Middle East Updates / ISIS Makes Major Advances at Iraq's Largest Oil Refinery Complex

Syrian rebels, including Nusra Front, attack government-held Aleppo neighborhood; Iran's Zarif lays out four-point plan to resolve Yemen conflict; Iraq's Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi is set to meet Obama in Washington on Tuesday.

Reuters

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Latest updates:

10:00 P.M. U.S. pledges additional $200 million in aid for Iraqis displaced by ISIS 

U.S. President Barack Obama says the US will give an additional 200 million dollars in humanitarian aid to help Iraqis displaced by Islamic State militants.

"There are individual families and children who have suffered as a consequence of (Islamic State's) activities. And we need to make sure that we're paying attention to them," Obama says following a meeting in the Oval Office with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

The leaders vowed to continue cooperation in the fight against the terrorist group. The new aid doubles the total amount of U.S. humanitarian help since Islamic State started its rampage across Iraq last year.

"We are having this meeting to make sure that we are continually improving our coordination to make sure that Iraqi security forces are in a position to succeed in our common mission," Obama says. He did not outline any additional military assistance. (DPA)
 

7:30 P.M. UN announces renewed efforts at Syria peace talks

The United Nations said on Tuesday that its Syria envoy planned to consult Syrian factions and interested countries on a new round of peace talks, confirming a Reuters report.

UN spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said Staffan de Mistura was "heavily engaged" in discussions on the process, which would be based on the Geneva communiquי, the June 2012 document that set out a path to peace and political transition but left open the future role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

UN-led peace talks collapsed a year ago, but Reuters reported on Monday that de Mistura was proposing to hold fresh consultations, having been instructed to revive the political track by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

No invitations to the talks, which will be held in Geneva, have yet been sent out, he said.

A UN source said Iran would be among those invited. Its involvement has been contentious in previous rounds of Syria talks, although many diplomats see it as an indispensable part of any deal, since it is a major ally of Assad. (Reuters)
 

6:50 P.M. Al Qaida says senior leader in Yemen killed by U.S. airstrike

Al Qaida in Yemen announced on Tuesday that a top Saudi leader in the organization has been killed by a U.S. air strike, according to a statement distributed by the group online.

The death of Ibrahim al-Rubaish may be a sign that a covert U.S. drone program against Yemen's branch of the global militant group continues despite the evacuation of American military advisors from the country amid a worsening civil war. (Reuters)

6:00 P.M. Erdogan 'condemns' Pope Francis for recognizing Armenian genocide

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says he is "condemning" Pope Francis for describing the slaughter of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks as "the first genocide of the 20th century" and for urging the international community to recognize it as such.

Turkey denies the killings that began 100 years ago were genocide and contends those who died were victims of civil war and unrest. Turkey also insists the death toll has been inflated.

It responded to the pope's words Sunday by recalling its ambassador to the Vatican and accusing Francis of spreading hatred and "unfounded claims."

On Tuesday, Erdogan said he was "condemning and warning" Francis against making "such a mistake again."

He renewed a call for a joint study by historians to determine what unfolded. (AP)

5:15 P.M. UN Security Council impsoes arms embargo on Houthis in Yemen

The United Nations Security Council on Tuesday blacklisted the son of Yemen's former president and a Houthi leader, and effectively imposed an arms embargo on the Iran-allied Houthi rebels who rule most of the country.

The council voted 14 in favor, while Russia abstained, citing the fact that some of its proposals for the resolution drafted by council member Jordan and Gulf Arab states were not included. (Reuters)

2:55 P.M. Yemen halts natural gas exports after local fighters seize terminal

Yemen on Tuesday halted natural gas production and exports, as fighters loyal to President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi seized control of the country's gas export terminal in the southern province of Shabwa.

Yemen LNG, the company which operates the country's gas fields and the Balhaf port, said it was stopping production in response to the "further degradation of the security situation in the vicinity of Balhaf."

The company said it was evacuating its staff and had told stakeholders that circumstances outside its control prevented it from fulfilling its contracts.

A local tribal leader in Shabwa told DPA that "popular committees", local fighters loyal to the embattled president, had taken control of Balhaf, days after the Houthi rebel movement captured the provincial capital Ataq some 160 kilometers inland. (DPA)

2:18 P.M. Syrian rebels, including Nusra Front, attack government-held Aleppo neighborhood

Syrian militants, including members of Al-Qaida's local branch, attacked a government intelligence center in the northern city of Aleppo, damaging much of the building by blowing up a tunnel under it, activists said Tuesday.

The attack on the Air Force Intelligence headquarters began late Monday night and lasted until early Tuesday, said Aleppo-based activist Ahmad Hamed via Skype. He claimed the attack killed dozens of government troops.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighting killed 13 militants and killed and wounded more than 20 troops and pro-government gunmen. There was no immediate word from the government on the attack.

