Middle East Updates Ex-Syria Opposition Chief Says He Discussed Conflict With Moscow

U.S. think-tank: Iran may have violated nuclear deal with powers; Car bombs kill 12 people in Baghdad, Ramadi; Yemeni ruling party pulls president from top ranks.

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Iranian President Hassan Rohani speaking in Khorramabad on June 18, 2014.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani speaking in Khorramabad on June 18, 2014. Credit: AFP photo/HO/Iranian Presidency

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Latest updates:

8:10 P.M. Ex-Syrian opposition chief says he discussed conflict with Moscow

The former head of Syria's main political opposition said he had visited Russia with other opposition figures and had discussed ways to end the conflict with Damascus's ally Moscow, but had insisted that President Bashar al-Assad must go.

Moaz Alkhatib, the former head of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, said on Twitter on Saturday that they had met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other Russian officials.

"At the invitation of Russia, Syrian opposition figures and I visited and talked about a political solution and its mechanisms," he wrote in a tweet.

"We mentioned to the Russians that our country cannot heal while the head of the regime, who is the No.1 responsible for bloodshed and devastation, remains. We cannot accept his role in the future of Syria," he wrote in a second tweet.

Although he no longer leads the main opposition in exile, Alkhatib is a respected figure seen by diplomats as someone who could play a part in a future political solution for Syria, where the conflict is in its fourth year.

Attempts to reach Alkhatib were unsuccessful and the Russian Foreign Ministry was not immediately available for comment.

Lebanese media reported on Saturday that Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon's minority Druze community and head of the Progressive Socialist Party, was also at the meeting, which took place late last week. Jumblatt wrote on Twitter that he was in Moscow and posted photos of his trip.

Jumblatt has also called for Assad to step down in order for Syria to reach a solution to the civil war, which has occasionally spilled over into its smaller neighbour Lebanon and stirred communal and political tensions.

Details on the Moscow meeting come at the same time as the start of a visit by the United Nations Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura to Damascus on Saturday.

Syrian media have said he will meet government officials to discuss ideas on implementing local ceasefire agreements. De Mistura visited Moscow last month. (Reuters)

7:45 P.M. U.S. airstrikes target gathering of ISIS leaders in Iraq

U.S.-led air strikes have targeted a gathering of Islamic State leaders in Iraq in a town near the Syrian border, possibly including the group's top commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Al-Hadath television channel said on Saturday. (Reuters)

2:32 P.M. Car bombs kill 12 people in Baghdad, Ramadi

Car bombs killed 12 people in the Iraqi capital and the city of Ramadi to the west on Saturday, police and medical sources said.

Two car bombs exploded in separate attacks in Baghdad's mainly Shi'ite Amil district, said a police source.

"A driver parked his car and went to a cigarette stall then he disappeared. Then his car blew up, killing passersby," said the police source, describing one of the attacks. (Reuters)

2:21 P.M. Yemeni ruling party pulls president from top ranks

Yemen's ruling political party, still headed by the country's former leader Ali Abdullah Saleh, has removed the country's sitting president from its top ranks.

The General People's Congress party is split between supporters of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and those backing Saleh. Saleh was forced to step down in 2012 following months-long protests against him, but remained at the helm of the party and a major power broker in the country.

The party didn't explain its decision Saturday to remove Hadi. It appeared to be a reaction to what Saleh supporters said was Hadi's support for United Nations sanctions imposed Friday against Saleh and two allied military commanders over allegedly threatening the peace, security and stability of the country. (AP)

12:33 P.M. U.S. think-tank: Iran may have violated nuclear deal with powers

A U.S. think-tank said Iran may have violated last year's interim nuclear agreement with six world powers by stepping up efforts to develop a machine that could enrich uranium much faster.

The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), which closely tracks Iran's nuclear program, cited a finding in a new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about Iran.

The confidential document, issued to IAEA member states on Friday, said Iran since the UN agency's previous report in September had "intermittently" been feeding natural uranium gas into a single so-called IR-5 centrifuge at a research facility.

The IR-5 is one of several new models that Iran has been seeking to develop to replace the erratic, 1970s vintage IR-1 centrifuge that it now uses to produce refined uranium.

But unlike other advanced models under development - IR2m, IR-4 and IR-6 - at a research site at its Natanz enrichment plant, Iran had until now not fed the IR-5 with uranium gas.

"Iran may have violated (the interim deal) by starting to feed (natural uranium gas) into one of its advanced centrifuges, namely the IR-5 centrifuge," ISIS said in an analysis of the IAEA report. "Under the interim deal, this centrifuge should not have been fed with (gas) as reported in this safeguards report." (Reuters)

11:04 A.M. Yemen's former president shrugs off UN sanctions

Former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh warned that international sanctions against him and his allies would complicate the country's political crisis, his party said Saturday.

The UN Security Council late Friday ordered an asset freeze and a global travel ban on Saleh and two commanders in his allied rebel Shiite Houthi movement. The council accused them of destabilizing the country.

"Imposing sanctions on any Yemeni will constitute a setback for efforts to end Yemen's dilemma," Saleh told his backers Friday in the capital, Sana'a, according to the website of his party, the General People's Congress (GPC). (DPA)

11:00 A.M. Kerry: Iran talks independent of other Middle East issues

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Saturday that there was no link between talks on Iran's nuclear program and other issues in the Middle East.

The United States has already rejected a proposal floated by Iranian officials in which Tehran would cooperate in the fight against Islamic State forces in exchange for flexibility on its nuclear program.

"No conversation, no agreement, no exchange, nothing, has created any kind of deal or agreement with respect to any of the events that are at stake in the Middle East," Kerry told reporters in Beijing. "There is no linkage whatsoever of the nuclear discussions with any other issue, and I want to make that absolutely clear. The nuclear negotiations are on their own." (Reuters) Read full story

9:42 A.M. Iran's uranium stockpile grows before deadline for nuclear deal

Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium gas has grown by 8 percent to nearly 8.4 tonnes in about two months, UN atomic inspectors say, an amount world powers probably will want to see cut under any nuclear deal with Tehran.

The International Atomic Energy Agency issued a confidential report on Iran to IAEA member states on Friday, less than three weeks before a Nov. 24 deadline for Iran and six world powers to resolve their stand-off over Tehran's atomic activities.

Iran and the six states will meet in Vienna from Nov. 18 to try to seal a long-term agreement to end a dispute that over the last decade has often raised fears of a new Middle East war. (Reuters)

3:02 A.M. Yemen announces lineup of its new cabinet

Yemen's state-run TV on Friday announced the lineup of the country's new Cabinet following a UN-brokered deal with Shiite rebels who had overrun the capital of Sanaa and plunged the country into another crisis.

The Houthi rebels captured Sanaa in September, allegedly with the tacit support of the country's former president and demanded that President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi appoint a new government, complaining the previous one was too close to their rival conservative Sunni Islamist party.

After weeks of violence and political wrangling, during which a UN-brokered deal was reached, Khaled Bahah was nominated for prime minister and tasked with forming a new government. But a dispute over who would form the cabinet continued until last Saturday, when all Yemeni parties and political groups agreed on an apolitical technocrat cabinet. (AP)

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