Middle East Updates / ISIS May Attack Jordan Malls, U.S. Embassy Warns

ISIS abducts at least 150 Christians in Syria; Turkish police detain dozens over illegal wiretapping.

Jordanian air force pilot raises his arm as he taxis his jet at airbase in Azraq, Jordan.
Jordanian air force pilot raises his arm as he taxis his jet at airbase in Azraq, Jordan. February 4, 2015. AP

For Tuesday's updates, click here

10:15 P.M. More moderate Syrians ready to battle ISIS than expected, U.S. official says

Moderate Syrian fighters in greater numbers than U.S. officials had expected are stepping forward to battle Islamic State militants, the White House's special envoy

for the campaign against the group said on Wednesday.

"The numbers are much higher than we thought, and it's been a very encouraging. We've had an encouraging sense that there is an interest in this," retired General John Allen, President Barack Obama's envoy to the anti-IS coalition, told a U.S. Senate committee.

U.S. officials have said they plan to train about 5,000 Syrian fighters per year for three years at sites outside Syria as part of the campaign to stop Islamic State, which has seized swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.

Allen testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as lawmakers began considering Obama's request for a formal three-year authorization for the campaign against ISIS. (Reuters)  

6:59 P.M. ISIS may attack Jordan malls, U.S. Embassy warns 

The U.S. Embassy in Jordan has issued a warning to citizens that "high-end malls" in Jordan's capital could be attacked as the kingdom takes part in airstrikes targeting the extremist Islamic State group.

The embassy's statement Wednesday night did not elaborate on the threat to Amman, though it said it was "judged to be credible." It said Jordan's government "has taken steps to increase security at these locations."

There was no immediate comment from Jordanian officials.

The Islamic State group, which controls about a third of Syria and Iraq, burned a captive Jordanian pilot to death earlier this month, sparking widespread anger across the kingdom. In an initial response, Jordan executed two Iraqi al-Qaida prisoners and immediately launched airstrikes against the group. (AP)

5:12 P.M. ISIS seize 100 Iraqi tribesmen before battle for Tikrit 

Islamic State fighters have abducted 100 Sunni Muslim tribesmen near the city of Tikrit, local tribal leaders said on Wednesday, apparently to neutralise suspected opponents before a widely expected army offensive.

Iraqi soldiers and pro-government Shi'ite militias have been massing for days in preparation for an attack on Islamic State strongholds along the Tigris River to the north and south of Tikrit, hometown of executed former president Saddam Hussein.

Tikrit, about 150 km (95 miles) north of Baghdad, has been controlled by the Sunni Muslim radicals since they swept through northern Iraq in June, scattering Iraq's security forces.

Tribal leaders said Islamic State fighters had detained 42 Sunni tribesmen in the village of Rubaidha on Tuesday whom they suspected of being ready to take up arms against them.

"They broke into the houses and asked for mobiles," said Hatam al-Obeidi, a Rubaidha resident who escaped to the town of Tuz Khurmatu on Wednesday.

"They were checking everything in the mobiles that might show that the owner is against them," he said, adding that his own telephone had been returned to him after a gunman told him he was "clean". (Reuters)

4:33 P.M. Libyan parliament proposes Haftar to lead army

The president of Libya's elected parliament has proposed appointing army general Khalifa Haftar as top army commander, parliament's spokesman said on Wednesday.

The decision shows the increasing influence of military figures in the official government and parliament, which has been forced to operate from eastern Libya since an armed group called Libya Dawn seized the capital Tripoli in summer.

"Mr Aguila Saleh (parliament's president) has proposed to appoint Haftar," spokesman Farraj Hashem told Reuters. "The House of Representatives supports this."

He said a decree appointing Haftar would still need to be signed by Saleh, who has quasi-presidential powers.

Haftar, an army general, has emerged as would-be strongman in the east, where the internationally recognized prime minister, Abdullah al-Thinni, has been based since losing control of Tripoli. (Reuters)

11:59 A.M. Turkish police detain dozens over illegal wiretapping

Turkish police have detained dozens of people in the latest raid over illegal wiretapping targeting supporters of U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, President Tayyip Erdogan's ally-turned-foe, sources said.

The security sources said arrest warrants were issued for 54 people and 37 of them had so far been held in simultaneous raids centred on Ankara and spanning 20 provinces across Turkey.

Scores of police officers have already been detained as part of the investigations since the middle of last year. Raids were carried out in 12 cities on Feb. 8 and 17 officers were remanded in custody a week later.

Erdogan accuses Gulen of setting up a "parallel state" within the Turkish state apparatus and of trying to topple him, blaming Gulen's supporters within the police and judiciary for a corruption inquiry that rocked the government late in 2013. (Reuters) 

6:00 A.M ISIS abducts at least 150 Christians in Syria

Islamic State militants have abducted at least 150 people from Assyrian Christian villages in northeastern Syria they had raided, Christian Syrian activists said on Tuesday.

A Syrian Christian group representing several NGOs inside and outside the country said it had verified at least 150 people missing, including women and the elderly, who had been kidnapped by the militants.

Earlier the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 90 were abducted when the militants carried out dawn raids on rural villages inhabited by the ancient Christian minority west of Hasaka, a city mainly held by the Kurds.

The United States condemned the attacks in Hasaka and called for the immediate and unconditional release of the civilians taken captive. The State Department said hundreds of others remain trapped in villages surrounded by Islamic State fighters in violence that has displaced more than 3,000 people.

"ISIL's latest targeting of a religious minority is only further testament to its brutal and inhumane treatment of all those who disagree with its divisive goals and toxic beliefs," spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement, using an acronym for Islamic State.

Psaki added that Syrians are also threatened by President Bashar al-Assad's intensified bombings and air strikes in an "unrelenting campaign of terror."
Syrian Kurdish militia launched two offensives against the militants in northeast Syria on Sunday, helped by U.S.-led air strikes and Iraqi peshmerga.

This part of Syria borders territory controlled by Islamic State in Iraq, where it committed atrocities last year against the Yazidi religious minority.

Islamic State did not confirm the kidnappings. Supporters posted photos online of the group's fighters in camouflage attire looking at maps and firing machine guns. The website said the photos were from Tel Tamr, a town near where the Observatory said the abductions occurred. (Reuters)