Middle East Updates / Iraq PM Nuri al-Maliki to Step Down, Endorse PM-designate al-Abadi

Middle East updates: In Iraq, U.S. unlikely to undertake evacuation mission of Yazidis on Mount Sinjar.

Displaced Yazidis ride on a truck as they are evacuated from Mount Sinjar.
Displaced Yazidis ride on a truck as they are evacuated from Mount Sinjar, August 13, 2014. Reuters

Haaretz's latest analyses on the Middle East: How Israel can help the Yazidis of Iraq | Islamic State may spell demise for Iraq's beautiful minorities

See Wednesday's Middle East Updates

1:51 A.M. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is warning that the failure to hold a conference on establishing a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East this year could jeopardize the success of next year's review of the landmark 1970 agreement aimed at stopping the spread of nuclear arms.

In a report to the UN General Assembly circulated Thursday, Ban urged all parties to finalize arrangements for a conference to be held as soon as possible.

At the 2010 conference to review the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, 189 member nations called for convening a conference in 2012 on establishing a Mideast zone free of weapons of mass destruction.

It was scheduled to take place in late 2012, but the U.S. announced it would be delayed, apparently to save Israel, widely believed to possess nuclear weapons. (Reuters)

12:11 A.M. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday named Spanish diplomat Bernardino Leon as the world body's special envoy to Libya, which is experiencing the worst fighting between armed factions since the 2011 fall of Muammar Gaddafi.

Leon will replace Tarek Mitri on Sept. 1 as head of the UN political mission in Libya, known as UNSMIL, Ban said in a statement.

"Mr. Leon brings to this position many years of political and diplomatic experience with his national government and with the European Union, including most recently as European Union Special Representative for Libya and European Union Special Representative for the Southern Mediterranean," Ban said. (Reuters) 

12:09 A.M. The European Union hopes to build a "support group" with Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, to help Iraq stave off the threat from Islamic State fighters, a senior EU official said on Thursday.

EU foreign ministers, who will hold emergency talks on the Iraq crisis in Brussels on Friday, will discuss how "with all the ... countries in the region we could form some sort of supporting group towards Iraq," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

He suggested the group could include Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Iran and others.

"It is important to have everyone on board against the Islamic State because this shouldn't be seen as a confrontation between the western countries and the ISIL. It should be clearly a confrontation between ISIL and all the countries of the region," the official said.

The EU's aim is to exchange information about Islamic State, including about its financing, and "to see if all together we can move ahead and try to find a way not only to stop the present ISIL offensive but also to try to push it back," the official said.

The official gave no details of how Islamic State might be pushed back, but there is little appetite among EU governments for joining the United States in military strikes against the militants. (Reuters) 

11:47 P.M. A defense lawyer for the son-in-law of Osama bin Laden convicted on terrorism-related charges in New York federal court said on Thursday that his client should serve no more than 15 years in prison.

Kuwaiti-born Suleiman Abu Ghaith, 48, faces up to life behind bars after a jury convicted him in March of conspiring to kill Americans, conspiring to provide material support for terrorists, and providing such support.

The trial, which featured testimony from Abu Ghaith himself, offered an unusual glimpse into bin Laden's actions in the days following al Qaeda's attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, that killed nearly 3,000 people.

Prosecutors accused Abu Ghaith of serving as an al Qaeda mouthpiece, recording inflammatory videos that the group used in recruiting.

Abu Ghaith's lawyer, Stanley Cohen, argued in a court filing that his client was convicted solely on the basis of speech.

"The defendant faces the harshest of penalties for talk - and only talk - which is at times zealous, pious and devout; at other times intemperate; at still others, offensive to core values of humanity," Cohen wrote. "In this sense, he was not unlike an outrageous daytime 'shock-radio' host, or a World War II radio propagandist for a losing ideology." (Reuters) 

11:25 P.M. Three Yemeni soldiers and two Al-Qaida militants were killed when security forces foiled an attack by insurgents in the eastern province of Hadramout on Thursday, medical sources said.

The state news agency Saba said security forces had confronted Al-Qaida militants who had placed three car bombs in the Hadramout provincial capital of al-Mukallah. It said several militants were killed and several soldiers wounded.

"The fighters ... managed to destroy three car bombs in the Sitteen street in al-Mukallah before they reached their targets," Saba said, quoting a military source.

Ansar al-Sharia, an Al-Qaida-affiliated group in Yemen, claimed the attack on a Twitter account. Reuters was not immediately able to verify the authenticity of the account. (Reuters) 

10:59 P.M. Facing enormous pressure at home and abroad to step aside, Nuri al-Maliki dropped his bid for a third term as prime minister of Iraq on Thursday and pledged support for his replacement, moderate Shi'ite Haider al-Abadi.

Appearing on state television flanked by Abadi and other Shi'ite politicians, Maliki spoke of the grave "terrorist" threat from Islamic State Sunni militants before giving up on his fight to stay on.

