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Extract: Bomb attack strikes at heart of Assad regime in Syria
The Australian Online
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: AFP, AP
Thursday, July 19, 2012

SYRIAN rebels struck deep into the heart of Bashar al-Assad's regime last night in a bomb attack on the national security headquarters in central Damascus.

Deputy Defence Minister and former military intelligence chief Assef Shawkat — Assad's brother-in-law, and Defence Minister Daoud Rajha were killed during a morning meeting of the architects of the regime's bloody crackdown on the 16-month uprising. Hassan Turkmani, a former defence minister and current head of the Syrian crisis cell, was also killed. Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar and national security branch chief Hisham Ikhtiyar were wounded in the attack that came as fighting raged across the capital for the fourth straight day.

The explosion, blamed on a bodyguard at the meeting, prompted the White House to say Assad was "losing control" of his country. It came just before a showdown between the West and Russia and China over a draft UN resolution calling for sanctions. That vote appeared to have been delayed by a day.

This morning the White House said Russian President Vladimir Putin had agreed in a phone call with President Barack Obama to work with the US to find a solution to the crisis in Syria. But the Kremlin stressed that "differences" remain ahead of the Security Council vote in which Russia is expected to veto a Western-drafted resolution calling for sanctions against Assad.

Mr Assad late last night appointed Fahd al-Freij to replace General Rahja, 65, the most senior Christian government official in Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights called Shawkat's death "a severe blow to the Syrian regime since he played the main role in operations by regular forces to crush the revolution," notably in flashpoint Homs province.

The attack came only 500m from the US embassy in the high security Rawda district. Conflicting accounts have emerged of who carried out the attack and how. State media initially said it was a "suicide bombing" before apparently retracting and calling it a "terrorist attack." It was claimed by the rebel Free Syrian Army as its fighters battled Assad loyalists across Damascus for a fourth straight day, although another group, the Brigade of Islam, also said it was responsible. The FSA command "announces the good news of the outstanding operation this morning that targeted the National Security headquarters and the killing" of the officials "responsible for barbaric massacres," it said. The rebels said the attack, part of Operation Damascus Volcano launched on Monday, "is the first in a series… aimed at bringing down Assad and the pillars and symbols of the regime, whether civilian or military".

A Syrian security official told AFP the bombing was carried out by a bodyguard of one of the ministers or security chiefs at the meeting. The attacker had been wearing an explosives belt. Another official said the blast was caused by a briefcase packed with explosives that a bodyguard left in the meeting room and detonated from afar via remote control. The Syrian army released a statement saying its forces would continue to fight. "Whoever thinks that by targeting the country's leaders they will be able to twist Syria's arm is disillusioned because Syria's people, army and leadership are now more determined than ever to fight terrorism … and cleanse the nation from the armed gangs."

General Rajha's death will resonate with Syria's minority Christians, who make up about 10 per cent of the population and have generally stood by the regime. Christians say they are particularly vulnerable to the violence sweeping the country of 22 million people, and they are fearful that Syria will become another Iraq. General Shawkat was one of the most feared figures in Assad's inner circle. He was married to Assad's older sister, Bushra. Last year, the EU added General Shawkat's name to the list of Syrian officials targeted by sanctions.

Fighters of the FSA appear to have entrenched themselves in several suburbs of Damascus. Yesterday, they made hit-and-run attacks against security forces in the main streets of the capital before retreating to suburban fortresses. Rebel forces on Tuesday said the battle to "liberate" Damascus had begun, as heavy fighting raged with the regime using helicopter gunships in the capital for the first time. FSA spokesman Colonel Kassem Saadeddine said "victory is nigh" and the struggle would go on until the city was conquered. "We have transferred the battle from Damascus province to the capital. We have a clear plan to control the whole of Damascus. We only have light weapons, but it's enough. Expect surprises." Residents said most people were afraid to go into the streets due to the presence of snipers. Heavy fighting was also reported in Homs and Aleppo.

Mr Assad still has significant firepower, the elite army units, run by members of his Alawite sect, remain loyal and still have access to large amounts of weapons. Both sides were attempting to bring reinforcements to the capital, rebels were trying to transport fighters from outlying areas, while Israel said it had detected significant movements of the regime's troops from the Golan Heights.

White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said Assad was "losing control," pointing to "increasing" defections and a "strengthened and more united" opposition. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the bombing "underlines the urgent need for concerted action by the UN Security Council and the international community to enforce Kofi Annan's peace plan," referring to the UN-Arab League envoy.

Russia demanded the arrest and strict punishment of those behind what it called an "act of terror". "We see the events as another attempt to further destabilise the situation in Syria," the foreign ministry said, calling on both sides to reassess the situation and seek peace. Moscow had earlier given notice it would not back the Western-drafted UN resolution on the crisis. "Now the Damascus Volcano, the battle for the capital and a decisive battle have been declared in Syria. Adopting the resolution would mean outright support of a revolutionary movement," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged the council to unite and take action on the "very serious" situation after meeting President Hu Jintao of China, which has twice joined Moscow to block resolutions condemning Damascus. Annan urged the Security Council to take "strong and concerted action" to end the violence in Syria, his spokesman said. The current 90-day UN mission in Syria ends on Friday, and if no resolution is passed by then, it would have to shut down this weekend, diplomats say. The Security Council postponed a vote Wednesday on the Western-drafted resolution calling for sanctions against Syria following a request by Annan. The vote is now expected on Thursday. But even so, the US announced that it was slapping 29 members of Assad's regime with a new set of sanctions of its own.

Jordan's King Abdullah said Syria was spinning out of control and in a worst case scenario the al-Qa'ida militant group could get its hands on some of the regime's chemical weapons. "Our information is that there is a presence of al-Qa'ida in certain regions inside Syria, and has been there for a while," he told CNN. "And, again, one of the worst case scenarios as we are obviously trying to look for a political solution would be if some of those chemical stockpiles were to fall into unfriendly hands," he warned. King Abdullah opposes international military action in Syria, but he said that if Assad were to make the "tremendous miscalculation" of turning chemical weapons on his own population there could be a response.

Israel was "closely monitoring all of the developments in Syria," Defence Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement issued by his office, which said the minister had held consultations throughout the day with the relevant security and intelligence officials, instructing them "to vigilantly follow the events."

Rebels surge as Bashar al-Assad holds on in Syria
The Australian Online
Friday, July 20, 2012

REBELS have seized control of all of Syria's border crossings with Iraq, dealing a new blow to President Bashar al-Assad, as China and Russia dismayed the West by blocking UN action against his regime. The rebel offensive on Syria's eastern border came as the army focused its resources on Damascus, resorting to tank fire in the capital for the first time in its efforts to root out rebel fighters a day after a bomb blast killed three of Assad's top aides.

The president appeared in public for the first time since the bombing, greeting his new defence minister on state television, as he scrambled to shore up his battered prestige.

It was the third time in nine months that Russia and China had used their powers as permanent members of the UN Security Council to block resolutions on Syria. UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, who had called on the council to impose "consequences" for the failure to carry out his peace plan for Syria, expressed disappointment that it had failed to reach agreement. Washington said the vetoes meant the 300-strong UN observer mission deployed in Syria to oversee Annan's peace blueprint would now have to be withdrawn when its current mandate expires on Friday.

Iraq's deputy interior minister said fighters of the rebel Free Syrian Army had seized control of all crossings along the two countries' border, adding that Baghdad was mulling closing the frontier following bloody rebel reprisals against regime troops. "All the border points between Iraq and Syria are under the control of the Free Syrian Army," Adnan al-Assadi said by telephone. Assadi said Iraqi border guards had witnessed the Free Syrian Army take control of a border outpost, detain a Syrian army lieutenant colonel, and then cut off his arms and legs. "Then they executed 22 Syrian soldiers in front of the eyes of Iraqi soldiers." The account of the killings could not be independently verified.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels had also seized control of a post on the border with Turkey.

The upsurge in fighting, which claimed some 200 lives on Thursday alone according to the Observatory's figures, sent a new exodus of refugees fleeing across Syria's borders. Nearly 19,000 Syrians pouring into Lebanon, a security official said in Beirut, while Iraqi officials said thousands of Iraqi refugee families had fled home from Syria.

Western governments expressed outrage at the decision by Beijing and Moscow to again block UN action against Assad's regime. "The United Kingdom is appalled at the veto of Russia and China," said British ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, whose country took the lead in drafting the resolution.

Russia accused Western governments of seeking a pretext for military intervention. The resolution sought to "open the path to the pressure of sanctions and further to external military involvement in Syrian domestic affairs," said Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin.

The United States said the Security Council had "utterly failed" on Syria and that it would now work outside of the council to confront Assad's regime.

Source: The Australian
Assad ready for 'civilised' departure
Weekend Australian
Agencies, The Times
Saturday, July 21, 2012

DAMASCUS: President Bashar al-Assad is ready to quit "in a civilised manner", Russia said last night after voting down a UN Security Council resolution threatening sanctions against the Syrian government. Rumours swirled that the Assad family was preparing to leave for Russia, with 300 Syrians killed in a single day of fighting.

Assad appeared on television yesterday, looking pale and composed, to dispel rumours that he had been wounded or killed in the suicide bomb attack on Wednesday that took the lives of his brother-in-law, deputy defence minister Assef Shawkat, defence minister Daoud Rajha and the head of the crisis group, Hassan Turkmani. National security chief Hisham Ikhtiyar last night became the fourth member of Assad's inner circle to die from the bombing.

Gossip continued to circulate on Twitter yesterday that Assad had been badly wounded, and that his wife and family had fled to Russia, were in the port city of Tartus preparing to leave for Russia or had gone into hiding in the summer palace at Latakia, on the coast. Moscow's envoy to France, Alexander Orlov, said Assad had accepted a transition plan agreed to by world powers in Geneva and named a representative for talks with the opposition. "That is to say, he is accepting to go — but to go in a civilised manner," Mr Orlov told Radio France International. In Damascus, Syrian state television said Mr Orlov's comments had been distorted and the claim Assad would agree to relinquish power was totally baseless.

In a sign that Moscow was doing something, Interfax news agency reported that Russia would delay its controversial shipment of three attack helicopters and an air defence system to Syria until security was restored in the country.

Syria said earlier it had "cleaned out" the rebel-infested Damascus suburb of Midan as government forces launched an assault on the eastern suburb of Jubar. "Syrian regular forces, including trucks and cars packed with heavily armed men, stormed the district of Jubar," activists said. Searches had begun in the neighbourhood, they added. Syrian rebels were withdrawing from suburbs of Damascus, but scored signal victories by capturing two border posts along the Turkish frontier, at Bab al Hawa and near the town of Qaim. They claimed to have captured all the border posts, but Turkish officials denied this.

Frantic Syrians fled the capital, many heading across the border to Lebanon. The UN reported that more than 30,000 had arrived in Lebanon in the past 48 hours, joining thousands of others. Israel said it would stop any who tried to leave through the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. "The smell of blood is filling Damascus," one resident said. "What Ramadan ' The situation is grave — battles are taking place in the heart of the capital," a shopkeeper added.

Russia and China used their veto power to stop UN Security Council censures of the Assad regime for the third time yesterday, arguing that the resolution unfairly put the onus on the government to halt the violence. Pakistan and South Africa abstained from the vote, also citing concerns that the resolution was biased in favour of the rebels. Russia and China have sought to avoid a repeat of the Libyan experience of foreign intervention turning into regime change. Critics say their insistence on a gradual negotiated solution only buys more time for a regime that has shown no signs of enacting real reforms.

At Bab al Halwa, the rebels were in control of the border post after overrunning it in a fierce battle with Syrian troops. The hulls of burned-out trucks were scattered across the scene of the battle. Some 150 armed rebel fighters were in control of the post, which is opposite Turkey's Cilvegozu border crossing in the southern province of Hatay. The rebel fighters had already sacked the buildings making up the Syrian border post, which were bloodstained and riddled with bullets. They had also helped themselves to the contents of the Turkish trucks that were caught up in the battle as they waited to cross the border.


Late News AFP 2:11pm

Iraq's Deputy Interior Minister Adnan al-Assadi said the FSA had seized control of all three crossings along their common border. Residents on the Iraqi side of the border said that relatives in the town were desperately trying to cross but that they were being turned back by Iraqi troops. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called on the United Nations to intervene to provide safe passage for Iraqis escaping the escalating violence in Syria. The Iraqi government also warned it would not be able to assist Syrians looking to escape the bloodshed.

