Follow the Soapbox
ZAGAN: NATO head Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday the alliance was implementing its biggest defence reinforcement since the Cold War, as the region grapples with terrorism and an increasingly assertive Russia.

He spoke a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow would add more than 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles to its nuclear arsenal this year.

"NATO is facing a new security environment, both caused by violence, turmoil, instability in the south --
ISIL in Iraq, Syria, North Africa -- but also caused by the behaviour of a more assertive Russia, which has used force to change borders, to annex Crimea and to destabilise eastern Ukraine," Stoltenberg told reporters, using another acronym to refer to the jihadist Islamic State group.

"And therefore NATO has to respond. We are responding, and we are doing so by implementing the biggest reinforcement of our collective defences since the end of the Cold War and the Spearhead force is a key element of this reinforcement, and it's great to see that it's functional, and that it's exercising here in Poland," he said.

He spoke in Zagan in western Poland while attending the first full exercise of NATO's new rapid reaction force, created to deter Russia from any action against nervous east European allies that were once ruled from Moscow.

Around 2,100 soldiers from Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland and the United States have been taking part in the NATO exercise since last week.

The drill is designed to test NATO's Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), established in the wake of the alliance's September 2014 summit in Wales, which focussed on reinforcing the alliance's eastern flank amid jitters over Russia.

Moscow's 2014 annexation of Crimea and its meddling in eastern Ukraine have triggered concern in ex-communist eastern and central European states that joined NATO after the Cold War.

Tension is particularly high in the Baltic states, which emerged from nearly five decades of Soviet occupation in the early 1990s.

Read more at:
Tension is particularly high in the Baltic states, which emerged from nearly five decades of Soviet occupation in the early 1990s.

Electronic Intifada
Ali Abunimah

8 June 2015

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has caved in to pressure from Israel and the United States and taken the Israeli military off an official list of serious violators of children’s rights, in this year’s report on children in armed conflict.

In doing so, Ban rejected an official recommendation from his own Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Leila Zerrougui and numerous human rights organizations and child rights defenders.

Ban’s act is particularly egregious since the report found that the number of children killed in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip in 2014, at 557, was the third highest only after Iraq and Afghanistan and ahead of Syria.

“The revelation that Israel’s armed forces were removed from the annex of the annual report by Ban Ki-moon is deplorable,” Brad Parker, attorney and international advocacy officer at Defence for Children International-Palestine (DCI-Palestine), told The Electronic Intifada.

“The annual report and its annex, or children’s ‘list of shame,’ has been a strong evidence-based accountability tool proven to help increase protections for children in armed conflict situations. There is ample evidence on persistent grave violations committed by Israeli forces since at least 2006 that should have triggered listing,” Parker added.

“The secretary-general’s decision to place politics above justice and accountability for Palestinian children has provided Israeli forces with tacit approval to continue committing grave violations against children with impunity,” Parker said. 

The top UN official’s decision will be greeted with relief by the Obama administration, Israel and others concerned with ensuring such Israeli impunity.

Obama pressure “The draft 2015 report prepared by the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Leila Zerrougui, recommended adding Israel and Hamas to the annexed list of parties – the so-called ‘list of shame’ – due to their repeated violations against children,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement on 4 June.

Human Rights Watch called on Ban to “list all countries and armed groups that have repeatedly committed these violations, and resist reported pressure from Israel and the United States to remove Israel from the draft list.”

But that pressure proved irresistible to Ban. Foreign Policy reported last week that the Obama administration had made a concerted effort to pressure him to drop Israel from the list for cynical political reasons.

According to an unnamed UN official quoted by Foreign Policy, the Obama administration was concerned about false accusations that “the White House is anti-Israel,” as the US completes sensitive negotiations over Iran’s civilian nuclear energy program.

False balance Human Rights Watch supported calls on Ban to list Hamas as well as Israel, but this appears to have been a maneuver to look “balanced” and avoid baseless accusations of anti-Israel bias frequently leveled at the organization.

Sources familiar with the final report have told The Electronic Intifada that Hamas is not on the list either.

