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Monday, June 30, 2014

Blackwater Iraqi chief threatened to kill US govt. inspector - newspaper

Blackwater Iraqi chief threatened to kill US govt. inspector - newspaper Published time: June 30, 2014 09:43 Get short URL ARCHIVE PHOTO: A picture taken on July 5, 2005 shows contractors of the US private security firm Blackwater securing the site of a roadside bomb attack near the Iranian embassy in central Baghdad (AFP Photo) Crime, Iraq, Scandal, Security, USA A senior official of the notorious private security company Blackwater allegedly threatened to kill a government investigator probing the firm’s Iraqi operation. The US embassy sided with him and forced the inspector to cut the visit short. The shocking insight into the relations between the US State Department and the company hired to protect government employees in Iraq was reported by the New York Time on Sunday. The newspaper cites documents which were turned over to plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Blackwater, including a memo describing the incident submitted by the investigator, Jean C. Richter, to his superiors in Washington. Diplomatic Security special agent Richter was part of the two-man team together with State Department management analyst Donald Thomas Jr. that arrived in Baghdad on August 1, 2007 to inspect Blackwater operations in the country. The company was awarded a $1 billion contract to provide security for the State Department and the CIA in Iraq. According to the documents, the investigators found numerous violations, including changing of security details without the State Department’s approval, reducing the number of guard details and storing of automatic weapons and ammunition in Blackwater employees’ private rooms. There were also discipline problems, with guards having parties with heavy drinking and female visitors, including one episode in which an armored Blackwater car was requisitioned by four drunken employees, who drove to a private party and crashed the $180,000 vehicle into a concrete barrier. As the probe continued, apparently it irritated some people in power in Iraq. On August 20, Richter was summoned by the embassy’s regional security officer, Bob Hanni, who said he had received a call asking him to document Richter’s “inappropriate behavior.” The investigator contacted Washington and was instructed to take his partner to all remaining meetings. ARCHIVE PHOTO: Members of the US Blackwater private security company fly a Hughes 500 helicopter over the Tigris river in Baghdad, during a patrol 05 May 2004 (AFP Photo / Marwan Namaani) The next day Richter and Thomas met Daniel Carroll, Blackwater’s project manager in Iraq, to discuss a complaint over food quality and sanitary conditions at a cafeteria in Blackwater’s compound. Carroll said Richter could not tell him what to do in his cafeteria and went on to threaten him. The Blackwater chief said “he could ‘kill me’ at that very moment and no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq,” Richter recounted in the memo. “I took Mr. Carroll’s threat seriously. We were in a combat zone where things can happen quite unexpectedly, especially when issues involve potentially negative impacts on a lucrative security contract.” Thomas corroborated Richter’s account of the events in a separate statement, saying that Carroll’s comments were “unprofessional and threatening in nature.” He added that the investigators were told by people in Baghdad to be “very careful,” considering that their review could jeopardize Blackwater’s operations there. Richter said the company officials showed little respect either to State Department officials like himself or to FBI agents present in Iraq. “To me, it was immediately apparent that the Blackwater contractors believed that they were the de facto authority and acted accordingly, in an alarming manner,” the memo said. “Blackwater contractors saw themselves as ‘above the law’ and actually believed that they ‘ran the place’.” He said he was shocked when the US embassy in Baghdad sided with Carroll and ordered the two investigators to leave Iraq immediately. In an August 23 email, Ricardo Colon, the acting regional security officer at the embassy, told Richter that their mission had become “unsustainably disruptive to day-to-day operations and created an unnecessarily hostile environment for a number of contract personnel.” The next day the inspectors cut short their probe and left Baghdad. “The management structures in place to manage and monitor our contracts in Iraq have become subservient to the contractors themselves,” Richter stated in the memo. The events happened just weeks before Blackwater guards killed 17 civilians, including a nine-year-old boy in Bahgdad’s Nisour Square on September 16, 2007. The incident sparked outrage with American presence in Iraq among the local population. The US is currently trying to prosecute four of the five guards involved in the incident after a first failed attempt to do it in 2009. Blackwater was founded by former Navy SEAL Erik Prince and grew to a private security giant with billions worth of contracts from the US government. After a series of scandals marred the company name, Prince sold it. Blackwater was renamed three times eventually merging with its competitor Triple Canopy to form what is now called Constellis Holdings.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

First batch of Russian jets arrives in Iraq

Edited time: June 29, 2014 01:57 Get short URL A Sukhoi Su-24 jet fighter (Reuters / Shamil Zhumatov) ISIS in Iraq Tags Air Force, Conflict, Iraq, Military, Security, Violence The first ten Russian Sukhoi (Su-24) fighter jets arrived in Iraq on Saturday, the country’s Defense Ministry said. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is hoping the jets will make a key difference in the fight against ISIS. “The fighter jets landed today in the morning on different military airfields,” MP Abbas al-Bayati told Iraqi media. The official spokesperson for the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, Mohammed al-Askari, also confirmed the information, Al Iraqiya TV channel reported. The fighter jets will be stationed at an airbase located in the southern part of the country, PressTV reported, citing military sources. Earlier this week, Prime Minister Maliki revealed that Iraq purchased jets from Russia and Belarus in order to help its fight against Sunni militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL). At the same time, Maliki criticized the US for taking too long to deliver on its own contract after Iraq purchased F-16 jets from America. On Friday, Iraqi Air Force Commander Hameed al-Maliki confirmed the shipment of MI-35 and MI-28 Russian helicopter fighters to "keep the momentum" in the attacks against ISIS, Ruptly reported. The commander said that he signed three contracts with the Russians and stressed the importance of the choppers as "excellent anti-terrorism weapons." The radical Sunni Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS or ISIL) has taken large parts of the country's north from the Shia government. Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers have been killed by insurgents since the Sunni militants began their offensive on June 9, according to Iraqi forces. The United Nations says more than 1,000 people – mainly civilians – have been killed during the surge thus far. Now that Iraq is back in the western news headlines again, with calls for 'intervention' to counter ISIS, it's worth bearing in mind what the architects of the Iraq war and the cheerleaders for it said in the lead up and during the invasion about the 'threat' from Saddam's WMDs and how toppling a secular dictator would help the so-called 'war on terror' and bring peace and security to the region. (Op-ed by Neil Clark)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

BNP said to move compliance operations to U.S. as settlement nears

BNP pleads guilty for second time in $9 billion U.S. sanctions accord Wed, Jul 09 17:48 PM EDT image By Joseph Ax and Nate Raymond NEW YORK (Reuters) - BNP Paribas, for the second time in nine days, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to conspiring to violate U.S. sanctions, as part of a nearly $9 billion settlement in which the French bank admitted to breaking embargoes against Sudan, Cuba and Iran. Prosecutors had accused the bank of processing billions of dollars of transactions through the U.S. financial system on behalf of Sudanese and others barred from doing so because of their countries' human rights abuses, support for terrorists and other national security concerns. U.S. District Judge Lorna Schofield accepted the plea at a hearing in Manhattan federal court. The plea was entered by the bank's general counsel, Georges Dirani. BNP Paribas admitted to having conspired from 2004 to 2012 to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and the Trading with the Enemy Act. The U.S. Justice Department unveiled the record settlement on July 1, when the bank pleaded guilty in New York state court to charges of falsifying business records and conspiracy brought by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance. (Reporting by Joseph Ax and Nate Raymond in New York; Additional reporting by Aruna Viswanatha in Washington; Editing by Chris Reese) ============================= Tue, Jun 24 18:53 PM EDT image By Karen Freifeld, Aruna Viswanatha and Steve Slater NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - BNP Paribas SA is relocating its U.S. sanctions compliance operations to New York from Paris, ahead of a nearly $9 billion settlement it is expected to reach with U.S. authorities over violations of sanctions on Sudan and other countries, according to people familiar with the matter. The move is not specifically part of the settlement agreement being hammered out. But France's largest bank decided to transfer the operations as part of its efforts to improve compliance and proactively appease U.S. regulators, according to one of four sources interviewed by Reuters. Sanctions compliance involves screening and analyzing transactions to make sure they don't run afoul of U.S. laws that bar moving money on behalf of certain designated parties, including those in Iran and Sudan. Some people familiar with the move described it as unique, though it is unclear how much further BNP is going than other foreign banks, some of whom have their global sanctions compliance heads in New York. BNP's action is part of a trend by banks to bolster their compliance operations in the United States, amid a series of increasingly harsh U.S. enforcement actions against banks that have for years not closely policed illicit money flows. BNP is also expected to transfer some related efforts that supervise dollar-clearing operations to New York, one source said. A BNP spokeswoman declined to comment. The bank's chief executive, Jean-Laurent Bonnafe, told shareholders in May that the bank had improved its control operations to avoid sanctions-related failures in the future, without providing specifics. U.S. authorities are investigating whether the lender evaded U.S. sanctions relating primarily to Sudan, Iran and Syria between 2002 and 2009. The bank's overall compliance team employed more than 1,500 staff in 40 countries at the end of 2013, mostly within Europe, the United States and Asia, according to the bank's 2013 annual financial report. It did not say how many staff were dedicated to its U.S. sanctions compliance operations. BNP is now trying to fill more than 200 jobs in the United States that have compliance responsibilities, a search of its website shows, including many for its California-based Bank of the West unit. One of the jobs includes a vice president position in New York for BNP Paribas to investigate accounts for anti-money laundering and other risks. Banks have been beefing up their compliance operations in response to the U.S. crackdown on violations. JPMorgan said in its annual shareholder letter in April that 8,000 of its employees will be dedicated to its anti-money-laundering operations. GLOBAL CRACKDOWN U.S. authorities have pursued top foreign banks over sanctions violations and have obtained hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements from Credit Suisse, Standard Chartered, and Barclays, among others. One source said BNP's New York sanctions compliance unit would have powers over every branch and subsidiary of the bank worldwide. Another source said locating the operation in New York was significant because it would offer more transparency to U.S. regulators. A years-long U.S. government investigation has turned up some $100 billion in transactions processed by BNP that may have had some information removed or otherwise disguised in order to evade filters on certain transactions with Sudan and elsewhere, Reuters reported earlier. Around $30 billion of the transfers specifically violated U.S. sanctions, one of the sources said. Part of the problem lay in the New York clearing operation relying on questionable information being provided by employees in Paris about the nature of the transactions, another source said. Representatives of the U.S. Federal Reserve and the New York state bank regulator, the Department of Financial Services, the U.S. Justice Department, the U.S. Treasury Department and the Manhattan District Attorney's office, which are involved in the investigation, declined comment. 