The Revolutionary Guard — Iran’s deep state

Aaron Bastani writes: At the beginning of March a photo emerged of Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force (the extraterritorial element of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard), smiling as he despatched troops into Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s birthplace and now a front line in the fight against Isis. Ben De Pear, the editor of Channel 4 News, tweeted it alongside a similar photo, of a dozen men in desert fatigues and with smiles as wide as Suleimani’s, making victory signs to the camera. They were US marines in Tikrit in April 2003.


During that brief period of euphoric triumphalism in the White House and Downing Street, you’d have been laughed out of the room for suggesting that Tehran would gain the most from Saddam’s overthrow, and that within 12 years its sphere of influence would extend to four Arab capitals. More likely, the experts would have rejoined, that Iran would itself see regime change, by force if necessary.

Yet as Alireza Zakani, a member of parliament for Tehran, said last September, three Arab capitals – Beirut, Baghdad and Damascus – now ‘belong’ to the Islamic Revolution. The rise of Ansar Allah in recent months (the Zaidi Shia militias fighting in Yemen, often referred to as Houthis) means that Sana’a could be added to the list, though for how long is unclear.

The expansion of the Islamic Republic’s reach can’t be seen in isolation from the Arab Spring. Iran considers the uprisings the continuation of a historical movement it initiated. The former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati said in December that Iran supports the ‘rightful struggle’ of Ansar in Yemen, and considers the movement part of the ‘successful materialisation of the Islamic Awakening’ – Tehran’s name for the Arab Spring, which it views as evolving rather than defeated. [Continue reading…]

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A century of chemical warfare

The Associated Press reports: As a spring breeze wafted into his trench, commander Georges Lamour of the French 73rd infantry saw something almost surreal drift his way. A yellow-green cloud.

He barely had time to react. “All my trenches are choked,” Lamour cried into the field telephone to headquarters. “I am falling myself!”

These were the last words heard from Lamour. World War I, and warfare itself, were never the same.

Chlorine gas — sent crawling in favorable winds over Flanders Fields from German positions — sowed terror and agony for the first time on April 22, 1915. The era of chemical weaponry had dawned. The weapon of mass slaughter came to symbolize the ruthlessness and, many say, futility of the 1914-1918 Great War.

“It is a new element in warfare. It is indiscriminate,” said Piet Chielens, curator at the In Flanders’ Fields Museum in nearby Ypres. And what’s more, he said, “you create psychological terror.”

Foaming at the mouth, crazed and blinded, the French soldiers fled in all directions — sucking for oxygen, finding poison instead. The chlorine seeped into body fluids and ate away at eyes, throat and lungs. Some 1,200 French soldiers were killed in the chaos of that first 5-minute gas attack and the fighting that followed. Lamour, like scores of comrades, was never found.

“You drown in your own lungs,” Chielens said. [Continue reading…]

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Horrifying videos shown at UN display carnage of suspected chlorine attacks in Syria

Vice News: Hours after doctors from Syria offered testimony about a chlorine gas attack in the country’s northwest to the United Nations Security Council on Thursday, reportedly bringing its members to tears, they informed VICE News that their hospital had just received victims of what appeared to be another chemical weapon strike.

At the meeting, the doctors showed council members footage taken by a field hospital in Sarmin, in Idlib Province, on the night of March 16. The video, which was provided to VICE News, depicted frenetic efforts to resuscitate three young children exhibiting symptoms of chemical exposure. The children were inside their basement home along with their parents and grandmother when a crude barrel bomb landed on the building’s air shaft, trapping them inside a cloud of toxic vapor. All members of the family died.

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Top Saddam Hussein aide reported killed in northern Iraq

The New York Times reports: An Iraqi provincial governor said Friday that militiamen had killed Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the highest-ranking official from Saddam Hussein’s government who was still on the loose, in clashes in a mountainous region of northern Iraq.

News of Mr. Douri’s death has been announced several times by different authorities over the years, and officials cautioned that confirmation would not come until DNA testing had been conducted.

The announcement was made by the governor of Salahuddin Province. Its capital is Tikrit, Mr. Hussein’s hometown, which was recently liberated from the Islamic State. A representative for one of the militias involved in the fighting on Friday, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, said a body that fighters believed was Mr. Douri’s was on its way to Baghdad on Friday evening for DNA testing. [Continue reading…]

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Iraq: ISIS escapees describe systematic rape

Human Rights Watch: The extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has carried out systematic rape and other sexual violence against Yezidi women and girls in northern Iraq. Human Rights Watch conducted research in the town of Dohuk in January and February 2015, including interviewing 20 women and girls who escaped from ISIS, and reviewing ISIS statements about the subject.

