Middle East Updates / Iraqi Forces Break Two-month Islamic State Siege of Shi'ite Town

Nusra says UN soldiers kidnapped in retaliation for 'collusion' with Assad; Iran FM says ready to meet Saudi counterpart; U.S. bombs Islamic state fighters in north Iraq.

Haaretz's latest analyses on the Middle East:  Choosing between Hezbollah and the Islamic State (Zvi Bar'el) | Israel's new enemies across the Syrian border (Amos Harel) | Gaza war? Merely a blip on the Mideast radar (Zvi Bar'el) | Riddle of the Sphinx: How does Egypt do it? (Ilene Prusher) 


See Saturday's Middle East Updates

9:18 P.M. Thirty seven people were killed when a suicide bomber rammed an explosives-packed Humvee military vehicle into a construction site, used by the army and police, according to two police officers and a medical official.

The blast killed 22 security personnel and 15 civilians, the medical and police sources said. The nine-storey building under construction, used as a base by security personnel, was located in the centre of Ramadi in western Anbar province.

Ramadi and its sister city Falluja have been plagued by fighting between the security forces and the extremist Islamic State and other armed groups since January. (Reuters) 

2:14 P.M. A military spokesman and a lawmaker say Iraqi security forces and Shi'ite militiamen have broken a two-month siege imposed by the Islamic State extremist group on the northern Shi'ite Turkmen town of Amirli.

Army spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said Sunday that forces "reached" the town, but gave no details. Turkmen lawmaker Fawzi Akram al-Tarzi said the forces entered the town from two directions and are distributing aid to residents.

About 15,000 Shiite Turkmens were stranded in the farming community some 170 kilometers (105 miles) north of Baghdad. (AP)

1:07 P.M. The Al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front said it abducted 45 Fijian UN peacekeepers in retaliation for the United Nation's "collusion" with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

"The UN has completely ignored all the massacres committed and being committed by this wanton enemy (al-Assad's regime) against defenseless Muslims," al-Nusra said in a statement posted on a jihadist website. The statement could not be independently verified.

The radical Sunni group also accused the UN Disengagement Observer Force of "colluding" with al-Assad's troops to attack "vulnerable Muslims" in the UN-manned buffer zone between Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights. (DPA)

11:46 A.M. Iran's foreign minister says he is ready to meet his Saudi Arabian counterpart on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September and to visit the Gulf powerhouse later this year.

Mohammad Javad Zarif's remarks at a press conference Sunday come amid a slight diplomatic warming between Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Shiite-majority Iran, which are fiercely divided over the civil war in Syria and other regional conflicts.

Zarif's deputy visited Saudi Arabia last week and met Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, in the highest-level bilateral talks between the two Middle East powers since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, was elected last year. (AP)

11:15 A.M. Lebanon's official news agency says an al-Qaida-linked Syrian rebel group has released five Lebanese soldiers captured earlier this month in a cross-border raid.

The soldiers were captured when militants from Syria rampaged through the Lebanese town of Arsal for five days, kidnapping and killing soldiers before withdrawing toward the Syrian border, taking with them a number of captive soldiers and policemen.

The National News Agency said Sunday that the Nusra Front, al-Qaida's Syrian affiliate, released the five men late Saturday and that the army received them Sunday morning. All five are Sunni Muslims. (AP)

11:02 A.M. The head of the Fijian army said on Sunday negotiations for the release of 44 soldiers seized by an al Qaida-linked group on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights were being pursued but he worried there had been no word on where his men are being held.

The UN peacekeepers from Fiji were detained by Islamist militants on Thursday, one of several groups attacked in the volatile frontier between Syria and Israel.

The United Nations and Manila said on Sunday all of more than 70 Philippine troops trapped by Islamists in a different area of the frontier were now safe, but it is still not known where the Fijians are being held.

"We still at this stage cannot confirm the exact location of our troops. We are continuing negotiations at all levels," Fijian Army Commander Brigadier General Mosese Tikoitoga told a media conference in Fiji on Sunday.

