Middle East Updates / U.S.-led Coalition, Iraqis Pound Islamic State in Tikrit

Orders given for U.S.-led strikes on Iraq's Tikrit, U.S. official says; Residents loot a Yemen presidential compound; President Hadi no longer at residence, U.S. says; Iran says progress has been made as nuclear talks resume.

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1:09 A.M. Report: Files about U.S. intelligence operations taken by Yemen rebels

Yemeni intelligence files containing information about U.S.-supported counterterrorism operations and the names of informants have been looted by Iranian-allied Houthi rebels, the Los Angeles Times reported on Wednesday.

The newspaper, citing U.S. officials, said the information was taken when the Houthi fighters seized the office of Yemen's National Security Bureau, which had worked with the CIA and other intelligence agencies.

It added that intelligence officials believed additional files were given to Iranian advisers by Yemeni officials supporting the rebels.

The paper said there was no sign, however, that the Houthi militias had gained direct control of U.S. intelligence files.

But it said the loss of the intelligence played a role in the Obama administration's move to evacuate its remaining personnel from Yemen last weekend, including about 100 special operations forces. The report did not say when the files were seized.

The end of a U.S. security presence inside the country has dealt a blow to Washington's ability to monitor and fight al Qaeda's Yemen affiliate.

The CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies declined comment on the Los Angeles Times report. (Reuters) 

00:36 A.M. U.S.-led coalition, Iraqis pound Islamic State in Tikrit

U.S.-led coalition aircraft launched strikes against Islamic State targets in Tikrit on Wednesday, officials said, coming off the sidelines to support Iraqi forces battling alongside Iran-backed Shi'ite militia as they resumed their stalled offensive.

The decision to give air support to the Tikrit campaign represents the biggest collaboration so far by the U.S.-led coalition, Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed paramilitaries and opens a new chapter in the war.

A U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said strikes had begun against up to a dozen targets, which were selected after days of coalition surveillance flights.

In language that appeared to intentionally omit the Iranian-backed militia, Lieutenant General James Terry, the senior U.S. commander of the U.S.-led coalition, said the strikes were aimed at enabling "Iraqi forces under Iraqi command."

"These strikes are intended to destroy ISIL strongholds with precision, thereby saving innocent Iraqi lives while minimizing collateral damage to infrastructure," Terry said, using an acronym for Islamic State. (Reuters) 

11:30 P.M. Iraqi forces pound ISIS in Tikrit, resuming offensive

Iraqi forces pounded Islamic State positions in Tikrit on Wednesday, resuming an offensive that had stalled for almost two weeks as U.S.-led coalition planes prepared to strike Saddam Hussein's home city.

"Military operations in Tikrit started at around 9 pm local time by pounding Islamic State positions with artillery, mortars and Katyusha rockets," said provincial council member Hadi al-Khazraji.

Two military officers in the city confirmed Iraqi forces were shelling the militants. (Reuters) 

10:13 P.M. Orders given for U.S.-led strikes on Iraq's Tikrit, U.S. official says

The U.S.-led coalition has received orders to start carrying out strikes in support of Iraqi operations against Islamic State fighters in the city of Tikrit and operations are underway, a U.S. defense official told Reuters on Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official said the strikes themselves had not yet started and described the ongoing operations as preparatory.

Asked whether the coalition would at least tacitly be supporting Iranian-backed Shi'ite militia involved on the ground, the official said: "Of course we're not. We're supporting Iraqi security forces who are maneuvering to free Tikrit from ISIL's grip." ISIL is an acronym used to describe Islamic State. (Reuters)

8:41 P.M. Residents loot a Yemen presidential compound

Residents are looting a Yemeni presidential compound in Aden that was vacated by President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi several hours earlier, witnesses said on Wednesday.

Aides have said Hadi moved from the compound to another presidential palace in the al-Tawahi neighbourhood on the other side of the city in the afternoon. It was not clear whether Hadi remained at the second palace. (Reuters)

8:15 P.M. Yemeni President Hadi no longer at residence, U.S. State Department says

Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi is no longer at his residence, but the United States cannot confirm further details about his location, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman said on Wednesday.

