Middle East Updates / Obama: U.S. Will Not Be Intimidated by Islamic State Beheading

Amnesty International accuses Islamic State group of war crimes; Obama sending 350 more troops to protect U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

Obama talks about the humanitarian relief situation in Iraq, at the White House, August 7, 2014.
Obama talks about the humanitarian relief situation in Iraq, at the White House, August 7, 2014. Reuters

Haaretz's latest analyses on the Middle East: The real threat from Islamic State isn't in the Middle East (Anshel Pfeffer); Egypt: We’ll open Rafah crossing only if PA troops guard it (Amos Harel).


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Latest updates:

00:15 A.M. The United States on Wednesday named a new special representative for Muslim communities.

The appointment of Shaarik Zafar was announced by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who said Zafar's task was to help in the State Department's faith outreach efforts.

But Kerry also said he wanted to "underscore as powerfully as I know how" that the killers of American journalist Steven Sotloff were not the face of Islam.

Zafar's role is important because people of all faiths are migrating and mingling as never before in history, Kerry said, adding, "our faiths and our fates are inextricably linked."

The new position was created last year and will soon have 25 people with specialties ranging from religion to the training of diplomats to engage with religious figures, the Washington Post reported.

Zafar spent about 10 years working for U.S. federal agencies on subjects of prime interest to Muslims in the US such as civil rights violations, police surveillance and security screening at airports, the Post reported.

11:15 P.M. Al-Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahri on Wednesday announced the formation of an Indian branch of his militant group he said would spread Islamic rule and "raise the flag of jihad" across the subcontinent.

In a 55-minute video posted online, Zawahri also renewed a longstanding vow of loyalty to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, in an apparent snub to the Islamic State armed group challenging Al-Qaida for leadership of transnational Islamist militancy.

Zawahri described the formation of "Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent" as a glad tidings for Muslims "in Burma, Bangladesh, Assam, Gujurat, Ahmedabad, and Kashmir" and that the new wing would rescue Muslims there from injustice and oppression. (Reuters)

7:42 P.M. Thousands of angry mourners buried a Lebanese soldier beheaded by Islamic militants on Wednesday, rocking his flag-draped coffin and firing their guns into the air as they accused the government of neglect for failing to negotiate his release. The furor over the gruesome death of Sgt. Ali Sayid, 29, underscores the grave challenges that face the ill-equipped Lebanese military as it fends off an unprecedented jihadi threat from Syria-based militants.

Around two dozen more members of the country's security forces remain held captive by militants. They were seized in August when several groups, including the Islamic State group and Nusra Front, overran a Lebanese border town, killing and kidnapping soldiers and policemen. (AP)

6:34 P.M. The United Arab Emirates is calling for a coordinated international approach to tackle the "global scourge" of terrorism, citing a particular concern about the threat posed by the Islamic State militant group that has seized large swaths of Iraq and Syria.

The U.S.-allied Gulf nation's Foreign Affairs Ministry made the appeal in a statement Wednesday in which it expressed its "deepest concerns and strongest condemnation" of terrorist acts by extremist groups.

The Emirates has provided backing for some of the Sunni rebel groups fighting in Syria. U.S. officials say it and Egypt were behind airstrikes against Islamist-backed militants in Libya last month. The UAE has not commented on the airstrikes. (AP)

5:35 P.M Militants from the Islamic State group carried out a mass killing of hundreds of Iraqi soldiers captured when the extremists overran a military base north of Baghdad in June, a leading international watchdog said Wednesday. The incident at Camp Speicher, an air base that previously served as a U.S. military facility, was one of the worst atrocities perpetrated by the Islamic State group in its lightning offensive that seized large swaths of northern and western Iraq.

According to Human Rights Watch, new evidence indicates the Islamic State fighters killed between 560 and 770 men captured at Camp Speicher, near the city of Tikrit — a figure several times higher than what was initially reported. "These are horrific and massive abuses, atrocities by the Islamic State, and on a scale that clearly rises to the crimes against humanity," Fred Abrahams, special HRW adviser, told reporters in the northern city of Irbil on Wednesday. The al-Qaida-breakaway claimed in mid-June that it had "executed" about 1,700 soldiers and military personnel from Camp Speicher.

