Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki visited the Kurdistan region on Sunday for the first time in more than two years, in an attempt to resolve a long-running dispute over oil and land that has strained Iraq’s unity to the limit.
The premier was met on the Arbil airport tarmac by Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani and a delegation of high-ranking Kurdish officials.
Maliki’s last official trip to Kurdistan was in 2010, when the “Arbil Agreement” was struck, allowing him to form a power-sharing government among majority Shiite Muslims, Sunnis and ethnic Kurds after months of wrangling.
That deal, like others after, was never fully implemented, and Baghdad’s central government and the country’s autonomous Kurdistan region have since been at odds over oil and disputed territories along their internal boundary.
“This will be an initial step on the track to finding solutions for all outstanding problems,” Maliki said in a speech before a cabinet meeting in Arbil. Iraqi and Kurdish officials were due to hold further talks after that meeting.
Unless the current talks succeed, Iraqi Kurdish President Masoud Barzani said last week the self-ruled enclave would be forced to seek a “new form of relations” with Baghdad.
Kurdistan has been an autonomous part of Iraq since 1991, running its own administration and armed forces, but the region relies on the national government for a share of the budget financed by the OPEC nation’s oil revenues.
“Our expectations should not be too high,” said the Kurdistan Regional Government’s chief of foreign affairs, Falah Mustafa. “The ball is in the court of the federal government in Baghdad.”
In recent years, the Kurds have signed contracts on their own terms with the likes of Exxon Mobil, Total and Chevron Corp, antagonizing Baghdad, which insists it alone is entitled to control exploration of Iraq’s oil.
Easing relations with the Kurds would help Maliki, who is facing an intensified campaign by Sunni insurgents, which has claimed hundreds of lives in the country.
In a latest incident, a suicide bomber killed at least seven people at a checkpoint outside a Shiite district in Baghdad on Sunday. The attack happened in the busy Kazimiyah neighborhood, which last week was the focus of an annual pilgrimage that brought hundreds of thousands of Shiite faithful to a golden-domed shrine where two revered Shiite saints are buried.
Syrian Army Launches Aleppo Operation
Middle East Desk
The Syrian army has launched a major operation to clear the northwestern city of Aleppo of the foreign-backed militants in the country.
Syrian forces have reportedly closed the major outlets of the city, which is located some 310 kilometers (192 miles) north of the capital, Damascus, Press TV reported.
The army is preparing to attack militant strongholds in the towns of Hayyan, Khirbet Andan, Tell Rifaat and A’zaz on the outskirts of Aleppo.
The operation is code-named North Storm.
“It is likely the battle for Aleppo will start in the coming hours or days, and its aim is to reclaim the towns and villages (under rebel control) in the province,” the source said on condition of anonymity.
“The Syrian Arab army is ready to carry out its mission in this province,” the source said, without giving further details.
Analysts say that its success in Qusayr has given the army the confidence to try to suppress the insurgency elsewhere in the strife-torn country.
Pro-government daily Al-Watan said on Sunday the army has “started to deploy at a large scale in Aleppo province, in preparation for a battle that will be fought in the city and its outskirts”.
Insurgents in July last year launched a massive assault on Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial hub.
Al-Watan also said “the Syrian army will take advantage of its experience in Qusayr and Eastern Ghouta (near Damascus) to advance in the (central) province of Hama and Homs” nearby.
“The consequences of the battle for Qusayr will... map out the contours of Syria’s political future,” the daily added.
Qusayr was an important center and supply route for the armed groups.
Damascus says a large number of militants including Al-Qaeda-linked Salafists have been killed in the recent battles.
On June 5, the Syrian state TV said Qusayr, which lies near the border with Lebanon, was under full control of the Syrian army following three weeks of fighting with militants. Syrian troops were backed by forces from the Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah during the Qusayr operation.
Syrian government forces also managed to retake control of several villages near Qusayr on June 7 and pushed the militants out of the central villages of Salhiyeh and Masoudiyeh.
The foreign-sponsored militancy in Syria has taken its toll on the lives of many people, including large numbers of Syrian soldiers and security personnel, since the outbreak of turmoil more than two years ago.
Yemen: Al-Qaeda Trying to Rule Again
Yemen’s president said on Saturday that Al-Qaeda militants in his country are trying to retake areas they once controlled in the south, but that a military offensive this week helped thwart those plans.
President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was speaking at the second round of “national dialogue” talks aimed at mapping out the country’s future. United Nations envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar attended the session in the capital Sana’a on Saturday, as did the head of the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council, which represents six countries in the region, AP reported.
The conference brings together hundreds of representatives, activists and prominent figures from around the country. They will be discussing reports issued by nine committees that have been working since the first rounds of sessions were launched in March.
Among the country’s most pressing issues are widespread poverty and divided loyalties. Some southerners have used the conference to demand secession from the north. Southerners joined a unified Yemen in 1990, but have long complained that they have fared worse under Sana’a’s rule.
Yemen is also battling an active Al-Qaeda branch that continuously carries out deadly attacks against its military.
Washington considers the branch as one of the world’s most dangerous. Yemen’s military, backed by the United States, routed Al-Qaeda militants from the southern province of Abyan last year after the group took control there during a period of political turmoil in 2011. It was the first time Al-Qaeda ruled an area in the Arabian Peninsula.