But the violations attributed to Palestinian armed groups, including the death of one Israeli child last summer due to a rocket fired from Gaza, can hardly be compared in scope to the systematic mass killings with impunity of Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip and West Bank by Israeli occupation forces.

Since Hamas and other Palestinian armed resistance groups are already under international sanctions and arms embargoes and listed by various countries as “terrorist organizations,” adding Hamas to the list would have meant little.

It is Israel whose violations continue not only with impunity but with assistance from the predominantly European and North American governments that arm it.

DCI-Palestine documented the killings of at least 547 Palestinian children during last summer’s Israeli assault on Gaza.

Human Rights Watch cites as part of Israel’s record the “unlawful killing of children” in the occupied West Bank, including Nadim Nuwara and Muhammad Abu al-Thahir, both 17, shot dead by snipers on 15 May 2014.

In April, a board of inquiry set up by Ban found that Israel killed and injured hundreds of Palestinians in seven attacks on United Nations-run schools in the Gaza Strip last summer.

Sabotage In March, there was an outcry among Palestinian and international human rights advocates when it was revealed that UN officials appeared to be trying to sabotage the evidence-based process that leads to a recommendation of listing, after threats from Israel.

Palestinian organizations called on the mid-level UN officials accused of interfering with the process to resign.

This led to assurances from Special Representative Zerrougui that the decision-making process was still underway and indeed, after gathering all the evidence, Zerrougui did recommend that Israel be listed.

Such a recommendation comes after UN bodies collect evidence in collaboration with human rights organizations, according to specific criteria mandated in UN Security Council Resolution 1612.

But despite the months-long nonpolitical and evidence-based process, the final decision was always in Ban’s hands.

Partner in Israel’s crimes There was much at stake for Israel and indeed for Ban if he had gone with the evidence instead of submitting to political pressure.

“Inclusion of a party on the secretary general’s list triggers increased response from the UN and potential Security Council sanctions, such as arms embargoes, travel bans, and asset freezes,” Human Rights Watch notes.

“For a country or armed group to be removed from the list, the UN must verify that the party has ended the abuses after carrying out an action plan negotiated with the UN.”

Ban has a long history of using his office to ensure that Israel escapes accountability except for the mildest verbal censures that are almost always “balanced” with criticism of those who live under Israeli occupation.

At the height of last summer’s Israeli attack on Gaza, 129 organizations and distinguished individuals wrote to the secretary-general, condemning him for “your biased statements, your failure to act, and the inappropriate justification of Israel’s violations of international humanitarian law, which amount to war crimes.”

Ban’s record, they said, made him a “partner” in Israel’s crimes. His latest craven decision will only cement that well-earned reputation.

While Israel will celebrate victory in the short-term, the long-term impact will likely be to further discredit the UN as a mechanism for accountability and convince more people of the need for direct popular pressure on Israel in the form of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).

by Alex Kane

American citizen Furkan Dogan was killed by Israeli forces as they raided the Mavi Marmara ship on May 31, 2010. (Photo via Associated Press) In May 2010, 18-year-old American citizen Furkan Dogan was shot at point-blank range by Israeli naval commandos as he was standing on the deck of a ship and filming the violent raid on the flotilla to Gaza. It took three days for the U.S. to contact his family–and that was after the U.S. made repeated inquiries to the government of Israel for information about his death.

That information was recently revealed by the Center for Constitutional Rights after obtaining documents that have now been published as a result of Freedom of Information Act requests to the U.S. government. The documents reveal new details on the U.S. government’s actions in the aftermath of the flotilla.

In the immediate aftermath of the flotilla raid, Ahmet Dogan, the father of Furkan, desperately called U.S. officials to inquire about the whereabouts of his son, who was a passenger on the flotilla trying to break the blockade of Gaza. Ahmet did not know where his son was, but was extremely worried after he saw news reports stating that the Israeli military had violently raided the ship in international waters and killed 9 passengers in the early morning hours of May 31, 2010. On June 3, 2010, Ahmet Dogan identified his son’s body as being amongst the dead after he saw his son’s body riddled with bullets in Turkey.

