Middle East Updates / Hundreds of French Citizens Fighting Alongside Islamist Militants

EU allows states to arm Iraqi Kurds; suicide bomber attacks checkpoint near new Iraqi PM's home; Obama praises 'promising step forward' in Iraq in addressing the needs of all Iraqis.

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Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.Credit: AFP

Haaretz's latest analyses on the Middle East: Change of Iraq guard: A new chance against Islamists (Zvi Bar'el) | Why the West intervenes in Iraq but not Syria (Zvi Bar'el) |  Islamic State draws heat from Israel - but not for long (Amos Harel) | Islamic State may spell demise for Iraq's beautiful minorities (Ilene Prusher) |  Erdogan’s victory in Turkey comes at a heavy price (Louis Fishman)

See Tuesday's Middle East Updates

7:05 P.M. EU foreign ministers are due Friday to discuss the conditions for supplying arms to the Kurdish troops fighting hardline Islamist State jihadists in northern Iraq, diplomats say, as the country remains subject to an EU arms embargo.

An exemption to the 2003 embargo allows the shipment of arms and related materials required by the Iraqi government. But it is unclear whether this provides the legal basis to directly supply the Kurdish authorities, or whether deliveries would have to go via Baghdad.

"How far is the EU going to go in support of the practical fight against the IS?" one European diplomat asked with a view to Friday's emergency talks in Brussels. He said, on condition of anonymity, that one option was to tweak the legal framework of the exemption.

Arms exports are a national competence, governed however by an EU code of conduct stipulating that member states must not breach arms embargoes, must respect human rights, and should take account of the local security situation, among other things.

Other considerations include the risk of military equipment falling into the wrong hands, as well as whether it could be misused for purposes other than fighting IS, the diplomat said. (DPA)

5:58 P.M. The Vatican is increasingly indicating support for military action in Iraq to protect Christians and other religious minorities from persecution by the Islamic State.

On Wednesday, the Vatican released a letter Pope Francis sent to the UN secretary-general renewing his appeal to the international community "to take action to end the humanitarian tragedy now underway."

The Vatican's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva went further on Sunday. "Maybe military action is necessary at this moment," Archbishop Silvano Tomasi said in an interview with Vatican Radio.

And the pope's ambassador to Baghdad, Archbishop Giorgio Lingua, has indicated support for U.S. airstrikes, telling Vatican Radio: "Unfortunately, the interventions are to repair a situation that perhaps could have been foreseen."

In his letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, dated Saturday, Francis urged UN agencies to come to the aid of religious minorities forced out of their homes.
While not overtly supporting the use of force, Francis has been stepping up his denunciation of the attacks against Christians and religious minorities.

"The violent attacks that are sweeping across northern Iraq cannot but awaken the consciences of all men and women of goodwill to concrete acts of solidarity," he wrote.

Francis has also sent a personal envoy, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, to provide the victims with emergency funding and to meet with Iraqi and Kurdish leaders.

4:30 P.M. France's top security official says nearly 900 French citizens have gone to Middle East battlegrounds and some have joined the Islamic State group.

Despite efforts to discourage French people from joining militant groups, the figures given Wednesday by Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve show the numbers of French youth leaving continue to grow.

"There are today nearly 900 from France who are part of this phenomenon, either in the theater of operations in Syria or in Iraq. There are presumably some in Iraq because the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which recruited them, takes them to all the places where it is engaged in combat," Cazeneuve told France Info radio.

Security officials fear European militants will ultimately turn their skills against their homelands. (AP)

2:12 P.M. Egypt's deposed President Hosni Mubarak has denied that he ordered protesters killed during an uprising in 2011, in his first lengthy speech to a court as his year-old retrial draws to an end.

The 86-year-old Mubarak was speaking from a gurney inside a cage that holds defendants on Wednesday, listing the achievements of his 29-year rule. He says he gave up power voluntarily in 2011 for Egypt to avert an "abyss."

Wearing a blue suit, he said: "Mohammed Hosni Mubarak would never order the killing of protesters ... or shedding the blood of Egyptians."