At the United Nations, Security Council permanent members Russia and China both voted in favour of a resolution extending the mandate of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria for a "final" 30 days. The vote followed emergency consultations just hours before the expiry of the 300-strong mission's mandate, after Russia threatened to use its veto powers for the second time in as many days.


Same Day
Israel will 'respond forcefully'
The Times, Agencies

JERUSALEM: Israel last night vowed to "respond forcefully" after blaming Iran for an explosion that killed at least eight people on a bus packed with young Israeli tourists at Bulgaria's Burgas airport.

About 40 Israelis had just boarded the bus after arriving from Tel Aviv on Thursday night when the powerful blast sent bodies flying and damaged two other buses nearby. Five of the dead were Israeli tourists. More than 30 passengers were injured, several critically, while Bulgarian television reported a local tour guide was among the dead and up to nine Israelis were missing.

The Bulgarian Interior Minister, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, said yesterday a suicide bomber had carried out the attack. "The explosion was caused by a man who died in the attack and whose identity has not yet been established," he said. The man who killed himself and six others had waited an hour for a flight from Tel Aviv before the attack on the bus full of Israeli tourists, authorities said. His DNA was being examined after the FBI said that his US driver's licence was a fake.

While the Bulgarians cautioned about rushing to apportion blame, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stepped up his denunciation of Iran and directly accused Hezbollah. Although no group admitted responsibility, Israel has attributed a series of attacks on its citizens around the world in recent months to Iran. "The attack in Bulgaria was perpetrated by Hezbollah, Iran's leading terrorist proxy," Mr Netanyahu said.

CCTV images showed a Caucasian-looking man, aged about 26, pacing the airport as he waited for the flight to arrive, Mr Tsvetanov said. "We cannot exclude the possibility that he had logistical support on Bulgarian territory," he said. The man wore a baseball cap over long brown hair and had a backpack and a courier-style bag. Swedish police denied last night a rumour on Twitter that he was a Swedish-born former inmate of the US military detention camp at Guantanamo Bay.

Yesterday, as coffins bearing the dead Israelis arrived at Ben Gurion airport, dozens of mourning relatives had gathered. Many of the wounded, including teenagers, also arrived back in Tel Aviv after being flown home by the Israeli air force. Some still had their blood-stained holiday clothes on. Gal Malka told Israeli Army Radio: "I was on the bus and we had just sat down when after a few seconds we heard a really loud explosion. The whole bus went up in flames."

The deadly explosion in front of the small airport at the Black Sea resort of Burgas followed several recent attempts to attack Israelis around the world. A bomb attack on a bus carrying Israelis to a ski resort in Bulgaria was foiled on New Year's Day when the device was discovered before the trip.

In the US, White House spokesman Jay Carney said: "The United States condemns such attacks on innocent people, especially children, in the strongest possible terms."

Extract: Mitt Romney's grand tour to play up differences
The Australian
Brad Norington, Washington correspondent
Monday, July 23, 2012

MITT Romney will take time out from the presidential campaign at home to beef up his foreign policy credentials this week as he embarks on a six-day visit to Britain, Israel and Poland. The trip is an important opportunity for the Republican challenger to meet international leaders and present himself as a statesman before he faces President Barack Obama in November's election. Opinion polls have shown foreign policy is a weakness for Mr Romney — he lags behind Mr Obama by seven points, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll last week.

The most significant part of the trip looks to be Mr Romney's visit to Israel. He is expected to gain an especially warm welcome from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose relations with Mr Obama have been frosty. Mr Romney has pledged, if elected, to guarantee Israel's security and stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon that could be used against Israel.

Mr Romney has sought to differentiate himself from the Democrat by claiming Iran will have a nuclear weapon if Mr Obama is re-elected. "If you elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon," he said last year. Mr Obama says he will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon and all options are on the table, including a military strike. The President has also said Israel's security is guaranteed under his administration. Mr Romney argues US-backed sanctions against Iran are too soft but has failed to spell out whether he would back a military assault on Iran.

The Republican will hold talks with the Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

The international trip is Mr Romney's first as the presumptive presidential challenger. Comparisons with Mr Obama when he travelled outside the US as a candidate in 2008 pose a risk. Mr Obama's standing was elevated to that of an international leader and a crowd of 200,000 cheered him when he gave a speech in Berlin. Mr Romney, not known for charisma, is unlikely to receive such an enthusiastic welcome. Germany is certainly not on his travel agenda and he is avoiding any European country suffering financial woes. In Poland, Mr Romney is expected to receive a warm reception from a nation that has been relatively cool on Mr Obama. Choosing Poland also appears driven by the opportunity for Mr Romney to contrast his harder line on Russia.


Later Same Day
Arabs urge Assad to quit as war rages

ARAB nations have offered Syria's President Bashar al-Assad a "safe exit" if he gives up power as fighting rages in Damascus and the second city Aleppo. Syria's opposition said the raging battles indicated they were "at the gates of victory". The rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) boasted that Assad's regime was "collapsing". The EU meanwhile beefed up sanctions against Assad's regime on Monday and agreed to tighten an arms embargo by inspecting vessels and aeroplanes suspected of carrying arms, diplomats in Brussels said on Monday.

Residents of Damascus reported hearing gunfire and explosions into the early hours of Monday morning in the upscale Mazzeh neighbourhood of west Damascus, while activists reported overnight shelling in several other districts of the city. Syrian state television reported an assault on Mazzeh, calling the operation "targeted and quick". The broadcaster showed troops firing as they entered part of the neighbourhood. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the government offensive in Barzeh, spearheaded by "the feared Fourth Brigade" commanded by Assad's powerful younger brother, Maher, had triggered an exodus of residents.

The local co-ordination committees, which organises activists on the ground, reported that military reinforcements were sent during the night to a number of Damascus neighbourhoods rocked by clashes since the rebels announced the launch of Operation Damascus Volcano a week ago. The committees reported fierce clashes during the night and into the morning between rebel forces and Syrian troops in the northern city of Aleppo. Aleppo has emerged as a new front in the battle between rebel fighters and Assad's troops.

The Britain-based Observatory said on Monday that the death toll in fighting across Syria on Sunday was 123, including 67 civilians, 22 rebels and 34 soldiers. The watchdog group said that more than 19,000 people had been killed since the uprising against Assad's regime began in March 2011.

The spiralling violence has alarmed Syria's neighbours and prompted a meeting late Sunday in Doha of Arab League foreign ministers, who in a statement called on Assad to "renounce power", promising that he and his family would be offered "a safe exit". "There is agreement on the need for the rapid resignation of President Bashar al-Assad," Qatar Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani told journalists after the meeting. The Arab League called on FSA rebels and the opposition to form a transitional government of national unity along with the "de facto national authority", without detailing who that authority might be.

The United States declared on Sunday that it would "hold accountable" any Syrian official involved in the release or use of the country's chemical weapons. Fears have been rising in the West after reports that Assad might be prepared to use his arsenal of chemical weapons to save his embattled regime.

The rebel Free Syrian Army's military council head, General Mustafa al-Sheikh, told AFP "a real war of attrition" was under way in Damascus. "The regime is collapsing, the speed at which it is falling has increased. That means it will use greater violence in order to try and save itself," said Sheikh. On Syria's borders, rebels battled troops for control of border crossing posts with Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. With the violence escalating, thousands of Syrian refugees have crossed into Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, where stone-throwing Syrians on Sunday clashed with police at two camps over a lack of food and water.

Deadliest day in Iraq in two years
The Australian Online
Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A WAVE of attacks across Iraq yesterday killed 107 people in the country's deadliest day in more than two years after Al-Qa'ida warned it would mount new attacks and sought to retake territory. Officials said at least 214 people were wounded in 27 different attacks launched in 18 cities, shattering a relative calm that had held in the lead-up to the start on Saturday of the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

In yesterday's deadliest attack — a string of roadside bombs and a car bomb followed by a suicide attack targeting emergency workers in the town of Taji — at least 42 people were killed and 40 wounded. "I heard explosions in the distance so I left my house and I saw a car outside," said 40-year-old Taji resident Abu Mohammed, who added that police inspectors concluded the vehicle was a car bomb. "We asked the neighbours to leave their houses, but when they were leaving, the bomb went off." Abu Mohammed said he witnessed the deaths of an elderly woman carrying a newborn baby and of the policeman who had first concluded the car was packed with explosives. A row of houses was completely destroyed, and residents rummaged through the rubble in search of victims and their belongings.

In Baghdad a car bomb outside a government office responsible for producing identity papers in the Shia bastion of Sadr City killed at least 12 people and wounded 22 others. "This attack is a terrible crime against humanity, because they did it during Ramadan, while people are fasting," said one elderly witness. Eight nearby cars were badly burned and many of the victims of the 9.30am (4.30pm AEST) attack could not be identified because their papers were inside the offices that were targeted. Two other explosions in the Baghdad neighbourhoods of Husseiniyah and Yarmuk killed at least four people and left 24 others wounded, while a car bomb in the town of Tarmiyah, just north of Baghdad, hurt nine people.

Checkpoint shootings and bomb blasts in restive ethnically-mixed Diyala province killed 11 people and left 40 others wounded. Insurgents also launched attacks on a military base near the town of Dhuluiyah, killing at least 15 Iraqi soldiers and leaving two others wounded. Two other attacks in the same province — a shooting at a checkpoint and a car bomb near a Shia mosque — left three people dead and six wounded. Nine bomb blasts, some of them minutes apart, killed seven people and wounded 29 in Kirkuk city and the eponymous province's towns of Dibis and Tuz Khurmatu. Three different attacks — a car bomb, a roadside blast and a shooting — in the main northern city of Mosul and the nearby town of Baaj left nine people dead and seven wounded. A roadside bomb at a market in the centre of the town of Diwaniyah, south of Baghdad, killed three people and left 25 hurt. In the western town of Heet, a car bomb exploded near an army patrol, killing one soldier and wounding 10 others.

The attacks came a day after a spate of bombings across Iraq killed at least 17 people and wounded nearly 100 others. Yesterday's toll was the highest since May 10, 2010, when 110 people were killed. The latest violence comes after the country suffered a spike in unrest last month when at least 282 people were killed, according to an Agence France-Presse tally based on figures supplied by officials and medics, although government figures said 131 Iraqis died.

Although those figures are markedly lower than during the peak of Iraq's communal bloodshed from 2006 to 2008, attacks remain common. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for yesterday's attacks, but Al-Qa'ida's front group in Iraq has warned in recent days that it seeks to retake territory in the country.

The Islamic State of Iraq warned in an audio message posted on various jihadist forums that it would begin targeting judges and prosecutors, and appealed for the help of Sunni tribes in its quest to recapture territory it once held. "We are starting a new stage," said the voice on the message, purportedly that of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has been leader of the Islamic State of Iraq since May 2010. "The first priority in this is releasing Muslim prisoners everywhere, and chasing and eliminating judges and investigators and their guards." It was not possible to verify whether the voice was that of Baghdadi. The speaker added: "On the occasion of the beginning of the return of the state to the areas that we left, I urge you to carry out more efforts, and send your sons with the mujahedeen to defend your religion and obey God."

Extract: Syria moves WMDs to its borders
The Australian
Wednesday, July 25, 2012

BEIRUT: The Syrian government has moved chemical weapons to airports on its borders, the rebel Free Syrian Army said yesterday, a day after the regime warned it could use them if attacked by an outside force. "We in the joint command of the Free Syrian Army inside the country know very well the locations and positions of these weapons," a statement from the FSA said. "We also reveal that (President Bashar al-)Assad has transferred some of these weapons and equipment for mixing chemical components to airports on the border."

The statement said the weapons had been moved to pressure the international community, much of which has called for Assad to step aside in the face of a 16-month uprising that has killed an estimated 19,000 people. "According to our information, the regime began moving its stocks of weapons of mass destruction several months ago … with the goal of putting pressure on the region and the international community," the FSA said. The group said it was impossible to believe the regime would use its weapons against neighbouring Israel, which has expressed concerns about the fate of Syria's chemical weapons stocks. "The regime that has not fired a single bullet against Israel during the course of three decades is certainly not going to use chemical weapons against that country," the statement said.