"We were in touch with him earlier today," spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters at a briefing. "He is no longer at his residence. I'm not in position to confirm any additional details from here about his location."  (Reuters)

7:23 P.M. Yemeni President Hadi remains in Aden, foreign minister says

Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi remains in Aden despite a rapid advance on the southern city by Houthi forces seeking his overthrow, the country's foreign minister and presidential sources said on Wednesday. (Reuters)

7:10 P.M. Iran says progress has been made as nuclear talks resume

Iran's atomic energy chief said good progress has been made in nuclear negotiations with world powers, as a critical round of talks begins, the official IRNA news agency reported.

Ali-Akbar Salehi, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, is heading to Lausanne, Switzerland as part of a negotiating team led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The negotiators are working to meet a self-imposed deadline for a preliminary agreement by the end of March. The talks are focused on an agreement to limit Iran's nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of harsh international economic sanctions.

IRNA quoted Salehi as saying that Tehran is seeking a win-win agreement, while Zarif has stated that a full lifting of all sanctions is a red-line condition for any deal.

"We have had good negotiations and now have reached a stage that needs a serious decision and we hope that the other side can make the proper decision," Deputy Foreign Minister Majid Takht-e Ravanchi said on Wednesday. "We hope to be able to obtain results. Of course this depends on the other side which should accept the realities." (AP)

6:50 P.M. Yemen's Aden airport captured by troops loyal to ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, local officials say (Reuters)

5:00 P.M. Former top Mubarak era official freed after acquittal

Habib al-Adly, who served as interior minister under president Hosni Mubarak, was freed from prison on Wednesday after being cleared of graft charges last week, the state news agency reported.

Adly, the latest prominent Mubarak-era official to be freed, was acquitted on charges of illegal profiting and squandering 181 million Egyptian pounds ($23.72 million) of public funds last Thursday, and was cleared in a separate graft case earlier. (Reuters)

2:50 P.M. ISIS claim responsibility for killing five government members in Tripoli

Militants loyal to Islamic State claimed responsibility for killing five members of a force loyal to the government that controls Tripoli and wounding two others in the coastal city of Sirte, a Tripoli-based news agency said on Wednesday, citing a military spokesman.

Two military sources told Reuters the attack near the city's power station on its western outskirts appeared to be a suicide bombing but no more details were immediately available.

Militants loyal to Islamic State, the group which controls much of Syria and Iraq, have exploited the turmoil by expanding in eastern and central Libya in recent months. They have taken over government offices, universities and a radio station in Sirte in the last few weeks. (Reuters)

2:48 P.M. Aden airport in Yemen closed, all flights cancelled due to security concerns (Reuters)

2:37 P.M. Arab League says will discuss Yemen foreign intervention plan Thursday

The Arab League's deputy secretary general said on Wednesday the regional body would discuss a proposal by Yemen's foreign minister who called on Arab states to intervene militarily to halt the Shi'ite militia's Houthi advance.

"Yemen's foreign minister proposed the idea today ... in a meeting with the Arab League Secretary General," Ahmed Ben Hilli, told Al Arabiya Al Hadath television channel.

"The issue will be presented tomorrow at the foreign ministers' level," he said. (Reuters) 

12:58 P.M. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter meets with Saudi Arabia Crown Prince 

Former President Jimmy Carter has met with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Muqrin during a visit to the kingdom.

The official Saudi Press Agency says the two met in a palace in the Saudi capital of Riyadh on Wednesday. The report says they discussed a number of topics but gave no details.

On Tuesday, Carter and his wife, Rosalynn Carter, visited Saudi Arabia's neighbor Qatar where they met Saad al-Muhannadi, the president of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development.

The Carters and al-Muhannadi discussed ways to build cooperation between the foundation and The Carter Center, a non-profit public policy center that focuses on ways to tackle poverty, disease, conflict and hunger around the world. (AP)

12:55 P.M. Five killed in suspected suicide bombing in Sirte, Libya

Five people were killed in the central Libyan city of Sirte in an apparent suicide bombing on Wednesday, a security source said.

