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By Paul Rogers, University of Bradford

Dec. 20, 2016

Given the appalling destruction and loss of life, the siege of eastern Aleppo has held the world’s attention for weeks. But across the border in Iraq, developments in the city of Mosul may turn out to be just as crucial for the long-term future of the Middle East.

When the operation to take the city from the so-called Islamic State started in mid-October 2016, Iraq’s Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, hoped that the operation would be complete by the end of the year. Instead, the war over Mosul has just entered its third month with no end in sight. Some Iraqi military sources are resigned to a conflict that could last through to summer 2017.

At the start of November, after two weeks of rapid progress, prospects looked good for government forces. But the optimism of the early days has now given way to what looks very much like a stalemate. Depending on which source you consult, it seems Iraqi government forces have taken between a sixth and a quarter of the city from IS but are now finding further progress remarkably difficult, in the process suffering serious casualties.

How has it come to this? In part, it’s because IS has spent more than two years intensively preparing for an assault that was bound to happen at some stage. As soon as the U.S.-led air war started in August 2014, its sheer intensity made it obvious that the intention was to destroy the group altogether. Faced with that threat, the IS paramilitary leadership began to prepare for just the sort of conflict we’re seeing now – even to the extent of establishing remarkably sophisticated production lines for the manufacture of a range of armaments.

They also created an astonishing network of underground tunnels, far more complex than even the Iraqi intelligence specialists had expected, coupled with the assembling of hundreds of young men prepared to deliver suicide bombs. All the while, IS has been pounded across Syria and Iraq in an extraordinarily intensive coalition air war that the Pentagon claims has killed 50,000 of its fighters. In these circumstances, its resilience in Mosul is turning out to be formidable.

As of now, nine weeks into the war, IS is believed still to have some 5,000 personnel available in Mosul, broadly the same as at the start and with those killed being replaced by new fighters. They are facing a complex force centered on the Iraqi Army but including numerous militias. An earlier article reported that the forces include:

Iraqi special forces, fronting much less well-trained regular Iraqi Army units. In addition there are Iraqi Shia militias, Iranian Revolutionary Guard elements, Kurdish Peshmerga forces, Turkish Army units, American, French, British and possibly Australian special forces, American and French combat troops and scores of strike aircraft and helicopter gunships.

The forces ranged against IS number at least 60,000 – and yet the group is able to hold out. Apart from the extent of its preparations and its paramilitaries’ utter determination to fight to the end, there’s another reason for this: the nature of the forces they face. And at the core of those forces are the Iraqi special forces mentioned above.

Ground down

After IS captured the cities of Fallujah, Ramadi and especially Mosul, the U.S. Army started intensively rearming and retraining the Iraqi Army, intensifying a program that had stretched over a decade.

Some 35,000 troops have been through the system, but the heaviest emphasis has been on the 1st Special Operations Brigade, also known as the counter-terror force and more popularly within Iraq as the Golden Brigade. Now known as the Golden Division because of its expansion to some 10,000 troops, it is intended to be non-sectarian, well-led and far less subject to corruption and favoritism than the more regular units.

The operation that started in eastern Mosul more than two months ago involved the Golden Division acting as the spearhead of the Iraqi forces moving through the outer districts of the city to the more densely populated areas close to the river and the heartland of western Mosul. The intention has been to clear districts and then hand over to regular army units who would maintain control while the Golden Division would move on.

This has worked to an extent – but with two huge problems, neither of which appears to have been foreseen.

First is IS’s network of tunnels, through which IS paramilitaries have literally gone to ground. Its paramilitaries re-emerge when regular soldiers arrive to control districts, harrying them in rapid raids, often in the early hours of the morning, before disappearing back down the tunnels. The army units aren’t just suffering serious casualties; some are in a near-permanent state of sleeplessness, with morale and combat effectiveness suffering.

A second and even bigger problem is that even as the Golden Division makes incremental progress, it’s taking serious losses in the process. As Politico reported:

With the division suffering “horrific” casualties every day, senior U.S. Centcom officers are worried that the grinding battle is slowly destroying the division itself. If that happens, which appears likely, Iraq will lose its best guarantee against civil war – the only force capable of keeping the peace when Iraq’s sectarian divisions, temporarily dampened by having to fight a common enemy, re-emerge.

