Middle East Updates / Iraq PM Abadi to Visit White House for Talks on Fight Against ISIS

ISIS forces attack Syrian army in Homs ; Rights group: Syrian insurgents 'mimicking ruthlessness' of army.

A pair of U.S. F-15E Strike Eagle
Archive: A pair of U.S. F-15E Strike Eagle fly over northern Iraq, after conducting airstrikes in Syria. AP

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11:15 P.M. Iraq PM Abadi to visit White House for talks on fight against ISIS

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will visit the White House next month for meetings expected to focus on the effort to defeat the Islamic State militant group, the White House said Monday.

Al-Abadi will meet with President Barack Obama on April 14, a White House statement said. It will be his first visit to Washington since he became prime minister in August.

"The president and prime minister will discuss a range of issues, including continued US support to Iraq to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL," the statement said, using an alternative reference for Islamic State.

Al-Abadi's visit "underscores the strategic partnership between the United States and Iraq and the strong US commitment to political and military cooperation ... in the joint fight against ISIL."

The United States withdrew from Iraq in 2011, but a few thousand troops have returned to help train Iraqi troops to take on the jihadist group.

Iraq earlier this month launched a major ground offensive to retake the city of Tikrit, 180 kilometers north of Baghdad. The offensive appears to have made little progress in recent days. Al-Abadi has said forces are moving slowly to minimize harm to civilians remaining inside the city. (DPA)

8:56 P.M. U.S., allies conduct 14 air strikes against ISIS

The United States and its coalition allies have staged eight air strikes against Islamic State militants in Syria and six in Iraq since early on Sunday, the Combined Joint Task Force overseeing the operations said in a statement on Monday.

All eight air strikes in Syria targeted Islamic State fighting positions, tactical units and a vehicle near Kobani. In Iraq, strikes hit targets near Mosul, Ramadi and Sinjar, among other locations, the statement said. (Reuters) 

3:05 P.M. Rebels shell Syria's Aleppo, killing at least 12

An activist group and state media are reporting that Syrian rebels have shelled government-held parts of the northern city of Aleppo, killing at least 12 people.

State-run Syrian TV said Monday's shelling killed 12 people, including children, and wounded 30 in Syria's largest city and former commercial center.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the shelling killed 13 and wounded many others, of which 10 were seriously wounded.

Aleppo has been carved into government- and opposition-held sectors since mid-2012. (AP)

1:35 P.M.Purported Islamic State affiliate claims Yemen mass killing

A purported affiliate of the Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the mass killing of 29 soldiers last week in a southern city taken over the country's local Al-Qaida branch.

They made the claim Monday on a Twitter account known to be associated with the militants, who previously claimed responsibility for suicide bombings Friday in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, that killed 137 people. U.S. officials have been skeptical about whether the militants have direct links to the Islamic State group.

Al-Qaida in Arabian Peninsula took over the city of al-Houta on Friday before being pushed out by Yemeni forces. Al-Qaida militants had not claimed the soldiers' killing in al-Houta.

The chaos comes as the country's embattled president faces a Shiite rebel insurrection. (AP)

12:40 P.M. ISIS moves west to attack Syrian army in Homs

Islamic State fighters attacked a military airport in Syria's Homs province on Monday as they pushed on with an offensive against government strongholds towards the west, a monitoring group said.

Skirmishes by Islamic State -- which is strongest in the northeast and east -- into the provinces of Hama, Homs and even Damascus pose a fresh challenge for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Syria's army has carved a bulwark of territory from Damascus through the cities of Homs and Hama to the western coast by defeating other, less powerful militias including rebels fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the violence through a network of sources in the country, said Islamic State attacked a military airport in Tadmur, a town in Homs province, early on Monday. (Reuters)
 

10:15 A.M. Senior Iranian nuclear negotiator urges world powers to reach understanding

A senior Iranian nuclear negotiator has urged world powers on Monday to find a "common position" to achieve a "balanced" final nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic as a deadline for negotiations looms.

A report Monday by Iran's state-run Press TV satellite news channel quoted Abbas Araghchi making the comment about talks between Iran and the six-nation group including the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.

The U.S. and Iran broke off nuclear negotiations in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Friday for consultations but they are to resume the make-or-break talks Wednesday.

The talks seek a permanent deal to cap Iran's nuclear program in exchange for the easing of economic sanctions. (AP)

9:00 A.M. Saudi Arabian king invites Iraqi PM for state visit, sign of improving ties  

Saudi Arabia's King Salman has invited Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to visit the kingdom, Abadi's office said on Monday, in the biggest sign yet of improving ties between the countries after decades of tension.

Abadi's office gave no details about the invitation or possible visit, which would be his first as prime minister, including when it might take place. But the invitation caps months of better cooperation between Riyadh and Baghdad since the prime minister replaced Nouri al-Maliki last summer.

Iraq and Saudi Arabia have found new room to cooperate with each other in the fight against the Islamic State group, which both see as a threat, but long-held suspicions persist.

Saudi Arabia hopes Abadi will do more to include Iraqi Sunnis in the government than Maliki did, and will prove more able to distance himself from Iran, Baghdad's main ally and Riyadh's biggest regional foe.

"His Majesty the King of Saudi Arabia in his turn expressed Saudi Arabia's desire to open horizons of cooperation with Iraq ... and gave an invitation to Prime Minister Abadi to visit Saudi Arabia," said the statement on Abadi's office's website. (Reuters)

6:19 A.M. Rights group: Syrian insurgents 'mimicking ruthlessness' of army

Insurgent groups in Syria have carried out scores of indiscriminate attacks that have killed and maimed civilians in violation of the laws of war, a Human Rights Watch report said on Monday.

The report said armed groups could not point to abuses by government forces and allied militias to justify their own violence, which it said had often targeted areas with a high concentration of religious minorities.

"We've seen a race to the bottom in Syria, with rebel groups mimicking the ruthlessness of government forces with devastating consequences for civilians," said Nadim Houry, HRW's deputy Middle East director.

The report covered attacks between January 2012 to April 2014 in and around Damascus and Homs. Some attacks were claimed by groups such as Al-Qaida's Syria wing Nusra Front and the ultra-hardline Islamic State, HRW said. However, members of the "Free Syrian Army" and other rebel groups also appear to have carried out deliberate, deadly attacks on civilian areas, the HRW report found.

Free Syrian Army is a name adopted by a plethora of mainstream rebel groups that often operate independently of each other. Some of these groups have received support from Assad's Western and Arab foes.

The research was based on victim and witness accounts, on-site investigations, videos and information on social media. It described attacks using car bombs, mortars and rockets.

Many of the areas targeted have a large population of religious minorities including Christians, Alawites, Shi'ites and Druze which are seen by Sunni Muslim insurgents as supportive of the government, the report said.

The report urged the United Nations Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court and impose an arms embargo on forces implicated in widespread or systematic abuses, whichever side they were fighting on. (Reuters)

12:17 A.M. Canada PM to talk to NATO head about expanding mission against ISIS

Canada's prime minister will talk about his plan to extend and expand Canada's military mission against the Islamic State group at a meeting with NATO's secretary general.

A senior government official said Sunday that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will make clear Canada's continued commitment when he meets Monday with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in Ottawa. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Harper has said he'll provide details about extending and expanding the mission this coming week. It's due to expire in April.

Canada has 69 special forces soldiers with Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq. The mission also includes six CF-18 fighter jets based in Kuwait.

Canada's military is not involved in Syria, but Harper intends to deal with that issue. (AP)