That same day, e-mail messages between U.S. officials in Istanbul and Washington concerning the death of Furkan Dogan were being sent back and forth. One morning message from Richard Appleton, the U.S. Consul General in Ankara, Turkey, confirms that by then the U.S. government knew about the death of Furkan. “Here is what we know,” wrote Appleton in an e-mail. “Turkish-American Furkan DOGAN DOB 20OCT91 was one of the killed in the Gaza Flotilla event.” In a separate e-mail sent in the afternoon of that day, Appleton wrote that “his family had been calling at least twice a day for several days…Before we contact we are going to get confirmation thru [the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs].”

Appleton and other U.S. officials repeatedly said they would speak with Ahmet Dogan only after talking to the Israeli government. (After the Israeli government failed to give details to the U.S. about the death of Dogan, Appleton finally decided to contact Ahmet Dogan.)

The e-mails are a telling snapshot of the larger story of how the U.S. government abandoned one of its own citizens who was killed by the Israeli military and deferred to Israel. And just as the U.S. failed to pressure Israel over the death of Furkan Dogan, they failed to pressure Israel over the returning of property, like electronic equipment, to American citizens who had also taken part in the flotilla. While this narrative is by now well-known, the documents show conclusively how the U.S. treats its citizens who challenge the Israeli government’s rule over Palestinians.

The e-mails from Appleton and other U.S. government documents were published by the CCR, which has been working with the Dogan family and other American citizens to try and obtain accountability for Israeli human rights violations committed in the course of the takeover of the Mavi Marmara. Other revelations include the fact that Federal Bureau of Investigation counter-terrorism squads had conducted research on 561 individuals involved with the flotilla, though the details of the FBI investigation are largely redacted.

“The documents related to Furkan reveal that the U.S. has an unquestioning deference to the government of Israel, even when the life of an American teenager is at stake,” Jessica Lee, a lawyer working with the CCR on the aftermath of the flotilla, told Mondoweiss. “Despite this barbaric murder…the U.S. declined to investigate and deferred to Israel.” Though Ahmet Dogan repeatedly demanded a U.S. investigation into his son’s killing–and at one point wondered whether the U.S. didn’t care about Furkan because he was a Muslim–the U.S. has refused to do so.

Another telling episode revealed by the documents was a February 23, 2011 meeting in Washington between Ahmet Dogan and James Pettit, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Overseas Citizens Services. Months earlier, the documents show, the State Department said that the Israeli government had “not yet provided detailed information” on Furkan Dogan’s death. But at the 2011 meeting, Pettit told Dogan that the U.S. would not conduct an investigation into Furkan’s death and was waiting for the UN Secretary General’s report on the flotilla incident. Pettit told Dogan that “as a rule” the U.S. does not conduct investigations into the deaths of citizens overseas, though State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said in June 2010 that “we have the option of evaluating the circumstances and if we think a crime has been committed, then working with the host government we have the option of our own investigation.”

At the meeting with Pettit, Dogan brought up the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) report (pdf) on the flotilla raid which said that Furkan Dogan was killed in a “summary execution.” The report states:

Furkan Doğan, a 19-year-old with dual Turkish and United States citizenship, was on the central area of the top deck filming with a small video camera when he was first hit with live fire. It appears that he was lying on the deck in a conscious, or semi-conscious, state for some time. In total Furkan received five bullet wounds, to the face, head, back thorax,  left leg and foot. All of the entry wounds were on the back of his body, except for the face  wound which entered to the right of his nose. According to forensic analysis, tattooing around the wound in his face indicates that the shot was delivered at point blank range.

The Turkish government’s investigation told a similar story. The UN HRC report also said that, while activists involved with the Turkish organization IHH prepared to defend the ship from a takeover by Israeli forces and did so with makeshift weapons, the commandos had fired from helicopters before landing on the Mavi Marmara. The report concludes that “much of the force used by the Israeli soldiers on board the Mavi Marmara and from the helicopters was unnecessary, disproportionate, excessive and inappropriate and resulted in the wholly avoidable killing and maiming of a large number of civilian passengers.”

But Pettit dismissed the UN report as “rushed.”