Hadi told participants at the conference Saturday that Al-Qaeda was hoping to repeat the Abyan scenario in the southeastern province of Hadramawt.
His comments come after thousands of Yemeni troops backed by tanks and warplanes launched an offensive on Wednesday in Hadramawt to drive Al-Qaeda militants from the area, killing at least seven suspected militants. The United States has also carried out drone strikes in the area targeting militants, though it rarely comments on specifics in the covert program.
The country’s longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was forced to resign in early 2012 after more than a year of protests, was accused by the opposition at the time of turning a blind eye to Al-Qaeda’s gains in Abyan and of focusing his efforts on trying to quell the uprising against his regime.
Bashir Orders Stoppage Of S. Sudan’s Oil Exports
Sudan’s president ordered a stoppage of all South Sudan’s oil exports from Sunday, accusing his neighbor of backing rebels on his territory, and bringing the foes back to the brink of confrontation after months of relative peace.
President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir urged youths to join the army and prepare for “holy war”. He did not name the enemy but the head of Sudan’s paramilitary forces said his men were ready to confront Khartoum’s long-time opponent South Sudan, Reuters reported.
The order to shut pipelines carrying oil from landlocked South Sudan through Sudan to a port on the Red Sea - the South’s only route to market - came just three months after the countries ended a bitter dispute over crude.
“Tomorrow you ... will order the oil companies to close the pipeline,” Bashir told Oil Minister Awad Al-Jaz, standing behind him during a televised speech outside Khartoum.
Sudan and South Sudan - which split into two countries in 2011 after decades of war fuelled by oil and ethnicity - agreed in March to restart the crude flow following a 16-month shutdown triggered by an argument over transit fees and territory.
Crude had only just started to move through the pipelines in May, with the first cargoes sold last week for shipment from Port Sudan.
It can be very costly to close the pipelines, which can become blocked if the waxy oil stops halfway. The Chinese, Indian and Malaysian firms dominating the sector have been facing rising operating costs due to the shutdown since January 2012, oil sources say.
South Sudan would also have to shut down its entire oil production because it has no storage facilities.
“Sudan will not allow revenues from oil exports from South Sudan to be used to buy arms for rebels and mercenaries,” Bashir said in the televised speech.
A confirmed oil stoppage would dash hopes of an economic lifeline to both underdeveloped countries. The last shutdown ravaged both their economies as oil was the main source of state revenues and the dollars needed to pay for food imports.
South Sudan had started to pump 200,000 barrels per day in April. Its output was around 300,000 bpd before the shutdown.
Turkish Protesters Call For More Anti-Gov’t Protests
From Page 1
Tens of thousands of Turks massed in Taksim Square late on Saturday, where riot police backed by helicopters and armored vehicles first clashed with protesters a week ago, some chanting for Tayyip Erdogan to resign.
Erdogan remained defiant. His AK Party on Saturday ruled out early elections and senior party officials said they may call their own public meetings in Istanbul and Ankara next week.
Still by far the country’s most popular politician, Erdogan has pressed ahead with government business as usual.
“My beloved brothers, we’re walking towards a better Turkey. Don’t allow those who attempt to plant divisive seeds to do so,” he told a crowd of supporters at the airport in the southern city of Adana, on his way to open a sporting event.
What began as a campaign against government plans to build over Gezi Park in Taksim Square, spiraled into an unprecedented display of public anger over the perceived authoritarianism of Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AK Party.
Police fired teargas and water cannon at protesters night after night in Istanbul and Ankara last week, in clashes which have left three dead and close to 5,000 injured.
The organizers of the initial protests in Taksim, calling themselves Taksim Solidarity, repeated their call for the redevelopment plans to be abandoned, police use of teargas to be banned, those responsible for police violence to be dismissed and bans on demonstrations to be lifted.
“The demands are obvious. We call on government to take account of the reaction (on the street), act responsibly and fulfill demands being expressed by millions of people everyday,” the group said in a statement.
It called for another mass rally later on Sunday around Gezi Park, a leafy corner of the square where hundreds of activists have been sleeping in tents and vandalized buses, or wrapped in blankets under plane trees over the past week.
Erdogan has given no indication of plans to clear out Taksim, around which protesters have built dozens of barricades made of ripped up paving stones, street signs, vandalized vehicles and corrugated iron, clogging part of the city centre.
Taksim is lined by luxury hotels that should be doing a roaring trade as the summer season starts in one of the world’s most-visited cities. But a forced eviction might trigger a repeat of the clashes seen earlier in the week, which brought international condemnation.
Erdogan has made clear he has no intention of stepping aside, pointing to his AK Party’s rising share of the vote in the country’s past three elections, and has no clear rivals inside the party or out.
He has enacted many democratic reforms, taming a military that toppled four governments in four decades, starting entry talks with the European Union and forging peace talks with Kurdish rebels to end a three-decade-old war.
At least one person was killed and 10 others wounded during clashes between Takfiri groups supporting the Syrian opposition and Hezbollah’s supporters near Iranian embassy in Lebanese capital Beirut.