Mubarak is serving a three-year sentence in a separate corruption case. He was found guilty in June 2012 and sentenced to life imprisonment but won a retrial, which began in April 2013.(Reuters)

2:07 P.M. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei lent his support to new Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abadi on Wednesday, the clearest sign yet that Tehran was no longer standing by old ally Nuri al-Maliki.

"I hope the designation of the new prime minister in Iraq will untie the knot and lead to the establishment of a new government and teach a good lesson to those who aim for sedition in Iraq," Khamenei said during a meeting, according to a statement on his website.

Abadi has won swift endorsements from the United States and Iran as he called on political leaders to end feuds that have allowed Islamist militants to seize a third of Iraq. But Maliki said on Wednesday that Abadi's appointment to replace him violated the constitution and "had no value." (Reuters)

1:55 P.M. Prime Minister David Cameron has cut short his holiday in Portugal and returned to Britain to attend a meeting of the government's emergency Cobra committee on the conflict in Iraq, Downing Street says. (DPA)

1:42 P.M. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton ready to call special foreign ministers' meeting on Iraq as early as this week. (Reuters)

1:34 P.M. At least five people were killed and families were forced from their homes when rockets hit neighbourhoods in western Tripoli during clashes between rival armed factions, officials and witnesses said on Wednesday. (Reuters) 

1:33 P.M. Turkey's crisis management agency says a New York Times reporter who was injured in a helicopter crash in northern Iraq has been brought to Turkey for treatment.

An Iraqi military helicopter providing aid to people stranded on a mountain fleeing Sunni militants crashed on Tuesday, killing the pilot and injuring several people on board, including Alissa J. Rubin who was inside the helicopter for a story.

The New York Times said on its website that Rubin suffered an apparent concussion and broken wrists in the crash.

The Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management agency said Wednesday Rubin and photographer Adam Ferguson — who was also on board but uninjured — were transported to the Turkish border and then flown to Istanbul where she would receive treatment. (AP)

1:32 P.M. Pope Francis renewed his appeal on Wednesday for international action to stop suffering among religious minorities in war-torn northern Iraq, calling for help in a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon.

"I write to you, Mr Secretary General, and place before you the tears, the suffering and the heartfelt cries of despair of Christians and other religious minorities of the beloved land of Iraq," the Pope said in the letter.

The Vatican called on Muslim religious leaders on Tuesday to condemn the activity of Islamic State militants in Iraq, said the international community was compelled to do all it could under international law to prevent the violence. (Reuters)  

1:30 P.M. France will supply arms "in the coming hours" in response to a request for Iraq's Kurdish leadership, President Francois Hollande's office said on Wednesday.

"To meet the urgent needs voiced by the Kurdish regional authorities, the head of state (Hollande) decided in liaison with Baghdad to ship arms in the coming hours," said a statement by his office.(Reuters)

12:48 P.M. Iraq's incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says appointment of Haider al-Ibadi as prime minister is a "violation" of the constitution that "has no value," claiming that everyone should accept the Federal Court's ruling on his objection to al-Ibadi's appointment. (Reuters)

12:41 P.M. Fighting between Shi'ite Muslim Houthi rebels and Sunnis loyal to the Islamist Islah party has killed at least 15 people in Yemen's al-Jouf province, tribal sources said on Wednesday.

The fighting in northern Yemen, which has taken on a sectarian tone, is further destabilising the country battling a secessionist movement in the south and the nationwide spread of an al Qaeda insurgency.

Ceasefire agreements reached with government intervention have repeatedly failed to stop the conflict between the two sides. At least 200 people were killed and more than 35,000 displaced last month when Houthi rebels overtook Amran, 50 kms (30 miles) north of the capital Sanaa.

According to tribal sources, fighting erupted in the northeastern province of al-Jouf on Tuesday night with both sides using heavy weaponry including tanks that were previously captured from the army.

The Houthis, named after their leader's tribe, have said their fight was against rivals loyal to the Islamist Islah party - which has links to the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood - rather than the government.

The Houthis, who control much of the northern Saada province bordering Saudi Arabia and next to al-Jouf, are trying to consolidate their power in the north as the country moves towards a federal system that gives more power to regional authorities.

