Middle East Updates / Protesters Praise Charlie Hebdo Gunmen in Istanbul

Obama warns Congress new sanctions could blow up Iran deal; France to stop would-be jihadists from leaving country; ISIS executes 17 men in Syria following attacks from unidentified gunmen.

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Turkish protesters hold a banner with pictures of Cherif and Said Kouachi (R), two Islamist gunmen who killed 12 people in an attack on Charlie Hebdo, during a demonstration in Istanbul, Jan. 16, 2015Credit: AFP

For Thursday's updates, click here

A Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighter reacts during what the FSA said were clashes with forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Assad in the eastern Hama countryside October 14, 2013. Credit: Reuters

Latest updates:

8:15 P.M. Obama warns Congress new sanctions could blow up Iran deal

President Barack Obama says the likelihood is very high that nuclear negotiations with Iran would collapse if Congress moves forward with new sanctions. He says he will veto a sanctions bill if it comes to his desk.

Obama is urging members of Congress including Democrats not to pursue new sanctions while talks are underway. He says there's no good argument for undermining the negotiations.

Obama says if the talks collapse, there will be no constraint on Iran moving ahead with its nuclear program. He says Iran will be able to blame the U.S. for blowing up the deal, and other countries will see it that way as well.

Many U.S. lawmakers want more sanctions to keep up pressure on Iran. Negotiators face a March target date to reach a framework accord.

7:08 P.M. Saudis to review blogger's flogging case in Supreme Court - BBC

The case of a Saudi blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes, which has been widely criticised by Western governments, has been referred to the Supreme Court by the King's office, the BBC reported on Friday.

Badawi was flogged 50 times last week but a second round of lashings due on Friday was postponed for what a source told Reuters were medical reasons.
Political stakes over Badawi's case, which included a charge of insulting Islam, have been heightened by the Paris attack on Charlie Hebdo newspaper and its subsequent publication of more cartoons featuring Islam's Prophet Mohammad.
In a brief newsbreak without quotes, the BBC said Badawi's wife had told it the decision had given the blogger hope that the authorities want to end his punishment. (Reuters)

5:44 P.M. Saudi's top clerical body condemns Prophet Mohammad cartoons

Saudi Arabia's top clerical council, the only body in the kingdom authorized to issue Islamic legal opinions or fatwas, on Friday denounced the publication of "disrespectful drawings" of the Prophet Mohammed.

"Injuring the feelings of Muslims with these drawings ... will not achieve the right aim. It will serve extremists who are looking for justification for murder and terrorism," Fahad bin Saad al-Majid of the Council of Senior Scholars was quoted as saying in a statement carried on state news agency SPA.

French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo's first edition after an attack on its Paris office by Islamist gunmen killed 12 people featured a cartoon of a weeping Prophet Mohammad on its cover. 

"It is the duty of the world to create mutual respect and constructive co-existence and that would not be by insulting religious sanctities and symbols," the council's statement said.

Riyadh issued an unqualified statement of condemnation of last week's attack but it did not strongly criticize the images and its ambassador took part in a solidarity march in which protesters carried the cartoons. (Reuters)

5:25 P.M. France to stop would-be jihadists from leaving country

French authorities can now ban suspected jihadists from leaving the country, as part of tougher anti-terrorism measures activated after last week's deadly attacks.

The law, approved by parliament in November, entered into force Friday. It gives French authorities the power to confiscate passports and identity cards when they have "serious reasons" to believe that a person intends to travel abroad with terrorist purpose or to join countries where terrorist groups are operating, such as Syria or Iraq.

The law also allows the authorities to stop people with French residency — but not citizenship — from returning to France if their presence would be "a real, present, serious threat" to security.

Prompted by the terror attacks in Paris last week, the government is working on new phone-tapping and other intelligence laws. (AP)

3:53 P.M. Over 150 people honor perpetrators of French attacks in Istanbul

Some 160 people in Istanbul held funeral prayers on Friday to honor Cherif and Said Kouachi, the gun-toting brothers who killed 12 people last week in Paris.

The protestors — all of them men — shouted "God is great!" They held a banner showing former al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden's picture on one side, and the Kouachi brothers superimposed over the Parisian skyline on the other.

Smaller posters with "We are all Cherif" and "We are all Said" were bounced up and down as the men chanted in unison.

The gathering came as French and German authorities arrested at least 12 people Friday suspected of links to the Islamic State group and a Paris train station was evacuated, with Europe on alert for new potential terrorist attacks. (AP)

2:20 P.M. Food enters besieged district in Syria's Homs city after local deal

UN aid workers have started delivering food to tens of thousands of people trapped in a besieged district of Homs city in Syria following negotiations with warring parties, officials said on Friday.

In the absence of a nationwide peace deal, relief groups have tried to get localized agreements with fighters on all sides of the conflict to get convoys through to people in battle zones.

The United Nations did not give details of the Homs agreement but local opposition activists told Reuters there was a temporary ceasefire.

Food was sent to Al Wa'er on Thursday, Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the UN's World Food Program, told journalists in Geneva.

"Following extensive negotiations between parties to the conflict, a first convoy carrying 8,500 family food rations were delivered to the besieged area of Al Wa'er," -- enough food for about 42,500 people for one month, Byrs said.