'AHEAD OF THE THUNDERBOLT' The U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctions drug traffickers, terrorists, Iranian banks and others under more than 30 different programs, freezing their assets and prohibiting U.S. firms from doing business with them. It relies on the private sector to ensure the sanctions work in practice. The work is often painstakingly detailed, because there are often multiple variations of each name, with sometimes little other identifying information than a name and a country of residence. Large banks spend millions of dollars and hundreds of hours a year devising complex automated systems to scan the list and avoid false positives. BNP told U.S. regulators privately it would make the move weeks ago, a source said. "It was an effort to appease regulators. I think what they were trying to do was get ahead of the thunderbolt," another source said. The overall settlement between BNP and U.S. authorities, which is also expected to include BNP pleading guilty to a federal criminal charge, is still taking shape. Negotiators are working out details of a "statement of facts" and how long the bank will be suspended from clearing clients' dollar transactions. At least a dozen individuals also are expected to leave the bank as part of the deal, some of whom have already departed. (Additional reporting by Maya Mikolaeva in Paris and Anna Yukhananov in Washington) ======================================= Bell sues ex-councilman, foundation and construction firm over payouts Luis Artiga reacts after being acquitted in the Bell corruption trial in March 2013. He was the only one of eight former city officials to be exonerated on all counts. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times) By Jeff Gottlieb contact the reporter This article is related to: Crime target of a Bell lawsuit is a construction firm paid $3.2 million without a contract or council approval in a lawsuit, seeks most of the yearly salary of former City Councilman Luis Artiga June 24, 2014, 7:45 PM Continuing efforts to recover money lost during the years of scandal, Bell has sued a former councilman, a steelworker foundation and a construction company for millions of dollars it says they received illegally when former City Manager Robert Rizzo ran the town.. The biggest target in the suit is McCullah Construction Co. of Bell Gardens, which was paid $3.2 million from 2005-10, most of it authorized by Rizzo without a contract or council approval. Timeline: 'Corruption on steroids' in Bell Timeline: 'Corruption on steroids' in BellOpen link > According to the lawsuit, emails show that in early 2009, McCullah also worked on Rizzo's Huntington Beach home. "The emails include statements about McCullah and Rizzo 'making up' payments as they go along and leaving the scope of work done at Rizzo's home blank," the lawsuit said. Steve Onstot, an attorney for Bell, said he was continuing to investigate whether the city in essence paid McCullah for the work on Rizzo's home. Asked about the allegations, Herb E. McCullah Jr., owner of the company, replied, "They can say anything they want." His attorney did not return a call seeking comment or respond to an email. lRelated Full coverage: Corruption in BellLocalFull coverage: Corruption in BellSee all relatedí Rizzo's attorney, James Spertus, has said his client paid for the home remodeling with his own money. The city also is suing former Councilman Luis Artiga for repayment of most of his yearly salary, and the National Steelworkers Oldtimers Foundation — which was run for years by then-Councilman George Cole — alleging excessive payments it received for transportation of the elderly. The suit says that Rizzo, Artiga and Cole violated state conflict-of-interest laws. L.A. Times neighborhoods: Bell Rizzo began his 12-year prison term last month after pleading no contest to 69 counts of corruption. Cole, along with four other former council members, pleaded no contest to two counts of misappropriating public funds as part of a deal with the district attorney. He faces a maximum of four years in state prison when he is sentenced July 23. Artiga, a minister, is the only one of the eight Bell officials charged with corruption who was acquitted. Randy Adams should be target number one, period. Anything short of his repaying every single penny is a travesty of justice and shows favoritism. The lawsuit says that Artiga was paid $191,651 during his 18 months on the council — $183,575 more than the legal limit. Council members were convicted of boosting their salaries by being paid for sitting on city boards that met seldom, if ever. "I didn't vote for [the council salaries], I didn't approve it," Artiga said. "It's not my fault. How could I have known?" The suit also alleges that Bell paid the National Steelworkers Oldtimers Foundation, based in Fontana, $87,120 it was not entitled to from 2006-08. The suit said Rizzo approved the payments, not the City Council, a violation of the city charter and government code. Bell trial verdicts The suit says that Cole, the foundation's chief executive, took part in the negotiations. Steve Madison, the group's lawyer, said that the payments were cost-of-living adjustments that were properly approved and that audits did not identify any problems. jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com Twitter: @gottliebjeff =============================================================

Monday, June 23, 2014

Live updates: Lahore airport in lockdown as govt-Qadri stalemate continues

Anti-government cleric returns to Pakistan, supporters clash with police Mon, Jun 23 07:00 AM EDT image 1 of 2 By Katharine Houreld and Mubasher Bukhari LAHORE Pakistan (Reuters) - A prominent cleric returned to Pakistan on Monday to lead what he calls a peaceful revolution against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as his supporters fought pitched battles with police firing tear gas in the capital Islamabad. Tahirul Qadri, a Pakistani preacher turned political activist who lives in Canada, is a divisive figure in Pakistan, where he made headlines last year by leading mass rallies against the previous government. As a plane carrying Qadri approached Benazir Bhutto International Airport near Islamabad, violence broke out on the ground as police fired tear gas at 2,000 of his supporters in chaotic scenes rarely seen in the orderly capital. The authorities, fearing an escalation of unrest, diverted the commercial flight to the eastern city of Lahore. "We want no corruption, we want no terrorism in our country," Qadri told Reuters aboard the plane. "We want total transparency of institutions." Qadri's sudden ascent to prominence has prompted speculation that the army, which ruled Pakistan for decades, may be using him as a proxy in efforts to sideline the civilian government. His comeback comes at an uneasy time for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose civilian government has failed to engage Taliban militants in peace talks, prompting the army to launch a major offensive against the militants. Even after the aircraft landed in Lahore, Qadri and his supporters refused to leave the plane for hours, demanding it fly back to Islamabad or for the army to send a representative to protect him. He eventually disembarked and was escorted to his residence in Lahore, his main base in the country. Outside Lahore airport, about 1,000 supporters held a peaceful rally shouting "Long live Qadri". Qadri's spokesman, Shahid Mursaleen, said he wanted to stage an Arab spring-style revolt and install a government that would enforce reform, tackle terrorism and improve accountability. "He wants to bring a peaceful democratic revolution," Mursaleen told Reuters. "He wants to topple the whole system." ARMY'S BACKING It is hard to estimate Qadri's popularity in a country with few reliable opinion polls, but his sympathy for the army could catapult him to the centre of a brewing protest movement. Discontent with the government is already high due to power shortages that have crippled the economy as well as a persistent Taliban insurgency which stages attacks around the country. Reflecting the government's anxiety, police had placed cargo containers along major roads to restrict access to Islamabad airport and blocked mobile phone services to disrupt communication between the demonstrators. At least eight people, including a policeman, were killed in Lahore last week when protesters clashed with police in a standoff over Qadri. "Long live the army!" and "Revolution will come!" chanted his supporters, who had gathered outside the airport in the military garrison city of Rawalpindi near Islamabad. "We just want to give a peaceful welcome to our leader, but they (government) pounded us with heavy tear gas," said one protester, Tajamul Hussain, in his early 20s. "Their days are numbered, God willing, Doctor Qadri will bring revolution to Pakistan. (Writing by Maria Golovnina; additional reporting by Syed Raza Hassan in Islamabad; Editing by Ron Popeski) ====================== Emirates Airlines has imposed a lifetime travel ban on Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) chief Dr Tahirul Qadri and is also considering initiating legal proceedings against him for keeping the aircraft ‘hostage’ for several hours at Lahore airport after the flight was diverted by the Pakistani government to Lahore from Islamabad over security concerns, a private news channel has reported. According to the channel, the airliner was forced to take the decision after Qadri refused to get off the aircraft in Lahore and also barred other passengers from disembarking until he negotiated a deal with the provincial authorities. The airliner believes that this act of Qadri was tantamount to hijacking therefore it was mulling legal options. =============================== LAHORE: The Emirates airline plans to file a suit over the damages caused to its reputation by the enforced diversion of its plane carrying Dr Tahirul Qadri on Monday. Official sources told Dawn that the airline had told the Civil Aviation Authority that it had been upset by the diversion of its flight EK-612 Dubai-Islamabad to Lahore, causing a great deal of inconvenience to passengers on the plane and those waiting at the airport to fly to Dubai. The plane was scheduled to reach Islamabad at 8am on Monday and return to Dubai at 9.30am after picking passengers. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Related: Plane diversion was Rafiq's idea -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- But the government did not allow the aircraft to land at Islamabad to foil Dr Qadri’s plan to go to Lahore by road to demonstrate his political strength. “The Emirates pilots were shocked to receive the ‘order’ to take the plane to Lahore because there was no issue of weather or airport occupancy,” sources said. Because of the diversion of the plane, it missed its scheduled departure to Dubai from Islamabad. After it left for Islamabad in the evening, the Emirates administration informed the CAA that it intended to file for damages. The sources said the airline was also considering to “blacklist” Dr Qadri. “An airliner blacklists a person who puts the lives of other passengers in jeopardy or causes them inconvenience by his action,” a CAA official said. The PIA blacklisted some 10 people for their behaviour leading to diversion of its flight from Manchester to Stansted Airport last year. The official said he believed that the Emirates would not consider suspending its flight operation to Pakistan because it had good business here. However,
CAA spokesperson Abid Kaimkhani said he was not aware of any warning by the Emirates. “The airline might have contacted the local (Lahore-based) administration of the CAA. But I have no knowledge of it,” he said.
Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2014 =================================== Plane diversion was Rafiq’s idea By Mohammad Asghar Published about 4 hours ago The plan to divert Tahirul Qadri's plane to Lahore was suggested by Railways Minister Khawaja Saad Rafiq, Dawn has learnt.—File Photo RAWALPINDI: Initially the government had two options to get Dr Tahirul Qadri to Lahore once he had arrived at Benazir Bhutto International Airport (BBIA) on Monday morning – either use a Fokker ATR27 aeroplane to airlift him to Lahore or a helicopter of the Punjab government. However, both these options were ignored when Railways Minister Khawaja Saad Rafiq suggested that the flight not be allowed to land at BBIA and be diverted to Lahore, sources said. However, before Rafiq’s suggestion was made and accepted, as many as 175 Elite Force commandoes along with 17 female commandos in plainclothes were brought to the airport at around 3am on Monday. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Related: Qadri threatens to topple govt, vows to lead 'revolution' -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- The Elite Force, which was formed in 1997-98 by then chief minister Punjab Mian Shahbaz Sharif, was led by DSP Rana Shahid and DSP Raja Taifoor. They took positions on the apron of the airport (where the Emirates flight was to land); the Fokker and the helicopter were also parked nearby. According to a security official, the Fokker ATR27 was to be used if Dr Qadri agreed to be transported to Lahore but if he resisted then the plan was to bundle him on to the helicopter. The Pakistan International Airlines Fokker, which was to be used for airlifting Dr Qadri to Lahore, was scheduled to fly to Skardu on Monday but the flight was cancelled to free the aircraft.