The Syrian regime made public reference to its chemical weapons stocks for the first time on Monday night, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi warning they could be used if outside forces attacked. The comments sparked international condemnation, with US President Barack Obama warning Syria not to make the "tragic mistake" of using such weapons. Mr Makdissi later backtracked, stressing in an email that Syria would "never use chemical and biological weapons during the crisis … and that such weapons, if they exist, it is natural for them to be stored and secured."

Gaps in US intelligence have hampered Washington's efforts to speed the ousting of Assad and develop a clear understanding of opposition forces inside the country, The Washington Post reports. With no CIA operatives on the ground in Syria and only a handful stationed at key border posts, the US spy agency has been heavily dependent on its counterparts in Jordan and Turkey and on other regional allies.

Aleppo air strikes entrench civil war
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Thursday, July 26, 2012

THE Assad regime has launched a massive counter-attack to recapture Syria's second-largest city, Aleppo, as fighting raged across the country. The regime used fixed-wing aircraft for the first time to bomb rebel positions in Aleppo, the country's commercial centre.

The civil war deepened yesterday as the regime moved thousands of troops from the northern province of Idlib to Aleppo, near the Turkish border, for what appeared to be its biggest counter-attack. Turkey last night said it had closed its border with Syria for security reasons. Although the decision was directed primarily at the movement of trucks, it will also restrict ordinary Syrians who have been hoping to join the tens of thousands of refugees already in Turkey.

State-run TRT television quoted Customs and Trade Minister Hayati Yazici as saying the 13 border gates along Turkey's 911km border with Syria would be closed to trucks as of last night. Trucks travelling to and from Syria would not be allowed through unless they were travelling on to a third country, he said. Dozens of Turkish trucks were either looted or torched when the rebels captured the border crossing of Bab al-Hawa last week.

Israel said yesterday it would not hesitate to declare war on Syria if it saw evidence of chemical or biological weapons being transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon. "We will act decisively and without hesitation or restraint," Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said. "It will be a completely different ball game and we hope for the understanding of the international community."

Israel's military chief, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, said: "To the best of my judgment, for now, Assad has control over his chemical weapons stockpiles and he has upgraded the protection around them. These weapons have not yet been transferred into negative hands, but that doesn't mean it won't happen." General Gantz said the situation created a dilemma for Israel over whether to operate in "an isolated way", which appeared to be a reference to a single attack on any convoy moving the weapons, or to "operate broadly in a way that we could find ourselves very quickly in a larger-scale conflict than anticipated".

The Syrian government confirmed on Monday night it had stockpiles of chemical weapons, but said that they were "meant" to be used only against "external aggression." That comment has led to waves of condemnation, including from Syria's strongest ally Russia, and Germany, which described the comment as "monstrous". US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it was not too late for President Bashar al-Assad to be involved in a transition. However, she added: "We have to work closely with the opposition because more and more territory is being taken and it will eventually result in a safe haven inside Syria which will then provide a base for further actions by the opposition."

One of Syria's highest-ranking defectors, Brigadier General Manaf Tlas, called on government troops to defect. "I speak to you not as an official, but as a son of Syria, as a son of the Syrian Arab army that has rejected the criminal program of this corrupt regime," he said in a television address.

The regime yesterday appeared to have regained control of most parts of Damascus. The rebels launched a major push into the capital last week after a bomb at a cabinet meeting in the national security headquarters in Damascus killed four senior officials. Each time the regime has deployed resources to a flashpoint in the 17-month uprising, rebels have made advances in others. While the regime was concentrating in recent days on repelling the rebels from Damascus the rebels took control of parts of Aleppo.

Later Same Day
Aleppo braces for defining battle as US and Turkey consult on Syria
Roger Boyes, The Times

THE helicopter gunships of President Bashar al-Assad chattered overhead yesterday as the ancient city of Aleppo braced itself for what looks set to be a defining battle of the 17-month Syrian uprising. Columns of government troops drove through the night from the northwestern province of Idlib — a scene of earlier clashes — towards Aleppo, Syria's second city. Opposition sources said that the Assad forces were reinforcing units within the city who have been fighting to control Sunni neighbourhoods.

"There are clashes right now in Aleppo so fierce that many of their troops are running away, while dozens of others are defecting on the spot," said Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Oqaidi, the spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army in the city. While his comments could not be verified, it was clear that both sides were lining up for a major urban battle. Rebels have been heading for the centre of Aleppo — a warren of cobbled streets — as the violence spreads out from the battered Sunni district of Saleheddin. The residents were shuttering shops, packing up bags and heading for the Turkish border.

Although there have been fierce exchanges of fire in Damascus — government forces bombarded the northern suburb of al-Tel just before dawn yesterday — street-by-street fighting in Aleppo would take the conflict to a new level. "I heard at least 20 rockets fired, I think from helicopters, and also a lot of machinegun fire," a resident told Reuters news agency by telephone. "Almost everyone has fled in panic, even my family." The nervousness comes not only from the fear of the government troops and pro-Assad Shabiha militia, but also from looters. Some residents said that the major violence would come shortly after the pre-dawn meal that is taken during the fasting month of Ramadan. But however the drama unfolds, it will have an impact on international diplomacy.

If helicopter gunships or even MiG 29 jets are used in the onslaught, it will give impetus to Western military planners who have been drafting the framework for a no-fly zone. If heavy artillery is used, in direct breach of the UN-sponsored peace plan, there will be a strong argument for a "no-drive" zone to exclude armoured vehicles. Turkey is now crucial. Aleppo is 30 miles from the border, which has been closed to commercial traffic.

Oytun Orhan, a Syria specialist at Turkey's Centre for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, said that a "refugee influx, which would amount to hundreds of thousands" could prompt Turkey to set up a protected area inside Syria. There are 44,000 refugees in Turkey, and the Turkish media has been speculating that if that number rose by another ten thousand, the government would set up a humanitarian corridor along the border. Turkish diplomats say there is a legal basis for it — the 1998 Adana agreement with Syria, which authorises Turkey to use military force on Syrian terrain to ensure "the security and stability of Turkey".

Much depends on what happens in Aleppo, but it is plain that the US has been in close consultation with Turkey. There is pressure, too, on US President Barack Obama to consider some form of military-backed humanitarian assistance. A letter, signed by 60 conservative figures, including several foreign policy advisers to the presidential candidate Mitt Romney, called yesterday on Mr Obama "to work with regional partners to establish air-patrolled 'safe zones' covering already liberated areas within Syria".

UN ducks Hamas demolitions
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Saturday, July 28, 2012

HAMAS, the Palestinian organisation that controls the Gaza Strip, has begun demolishing houses, a move that will leave 120 Palestinian families homeless. While the demolitions have been reported in the Palestinian media, they have been virtually ignored internationally. "This is catastrophic for the families involved," said one man, who has visited the families, some of whom are now living in tents. The man, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, said he believed Hamas officials wanted the land for personal gain. "My view is that they will then sell the land for much money," he said. "Corruption is getting worse and some people are becoming very rich."

The land is near al-Azhar University in central Gaza City. Despite a blockade on Gaza by Israel and Egypt, large amounts of building materials are entering through smuggling tunnels from Egypt, pushing up land prices. Hamas did not respond to written questions from The Weekend Australian. Ma'an, the Palestinian news agency, said Hamas was claiming the houses were built on government land. One resident told Ma'an some families had lived there since 1948 and that the families had been offered houses near the border with Israel, which they had rejected because of the danger.

The Weekend Australian asked the UN whether it condemned house demolitions by Hamas the way it did demolitions by Israel. "This is the first time someone has asked me about them," said spokesman Richard Miron, from the UN Special Co-ordinator's Office. "It's a valid question." Later, after consulting senior UN officials, Mr Miron said the body would not be making a condemnation. "We appear to be dealing with a civil dispute about land," he said.

Asked why the UN was prepared to condemn Israel's demolitions but not Hamas's, he said: "When Israeli authorities go and demolish houses, they are in the position of the occupying power and sometimes these things are done to facilitate the movement of Israeli citizens, which is in breach of international law. "Where the Israelis might demolish houses of the Bedouins in the Negev, we would not comment because it is within Israel." He said it was a matter for two other UN agencies, the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs or UN Habitat.

But an OCHA official said: "I have nothing to say on it right now. I have not seen the thing you are talking about." UN Habitat, in turn, said: "We just do technical analysis — this would be a matter for UNSCO or OCHA".

Meanwhile, Israel is preparing to demolish 51 structures in the Palestinian village of Susiya, near Hebron, almost the entire village. Israeli group Rabbis for Human Rights said this was being being done through "a facade of legalism". The rabbis said 95 per cent of Palestinian requests for building permits between 2000 and 2008, in the largest part of the West Bank Area C, were rejected. The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions said that Israel had demolished 18,000 Palestinian homes since 1967.

Extract: Romney talks tough on Iran
The Australian
Monday, July 30, 2012

WHITE House hopeful Mitt Romney has held top-level talks in Israel over Iran's nuclear ambitions but quickly drew fire from the Palestinians for endorsing Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state.

"We must lead the effort to prevent Iran from building and possessing nuclear weapons capability," the Republican challenger said in a speech given on a rooftop overlooking Jerusalem's Old City in which he laid out key foreign policy issues facing Israel. "We should employ any and all measures to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course," he said, expressing hope that diplomatic and economic measures would help achieve this aim, but adding that "in final analysis, of course, no option should be excluded". "We recognise Israel's right to defend itself, and that it is right for America to stand with you," said Mr Romney, the Republican challenger who will face off against President Barack Obama in November's US election.

Israel, which is widely believed to have the Middle East's only, albeit undeclared, nuclear arsenal, has warned that a military option cannot be ruled out to prevent Iran from developing atomic weapons capability. Tehran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only. According to Israeli public radio, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Mr Romney it was important to have "a strong and credible military threat" because sanctions and diplomacy "so far have not set back the Iranian program by one iota".

The White House hopeful, who arrived in Israel from Britain late on Saturday on a one-day visit, stepped into the quagmire of Middle Eastern politics when, during his policy speech, he hailed Jerusalem as Israel's capital. "It is a deeply moving experience to be in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel," he said, in an apparent endorsement of a position held by the Jewish state but never accepted by the international community.

Mr Netanyahu thanked him for his remarks, later telling him: "I want to thank you for those very strong words of support and friendship for Israel and for Jerusalem that we heard today." But the Palestinians were infuriated, saying his remarks "harm peace, security and stability". "Even if this statement is within the US election campaign, it is unacceptable and we completely reject it. The US election campaign should never be at the expense of the Palestinians," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP.

Iran sanctions biting hard: Panetta
The Australian Online
Tuesday, July 31, 2012

SANCTIONS are having a "serious impact" on the Iranian economy, even if their results may not be immediately obvious, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta says. Mr Panetta, speaking in Tunisia at the start of a Middle East tour that will also take him to Egypt, Israel and Jordan, repeated the US government's insistence that all options were on the table to stop Tehran developing nuclear weapons.

"We recognise that these sanctions are having a serious impact in terms of the economy of Iran," he said. "While the results of that may not be obvious at the moment, the fact is that they've expressed a willingness to try to negotiate (with the P5+1 powers) and they continue to seem interested in trying to find a diplomatic solution," he added. The P5+1 group of nations are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany that have been involved in negotiations to try to curb Iran's nuclear activities.

Mr Panetta's comments come just a day after US President Barack Obama's Republican challenger Mitt Romney, during a trip to Jerusalem, backed Israel's right to thwart Iran's nuclear programme, which Tehran says has purely peaceful aims. The Security Council has demanded Iran suspend all uranium enrichment and has imposed four sets of sanctions to pressure it to comply. The United States and the European Union have added their own sanctions on Iran, but the Islamic republic has defiantly said it would continue with its nuclear activities.

"What we all need to do is to continue the pressure economically and diplomatically," said Mr Panetta. But "the United States will not tolerate an Iran that develops a nuclear weapon. We are prepared to exercise all options to ensure that does not happen. We have a full range of options in order to deal with that essential threat," the Pentagon chief said, without elaborating.