Rebels and members of Al-Qaida's Nusra Front have launched several past assaults on the Aleppo intelligence center, where dozens of detainees were once held. Activists say repeated attacks there forced the government move detainees elsewhere. (AP)

1:03 P.M. ISIS makes major advances in Iraq's largest oil refinery complex

The Islamic State extremist group Tuesday made major advances inside one of Iraq's largest oil refinery complexes and killed the commander of its garrison.

The jihadists also seized petrol and crude oil tanks, a security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told DPA.

The Baiji refinery,about 200 kilometers north of Baghdad, accounts for almost a third of Iraq's refinery capacity. It has been out of action since last year, when it was the scene of intense fighting.

Illegal oil sales from small refineries, mainly in neighboring Syria, have been a key source of funding for Islamic State.

The developments show that the jihadists are still a formidable force in the area, despite the government's much-vaunted recapture of the city of Tikrit, 40 kilometers to the south.

The commander of government forces at the refinery, General Daif Ayyub, and nine of his bodyguards were killed in the attack, which began Monday when the militants overran the complex's outer defenses. (DPA) 

1:00 P.M. Egypt court upholds Islamist ex-presidential candidate's jail term

Egypt's highest civilian court on Tuesday upheld a seven-year jail term for an Islamist politician and ex-presidential candidate convicted of falsifying official documents, his lawyer and judicial sources said.

Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a hardline Salafist Islamist, was one of many political figures arrested by the military after freely elected Islamist president Mohammed Morsi was toppled in 2013 following mass protests against his rule.

Abu Ismail was disqualified from the 2012 election when it emerged that his mother held U.S. citizenship. The election committee said this meant he could not run.

In April last year, a criminal court found him guilty of falsifying official documents related to his mother's nationality, and sentenced him to seven years in jail.

The High Court refused his appeal, making the earlier verdict final and unchallengeable, judicial sources said.

"The court refused to hear our defense, and refused the appeal," Abu Ismail's lawyer Al-Mushir Ahmed told reporters. (Reuters) 

11:59 A.M. Iran's Zarif lays out four-point plan to resolve Yemen conflict

Iran's foreign minister laid out a four-point plan to resolve the conflict in Yemen on Tuesday, reaffirming his opposition to Saudi-led air strikes against a rebel force allied to Tehran.

Mohammad Javad Zarif proposed a ceasefire, humanitarian assistance, an intra-Yemeni dialogue, and a broad-based government to end the conflict at a news conference in Madrid. (Reuters) 

10:31 A.M. At least seven killed by car bomb south of Baghdad, Iraq

Iraqi officials say a car bomb south of Baghdad has killed at least seven civilians and wounded 13 others.

A police officer says an explosives-laden car exploded early Tuesday in a commercial area in the town of Mahmoudiyah, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of Baghdad. He says it was parked in a mainly Shiite section of town near a bakery and went off as people were standing in line to buy bread.

A medical official confirms the casualty figures. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release information. (AP)

9:23 A.M. Australia to deploy 300 additional troops to Iraq

Australia's government said Tuesday it had completed preparations to send about 300 additional troops to Iraq and would deploy them over the coming weeks.

The troops will work alongside about 100 New Zealand troops at the Taji base north of Baghdad. Australia's government said the combined force isn't being deployed in a combat role but rather to train Iraqi forces to fight the Islamic State group.

The troops are part of an international coalition effort to defeat the group, which is also known as ISIS and Daesh.

Australia already has 170 special forces troops in Baghdad advising and assisting Iraqi security forces. Another 400 Australian air force personnel are supporting air strikes against Islamic State targets from a base outside Dubai.

New Zealand's deployment will represent its first in the current conflict. (AP)

1:37 A.M. After delays, Iraq expects U.S. F-16s to be delivered in summer

After delays caused by the war with Islamic State, Iraq hopes to take first deliveries of its F-16 fighter jets from the United States this summer, a senior Iraqi official said.

The disclosure came ahead of a visit by Iraq's Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, who was scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama in Washington on Tuesday.

The Iraqi official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described the transfer as an important development for Iraq's armed forces and cited a July-August timeframe. The precise timeline for individual deliveries was unclear.

The Pentagon had no immediate comment.

Baghdad ordered 36 of the $65 million Lockheed Martin Corp planes, but initial deliveries to Balad air base north of Baghdad last year were delayed because of security concerns after Islamic State militants overran large areas of Iraq.

Iraqi pilots have been training in the United States with the 162nd Wing Arizona Air National Guard at Tucson International Airport.  (Reuters)