Still, no U.S. investigation was launched even after the UN Secretary General-backed Palmer Report stated that “Furkan Doğan, was shot at extremely close range. Mr. Doğan sustained wounds to the face, back of the skull, back and left leg. That suggests he may already have been lying wounded when the fatal shot was delivered, as suggested by witness accounts to that effect.”

The U.S. government’s insistence that the Israeli government was up to the task of the investigation came despite past U.S. disapproval of how the investigation into Rachel Corrie’s death was carried out. Corrie, an American, was run over by an Israeli military bulldozer in Gaza as she was trying to protect a Palestinian home from being demolished. In 2004, a year after Corrie’s death, “Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff to then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, wrote that Israel had not fulfilled its promises of a thorough, credible and transparent investigation,” according to the Washington Post.

The deference to Israel “happened with Rachel Corrie. This happened with Furkan Dogan. And unfortunately from what we’re seeing, this might happen again, because the U.S. is not taking the safety of its citizens seriously,” said the CCR’s Lee.

The U.S. trust in the Israeli investigation (the Turkel Commission) into the flotilla incident, which said that Furkan Dogan wanted to be a martyr based on a Turkish media report, also came despite early indications that Israel may have been trying to hide something. (Asked by Haaretz about the media report that Furkan wanted to be a martyr based on a diary entry Furkan wrote, Ahmet Dogan said: “As far as I know, his last entry was written that night, when it was feared that something bad was about to happen. Under normal circumstances, he never would have written anything like that. If my son had planned to become a martyr, he would not have gone out of his way to ask me to submit his university application forms in the event that he got held up in Gaza. He had big plans, he was very ambitious. You think he all of a sudden forgot about all of his plans for the future and decided to die?”)

U.S. government documents show that the day after the flotilla raid, a consular official named Eve Zuckerman trained in the identification of remains visited the morgue in Israel where the victims were taken.

A CCR analysis of the flotilla documents states that “instead of viewing the bodies of the deceased passengers, she was shown what she was told were photos of nine men killed during the attack, which were frontal photos from the shoulders up. None of photos of the deceased showed evidence of bullet wounds, damage, or distortion, except for bruises and hematomas.” After returning to the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, Zuckerman was shown a photo of Furkan Dogan, but said that she did not see anybody that looked like him at the morgue in Israel.

“It seems that Israel was hiding the fact that he was killed,” said Lee.

Lee insists that the U.S. could have done more to demand adequate Israeli action on Furkan’s death, even if the U.S. did not want to launch its own investigation. “We don’t see a lot of high-level pressure to ensure that this [Israeli] investigation was carried out in an appropriate and non-biased manner,” said Lee.

Part I of the Israeli investigation into the flotilla concluded that the Israeli naval forces had the right under international law to raid the ship and that Israeli forces used appropriate force and that the activists on board the ship had engaged in violence against the Israeli commandos. But Human Rights Watch, and other human rights organizations, cast doubt on the credibility of the internal Israeli investigation. Amnesty International said that the report “certainly appears like a ‘whitewash’, with the Israeli authorities exonerated of wrongdoing although their actions left nine people dead.”

In addition to documents relating to Furkan Dogan’s death, the CCR published additional documents related to the electronic equipment taken from American passengers on the flotilla. While U.S. officials repeatedly inquired about the status of the electronic property and expressed frustration at the Israeli response, there was no high-level pressure to ensure that it was returned.

The electronic property held by Israel included the video camera Furkan Dogan was holding on the ship, which may contain evidence as to what transpired on the Mavi Marmara. A CCR analysis concludes: “As of February 2013, property belonging to the U.S. passengers aboard the 2010 Gaza flotilla remains missing, presumably within Israeli custody.”

Lee said: “It’s very troubling that the United States wasn’t able to get this property back.”

- See more at:


Members of the Iraqi army and Shi'ite fighters launch a mortar toward Islamic State militants outskirt … BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's Shi'ite paramilitaries said on Tuesday they had taken charge of the campaign to drive Islamic State from the western province of Anbar, giving the operation an openly sectarian codename that could infuriate its Sunni Muslim population.