Meetings between Israeli and US officials have multiplied in recent months, with the Obama administration trying to persuade the Jewish state to give time for the sanctions to take effect. Mr Panetta is scheduled to travel to Jerusalem, via Cairo, for a visit during which he is expected to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr Netanyahu told Mr Romney, Obama's election rival, on Sunday that it was important to have "a strong and credible military threat" because sanctions and diplomacy "so far have not set back the Iranian programme by one iota." Ahead of his arrival in Tunisia, Mr Panetta said Mr Obama had made clear that he respected the sovereignty of the Jewish state "and their ability to make decisions with regards to their own security."

Rebels resist in battle for Aleppo
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional Reporting: Agencies
Wednesday, August 1, 2012

SYRIAN rebels attacked key military targets and overran two police stations in Aleppo, killing 40 officers, a watchdog said, as the battle for the country's commercial capital raged last night. Clashes between rebel fighters and soldiers loyal to President Bashar al-Assad were reported in the capital Damascus, the eastern city of Deir Ezzor and Daraa in the south, cradle of the more than 16-month uprising.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Aleppo was last night rocked by the fiercest fighting of the four-day offensive on rebels in the city. Rebels used rocket-propelled grenades in pre-dawn attacks on a military court, an air force intelligence headquarters and a branch of the governing Baath Party in Aleppo, said the Observatory's Rami Abdel Rahman. "Hundreds of rebel fighters attacked the police stations in the Salhin and Bab al-Nayrab areas, and at least 40 policemen were killed during the fighting, which lasted for hours," Mr Abdel Rahman said. A police chief was among those killed at the Salhin station in the south of the city.

The attacks came as the UN observer mission said government forces were using helicopters, tanks and artillery to fight the rebels, while appealing for both sides to protect civilians in the city of 2.7 million people. Through the night, government troops shelled rebels in the neighbourhoods of Salaheddin, Marjeh, Firdoss, Al-Mashhad, Sakhur, Al-Shaar and Ansari, before the army and rebels clashed at dawn in Al-Meesr and Al-Adaa. Gunmen from Arab clans in Aleppo loyal to the Assad regime, including the al-Berri family, had joined the fray and were fighting alongside the army troops.

The rebels claimed they were winning the battle, but state-controlled TV yesterday made no reference to Aleppo. The day before it told viewers Aleppo would be "the mother of all battles". The rebel fighters have vowed to turn Aleppo into "the grave of the regime".

UN mission chief Lieutenant General Babacar Gaye said he was "deeply concerned" about the continuing violence from both sides in Aleppo. "My observers there have reported an upsurge in the violence, with helicopters, tanks and artillery being used," the UN Senegalese general said. "It is imperative both sides respect international humanitarian law and protect civilians."

UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said an estimated 200,000 civilians had fled Aleppo in two days and an unknown number were still trapped in the city. Many people in Aleppo had sought shelter in schools and other public buildings. "They urgently need food, mattresses and blankets, hygiene supplies and drinking water," she said.

The Assad regime was dealt another blow on Monday when its most senior diplomat in London, Khaled al-Ayoubi, resigned, joining a series of high-profile defections in recent weeks. Britain's Foreign Office urged other Syrian diplomats to follow suit.

Senior Iranian military commander Brigadier General Masoud Jazayeri told an Iranian newspaper: "There is still no need for Syria's circle of friends to fully enter the arena and our assessment is that there will be no need to do so."

Rebels released pictures yesterday that they said showed a large number of bodies of government soldiers killed in Salaheddin. The sudden reluctance of the state media to mention Aleppo raised suggestions the battle may not have been going as well as the regime had expected. The fact the rebel fighters got close enough to a facility as sensitive as the airforce intelligence headquarters indicated the regime was struggling to retake control of the city.

The rebels, although using light weapons against much heavier firepower, yesterday tried to get additional fighters into the city. The strategy the rebels are using — including guerilla tactics and improvised explosives devices — has partly neutralised the regime's superior firepower.

New diplomatic efforts by France, which this week takes over presidency of the UN Security Council, look set to fail due to resistance from Russia and China. US President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by telephone "to co-ordinate efforts to accelerate a political transition" and shared "concerns over the deteriorating humanitarian conditions throughout Syria as a result of the regime's atrocities".

Annan quits Syria role in frustration at lack of UN security council backing
The Australian Online
Friday, August 3, 2012

FRUSTRATED by Syria's escalating civil war, Kofi Annan has announced that he will quit his role as special envoy to the country at the end of the month, giving reasons that amounted to scathing criticism of world powers' failure to unite to stop the chaos in the Arab state. Mr Annan also asserted that Syrian President Bashar Assad must leave office for the good of his country.

He said that when he accepted the job, "which some called 'Mission Impossible'," he wanted to help the international community, led by the UN Security Council, find a peaceful solution to the crisis. The goal was to stop the killings of civilians and human rights abuses, as well as to place Syria on a path toward political transition. "The severity of the humanitarian costs of the conflict, and the exceptional threats posed by this crisis to international peace and security, justified the attempts to secure a peaceful transition to a political settlement, however daunting the challenge," Mr Annan said.

But the former UN secretary-general said he cannot go on when the New York-based, 15-nation Security Council doesn't fully back him, particularly because of the stalemate between its five veto-wielding members: Russia and China on one side, the United States, Britain and France on the other. "Things fell apart in New York," he summed up. "The increasing militarisation on the ground (in Syria) and the clear lack of unity in the Security Council have fundamentally changed the circumstances for the effective exercise of my role."

Mr Annan was named the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria in February, overseeing a small staff in a secretive office accessible through a makeshift elevator entrance in the sprawling Palais des Nations, the UN's European headquarters in Geneva. He came up with a six-point peace plan to resolve Syria's crisis, including a cease-fire that was supposed to take effect in mid-April. But, despite the presence of hundreds of UN observers on the ground, the cease-fire never took hold and the violence in Syria has morphed into a civil war. Rights activists say that more than 19,000 people have died since the popular uprising against Assad began in March 2011.

Mr Annan notified UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, Nabil El Araby, that he would leave office when his appointment expires on August 31. "The bloodshed continues, most of all because of the Syrian government's intransigence, and continuing refusal to implement the six-point plan, and also because of the escalating military campaign of the opposition — all of which is compounded by the disunity of the international community," Mr Annan said. "At a time when we need — when the Syrian people desperately need action — there continues to be finger-pointing and name-calling in the Security Council."

On June 30, Mr Annan succeeded in getting the major powers on the council — including stalwart Syria allies Russia and China — to agree on a broad framework for a political transition in Syria, one that he said "meant President Assad would have to leave sooner or later." But the Security Council never formally endorsed the plan or acted on it, something that sorely disappointed the envoy and, he said, undermined his efforts. Without international unity, including the cooperation of regional powers, "it is impossible for me, or anyone, to compel the Syrian government in the first place, and also the opposition, to take the steps necessary to begin a political process. You have to understand: as an envoy, I can't want peace more than the protagonists, more than the Security Council or the international community for that matter," he said at an impromptu press conference in Geneva.

Mr Annan did not single out any member of the Security Council by name for criticism during the press conference. But in an op-ed column published by the Financial Times, he urged several countries to look beyond their national interests and rivalries to solve the Syrian crisis. "For Russia, China and Iran this means they must take concerted efforts to persuade Syria's leadership to change course and embrace a political transition, realizing the current government has lost all legitimacy," he Annan wrote, adding: "For the US, UK, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar this means pressing the opposition to embrace a fully inclusive political process — that will include communities and institutions currently associated with the government." Mr Annan also had harsh words for the Syrian government and what he called its "intransigence". In what was his strongest statement to date about the Syrian leader, he wrote: "It is clear that President Bashar al-Assad must leave office."

Mr Annan's announcement coincided with Arab countries dropping a demand that Assad resign in the latest draft of a symbolic UN General Assembly resolution that faces a vote in New York later today. The watered-down resolution further illustrated the international struggle to build an effective diplomatic approach to Syria's civil war. The draft resolution was resisted by countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa who had problems with calling for regime change or sanctions. Russia and China have vetoed stronger proposals on Syria in the Security Council, which, as the most powerful arm of the UN, can adopt enforceable resolutions and impose sanctions.

In the US, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Mr Annan's resignation highlighted the failure of Russia and China to support action against Assad. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron said Mr Annan's departure was evidence that the current approach has failed — and that the UN needs to get tougher with Syria. "We've got this appalling bloodshed. I think what we need to do is to ramp things up," Mr Cameron told Sky News television.

Mr Ban, the UN secretary-general, said he was discussing possible successors with the Arab League. "I remain convinced that yet more bloodshed is not the answer; each day of it will only make the solution more difficult while bringing deeper suffering to the country and greater peril to the region," he said. Russian President Vladimir Putin called the events in Syria a "tragedy". "Kofi Annan is an honorable man and a brilliant diplomat, so I regret that very much," he said. "But I hope that the international community will continue efforts to end violence."

It is unclear how Mr Annan's departure will affect his legacy. Annan, the grandson of Ghanaian tribal chiefs, joined the United Nations in 1962 as an administrative and budget officer for the World Health Organisation in Geneva. He rose to become its secretary-general from 1997 to 2006, helping to ease the transition to civilian rule in Nigeria in 1998 and visiting Iraq to defuse an impasse between Saddam Hussein and the UN. In 1999, he was deeply involved in helping East Timor gain independence from Indonesia.

But he also has been associated with some of the UN's biggest failures. He headed UN peacekeeping at a time when the UN has been accused of ignoring evidence that genocide was planned in Rwanda and of abandoning the Rwandan people when it was under way in 1994. The UN was also blamed for failing to help save thousands of Bosnian Muslims from the 1995 Serb mass murder in the town of Srebrenica, which had been declared a UN safe haven. Asked about the idea of someone else being appointed to succeed him as envoy to Syria, Mr Annan said: "The world is full of crazy people like me, so don't be surprised if someone else decides to take it on."

Militants blamed for Israel border attack
The Australian Online
Monday, August 6, 2012

GUNMEN have killed 16 guards in Egypt near the border with Israel before stealing two armoured vehicles and crossing into the Jewish state where one vehicle was destroyed by a helicopter. An Egyptian medical official said gunmen in Bedouin attire drove up in two vehicles and opened fire on a checkpoint near the Karm Abu Salem (Kerem Shalom in Hebrew) border crossing and opened fire. The health ministry said 16 soldiers and border guards were killed, while a security official said another seven were wounded.

The official MENA news agency said the gunmen were "jihadists" from inside the Islamist Hamas-run Gaza Strip. State television and MENA reported that Egypt was closing its Rafah frontier crossing with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip "until further notice". Rafah is the only crossing between Gaza and the outside world that is not under Israeli control.

Speaking after an emergency meeting with military officials, the interior minister and the intelligence chief, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi vowed to retake control of the Sinai after the attack. "The (security) forces will take full control of these regions," Mr Morsi said in a television address. He had given "clear instructions" that Egypt must take "full control of the Sinai", after the security situation deteriorated markedly following the ouster of longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak early last year.

Mr Morsi, who only took the oath of office on June 30 to become the country's first freely elected leader and its first head of state since Mubarak's overthrow, said those who committed the "cowardly" attack and those who worked with them would pay for it dearly. "Those responsible for this crime will be hunted down and arrested," he said. "Everybody will see that the Egyptian military and police forces can get these criminals wherever they are," he said. "These criminal, these attackers do not belong among us."

In Israel, military spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Avital Leibovich told reporters gunmen hijacked two vehicles from an Egyptian outpost where they killed between 10 and 15 border guards before crossing the frontier. One of the vehicles exploded by itself and the other was destroyed from the air, she said. Overnight on Sunday the Israeli military was searching for any remaining gunmen. She did not know how many had been on board the vehicles and if any had survived.

Israeli public radio said the vehicle had been targeted by a helicopter and that three "terrorists" on board had been killed. Lt. Col. Leibovich confirmed that the incident had taken place in the Kerem Shalom area. "A few of the people who manned the vehicles started running away. We targeted them," she said. Residents of the nearby Israeli communities were ordered to stay inside their homes until further notice, she added. No Israeli civilians or soldiers were wounded in the incident.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed "the determined action of the military" and domestic intelligence agency Shin Bet "for ensuring the failure of a large attack on Israeli civilians". Defence Minister Ehud Barak said: "The way these attackers acted again shows the need for the Egyptian authorities to act firmly to re-establish security and fight terrorism in the Sinai." Lt. Col. Leibovich said it was too early to determine the gunmen's affiliation or what they were trying to do, but "one of the assumptions is they were trying to kidnap Israeli soldiers".

