Middle East Updates / White House Says Netanyahu's Washington Visit Won't Harm Iran Nuclear Talks

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Residents look for survivors amid the rubble of collapsed buildings after what activists said were air strikes by forces loyal to Syria's Assad in Aleppo. February 21, 2015.Credit: Reuters

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Latest updates:

9:20 P.M. White House "hopeful" on coalition for Iran nuclear talks amid Netanyahu visit

The White House said on Friday the United States is hopeful that it can hold together the coalition of countries working toward an agreement with Iran on its nuclear capabilities.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the administration does not see Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's upcoming visit to Washington as bad for the negotiations.

Netanyahu is opposed to the nuclear talks with Iran and has been invited by Republicans who share his view to address Congress next week. (Reuters) 

8:50 P.M. Iraqi-born cleric faces custody for praising Paris attack

An Iraqi-born cleric recently released from prison in Norway was jailed Friday for four weeks after praising the slaying of cartoonists at the satirical Charlie Hebdo paper in Paris that had lampooned Islam and other religions.

Najmaddin Faraj Ahmad, known as Mullah Krekar, was arrested Thursday in Oslo on preliminary charges of inciting to commit criminal offense, a day after giving an interview to Norwegian broadcaster NRK. He was also apprehended on preliminary charges for threating a Kurdish immigrant living in Norway in the same TV interview. Preliminary charges are one step short of formal charges.

"Whoever offends our religion and our honor, must understand that this is a conflict about life and death," Ahmad told NRK. "The cartoonist has become a fighting heathen whom it is permissible to kill."

Before Friday's ruling at the Oslo court, Ahmad said "I think only of my religion." He refused to comment on the TV interview. (AP)

4:40 P.M. Kurdish fighters advance on ISIS-held Syrian town

Kurdish fighters were closing in on a northeastern Syrian town that is a key stronghold of the Islamic State group on Friday, activists said. The town and the surrounding province have become the latest battleground in the fight against the ISIS extremists who this week captured up to 220 Christians there.

The push on the eastern and southeastern edges of the town of Tel Hamees in Hassakeh province came after the Kurdish troops took dozens of nearby villages from ISIS extremists.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria, said the Kurdish fighters were supported by Arab militias and air strikes from the U.S.-backed coalition in their advance on Tel Hamees.

The Kurdish fighters, known as the People's Protection Units or YPG, have been making territorial gains since capturing the Syrian border town of Kobani from the Islamic State group last month following a several-month struggle. (AP)

3:30 P.M. At least eight killed in Baghdad attacks

At least eight people were killed by bombs and rocket fire in Baghdad on Friday, police and medical sources said.

They said a bomb exploded in the predominantly Sunni neighbourhood of Al-Saydiya, in southern Baghdad, killing three civilians while two Katyusha rockets hit the nearby neighbourhood of al-Shurta, killing two people.

Three more people were killed when another bomb exploded in Saba al-Bour neighbourhood in the north of the capital.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks, which came as Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi's government battles Islamic State fighters who control large swathes of northern and western Iraq, and have sent bombers into the capital. (Reuters)

2:58 P.M. Iran, six powers to hold nuclear talks in Switzerland

Senior officials from Iran and six powers negotiating with Tehran over its nuclear program will hold more talks in Montreux, Switzerland on March 5, the European Union said on Friday.

The talks between political directors will be preceded by a series of bilateral meetings, EU spokeswoman Catherine Ray told reporters.

"The EU continues to make all possible efforts to facilitate these negotiations so that they end in success," she said. (Reuters)

2:45 P.M. Turkey to begin training Syrian rebel fighters

The training of Syrian rebel fighters will begin on March 1, Turkey's Foreign Ministry announced on Friday.

Ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgic said he could not provide more technical details, according to the state-run Anadolu news agency.

Turkey and the United States agreed this month to start training rebels, following intense disagreements over the details of a deal.

Ankara has been pushing for the rebels to go after the Syrian regime forces of President Bashar Assad as well as the Islamic State group, but Washington is focused on degrading the capabilities of the Islamist extremists as a priority. (DPA)

10:56 A.M. Turkish police detain suspect outside U.S. consulate in Istanbul following security alert

Turkish police on Friday sealed off a street outside the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, a Reuters witness said, and local media reported that police had detained a suspect.

Earlier, a U.S. diplomat told Reuters the consulate had taken precautionary measures following a security alert. (Reuters)

9:30 A.M. Four Yemeni soldiers killed by gunmen in southern province

Yemeni security officials say gunmen have attacked a military vehicle, killing all four soldiers inside it.

The officials said the attackers surprised the soldiers with heavy gunfire Thursday night while patrolling a street in Houta, a town in the southern Lahj province. The gunmen then set fire to the vehicle, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.

The identity of the gunmen was not immediately known, but the province has seen increased activity by Al-Qaida militants and Shi'ite Houthi rebels, both of which oppose the government.

The Houthis swept into Sanaa in September and kept President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi under house arrest. He fled to the southern city of Aden last week. (AP)

7:24 A.M. Syria expels two key UN humanitarian staffers over contact with opposition

The Syrian government expelled two key UN humanitarian staffers because of their contact with armed opposition groups while trying to arrange aid deliveries — a decision that could harm a new effort to secure a six-week truce in the country's largest city, the UN humanitarian chief says.

A message from Valerie Amos, seen late Thursday by The Associated Press, says the expulsions this month "set a worrying precedent for all humanitarian staff in Syria, in that any staff member in contact with armed opposition groups for the purpose of negotiating access is potentially under threat of being declared persona non grata."

The United Nations and other aid groups have struggled to get badly needed aid to millions of people in Syria's civil war, which moves into its fifth year next month. Syria's government has been blamed repeatedly for hindering the effort, which is also complicated by multiple armed groups and the recent rise of the Islamic State militant organization.

Amos' message to colleagues indicates that the effort to secure a six-week suspension of government airstrikes and artillery shelling in Aleppo is at risk. The U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, was heading to Damascus on Saturday to work out details on the proposed freeze in hostilities throughout the devastated city, which would allow the U.N. to test the delivery of unrestricted humanitarian aid to one district there.

"Whilst the Government of Syria is giving public support to the Special Envoy's freeze initiative, they are making it difficult to actually implement it, should agreement be reached by the Special Envoy with all parties," Amos wrote. "The Government has removed a key humanitarian staff member with the contacts to negotiate access with a wide range of armed opposition groups in Aleppo, and who was expected to play a leading role in the event that the freeze materializes." (AP)

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