The United States described the codename as "unhelpful" while France, which will host a meeting of nations fighting Islamic State next week, accused the Shi'ite-led government of failing to represent fully the interests of all Iraqis.

The Iraqi government is scrambling to reverse the fall of Ramadi, its biggest military setback in nearly a year. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has vowed to recapture the city, the Anbar provincial capital, within days.

Shi'ite militiamen, supported by a smaller group of government troops, advanced on Tuesday to within a few kilometers of a university on Ramadi's southwestern edge, police sources and Sunni tribal fighters allied to the government said.

As they passed through farmland south of Ramadi, the militiamen told people to return home and stay inside, promising they would not be harmed.

The loss of Ramadi a week ago was swiftly followed by the fall of the UNESCO heritage city of Palmyra in Syria, the two biggest gains by Islamic State fighters since the United States began air strikes on them in Iraq and Syria last year.

Islamic State controls swathes of territory in both countries, where it has proclaimed a caliphate to rule over all Muslims according to strict medieval precepts.

Its gains in the past week have raised doubts about the U.S. strategy to bomb the militants from the air but leave fighting on the ground to local Iraqi and Syrian forces.

In Iraq, the regular military's failure to hold Ramadi has forced the government to send in the Iran-backed Shi'ite paramilitaries. Washington fears this could enrage residents in the overwhelmingly Sunni province and push them into the arms of Islamic State.

A spokesman for the Shi'ite militias, which are known as Hashid Shaabi, said the codename for the new operation would be "Labaik ya Hussein". This is a slogan in honor of a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed killed in a seventh century battle that led to the schism between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims.

"The Labaik Ya Hussein operation is led by the Hashid Shaabi in cooperation and coordination with the armed forces there," the spokesman, Ahmed al-Assadi, told a news conference. "We believe that liberating Ramadi will not take long."

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said the key to victory would be a unified Iraq "that separates itself from sectarian divides, coalesces around this common threat". Asked about the sectarian codename, he said: "I think it's unhelpful."

France, a leading member of the coalition against Islamic State, took the Iraqi government to task, saying there could be no military solution without a political solution among Iraq's communities.

"We linked the coalition's support to political commitments by the new Iraqi government, what we call an inclusive policy," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told lawmakers. "This contract is what justified our military engagement and I say clearly here that it must be better respected."

The Paris meeting on June 2, which more than 20 foreign ministers including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry are due to attend, aims to plot a strategy including on how to reverse the recent losses to Islamic State.


The militia fighters have performed better than Iraq's own army, but their presence risks alienating Sunni residents, especially if they emphasize sectarian aims.

Just weeks ago, the Baghdad government and allied militia appeared to be having success against Islamic State, recapturing former dictator Saddam Hussein's home city of Tikrit.

But Anbar has proven more difficult. The Shi'ite militia had until now stayed out of the area, where Sunni tribes have been hostile to outsiders for generations.

The United Nations expressed concern that civilians trying to flee Ramadi were being halted at police checkpoints, forcing them to return to the combat zone.

Washington hopes the government can win the support of Sunni tribal fighters, a tactic U.S. Marines used in Anbar to defeat al Qaeda during the 2003-2011 occupation of Iraq.

Any increase in sectarian rage plays into the hands of Islamic State, which promotes itself as the only force capable of protecting Sunnis from Shi'ite aggression. It considers all Shi'ites to be heretics who must repent or die, and seeks to provoke a wider sectarian battle to hasten the apocalypse.

The Baghdad government has succeeded in persuading some Sunni tribal leaders to accept help from the Shi'ite fighters, but mistrust runs deep after years of sectarian war in which atrocities were committed on both sides.

President Barack Obama, who won office in 2008 campaigning to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, has ruled out sending ground forces to fight Islamic State. Instead, Iran has filled that vacuum, providing aid and leadership to the Shi'ite militiamen.


The commander of the Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, the main Iranian force backing its allies abroad, mocked Washington for doing too little to help Baghdad.