Mosul may well fall to government forces some time in early 2017, but the grueling work of getting it back could cripple the one unit of the Iraqi Army that could help prevent a civil war. It would be the ultimate in Pyrrhic victories.

Source: United Press International (UPI).

Link: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/Opinion/2016/12/20/Why-the-Mosul-offensive-against-IS-has-slowed-to-a-stalemate/7471482264542/.

February 11, 2017

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Tens of thousands of Indonesians gathered at the national mosque in the capital on Saturday for mass prayers urging people to vote for a Muslim governor of the city as the country prepares for regional elections next week.

The crowds overflowed from Istiqlal Mosque in the heart of Jakarta into the surrounding streets. Clerics gave sermons calling on people to protect Islam and vote for Muslim candidates. Police denied hard-line groups permission to march through the city. Jakarta police spokesman Argo Yuwono estimated the crowd at 60,000 to 70,000 people in the morning.

Protests against the minority Christian governor of Jakarta drew hundreds of thousands of people to the city’s streets in November and December and shook the government of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.

Gov. Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama is on trial for alleged blasphemy but remains a leading candidate in elections for Jakarta governor set for Wednesday. His two main rivals are both Muslims and include the son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhyono.

If none of the contenders gets more than 50 percent of votes, a runoff election between the top-polling candidates would be held in April. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation but recognizes several faiths and has a large Christian minority.

Ahok is popular for trying to eliminate corruption from the city administration and improve quality of life in the chaotic capital, which is the center of a greater metropolitan area of some 30 million people.

But the anti-corruption drive as well as evictions of slum neighborhoods have earned him enemies. Rivals have sought to tap into rising religiosity to swing Muslim voters against him.

July 3, 2017

Four years ago today the Egyptian army overthrew the country’s first democratically elected leader, Mohammed Morsi. In the aftermath of the coup Egypt’s armed forces suspended the constitution and appointed the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour, as interim head of state. Morsi and his presidential team were detained in an unknown location and later stood trial.

What: Military coup

When: 3 July 2013

Where: Egypt

What happened?

In January 2013, then army Chief Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi warned that the political crisis in the country might lead to a collapse of the state. Two months later the Tamarrod movement collected signatures for a petition calling for new presidential elections in light of Mohamed Morsi’s failure to restore security and fix the economy and organised mass protests to this effect.

On 30 June demonstrators took to the streets. Armed vehicles were deployed around Cairo and armed forces to areas they expected protests in support of Morsi, such as Cairo University.

Morsi warned the country that he was the elected leader and that attempts to overthrow him would lead to chaos but on 3 July he was arrested by the army and detained in an unknown location alongside other members of his presidential team.

That evening Al-Sisi set out his roadmap for Egypt in a televised statement.  President Morsi had ignored the calls of his people, he said, and therefore he was suspending the constitution, calling for early elections, putting the chief justice in charge, putting in place an interim government and setting up a committee to amend the constitution.

Opposition leader and then Vice President Mohamed El-Baradei and the Coptic Pope Tawadros II stood by his side.

What happened next?

In the weeks that followed, Morsi supporters joined mass protests and demanded his release. On 14 August 2013 1,000 people were massacred by the army in Rabaa Square where they had gathered to call for his immediate return to power.

Muslim Brotherhood leaders were prevented from leaving the country and Morsi and his presidential team were held at secret locations. In September 2013 state television announced that Morsi would stand trial for “incitement to murder and violence” during a protest between his supporters and the opposition and for ordering others to be tortured and unlawfully imprisoned.

In November 2013 Morsi and other top Brotherhood figures were put on trial for the first time. In April 2015 they were sentenced to 20 years in prison. They still face trials in a number of cases.

In March 2014, Al-Sisi officially announced his presidential bid and assumed power on 8 June that year. In the four years that have followed the coup the military-led government has inflicted a wide-scale crackdown on all members of the opposition, not just the Brotherhood.