Human Rights Watch documented a system of organized rape and sexual assault, sexual slavery, and forced marriage by ISIS forces. Such acts are war crimes and may be crimes against humanity. Many of the women and girls remain missing, but the survivors now in Iraqi Kurdistan need psychosocial support and other assistance.

“ISIS forces have committed organized rape, sexual assault, and other horrific crimes against Yezidi women and girls,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Those fortunate enough to have escaped need to be treated for the unimaginable trauma they endured.”

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The EU’s de facto policy is to let migrants drown to stop others coming

Anders Lustgarten writes: In the desert, the smugglers lace their water with petrol so the smuggled won’t gulp it down and cost more. Sometimes the trucks they’re packed into stall crossing the Sahara; they have to jump out to push, and some are left behind when the trucks drive off again. In transit camps in Libya before the perilous venture across the Blue Desert, they play football, fight, and pool their scanty resources so an even poorer friend can pay his way. One man says his tiny wooden boat was flanked by dolphins as they made the journey, three on each side, like guardian angels, and this was what gave him hope.

These are the people we are allowing to die in the Mediterranean. The EU’s de facto policy is to let migrants drown to stop others coming. Last year nearly four thousand bodies were recovered from the Med. Those are just the ones we found. The total number of arrivals in Italy in 2014 went up over 300% from the year before, to more than 170,000. And the EU’s response, driven by the cruellest British government in living memory, was to cut the main rescue operation, Mare Nostrum.

The inevitable result is that 500 people have already died this year. The figure for the equivalent period in 2014 was 15. There are half a million people in Libya waiting to make the crossing. How many more deaths can we stomach?

Migration illustrates one of the signal features of modern life, which is malice by proxy. Like drones and derivatives, migration policy allows the powerful to inflict horrors on the powerless without getting their hands dirty. [Continue reading…]

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The unpromised land for African refugees

Meron Rapoport writes: Two weeks ago, almost all Jews in Israel celebrated the first day of Passover by reading and singing the Hagada, the centuries-old text which tells the story of the miraculous exodus of the Jewish slaves from the hands of their oppressors in Egypt.

But in a strange coincidence, just one day before Passover, Israel announced its intention to initiate a new exodus: a forced removal of some 40,000 asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan back to Africa, dangerously close to the hands of their former oppressors. A reversed Hagada.

This new policy became known almost by chance. Dozens of Eritrean asylum seekers were summoned to the Population and Immigration Authority where they were given a letter saying that “after working hard” during the last few months, Israel has found “a country which will host you”.

Without naming it, the letter promises that this country “is in the process of economic development” and that it will provide them with residence and working permits. These Eritreans were given a simple choice: either accept this generous offer – which includes a $3500 grant – and leave Israel within 30 days or face an open-ended imprisonment in an Israeli jail.

In a court hearing a few days later, the Israeli authorities agreed to name these benevolent host countries – Rwanda and Uganda – but still refused to reveal the content of the agreements signed with them. A minister in the Rwandan government confirmed the existence of such an agreement, while the Ugandan government flatly denied it agrees to host refugees deported from Israel.

Using Rwanda and Uganda as target countries is not new in the ongoing attrition war between Israel and those tens of thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese who crossed its borders illegally in search of a safer and better life than the one they experienced in their war-torn countries.

Despite being one of the first signatories on the UN convention on refugees and despite the fact that most European countries view asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan as entitled to refugee status, Israel never welcomed them and refused to allow them any official status. At most, it granted them the right not be deported. [Continue reading…]

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Al Qaeda in Yemen using chaos of war to carve out terrorism haven

The Los Angeles Times reports: A brazen territorial grab by Al Qaeda militants in Yemen — together with a $1-million bank heist, a prison break and capture of a military base — has given the terrorist group fundraising and recruitment tools that suggest it is following the brutal path blazed by Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which was long forced into the shadows by U.S. drone strikes and commando raids, has taken advantage of the growing chaos in Yemen’s multi-sided war to carve out a potential haven that counter-terrorism experts say could help it launch terrorist attacks.