He said they had been assured that the men were being treated well and had come to no harm, he said.

"However, we are still very concerned that we cannot confirm at this stage their exact location, whether they are still in Syria or whether they have been moved to neighboring countries," Tikoitoga said. (Reuters)

9:17 A.M. Some young Muslims are attracted to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria because of its brutality, which makes it appear "more authentic" than Al-Qaida, the head of Germany's domestic intelligence agency said in an interview on Sunday.

"There is a link between the successes IS has had so far in Iraq and the activities here in Germany and the propaganda and canvassing activities aimed at young jihadists," said Hans-Georg Maassen, head of Germany's BfV domestic intelligence agency.

"The Islamic State is, so to speak, the 'in' thing - much more attractive than the Nusra Front, the Al-Qaida spin-off in Syria," the BfV chief told Deutschlandfunk public radio.

"What attracts people is the intense brutality, the radicalism and rigor. That suggests to them that it is a more authentic organisation even than Al-Qaida," he said. "Al-Qaida fades besides the Islamic State when it comes to brutality."

German intelligence estimates that at least 400 Germans have joined the IS insurgency in Syria and Iraq. Maassen said there was evidence that five German citizens or residents had carried out suicide attacks for the insurgents there in recent months.

The BfV has estimated that there are some 43,000 Islamists in Germany, with the numbers of the ultra-conservative Salafi movement seeing particular growth. The agency says the Internet plays an important role in recruiting youngsters. (Reuters)

7:39 A.M. The Tunisian Coast Guard has recovered at least 41 bodies of migrants, mostly Syrians, who drowned trying to sail to Europe, a local official said Saturday.

The bodies were found after a search was launched Friday after a few decomposed bodies washed up on shore suggesting the sinking of another boat carrying migrants from North Africa to Europe, seeking a better life.

Mustapha Abdel Kebir, the mayor of Ben Guerdane, a border town with Libya, said that identity papers recovered from the bodies indicate that most were Syrian and the dead included women and children.

Abdel Kebir said the boat was most likely an overcrowded zodiac — essentially an inflatable raft — that likely sailed from Libya before sinking and the currents washed the bodies up on Tunisian shores.

He added that fishermen reported seeing many more bodies in the sea over the past days.

Tunisian fishermen say they regular fish migrants, both dead and alive, out of the sea, attempting to make their way to Europe and say they're quickly being overcome by this year's flood of Africans and Middle Easterners seeking a new life in Europe.

The fishermen say they've seen up 30 boats of migrants leaving each day for Italy, each with a capacity of between 50 and 250 people, but it's difficult to get exact numbers. Organizations such as the Red Crescent are trying to help some of the migrants picked up by the Tunisian Coast Guard.

With the breakdown in security in neighboring Libya, it has become a major jumping off point for boats carrying Syrian and sub-Saharan African refugees seeking a better life in Europe. (AP)

4:57 A.M. Pentagon says the U.S. bombed Islamic state fighters and made humanitarian airdrops to residents in north Iraq. (Reuters)


4:20 A.M. The Philippine military chief says more than 70 Filipino peacekeepers have escaped from two areas in the Golan Heights that came under attack by Syrian rebels. (AP) Read the full article

2:30 A.M. Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott says Australian military aircraft will fly guns and ammunition into Iraq to help fight Islamic State militants.

Abbott said in a statement on Sunday: "The United States government has requested that Australia help to transport stores of military equipment, including arms and munitions, as part of a multi-nation effort."

He says: "Royal Australian Air Force C-130 Hercules and C-17 Globemaster aircraft will join aircraft from other nations including Canada, Italy, France, the United Kingdom and the United States to conduct this important task."

He did not say when the air drops would begin, but News Corp. newspaper reported on Sunday that the transport aircraft based at al-Minhad Air Base outside Dubai could fly their first mission within days. (AP)