Tripoli-based al-Nabaa television said the five died near the city's power station. (Reuters)  

12:46 P.M. Shi'te rebels reportedly arrest Yemen defense minister

Authorities say Shi'ite rebels have arrested Yemen's defense minister.

The Shi'ite rebels and officials loyal to embattled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi both say that Defense Minister Maj. Gen. Mahmoud al-Subaihi was arrested with his top aide.

They say the minister was captured while fighting the Shi'ite rebels, known as Houthis, in Yemen's southern Lahj provinces. (AP) Read full story here 

12:16 P.M. Two senior Yemeni officials deny president fled Aden

Two senior Yemeni officials including the head of national security said on Wednesday that President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi remained in Aden and had no plans to leave following advances by Houthi forces towards the city.

Chief of national security Maj. General Ali al-Ahmadi, asked if Hadi was in Aden, told Reuters: "He's here, he's here, he's here. I am now with him in the palace. He is in Aden."

Mohammed Marem, director of Hadi's office, told Reuters: "President Hadi is in Aden and he is following up the situation ... We urge people to close ranks and we are certain that Yemenis and the Arab people and governments will not accept that Aden be sacked." (Reuters) Read full story here

11:47 A.M. Iraq president expects U.S.-led coalition to carry out airstrikes against ISIS in Tikrit

Iraq's President Fouad Massoum said on Wednesday that the U.S.-led coalition is expected to carry out air strikes soon against Islamic State in the Sunni city of Tikrit, after starting aerial reconnaissance flights this week.

"Since yesterday, aerial support and reconnaissance flights started in Tikrit. They first begin with reconnaissance missions; then they compile the aerial reports; and afterwards the aerial(strike) operations start," Massoum told Reuters at the presidential palace in Baghdad. (Reuters) 

11:22 A.M. Yemen's embattled president reportedly flees Aden home as Shi'ite rebels approach

Five officials have told The Associated Press that Yemen's embattled president has fled his Aden home for an undisclosed location as Shiite rebels near his last refuge.

The officials spoke to the AP on Wednesday, just hours after the rebels' own television station said they seized an air base where U.S. troops and Europeans advised the country in its fight against Al-Qaida.

That air base is only 60 kilometers (35 miles) away from Aden, the port city where President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi had established a temporary capital.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren't authorized to brief journalists. (AP) Read full story here

11:10 A.M. Public sector workers in Yemen reportedly told to go home, arm themselves

Public sector workers in Yemen's southern city of Aden were instructed to return home and some residents armed themselves, local witnesses told Reuters on Wednesday, amid rapid advances by Houthi attackers opposed to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Houthi forces backed by allied army units earlier seized al-Anad air base about 60 km (37 miles) north of Aden from defenders loyal to Hadi, local residents said. The Houthis and their allies later advanced to within 40 km of the city, where Hadi has been holed up since fleeing the capital Sanaa last month. (Reuters) Read full story here

10:11 A.M. ISIS-linked group claims responsibility for Benghazi bombings that killed 12

The Islamic State group's affiliate in Libya has claimed responsibility for a series of car bombings that killed 12 people in the country's eastern city of Benghazi.

The Islamic State affiliate claimed responsibility for the Tuesday bombings in a post on an Internet bulletin board site known to be used by the group and its sympathizers. The claim included a picture of an alleged Tunisian suicide bomber it said was involved in the attack.

A Libyan security official said Wednesday that the bombings targeted forces of Libya's elected government and allied fighters in Benghazi. He said the blasts killed 12 people and wounded 25.

He spoke on condition of anonymity as he wasn't authorized to brief journalists. (AP)

9:37 A.M. Shi'ite Houthi rebels reportedly seize Yemen air base used in Al-Qaida fight

A television station run by Yemen's Shi'ite rebels says Houthi fighters and their allies have seized an air base where U.S. troops and Europeans advised the country in its fight against Al-Qaida.

The satellite Al-Masirah news channel reported Wednesday that the fighters had "secured" the Al-Annad air base. It claimed the base had been looted by both Al-Qaida fighters and troops loyal to embattled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Officials loyal to Hadi had no immediate comment.

