Middle East Updates / ISIS Launches Fierce Assault on Iraq's Biggest Oil Refinery

Iraqi forces launch counter-attack against ISIS in Anbar; UN's Syria envoy to consult on new political talks; Iran suspends pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia as tensions between countries rise.

AFP

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Latest updates:

9:22 P.M. Iraqi forces launch counter-attack against ISIS in Anbar

Iraqi security forces launched a counter-attack on Islamic State in the western province of Anbar on Monday, seeking to reverse an early setback in a new campaign to recapture the country's Sunni heartland.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the new Anbar offensive last week, but Islamic State then overran two districts on the northern outskirts of the provincial capital Ramadi.

A policeman in one of those districts, Albu Faraj, said security forces had recaptured around 40 percent of it on Monday, but were facing stiff resistance from the militants.

Islamic State has reinforced its ranks with fighters from elsewhere in the province and planted bombs to hinder the advance, Anbar provincial council member, Athal al-Fahdawi, said. (Reuters)

9:02 P.M. UN's Syria envoy to consult on new political talks

The United Nations' Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, is proposing to hold consultations in Geneva on new political talks, diplomatic sources said on Monday, more than a year after UN-led peace talks collapsed.

Nobody from De Mistura's office was available to comment on the initiative, which follows a request by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for the re-launch of a political process.

Diplomats said de Mistura was planning a "series of consultations," likely to begin in May or June, to assess the chance of finding common ground between the main states with an interest in the conflict.

"He's planning to have consultations involving Syrian representatives as well as some states," one Geneva-based diplomat said. "It will be a process but not an open-ended one." (Reuters)  

7:01 P.M. ISIS launches fierce assault on Iraq's biggest oil refinery

The Islamic State extremist group launched a fierce assault on Iraq's biggest oil refinery at Baiji on Monday, officials said, less than two weeks after government forces recaptured the nearby city of Tikrit.

Police officials said the jihadists attacked the refinery from the north and east, breaking through its defenses and capturing its watchtowers.

Government forces were fighting to keep Islamic State fighters from the facilities' inner walls and the Iraqi air force was bombing the attackers, the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.

Baiji, 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. (DPA)

5:10 P.M. Iran suspends pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia as tensions between countries rise

Iran suspended all umrah pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia on Monday amid growing diplomatic tensions between the two countries, state television reported.

Iran's Culture Ministry made the decision over alleged abuse suffered by two male Iranian pilgrims traveling through Saudi's Jeddah airport in March trying to return home, the station reported.

Culture Ministry spokesman Hossein Nooshabadi told state TV that the pilgrimage would be suspended until the Saudi government "applies a strong attitude" to the case. He also said "capital punishment" should apply to the case, without offering details about it.

Some 500,000 Iranians visit Saudi Arabia each year for the umrah pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, Islam's holiest sites.

Another 100,000 Iranian pilgrims annually travel to Saudi Arabia for the hajj — Islam's main pilgrimage— which comes after the holy month of Ramadan and is scheduled to take place in September this year. Hajj is a ritual required of every able-bodied Muslim at least once in a lifetime. (AP)

4:23 P.M. Iraq's premier says more support needed to 'finish' ISIS

Iraq's prime minister said Monday his country needs greater support from the international coalition so it can "finish" the Islamic State group.

Haider al-Abadi said the "marked increase" in airstrikes, weapons deliveries and training has helped roll back the extremist group, but that more is required to eliminate the group once and for all.

"We want to see more," al-Abadi told journalists as he boarded a flight to Washington where he will meet with President Barack Obama as part of his first official visit to the U.S. as prime minister.

"We can finish Daesh...and we can stop their advance in other countries," he added, using the group's Arabic acronym. "We are the only country with armed forces on the ground fighting Daesh. We need all the support of the world."

The US and its coalition allies have carried out nearly 2,000 strikes in Iraq since its campaign began in August — as well as nearly 1,400 in neighboring Syria. American officials say the campaign has been somewhat successful, though it is likely to stretch on for years. (AP)

3:23 P.M. Iran calls for new Yemeni government, increasing tension with Saudis

Iran on Monday urged the formation of a new Yemeni government and offered to assist in a political transition, comments likely to anger Saudi Arabia, which is backing Yemen's president against a rebel force allied with Iran.

The Houthi advance towards the Yemeni city of Aden forced President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee to Riyadh last month and triggered a Saudi-led campaign of air strikes to try to drive back the rebels, who share their Shi'ite faith with Iran.

