Robert M. Danin

Middle East Matters

Danin analyzes critical developments and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

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This Week: Iraq Flails, Egypt Punishes, and Israel Searches

by Robert M. Danin
June 26, 2014

Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani greets U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the presidential palace in Irbil, the capital of northern Iraq's Kurdistan autonomous region, June 24, 2014. This is the first visit to the Kurdish region by a U.S. Secretary of State since 2006. (Smialowski/Courtesy Reuters).


Significant Developments

Iraq. State television network Iraqiya announced today that the Iraqi parliament will convene Monday to form a new government. Meanwhile, prominent Shia religious leader Moqtada al-Sadr called for an inclusive emergency unity government that would appeal to the demands of marginalized moderate Sunni citizens. Yesterday, prime minister Nouri al-Maliki rejected international calls to form a unity government, which he called a “coup” against the constitution. Fighting escalated this week as Syrian warplanes conducted airstrikes on Monday and Tuesday against rebels from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIL). It was unclear whether these strikes were in Iraq or on the Syrian side of the border. At least 50 people were killed in the attacks.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Sunday that the U.S. should not intervene in Iraq, though Maliki has asked for Western support in fighting the rebels. The New York Times reported yesterday that Iran has been secretly sending surveillance drones and military equipment into Iraq. Meanwhile, Iraqi officials reported yesterday that ISIL rebels are advancing on the Haditha Dam, the second largest in Iraq, raising fears of possible floods.

Egypt. An Egyptian court Monday sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists to jail for seven to ten years on charges of spreading false news and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. The sentence was announced on the heels of Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Cairo where he met with President Abdelfattah el-Sisi to discuss repairing bilateral relations and promised a renewal of $650 million in aid that had been withheld after the coup last July. Kerry urged the Egyptian leader to uphold human rights. Following the court’s verdict, Sisi announced during a televised speech at a military graduation that he would not intervene in the case, citing the need for Egyptian authorities to respect the independence of the judiciary, “even if others do not understand this.” White House spokesman Josh Earnest called the verdict “a blow to democratic progress in Egypt.”

Sisi visited Algeria yesterday on his first foreign visit since presidential elections earlier this month. Sisi called for Egyptian coordination with Algeria in fighting terrorism. His call came as explosions at four Cairo metro stations and a courthouse, injuring eight people. Sisi also pledged this week that he would give up half of his salary and property and encouraged others to begin making similar sacrifices to usher in a period of austerity

Israel-Palestine. Israel today announced the identities of two main suspects, both Hamas members, in the kidnapping of three Yeshiva students two weeks ago in Hebron. Earlier this week, the IDF conducted its most significant military operation in the West Bank in over a decade earlier as it searched for the teenagers, arresting over 400 Palestinians. On Monday, Palestinian protesters in Ramallah threw rocks at Palestinian Authority security forces, accusing them of collaboration with Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called upon Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to abrogate the unity agreement with Hamas from earlier this month forming a technocratic government.

Meanwhile, all seventy-five hunger-striking Palestinian detainees agreed to suspend their strike yesterday, ending a protest that lasted over two months against Israel’s administrative detention policy. The hunger strikers received commitments that they will not be punished for their participation in the protest, and that the discussion over Israel’s policy will continue. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised his government for ending the strike and praised deterrence methods, including the forced-feeding of prisoners that will be taken up for a vote in the Knesset next week.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Following his stop in Cairo on Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry visited Jordan and Iraq, where he met Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Kerry promised the Iraqi leader sustained U.S. support while urging the prime minister to push for the formation of an inclusive government. U.S. officials are privately reportedly seeking an alternative to Maliki. Kerry said the insurgency by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is not only an “existential threat” to Iraq, but to the entire region. Kerry also visited Iraqi Kurdistan, where he met Masoud Barzani, President of Iraq’s Kurdish region. The State Department announced yesterday that Kerry will return to the region on Friday to meet Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah to discuss the Iraq crisis.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Lebanon. A suicide bomber killed himself in a botched attempt to blow up a Beirut hotel yesterday, the third such attack in Lebanon this week. A bombing Monday night near a checkpoint and café led to the death of the assailant and a security officer and injured 20 others who were watching a World Cup match. The first in this string of attacks was in eastern Lebanon last Friday, when a suicide bomber used a car bomb to kill an officer and wounded several others. While not claiming responsibility for the attacks, Sirajuddin Zurayqat, a spokesman for the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an Al Qaeda-linked group, said that such attacks would continue as long as Hezbollah continues to take part in the Syrian civil war.

Libya. Prominent human rights activist and lawyer Salwa Bugaighis was assassinated in her Benghazi home yesterday, casting a shadow over Libya’s parliamentary election proceedings. After weeks of the most serious violence in their country since the 2011 uprising, few Libyans headed to the polls to elect the membership of a 200-seat House of Representatives to replace the current interim parliament elected in July 2012. This is the third legislative election to take place in Libya since the end of the uprising in 2011. Though Khalifa Hiftar, the renegade general who has been conducting an offensive to purge the country of Islamist militias, imposed a 24-hour ceasefire, there were reports of several attacks on security officials and their headquarters.

Yemen. Al Qaeda conducted three attacks in southern Yemen today following weeks of fighting between the military and Houthi rebels in the north. Al Qaeda fighters attacked an airport in the southern province of Sayoun, killing at least 15 people, while a suicide bomber drove a car filled with explosives into military barracks, killing nine civilians nearby. Militants also attacked the main post office in the province, killing six soldiers and wounding several others. Yesterday, a senior intelligence officer— who was investigating a link between Al Qaeda affiliated groups and the killing of foreigners in Yemen—was assassinated in front of his house in Sanaa.

Jordan. Militant cleric Abu Qatada was acquitted today by a military court on charges of planning a terrorist attack on an American school in Amman in the late 1990s. The ruling marked a reversal of a conviction 14 years ago in which Abu Qatada had been sentenced to death. The cleric will not be released, however, as he will continue to be held in connection with a case regarding a plot to bomb tourists at millennium celebrations in 2000. British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said today that Britain will not allow him back if he is freed; Qatada had been granted asylum and was living in the UK under house arrest prior to his deportation last year.

Tunisia. The Tunisian Parliament yesterday approved dates for upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections submitted by the country’s election commission last week. Parliamentary elections will be held on October 26, and the first round of presidential elections will be on November 23.

Bahrain. Nabeel Rajab, the prominent human rights activist and head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, was released yesterday following his completion of a two-year jail sentence. Rajab, convicted for encouraging anti-government protests in 2011, is expected to continue his previous work.

Syria. State media and activists announced Sunday a ceasefire agreement between the Syrian government and groups fighting in Yarmouk—the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. If upheld, the agreement would help ease the suffering of 18,000 refugees in need of aid who have been under a government-imposed blockade since mid-2013.

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