After seizing a regional airport and a coastal oil terminal this week, Al Qaeda militants consolidated their gains Friday in Mukalla, an Arabian Sea port. Fighters stormed a weapons depot and seized armored vehicles and rockets after apparently forging a truce with local tribes and forcing government troops to flee. [Continue reading…]

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Germany is the tell-tale heart of America’s drone war

Jeremy Scahill reports: A top-secret U.S. intelligence document obtained by The Intercept confirms that the sprawling U.S. military base in Ramstein, Germany serves as the high-tech heart of America’s drone program. Ramstein is the site of a satellite relay station that enables drone operators in the American Southwest to communicate with their remote aircraft in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and other targeted countries. The top-secret slide deck, dated July 2012, provides the most detailed blueprint seen to date of the technical architecture used to conduct strikes with Predator and Reaper drones.

Amid fierce European criticism of America’s targeted killing program, U.S. and German government officials have long downplayed Ramstein’s role in lethal U.S. drone operations and have issued carefully phrased evasions when confronted with direct questions about the base. But the slides show that the facilities at Ramstein perform an essential function in lethal drone strikes conducted by the CIA and the U.S. military in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa.

The slides were provided by a source with knowledge of the U.S. government’s drone program who declined to be identified because of fears of retribution. According to the source, Ramstein’s importance to the U.S. drone war is difficult to overstate. “Ramstein carries the signal to tell the drone what to do and it returns the display of what the drone sees. Without Ramstein, drones could not function, at least not as they do now,” the source said. [Continue reading…]

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Louisiana five years after BP oil spill: ‘It’s not going back to normal no time soon’

The Guardian reports: To hear BP tell it, the environmental disaster that struck the Gulf of Mexico five years ago is nearly over – the beaches have been cleared of oil, and the water in the Gulf is as clear as it ever was. But how do you spot a continued disaster if its main indicator is the absence of something?

On this strip of land in south-eastern Louisiana, the restaurants are still empty, FOR SALE signs are increasing in store windows, people are still moving away, and this marina on Pointe a la Hache – once packed most afternoons with oystermen bringing in their catch on their small boats, high school kids earning a few bucks unloading the sacks, and 18-wheelers backed up by the dozen to carry them away – is completely devoid of life, save one man, 69-year-old Clarence Duplessis, who cleans his boat to pass the time.

“At this time of day, at this marina, it used to be packed,” Duplessis said. “And now there’s nothing.”

It’s been nearly five years since BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana, killing 11 workers and spilling nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, and residents, fisherman, activists and scientists say the cleanup and restoration is far from over. While some phenomena in the Gulf – people getting sick, fishing nets coming back empty – are hard to definitively pin on BP – experts say the signs of ecological and economic loss that followed the spill are deeply concerning for the future of the Gulf. Meanwhile, BP has pushed back hard on the notion that the effects of its disaster are much to worry about, spending millions on PR and commercials to convince Gulf residents everything will be OK. [Continue reading…]

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Congress to introduce last-ditch bill to reform NSA spying

National Journal reports: Backed up against a rapidly approaching do-or-die deadline, bipartisan lawmakers are poised to introduce legislation next week that would roll back the National Security Agency’s expansive surveillance powers.

The legislation could land as soon as Tuesday in the House, congressional aides and privacy advocates said, who would only speak on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.

The bill, known as the USA Freedom Act, would effectively end the NSA’s bulk collection of U.S. phone metadata — the numbers, time stamps, and duration of a call but not its actual content — by instead relying on phone companies to retain that data. The program is the first and one of the most controversial spying programs exposed by the Edward Snowden leaks that began nearly two years ago.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and Rep. John Conyers, the panel’s top Democrat, are expected to back the bill, as is Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the author of the original Freedom Act that first emerged in the fall of 2013, and Rep. Jerry Nadler. All four have been intensely involved in negotiations since the measure fell apart in Congress late last year.

But as the House barrels ahead, it remains unclear what strategy the bill’s advocates in the Senate, led chiefly by Sen. Patrick Leahy, intend to deploy. That question is complicated by the implications a fractious national security debate could have for the Republican caucus, whose three presidential aspirants — Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio — have adopted increasingly divergent positions on NSA surveillance. [Continue reading…]

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Hackers trick Israeli military with ‘girls in the IDF’ emails

Reuters reports: Hackers have managed to penetrate computer networks associated with the Israeli military in an espionage campaign that skillfully packages existing attack software with trick emails, according to security researchers at Blue Coat Systems Inc.

The four-month-old effort, most likely by Arabic-speaking programmers, shows how the Middle East continues to be a hotbed for cyber espionage and how widely the ability to carry off such attacks has spread, the researchers said.

