Middle East Updates / Reports: Bombing Kills Key Syrian Rebel Leader

Suicide bomber detonates belt in meeting of Ahrar al-Sham; Egypt to host donors conference on Gaza reconstruction; Islamic State uses child suicide bombers, UN rep says.

Reuters

Haaretz's latest analyses and opinions on the Middle East: Despite Arab League backing, Palestinians understand war on Islamic State comes first (Jack Khoury) | Muslim Brotherhood splinter group bids for peace with Egyptian regime (Zvi Bar'el)

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Latest updates [Tuesday]:

10:32 P.M. France will host an international conference on Iraq's security crisis on September 15, French President Francois Hollande's office said on Tuesday, as a multi-national coalition tries to marshal an offensive against Islamic State insurgents.

On Friday, Hollande will travel to Iraq to prepare the meeting and offer support to leaders combating the insurgents, becoming the first Western head of state to visit Iraq since Islamic State seized swathes of Iraqi territory this year.

Iraqi President Fuad Masum and leaders of regional and global powers will attend the conference in Paris, which comes days after the United States announced the creation of a 'core coalition' to combat Islamic State militants in Iraq.

The conference aims to coordinate efforts to fight the group and disrupt its financing, help Iraq form a new government, and accelerate humanitarian aid for populations in conflict areas, a French diplomatic source said.

While U.S. President Barack Obama has said the coalition will only attack IS fighters in Iraq, coalition partners including Britain have raised the possibility of striking them in Syria without asking for Syrian government approval.

"We need to think of ways to attack Daesh (Islamic State), which may in addition weaken (Syrian President Bashar) al Assad," the source said, adding that the coalition was reviewing legal options to launch such operations.

France, which has delivered some weapons to Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga soldiers fighting Islamic State, wants to maintain autonomy in any direct action and has yet to receive any U.S. request to join in strikes, the source said. (Reuters)

10:25 P.M. Egypt will host a donors conference on the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip on October 12 in Cairo following the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, the Egyptian foreign minister said on Tuesday.

The announcement carried on the state news agency came after Norway's foreign minister held talks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Egypt and Norway will chair the international conference.

Rebuilding Gaza will cost $7.8 billion, the Palestinian Authority said this month, in the most comprehensive assessment yet of damage from a seven-week war with Israel during which whole neighboorhoods and vital infrastructure were flattened.
The cost of rebuilding 17,000 Gazan homes razed by Israeli bombings would be $2.5 billion, the Authority said, and the energy sector needed $250 million after the Strip's only power plant was destroyed by two Israeli missiles.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri said invitations to conference would be extended soon. (Reuters)

9:45 P.M. The head of one of Syria's largest rebel groups was killed in a suicide bombing alongside many of his leading fighters, activists and state media reported Tuesday night, an attack likely to further weaken the country's already shaky armed opposition.

Hassan Aboud of Ahrar al-Sham, an ultraconservative Syrian rebel group, was killed in the northwestern town of Ram Hamdan in the Syrian province of Idlib, an activist collective called the Edlib News Network and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

Both groups said that other leading group members were killed after a suicide bomber detonated his explosives belt in a meeting of Ahrar al-Sham's leaders. The Observatory bases its information from a network of activists on the ground.

The group previously fought against the extremist Islamic State group, which now holds a swath of territory across Syria and Iraq. Ahrar al-Sham had blamed the Islamic State group for the killing of one of their leaders in February, a man known as Abu Khaled al-Souri.

Ahrar al-Sham advocates the implementation of an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam, but had worked with more moderate rebel groups trying to oustSyrian President Bashar Assad.

It had become the most prominent member of a broader rebel coalition known as the Islamic Front. But that group was struggling in recent months after it appeared that donor funding had dried up. (AP)

4:56 P.M. Former president of Lebanon's Michel Suleiman urges reserve call-up aimed at fighting Islamic State (Jack Khouri)

3:45 P.M. Turkey's parliament passed a law tightening Internet controls and expanding the powers of its telecoms authority late on Monday, weeks after a new government took office pledging the beginning of a "new Turkey."

The move comes on top of legislation passed in February that made it easier for the authorities to block access to web pages without a prior court order, prompting public anger and raising concern about free speech.

The new law expands those powers, allowing the TIB telecoms authority to block sites if it is deemed necessary for matters of "national security, the restoration of public order and the prevention of crimes". The February law limited these powers to cases of privacy violations.

The new legislation also gives the TIB, which reports to the prime minister's office, access to individuals' browsing history without a court order.

The reforms are part of the first package of legislation passed by parliament since Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister for more than a decade, was sworn in as president last month.

Turkey already has strict Internet laws under which thousands of websites have been blocked, from news portals viewed as close to Kurdish militants to gay dating sites. (Reuters)

2:32 P.M. A senior military official and state media say that Lebanese troops are advancing near Syria, almost separating a border town from rebel-held areas in nearby fields.

The military official and the National News Agency said Tuesday that troops captured a post they lost when Islamic extremists overran the town of Arsal last month, killing and capturing a number of soldiers and police officers.