Unprecedented numbers of people have been forcibly disappeared, tried in mass trials or military courts, given the death sentence, tortured in detention and denied medical care once detained. Children are arrested, detained with adults and sexual violence used against them. Human rights organisations and workers have been targeted as well as journalists, activists and lawyers.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170703-remembering-egypts-bloody-military-coup/.

March 12, 2017

Cairo’s population is set to grow by 500,000 this year, more than any other city in the world, adding to the pressure on an Egyptian economy struggling to recover from six years of political turmoil.

Greater Cairo, a metropolitan area including the cities of Cairo, Giza and Qalyubia, is home to some 22.8 million people and will gain another half a million in 2017, a Euromonitor International report released last week shows.

That represents a quarter of Egypt’s 92 million. The national natural population growth of 2.4 per cent per year is double the average of other developing countries, said Mohamed Abdelgalil, adviser to official statistics agency CAPMAS.

Stinging poverty in southern Egypt leads many families to have several children in the hope they can become sources of income. Those children eventually migrate to larger cities for job opportunities scarce in their hometowns.

“In rural areas, and in the south in particular, poor families have many children because they see these children as a safety net,” Maysa Shawky, the head of the National Population Council, told Reuters in an interview.

“Also, many of them have daughters until they have sons,” she added. “They want to produce breadwinners – instead of hiring a worker, they could have their children help them.”

Shawky said awareness campaigns at universities and schools have begun as part of a national population strategy.

New Capital

Internal migration is one of the main causes of overpopulation in Cairo. Egypt lists 351 slums as “unsafe”, most of them in the sprawling capital where the poorest have built ramshackle homes that lack basic amenities such as mains sewage and water. Some 850,000 people are believed to live in such dangerous slums.

“For the average citizen to not be affected by hikes in the prices of goods and services, the economic growth rate must be double the natural population increase rate,” Abdelgalil said.

Egypt’s economic growth was 4.3 per cent in 2015-2016, which is not enough to achieve that. The IMF expects it to be about 4 per cent this year, which is even less.

A new administrative capital, announced in March 2015, is intended partly to reduce the crowding in Cairo. Some 45 kilometres to the east, it will be home to government ministries, housing and an airport.

People will start moving to the as yet-unnamed new city in 2018, said Khaled Abbas, assistant to the housing minister for technical affairs. Work on 17,000-18,000 residential units is nearing completion and they will be put up for sale in April.

“Egypt’s population is expected to reach 160-180 million in 40 years. Where will all these people go?” said Abbas. “We’re also working on developing areas in northern and southern Egypt.”

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170312-cairo-population-to-grow-by-half-a-million-people-in-2017/.

January 10, 2017

The Russian defence ministry has reportedly announced that Egypt would send troops to Syria to observe the implementation of the truce reached between the Syrian regime’s forces and the armed opposition, according to the Israeli website Rotter.

The news website added that the Egyptian troops will arrive in Syria early next week, noting that a number of Egyptian officers had been already in Syria to pave the way for the troops’ arrival.

At the same time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called on Egypt as a partner to join his country along with Turkey and Iran in the talks on Syria’s future and the implementation of the truce, according to Rotter.

Russia had decided to halt flights to Egyptian airports after a Russian plane crashed in October 2015 over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, killing all 217 passengers on board. The Metrojet flight crashed after its departure from the Egypt’s Sharm El Sheikh International Airport.

Rotter said that for Egypt to join the trio discussing Syria’s future would be a great Russian success, which is also interesting in light of Egypt’s tense relations with Turkey on the one hand and its relations with Iran on the other.

It will be also interesting to know the US response to this step, given that the United States and European countries are not taking part in the Syria talks, the Israeli website added.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170110-citing-russian-defence-ministry-israeli-website-says-egypt-to-send-troops-to-syria-next-week/.

January 05, 2017

CAIRO (AP) — A leading Egyptian activist behind the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak was released from prison Thursday after serving a three-year sentence for violating a ban on unauthorized protests.

Ahmed Maher, who returned to his Cairo home, will remain under surveillance for three years as part of his sentence, his lawyer, Tarek al-Awadi, told The Associated Press. He will not be allowed to leave the country.