MENA however identified the gunmen as "jihadists" from the Islamist-run Gaza Strip. "Jihadist elements infiltrated from Gaza through tunnels in collaboration with jihadist elements in the Al-Mahdiya and Gabal Halal areas" inside Egypt, the agency said. They "attacked a border post while the soldiers and officers were taking iftar," the meal that breaks the Ramadan fast, it added, quoting an unidentified official. Earlier on Sunday, before MENA's report, Hamas in Gaza had dismissed the idea that militants from the Palestinian territory may have been involved. "The border between Egypt and Gaza is protected. We closed the tunnels (used for smuggling) to prevent anyone from escaping (into Gaza) and we have put our forces on alert," an interior ministry spokesman said. "We reject any idea that Gaza was involved in this incident and we send our condolences over the killing of Egyptian soldiers." A Hamas statement said: "We condemn this ugly crime in which Egyptian soldiers were killed, and send our condolences to the families of the victims, and to the Egyptian leadership and the Egyptian people."

Witnesses confirmed to AFP that police had closed all tunnels and sent reinforcements to the border. Sinai-based Islamist militants are believed to have been responsible for several rocket attacks against Israel. Israel accused them of having carried out a cross-border ambush last year that killed nine Israelis, and they have also been blamed for regular bombings of a pipeline that exports gas to Israel and Jordan.

The Sinai is home to Egypt's Red Sea resorts, a source of lucrative tourist income, and is also where the country's Bedouin, long marginalised under the regime of fallen strongman Mubarak, are based. To stop any attacks and illegal cross-border activities Israel has sped up construction of a wall fitted with an electronic alert system along its 240km border with Egypt.

Same day
US leaks plot to hit Iran N-plants
Uzi Mahnaimi, The Sunday Times

PLANS for a US attack on Iran's nuclear facilities appear to have been leaked to Israeli newspapers after a visit by US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta last week. The aim appears to be to prevent an Israeli airstrike on Iran before the US presidential election on November 6. The two papers, Maariv and Yedioth Ahronoth, have both campaigned against a pre-emptive Israeli air attack, which they believe could embroil Israel in a long war.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak have been openly distrustful of US promises that it will prevent Iran building a nuclear weapon, and will use military force if necessary.

Washington, which imposed tougher sanctions against Iran last week, fears the consequences of an Israel attack before the presidential election. "We will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, period," Mr Panetta told Mr Netanyahu last week. "We will exert all options in the effort to ensure that does not happen."

The papers cited Israeli sources claiming that in private conversations, Mr Panetta expressed his frustration over "the mistrust that Netanyahu and Barak demonstrate with regard to the American commitment to stop the Iranian nuclear program". Americans believed this to be "ingratitude", considering the unshakable US support for Israel's security. According to both papers, the Americans argued that an Israeli strike would delay the Iranian bomb by no more than a year or two, while a US attack could destroy the entire program.

Maariv claimed the US strike "would begin with hundreds of cruise missiles to demolish Iran's air defences, intelligence bases and radar stations". A wave of B-52 bombers would then drop bunker-buster bombs on all Iran's nuclear facilities. "After the attack, an ultimatum would be issued to Iran," Maariv said, "to stop its military nuclear program immediately. In return, the West would supply it with peaceful nuclear reactors." Ben Kaspit, Maariv's political editor, said: "A lot depends on the Iranian reaction to the initial attack. Attacking Israel, and Arab allies of the US, would initiate a second stage of the offensive. That would include attacks on government symbols, infrastructure and oil installations."

Mr Panetta left Israel without getting any guarantees from Mr Netanyahu. "(President Barack) Obama will not attack Iran never," Mr Netanyahu was quoted as telling opposition leader Shaul Mofaz. "In his second term, Obama will care even less about us than he cares now." Some Israelis believe Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak are bluffing. "If so, they're doing a fantastic job," said a political insider. "They're squeezing Obama, who will pay Israel big time for not spoiling his campaign."

Australia supports two-state solution: Carr
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday, August 7, 2012

FOREIGN Minister Bob Carr has stressed Australia's desire to see a negotiated, two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a meeting in Jerusalem with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Senator Carr said the need for the resumption of negotiations was "urgent".

The meeting came as part of a three-day visit by Senator Carr to Israel and the Palestinian territories. Senator Carr and Mr Peres emphasised the warmth of relations between Australia and Israel. They deplored the ongoing violence of the Assad regime in Syria, discussed the role of Iran in the region and noted the stresses the Syrian crisis was placing on neighbouring Jordan, which has a growing refugee problem. Senator Carr said Australia understood Israel's security concerns, including ongoing challenges from terrorism. He expressed condolences for the five Israeli tourists killed recently in a terrorist attack in Bulgaria.

Senator Carr also met Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riad Malki. After that meeting Senator Carr said he was concerned at Israel's settlement activity, "which is counter-productive to the peace process". "I will continue to make this point in my discussions with Israeli leaders," he said.

Senator Carr said that at a time when the Palestinian Authority was facing a serious fiscal crisis he was pleased that Australia was one of the few donors whose support had increased significantly in recent years. "We are committed to providing over $300 million in support over five years," he said. "Of this, $120m, will go directly to the Palestinian Authority to strengthen institutions in preparation for statehood. I recently announced the contribution of a further $90m to UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Work Agency) for education and health."

Senator Carr was also due to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and PA President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as Palestinian leader Hanan Ashrawi, winner of the Sydney Peace Prize.

Egypt's convenient fall guy for Sinai attack
Weekend Australian
David Ignatius, Washington Post Writers Group
Saturday, August 11, 2012

IN firing Egypt's chief of intelligence for his alleged failings in Sinai, President Mohammed Morsi sacked a general who has won high marks from US, Israeli and European intelligence officials — and who, ironically, has been one of the Egyptians pushing for a crackdown on the growing militant presence in Sinai. This week's shuffle is bound to raise concerns among US and Israeli officials about the security policies of Morsi's government, and its seeming mutual self-protection pact with the Egyptian generals who still hold considerable power through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF.

Morsi and the military appear to have concluded that the fired intelligence chief, General Murad Muwafi, was a convenient scapegoat after the attack last Sunday by terrorists in Sinai that left 16 Egyptian soldiers dead. After that attack, the Egyptian military launched an armoured assault in Sinai to "restore stability and regain control" in the lawless desert that had become a haven for Islamist militants. Ironically, it was Muwafi who had told a visitor two months ago that he favoured an assault in Sinai by an Egyptian armoured battalion that would include 30 tanks, eight helicopters and other equipment. Such a crackdown had also been urged by US and Israeli officials, but the Egyptian military delayed major action until Wednesday, after the 16 soldiers were killed.

The statements that accompanied Muwafi's firing were surprising, given this background. The Egyptian media blamed him for ignoring an Israeli intelligence report about last Sunday's attack. Muwafi confirmed in a statement that "we received a detailed intelligence warning" and said he passed it to the military to take action. "It is the responsibility of intelligence to collect information and it is the job of others to learn the operational lessons on the ground based on the intelligence information," Muwafi explained after his firing, according to a press report.

Muwafi looked the part of the traditional mukhabarat chief. He was tall and handsome, well-spoken in French and English, and ran the General Intelligence Service from a gleaming modern office set in a park in Cairo. US, Israeli and European officials intelligence officials saw him as one of the bright lights of the new government. This praise may have made more senior Egyptian generals jealous.

Muwafi had also been Egypt's main interlocutor with the Palestinians. He had been working in recent months to broker a unity pact between Hamas and Fatah. Muwafi understood that Egypt had much more leverage over Hamas after the extremist group had been forced to flee its base in Syria; working with the Israelis, Muwafi had negotiated what amounted to a de-facto cease-fire with Hamas in Gaza.

Because of Muwafi's growing reputation with Western governments, some worried that he might position himself as another Omar Suleiman, the charismatic intelligence chief who was the closest adviser to President Hosni Mubarak and ran some of the country's harshest counterterrorism programs. But the ruling Muslim Brotherhood didn't appear to have that fear — at least not until last Thursday when Morsi and the military were looking for a fall guy for the Sinai debacle.

The Muwafi incident is just a blip on the broad radar of US-Egyptian relations, and American officials generally think the Morsi government is off to a good start. But the incident does show two things. First, the situation in Sinai is dangerous, and getting worse. US intelligence believes that scores of jihadists have migrated into Sinai in recent months. Second, the Egyptian military is preoccupied with buffing its image, and fending off potential critics. In that exercise in self-preservation, the generals seem quite happy to work with Morsi and the Muslim Brothers — as in the firing of Muwafi.

Egypt president dismisses key military men
The Australian Online
Nancy A. Youssef, Sheera Frenkel and Amina Ismail, AAP
Monday, August 13, 2012

EGYPTIAN President Mohammed Morsi has made a series of decisive moves that transformed him from a weak figurehead with little say over key security and constitutional matters into a ruler whose power now appears nearly absolute. In addition to retiring Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi and Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Sami Anan, Morsi rewrote the country's interim constitution and named a vice president. The new appointments and changes to the constitution on Sunday gave Morsi control of the country's legislative process, all military decisions and final say over the writing of a permanent constitution.

The moves left the judiciary independent, but evoked both fear over the amount of power Morsi now has and relief that the last remnants of the regime of Hosni Mubarak have now been sidelined, 18 months after Mubarak resigned from the presidency.

The announcement of the change came in the final 10 days of Ramadan, around a period referred to as Laylat al-Qadr, which roughly translates to the Night of Fate. It is considered the holiest time of the month, marking when the angel Gabriel came to Prophet Muhammad and gave him the first Koranic revelations. Some speculated that Morsi, a former top official in the Muslim Brotherhood, timed the announcement for this night.

In Cairo's Tahrir Square, members of the Brotherhood began gathering in support of Morsi's decisions, some launching fireworks and chanting. In a late-night speech, Morsi said he was acting in the interests of Egypt. He said it was time for "new blood" and peppered his speech with religious references. Although he offered no specifics behind his decision, he suggested an attack on Egyptian soldiers last week, the deadliest in nearly 40 years, contributed to the moves. "There is no safety for those who don't do their jobs," Morsi said. "There is no space to abandon responsibility."

Tantawi, who had been head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and minister of defence, and Anan will serve as presidential advisers. A senior judge with a reputation as a reformer, Mahmoud Mekki, was named vice president. Mekki's brother, Ahmed, is Morsi's minister of justice. Morsi also named a new minister of military production.

Morsi also cancelled the June 17 Election Day constitutional declaration that the supreme military council had made that gave it the final say over all military matters, including whether to go to war and who should serve as generals. The decree had given the military council, or SCAF, legislative powers after a court ruling that led to the dissolution of parliament and gave the SCAF final say over who would craft a permanent constitution. Morsi's declaration Sunday gave those powers to the president.

US officials in Washington offered no immediate reaction. Israeli officials, however, said there was a "sense of alarm" over what had taken place, though several said they had been ordered to remain quiet about the developments. Israel's two prime-time newscasts led their broadcasts with news of Tantawi's retirement, along with the headline "Instability in Egypt to threaten Israel," and "Muslim Brotherhood on our doorstep."

"There is a longstanding relationship between the Israeli military and the Egyptian military that we rely upon to secure the peace," said a former Israeli defence official with longstanding diplomatic experience with Egypt, who was among those who said he was asked not to speak about his concerns to reporters. "Tantawi is a man we know, a man we have known for decades and understand. We do not know Morsi."

Morsi immediately swore in replacements for the dismissed officials. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the head of military intelligence and the youngest member of the military council, became minister of defence. Sedky Sobhy, the commander of the Third Army, was appointed as chief of staff of the armed forces.

Dichter quits party to become minister
The Australian
Wednesday, August 15, 2012

JERUSALEM: Israel's former internal security minister Avi Dichter is to be named home front defence minister, reports said yesterday, as speculation grows that the Jewish state will launch an attack on Iran. Mr Dichter, also a former head of the country's internal intelligence agency Shin Bet, will leave his post in the opposition Kadima party to join the government, the reports said.

