Middle East Updates Iraq Says ISIS Attempting to Sell Artifacts After Destroying Priceless Antiquities

ISIS attacks Samarra ahead of Iraqi army offensive; UN condemns ISIS's 'barbaric terrorist acts' in Iraq; White House 'hopeful' on coalition for Iran nuclear talks amid Netanyahu visit.

Men use sledgehammers on a toppled statue in a museum at a location said to be Mosul in this still image taken from an undated video.
Men use sledgehammers on a toppled statue in a museum at a location said to be Mosul in this still image taken from an undated video.Credit: Reuters

For Saturday's updates click here.

8:20 P.M. Pakistan arrests Iranian Sunni rebel leader

Authorities in southwestern Pakistan arrested a leader of a banned Iranian rebel group on Saturday as he was travelling on a bus from the lawless border area, security officials said.

It was not clear whether Pakistan would hand over Salam Rigi, a leader of the ethnic Baluch Sunni group Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice), to Shi'ite-run Iran.

Rigi was seized by Pakistani authorities who were tipped off to his movements and intercepted the bus some 50 km from Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan, one security official said on condition of anonymity.

A second security official confirmed the arrest, saying Rigi offered no resistance.

Rigi is accused of involvement in suicide bombings in Iran and Pakistan, as well as sending fighters to the conflicts in Iraq and Syria.

He is the cousin of the movement's late leader Abdolmalek Rigi, who was hanged by Iran in 2010, and had taken over many of his relative's leadership roles.

Jaish al-Adl, a Sunni Muslim rebel group, operates in predominantly Shi'ite Muslim Iran's Sistan-Baluchistan province, which borders Pakistan.

The impoverished border area has been a hotbed of rebellion and is also rife with drug and arms traffickers. (Reuters)

7:40 P.M. Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao reiterated China's backing for the "just cause of the Palestinian people," and called for the resumption of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, China's official news agency Xinhua reported on Saturday.

Li made the remarks in a meeting with a delegation of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, (OIC) headed by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri. (Haaretz)

6:30 P.M. Iran, Yemen sign aviation deal

Yemen and Iran signed a civil aviation deal on Saturday, Yemeni state news agency SABA reported, a move that may reflect Tehran's support for the Shi'ite Muslim militia that now controls Sanaa.

The deal signed in Tehran by the aviation authorities of both countries allows Yemen and Iran each to fly up to 14 flights a week in both directions, SABA said. The websites of the Iranian and Yemeni national airlines indicated there were currently no flights between the two.

The Shi'ite Muslim Houthi militia seized Yemen's capital in September, which eventually led President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee this month to the port city of Aden where he is seeking to set up a rival power center.

Sunni countries in the Gulf fear that events in Yemen show Shi'ite power Iran asserting its influence, something Tehran denies.

U.S. officials have also expressed concern that the rule of the resolutely anti-American Houthis will harm their counter-terrorism efforts in a country that has one of the most active branches of the Sunni Islamist militant group Al Qaida. (Reuters)

4:30 P.M. Egypt sentences 5 Muslim Brotherhood leaders to life in jail

An Egyptian court sentenced five leaders of the banned Muslim Brotherhood group to life in prison on Saturday over violence at their headquarters in 2013 and issued death sentences for four others.

The case stems from clashes in a Cairo suburb on June 30, 2013, four days before the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, that killed 11 people and wounded 91. The men faced charges including murder and possessing firearms. The verdict can be appealed.

Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie and his deputy Khairat al-Shater were among those sentenced to life, along with former lawmaker Mohammed el-Beltagy and party head Saad el-Katatni and his deputy, Essam el-Erian. Nine others also received life in prison. Badie already has been sentenced to death in another case.

Inside the defendants' cage, the men held up four fingers in a gesture symbolizing their opposition to the military-backed government. Newspaper al-Masry al-Youm reported that Badie shouted at one point: "Down with all military judges, ... down with (President Abdel-Fattah) el-Sissi."