"Obama has not done a damn thing so far to confront Daesh. Doesn't that show that there is no will in America to confront it?" Qassem Soleimani said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

His remarks came a day after U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter infuriated Baghdad by saying the Iraqi army had abandoned Ramadi because it lacked "the will to fight", remarks Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi said showed Carter was misinformed.

In a move of apparent damage control, Vice President Joe Biden phoned Abadi on Monday to reassure him Washington still supported Baghdad.

(Reporting by Reuters correspondents in Baghdad, Isabel Coles in Erbil Sylvia Westall in Beirut, John Irish in Paris and Phillip Stewart in Washington; Writing by Peter Graff; editing by Janet McBride and David Stamp)


Saudi Arabia, which executes more criminals than any nation except China and Iran, wants to hire eight new executioners. A surge in executions has been witnessed under new King Salman’s rule.

The job description published online on Monday says no special training is required from applicants. The executioners would be required to behead condemned criminals in public as well as carry out amputations on those convicted of lesser offenses, Reuters reported.

The executioners would be considered as ‘religious functionaries’, since they would be serving religious courts and be on the lower end of the civil service pay scale, the ad said.

The recruitment drive comes a day after Saudi Arabia executed the 85th person this year. The number reached in less than five months is compared to an estimated 90 executions over the whole 2014, according to Amnesty International.

Beheading of 5 foreigners in Saudi Arabia triggers outcry from human rights campaigners

Saudi Arabian authorities do not officially explain the surge in executions. Some observers suggest that since King Salman ascended the Saudi throne in January, additional judges have been appointed and managed to deal with a backlog of appeal cases by death-row inmates.

Criminals are usually executed in Saudi Arabia by public beheading, although occasionally death by stoning or firing squad is ordered. The crimes punishable by death range from violent crimes like murder and rape to blasphemy, adultery, drug crimes, witchcraft and sorcery.

About half of those executed are Saudi nationals. Most of the others come from countries like Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Jordan, India, Indonesia, Burma, Chad, Eritrea the Philippines and Sudan, according to Human Rights Watch.

While beheadings are public, filming them is forbidden. In January, footage of a woman’s execution was leaked online, leading to the arrest of the person responsible.

In 2014, Saudi Arabia was ranked third on Amnesty International’s list of countries that carry out the most executions, surpassing Iraq and the United States. China and Iran were ranked 1st and 2nd respectively. Twenty-two countries are currently known to practice capital punishment.

Ceasefire for humanitarian aid thrown into doubt as jets hit targets in southern city of Saada, in response to ‘cross-border attacks’
The Guardian
Friday 8 May 2015 09.42 EDT Last modified on Friday 8 May 2015 10.21 EDT

  Saudi Arabia intensified its air strikes against the main Shia rebel stronghold in Yemen, with warplanes carrying out more than 50 raids overnight and early on Friday.

The air strikes throw into question a proposed five-day ceasefire announced on Thursday by the US secretary of state, John Kerry, and the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, so that humanitarian aid can reach millions of civilians caught up in the conflict – which has killed more than 1,400 people since the Saudi-led campaign started on 26 March.

The Saudi-led military coalition said the latest air strikes in the northern province of Saada — the stronghold of rebels, known as Houthis — were in response to cross-border attacks by the rebels targeting Saudi Arabian cities near the frontier.

Saudi air strikes have been pummelling Saada for more than a month since the start of a campaign against the rebels, who are allied with forces loyal to the ousted president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

On Friday, Saudi Press Agency reported that warplanes destroyed a landmine factory, a telecommunications complex and command centres in Saada. Yemeni officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that in addition to the more than 50 air strikes, helicopters dropped leaflets calling on residents to stay away from rebel positions and houses.

The Houthis and Saleh’s forces overran the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, last September and are currently engaged in an offensive in southern Yemen and Aden — the south’s main city. The offensive forced the internationally recognised President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee the country in late March and seek exile in Saudi Arabia.

With air strikes destroying large stockpiles of Houthi weaponry, the rebels responded by carrying out cross-border attacks targeting Saudi cities near the Yemeni frontier. On Tuesday, Houthis fired rockets and mortars into the kingdom, killing at least three people.