The government declined to offer official confirmation that Mr Dichter had been selected for the post, which has reportedly been turned down by a slew of other top officials. Mr Dichter, whose nomination according to Israeli media will be voted on by the parliament tomorrow, will replace Matan Vilnai, a confidant of Defence Minister Ehud Barak. Mr Vilnai left the post to become ambassador to China.

Mr Dichter will take on the task of ensuring Israel's home-front defence at a time of growing speculation about an Israeli attack against Iran's nuclear program. Such an attack could spark multi-front retaliation.

Observers in the Jewish state have raised questions in recent weeks about Israel's home-front preparedness, and earlier this year an Israeli legislator said the country was "completely unprepared" for the consequences of a war, citing a lack of bomb shelters and gas masks. Reports suggest the majority of Israel's defence and intelligence establishment does not favour an attack on Iran's nuclear program, which much of the international community fears masks a weapons drive.

Washington fears a unilateral Israeli strike may fail to destroy Iran's underground nuclear facilities, which could spark retaliation worldwide and drag the US into a war in the Middle East.

Extract: Hit to neck killed Japanese reporter as rebels cornered
The Australian
AFP, The Times, AP
Wednesday, August 22, 2012

ALEPPO: A Japanese journalist was killed after coming under fire from up to 15 government troops in the Syrian city of Aleppo, her colleague said yesterday. Veteran war reporter Mika Yamamoto, 45, was shot in the neck as she covered the rebels in the flashpoint city, Kazutaka Sato told Japanese broadcasters. Her death takes to four the number of foreign journalists who have lost their lives in the country since the uprising began against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in March last year. Three other journalists were also reportedly missing yesterday, but it was unclear whether the incidents were connected.

President Barack Obama said the US would reconsider its opposition to military involvement in the civil war if the regime used chemical or biological weapons. The use of such weapons would considerably widen a conflict that had killed about 20,000 people. Syria had extensive chemical and biological weapons stockpiles and had threatened to use them if it came under foreign attack.

"That's an issue that doesn't just concern Syria. It concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel. It concerns us," Mr Obama said, acknowledging that militant groups might acquire some of those weapons. "We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people." The President noted he had not ordered any armed US intervention yet, but said: "We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that is a red line for us, and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly."

Syria had provided Hezbollah with several Scud ballistic missiles that are now in Lebanon, Israeli sources said. Syria, an ally of Iran, had also given the group smaller rockets with a range of 240km, enough to hit Tel Aviv.

Concern was growing that the Assad regime could ultimately give Hezbollah access to its arsenal of chemical weapons. As a result, there has been a rise in the number of Israelis collecting government-issued gas masks. "In recent years the Syrians have enhanced their co-operation with Hezbollah, providing them several Scud-D missiles," the senior Israeli diplomat said. The weapon has a range of almost 700km, making it a much graver threat to Israel than the multiple, short-range rockets that Hezbollah has fired in the past.

US and Turkey start operational planning on Syria
The Australian Online
Friday, August 24, 2012

TURKISH and US officials last night held their first "operational planning" meeting aimed at bringing about the end of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's embattled regime. The meeting is expected to coordinate military, intelligence and political responses to the crisis in Syria, where a deadly crackdown on peaceful protests that began in March 2011 has according to activists claimed more than 23,000 lives. The officials are also due to discuss contingency plans in the case of potential threats including a chemical attack by the regime in Damascus which Washington has called a "red line".

Turkish foreign ministry deputy under-secretary Halit Cevik and US ambassador Elisabeth Jones are leading the delegations made up of intelligence agents, military officials and diplomats at the meeting in Ankara. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had announced their plans on August 11 for such a mechanism to hasten the end of the Assad regime.

Yesterday's meeting came just days after US President Barack Obama warned Syria that any movement or usage of its chemical weapons would be a "red line" that would change his perspective on how to respond to the conflict. Senior US officials said the Pentagon has drawn up contingency plans to send small teams of special operations troops into Syria to secure chemical weapons depots. Washington is also ramping up its military presence in the region, dispatching a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to deal with "threats" from Iran and the turmoil in Syria. A chemical attack would also trigger a refugee influx to neighbouring countries including Turkey, which is already hosting more than 70,000 Syrians.

On Monday, Davutoglu said Turkey can handle no more than 100,000 Syrian refugees and has proposed setting up a UN buffer zone inside Syria to shelter them. The exodus of refugees to Turkey has intensified recently as a result of a Syrian army offensive and fighting in the northern city of Aleppo between regime forces and rebels. The growing flow of refugees has raised fears of a repeat of the 1991 Gulf War, when half a million Iraqi Kurds massed along the common border. The threat of armed groups including the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and al-Qa'ida which could exploit a power vacuum in Syria is also expected to figure high on the agenda of the Ankara meeting.

In Istanbul, Clinton had said she shared "Turkey's determination that Syria must not become a haven for PKK terrorists whether now or after the departure of the Assad regime".

India talks may ease Iran's isolation
The Australian
Monday, August 27, 2012

NEW DELHI: India, Iran and Afghanistan were holding talks last night on giving India greater access to landlocked Afghanistan, a move that could ease Iran's isolation in the region. The three countries were to discuss how best to use the southeastern Iranian port of Chahbahar and develop road and rail links from there to Afghanistan, Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai told reporters.

As NATO troops prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, India fears the country might fall into the hands of a Taliban-led regime, endangering many Indian interests. India has been one of the largest contributors of development aid to Afghanistan, spending more than $US2 billion in the past decade to help build infrastructure, including roads, power projects and hospitals.

For India, the shortest, most economical route for supplies to Afghanistan would be by road through Pakistan, but its rival has denied New Delhi road access to Kabul, making the route through Iran more significant.

India's closer co-operation with Iran will irritate the US, which has been pushing the international community to punish Iran for its nuclear program. India has come under pressure from Washington on its ties with Iran, but New Delhi needs Iranian crude oil supplies to power economic growth. Iran supplies about 12 per cent of India's energy needs.

Trade between India and Iran in the past year was $US16bn, of which oil imports from Iran accounted for $US13.5bn. Mr Mathai said India would accept sanctions imposed by the UN, but not by others.

Tehran flexes ahead of summit
The Australian
Tuesday, August 28, 2012

TEHRAN: Iran yesterday was deploying formidable security around a Non-Aligned Movement meeting preparing for a summit later this week that Tehran is determined to use to bolster its international status. About 110,000 police have been dispatched around the country, many to man street corners and ubiquitous vehicle inspection points in the capital. The uniformed presence underlined Iran's intent to ensure nothing upsets an event that Iran is portraying as a diplomatic coup against US-led pressure. Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, is expected to reinforce that message when he opens the two-day NAM summit on Thursday.

The NAM, a Cold War grouping founded in 1961, has 120 members that represent most of the developing world and see themselves as independent of Washington and Moscow. Although the organisation had increasingly been viewed as an anachronism in the past couple of decades, Iran seeks to revive it as a counterweight to perceived domineering by permanent UN Security Council members Britain, France, China, Russia and, especially, the US. "We share the concern of many members that the UN Security Council has increasing power in the face of decreasing power in the (UN) General Assembly," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said yesterday as he opened the NAM preparatory meetings.

Delegations were likely to have their attention focused on Syria's 17-month uprising, however. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is to make another stab during the summit by talking with Iranian officials about his idea of a contact group on Syria. Its members would include Iran, which backs the Damascus regime, and Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which support the Syrian opposition. "If this group succeeds, Iran would be part of the solution and not the problem," Mr Morsi's spokesman, Yassir Ali, said.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would not be going to Tehran for the summit. Instead, he would send his Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. But Assad said "he would welcome efforts Iran can make to solve Syria's problems", on condition that countries supporting Syria's rebels "exert pressure on them to stop the bloodshed and violence," spokesman Aladin Borujerdi said.

Mr Morsi's presence would also be notable in that it would be the first by an Egyptian leader to Iran since diplomatic relations were broken in 1979, after Cairo hosted Iran's toppled shah and signed a peace accord with Israel. Mr Ali said Mr Morsi's visit in Tehran would last just "a few hours" and "no other subject is expected" to be broached, specifically any concerning the resumption of diplomatic ties.

Iran's defence of the Palestinian cause was also certain to be raised. Ayatollah Khamenei and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have repeatedly called Israel a "cancerous tumour" that should be excised from the Middle East, with "Palestine" replacing it. Iran is also keen to use the summit to gather support for its nuclear program, which is the source of a fraught showdown between it and the West. Mr Salehi yesterday said he expected the summit to voice support for Iran's "legitimate rights" to nuclear activities.

Extract: Iran sending troops to aid Syria's embattled leader Bashar al-Assad
The Australian Online
Farnaz Fassihi, The Wall Street Journal
Wednesday, August 29, 2012

IRAN is sending commanders from its elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and hundreds of foot soldiers to Syria, according to current and former members of the corps. The personnel moves come on top of what these people say are Tehran's stepped-up efforts to aid the military of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with cash and arms. That would indicate that regional capitals are being drawn deeper into Syria's conflict and undergird a growing perception among Mr Assad's opponents that the regime's military is increasingly strained.

A commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, appeared to offer Iran's first open acknowledgment of its military involvement in Syria. 'Today we are involved in fighting every aspect of a war, a military one in Syria and a cultural one as well, ' General Salar Abnoush, commander of IRGC's Saheb al-Amr unit, told volunteer trainees in a speech on Monday. The comments, reported by the Daneshjoo news agency, which is run by regime-aligned students, couldn't be independently verified. Top Iranian officials had previously said the country isn't involved in the conflict.

Iran has long trained members of the Syrian security apparatus in cybersecurity and spying on dissidents, US officials and Syrian opposition members have said. The decision to send Iranian personnel comes after rebel attacks this summer in Syria's biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, in particular an explosion in July that killed four members of Mr Assad's inner circle, according to the people familiar with the IRGC.

Syria's regime is increasingly relying on a core of loyalists to conduct operations, say Syrian opposition members and rebel fighters. In recent weeks, Mr Assad's army has been hobbled by defections, losing territory in Kurdish areas as well as near Turkey's border, these people say. On Monday, a Syrian military helicopter crashed in a ball of fire in Damascus, according to the Associated Press, citing activists and video footage.

Syria's uprising has placed Iran in a foreign-policy predicament. As the Arab Spring unfolded in countries including Libya, Egypt and Bahrain, the Islamic Republic cast its own revolution as an inspiration for the uprisings. But Tehran didn't support the protesters in Syria — its closest ally in the region, the conduit between it and the Lebanese Shiite militant and political group Hezbollah, and a gateway for Iranian influence in the Arab world. Iran's most influential voices, including its supreme leader and the political and military power structures, have steadfastly supported Syria's president and, like Mr Assad, have blamed the country's violence on foreign meddling and terrorists.

Tehran ramping up nuclear efforts, UN says
The Australian
Deborah Haynes, The Times
Friday, August 31, 2012

A UN report will confirm this week that Iran is expanding its nuclear program in defiance of the international community, bolstering calls for tougher sanctions amid the threat of an Israeli military strike. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN's nuclear watchdog, was expected to detail overnight how Iran has installed hundreds of new centrifuges — which are used to enrich uranium — at two nuclear facilities. It is also expected to report a rise in production rates.

The agency was also likely to voice concern about the use of the Parchin military base, southeast of Tehran. Satellite images showed last week that a pink canvas had been placed over what analysts believe is ground that was used to conduct nuclear weapons related experiments, shrouding the area from view. IAEA inspectors allowed to visit Iran's nuclear compounds have been denied entry to Parchin. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. Britain, the US, Israel and their allies suspect that Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons.

"The level of anxiety regarding the Iranian threat is very high and is only becoming exacerbated by the fact that the nuclear program is moving forward," a senior Israeli diplomat told The Times. "Is the clock of the nuclear program moving forward faster than the clock of the sanctions and the pressure ' Yes. The sanctions aren't tough enough and need to go further." Of particular concern is the expansion of the Fordow nuclear facility, which is deep underground in the mountains. The Israeli diplomat said Iran was in the process of doubling its capacity at Fordow to about 1500 centrifuges, increasing the amount of 20 per cent-enriched uranium it could produce. Uranium enriched to 20 per cent fuels Iran's main research reactor, but it is also just below the level usable in nuclear bombs.

