to militant attacks and never targets civilian areas. Reporting in those areas is restricted and the army's version of events could not be verified independently. (Reuters)

10:45 A.M. Senior ally of Merkel leaves open possibility of arming Kurdish PKK party

A senior ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel has left open the possibility of arming the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) as part of efforts to defeat Islamic State (IS) militants.

Germany is sending weapons to Kurds in northern Iraq but Merkel has previously ruled out supporting the PKK, which has spent decades fighting for autonomy for Turkey's Kurds and is listed as a terrorist organisation by the European Union and the United States.

Turkey, which has so far resisted pressure to join U.S.-led efforts to fight IS militants in northern Iraq and Syria, would oppose such a move.

"I know the problems that Turkey has with the PKK but to sit back and watch as IS takes important border towns and develops increasingly into a threat for global security cannot be the solution," Volker Kauder, the leader of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) in parliament, told Spiegel Online.

"I do not rule out supporting other groups. But this would have to be done with Turkey, not against it. That also applies to support for the PKK," Kauder added. (Reuters)

10:23 A.M. Afghan intelligence arrests two alleged leaders of Taliban-linked network

Afghan intelligence agents arrested two alleged leaders of the Taliban-linked Haqqani network, officials said Thursday.

Anas Haqqani, step-brother of the movement's leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, was arrested with another senior military commander, Hafiz Rashid, said Haseeb Sediqqi, the spokesman for National Directorate of Security (NDS).

They were arrested in a special operation late Tuesday, he said.

An Interior Ministry official said they were caught in the eastern province of Khost, which borders with Pakistan's tribal areas.

7:21 A.M. Islamic State's main recruiters in Malaysia among 14 suspected militants arrested

Islamic State's main recruiters in Malaysia, who funded trips to Syria for converts and used Facebook to attract young supporters, were among the 14 suspected militants arrested earlier this week, Malaysian authorities said late on Wednesday.

The three Malaysians played individual roles to promote, recruit and finance trips to Syria, the police said in a statement.

The arrests on Monday and Tuesday included an assistant director from Malaysia's ministry of energy, green technology and water, whose task was to fund trips for recruits to enter Syria, and is linked to three wanted Abu Sayyaf militants.

Another key player in the operation is a 34-year-old who fought in Syria for four months before returning in April this year. The suspect's role was to guide, encourage and share experiences with aspiring militants, said police.

The third person, a 37-year-old, used a Facebook account to promote and upload propaganda material and recruited female university students to be sent to Syria.

11:52 P.M. Trinidad says 'several' citizens aid Islamic group

A government official in Trinidad and Tobago says several citizens from the two-island Caribbean nation have traveled overseas to help the Islamic State militant group.

Minister of National Security Gary Griffith says not all those aiding Islamic State are fighters. Some are providing financial and logistical support to the group fighting an international coalition in Syria and Iraq.

Griffith says the government learned from foreign intelligence agencies about the involvement by some of its citizens. He declined Wednesday to provide an exact number of those thought to be taking part but said officials are concerned about their return.

The country of 1.2 million people has a small Muslim minority. An Islamic militant group staged a violent coup attempt in 1990 after some members received training in Libya. (AP)

10:00 P.M. U.S. believes several hundred Islamic State fighters killed in Kobani strikes

The U.S. military believes it has killed several hundred Islamic State fighters in air strikes in and around the Syrian town of Kobani, a Pentagon spokesman said on Wednesday.

An increased number of air strikes around the embattled town by the U.S.-led coalition in recent days can be partly attributed to an increase in militant activity in the area, but despite the strikes, the city could still fall to Islamic State fighters, Rear Admiral John Kirby said at a news briefing in Washington. (Reuters)

9:22 P.M. U.S. special envoy for anti-Islamic State coalition says U.S. striking targets around Kobani for humanitarian purposes.

U.S. air strikes around the Syrian town of Kobani are designed to relieve defenders and to buy time to try to build up forces in Syria to combat Islamic State militants, retired U.S. General John Allen said on Wednesday.

"We are striking the targets around Kobani for humanitarian purposes. I'd be very reluctant to attempt to assign something, a term like 'a strategic target,' or 'a strategic outcome,'" Allen, the U.S. special envoy responsible for building the coalition against the Islamic State group, told reporters.

"Clearly ... given the circumstances associated with the defense of that town, there was a need for additional fire support to go in to try to relieve the defenders and to buy some white space, ultimately, for the reorganization on the ground," he added. "We have picked up the tempo and the intensity of the air strikes in order to provide that white space." (Reuters)

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