“In case he did not agree, Dr Qadri was to be picked up by the Elite Force commandos and put in the helicopter,” a security official revealed on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to talk to the media.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Also read: Qadri, 1,300 supporters booked on terror charges -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- But as is now well known, this plan was changed at the last moment. Commissioner Rawalpindi division and Regional Police Officer were both present at the airport to monitor the situation. Dawn has learnt that the railways minister suggested the diversion plan. As a result, the pilot was not given clearance for landing at BBIA; PML-Q leaders and the PAT workers waiting for Dr Qadri were not aware of what was happening till 8.50am when the flight’s diversion to Lahore was announced. In the meantime, the aircraft remained in the air. Once it was told to fly to Lahore, the airport authorities said that the plane was diverted for security concerns. Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2014 ============================================================ Live updates: Lahore airport in lockdown as govt-Qadri stalemate continues Averting a standoff: Volatile security situation forced diversion By Irfan Ghauri Published: June 24, 2014 “If the government had any plan to divert the plane to Lahore, we would have conveyed it to the pilot soon after the aircraft entered Pakistani airspace,” a top government official told The Express Tribune. PHOTO: EXPRESS ISLAMABAD: Authorities in the federal capital decided at the last minute to divert the Emirates flight carrying Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) chief Dr Tahirul Qadri from Islamabad to Lahore due to the fragile security situation on the ground, government sources have revealed. The initial plan, according to these sources, incorporated two or three different options, none of which called for diverting the plane to Lahore’s Allama Iqbal International Airport. “If the government had any plan to divert the plane to Lahore, we would have conveyed it to the pilot soon after the aircraft entered Pakistani airspace,” a top government official told The Express Tribune. “The plane circled eight times around Islamabad airport before it was diverted to Lahore,” he said. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, who was supervising security, took the decision after assessing the situation and conveyed it to the aviation authorities, added the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The government’s initial plan called for airlifting Qadri to Lahore using a helicopter or small plane as soon as his flight landed at Benazir International Airport. Police was tasked with keeping protesters at least a few miles away from the airport area. They were instructed, however, to not use tear gas or batons on protesters. But the plans came unstuck when PAT activists broke through all security barriers, reaching just outside the airport building. This left no other barrier between protesters and the airport building in the event the situation worsened, save for a few dozen Rangers and Airport Security Force (ASF) officials guarding the other side of the steel fence that serves as the airport’s boundary wall. The retreating policemen were engaged in skirmishes with PAT activists on the other end of the road instead of serving as a barrier before the airport building. There was a possibility that the protesters would resort to violence once Qadri was airlifted from the airport, prompting security personnel to open fire, government sources said. The incident not only earned the country a bad name, but also caused financial loss to the Emirates Airline, whose flight schedule was disturbed. When Qadri refused to come out of the plane in Lahore, leaving the aircraft stranded, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif instructed aviation adviser Shujaat Azeem to contact the administration of Emirates Airline. Azeem offered to send the passengers stranded in Lahore and Islamabad to Dubai using a PIA plane, but Emirates declined it and informed Pakistani authorities that it was sending another aircraft to replace the crew of flight EK-612. According to international aviation rules, a pilot cannot fly for more than eight hours on a trip. As EK-612 was stuck at Lahore airport for almost 12 hours, that duration was already consumed. The flight took off from Lahore airport in the evening and reached Islamabad at 10:40pm. Some media reports suggested Emirates could blacklist Qadri and bar him from using the airline in the future. This could not be confirmed, though. Published in The Express Tribune, June 24th, 2014. By Web Desk / Anwar Sumra / Akbar Bajwa Published: June 23, 2014 Express News of Tahirul Qadri in his plane. PAT supporters hold up banners and chant slogans outside the airport. PHOTO: REUTERS Express News screengrab of Tahirul Qadri in his plane. Express News screengrab of PAT supporters at Lahore airport. Express News screengrab of the clashes. Pakistan Awami Tehreek chief Tahirul Qadri. PHOTO: REUTERS/FILE . ISLAMABAD / LAHORE / RAWALPINDI / KARACHI: A sense of anticipation hangs over the capital as cleric-cum-political leader Tahirul Qadri lands back in Pakistan to throw up one of the bigger political challenges to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) year-old government. As supporters of PAT chief Tahirul Qadri fervently wait for their leader to kickoff his movement against the ruling government, a sense of anxiety and uncertainty has enveloped the country. Major roads have been blocked off and security has been tightened in Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Earlier this week, at least ten people were killed and scores injured in Lahore when violent clashes erupted between the police and followers of Qadri – the deadliest political confrontation in Lahore since emergency rule was imposed by General Musharraf in 2007. As Qadri plans to go head-to-head with the government for a second time, get all the updates here. All stories relating to Qadri’s rally can also be found on this trend page as well. [Read: AFP version and Reuters version of the clashes that took place today] ============= government and will only let my personal guard come close to me.” Qadri also says media vans should also be allowed to go with him. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 1:00pm Jamaat-e-Islaami leader Sirajul Haq says “the world would have not ended if the plane was allowed to land in Islamabad.” “The government is making mistakes by mishandling the situation and only strengthening Qadri’s movement.” ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… ===================================================== June 23, 12:55pm CAA spokesperson says they want to resolve the matter as soon as possible. “We are in talks with the government,” he says. CAA denies that Emirates had made any request to the aviation authority. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 12:51pm Punjab Law Minister Rana Mashood says Qadri should act responsibly. “PAT supporters attacking Islamabad police reflect the ideas they believe in,” adds Mashood. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 12:49pm Express News reports that Qadri is consulting PML-Q Punjab president Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, PML-Q chief Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and AML chief Sheikh Rasheed regarding the issue. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 12:46pm Express News reports that the government has tried to contact Qadri and offered to take him to his house. Government has offered to provide Qadri with a helicopter and bullet-proof vehicle. Qadri has refused all the offers made by the government. An MQM delegation has entered the plane to meet Qadri. Express News screengrab of Qadri’s plane. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 12:43pm PPP leader Qamar Zaman Kaira, while speaking to Express News, says it is regrettable how government handled the situation. “On top of that, the government is not even admitting its mistakes,” Kaira adds. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 12:32pm PML-N leader Mian Javed Latif says Qadri is bent upon creating disturbance in the country. He questions why PAT supporters are present at the airport armed with sticks if they are peaceful. “If Qadri talks about changing the system, why was he part of this system in 2002,” adds Latif. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 12:24pm According to Express News, Emirates administration wants the plane to be evacuated immediately. The airline officials have contacted DG Civil Aviation Authority and state advisor for aviation. Administration of the airline says the plane has to proceed to the next destination. Emirates says the aircraft needs to fly back to Dubai and continue with its routine flights. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 12:23pm Express News reports that PAT supporters are present inside Lahore airport’s passenger lounge. Airport Security Force did not stop the supporter from entering the lounge because they were in large number. The security around the airport has been beefed up. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 12:12pm PPP senior leader Aitzaz Ahsan, while speaking to Express News, says Qadri might lose support because he is inside Emirates plane and that the government has no control over the international aircraft. Ahsan says Qadri should not be stubborn and make a compromise to resolve the deadlock. Express News anchorperson Javed Chaudhry says Emirates has contacted the government over this issue. The PPP leader says government has overplayed the situation and given advantage to Qadri. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 11:56am Express News correspondent Talib Faridi reports that Qadri has refused to listen to the government. PML-N leader Raja Zafarul Haq assures Qadri that he will provide security to him and make sure he reaches his home safely. However, Qadri refuses to accept his offer and says his plane should be taken back. “Even if I decide to get off the plane, I will leave via the main exit and not old or Hajj terminals.” Qadri expresses fear he will be detained as soon as he disembarks the plane. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 11:51am Our correspondent Akbar Bajwa reports more than 150 police officials in civvies have been deployed at the Lahore airport, a police official told The Express Tribune. Elite police commandos are also present at the airport. Acting CCPO Lahore Zulfiqar Hameed, along with DCO Lahore Capt (retd) Usman have arrived at the airport as well. The acting CCPO is directly monitoring the police deployment in the airport, as well as the city. Express News screengrab of Qadri supporters (L) and police (R) in Lahore. Cellular services have also been suspended in several parts of the city, including the airport. Two rescue vehicles have been placed at and kept on alert at the airport. Dozens of PAT activists have thronged the international terminal of the Lahore airport. SP Traffic Azhar Gujjer has also arrived at the airport, while extra traffic wardens have also been deployed. Hundreds of policemen have been deployed near the Pakistan Awami Tehreek secretariat, where arrangements for a makeshift helipad are underway. Reporters are not allowed to enter the airport premises while their vehicles have been forced out of the airport parking. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 11:50am The Lahore police had chalked out different security plans for Dr Qadri’s arrival. According to a source, if the PAT chief were to arrive in Lahore from Islamabad through the GT road, 12, 000 police personnel would have been deployed for Qadri’s security all the way from Imamia colony till his residence, while 500 traffic wardens would look after the route. However, the policemen have now been deployed along the route from the Lahore airport to the PAT secretariat in Model Town. According to the plan, containers will be placed near the Punjab assembly, outside the CCPO office and the Governor House on Monday. In a meeting on Sunday, IGP Mushtaq Sukhera directed senior police officials to ensure that policemen deployed at the PAT rally carry rubber bullets and not open fire under any circumstances and should wait for orders from senior officials. An SP in the city, who attended the meeting, said that the IGP also directed policemen to maintain a distance from the rally. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 11:47am Express News reports a four-member government negotiation team has entered the plane to talk to Qadri. Seven passengers have been escorted out of the plane and brought to the waiting lounge. Express News reports that PML-N leader Raja Zafarul Haq fails to convince Qadri. Qadri also refuses to hand his passport to immigration officials. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 11:27am Express News reports that PAT supporters have also gathered at Karachi’s Numaish Chowrangi. This is one of the busiest thoroughfares of the city. Express News screengrab of PAT supporters at Numaish Chowrangi in Karachi. Men, women and children are chanting slogans against the government. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 11:21am Speaking to Express News, Awami Muslim League (AML) chief Sheikh Rasheed says the government is repeating its past mistake and will face consequences. He says “Qadri’s movement has caught momentum and will only grow further.” “According to my information, government is well aware of the threats faced by Qadri but they are only creating chaos instead of handling the situation sensibly.” ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 11:18am Express News anchor Shahzeb Khanzada said on twitter: ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 11:07am Express News correspondent Mian Aslam reports that groups of PAT supporters have arrived at Lahore airport and are staging a sit-in at the airport’s departure area. Carrying party flags, the supporters say they are here to welcome their leader. The supporters have not faced any resistance so far by the police. Aslam reports that senior PAT leadership is also present with the supporters and are meeting airport officials and inquiring about the situation. Aslam reports the number of supporters continues to increase as more and more PAT workers arrive at the airport. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 11:06am Radio Pakistan tweeted: ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 11:01am Railway Minister Rafique says “the government has never stopped its opposition from protesting or staging dharnas.” However, he adds, opponents should not provoke its supporters to violence. When asked whether the government will use force to bring Qadri out of the plane or not, Rafique says “that is what Qadri wants the government to do but it will not use force.” ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 10:58am Railway Minister Rafique says Qadri has hijacked the plane and not allowing passengers to get out. Calling him a conspirator, Rafique says Qadri just wants to create agitation. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 10:57am Railway Minister Saad Rafique says the army is busy fighting a war against terrorists and Qadri is trying to divert the nation’s attention away from the operation. “I wonder someone who has issued fatwas against terrorists is doing such a thing.” Rafique says he was not allowed to land in Islamabad only after hundreds of his supporters, armed with sticks, gathered outside the airport. “We feared the situation might get out of control.” ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 10:55am Our correspondent Anwer Sumra reports that police force has been deployed at the airport and surrounding areas. A contingent of the elite force has also been deployed on the road leading to the airport. CCPO Lahore Zulfikar Hamid is personally supervising police force at the airport. Special commandos have been deployed around the Emirates aircraft carrying Qadri. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 10:52am A spokesperson for Civil Aviation Authority tells AFP Qadri’s flight has been diverted to Lahore “to ensure the safety of the passengers and aircraft”. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 10:48am Pakistan Muslim League – Quaid (PML-Q) leader Pervaiz Elahi, while speaking to Express News, says the government is repeating the October 12, 1999 history. “PM Nawaz is again manipulating the landing of a plane.” PML-Q leader Elahi says army has been called to only resolve the current situation and nothing else. He says “Qadri doesn’t trust anyone and is concerned about the safety of his supporters.” The PML-Q leader adds there is no shame in calling army for assistance. He says the government calls Rangers when it thinks police need support and so it should request army to assist Qadri. He adds “the movement for revolution has started and that it cannot be stopped.” ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 10:44am Punjab Law Minister Rana Mashood has said that workers of Pakistan Awami Tehreek have not been arrested anywhere in Punjab, Radio Pakistan reports. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 10:42am Qadri accuses Sharif brothers of plotting against him. “There are hundreds of Gullu Butts in police force and we fear them,” says Qadri. Qadri tells Express News again that he has not been contacted by anyone so far for negotiation. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 10:40am Benazir Bhutto International Airport is live again after temporary suspension of flight operations. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 10:38am Qadri says the PML-N government has held the entire country hostage. “I will not board any plane provided by the government, I want a helicopter provided by the army,” he demands. “I’m requesting the army and I know they are listening,” he tells Express News. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 10:36am Qadri tells his supporters to stay where they are and remain peaceful. “I emphasise that there should be no violence; we will fight these political terrorists with peace.” “Nawaz has hijacked this plane and I will file a case against him and his brother Shahbaz Sharif,” the PAT cheif says while speaking to Express News. Qadri says “if corps commander comes and provides security, I won’t stay inside the plane even for a second.” Army has been called in multiple times in Karachi and Hyderabad, Qadri says. “The armed forces have intervened many times in the past and it should come to help us,” Qadri remarks. “We are not calling the army for martial law but our security,” the party chief further says. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 10:31am The PAT chief says, “the government has diverted so many passengers to a different city without their permission.” “Passengers who want to disembark are free to leave the plane, however, those refusing to get off are doing it according to their own will,” he states. On government’s claim that Qadri’s life is under threat in Islamabad, Qadri says his life is under a greater threat in Lahore than the federal capital. He says “the government is acting hysterically and stopping me from landing in Islamabad because they fear me.” ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 10:24am Qadri, from his plane, says “whoever comes to meet me will first have to negotiate with me.” “The Sharif government is a murderous state. They have killed many of our supporters. We have confirmed reports they have hired terrorists to carry out attacks on their opponents.” “How can we negotiate with those who support terrorists,” he adds. “I only trust the army; their high officials should come and escort us safely to our home.” “We will sit here until or unless army officials come here and assure us of our safety,” Qadri demands. He says he has not been contacted yet by government or army officials. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 10:16am Our reporter Abdul Manan who is at the Minhajul Quran Secretariat in Lahore, reports that mobile jammers have been installed and there is moderate security there. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 10:14am Rashid says the act of PAT supporters blocking the plane exits is technically hijacking the plane. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 10:12am According to Express News anchorperson Imran Khan, PAT supporters are standing at the exits of the plane and are insisting they want to go to Islamabad and not Lahore. Express News reports that 90 percent of the passengers in the plane are Qadri supporters. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 10:10am Minister of Railways Khawaja Saad Rafique in a text message to Express News anchorperson Javed Chaudhry says the government has not arrested Qadri and that he is free to go home. Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid, while speaking to Express News, says Qadri is a free man and he is free to go his home. He, however, adds that the plane was diverted to Lahore because that is where his house and office are. He further states the plane was diverted to ensure Qadri’s safety. “The government has never stopped any politician from their work; we have never stopped Sheikh Rasheed or Imran Khan, so why will we stop Qadri,” he says. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 10:08am ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 10:06am Qadri has refused to talk to or negotiate with any government official, adding that he will only speak to a member of the armed forces. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 10:04am Our correspondent Anwar Sumra, who is at the Lahore airport, is reporting that passengers on board the plane have protested against the diversion and demanded the plane be taken to Islamabad. Qadri has asked why the armed forces are remaining silent on ‘state terrorism’ being carried out by the government. He claimed that the government has deployed terrorists in police uniforms at the airport. “I cannot negotiate with the government because I don’t trust them. I would like the armed forces, such as the Corps Commander to intervene to ensure my security and negotiate with me.” ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 9:48am According to Minjahul Quran spokesperson, Qadri has refused to get off from the plane. He wanted to come from Islamabad to Lahore peacefully, he added. Commandos have surrounded Qadri’s plane. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 9:36am Qadri’s plane has landed at Lahore airport, Express News reported. Around 150 to 200 policemen have been deployed in civilian clothes at the airport. PAT supporters have not reached Lahore airport as of yet. Two helipads were made on orders of the district coordination officer, one in the city’s Model Town and the other in Punjab University. A helicopter is also at the airport. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 9:32am ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 9:14am The official airport website had said that the plane has landed in Islamabad. However, it has transpired that Qadri’s plane has been diverted to Lahore, according to Emirates website. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 8:52am Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has categorically stated that no one will be allowed to march on Islamabad in the guise of holding demonstrations or sit-ins, Radio Pakistan reported. In a statement issued in Islamabad, Nisar said that it is responsibility of the government to facilitate Tahirul Qadri and his companions to reach Lahore safely. He said it is not understandable why Tahirul Qadri is landing in Islamabad when he wants to go to Lahore. The interior minister said all the security agencies are presently focusing on the war against terrorism, and it is beyond understanding why Tahirul Qadri wants to create a hurdle in it. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 8:44am Qadri is expected to announce his plan of action upon his arrival. MQM leader Haider Rizvi said on twitter that a delegation of the party has reached the airport to receive the PAT chief: ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 8:25am Qadri’s plane has landed at Benazir International Airport, according to the official website of the airport. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 8:06am Chaudhry Shujaat and Kamil Ali Agha have been allowed to enter Islamabad airport’s Rawal Lounge, our correspondent Irfan Ghauri reports. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 8:06am Earlier, The Express Tribune reported that the government is likely to transport PAT chief Dr Tahirul Qadri to Lahore via a helicopter or a chartered aircraft as soon as he lands at the Benazir Bhutto International Airport in Islamabad. You can read the story here. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 7:51am There is big build-up at the main gate of Islamabad airport with even PML-Q President Chaudhry Shujaat among the crowd stuck outside, The Express Tribune correspondents Azam Khan and Fawad Ali report. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23 7:15am A helipad and two bulletproof land cruisers are reportedly on standby near the Minhajul Quran Secretariat in Lahore on orders of the District Coordination Officer, Express News reported. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 6:43am PML-Q President Chaudhry Shujaat has reached the airport, Express News reported. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 6:43am PAT supporters have managed to remove barricades and containers and occupy Islamabad airport’s Gate No.1, Express News reported. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 6:35am Aerial surveillance of Benazir International Airport is underway while Rangers have also been deployed at the airport. Section 144 has been imposed till tomorrow afternoon. A ban has been imposed on pillion riding and mobile services have been suspended, Express News reported. Express News screengrab. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 6:05am PAT supporters have crossed barriers after violent clashes with the police and reached the airport. The army has been put on high alert. Express News screengrab. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… June 23, 6:00am Violent clashes have ensued since 3am in the morning in Islamabad between Qadri supporters and police, including reported incidents of tear gassing by police. Thirty policemen and 10 protesters are reportedly injured. You can read the story here. Express News screengrab. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… Qadri took the country by storm last year after returning from Canada, where he has lived for seven years. Qadri’s appeared at the forefront of Pakistan’s political landscape with a massive rally in Lahore on Dec. 23 in which he demanded that President Asif Ali Zardari’s government resign to make way for a caretaker administration led by technocrats.

‘Half Qataris’ attempt to have their voices heard; Speak of discrimination

Qatar in FocusSOCIAL No Comments ‘Half Qataris’ attempt to have their voices heard; Speak of discrimination Vani Saraswathi Vani Saraswathi On June 22, 2014 National identity is often built on exclusion. Especially in countries such as the GCC, where before national identity comes tribal affiliation. However, exclusion becomes more contentious as mixed marriages become more common, and the identity of the offspring becomes a cause for concern. Last week, an article in the Arabic daily Al Raya (see image above) said the increasing number of marriages between Qataris and non-Qataris was due to the exorbitant demand for mahr (dowry). The accompanying illustration which propagates the stereotype of why Qatari men marry non-Qataris was not received well by all. Qatari author and director of Translation and Interpreting Institute Dr. Amal Al Maliki, being one of them. Dr Amal decided to turn the negatively perceived ‘half-Qatari’ phrase to engage in a discussion on the status of those born of mixed parentage, and the issues they face. Speaking to JustHere, she says she felt obliged on both personal and professional fronts to join existing voices that raise this issue from time to time. Hence the twitter discussion under the hashtag #ImHalfQatari. The author herself is of mixed parentage – Qatari father and Lebanese mother. “What I have done here is group half Qataris with non-Qatari mothers as well as non-Qatari fathers underneath the same definition, which was rarely done. Both groups weren’t perceived as the same. On the one hand those with Qatari fathers get the citizenship by default, and their struggles are mostly cultural and some linguistic depending on where the mother is originally from. On the other hand we have a group of half Qataris who are denied citizenship because their Qatari mother cannot pass her nationality to her children!” JustHere columnist Nofe Al Suwaidi had written earlier about how Qatari women were denied the right to pass on citizenship to their children. “The laws set in place controlling the citizenship process are outdated, non-representative of views and values of the public and they shamefully do not reflect the reality. Fortunately, Qatar is continuously making changes and advancements for the better. Hopefully, this is one of the areas where we see a significant change in the legal framework.”
Dr Amal points out that though constitutionally men and women have the same public rights and responsibilities, in reality injustices and inequalities exist based on gender, which is “highly problematic and puts women as second-class citizens”.
At a recent CEDAW (Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women) review in the UN, main amongst the many issues raised was that of citizenship. Qatar stated that it is currently ‘studying’ the Citizenship law in regards to how a mother can transfer her citizenship to her children, in the case that the father is non-Qatari. However, reasons stated for such a law not being in place is that citizenship is determined by ‘blood ties’ (Law No. 38 of 2005). Although, a law does in fact exist and a ‘specialised committee’ is set in place for such cases (Qatari mother and non-Qatari father), however, the process lacks much-needed standardisation. (Read the full CEDAW hearing review here.) The recent discussion on social media, draws attention to this discriminatory practice.