U.S. allied Yemen, an impoverished country of 25 million that shares a long border with the world's top oil exporter Saudi Arabia, has been in turmoil since 2011 when mass protests forced the veteran president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to step down. (Reuters)

12:22 P.M. Air raids on jihadist fighters and airdrops of essential aid have not done enough for Iraqi Yezidi refugees trapped on Mount Sinjar, Syrian Kurdish fighters who have been rescuing them said.

Food, medical aid and water were needed and international powers should carry out "effective attacks" against Islamic State bases, a statement tweeted by the spokesman of the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) said overnight Wednesday.

Operations by YPG fighters, guerrillas of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and local defence units to evacuate members of the Kurdish-speaking minority from the barren mountain range were continuing, the statement tweeted by YPG spokesman Redur Xelil said.

Tens of thousands of Yezidis who fled to the mountains after Islamic State jihadists overran their villages have been evacuated so far to Kurdish areas across the border in Syria, the statement said.

"The refugees who are still stuck on the mountain are not under any immediate threat of attack at the moment, but the humanitarian situation is severe and there is need for food, medical aid and water," the Kurdish groups said.

Reports from the area say that YPG fighters have played a key role in evacuating refugees from Mount Sinjar, a rugged 40-kilometre long mountain range about 20 kilometres from the Syrian border. (DPA) 

11:30 A.M. Egypt's top cleric has condemned the extremist Islamic State group, describing it as a "terrorist" organization that poses a danger to Islam and Muslims.

Grand Mufti Shawki Allam, Egypt's highest religious authority, said the extremist group is "violating all the Islamic principles and the intentions of the Shariah (Islamic law)." In his remarks, which were carried by Egypt's state news agency late Tuesday, Allam also said the "bloody extremist group" had tarnished the image of Islam and paved the way for the destruction of Muslim nations. (AP)

11:03 A.M. Syrian opposition activists say extremists from the Islamic State group have seized key towns and villages near the border with Turkey after deadly clashes with other rebels in the area.

They say fighters of the group captured the towns of Akhtarin and Turkmanbareh in the Aleppo countryside Wednesday, dislodging other rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad. They also took three nearby areas.

The towns are the latest prize for Islamic State militants, who have carved out a self-styled caliphate across vast swaths of eastern Syria and northern and western Iraq.

The towns' takeover was reported by several activists, jihadists affiliated with the Islamic State group on social media and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. (AP)

9:00 A.M. Australia's prime minister says he's holding open the possibility of sending a combat force to Iraq in addition to military transport aircraft to airlift humanitarian aid to refugees trapped by insurgents in northern mountains.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters in London after meeting with British officials on the Iraq crisis on Tuesday that his government wouldn't rule out taking military action in Iraq.

The suggestion that Australian combat troops could return to Iraq was widely attacked Wednesday by the government's political opponents.

But Defense Minister David Johnston played down the prospect of an Australian combat force, saying the military had only committed to sending two unarmed C-130 Hercules transport planes for humanitarian aid air drops to begin within two or three days. (AP)

2:28 A.M. A suicide bomber attacked a checkpoint near the Baghdad home of new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Tuesday, two police sources and local media said.

"The suicide bomber blew himself up at a checkpoint that leads to the prime minister's house," said one of the police sources.

There was no word on casualties. Officials in Abadi's office were not immediately available for comment.  (Reuters)

2:10 A.M. The Obama administration has sent about 130 additional military personnel to Iraq, U.S Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Tuesday, as Washington seeks to help Iraq contain the threat posed by hardline militants from the Islamic State.

Hagel, speaking to troops in California, said the soldiers had arrived in the area around Iraqi Kurdistan's capital, Arbil, earlier in the day on Tuesday.

A U.S. defense official, in a statement issued as Hagel was speaking, said the soldiers sent to northern Iraq would "assess the scope of the humanitarian mission and develop additional humanitarian assistance options beyond the current airdrop effort in support of displaced Iraqi civilians trapped on Sinjar Mountain by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant." (Reuters)

1:24 A.M. The European Union failed on Tuesday to agree on a joint position on supplying weapons to Iraqi Kurds battling Islamic State militants, but said individual members could send arms in coordination with Baghdad. (Reuters) Read the full story