"I announce before you today, to ease the movement of the political process and the formation of the new government, the withdrawal of my candidacy in favour of brother Dr. Haider al-Abadi," said Maliki.

Abadi is seen as a far less polarising figure who has a chance of uniting Iraqis against Sunni insurgents who have captured large parts of the country in the north and west - including Iraq's largest dam and five oil fields.

The announcement is likely to please the Sunni minority which dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein's iron-fisted rule but was then sidelined by Maliki, a relative unknown when he came to power in 2006 with strong U.S. backing.

The man who plotted against Saddam for years from exile drew comparisons with his former enemy, who had launched brutal crackdowns on Shi'ites and Kurds.

Critics accused Maliki of being an authoritarian leader with a sectarian agenda that drove Sunnis, including heavily-armed tribes, into the Islamic State camp and revived a sectarian civil war. (Reuters)  

10:36 P.M. The United Nations Security Council is set to try and weaken Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria on Friday by blacklisting six people and threatening sanctions against those who finance, recruit or supply weapons to the insurgents, diplomats said.

A British-drafted resolution, obtained by Reuters, targets the hardline Islamic State group - an Al-Qaida splinter group that has seized swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria and declared a caliphate - and Al-Qaida's Syrian wing Nusra Front.
Diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the 15-member council was expected to unanimously adopt the resolution. (Reuters) 

8:09 P.M. Lebanon on Thursday charged 43 Syrians, including an Islamist commander whose arrest sparked five days of fighting between Islamists and the Lebanese army, with belonging to armed terrorist groups and seeking to establish an Islamic emirate.

A judiciary source said 10 of those charged were in custody, among them 30-year-old Emad Gomaa, who had been a member of the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaida affiliate fighting President Bashar Assad's forces in Syria, but recently switched allegiance to the ultra-hardline Islamic State. (Reuters) 

7:36 P.M. A man was killed and two policemen were wounded in an attack on Quetta airport in western Pakistan on Thursday night, officials said, but the attackers did not breach the perimeter.

The dead man was not immediately identified. He was killed near an airforce base that shares a runway with the civilian airport.

Local residents heard at least eight blasts and gunfire that continued for around half an hour. Helicopters buzzed overhead, they said.

Sarfraz Bugti, home minister in the provincial government of Baluchistan, confirmed an attack had taken place. He said rockets had been fired but did not land in the base.

Four bombs were defused near another air force base in Quetta called Khalid, he said. He did not say who had carried out the attack. (Reuters)

3:45 P.M. The United States will soon deliver additional weaponry to help bolster the Lebanese military as it faces a growing threat from Islamic militants amid the fallout from the civil war in neighboring Syria, the U.S. ambassador said Thursday.

Ambassador David Hale said the deliveries come in response to a request from the Lebanese armed forces for emergency assistance after Islamic militants overran a Lebanese town near the Syrian border, killing and kidnapping soldiers. (AP) Read the full article

1:26 P.M.Turkish president-elect Tayyip Erdogan urged his ruling AK Party on Thursday to work for a stronger parliamentary majority next year to enable them to re-write the constitution, signaling no let-up in his drive to create an executive presidency.

"I said before that the presidential elections would be the starting gun for the 2015 (general) elections," Erdogan told a meeting of AK Party provincial leaders in a speech broadcast on Turkish television.

"Our target should be to acquire at least a majority to establish the new constitution. I don't believe that you will compromise on this," he said.  

9:30 A.M.Thousands of protesters preparing to march on the Pakistani capital gathered in the eastern city of Lahore on Thursday, buoyed by a last-minute court order that a peaceful march could go ahead and a government promise to obey the ruling.

The festive air at the home of cricketer-turned-opposition politician Imran Khan was in stark contrast to the grim determination at the blockaded home of cleric Tahir ul-Qadri, another would-be protest leader whose march has been banned.

Khan and Qadri are not officially allied though both are calling for the ouster of a government they condemn as corrupt, which came to power after a sweeping general election victory for the party of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last year.

"We are the ones who pose the biggest challenge to the government, that is why they are opposing us so strongly," Qadri's spokesman, Shahid Mursaleen, said late on Wednesday.

"The police are killing us and our people only have sticks to protect themselves." 

3:00 A.M. A possible U.S. mission to evacuate Yazidis trapped on Iraq's Mount Sinjar after they fled Islamic State fighters is now unlikely to take place, following the assessment of a U.S. team, the Pentagon said on Wednesday.

"The team has assessed that there are far fewer Yazidis on Mt. Sinjar than previously feared," the Pentagon said in a statement. "The Yazidis who remain are in better condition than previously believed and continue to have access to the food and water that we have dropped.

"Based on this assessment the interagency has determined that an evacuation mission is far less likely," the statement said, adding that the United States would continue to provide humanitarian assistance as needed.