The military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said "90 percent" of the area between the town of Arsal and its rebel-held outskirts that stretch to Syria are now held by troops.

The rebels' incursion into Arsal in August was the most serious spillover yet of Syria's conflict into the neighboring country. (AP)

1:42 P.M. Iraqi lawmakers urged the country's new prime minister on Tuesday to quickly assign the critical posts of defense and interior minister which will spearhead domestic efforts to combat the advance of extremist Sunni militants.

Addressing lawmakers late the night earlier, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi requested an additional week for the selection of these positions, saying that names have been proposed but the various political blocs have yet to reach a consensus. Lawmakers approved all of the candidates proposed for the new government, with the exception of a few posts, including the tourism and the water resources minister.

Like many positions in the Iraqi government, the job of defense minister has, in recent years, traditionally been assigned to a Sunni, while the interior minister has been a Shiite. Lawmakers say the country is at too critical a juncture to focus on such practices.

"I have fears that the vacant posts, mainly the defense and interior, will run without ministers or they will be given to persons affiliated to political parties instead of to people who are independent and professional," Sunni lawmaker Hamid al-Mutlaq told The Associated Press by phone. (AP)

1:25 P.M. South Africa is looking to resume oil imports from Iran, once its biggest supplier of crude, and hopes to resolve "sanction issues" that have blocked purchases within the next three months, its deputy foreign minister said on Tuesday.

South Africa halted crude purchases from Iran in June 2012 because of Western pressure. South Africa bought around 68,000 barrels of oil per day from Iran in the month before exports halted, around a quarter of its crude oil needs.

The announcement by deputy South African foreign minister Nomaindiya Mfeketo came after more than a day of talks in Pretoria with her Iranian counterpart. (Reuters) 

1:21 P.M. An Egyptian court sentenced a leader of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and an Islamist cleric to 20 years in prison on Tuesday for attempting to kill two policemen, part of a government crackdown that has severely weakened the group.

Mohamed El-Beltagy and cleric Safwat Hegazy were convicted of detaining and attempting to kill the policemen during protests against the military's overthrow of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi on July 3, 2013.

Two doctors who treated wounded protesters at a field hospital during the clashes, Mohammed Zenati and Azim Mohammed, were sentenced to 15 years each on the same charges.

Beltagy was a vocal critic of Mursi's overthrow, orchestrated by former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who went on to become Egypt's elected president.

Hegazy, who is also on the list of individuals banned from Britain "for stirring hatred", was a supporter of the Brotherhood and its media adviser.

He was arrested last August while trying to cross into Libya. The trial has been delayed since last year. Three sets of judges have stepped down from the case, citing uneasiness with pressure from the government. (Reuters)

12:45 P.M. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian urged the international community Tuesday to act to stabilize Libya and prevent it becoming a sanctuary for terrorists.

"We must act in Libya and mobilize the international community," Le Drian told Le Figaro newspaper, adding he would bring up the issue at a meeting of EU defence ministers Tuesday in Milan.

Le Drian said the cities risked falling into the hands of "jihadists."

Libya's desert south, meanwhile, had become "a sort of hub where terrorist groups come to stock up, including on weapons", he said.

Le Drian said French counterterrorism forces stationed in neighbouring Mali could move towards the border to prevent a spillover of the violence into Malian territory.

He also raised the possibility of bringing up Libya in the United Nations General Assembly. (DPA)

12:38 P.M. Saudi Arabia will host talks with the United States, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and fellow Gulf Arab states on Thursday in Jeddah, the kingdom said on Tuesday.

"The meeting will tackle the issue of terrorism in the region and the extremist organisations that stand behind it and the means of addressing it," a statement carried on the official Saudi Press Agency said. (Reuters)

12:32 P.M. Yemeni police have opened fire on Shiite protesters marching toward the prime minister's office in the capital, Sanaa, killing at least two people.

The shooting erupted during a rally on Tuesday by supporters of Shiite Hawthi rebels who have been fighting against Sunni tribesmen in the country's north.

As the demonstrators marched up to the government headquarters, the police first fired tear gas to try and disperse the crowds, then started shooting.

Medical officials said two people died. Witnesses at the scene said at least three were wounded by gunshots while several were injured in a stampede that erupted after the shooting, as the protesters tried to get away from the scene.

The officials and witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to talk to media. (AP)

10:43 A.M. The United Nations envoy to Libya has urged the country's rival militias to cease fire and work on a political settlement.

Bernardino Leon's visit to the eastern city of Tobruk, the seat of the elected parliament, came at a time Islamist-allied militias have cemented their control over the capital, Tripoli, after defeating rivals in battles that forced thousands to flee.

Leon told reporters on Monday after holding talks with lawmakers that the parliament is the "legitimate representative of the Libyan people." Islamist-allied militias contest this point, having formed their own government and revived an outgoing parliament to take over legislative and executive authorities. (AP)

9:34 A.M. Four citizens of the United Arab Emirates and one from the Comoros have gone on trial charged with trying to build a bomb in the Gulf Arab state, newspapers reported on Tuesday.