Later same day
Extract: Defiant Iran doubles nuclear capacity

IRAN has doubled its capacity at an underground nuclear facility, a UN atomic agency says, in spite of UN Security Council resolutions, sanctions and talk of Israeli military action. The restricted report, circulated to IAEA member states and seen by AFP, showed that Iran now has around 2,000 uranium-enrichment centrifuges installed, compared with around 1,000 in May, at Fordo.

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran on Thursday that his country "is never seeking nuclear weapons" and would "never give up the right to peaceful nuclear energy."

Fordo is dug into a mountain near the holy city of Qom and mostly enriches to 20 per cent purities, technically speaking a short hop from the 90 per cent needed in a nuclear weapon. The number of centrifuges operating remained around 700, however, and monthly production is unchanged at around 15 kilos of 20 per cent uranium per month. It is also unclear whether the newly installed machines will also enrich to 20 percent. A senior official familiar with the IAEA investigation said on condition of anonymity that it was unclear whether technical problems were behind no more centrifuges being operational.

Bibi blows up after cabinet leak
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Friday, September 7, 2012

MEMBERS of Israel's most sensitive group, the security cabinet, may be asked to take polygraph tests after a confidential briefing about Iran was leaked. Despite a request by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that nothing from an eight-hour briefing at Mossad headquarters in Tel Aviv on Tuesday be disclosed, Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth carried a detailed report the following day.

Yedioth Ahronoth reported that at the Tel Aviv briefing by several intelligence agencies, including Mossad, the ministers "discovered to their surprise that even the various assessment organisations disagree on the Iranian issue". "There is currently a disagreement about the point at which Israel's ability to damage the Iranian nuclear program loses it effectiveness," it said.

When the group resumed on Wednesday night (AEST), Mr Netanyahu told them: "Something grave happened shortly after the conclusion of the meeting yesterday — leaks from the security cabinet meeting. "Somebody has seriously breached the trust that the citizens of Israel put in this forum and has violated the most basic rules of conducting discussions in the security cabinet." The Prime Minister then walked out of the room. He is considering calling in Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence agency, to track down the leaker.

Israeli media yesterday reported that Mr Netanyahu was considering asking those in the room to undergo a polygraph test. This would include the members of the security cabinet, several staffers, the head of Mossad, Tamir Pardo, and the chief of military intelligence, Major General Aviv Kochavi.

Two Israeli media outlets, Yedioth Ahronoth and Maariv, yesterday accused Mr Netanyahu of hypocrisy over his reaction to the leak. One columnist wrote in Maariv: "It is Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak who are first and foremost responsible. They are the ones who stoked the fire of the debate on an imminent Israeli attack in recent weeks."

The most sensitive detail leaked was that there was disagreement among the intelligence agencies over the point at which Israel's ability to damage Iran's nuclear program ran out — the so-called "zone of immunity". This theory, argued by Mr Barak, is that at some point Iran will move parts of its nuclear program to different parts of the country, making any military action almost impossible.

Debate has raged in Israel about whether the country should launch a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak are two of the strongest advocates of possible military action but other prominent figures have expressed opposition. Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, President Shimon Peres and the retired judge who ran the investigation into Israel's war with Lebanon in 2006, Eliyahu Winograd, are among those who reject such action. Mr Winograd said a war with Iran would endanger the future of Israel.

Last week the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, said the US did not want to be "complicit" in an Israeli attack on Iran. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said an Israeli attack would cause "an apocalypse".

The International Atomic Energy Agency reported this year it had evidence that Iran had begun enriching uranium up to 20 per cent — the enrichment level needed for weapons-grade use. The IAEA had concerns about several facilities, mostly the underground Fordow facility. Iran says its program is for civilian purposes but it does not allow access to IAEA inspectors.

Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak believe economic sanctions are having little effect.

Israel edges closer to solo strike on Iran
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Saturday, September 8, 2012

DEFENCE Minister Ehud Barak yesterday made it clear that Israel was prepared to act without US support in taking action against Iran's nuclear program, as a leading analyst warned the country was heading into a "fateful" period. And Mr Barak also warned about "Jewish terrorism" following a spate of violence against Palestinians. On Iran, Mr Barak said Israel and the US had different timeframes for any action and that the US respected Israel's "right to make sovereign decisions".

The comments came after the US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, said the US did not want to be "complicit" in any attack on Iran. "The challenge is shared but the clocks tick differently," Mr Barak said. Tzachi Hanegbi, a former minister and a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, yesterday said Israel faced "50 of the most fateful days in the history of the state". Israeli media has suggested Israel might launch a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities before the US elections on November 6. Israeli officials were stunned by General Dempsey's use of the word "complicit".

In a speech to party supporters, Mr Barak condemned recent violence towards Palestinians. "The lynches threaten Israel's existence," he said. "The threat of Jewish terrorism is growing." Recently people watched while a mob of Jewish youths bashed unconscious a 17-year-old Palestinian in central Jerusalem. Police described the incident as a "lynching".

This week, another Palestinian man who dropped off a Jewish friend in the Jerusalem suburb of Katamon had his leg broken when youths heard his name was Ibrahim. Also this week, a Christian monastery near Jerusalem had its front door set on fire and "Jesus is a monkey" sprayed over it in an apparent "price tag" attack. Some Jewish settlers are known to carry out what are termed "price tag" attacks on targets, usually Palestinian, if the government does something they do not like. This week the government ordered the dismantling of the Migron outpost.

Settler leader Danny Dayan criticised security service Shin Bet for its "100 per cent failures" in prosecuting the settlers responsible. "There have been at least seven cases of mosque arsons, countless car arsons, including those of police cars, the throwing of stones, firebombs and hate messages," Mr Dayan told Ynet news service. "It's inconceivable that our glorified Shin Bet cannot handle these groups of thugs."

In February, Christian leaders said provocations against Christians were escalating to the point of being intolerable. In July a member of Israel's parliament, Michael Ben-Ari, tore up a copy of the New Testament, saying: "Millions of Jews were murdered in the name of the New Testament. This revolting book brought massacres of Jews in the (Spanish) Inquisition and throughout history."

Yesterday, Franciscan priest Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who has lived in Israel for 22 years, warned of the growing number of incidents against Christian clergy. He said it was "shocking" to see the Bible torn up. "In practice it negates our existence here," he said. He told the Haaretz newspaper that any priest who walked around Jerusalem would sooner or later be spat upon and cursed by a yeshiva student.

Obama rejects red line on Iran
The Australian
Jay Solomon, Washington, The Wall Street Journal
Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Obama administration has rejected Israeli calls for clearer US "red lines" that Iran can't pass without risking military conflict, in a sign of continuing tensions between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama over Tehran's nuclear advances. The divisions come against the backdrop of November's US presidential elections, in which Mr Obama's Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, has tried to paint the Democratic president as weak in his support for Israel. The US-Israeli exchange also comes as Washington tries to convince its ally not to launch military strikes against Iran.

Mr Obama has asserted he would not let Iran obtain a nuclear weapon. However, Mr Netanyahu and other top Israel officials have recently called for the US to lay out clearer limits on nuclear capabilities. Mr Netanyahu has been adamant that Israel would not accept an Iranian "zone of immunity" with its underground nuclear-fuel sites impregnable to attack. In a Canadian Broadcasting Corp interview, Mr Netanyahu said the situation called for stricter limits. "Iran will not stop unless it sees clear determination by the democratic countries of the world and a clear red line," Mr Netanyahu said. "I don't think that they see a clear red line, and I think the sooner we establish one, the greater the chances that we won't need other types of action."

But the White House and State Department rejected the Israeli calls yesterday, saying such specificity would harm Washington's efforts to use diplomacy to curtail Iran's work, which they believe is intended to build nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies. These officials stressed that sanctions were starting to hurt Iran and that there was still time for negotiations to work. The White House also denied any discord between the US and Israel on how they view the Iranian threat. "The President has said, again and again, unequivocally, that we will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. "So we are absolutely firm about the President's commitment here, but it is not useful to be parsing it, to be setting deadlines one way or the other, red lines."

Israeli officials criticised the US strategy yesterday. "Without a clear red line, Iran will not cease its race toward its nuclear weapons. These statements will not stop Iran's centrifuges from spinning," a senior Israeli official said in Jerusalem. "Unfortunately the opposite could be true: (US) statements will not serve to deter Iran, but will put it at ease."

Last week, the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Iran was moving closer to moving its nuclear production underground by doubling the number of centrifuges it has installed at its facility near the holy Iranian city of Qom. Tensions between Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu could continue to play out in the weeks heading into the November election. The Jewish-American vote, particularly in swing states such as Florida, is seen as crucial in shifting the vote in either Mr Obama's or Mr Romney's favor.

Jewish and Israeli sensitivities have proven important to Mr Obama. Last week, the Democratic Party was forced to alter its policy platform after it initially omitted a line from its 2008 document calling Jerusalem the capital of the Jewish state. Mr Obama called for the reinstatement of the platform line, administration officials said, following criticism from Mr Romney and other Republican leaders. Mr Romney's campaign did not answer a request for comment on the row over red lines.

Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu will be in New York this month to attend the annual gathering of the UN General Assembly. Neither government has said whether the two leaders would meet. But some US officials have not ruled out that Mr Obama might strike a tougher line on Iran during his address in New York. "In terms of saying something firmer (on Iran), that may well happen," said a US official.

Peace offering call patches over Obama, Netanyahu nuclear strike dispute
The Australian
Thursday, September 13, 2012

WASHINGTON: Barack Obama has called Benjamin Netanyahu after he provoked a sudden crisis in relations by warning that Washington had no moral right to stop Israel attacking Iran's nuclear program. In an unusual move, the US President called the Israeli Prime Minister yesterday after a day of fast-rising tensions, exacerbated when Israeli officials said Mr Obama had snubbed Mr Netanyahu's request for talks on US soil.

The spat erupted less than two months before the US presidential election, as Republican nominee Mitt Romney — a friend of Mr Netanyahu — sought to dent Mr Obama's foreign policy prestige by accusing him of deserting Israel and appeasing Iran.

A US statement said the call lasted an hour and insisted there was no rift over how to handle Iran, but left the impression Mr Obama was irked at Mr Netanyahu's rhetoric on a key foreign policy crisis weighing on his re-election hopes. "President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu reaffirmed that they are united in their determination to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and agreed to continue their close consultations going forward," the statement said. It also said that contrary to reports in the Israeli press, there was never a request for Mr Netanyahu to meet Mr Obama in Washington, "nor was a request for a meeting ever denied."

An Israeli official said earlier that Mr Netanyahu had asked for talks later this month at the UN General Assembly, but that the White House said the President's "very tight schedule" as he runs for re-election would not allow it. As bad feeling bubbled between the allies, the Israeli Haaretz newspaper quoted an unnamed Israeli official as saying Mr Netanyahu had even offered to come to Washington for talks.

The Israeli leader angered Obama aides, who have seen Republicans accuse the President of throwing Israel "under the bus", when he publicly criticised Washington's refusal to set "red lines" for action on Iran's nuclear program. "The world tells Israel: Wait, there's still time. And I say: Wait for what ' Wait until when ?" Mr Netanyahu said in English on Tuesday night (AEST), in comments clearly aimed directly at the White House. "Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don't have a moral right to place a red light before Israel," he said.

The White House said the lack of talks in New York was purely a matter of scheduling. "They're simply not in the city at the same time," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said. Mr Obama arrives in New York on September 24 and leaves the next day while Mr Netanyahu is not due until later in the week, Mr Vietor said, adding the Israeli leader would meet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The dispute erupted amid fervent speculation that Mr Netanyahu could order a unilateral strike on the Islamic Republic's nuclear program — an action the US believes would be premature. The White House says there is still time for diplomacy and sanctions to change Iranian behaviour, though it warns Mr Obama is ultimately prepared to use force to stop the Islamic Republic getting a nuclear weapon. Washington has been unwilling to publicly state "red lines" for action, fearing that Iran will trigger an immediate crisis by going right up to them in a game of nuclear brinkmanship.

Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu have a tense history. When they last met in March, Mr Netanyahu warned that Israel must remain the "master of its fate" in a firm defence of his right to mount a unilateral strike on Iran. The year before, Mr Netanyahu sparked fury when he delivered a stinging public lecture to Mr Obama in the Oval Office on the history of the Jewish people.