Some 22,000 people have been arrested since Morsi's ouster, including most of the Brotherhood's leaders, as well as non-Islamist activists swept up by police during protests. (AP)

3:20 P.M. Car bombs kill 27 north of Baghdad

Car bombs targeting a crowded market and Shiite militia checkpoints north of Iraq's capital killed 27 people Saturday, authorities said, as the country's prime minister vowed to punish Islamic State militants who smashed ancient artifacts in a northern city.

The first bombs exploded near the market in the town of Balad Ruz, 70 kilometers (45 miles) northeast of Baghdad, killing 11 people and wounding 50, police and hospital officials said.

A suicide car bomber later attacked a checkpoint manned by Shiite militiamen near the city of Samarra, killing eight Shite fighters and wounding 15, authorities said.

Samarra and surrounding areas have been under constant attacks by the Islamic State group, which holds about a third of Iraq and neighboring Syria in its self-declared caliphate. Clashes between Iraqi security forces and Islamic State militants followed the attack around Samarra, 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad.

A second suicide bomber attacked another Shiite militia checkpoint just south of Samarra, killing eight fighters and wounding 16, police and hospital officials said. (AP)

2:30 P.M. Syrian army takes villages in south

Syrian government forces have taken control of villages in southern Syria, state media said on Saturday, part of a campaign they started this month against insurgents posing one of the biggest remaining threats to Damascus.

The large offensive is backed by the Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah and initially made swift progress before slowing. The gains, made on Friday and Saturday, mark a new push in the government campaign.

Syria's state news agency SANA said the village of Tal Al-Majda in Sweida province and Tal Antar in Deraa were taken. Both are near Jordan.

The south is the last notable foothold of the mainstream, non-jihadist opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, who has consolidated control over much of western Syria after almost four years of civil war. (AP)

1:27 P.M. Iraq says ISIS kept some artefacts to sell after destroying priceless antiquities

Islamic State militants who destroyed priceless antiquities from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul have kept some artefacts to sell, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Saturday, vowing to prevent the radical Islamists from smuggling them to market.

Responding to a video showing Islamic State fighters taking sledgehammers and power drills to sculptures and statues which date back nearly 3,000 years, Abadi also appealed for international support to thwart the "terrorist barbarians".

"We have information that Islamic State destroyed some (artefacts) and kept others for smuggling, and the smuggling operation is afoot," he told a news conference.

All the items were marked and recorded, he said, and Iraq would seek to track them down with international help.

"We will chase them with the world on our side. This is a serious call to the Security Council and the United Nations and all peace-loving states to chase them all," he said.

"Damn them and their hands for what they are doing."

The video, released on Thursday, showed men smashing up artefacts dating back to the 7th century BC Assyrian era, toppling statues from plinths, smashing them with a sledgehammer and breaking up a carving of a winged bull with a drill. (Reuters)

12:54 P.M. Bombings kill 19 people in Iraq

A series of car bombs on Saturday ripped through a crowded marketplace and a Shiite militia's checkpoint, killing a total of 19 people in separate attacks north of the Iraqi capital Baghdad, officials said, as the country's prime minister vowed to punish those who smashed ancient artifacts in a northern city.

Police said the first attack took place Saturday morning when a car bomb exploded near a busy market in the town of Balad Ruz. Minutes later, a second car bomb went off, targeting people who gathered to inspect the site of the first blast.

Balad Ruz is 70 kilometers (45 miles) northeast of Baghdad.

Police and hospital officials said 11 people were killed and 50 wounded.

Later on, a suicide bomber drove his explosive-laden car into a checkpoint manned by Shiite militiamen who are fighting Islamic State militants near the city of Samarra, killing eight Shite fighters and wounding 15 others.

Samarra and the surrounding areas have been under constant attacks by the Islamic State group, which captured large swaths of western and northern Iraq last summer. (AP)

10:10 A.M. ISIS fighters attack Samarra ahead of Iraqi army offensive

Islamic State suicide bombers and fighters struck targets on Saturday in the northern Iraqi city of Samarra, where security forces and their Shi'ite militia allies have been gathering for an offensive against the radical militants.