The U.S. recently evacuated some 100 soldiers, including Special Forces commandos, from the base after Al-Qaida seized a nearby town. Britain also evacuated soldiers.

The base was crucial in the U.S. drone campaign against Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which America considers to be the most dangerous branch of the terror group. (AP) Read full story here

8:22 A.M. Loyalists of ex-Yemen president 'utterly reject' foreign intervention

Army officers loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, an ally of Yemen's Houthi group, expressed "utter rejection" of any foreign intervention to end the country's conflict, according to a statement carried on a website affiliated to Saleh. 

"We express our total and utter rejection of any external interference in Yemeni affairs under any pretext and in any form and from any side," the so-called Higher Committee to Preserve the Armed Forces and Security said.

"All members of the armed forces and security and all the sons of the proud people of Yemen with all its components will confront with all their strength and heroism any attempt to harm the pure soil of the homeland, its independence or its sovereignty or to threaten its unity and territorial integrity." (Reuters) Read full story here

3:45 A.M. China urges Iran to reach nuclear deal with world powers

A nuclear deal with Iran represents the trend of the times and is the will of the people, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Iranian counterpart, pushing Iran once again to reach an agreement with major world powers.

"The Iran nuclear talks have reached the final sprint in the marathon," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in a telephone call, China's foreign ministry said in a statement issued late on Tuesday.

"Reaching an agreement is the trend of the times and the will of the people, which accords with the joint and long-term interests of all sides, including Iran," Wang said.

Wang made a similar plea during a visit to Tehran last month.

2:06 A.M. U.S. officials: Saudi Arabia moving military equipment to near Yemen border

Saudi Arabia is moving heavy military equipment including artillery to areas near its border with Yemen, U.S. officials said on Tuesday, raising the risk that the Middle East's top oil power will be drawn into the worsening Yemeni conflict. (Reuters) Read full story here

1:55 A.M. Islamic State militants claim suicide bombing in Libya's Benghazi

Militants claiming loyalty to Islamic State said they were responsible for a suicide bombing in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on Tuesday, a statement said on Twitter.

The militants posted pictures on social media of the attack and the alleged suicide bomber.

The bombing killed seven people, army and medical sources have said. (Retuers)

1:46 A.M. U.S., Lebanon discuss efforts to defeat Islamic State

White House counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco met with Lebanese Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk on Tuesday to discuss security concerns in the region and ongoing efforts to defeat the Islamic State, the White House said in a statement.

Monaco reiterated the need for all Lebanese parties to "implement the policy of dissociation" from the Syrian conflict. (Reuters) 

1:19 A.M. Jordan signs $10 billion nuclear power plant deal with Russia

Jordan signed an agreement with Russia on Tuesday worth $10 billion that sets the legal basis for building the kingdom's first nuclear power plant with a total capacity of 2,000 megawatt.

Jordan imports nearly 98 percent of its energy from oil products and crude and is struggling to meet electricity demand which is growing by more than 7 percent annually due to a rising population and industrial expansion.

The deal, signed with Russia's state-owned nuclear firm Rosatom, envisages the construction of a two-unit power plant at Amra in the north of the kingdom by 2022.

The deal provides for a feasibility study, site evaluation process and an environmental impact assessment. Jordan hopes that eventually nuclear power could provide almost 40 percent of its total electricity generating capacity. (Reuters)

12:27 A.M. France tells UN 'insufficient' progress in Iran nuclear talks

France warned on Tuesday that "insufficient" progress has been made toward a nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers with specific disparities over research and development and the issue of sanctions.

"Iran must now make difficult choices if it truly wishes to regain the trust of the international community," French UN Ambassador Francois Delattre told a United Nations Security Council meeting on UN sanctions on Iran.

The biggest sticking point, Western officials say, remains Iran's demands for no limits on research and development of advanced centrifuges. Another issue is sanctions. Iran wants all UN sanctions lifted immediately after a deal is agreed, along with the most crippling U.S. and European Union restrictions on Tehran's energy and financial sectors.

"Iran will need to show greater flexibility and take some tough decisions in the coming days if we are to achieve a deal," Britain's Deputy UN Ambassador Peter Wilson told the council. (Reuters)