Fear of more US embassy attacks
The Australian Online
Friday, September 14, 2012

US OFFICIALS are preparing for more attacks on embassies after Friday prayers in north Africa and the Middle East, sparked by a film mocking Islam. Four more people have died in the increasingly violent protests, this time in Yemen. The fatalities occurred in the Yemeni capital Sanaa as police fired live rounds and tear gas to try to disperse an angry crowd of hundreds of protesters trying to storm the US mission. The US embassy in Cairo came under siege for a third day as protests spread to several countries and territories including Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Israel and the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Kuwait, Sudan and Tunisia.

The United States attempted to keep a lid on the protests by spelling out that the film that set off the violence was privately-made by a small group of individuals and nothing at all to with anyone official. "Let me state very clearly — and I hope it is obvious — that the United States government had absolutely nothing to do with this video," declared US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "To us, to me, personally, this video is disgusting and reprehensible. It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose, to denigrate a great religion and to provoke rage," Mrs Clinton said, urging an end to the violence. Enraged demonstrators continued their actions unabated and Islamist groups in several countries called for greater protests after Friday prayers, a prospect the White House admitted it feared as it tightened security at diplomatic missions around the globe.

The protests came as US and Libyan officials probe an attack on the consulate in Benghazi that killed the ambassador and three other US officials on Tuesday — the anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States — amid growing speculation it was the work of jihadist militants rather than just demonstrators. One of those killed was a former Navy SEAL, in Libya to help track down shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles still unaccounted for following the downfall of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, ABC News reported. Libya Prime Minister Mustafa Abu Shagur told AFP in an exclusive interview that a "big advance" had been made in the probe into the Benghazi attack. "We have some names and some photographs," he said. "Arrests have been made and more are under way as we speak."

A security official in Yemen said that as well as those killed in the clashes, another four people had been wounded. The unrest lasted from morning until late evening, he added. Troops deployed on the rooftops of buildings around the US mission in Sanaa and police used water cannon and fired warning shots to drive out protesters who had breached the perimeter wall. Witnesses said they saw three vehicles being torched by a group of demonstrators that gained access to the compound through an unguarded security gate.

Yemeni President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi apologised to US President Barack Obama for the acts of a "mob" and ordered an investigation. Mr Obama called Mr Hadi to express concern about the safety of American personnel at the US embassy there and thanked him for his swift condemnation of the violence. US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said all embassy staff in Yemen were safe and accounted for.

Violence again rocked the Egyptian capital Cairo, where police fired tear gas to disperse protests outside the embassy by stone- and bottle-throwing demonstrators. A total of 224 people were injured, the Egyptian health ministry said. The violence began on Tuesday night when protesters stormed the Cairo embassy compound, tearing down the Stars and Stripes and replacing it with a black Islamic flag.

Egypt's Islamist President Mohamed Morsi has warned against resorting to violence but his angry statements about the film and failure to immediately apologise over the storming of the US embassy have Washington on edge. Mr Obama acknowledged late Wednesday that ties with the new Egypt were a "work in progress" and seemed to be signalling a review of its status, by saying Cairo could neither be considered an ally nor an enemy. More protests are expected Friday after Egypt's powerful Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement through which Mr Morsi rose to power, called for nationwide action following evening prayers.

And in Jordan, Salafist jihadists have said they plan to demonstrate after Friday midday prayers outside the US embassy in Amman.

Amid the mounting protests, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the Middle East was at risk of descending into "chaos." "We are afraid that the region may descend into chaos, which is essentially what is happening already," he said. Mr Putin urged the new governments that rose to power in the Arab Spring uprisings to accept greater responsibility for security.

The Middle East crisis continued to reverberate in the US presidential race as Republican challenger Mitt Romney insisted that US power was vital in the region but halted his criticism of Mr Obama's handling of the crisis. The White House hopeful sparked a furore on Tuesday when he offered a quick and blunt rebuke of steps the Obama administration took to try and tamp down the rapidly escalating protests.

The catalyst for the bloody conflagration in the Muslim world was a privately-made film denigrating the Prophet Mohammed linked to evangelical and Coptic Christians in the United States. The suspected producer is Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a 55-year-old Copt living in California. It was promoted on the websites of two other Americans, extremist Christian pastor Terry Jones and another Copt, Washington-based lawyer Morris Sadek. Both the State Department and the White House say there is nothing they can do to stop individuals producing inflammatory material because of freedom of speech laws enshrined in the First Amendment of the US constitution.

Al-Qa'ida urges attacks as protests widen over an anti-Islamic movie
The Australian Online
Sunday, September 16, 2012

AL-Qa'ida has called for fresh attacks against US targets in the Arab world and the West, as Washington said it was pulling non-essential embassy staff out of Sudan and Tunisia. Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) also called for more violence against US diplomatic missions in the Middle East and Africa, and urged Muslims in the West to attack US interests, SITE Intelligence Group said.

The US State Department ordered all non-essential personnel to leave Sudan and Tunisia following embassy attacks over an anti-Islam video, warning US citizens against travel there. Hours earlier, Sudan had refused a US request to send in special forces to protect the Khartoum embassy, after protesters attacked it on Friday.

In cities across the Muslim world protesters have vented their fury at the US-made film 'Innocence of Muslims ', targeting symbols of US influence ranging from embassies and schools to fast food chains. As US investigators questioned the man allegedly behind the low-budget movie before releasing him, the top Sunni Muslim authority called for a worldwide ban on all forms of attacks on Islam and other religions. Federal authorities questioned Nakoula Besseley Nakoula in Los Angeles, trying to establish whether he had broken the terms of his probation over a bank fraud conspiracy, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department spokesman Don Walker said.

In the worst violence triggered by the anti-Islam film , the US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans were killed late last Tuesday when suspected Islamic militants fired rocket-propelled grenades at the US consulate in Benghazi. AQAP, al-Qa'ida's Yemeni offshoot, did not claim direct responsibility for the attack in the eastern Libyan city. But it said the killing of al-Qa'ida deputy leader Sheikh Abu Yahya al-Libi in a drone strike in June 'increased the enthusiasm and determination of the sons of (Libyan independence hero) Omar al-Mukhtar to take revenge upon those who attack our Prophet, ' according to SITE. 'May the expulsion of embassies and consulates lead to the liberation of Arab lands from the American hegemony and arrogance, ' it said in another statement. It was a duty for Muslims on Western soil to attack US interests, it added.

In Afghanistan, heavily armed Taliban stormed a strongly fortified air base in Helmand province where Britain's Prince Harry is deployed, killing two US Marines in an assault the militia said was to avenge the American-made film. The attack came after at least 11 protesters died as police battled to defend US missions from mobs in Egypt, Lebanon, Sudan, Tunisia and Yemen. US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said Washington was configuring its forces to be able to cope with widespread violence. 'We have to be prepared in the event that these demonstrations get out of control, ' Panetta told Foreign Policy magazine. Already the US has deployed counter-terrorism Marine units to Libya and Yemen and stationed two destroyers off the North African coast.

But Sudanese Foreign Minister, Ali Karti, flatly rejected a US request to send special forces to protect the Khartoum embassy, the official SUNA news agency said Saturday, quoting his office. Hours later, US officials announced it would evacuate all non-essential staff and family members from Sudan and Tunisia. On Friday, guards on the roof of the Khartoum embassy fired warning shots as protesters waving Islamic banners breached the compound, having earlier ransacked parts of the British and German missions in the Sudanese capital.

In the past week, US embassy compounds have also been breached in Egypt and Yemen, whose parliament rejected the presence of US Marines, although the government has already accepted them. The head of Libya's national assembly, Mohammed al-Megaryef, said foreign elements may have been involved in the 'meticulously executed ' attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. It came on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

In Friday night's attack in Afghanistan, the assailants penetrated the air base and damaged aircraft. Military spokesman Major Adam Wojack said 18 insurgents were killed — including a suicide bomber. Prince Harry was never in danger, officials said.

Police in Sydney fired pepper spray to contain protesters trying to enter the building housing the US consulate, as hundreds also demonstrated in Belgium, France, Israel, Indonesia and the Maldives. In Somalia, the Qaeda-linked Shebab militia, which controls large swathes of the country, called on Muslims to launch revenge attacks on Western targets. President Barack Obama urged Americans not to be disheartened by images of anti-US violence, expressing confidence the ideals of freedom America stands for would ultimately prevail.

In Cairo, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, the highest seat of Sunni Muslim learning, called for an international resolution banning all forms of attacks on Islam and other religions, in a letter to UN chief Ban Ki-moon. The resolution should 'criminalise attacks on Islamic symbols and on those of other religions, after the violence against those who provoked challenges to world peace and international security, ' Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb said.

Der Spiegel news weekly reported that far-right group Pro Deutschland wanted to screen 'Innocence of Muslims ' in Berlin. Germany Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich told the weekly he would do everything in his power to stop them.

Israel-US gap widens on Iran over nuclear weapons
The Australian Online
Monday, September 17, 2012

THE gap between Israel and the United States on Iran has widened as Benjamin Netanyahu insisted on a "red line" from Washington, claiming Tehran is "90 per cent" toward having a nuclear bomb. The Israeli leader, speaking on two US political television talkshows, pressed the need for a categorical bar on Iran, saying such a safeguard had averted nuclear calamity with Russia during the Cold War and could ensure peace again. The United States says all options against Iran, including military action, remain on the table, but top officials reject so-called "red lines" as political grandstanding that might leave them at a strategic disadvantage.

On CNN and on NBC's Meet the Press, Mr Netanyahu maintained that telling Iran there was a definite line it must step back from would serve as a preemptive and effective deterrent. "If they know there's a point, a stage in the enrichment or other nuclear activities that they cannot cross because they'll face consequences, I think they'll actually not cross it," he told CNN's State of the Union. "It's important to put a red line before them, and that's something we should discuss with the United States." The Israeli prime minister said Iran was moving rapidly to complete enrichment of the uranium needed to produce a nuclear bomb. "In six months or so, they'll be 90 per cent of the way there," he said.

But his call for a change of tack and stiffer warnings from Washington was rejected by Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations. Ms Rice, who spoke on five separate television talkshows, maintained there was "no daylight" between the US and Israel on preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but her comments on the timescale of Tehran's ambitions jarred with Mr Netanyahu's judgment. "We think that there's still considerable time for this pressure to work," Ms Rice said, refusing to acknowledge the red lines argument and insisting that US sanctions were effectively hobbling Iran's currency and oil production. But she added: "This is not an infinite window, and we've made very clear that the president's bottom line is Iran will not have a nuclear weapon."

Israel has consistently said a nuclear-armed Iran would pose an existential threat to the Jewish state and has wielded the threat of military action, but the United States favours sanctions and diplomatic arm-twisting. Iran has steadfastly denied that it is seeking the bomb.

Relations between Mr Netanyahu and President Barack Obama are viewed as frosty, and US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta further highlighted policy differences in an interview published Friday. "The fact is, look, presidents of the United States, prime ministers of Israel or any other country — leaders of these countries don't have, you know, a bunch of little red lines that determine their decisions," Mr Panetta said. "What they have are facts that are presented to them about what a country is up to, and then they weigh what kind of action is needed to be taken in order to deal with that situation," he told Foreign Policy magazine. "That's the real world. Red lines are kind of political arguments that are used to try to put people in a corner."

The White House was forced in recent days to deny a report that Mr Obama had refused to meet Mr Netanyahu in New York later this month, and said the two spoke by telephone on Tuesday and were united in their stance toward Tehran. With Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney accusing Mr Obama of being a poor friend to Israel, Mr Netanyahu has denied that he is meddling in US politics ahead of elections on November 6. Ms Rice said that US-Israeli relations were "stronger than ever," and insisted the only reason Mr Netanyahu and Mr Obama would not meet at the upcoming UN General Assembly in New York was because their schedules did not match.

But Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee who lost to Mr Obama in 2008, said there was a clear gap between Israel and the White House on where the red line lies. "In the administration's view, it's when (Iran) has a nuclear weapon," and in Israel's view, its when Tehran has reached the level where they can quickly assemble a nuclear weapon," Mr McCain told CBS's Face the Nation. "That's a big difference," he said. The threat of war, however, remains severe, according to Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel. "I'm afraid that 2013 is going to be a year in which we're going to have a military confrontation with Iran," he said on Face the Nation.

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