Dr Amal explains: “Firstly, I wanted to turn what was used in some cases as a degrading term into an empowering one. We should embrace our diversity and richness, and respect all of the cultural forces that make up who we are! I am a Half Qatari and proud to be so. “Secondly, I wanted to bring into the conversation the voices of half-Qataris whose fathers aren’t Qatari, as they have been previously marginalised. I situated them within a bigger picture, building on what is common between us! You relate to them but still give them the space to talk about their own challenges! I, as a half Qatari, think we are the same and should be treated equally and be given equal rights. As small as this step is, it targets their self-perception and shapes how society perceives them on the long run. And hopefully by raising awareness about what they face, the community as a whole would start accepting both groups equally, and as a community request equal rights for both.” Meanwhile, a twitter account @ImHalfQatari attempts to highlight problems faced by those of mixed parentage.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Welcome to Hell! Turkmenistan eyes turning infernal gas pit into tourist attraction

Heaven-sent hotspot? The Door to Hell could be the secret to a Turkmenistan tourism boom AFP June 20, 2014 2:00PM Door to Hell LOCALS call it the Door to Hell, a giant burning pit that has spit out angry flames for more than 40 years, casting a yellow-orange glow into the evening sky. “It takes your breath away,” said Gozel Yazkulieva, a 34-year-old visitor from the Turkmenistan capital Ashgabat. “You immediately think of your sins and feel like praying.” Few foreigners have seen the crater in the heart of the Karakum, one of the world’s largest deserts, although Turkmen authorities are hoping to change that as they seek ways to bolster tiny visitor numbers to the former Soviet republic. FIRST IN: Incredible places tourists don’t know about yet Still one of the world’s most isolated countries almost quarter of a century after the fall of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan welcomes just 12,000 to 15,000 tourists from about 50 countries each year. The Door to Hell is a huge burning gas crater in Turkmenistan’s Karakum desert. Picture: AFP WHAT A VIEW! The swing at the end of the world Tourism officials say the Door to Hell, also called the Derweze crater after a nearby village, could be developed into a key draw for adventure tourists. “The burning crater ... is attracting more and more interest every year, especially among foreign tourists,” an official on Turkmenistan’s state committee on tourism said. “The ‘lifeless’ desert could soon become a hugely interesting destination for different types of tourism - from eco-tourism to extreme sports.” HEAVEN ON EARTH? Stunning shots from Mt Kilimanjaro The Karakum, or Black Sands, covers 80 per cent of the Central Asian republic. In summer, temperatures soar to more than 50C, while in winter they plunge to -20C. There are no road signs to the pit in a natural gas field some 270km north of the capital, but guides know where to turn on to a track leading to a fantastic view. Flames dance out of cracks in its floor and around the sides, and a burning blast of air emanating from the pit shifts with the wind. The extreme heat and the roar of the flames have a mesmerising effect. Tourism officials hope the fiery pit could be the key to a tourism boom for the country. Picture: AFP The phenomenon was the result of a simple miscalculation by Soviet scientists. “Soviet geologists started drilling a borehole to prospect for gas at this spot in 1971,” said Turkmen geologist Anatoly Bushmakin. “The boring equipment suddenly drilled through into an underground cavern, and a deep sinkhole formed. The equipment tumbled through but fortunately no one was killed. “Fearing that the crater would emit poisonous gases, the scientists took the decision to set it alight, thinking that the gas would burn out quickly and this would cause the flames to go out.” EERIE SIGHT: Inside the mysterious ‘cave of death’ But they never did, and now serve as a potent symbol of Turkmenistan’s vast gas reserves, believed to be the fourth largest in the world. Despite the obvious danger, the pit is not fenced off and those looking for extreme thrills can stand right on the edge. But this is very risky since the sandy soil often crumbles away. The fire was started by Soviet scientists in 1971. They thought it would burn out within hours. Picture: AFP “Foreign tourists who visit the burning crater feel mixed emotions - awe at the sight but also at the profligacy of the Turkmen people, who have simply let the gas burn for so many years,” said 40-year-old Begli Atayev, who works at a travel agency in Ashgabat. Last year Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov created a state nature reserve in the Karakum desert covering an area of 90,000ha, including the Derweze crater. “The main task of the new reserve is to preserve one of the largest deserts on the planet and solve its environmental problems,” said Ovez Kurbanov of the National Institute of Deserts, Flora and Fauna. TOURISM REVIVAL: Star Wars boost for Tunisia The region’s diversity of flora and fauna also made it ripe for scientific and eco-tourism, he added. “Landmarks such as the burning crater are hugely interesting both to people who love to travel and to researchers in various areas,” he said. Travellers could go on safari in jeeps and quad bikes or ride camels along the shifting sand dunes of the Karakum, the state tourism official suggested. “Our main task is to create an attractive image of Turkmenistan as a tourism destination,” he said. VOLCANO INSIDER: Underground in a magma chamber ================================================ Published time: June 21, 2014 19:59 Edited time: June 22, 2014 11:12 A picture taken on May 3, 2014, shows people visiting "The Gateway to Hell," a huge burning gas crater in the heart of Turkmenistan's Karakum desert. (AFP Photo/Igor Sasin) Accident, Central Asia, Gas, Tourism An ominous gas crater that has been burning in a Turkmen desert for more than 40 years is a perfect site for boosting tourism in the country, local officials and academics say. The man-made pit, known as “the Door to Hell,” earlier faced backfill. Tourism may not be the strongest side of the Central Asian republic’s economy, as only around 10,000 visitors come to Turkmenistan yearly, according to official stats – most of them from Iran, Germany and the US. However, local tourism officials say they found a promising tourist attraction – and it is really hot. Amid the arid Karakum desert, covering most of the country and known for its extreme temperature changes, one can find a huge sinister-looking pit known as Derweze or Darvaza – commonly referred to by the locals as “the Door to Hell.” The pit is filled by what seems to be a hellish fire, but is in fact an enormous blaze of natural gas coming from under the ground. No one is really sure, when the fire in the 60-meter wide, 20-meter deep crater may go out, but it is known for certain that it was started after a drilling accident in 1971. The ground at the site collapsed when Soviet geologists were exploring a natural gas field – one of the many reserves in the gas-rich country, which used to be a Soviet republic. Fortunately, no one was injured in the incident, but fearing that poisonous gas fumes may pose a danger for the local population and animals, the geologists decided to set them on fire, thinking they will soon burn out. The guys apparently miscalculated – and the gas is still burning, creating a surreal otherworldly scene. AFP Photo/Igor Sasin In 2010, the Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov decided that Derweze has burned enough, ordering the crater to be filled up or somehow isolated. Four years later, however, Turkmen officials have seemingly found a better use for the infernal pit. “The burning crater... is attracting more and more interest every year, especially among foreign tourists,” an official on Turkmenistan’s state committee on tourism was quoted as saying by AFP. Moreover, it is a nice attraction for eco-tourists and researchers visiting the newly-formed 90,000-hectare nature reserve in the Karakum desert, Turkmen academics believe. “Landmarks such as the burning crater are hugely interesting both to people who love to travel and to researchers in various areas,” Ovez Kurbanov of the National Institute of Deserts, Flora and Fauna, told the agency. “Our main task is to create an attractive image of Turkmenistan as a tourism destination,” he added. Those visiting Derweze, however, experience mixed feelings about the site. “Foreign tourists who visit the burning crater feel mixed emotions – awe at the sight but also at the
profligacy of the Turkmen people, who have simply let the gas burn for so many years,” a Turkmen travel agency employee Begli Atayev told AFP. Others, like a 34-year-old local Gozel Yazkulieva say that the site “takes your breath away.” “You immediately think of your sins and feel like praying,” Yazkulieva said.
Thus far, getting to the crater located some 270 kilometers from the capital Ashgabat has been no easy task, but those seeking extreme thrills can hire a guide to get right to the spot. YouTube is filling up with videos of the site, which many observers film from the brink of the pit, ignoring the possibility it might collapse. Meanwhile, bloggers’ reviews of Derweze claim that “nothing that falls in [the crater] makes it out alive.” Being still relatively unknown, the site even caused some embarrassment for Russia’s Channel One, which last February aired it in the aftermath of Chelyabinsk meteorite’s fall, tricked by some YouTube user. Surprisingly, the Turkmen “Door to Hell” is not the only man-made fire that has been burning on for years, not even the record-longest. In Pennsylvania, US, a coal mine fire that has been ablaze since at least May 1962 has forced whole towns to be deserted and leveled. The fire started in the borough of Centralia presumably from burning trash and has since expanded. All attempts to contain the huge underground blaze have so far failed.

In Shiite Heartland of Iraq, Volunteers Get Set for a ‘Defensive Jihad’

Report confirming rumour that Shia enemies of Maliki nominated Adel Abd al-Mahdi as PM replacement Good to help Iraq vs ISIS but shows conditionality unfeasible in crisis: CENTCOM sending 90 US troops, setting up JOC in Baghdad via #Iraq dpy PM Shahristani adds his voice to #Bayji refinery controversy: Says refinery remains under army control #Iraq army fighting back against #ISIS as far north as Tal Afar, claiming they control south of city today Jobouri's brother assassinated in Erbil Wednesday, 25 June 2014 15:21 | PDF | Print | E-mail b_280_189_16777215_0___images_idoblog_upload_88_98888_4.jpg Erbil (AIN) –The brother of Mashaan al-Jobouri, was assassinated in one of the hotels in Erbil. Security source stated to AIN "Unidentified gunmen assassinated, Abd Hussein al-Jobouri, by silenced weapons in one of the hotels in Erbil." /End/ PM Maliki considers forming National Rescue Government as "Coup against constitution" Wednesday, 25 June 2014 11:49 | PDF | Print | E-mail b_270_187_16777215_0___images_idoblog_upload_89_imagesCA9924KF.jpg Baghdad (AIN) –The Premier, Nouri al-Maliki, considers forming a National Rescue Government as a "Coup against constitution." In his weekly address, he confirmed "This is an attempt to eliminate the democratic experiment and to neglect the constitution." /End/ Maliki: Some political figures want to achieve political interests by make issues greater Wednesday, 25 June 2014 12:57 Iraq PM Maliki's office confirms he has not abandoned attempt to form coalition government. Says his speech refers to imposed government. To me Maliki rejecting foreign pressure rather than abandoning attempt to form coalition government. Other #Iraq watchers re his speech? PYD crossed Iraqi-Syria border to fight with #ISIS around Til Kocer ... b_280_189_16777215_0___images_idoblog_upload_89_2013-12-23-1_1.jpg Baghdad (AIN) –The Premier, Nouri al-Maliki, criticized the attempts of some political figures to make the issues greater than they are in order to achieve political interests. In his weekly speech on Wednesday, Maliki said "Those who do not like the constitution and interpret it according to their views aim at achieving political interests by making the issues greater than they are." /End/ Rumours that #ISIS is moving towards Nukhayb in S Anbar, important because it's considered desert gateway to Karbala What Maliki told Kerry: Biggest parliament bloc must supply PM candidate per constitution http://pmo.iq/press/2014/6/23-6-2014.htm … (how he became PM in 2010) Kerry lands in Baghdad to press Maliki as insurgency spreads By Lesley Wroughton BAGHDAD Mon Jun 23, 2014 4:35am EDT Iraqi security forces and volunteers, who have joined the fight against the predominantly Sunni militants from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), take part in a patrol on the outskirts of the town of Udaim in Diyala province, June 22, 2014. REUTERS-Stringer Iraqi security forces fire artillery during clashes with Sunni militant group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on the outskirts of the town of Udaim in Diyala province, June 22, 2014. REUTERS-Stringer 1 of 2. Iraqi security forces and volunteers, who have joined the fight against the predominantly Sunni militants from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), take part in a patrol on the outskirts of the town of Udaim in Diyala province, June 22, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Stringer Iraqi forces in anti-militant offensive Sunni tribes seize Iraqi border crossing with Jordan: sources (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry landed in Baghdad on Monday to press Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to form a more inclusive government in response to a Sunni insurgency that has swept much of northern and western Iraq. Kerry's visit came after Sunni militants took strongholds along Iraq's western border at the weekend, strengthening supply routes from Syria where they have exploited a three-year-old rebellion to capture swathes of territory. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Sunday accused Washington of trying to regain control of the country it once occupied - a charge Kerry denied, saying the United States was committed to helping Iraq but wanted a more inclusive government. Kerry would "discuss U.S. actions underway to assist Iraq as it confronts this threat and urge Iraqi leaders to move forward as quickly as possible with its government formation process to forge a government that represents the interests of Iraqis," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. Washington, which withdrew its troops from Iraq in 2011 after an eight year occupation that followed the 2003 invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, has been struggling help Iraq contain a Sunni insurgency led by an al Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. U.S. President Barack Obama agreed last week to send up to 300 special forces troops as advisers, but has held off from providing air strikes and ruled out redeploying ground troops. Washington is worried that Maliki's Shi'ite-led government has worsened the insurgency by alienating moderate Sunnis who once fought al Qaeda but have now joined the ISIL revolt. Kerry said on Sunday the United States would not pick or choose who rules in Baghdad. He said, however, Washington had noted the dissatisfaction among Kurds, Sunnis and some Shi'ites with Maliki's leadership and emphasized that the United States wanted Iraqis to "find a leadership that was prepared to be inclusive and share power". Iraqis are due to form a new government after an election in April in which Maliki's list won the most seats in parliament but would still require allies to win a majority. U.S. officials have conveyed that they are open to Maliki leaving. Senior Iraqi politicians, including at least one member of Maliki's own ruling list, have told Reuters that this message has been delivered in diplomatic language to Iraqi leaders. Recent meetings between Maliki and the Americans have been described as tense. According to a Western diplomat briefed on the conversations by someone attending the meetings, U.S. diplomats have informed Maliki he should accept leaving if he cannot gather a majority in parliament for a third term. U.S. officials have contested that such a message was delivered. A close ally of Maliki has described him as having grown bitter toward the Americans in recent days over their failure to provide strong military support in the face of the militant advance. IRAN ACCUSATION On Sunday, militants overran a second frontier post on the Syrian border, extending two weeks of swift territorial gains as ISIL pursues the goal of a caliphate straddling both countries that has raised alarm across the Middle East and in the West. The need to battle the Sunni insurgency has put the United States on the same side as its enemy of 35 years, Iran, which has close ties to the Shi'ite parties that came to power in Baghdad after U.S. forces toppled Saddam. However, Khamenei's comments made clear that a rapprochement would not be easy. "We are strongly opposed to U.S. and other intervention in Iraq," IRNA news agency quoted Khamenei as saying. "We don’t approve of it as we believe the Iraqi government, nation and religious authorities are capable of ending the sedition." Some Iraqi observers in Baghdad interpreted Khamenei's comments as a warning to the United States to stay out of the process of selecting any successor to Maliki. Baghdad is Kerry's third stop in a tour of Middle East capitals to emphasize the threat the insurgency poses to the region and call on Iraq’s allies to use their influence to press Baghdad to govern more inclusively. He has also been warning Iraq’s neighbors they need to step up efforts to cut off cross-border funding to the militants. (Writing by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Peter Graff) =================================== Iran rejects U.S. action in Iraq as militants push east Sun, Jun 22 09:17 AM EDT By Kamal Namaa ANBAR Iraq (Reuters) - Iran's supreme leader condemned U.S. intervention in Iraq on Sunday, accusing Washington of seeking control as Sunni insurgents drove toward Baghdad from the Syrian border and consolidated positions in the north and west. The statement by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was the clearest statement of opposition to a U.S. plan to dispatch of up to 300 military advisers in response to pleas from the Iraqi government and runs counter to speculation that old enemies Washington and Tehran might cooperate to defend their mutual ally in Baghdad. "We are strongly opposed to U.S. and other intervention in Iraq," IRNA news agency quoted Khamenei as saying. "We don’t approve of it as we believe the Iraqi government, nation and religious authorities are capable of ending the sedition." The Iranian and the U.S. governments had seemed open to collaboration against al Qaeda offshoot the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which is fighting both the U.S.-backed, Shi'ite-led government of Iraq and the Iranian-backed president of Syria, whom Washington wants to see overthrown. "American authorities are trying to portray this as a sectarian war, but what is happening in Iraq is not a war between Shi'ites and Sunnis," said Khamenei, who has the last word in the Islamic Republic's Shi'ite clerical administration. Accusing Washington of using Sunni Islamists and followers of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, he added: "The U.S. is seeking an Iraq under its hegemony and ruled by its stooges." Tehran and Washington have been shocked by the lightning quick offensive, spearheaded by ISIL, that has seen large swathes of northern and western Iraq fall to the hardline extremist group and other Sunni fighters since June 10, including the north's biggest city Mosul. The Sunnis are united in opposition to what they see as Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's divisive sectarian rule. WESTERN OFFENSIVE ISIL thrust east from a newly captured Iraqi-Syrian border post on Sunday, taking three towns in Iraq's western Anbar province after seizing the frontier crossing near the town of Qaim on Saturday, witnesses and security sources said. The gains have helped ISIL secure supply lines to Syria, where it has exploited the chaos of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad to seize territory. The group aims to create an Islamic caliphate straddling the desert border and has held Falluja, just west of Baghdad, since the start of the year. The fall of Qaim represented another step towards the realization of ISIL's military goals, erasing a frontier drawn by British and French colonial map-makers a century ago. ISIL's gains on Sunday included the towns of Rawa and Ana along the Euphrates river east of Qaim, as well as the town of Rutba further south on the main highway from Jordan to Baghdad. A military intelligence official said Iraqi troops had withdrawn from Rawa and Ana after ISIL militants attacked the settlements late on Saturday: "Troops withdrew from Rawa, Ana and Rutba this morning and ISIL moved quickly to completely control these towns," the official said. "They took Ana and Rawa this morning without a fight." IRAQ SPLINTERS Military spokesman Major-General Qassim al-Moussawi said the withdrawal from the towns was intended to ensure "command and control" and to allow troops to regroup and retake the areas. "The withdrawal of the units was for the purpose of reopening the areas," he told reporters in Baghdad. The towns are on a strategic supply route between ISIL's positions in Iraq and in eastern Syria, where the group has taken a string of towns and strategic positions from rival Sunni forces fighting Assad over the past few days. The last major Syrian town not in ISIL's hands in the region, the border town of Albukamal, is controlled by the Nusra Front, al Qaeda's branch in Syria which has clashed with ISIL but also agreed to local truces at times. ISIL, which began as the Islamic State of Iraq and was disowned by al Qaeda's central organization in February after pursuing its own goals in Syria and clashing with the Nusra Front, has pushed south down the Tigris valley since capturing Mosul with barely a fight two weeks ago, seizing towns and taking large amounts of weaponry from the fleeing Iraqi army. Overnight, ISIL fighters attacked the town of al-Alam, north of Tikrit, according to witnesses and police in the town. The attackers were repelled by security forces and tribal fighters, they said, adding that two ISIL fighters had been killed. State television reported that "anti-terrorism forces" in coordination with the air force had killed 40 ISIL members and destroyed five vehicles in fighting in Tikrit, home town of Saddam Hussein, the Sunni leader ousted by U.S. forces in 2003. There was a lull in fighting at Iraq's largest refinery, Baiji, near Tikrit, on Sunday morning. The site had been transformed into a battlefield since Wednesday as Sunni fighters launched an assault on the plant. Militants entered the large compound but were held off by Iraqi military units. A black column of smoke rose from the site. Refinery officials said it was caused by a controlled burning of waste. The ISIL advance has been joined by Sunni tribal militias and former members of Saddam's Baath Party, united in their hatred of Maliki and Shi'ite politicians brought to power in U.S.-backed elections. SUNNI CLASHES Relations between the diverse Sunni groups have not been entirely smooth. On Sunday morning, clashes raged for a third day between ISIL and Sunni tribes backed by the Naqshbandi Army, a group led by former army officers and Baathists, around Hawija, local security sources and tribal leaders said. More than 10 people were killed in the clashes in the area, southwest of the northern oil hub of Kirkuk, the sources said. On Friday evening, ISIL and Naqshbandi fighters began fighting each other in Hawija, where a crackdown on a Sunni protest over a year ago triggered unrest leading to the current insurgency. Iraqi and Western officials believe that as ISIL and other Sunni factions start to consolidate their control of newly won territories, they may start turning on each other. U.S. President Barack Obama has offered up to 300 U.S. special forces advisers to help the Iraqi government recapture territory but has held off granting a request for air strikes. The fighting has threatened to tear the country apart for good, reducing Iraq to separate Sunni, Shi'ite and ethnic Kurdish regions. It has highlighted divisions among regional powers, especially Iran, which has said it would not hesitate to protect Shi'ite shrines in Iraq if asked, and Sunni Saudi Arabia, which has warned Iran to stay out of Iraq. Iraq's Kurds have meanwhile expanded their territory in the northeast, including the long-prized oil city of Kirkuk. The government has mobilized Shi'ite militias and regular citizens to fight on the frontlines and defend the capital - thousands of fighters in military fatigues marched in a Shi'ite slum of the capital Baghdad on Saturday. (Additional reporting by a correspondent in Tikrit, Ahmed Rasheed and Raheem Salman in Baghdad and Mehrdad Balali in Dubai; Writing by Alexander Dziadosz; Editing by Alastair Macdonald) ========================= By THOMAS ERDBRINKJUNE 21, 2014 Photo Muqtada Munzer, 12, at a rally of Shiites in Najaf on Saturday. Credit Lynsey Addario for The New York Times Continue reading the main story Share This Page email facebook twitter save more Continue reading the main story Continue reading the main story Continue reading the main story ​ Top Stories This article and others like it are part of our new subscription. Learn More » NAJAF, Iraq — It had been quite the morning for Jamli Umm Saif, a mother of four. After morning prayers on Saturday, she sent off her husband and eldest son to join a military parade by the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia run by the populist cleric Moktada al-Sadr. Then she phoned her girlfriends and told them to come watch the parade wearing white shrouds draped over their black chadors, as a sign that they, too, the women of the Mahdi Army, were ready for martyrdom. “Yes, we are women,” said Umm Saif, a nickname meaning “mother of Saif,” giggling from behind her black face cover. “But don’t be mistaken. We can fight, too. We will all fight.” Here in the Shiite heartland of Iraq, volunteers have revived battalions of the Mahdi Army, one of the dominant groups preparing for battle following the call for a “defensive jihad” June 13 by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the highest authorities in the Shiite faith. Continue reading the main story Related Coverage graphic Graphic: The Iraq-ISIS Conflict in Maps, Photos and Video JUNE 12, 2014 graphic Graphic: In Iraq Crisis, a Tangle of Alliances and EnmitiesJUNE 13, 2014 Questions and Answers About the Crisis in Iraq JUNE 16, 2014 Shiite relatives on Friday wept over the coffin of an Iraqi soldier killed in Mosul by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Iraq Insurgents Reaping Wealth as They Advance JUNE 20, 2014 Men volunteering to join the Iraqi Army waited for a medical check at the main military recruitment center in Baghdad. Iraq’s Hold on Border Crossings Weakening as at Least 34 Are Killed in Battle JUNE 20, 2014 Nuri Kamal al-Maliki Challengers Emerge to Replace Divisive MalikiJUNE 19, 2014 video Video: Four Contenders to Replace MalikiJUNE 20, 2014 From the sidelines of the parade on a main street in Najaf, Umm Saif, 47, and her friends waved green flags, one of the colors of Shiite Islam, as their men marched by the thousands, singing in support of Mr. Sadr. Photo The body of Asad al-Saeedi, killed after entering a booby-trapped room near Falluja, was lowered into a grave in Najaf. Credit Lynsey Addario for The New York Times The cleric himself, who only recently returned from Iran, where he is studying theology, was not present, but his “army,” which he disbanded in 2008, seemed to be back in full strength. The Mahdi Army march was the largest of several taking place on Saturday in Najaf, the oldest center of Shiite learning and home to several key clerics influential with the faithful. All factions in the city have started mobilizing, preparing, as they call it, “for war.” But, almost everybody here says, the war is against the “terrorists” — the jihadists of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria who have seized broad stretches of northern territory — and not against Sunnis. This reluctance to lump together the Sunnis of ISIS with the Sunnis of Iraq could suggest that some Shiites, the majority sect in the country, are heeding the call of Ayatollah Sistani and other clerics to embrace a national identity instead of a religious one, despite months of fierce sectarian battles across Iraq that preceded the ISIS invasion two weeks ago. Several ayatollahs have issued fatwas against anyone feeding the fire of sectarianism.
On Friday, a spokesman for Ayatollah Sistani warned that if ISIS was not “fought and expelled from Iraq, everyone will regret it tomorrow, when regret has no meaning.”
