Middle East Updates / Hagel: Obama Must Weigh Consequences of Long Campaign Against Islamic State

Syrian gov't airstrikes on Islamic State kill at least 60 civilians; U.S. mulls extended Islamic State campaign; Iranian news agency reports that Ayatollah Ali Khameini's 'routine' prostate operation was successful; tribesman attack Yemen's main export pipeline, halting flow of crude; Islamic State attacks town north of Baghdad, killing 17.


Haaretz's latest analyses and opinions on the Middle East: The Islamic State will go as quickly as it came (Oudeh Basharat)


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Latest updates:

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)

3:53 P.M. The new UN human rights chief urged world powers to protect women and minorities targeted by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, saying on Monday the fighters were trying to create a "house of blood." Jordan's Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid al-Hussein, the first Muslim to hold the position, called for the international community to focus on ending the "increasingly conjoined" conflict in the two countries, and abuses in other hotspots from Ukraine to Gaza.

Islamic State has over-run large parts of Syria and Iraq since June, declaring a cross-border caliphate. The Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council last week agreed to send a team to investigate killings and other abuses carried out by the group on "an unimaginable scale."  Zeid, Jordan's former UN ambassador and a Jordanian prince, described Islamic State in his maiden speech to the Council as "takfiris" - people who justify killing others by branding them as apostates.

"Do they believe they are acting courageously? Barbarically slaughtering captives? ... They reveal only what a Takfiri state would look like, should this movement actually try to govern in the future, said Zeid who succeeds Navi Pillay in the Geneva hotseat.

"It would be a harsh, mean-spirited, house of blood, where no shade would be offered, nor shelter given, to any non-Takfiri in their midst," Zeid added. He called on Iraq's new government and prime minister to consider joining the International Criminal Court (ICC) to ensure accountability for crimes committed there. 

"In particular, dedicated efforts are urgently needed to protect religious and ethnic groups, children - who are at risk of forcible recruitment and sexual violence - and women, who have been the targets of severe restrictions," Zeid said. (Reuters) 

2:36 P.M. Syrian government warplanes killed at least 60 civilians including a dozen children in two days of air strikes on Islamic State-held territory at the weekend, activists said on Monday.

President Bashar Assad's military has stepped up an aerial campaign over the last three months against Islamic State, an al Qaida offshoot that controls about a third of Syria's territory, much of it desert in the north and east. The air strikes have hit a number of Islamic State targets but have also killed many civilians in territory under the group's control.

The death toll included 41 killed during air strikes on Saturday that hit a bakery run by Islamic State in their stronghold of Raqqa city in the north, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Another 19 civilians were killed in the eastern Deir al-Zor province, which borders Iraq and, like Raqqa province, is almost entirely controlled by Islamic State militants. The Observatory, which monitors violence in Syria through a network of sources on both sides, did not say how many militants were killed in the strikes, but in an earlier report it said at least 15 had been killed in the Raqqa strikes. (Reuters) 

12:58 P.M. Saudi Arabia pulled its entire diplomatic staff out of Sana'a as a Shiite rebel movement stepped up its mass protests in the Yemeni capital, the Saudi Al-Watan newspaper reported Monday. About 50 embassy staff were evacuated, the newspaper said, quoting diplomatic sources, while 60 Saudi medical students studying in Sana'a were also pulled out.

Sunday saw clashes briefly break out between security forces and supporters of the Houthi movement, who have staged mass protests in the capital for several weeks to call for the restoration of fuel subsidies and the dismissal of the government. Police used tear gas and water cannon to try to reopen the airport road but later retreated.

The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, said one protester was killed and about 40 injured in the clashes. The figures could not be independently confirmed. The movement, which seeks to revive Yemen's Zaidi Shiite traditions, has extended its control from its stronghold in the far north of Yemen to the outskirts of Sana'a this year. (DPA)

11:55 A.M. Iraq's Kurdish political bloc is heading back to Iraqi Kurdistan on Monday for a final meeting on whether to participate in the next national government, the Kurds' top negotiator Hoshiyar Zebari told Reuters.

"We are going back today to Suleimaniya to have a decisive meeting with the Kurdish leaders on the status of the talks and the Kurds' share of the government," Zebari said. "The decision will be the Kurds' final decision either way." (Reuters) 

11:47 A.M. Islamic State fighters attacked a riverside town north of Baghdad on Monday with gunboats and a car bomb, killing 17 people and wounding 54, a security source said. The source said the attack on Dhuluiya, around 70 km (45 miles) from the capital, was carried out before dawn and continued for two hours before the militants were pushed back.