Maher, 36, was the co-founder of the April 6 movement, which used social media to bring protesters into the streets in Arab Spring-inspired demonstrations that forced Mubarak to resign in February 2011. Two and half years later, the military overthrew an elected but divisive Islamist president and the new government banned all unauthorized demonstrations.

Maher was arrested in November 2013, and the following month he was convicted along with April 6 co-founders Mohammed Adel and Ahmed Douma. Each was fined and sentenced to three years in prison. Adel will finish his sentence within a month while Douma is serving a life sentence in another case and is awaiting an appeal trial in April.

The government has waged a wide-scale crackdown on dissent over the past three years, jailing thousands of people. Most of those imprisoned are Islamist supporters of President Mohammed Morsi, who was overthrown and jailed in 2013, but the crackdown has also swept up prominent secular activists like Maher, Adel and Douma.

It’s unclear whether Maher will be able to return to activism in the current climate. Al-Awadi said the local police station charged with monitoring Maher would have wide discretion over his treatment.

“If they decide to put a lot of pressure on him, humiliate him and treat him like they treat thieves and drug dealers, they could order him to spend each night of the coming three years at the police station,” al-Awadi said.

Maher’s wife, Reham Ibrahim, welcomed his release in a Facebook post, saying “We will make up for what we missed.” The two have a son and a daughter.

August 10, 2017

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Bosnia is marking the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s visit, her last overseas tour before she died in a car crash in Paris. Her crusade against land mines led to her three-day visit to Bosnia from Aug. 9, 1997, during which she met victims who sustained injuries from devices planted during the country’s savage civil war in the 1990s.

Three weeks after her visit, which coincided with news of her romance with millionaire Dodi al Fayed, the pair died in a car crash in Paris when their driver lost control of his car as they were pursued by photographers.

British Ambassador Edward Ferguson said Thursday during a memorial conference in Sarajevo that Diana would be saddened by the fact that mines still kill people in Bosnia. “What I think 20 years ago Princess Diana did is that she shone a light on this problem with mines, and she really brought it into public attention in an enormous way, in a way, perhaps, that only she could have done,” Ferguson said.

“By walking through a mine field in Angola, by visiting Bosnia-Hercegovina just a few days before she sadly died. She really got the public attention and therefore political attention as well.” He said undetected land mines still represent a danger in Bosnia despite some recent progress. A half-million people, or about 15 percent of the population, live with this fear of mines, Ferguson added.

The princess’ trip to Bosnia was organized by The Land Mines Survivors’ Network, a group founded in 1995 by two American victims of land mines, Ken Rutherford and Jerry White. As part of the visit, Diana made a surprise visit to the Suljkanovic family in their modest home in the small village of Dobrnja near Tuzla.

Several weeks earlier, the father of the family, Muhamed Suljkanovic, had lost both his feet after stepping on a land mine in the forest outside his house, a remnant of Bosnia’s three-year war. Diana took him some cake on Aug. 9, his birthday, his wife Suada remembered.

“Diana and her friend Ken (Rutherford), the American, they brought the birthday cake, and they sang happy birthday to him, and we were in shock. How did they know?” But the Suljkanovic family’s joy turned to shock and disbelief when, just a few weeks after Diana’s visit, they heard on the radio that the princess had died.

“What? I said to myself. How? Where? I could not believe it. Immediately after that I named my newborn daughter Diana, after the princess. They say we have to somehow remember good people, and we remember her like that,” Muhamed Suljkanovic said.

During her visit, Princess Diana promised financial support for Muhamed for a new prosthesis. Just a couple of months after she died, the family say they received a donation from the royal family, the exact amount promised by Diana.

Another land mine victim, Malic Bradaric, was only 13 in 1996 when he stepped on one while playing in his village of Klokotnica. The incident left him without most of his right leg. When Diana came to visit, he said this week that he expected a royal in a shiny dress wearing a crown. Instead, she arrived on his doorstep wearing jeans and a white shirt.

Bradaric and his friends, who had a chance to meet Diana, said she was “a light at the end of the tunnel” for them. He now remembers the shock when he heard that the princess was killed. “That light that we saw at the end of the tunnel just turned off,” Bradaric said.

Associated Press writer Dusan Stojanovic from Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this report.

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