That day, as the sun was setting, Najaf and the adjacent city of Kufa were bustling with activity to heed that call. In neighborhoods, on soccer pitches and in parades on the main highway that splits the city in half, cheerful Iraqis brandished machine guns, denouncing the “terrorists.” Sheikh Foad al-Torfa, a round-bellied man of God, trained on a dusty field in Kufa in military fatigues, a white turban the only reminder of his life as a Shiite Muslim cleric. All around him groups of black-clad men marched in formation. “Who are you fighting for?” a self-appointed drill sergeant shouted. “For Iraq, for Iraq,” the men thundered in reply. Continue reading the main story Continue reading the main story Continue reading the main story “When I looked at myself in the mirror, I felt proud, and powerful,” said Mr. Torfa, wiping sweat from his forehead. An Iraqi Army belt was strapped around his waist, and every now and then he touched the pistol hanging from it. Among the long procession of war-hungry men seemingly present everywhere in Najaf on Friday were members of the Shebil tribe, who gathered after lunch on an empty parking lot. Members of the tribe popped up around the corner, dancing and singing with weapons in their hands, joining an ever-growing forest of gun barrels pointing in the air. “Daesh, where are you? The real men are entering the battlefield,” they sang, using the Arabic name for ISIS. A 10-year-old boy nearly tripped over the Kalashnikov machine gun he was struggling to carry. “Tell them you will fight the terrorists,” his father said. The Shebil, whose name translates as “lion cubs,” have already gathered 2,000 volunteers, said their leader, Sheikh Riyad al-Shaban. He and other tribal elders sat on a row of plastic chairs overlooking the gathering. “This is not about Sunnis or Shia,” Mr. Shaban said. But when the dust settles, those who cooperated with ISIS must face justice, he said. “The Iraqi people will never forget what those traitors have done.” As his men set out on a procession through town, waving red Shiite flags and escorted by the Iraqi Army, Mr. Shaban said he expected the United States to honor the security agreement it reached with Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. “Obama has signed it, al-Maliki has signed it, where are the Americans to help us?” he asked. Around the shrine of the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, the tomb of one the most revered saints in Shiism, pilgrims with ice cream cones pushed baby strollers. But in the offices in the back alleys around the shrine, clerics were receiving frantic phone calls from across the country. “A new attack on the Baiji oil terminal,” said Ali al-Najafi, son of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Bashir al-Najafi. He was working three phones at the same time and his aides kept slipping him notes with more news. “Welcome to the battlefield,” he said, sighing. Mr. Najafi stressed that Ayatollah Sistani’s call for jihad must not be interpreted as sectarian, and explained that despite the fact that Shiites are the majority, all Iraqi groups must have their share of power. “Many of us here in Najaf have long been criticizing Mr. al-Maliki,” he said. “He made many, many mistakes, but now we must first focus on removing the terrorists from Iraq.” At the main entrance to the shrine, fresh victims arrived from the escalating war up north. Just after noon prayers on Saturday, dozens of armed men of the Shiite Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia pulled up at the front entrance, unloaded a coffin and marched toward the mausoleum of Imam Ali. In the courtyard, a cleric spoke in honor of Asad al-Saeedi, 38, who was killed after entering a booby-trapped room near Falluja, an ISIS-controlled area. “Our enemies are sneaky and unfair,” the cleric said as dozens of fighters sat at his feet. “But do not underestimate them.” After that, a column of cars escorted the body of Mr. Saeedi to an immense cemetery on the outskirts of Najaf, the Wadi al-Salaam. There, Ali Jassem, 48, a friend of Mr. Saeedi’s who was with him on his deadly mission, sat on one of the countless tombstones, smoking a cigarette as undertakers widened the hole dug for the fighter’s large body. “Many more martyrs will follow,” said Mr. Jassem. “I wish I will be one of them, too.” ================== Answering a Cleric’s Call, Iraqi Shiites Take Up Arms By C. J. CHIVERSJUNE 21, 2014 Continue reading the main story Slide Show Slide Show|9 Photos Iraqi Shiites Mobilize Against Extremists Iraqi Shiites Mobilize Against Extremists Credit Tyler Hicks/The New York Times BAGHDAD — The long lines of Shiite fighters began marching through the capital early Saturday morning. Some wore masks. One group had yellow and green suicide explosives, which they said were live, strapped to their chests. As their numbers grew, they swelled into a seemingly unending procession of volunteers with rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, backed by mortar crews and gun and rocket trucks. The Mahdi Army, the paramilitary force that once led a Shiite rebellion against American troops here, was making its largest show of force since it suspended fighting in 2008. This time, its fighters were raising arms against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, the Qaeda splinter group that has driven Iraq’s security forces from parts of the country’s north and west. Chanting “One, two, three, Mahdi!” they implored their leader, the cleric Moktada al-Sadr, to send them to battle. A Kurdish member during a lull in fighting against Sunni militants led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. “ISIS is not as strong as a finger against us,“ said one fighter, Said Mustafa, who commanded a truck carrying four workshop-grade rockets — each, he said, packed with C4 explosive. “If Moktada gives us the order, we will finish ISIS in two days.” Photo A Mahdi Army rally in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad on Saturday. Credit Tyler Hicks/The New York Times Large sections of Baghdad and southern Iraq’s Shiite heartland have been swept up in a mass popular mobilization, energized by the fatwa of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urging able-bodied Iraqis to take up arms against Sunni extremists. Shiite and mixed neighborhoods now brim with militias, who march under arms, staff checkpoints and hold rallies to sign up more young men. Fighting raged in northern and western Iraq on Saturday, with the Sunni insurgents making some gains near a strategic border crossing with Syria. The Mahdi Army rally in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad on Saturday was the largest and most impressive paramilitary display so far, but there were also mass militia parades in other cities, including Najaf and Basra on Saturday, and smaller rallies in Baghdad on Friday, equally motivated by what participants described as patriotic and religious fervor. Together, the militias constitute a patchwork of seasoned irregulars who once resisted American occupation, Iranian proxies supported by Tehran, and pop-up Shiite tribal fighting groups that are rushing young men to brief training courses before sending them to fight beside the Iraqi Army against ISIS. It is a mobilization fraught with passion, confusion and grave risk. Militia members and their leaders insist they have taken up arms to defend their government, protect holy places and keep their country from breaking up along sectarian or ethnic lines. They have pledged to work alongside the Iraqi Army. But as Iraq lurches toward sectarian war, the prominent role of Shiite-dominated militias could also exacerbate sectarian tensions, hardening the sentiments that have allowed the Sunni militants to succeed. Moreover, some of the militias have dark histories that will make it hard for them to garner national support. Some commanders have been linked to death squads that carried out campaigns of kidnappings and killing against Sunnis, including from hospitals. Against this background, even as more armed men have appeared on the streets, Shiite clerics have taken pains to cast the mobilization as a unity movement, even if it has a mostly Shiite face. “Our mission is to explain to the people what Ayatollah Sistani said,” said Sheikh Emad al-Gharagoli, after leading prayers Thursday afternoon at the Maitham al-Tamar Mosque in Sadr City. “He said, ‘Do not make your own army, this army does not belong to the Shia. It belongs to all of Iraq. It is for the Shia, the Sunni, the Kurds and the Christians.’ ” The clerics have also said the mobilization will be temporary, that the militias will be disbanded once the ISIS threat subsides. Continue reading the main story Video The Mahdi Army marched through the streets of Baghdad following a call from the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Credit Karim Kadim/Associated Press But given the swift gains by ISIS and the lax performance of the Iraqi Army, analysts do not expect the infusion of Shiite militias to quickly turn the tide. And as the militias focus on establishing themselves, their leaders face a host of daunting practical matters intended to convert a religious call to a coherent fighting force. Sheikh Haidar al-Maliki, who is organizing fighters of the Bani Malik tribe in Baghdad, said he had been in constant consultation with the government to ensure that the tribe’s call-up ran efficiently. He has been seeking letters from the army that volunteers can show their employers to protect their jobs while they are fighting, and asking for uniforms and weapons for the few men who have not appeared with their own. He said he was also asking for government-issued identification cards, so that as thousands of armed men head to and from battle, it might be possible to know who is who at checkpoints along the way. The Bani Malik militia is new. The tribe’s volunteers, at one registration rally, showed up with mismatched weapons and uniforms. Many of the weapons were dated. Some were in disrepair. Nonetheless, Sheikh Maliki said, in a week, he had already sent hundreds of young men to military bases, where they are trained for a few days before shipping out to provinces where the army has been fighting ISIS. “We do it step by step,” he said. “But we work very quickly.” His militias had already fought in Mosul and near Baquba, he said. On Thursday, the first of its members died of battle wounds. Other young men have been lining up to replace the fallen. Ahmed al-Maliki, 23, a business-management student, said he had begun military training more than a month ago, in anticipation that ISIS’s campaign would grow. His training, even before Ayatollah Sistani’s June 13 call to arms, pointed to what Sheikh Maliki said was the Shiite tribes’ realization early this year, after ISIS seized Falluja, that they needed to prepare for clashes with Sunni extremists. The recent call-up, he said, was a public step that invigorated a body of quieter work already well underway. The Bani Malik tribe had organized volunteers into 25-man units, each led by an active-duty Iraqi soldier who had been training them in weapons, small-unit tactics and communications. Ahmed al-Maliki said he had never served in the army, and did not fight as a militant during the American occupation from 2003 to 2011. But in the preparatory system that his tribe had organized this spring, he had learned to use a Kalashnikov that his family owned and other weapons under the instruction of Mustafa al-Maliki, a three-year Iraqi Army veteran. “I don’t have any experience in the army,” Ahmed said. “But I can serve my country and do as Ayatollah Sistani says.” For the Mahdi Army, the mobilization has not been a matter of creating a militia, but of preparing fighters for battle again. Many of its members marching on Friday and Saturday had combat experience. They appeared in uniforms and with many newer weapons, typically in a better state of cleanliness and repair. One member, who gave only a first name, Ahmed, said he had been with the Mahdi Army since 2004, and fought many times. A
Mahdi Army leader, Hakim al-Zamili, a member of Iraq’s Parliament who was accused of organizing death squads when he served as Iraq’s deputy health minister, appeared with a Mahdi unit on Friday evening and said that he intended to fight ISIS personally. Mr. Zamili had been captured and held by American forces, and was released only after an Iraqi government trial on terrorism charges stalled after witnesses did not appear. He suggested that experienced militias would prove more nimble than Iraq’s conventional army.
Photo A Mahdi Army rally in Baghdad’s Sadr City drew tens of thousands of Shiite fighters Saturday. Credit Tyler Hicks/The New York Times “Why do the terrorists win battles against the Iraqi Army?” he asked. “Because the army is afraid to do what it must. They don’t have the right leadership.” “The Army waits for orders,” he continued. “But the militias will do it quickly. We can seize a place and then give it to the army.” A Mahdi fighter, who declined to give his name, framed it another way. “There is a difference between army fighting and street fighting,” he said. “We are street fighters.” On one point the militias have been firm:
In interviews throughout the past week, clerics and fighters for different groups said they did not want American ground forces in Iraq again, even to fight ISIS. Some of the militias said they would, however, welcome other forms of military aid, and did not oppose President Obama’s commitment to send military advisers to Baghdad. “We need matériel, and guns, and intelligence, or drones,” Sheikh Maliki said. The sheikh said Iraq would also need Washington’s political and diplomatic help, in particular to try to sever ISIS’s foreign support, including, he said, from donors in Persian Gulf states and Turkey. “If America helps us in these ways,” he said, “we can stop them.”