Security sources and residents said the attack on Samarra was launched at 5.30 am (0230 GMT) when two Islamic State suicide bombers blew up their cars in the northern area of Sur Shnas.

At the same time a man drove a Humvee rigged with explosives into the south of the city and detonated it, while Islamic State fighters attacked security forces to the west with sniper fire, mortars and rocket propelled grenades.

Thousands of troops and fighters from Shi'ite militias known as Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) have gathered around Samarra for a campaign to drive Islamic State out of nearby strongholds on the Tigris River, including the city of Tikrit 50 km (30 miles) to the north. (Reuters)

3:20 A.M. UN condemns ISIS's 'barbaric terrorist acts' in Iraq

The United Nations Security Council on Friday condemned what it described as the latest "barbaric terrorist acts" in Iraq by Islamic State militants, including the destruction of priceless religious and cultural artifacts.

A video published by the ultra-radical Islamist militant group Islamic State on Thursday showed men attacking ancient Assyrian statues and sculptures, some of them identified as antiquities from the 7th century BC, with sledgehammers and drills, saying they were symbols of idolatry.

"The members of the Security Council strongly condemned the ongoing barbaric terrorist acts in Iraq by ISIL (Islamic State)" the council said in a statement. It also reiterated that the group "must be defeated and that the intolerance, violence, and hatred it espouses must be stamped out."

Among the recent acts by Islamic State the 15-nation council cited were the abduction of 100 Sunni tribesmen from outside Tikrit, the immolation of 45 Iraqis and daily attacks targeting civilians in Baghdad.

It also condemned "the deliberate destruction of irreplaceable religious and cultural artifacts housed in the Mosul Museum and burning of thousands of books and rare manuscripts from the Mosul Library."

Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, has taken over large swaths of Iraq and Syria and has been accused of numerous human rights violations, including mass murder, beheadings, burning hostages alive and other atrocities.

Earlier this month the Security Council banned all trade in antiquities from war-torn Syria, threatened sanctions on anyone buying oil from Islamic State and al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front militants and urged states to stop kidnap ransom payments.

It is not clear how much money Islamic State has generate from sale of illicitly traded antiquities, but Security Council diplomats have said that it was significant.

The head of the UN culture, education and science agency UNESCO, Irina Bokova, also condemned the destruction of artifacts in the Mosul Museum.

"I condemn this as a deliberate attack against Iraq's millennial history and culture, and as an inflammatory incitement to violence and hatred," she said in a statement. (Reuters)


9:20 P.M. White House "hopeful" on coalition for Iran nuclear talks amid Netanyahu visit

The White House said on Friday the United States is hopeful that it can hold together the coalition of countries working toward an agreement with Iran on its nuclear capabilities.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the administration does not see Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's upcoming visit to Washington as bad for the negotiations.

Netanyahu is opposed to the nuclear talks with Iran and has been invited by Republicans who share his view to address Congress next week. (Reuters)

8:50 P.M. Iraqi-born cleric faces custody for praising Paris attack

An Iraqi-born cleric recently released from prison in Norway was jailed Friday for four weeks after praising the slaying of cartoonists at the satirical Charlie Hebdo paper in Paris that had lampooned Islam and other religions.

Najmaddin Faraj Ahmad, known as Mullah Krekar, was arrested Thursday in Oslo on preliminary charges of inciting to commit criminal offense, a day after giving an interview to Norwegian broadcaster NRK. He was also apprehended on preliminary charges for threating a Kurdish immigrant living in Norway in the same TV interview. Preliminary charges are one step short of formal charges.

"Whoever offends our religion and our honor, must understand that this is a conflict about life and death," Ahmad told NRK. "The cartoonist has become a fighting heathen whom it is permissible to kill."

Before Friday's ruling at the Oslo court, Ahmad said "I think only of my religion." He refused to comment on the TV interview. (AP)

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