The coalition spokesman, the Saudi army’s Brig Gen Ahmed Asiri, vowed a “harsh response” to the attacks and said the Houthis “made a mistake by targeting Saudi cities”.

Also on Friday, up to 6,000 protesters took to the streets after Friday prayers in the Iranian capital, Tehran, to denounce the Saudi-led strikes. The crowd chanted “death to America” and “death to the Saud family,” which rules Saudi Arabia.

Iran has backed the Houthis, though both the Shia powerhouse and the rebels deny the support includes military equipment and weapons.

The intensified air strikes cast a shadow over a ceasefire announced in the Saudi capital Riyadh by Kerry and the Saudi foreign minister. The reprieve is dependent on whether the Houthis and their allies also agree to halt fighting.

Hamed al-Bokheiti, a spokesman for the Houthi movement in Sana’a, was dismissive of the ceasefire. “What ceasefire are we talking about? Air strikes are continuing unabated,” he said by phone.

BAGHDAD 4/28/2015

(Reuters) - At least 22 people were killed in explosions across Iraq on Sunday, including a suicide car bomb attack on a military post in western Anbar province, police and medical sources said.

The deadliest attack came when a car packed with explosives was detonated at an army checkpoint near the town of al-Nukhaib, an outpost on the route to western neighbors Syria and Saudi Arabia, killing at least seven soldiers, the sources said.

"Deash terrorists used a suicide car bomb attack to distract our soldiers and then they clashed with soldiers, but we managed to repel the attack," an army officer from Anbar operations command told Reuters, using a derogatory acronym for Islamic State.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for any of the attacks, but Shi'ite areas and government forces are often targeted by Sunni Islamist insurgents the government is struggling to dislodge from large sections of the north and west.

Another six people were killed and 17 others wounded when a car bomb went off near Khilani Square in central Baghdad, police and medical sources said.

Six more people were killed in bomb attacks in Baghdad's predominantly Shi'ite districts of Amil, Hussainiya and Bayaa, the sources said. A car bomb killed three people and wounded seven in the town of Mahmoudiya, about 30 km (20 miles) south of Baghdad, police sources said.

Elsewhere in Iraq, Islamic State militants attacked Baiji, the country's largest refinery, on Saturday evening using mortars and machine guns fixed to pickup trucks, security officials said.

The assault came a day after the radical militants took partial control of a water dam and military barracks guarding it in Anbar and detonated three suicide car bombs at a border crossing between Iraq and Jordan.

"Daesh attacked the northern gate of the refinery, but we managed to repel the attack and prevented them from infiltrating our defenses," an army officer from the refinery said by phone.

(Reporting by Baghdad newsroom; editing by Ralph Boulton)

By Mohammed Mukhashaf

(Reuters) - Fighting between Yemen's warring factions raged in southern and central parts of the country and air strikes hit Houthi militia forces in Aden on Friday, but there were no fresh moves toward dialogue.

Saudi Arabia says it is winding down its month-old bombing operation against the Iran-allied Houthis and forces loyal to Yemen's former president. But Riyadh pounded targets with at least 20 airstrikes across Yemen on Thursday and 10 more on Friday.

The civilian death toll from the fighting and airstrikes since the bombing started on March 26 has reached an estimated 551 people, the United Nations said on Friday. Its children's agency UNICEF said at least 115 children were among the dead.

Washington and other Western countries backing the Saudi-led aerial campaign have grown increasingly worried about the humanitarian crisis on the ground and also about the risk of Sunni Muslim jihadist groups taking advantage of the chaos.

Islamic State, which has had little presence in Yemen, released late on Thursday a video it said showed members of the group in the country conducting military exercises and pledging to attack the Houthis, who are from the Zaydi Shi'ite sect.

Saudi Arabia has called a meeting with major U.N. aid agencies and others to discuss improving aid deliveries to Yemen, which have been hindered by the naval blockade, Saudi officials and U.N. sources said.

Violent clashes continued between the Houthis and local militias near the Khor Maksar district of Aden on Friday, residents said, as well as in Taiz and al-Dhala.