The group also posted graphic photos that appeared to show its gunmen massacring scores of Iraqi soldiers after loading the captives onto flatbed trucks and then forcing them to lie face-down in a shallow ditch, their arms tied behind their backs. The grisly images, meant to sap the morale of Iraqi security forces, and the number of slain troops could not be confirmed at the time. Human Rights Watch said in late June that analysis of photos and satellite images showed that between 160 and 190 men were killed in at least two locations between June 11 and 14. (AP)

4.36 P.M. A Syrian government airstrike hit a bus carrying civilians in eastern Syria on Wednesday, killing at least 13 people, most of them children, opposition activists said. But the government in the capital, Damascus, blamed the Islamic State group for the incident, describing it as "yet another massacre" committed by the extremist group.

Activists said the aircraft-fired missile struck the bus in the village of Shoula as it was traveling to Damascus from the eastern Deir el-Zour province. The civilians on the bus were the latest victims in Syria's civil war, which is now in its fourth year and which has killed more than 190,000 people, according to the United Nations. (AP) 

2:15 P.M. An Egyptian security official says an off-duty policeman has been shot dead by gunmen in the restive north of the Sinai Peninsula. (AP)

2:08 P.M. Pope Francis has sought to encourage Iraq's beleaguered Christians under threat from Islamic militants, saying they are the "heart" of the church and that the church is proud of them.

In comments translated into Arabic during his weekly Wednesday general audience, Francis said the Catholic Church is like a mother, and like any mother will "defend her defenseless and persecuted children."

Thousands of Christians have been forced from their homes by Islamic State militants who have carved out a self-styled caliphate in the large area straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border that it now controls.

Francis has said it was legitimate to use force to stop the militants, but that the international community should decide how to do so.

He said: "The church suffers with you and is proud of you." (AP)

12:53 P.M. President Barack Obama said Wednesday that the United States will not be intimidated by Islamic State militants after the beheading of a second American journalist and will build a coalition to "degrade and destroy" the group. (AP)

12:51 P.M. Britain's foreign minister says Islamic State's seizure of a British hostage did not make airstrikes on the militants more likely, but said he wasn't ruling that option out. (Reuters)

5:19 A.M. An international rights group accused the extremist Islamic State group on Tuesday of systematic "ethnic cleansing" in northern Iraq targeting indigenous religious minorities, as well as conducting mass killings of men and abducting women.

In a new report, Amnesty International said militants abducted "hundreds, if not thousands" of women and girls of the Yazidi faith. The extremists also killed "hundreds" of Yazidi men and boys, Amnesty said. In at least one incident, the report said militants rounded up on trucks, took them to the edge of their village and shot them.

The 26-page report adds to a growing body of evidence outlining the scope and extent of the Islamic State group's atrocities since it began its sweep from Syria across neighboring Iraq in June. The militants since have seized much of northern and western Iraq, and have stretched to the outskirts of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. In its report, Amnesty detailed how the advance of Islamic State group fighters expelled an estimated 830,000 people — mostly Shiites and those belonging to tiny religious minorities that barely exist outside of Iraq. (AP)

4:50 A.M. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Wednesday declined to rule out sending combat troops to support U.S. air strikes in Iraq, amid a growing confrontation with radical Islamists who have seized large swaths of that country and neighboring Syria.

Abbott was asked by a journalist whether "boots on the ground" were needed to push back the Islamic State militant group, which on Tuesday released a video purporting to show the beheading of a second American journalist, Steven Sotloff.

"Many countries are talking to one another about what is the best way forward here but plainly ISIS is a threat not just to the people of the Middle East, but to the wider world," he said, using an acronym for the Sunni militant group.

"This is a conflict which we understandably wish to avoid, but it is a conflict which sadly, is reaching out to us, as we have seen."

Although Australia is not a NATO member, its troops fought alongside the coalition in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it is expected to accept formal membership in the coalition's Enhanced Partnership Program at a summit later this week. (Reuters) 

3:40 A.M. U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered about 350 more troops to Baghdad to protect the U.S. Embassy in the Iraqi capital and is sending top officials to the Middle East to "build a stronger regional partnership" against Islamic State militants, the White House said on Tuesday.

Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby added that the move would bring the total number of U.S. military personnel responsible for bolstering diplomatic security in Iraq up to about 820. (Reuters)