"I had the privilege of participating in the Bonn Conference when we created the Afghan government. Actually we didn't do it, the Afghans did ... We can do that in Yemen too," Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a speech during a two-day visit to Kazakhstan.

The Bonn Conference was held in 2001 to rebuild the Afghan state after its Taliban rulers were ousted in a U.S. invasion supported by allied Afghan forces, and resulted in an entirely new political system for Afghanistan.

Zarif's suggestion of a similar process for Yemen is likely to be seen by Saudi Arabia as an attempt to extend Iran's influence on the Arabian Peninsula, where a Saudi-led coalition of Sunni-ruled Arab states is trying to shore up support for Hadi. (Reuters)

12:53 P.M. Iran suspends Saudi pilgrimage flights over sexual assault allegations

Iran has suspended flights to Saudi Arabia for the year-round Umrah Islamic pilgrimage over allegations that Saudi security officers sexually assaulted two Iranian boys, Culture Minister Ali Jannati said on Monday.

The move is likely to deepen tensions between the two regional powers, who are at odds over the war in Yemen.

The teenage boys alleged last week that the officers abused them while conducting a security search at Jeddah airport.

"Until these guilty people are put on trial and punished, the Umrah will be stopped and Iranian flights will be suspended," the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) cited Jannati as saying.

The boys were returning to Tehran from the Umrah, a pilgrimage to Mecca that can be undertaken at any time of the year other than during the Hajj.

Several hundred protesters marched on the Saudi embassy in Tehran on Saturday, despite a ban on public demonstrations.

Jannati said the Saudi authorities had arrested the perpetrators and promised to punish them, ISNA reported. (Reuters)

11:15 A.M. UN official: All must respect civilians in Syria's Yarmouk

A senior United Nations official is calling on all sides to "respect the beleaguered civilians" trapped inside an embattled Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital.

The head of the UN agency that supports Palestinians, Pierre Krahenbuhl, says residents of the Yarmouk camp "have suffered untold indignities." He says he is working to help provide humanitarian aid to those still inside, and to assist those who wish to temporarily leave.

The UNRWA commissioner-general is in Damascus to meet with Syrian officials and people who have fled the fighting in Yarmouk, which erupted after Islamic State militants pushed into the camp almost two weeks ago.

Khrahenbuhl says in a statement that he will meet with senior Syrian officials later Monday to discuss humanitarian access. (AP)

8:45 A.M. Sudan begins voting in election al-Bashir expected to win

Sudan began voting Monday in an election expected to be won by President Omar al-Bashir, the world's only sitting leader wanted on genocide charges.

Voters slowly began arriving to polling places in Sudan's capital, Khartoum. Opposition parties, citing a lack of freedom of speech and assembly in the African country, are boycotting the vote, which includes electing candidates for the country's legislative council. (Reuters)

4:20 A.M. Islamic State militants claim attacks on embassies in Libya

A bomb exploded at the gate of the Moroccan embassy in the Libyan capital early on Monday, causing some damage but hurting nobody, a security official said, only hours after gunmen attacked South Korea's mission in Tripoli.

Militants claiming loyalty to Islamic State said on twitter they were responsible for both attacks, the latest strikes against foreigners, embassies or oilfields in Libya. It was not possible to verify the authenticity of the claims.

Islamic State militants have exploited chaos in the North African country where two governments allied to a host of armed groups fight for control four years after the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi.

The bomb damaged the gate and a residential building next to the Moroccan embassy located in the up market Ben Ashour district, a security official and Reuters reporter at the scene said.

Nobody was hurt by the blast early on Monday, the official said. (Reuters)

1:37 A.M. Saudi military spending rose 17 pct in 2014

Saudi Arabia's military spending grew 17 percent in 2014 to $80.8 billion, data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) showed on Monday, the biggest annual hike by any of the world's top 15 military spenders.

Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia launched air strikes last month on Houthi rebels in neighbouring Yemen, leading a regional coalition against Shi'ite fighters it says are backed by rival Gulf power Iran.

"While total world military spending is mostly unchanged, some regions, such as the Middle East and much of Africa, are continuing to see rapid build-ups that are placing an increasingly high burden on many economies," said Sam Perlo-Freeman, Head of SIPRI's Military Expenditure project.

"These increases partly reflect worsening security situations, but in many cases they are also the product of corruption, vested interests and autocratic governance." (Reuters)