Among the dead in the attack, the largest of its kind in the area, were civilians and Iraqi forces. Most of the casualties were caused by the car bomb, which struck a market, the source said.

Dhuluiya is part of a belt of Sunni Muslim towns north of Baghdad where the hardline Sunni Muslim Islamic State has managed to wrestle some control, often aligning with local militia who distrust the Shi'ite-led government. (Reuters) 

11:30 A.M. The expanded campaign against Islamic State may extend beyond U.S. President Barack Obama's second term, the New York Times reports.

Obama is currently preparing a more extensive campaign against Islamic State, according to the New York Times. The offensive, currently limited to aerial strikes, is expected to be expanded after the formation of Iraq's new government to include the provision of arms and training to the Iraq army and Kurdish Peshmerga. The U.S. may extend such assistance to some of Iraq's Sunni tribes as well.

A third phase, which could take at least three years to complete, may consist of destroying Islamic State's headquarters in Syria, the NYT reports, and would be the "toughest and most politically controversial phase of the operation."

Meantime, President Obama is scheduled to address the U.S. public on Wednesday to rally support for his plans to expand military action against Sunni militants in the Middle East. Read full story

11:00 A.M. Tribesmen attacked Yemen's main oil export pipeline on Monday, halting the flow of crude, officials told Reuters. Yemen's oil and gas pipelines have been repeatedly sabotaged by tribesmen feuding with the state, especially since mass protests against the government created a power vacuum in 2011, causing fuel shortages and slashing export earnings for the impoverished country.

The stability of Yemen is a priority for the United States and its Gulf Arab allies because of its strategic position next to top oil exporter Saudi Arabia and shipping lanes, and because it is home to one of al Qaeda's most active wings.

Saboteurs blew up the pipeline near the Wadi Abida production field in central Marib province. The state-run Safer oil company owns the pipeline, which leads to the Red Sea. Heavily-armed tribes carry out such assaults to extract concessions from the government - to provide jobs, settle land disputes or free relatives from prison. A Yemeni oil official speaking off the record said the line could be repaired in one or two days if tribesmen allowed it. (Reuters) 

9:12 A.M. The Philippines has asked the United Nations to review the guidelines for its peacekeeping operations in the Golan Heights following a standoff between Filipino troops and Syrian rebels, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said Monday. Del Rosario told a congressional hearing he was scheduled to meet UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon next week to discuss the issue.

In an earlier letter to Ban he requested that the rules on peacekeeping missions be revisited, including "the accountability of UN peacekeeping mission leaders for decisions made during crisis operations," he said.

More than 70 Filipino soldiers were attacked by al-Nusra Front rebels at the end of August in the separation zone between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, but escaped after a seven-hour firefight.

Manila said the Filipino peacekeepers were ordered to hand over their weapons by the UN force commander, but the troops refused and held their ground. The UN's peacekeeping chief, Herve Ladsous, denied that any such order was given. The rebels were still holding hostage dozens of Fijian peacekeepers. (DPA)

7:40 A.M. Iran's supreme leader underwent prostate surgery on Monday at a government hospital in Tehran, state media said in a rare report on the state of health of the country's top cleric. The 75-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters in Iran and has been the country's top leader since 1989, was reported to be recovering.

The official IRNA news agency said the operation, which was described as "routine," was successful. There were no immediate details on what had prompted the surgery or the underlying medical condition.

Iranian state TV said that Khamenei told the station just ahead of the surgery that there was "no room for concern" and that it was a routine operation. The TV aired a brief footage of Khamenei just ahead of the surgery in which he asked people to pray for him.

"There is no room for concern, but this does not mean that they — the people — do not need to pray," Khamenei said.

Khamenei was a close ally of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei who led the 1979 Islamic Revolution and was later Iran's supreme leader until his death in 1989. (AP) See the video here.

5:02 A.M. Saudi Arabia's Specialized Criminal Court jailed six people for up to six years for security offences including travelling abroad to fight, adopting militant ideology and "breaking obedience to the ruler", state media reported late on Sunday. The kingdom imprisoned dozens of people last month in security trials amid fears that the conflicts in Iraq and Syria will radicalise a new generation of young Saudis. 

In February, King Abdullah decreed prison terms of three to 20 years for travelling abroad to fight and of five to 30 years for giving moral or material support to banned groups that the government has designated as extremist.

Officials say there are more than 2,500 Saudis now outside the country who are believed to be working with militant organisations. A big proportion of them are thought to be in Syria, where Riyadh has sent arms and cash to some rebel groups fighting against President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of its main regional foe Iran, but says it has been careful not to back militants. (Reuters)