Heavy fighting in Marib province east of the Yemeni capital Sanaa killed 15 people, tribal sources there said, as the Houthi militia and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh tried to advance into the rugged Sirwah district.


Renewed airstrikes, days after Riyadh announced the end of its main bombing campaign, hit the 35th Brigade in Taiz, a Yemen army unit loyal to Saleh whose troops have clashed this week with militiamen supporting President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Four weeks of air raids have had limited impact on the lightly armed and mobile Houthi guerrilla fighters, but have significantly degraded army units loyal to Saleh, Western diplomats say.

Splitting the alliance between the Houthis and Saleh is seen as pivotal to any chance of success for the Saudi-led coalition in its goal of pushing the militia back towards its northern heartland, resuming peace talks and restoring Hadi to Sanaa.

Several army units have announced in recent days that they were pledging their loyalty to Hadi after fighting alongside Saleh or sitting on the sidelines. But those switches do not yet appear to have swung the balance of fighting on the ground.

Separately, a spokesman for Defence Minister Mahmoud al-Subaihi rejected on Friday as untrue local media reports that the Houthis had released him after weeks of detention.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Mohammed Ghobari in Cairo. Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Middle East Monitor
Ramona Wadi
22 April 2015

Last Friday, Venezuela hosted the first Latin American Congress of the Global Campaign to Return to Palestine. The initiative brought together Palestinian solidarity activists from various countries across Latin America, including Chile, Cuba, Ecuador and Argentina. According to Palestinian ambassador Linda Sobeh Ali, the event strengthened Venezuela's stance as the focal point for the Palestinian cause in the region.

"This is an international struggle against a common enemy," said Nicola Hadwa Shahwan of the Chilean Committee in Solidarity with Palestine. "The same enemy that besieges Venezuela, that wants to seize the wealth of Venezuela, is the same that wants to seize the wealth of the Middle East and the rest of the world."

Isak Khury from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine stressed the need for a broad approach. "We must combine all forms of struggle: diplomatic, legal and political together with armed resistance," he insisted.

Venezuelan support for Palestine is a legacy of the late President Hugo Chavez, whose anti-imperialist stance emulated that of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution and ultimately emerged as a fulcrum for internationalism against colonial and imperialist dominance. Venezuela's current President, Nicolas Maduro, consolidated the foundations initiated by Chavez and exhibited a commitment to a holistic approach, in particular with regard to Gaza's reconstruction.

While the UN conspired with Israel to develop a mechanism mired in bureaucracy, Venezuela embarked upon a humanitarian and political approach that combined immediate relief for children maimed or orphaned during the war, as well as providing Palestinian youth with the opportunity to further their studies in Venezuela, notably in the field of medicine. The tertiary education programme offered by Venezuela is also set to expand and include other academic specialisms, including architecture and teaching, thus providing Palestinians with opportunities for self-reliance and dignity, as opposed to the UN's deliberate conspiracy of entrenching and normalising displacement, in blatant violation of international law.

A lot of discussion about the Palestinian right of return is based upon international law, yet scant attention is given to the fact that the narrative enshrined within legislation eliminates Palestinian memory and embarks upon an isolation process that seeks to detach the Palestinian struggle from internationalism. As diplomacy overshadowed resistance, the Palestinian right of return retained its priority as an embellishment rather than as a right; it was often reduced to a statement quoted at random for convenience and public displays of support, but was nothing of substance. Its implications were smothered by prevailing talk about compromising with Israel's colonial project in the form of the two-state paradigm, thus rendering the Palestinian right of return into a memory severed by international oppression and complicity.

The conference in Venezuela could well serve to highlight such discrepancies, not only from an academic viewpoint — which has caused displeasure among Israelis — but also from the perspective of a country that has not wavered in its support for Palestine while battling imperialist intervention within its own territory. While Venezuela's support for Palestine is exemplary, however, Maduro can also avail himself of the opportunity to declare himself in favour of the anti-colonial struggle and total liberation by abandoning rhetoric pertaining to the two-state compromise. The latter stance, although overlooked, remains a blemish upon a country that has otherwise proved itself to be consistent in its internationalist role.