Middle East Updates / Germany Urges Western Powers, Iran to Sign Nuclear Deal

Egypt court sentences 14 Islamists to death; Kurdish official says ISIS used chlorine in three attacks; Official: Iran confronts U.S. at nuke talks over GOP letter; Iran, U.S. resume nuclear talks in Lausanne, Switzerland.

AFP

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AP

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U.S., partners conduct air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria, Iraq

The United States conducted five air strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and an additional 12 along with coalition members in Iraq, the U.S. military said on Monday.

The strikes in Syria, using fighter, attack and bomber aircraft, hit targets near al-Hasakah and Kobani, destroying four Islamic State fighting positions.

In Iraq, the United States and allies carried out 12 strikes, including one near Fallujah and two near Mosul. (Reuters) 

10:20 P.M.: Egypt court sentences 14 Islamists to death

Egypt's official news agency says a criminal court has sentenced 14 people, including the leader of the country's banned Muslim Brotherhood, to death.

The Giza Criminal Court issued its decision on Monday, however the court set an April 11 date to formally issue the ruling after consulting with the country's grand mufti; the mufti reviews all death penalty cases, but his ruling is not binding.
The case is rooted in violence that swept the country after the military-led ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, whose supporters set up large protest encampments in Cairo.

Security forces violently ended the sit-ins, killing hundreds. In retaliation, many police stations and churches came under attack by alleged Morsi supporters. The court convicted Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie and 13 others of orchestrating the violence. (Reuters)
 

6:55 P.M. Germany urges Western powers, Iran to sign nuclear deal

Germany on Monday urged its international partners and Iran "to seize this opportunity" to negotiate an end to the standoff over Tehran's nuclear program before a deadline at the end of the month.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who is negotiating with Iran on behalf of the world's five nuclear powers and Germany, said that "we are entering a crucial time, a crucial two weeks."

A deal that has taken shape over the past 15 months could see Iran freeze its nuclear program for at least a decade in exchange for the gradual lifting of international sanctions.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that after "more than 10 years of negotiations, we should seize this opportunity." He will join the foreign ministers of France and Britain and Mogherini for talks in Brussels on Monday evening with their Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. (AP)

6:05 P.M. Official: Iran confronts U.S. at nuke talks over GOP letter

A senior U.S. official says Iranian negotiators confronted their American counterparts about a letter from Senate Republicans warning that any nuclear agreement could expire the day President Barack Obama leaves office.

The official says the letter came up in nuclear talks Sunday between senior U.S. and Iranian diplomats. It was raised again in discussions Monday led by Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

The official wouldn't characterize Iran's position. But both Iranian and U.S. officials have criticized the letter written by freshman Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and signed by 46 fellow GOP senators. (AP)

2:56 P.M. Kurdish official says ISIS used chlorine in three attacks

A Kurdish military official said on Monday he had evidence Islamic State has used chlorine as a chemical weapon against peshmerga forces three times in northern Iraq.

General Aziz Waisi, who said his forces were exposed to the chemical, said the insurgents had used chlorine in a December attack in the Sinjar area and in two others in January west of Mosul, including a Jan. 23 attack described by Kurdish authorities on Saturday. (Reuters)  

12:26 P.M. Yemen PM says Shi'ite rebels released him from house arrest

Yemen's prime minister says Shi'ite rebels who overran the capital, Sanaa, and placed him, the president and the entire government under house arrest, have released him from the forced detention.

Khaled Bahah resigned while he was being held by the rebels known as Houthis.

Bahah on Monday in a posting on his Facebook page described his release as a goodwill gesture meant to "push the political process in a positive direction."

Bahah says he is now leaving Sanaa to visit his family elsewhere. It was not immediately clear exactly when he was released. (AP)

12:11 P.M. Iraqi offensive on hold to allow Tikrit civilians to leave

Iraq's Interior Minister says military operations to recapture the Islamic State-held city of Tikrit have temporarily paused to allow civilians left in Saddam Hussein's hometown to leave.

Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban says the offensive, which began early this month, has achieved 90 percent of its objectives and has squeezed the militants into a small part of the city center.

He says Islamic State extremists have booby-trapped buildings in central Tikrit and that Iraqi forces, backed by Shiite militias and Iranian advisers, slowed their push to reduce their own causalities, protect the infrastructure and allow residents to leave.

The minister spoke on Monday from the nearby city of Samarra.

He did not give a timeframe for the resumption of operations, saying that is being "left to the field commanders." (AP) 

11:05 A.M. Iraq needs more airstrikes to dislodge ISIS in Tikrit, senior officials say

Iraq needs more airstrikes to dislodge Islamic State militants from Tikrit, senior officials said on Monday, as the campaign to retake Saddam Hussein's home city stalled for a fourth day due to homemade bombs and booby traps.

Iraqi security forces and mainly Shi'ite militia pushed into Tikrit last week but have struggled to advance against the militants who are holed up in a vast complex of palaces built when Saddam was in power.

Government forces are in control of the northern Qadisiya district as well as the southern and western outskirts of the city, trapping the militants in an area bounded by the river that runs through Tikrit.

"We need air support from any force that can work with us against IS," Deputy Minister of Defense Ibrahim al-Ilami told Reuters, declining to say whether he meant from the U.S.-led coalition or Iran, which is playing a role in the assault. (Reuters) 

10:00 A.M. Iran, U.S. resume nuclear talks in Lausanne, Switzerland

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif resumed nuclear talks on Monday in the Swiss city of Lausanne to try to narrow gaps before a March 31 deadline for a political agreement.

The meeting included U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and Iran's nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi, who also met on Sunday to negotiate technical details on how to curb Iran's nuclear program.

Kerry has urged Iran to make concessions that would allow six world powers to reach a political framework agreement for a nuclear deal with Tehran that would lift sanctions in exchange for curbs on Tehran's nuclear program.

The parties have set a June 30 deadline to finalize an accord. Iran and major powers will meet this week in Lausanne but the date has not been announced yet. (Reuters) 

8:30 A.M. Saudi prince: Iran deal risks nuclear proliferation

Any terms that world powers grant Iran under a nuclear deal will be sought by Saudi Arabia and other countries, risking wider proliferation of atomic technology, a senior Saudi prince warned on Monday in a BBC interview.

"I've always said whatever comes out of these talks, we will want the same," said Prince Turki al-Faisal, who has previously served as head of Saudi intelligence and Riyadh's ambassador to Washington and London but is no longer a government official.

Saudi Arabia sees Iran as its main regional rival and fears that an atomic deal would leave the door open to Tehran gaining a nuclear weapon, or would ease political pressure on it, giving it more space to back Arab proxies opposed by Riyadh.

"If Iran has the ability to enrich uranium to whatever level, it's not just Saudi Arabia that's going to ask for that," the prince was quoted as saying by the BBC.

Although Prince Turki is not a Saudi official, his comments are widely understood to reflect the thinking at senior levels of the Al Saud ruling family.

"The whole world will be an open door to go that route without any inhibition, and that's my main objection to this P5+1 process," said the prince, who is a brother of Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. (Reuters) 

7:30 A.M. Afghan army says kills 10 ISIS-affiliated militants

Afghan security forces have killed 10 fighters who claimed to be from Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan, officials said, amid reports that growing numbers of disgruntled Taliban fighters have joined the militant group that controls much of Syria and Iraq.

Defense ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri said the militants were all associated with the Islamic State, known in Afghanistan as "Daesh". They were killed in an operation in the southern province of Helmand on Sunday.

The government identified one of the militants as Hafiz Wahidi, the nephew and successor of Mullah Abdul Rauf, a veteran militant killed last month in a drone strike.

Officials say Rauf, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, had also defected from the Taliban and called himself the leader of the Islamic State in Helmand.

Reports of Taliban fighters switching sides to IS in recent months have raised concerns in war-weary Afghanistan, though there is little evidence of any operational ties between the fighters and the group's leadership. (Reuters)