Deep divisions remain between many Shiite tribes and militias, which have competed for resources, power and standing, and had varied relations with Iran and attitudes toward the West. At the Mahdi rollout on Saturday, fighters burned Israeli and American flags, along with the black banner of ISIS. For now, Sheikh Maliki and Mr. Zamili said, the militias have set aside most of their disagreements to face a common foe. “We have differences,” Mr. Zamili said. “But in front of our enemies, we are one.” ============================= Here's my @AFP story from a camp near Arbil for Iraqis displaced by a militant advance and the government response: http://u.afp.com/WYq On a dusty patch of land off a highway in northern Iraq, Faisal watches his three-week-old son cry in the tent that is now his home. The temperature hovers around 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), and aid being distributed to those at the camp, including mattresses and fans, has yet to reach Faisal's tent. He brought his family here days earlier, fleeing the strategic Shiite-majority town of Tal Afar when Sunni militants swept in. "We left after they arrived. I'm Sunni, but I knew that there would be fighting and killing and I didn't want to do either," he says, his bare feet covered in grit. Standing next to him is 25-year-old Mohammed, who fled his home in Mosul, the first city to fall to a major militant offensive that began last week and overran swathes of Iraq in a matter of days.
"They came to me and told me, even though I'm Muslim, that I had to pledge allegiance to them and go to the mosque to redeclare my faith!" "They considered me an infidel," he said, pointing to tattoos on his arms that puritanical jihadists consider a violation of Islamic law. Mohammed decided to leave immediately, taking his 10-month-old daughter Maryam and wife Ghajar with him. The camp they are in is just outside the border with Iraq's autonomous three-province Kurdish region, which non-residents can enter only with a special permit. Those permits are being issued to many fleeing the militant advance, particularly minority Christians and Yazidis. But Sunni Arabs require a sponsor inside Kurdish territory to enter, and many like Faisal and Mohammed don't have one. .
They say they are glad to be safe, but complain that the conditions at the camp are tough. Dust devils sweep through it, raising spirals of rubbish as children wander aimlessly between the tents below. - Waiting to register - "We've been here two days, and we have to wait for someone to register us before we can get aid," Faisal says. He crowds hopefully with his already registered neighbours as they surge towards an aid offered by the International Organisation for Migration and a Kurdish charity. The Kurdish group -- the Barzani Charity Foundation -- is overseeing the camp in coordination with Kurdish authorities and international organisations. Volunteer Paysan Yussef, 19, walks along rows of tents to register those inside and hand out slips to be exchanged for aid. Irate men crowd around her, berating her for failing to register them quickly enough. "I'm doing the best I can. Look at the list, I'm trying to do my work," she replies. Iraq's Kurds were oppressed by former dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, but Yussef says she feels no bitterness towards the Sunnis seeking Kurdish help now. "I'm a refugee myself," she laughs. "I'm a Syrian Kurd, from the town of Qamishli, and I left because of the fighting in Syria. So I know how they feel." Farther down the road towards Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region, cars idle at a checkpoint manned by members of the Kurdish armed forces known as the peshmerga. "We're protecting the Kurdish areas and checking for Arabs," says 24-year-old Nechirvan Jazah, examining a driver's identification papers. "They can't enter here without a residency and someone to sponsor them in Kurdistan." Nearby are hundreds of displaced Iraqi Arabs lined up to plead for entry. Some have just arrived from Mosul and other towns, while others have come from the nearby camp. Many, like Faisal and Mohammed, describe fleeing the militants, but others insist they were happy to see the jihadists and their allies arrive. "The gunmen in Mosul are decent people, they are treating the residents well," said a woman who identified herself only as Umm Abdullah, or "mother of Abdullah".
"We're not leaving because of them, we're leaving because the government is bombing and has cut the electricity and water in Mosul," she adds, her face covered by a black niqab veil. "To be honest, I'm happy they took control of Mosul. I see them as rebels, not gunmen, and I think they will make the city better."
============================================== Militants take Iraqi gas field town, president calls parliament session Thu, Jun 26 08:58 AM EDT image 1 of 3 By Isra' al-Rubei'i and Oliver Holmes BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Militants took a town an hour from Baghdad that is home to four natural gas fields on Thursday, another gain by Sunni insurgents who have swiftly taken large areas to the north and west of the Iraqi capital. Iraq's presidency said a session of parliament would be held on July 1, the first step to forming a new government that the international community hopes will be inclusive enough to undermine the insurgency. The overnight offensive included Mansouriyat al-Jabal, home to the gas fields where foreign companies operate, security forces said. The fighting threatens to rupture the country two and a half years after the end of U.S. occupation. The insurgents, led by the hardline Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) but also including other Sunni groups blame Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for marginalizing their sect during eight years in power and he is fighting for his job. Three months after elections, a chorus of Iraqi and international voices have called for the government formation process to be started, including Iraqi's most influential Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The presidency issued a decree on Thursday for a parliament session on July 1, state television said. Parliament will then have 30 days to name a president and 15 days after that to name a prime minister although the process has been delayed in the past, taking nine months to seat the government in 2010. Maliki has dismissed the call of mainly Sunni political and religious figures, some with links to armed groups fighting Maliki, for a "national salvation government" that would choose figures to lead the country and, in effect, bypass the election. Iraq's Shi'ite religious cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a foe of Maliki's, called for all Iraqis to deplore the Sunni insurgency and rally behind the army but said that a new government was needed "with faces from all spectrums and away from sectarian quotas." Head of the Mehdi Army, a Shi'ite militia which fought U.S. troops in Baghdad, Sadr vowed in a speech on Wednesday night to "shake the ground under the feet of ignorance and radicalism just as we did under the feet of the occupier." Northern Iraq's largest city Mosul fell to Sunni insurgents on June 10 and took Tikrit city two days later. Kurdish forces moved into Kirkuk on June 11 and now control the oil city. Army air strikes hit south Mosul overnight, killing one and wounding six people. INCLUSIVE Disparate Sunni fighters want to form an Islamic Caliphate from the Mediterranean Sea to Iran. They now control a border post with Syria and have stolen U.S.-made weapons from Iraqi forces. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pressed Iraqi officials to form an "inclusive" government during a visit this week and urged leaders of the autonomous Kurdish region to stand with Baghdad against the onslaught. Maliki's Shi'ite-led State of Law coalition won the most seats in the April elections but needs support of other Shi'ite groups, Sunnis and Kurds to build a government. The United Nations says more than 1,000 people, mainly civilians, have been killed during the Sunni insurgents' advance in Iraq. The figure includes unarmed government troops machine gunned in mass graves by insurgents, as well as several reported incidents of prisoners killed in their cells by retreating government forces. In addition to the bloodshed, close to a million people have been displaced in Iraq this year. Amin Awad, director of Middle East and North Africa bureau for the U.N. refugee agency, called Iraq on Wednesday "a land of displacement". U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops back to Iraq where they withdrew in 2011. He has offered up to 300 American military advisers, about 130 of whom have now been deployed. (Editing by Anna Willard) ============================= Iraq helicopter crashes in airborne commando assault on Tikrit Thu, Jun 26 12:39 PM EDT image of 3 By Oliver Holmes and Isabel Coles BAGHDAD/ARBIL (Reuters) - Iraqi forces launched an airborne assault on rebel-held Tikrit on Thursday with commandos flown into a stadium in helicopters, at least one of which crashed after taking fire from insurgents who have seized northern cities. Eyewitnesses said battles were raging in the city, hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein, which fell to Sunni Islamist fighters two weeks ago on the third day of a lightning offensive that has given them control of most majority Sunni regions. The helicopters were shot at as they flew low over the city and landed in a stadium at the city's university, a security source at the scene said. Government spokesmen did not respond to requests for comment and by evening the assault was still not being reported on state media. The source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said fierce clashes ensued, centred around the university compound. Ahmed al-Jubbour, professor at the university's college of agriculture, described fighting in the colleges of agriculture and sports education after three helicopters arrived. "I saw one of the helicopters land opposite the university with my own eyes and I saw clashes between dozens of militants and government forces," he said. Jubbour said one helicopter crash landed in the stadium. Another left after dropping off troops and a third remained on the ground. Army snipers were positioning themselves on tall buildings in the university complex. Iraq's million-strong army, trained and equipped by the United States, largely evaporated in the north after Sunni fighters led by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant launched their assault with the capture of the north's biggest city Mosul on June 10. But in recent days, government forces have been fighting back, relying on elite commandos flown in by helicopter to defend the country's biggest oil refinery at Baiji. A successful operation to recapture territory inside Tikrit would deliver the most serious blow yet against an insurgency which for most of the past two weeks has seemed all but unstoppable in the Sunni heartland north and west of Baghdad. MALIKI UNDER PRESSURE In the capital, the president's office confirmed that a new parliament elected two months ago would meet on Tuesday, the deadline demanded by the constitution, to begin the process of forming a government. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose Shi'ite-led State of Law coalition won the most seats in the April election but needs allies to form a cabinet, is under strong pressure from the United States and other countries to swiftly build a more inclusive government to undermine support for the insurgency. Maliki confirmed this week that he would support the constitutional deadlines to set up a new government, after pressure from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who flew to Baghdad for emergency crisis talks to urge him to act. The 64-year-old Shi'ite Islamist Maliki is fighting for his political life in the face of an assault that threatens to dismember his country. Sunni, Kurdish and rival Shi'ite groups have demanded he leave office, and some ruling party members have suggested he could be replaced with a less polarising figure, although close allies say he has no plan to step aside. Fighters from ISIL - an al Qaeda offshoot which says all Shi'ites are heretics who should be killed - have been assisted in their advance by other, more moderate Sunni armed groups who share their view that Sunnis have been persecuted under Maliki. Washington hopes that armed Sunni tribal groups, which turned against al Qaeda during the U.S. "surge" offensive of 2006-2007, can again be persuaded to switch sides and back the government, provided that a new cabinet is more inclusive. The United States, which withdrew its ground forces in 2011, has ruled out sending them back but is sending up to 300 military advisers, mostly special forces troops, to help organise Baghdad's military response. The fighters have been halted about an hour's drive north of Baghdad and on its western outskirts, but have pressed on with their advances in areas like religiously mixed Diyala province north of the capital, long one of Iraq's most violent areas. On Thursday morning, ISIL fighters staged an assault on the town of Mansouriyat al-Jabal, home to inactive gas fields where foreign firms operate, in northeastern Diyala province. An Iraqi oil ministry official denied fighters had taken the field. A roadside bomb in Baghdad's Shi'ite northern district of Kadhimiya killed eight people on Thursday, police and hospital sources said. SYRIA STRIKES The ISIL-led advance has put the United States on the same side as its enemy of 35 years Iran, the Middle East's main Shi'ite power, as well as Iran's ally president Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who is fighting ISIL in his country. Locals in the Iraqi border town of al-Qaim, captured by ISIL several days ago, say Syrian jets carried out strikes against militants on the Iraqi side of the frontier this week, marking the first time Assad's air forces have come to Baghdad's aid. Publicly, Baghdad, which operates helicopters but no jets, said its own forces carried out the air strike. But a senior Iraqi government official confirmed on condition of anonymity that the strike was mounted by Assad's air force. Iran, which armed and trained some of Iraq’s Shi’ite militias, has pledged to intervene if necessary in Iraq to protect Shi’ite holy places. Thousands of Shi'ites have answered Maliki's call to join the armed forces to defend the country. British Foreign Secretary William Hague arrived in Baghdad on Thursday, reinforcing the international push for Maliki to speed up the political process. Under the official schedule, parliament will have 30 days from when it first meets on Tuesday to name a president and 15 days after that to name a prime minister. In the past the process has dragged out, taking nine months to seat the government in 2010. Any delays would allow Maliki to continue to serve as caretaker. (Additional reporting by Isra' al-Rubei'i in Baghdad; Editing by Peter Graff) =================================