The five are among 15 accused of membership of Al-Qaida's Nusrah Front Syrian wing and another militant Syrian opposition group, Ahrar al-Sham, and of collecting funds for these groups, the newspapers reported.

The 15 on trial at the state security division of the federal supreme court are made up of nine Emiratis, four from the Comoros islands off east Africa and two Syrians, the reports said. Four Emiratis are being tried in their absence. All 11 who appeared in court denied the charges, the newspapers said.

The National reported without elaborating that the explosive device allegedly assembled by the five accused had leaked toxic chemical fumes that affected nearby residents.

The newspapers reported prosecutors as saying the accused had travelled to Syria to make contact with armed groups, and had collected money, devices and equipment for use in attacks on civilians in Syria.

Judge Mohammed Al Jarah Al Tenaiji agreed, and adjourned the trial to September 23. (Reuters) 

9:13 A.M. Iran's state-owned newspaper says authorities have detained three foreigners traveling through Iran under the suspicion of planning to join the extremists Islamic State group in neighboring Iraq.

Tuesday's report by the IRAN daily quoted Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli as saying Iranian border guards stopped several travelers en route to Iraq and had "three cases of arrests."

Fazli said Afghan and Pakistani nationals were arrested but did not provide a breakdown. The report did not say when or where the arrests happened. (AP)

7:37 A.M. The UN Security Council plans to demand countries "prevent and suppress" the recruitment and travel of foreign fighters to join extremist militant groups like Islamic State by ensuring it is considered a serious criminal offence under domestic laws.

The United States circulated a draft resolution late on Monday, obtained by Reuters, to the 15-member Security Council and hopes it can be unanimously adopted at a high-level meeting chaired by U.S. President Barack Obama on Sept. 24.

UN diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the council was likely to reach agreement on a resolution. A U.S. official said there appeared to be consensus among council members on how to tackle foreign extremist fighters. (Reuters) Read full article here

7:20 A.M. The radical militant group Islamic State has been using children as suicide bombers, a United Nations representative said late Monday.

Boys aged as young as 13 are used to carry weapons, guard strategic locations and arrest civilians, said Leila Zerrougui, the secretary-general's special representative for children and armed conflict, at a meeting of the Security Council in New York.

"Other children are used as suicide bombers," she said.

Up to 700 children have been killed or maimed in Iraq since the start of the year, according to UN figures. The Islamic State group has proclaimed a caliphate across parts of northern Syria and Iraq.

Zerrougui said she was appalled by the total disregard for human life shown by extremist armed groups such as the Islamic State and Boko Haram in Nigeria. (DPA)

10:23 P.M. The Iraqi parliament approved a new government headed by Haider Abadi as prime minister.

No interior or defense minister was named but Abadi pledged to do so within a week. Adel Abdel Mehdi from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq was named oil minister while Ibrahim Jafaari, a former premier, was named foreign minister.

The Iraqi government faces multiple crises, including the seizure of Sunni Muslim areas of the country by Islamic State fighters and other armed groups. (Reuters)

9:24 P.M. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says that as the U.S. considers how to expand operations against the Islamic State militants in Iraq, President Barack Obama needs to weigh all the consequences of what could be a lengthy campaign, and what could go wrong.

Speaking to reporters in Turkey, Hagel says the advice he gives the president has to include not just the start of any operation, but how it will end. But he says that's not an argument for inaction.

He says in talks with Congress about Obama's remarks scheduled for Wednesday there has been broad agreement that the Islamic State militants must be destroyed.

He said some lawmakers don't believe Obama needs any more legal authorizations from Congress to broaden the fight. Other members aren't so sure.

Hagel also said Turkey has limits to what it will do in the fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq, but the country will play a role in the regional campaign being developed.

Hagel met with top Turkish leaders Monday and says they are still assessing what their role will be. He would not provide details.

Turkey has been reluctant to wade into any military intervention against Islamic State militants, sensitive to the fact that they are holding 49 Turkish citizens hostage. Turkey is concerned about an insurgent backlash against the hostages if it takes a more overt role in the fight.

President Barak Obama on Wednesday will outline plans for an expanded campaign against the militants. That strategy depends on participation by regional partners such as Turkey. (AP)

3:57 P.M. The Arab League agreed to combat extremists like the Islamic State group. The resolution, issued after late-night meetings of Arab foreign ministers a day earlier, doesn't explicitly back American military action against the group. U.S. President Barack Obama is seeking an international coalition to challenge the Islamic State group and is expected to outline his plan Wednesday to the American people.

But the resolution, issued as a separate statement from a comprehensive one dealing with Arab affairs, reflected a new sense of urgency among the 22-member states to challenge the militant group that has seized large swaths of territories in Iraq and Syria.

The resolution calls for immediate measures to combat the group on the political, defense, security and legal levels. It didn't elaborate.

The resolution backed the United Nations resolution issued last month that imposed sanctions on a number of the group's fighters and called on countries to adopt measures to combat terrorism. The council resolution was adopted under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, meaning it can be militarily enforced. (AP) 

AP
Reuters