Two more convoys over the coming days will deliver food to 75,000 people, she added, 30 percent of the estimated quarter of a million people the United Nations says are trapped in besieged areas across Syria.

A UN official in Geneva said that the WFP rations were aboard an 18-truck convoy that also delivered some medical supplies and non-food items from other UN agencies. (Reuters)

Damage in Homs. Photo by Reuters

1:58 P.M. Saudi Arabia postpones public flogging of activist

Saudi Arabia has postponed Friday's public flogging of activist and blogger Raif Badawi on medical grounds, a source familiar with matter told Reuters.

Rights watchdog Amnesty International also reported the postponement on its Twitter account.

Badawi's first 50 lashes in public took place last Friday and he was due to be flogged again after Friday's prayers.

Badawi, who set up the "Free Saudi Liberals" website, was arrested in June 2012 for offences including cyber crime and disobeying his father. He was sentenced last year to 10 years in jail, a fine of 1 million riyals ($266,666) and 1,000 lashes. (Reuters)  

1:31 P.M. Series of bombings, mortar attacks kill nine in Baghdad

Authorities in Iraq say a series of bombings and mortar attacks have killed nine people in the capital, Baghdad.

Police officials say the first attack took place Friday around noon when mortar shells landed on houses in Baghdad's northwest district of Shula, killing four people and wounding 13 others.

Later on, a bomb blast on a commercial street killed three people and wounded 11 others in Baghdad's northeastern suburb of Husseiniya.

Police officials said a bomb also exploded near a line of automobile spare part shops in western Baghdad, killing two people and wounding nine others.

Medical officials confirmed the casualty figures from all attacks. All spoke anonymously as they weren't authorized to talk to the media.

Nobody immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks. (AP)

1:11 P.M. Russia FM: I expect Syria peace talks in Moscow to be successful despite 'tactical maneuvering'

Russia's foreign minister says he expects the prospective Syria peace talks in Moscow to be a success despite reports about some key opposition groups' refusal to attend.

Sergey Lavrov on Friday cast those reports as part of "tactical maneuvering" ahead of the negotiations, but he wouldn't say whom Moscow expects to see at the talks.

Russia, which has staunchly backed Syrian President Bashar Assad throughout the nation's civil war, hopes to host the talks later this month between the government and the mainstream opposition. The effort could help Moscow raise its international profile amid tensions with the West over Ukraine.

Moscow has said that the government could be represented by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem or other officials, but Assad himself would be unlikely to participate. (AP)

11:52 A.M. Libya factions agree to continue UN-backed Geneva talks

Libyan factions have agreed to continue United Nations-backed negotiations in Geneva next week over ending the country's political crisis, the U.N. said, though key representatives from Tripoli's self-declared government have so far stayed away.

Nearly four years after a NATO-backed revolt ousted Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is in turmoil with two rival governments and two parliaments backed by allied armed factions who Western governments fear may drag the country into civil war.

The internationally recognised government of Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni and the elected House of Representatives have operated out of the east of the country after a faction called Libya Dawn took over Tripoli in the summer, set up its own government and reinstated the old parliament known as the GNC.

A delegation from the House of Representatives and parties allied to Tripoli attended this week's talks in Geneva, but major representatives from Libya Dawn and the GNC parliament refused to join, casting doubt over efforts to form a unity administration.

"Participants agreed to return to Geneva next week for a new round of dialogue after holding the necessary consultations," the U.N. said in a statement late on Thursday. "The mission and the participants expressed their hope that all the invited representatives, including those who did not attend this round, would take part in the talks next week."

The European Union has called the Geneva talks the "last chance" to resolve Libya's crisis. Rival brigades of former rebels and their political allies who once fought together against Gaddafi have since turned against each other in a scramble for control. (Reuters)

11:49 A.M. ISIS beheads, shoots 17 men in Syria following attacks from unidentified gunmen

Islamic State has beheaded or shot 17 men in Syria in the past two days as it faces increasing attacks from unidentified gunmen in areas it controls, a monitoring group said on Friday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which uses a network of sources across the country to report on the war, said the spike in execution-style killings follows the killing of 10 Islamic State fighters in hit-and-run attacks in several areas around Deir al-Zor province this month.

Deir al-Zor stretches from Raqqa to the border with Iraq and links Islamic State's self-declared caliphate in the two countries.

Syrian state news agency SANA said on Thursday Islamic State executed three civilians and displayed their bodies in the town of al-Mayadin. (Reuters) 

8:23 A.M. U.S. to deploy more than 400 troops to help train Syrian rebels in fight against ISIS

The U.S. military is planning to deploy more than 400 troops to help train Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State, along with hundreds of U.S. support personnel, a Pentagon spokesman told Reuters on Thursday.

The U.S. military has not yet identified where it will draw its forces from for the training mission, expected to begin in the spring at sites outside Syria, Colonel Steve Warren said. Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have offered to host the training.

Warren did not offer additional details on the troop figures, first reported by Defense One website.

The training program is a part of President Barack Obama's multi-year plan to field local forces in Syria to halt and eventually roll back Islamic State fighters, while pounding them with U.S.-led airstrikes. Read full article here

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