Waylon Grange, a researcher with Blue Coat who discovered the campaign, said the vast majority of the hackers’ software was cobbled together from widely available tools, such as the remote-access Trojan called Poison Ivy.

The hackers were likely working on a budget and had no need to spend much on tailored code, Grange said, adding that most of their work appeared to have gone into so-called social engineering, or human trickery.

The hackers sent emails to various military addresses that purported to show breaking military news, or, in some cases, a clip featuring “Girls of the Israel Defense Forces.” Some of the emails included attachments that established “back doors” for future access by the hackers and modules that could download and run additional programs, according to Blue Coat. [Continue reading…]

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Afghan novelist: ‘We live in a vacuum, lacking heroes and ideals’

Mujib Mashal writes: Four large clocks tick out of sync, puncturing the silence of his Soviet-built apartment. A half-burned candle sits next to a stack of books. A small television is covered in soot.

This is where Rahnaward Zaryab, Afghanistan’s most celebrated novelist, locks himself up for weeks at a time, lost in bottles of smuggled vodka and old memories of Kabul, a capital city long transformed by war and money.

“We live in a vacuum, lacking heroes and ideals,” Mr. Zaryab reads from his latest manuscript, handwritten on the back of used paper. The smoke from his Pine cigarette, a harsh South Korean brand, clings to yellowed walls. “The heroes lie in dust, the ideals are ridiculed.”

The product of a rare period of peace and tolerance in Afghan history, Mr. Zaryab’s work first flourished in the 1970s, before the country was unraveled by invasion and civil war. Afghanistan still had a vibrant music and theater scene, and writers had a broad readership that stretched beyond just the political elite.

“I would receive letters from girls that would smell of perfume when you opened them,” Mr. Zaryab, who is 70, remembered fondly.

Mr. Zaryab’s stories are informed by his readings of Western philosophy and literature, the writer Homaira Qaderi said. He was educated on scholarships in New Zealand and Britain. But his heroes are indigenous and modest, delicately questioning the dogma and superstitions of a conservative society.

“He is the first writer to focus on the structure of stories, with the eye of someone well read,” Ms. Qaderi said. “We call him the father of new storytelling in Afghanistan.”

But after he became the standard-bearer for Afghan literature, Mr. Zaryab was forced to watch as Kabul, the muse he idealized as a city of music and chivalry in most of his 17 books, fell into rubble and chaos.

Some of the chaos has eased over the past decade, but that has caused him even more pain. He loathes how Kabul has been rebuilt: on a foundation of American cash and foreign values, paving over Afghan culture.

“Money, money, money,” he said, cringing. “Everyone is urged to make money, in any way they can. Art, culture and literature have been forgotten completely.” [Continue reading…]

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Music: Vidya and Vandana Iyer with Shankar Tucker — ‘Munbe Va’

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Pentagon: Ramadi isn’t about to fall to ISIS, but if it does, it’s not a big deal (unless you live in Ramadi)

The Wall Street Journal reports: U.S. defense officials said a provincial capital in Iraq could soon fall to Islamic State, while America’s top military officer sought to minimize the strategic importance of the city.

At a Pentagon news conference, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that maintaining control of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, isn’t central to the U.S. and Iraqi aims of defeating Islamic State forces.

“The city itself is not symbolic in any way,” Gen. Dempsey said. “It’s not been declared part of the caliphate on one hand, or central to the future of Iraq.”

Earlier this week, Pentagon officials minimized the possibility that Ramadi was going to fall. But U.S. officials have monitored large numbers of civilians fleeing from the city, a sign that residents fear an imminent takeover.

Islamic State fighters have taken over a number of villages surrounding Ramadi, destroyed bridges and other infrastructure and reversed recent gains by Iraqi Security forces, defense officials said Thursday.

The U.S. has been stepping up strikes around Ramadi, but those have been insufficient to blunt the advance of Islamic State fighters.

Officials compared the city with Kobani, a Syrian city that was on the brink of being taken over before Kurdish fighters, aided by U.S. airstrikes, retook it. [Continue reading…]

Which is to say, Ramadi is like Kobane, minus the Kurdish fighters.

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Why Yemen’s political transition failed

Farea Al-Muslimi writes: For three years, Yemen has been touted as a successful model of international intervention to contain the crisis triggered by the Arab Spring—at least according to the United Nations, various UN Security Council ambassadors, and, most importantly, the UN special adviser on Yemen, Jamal Benomar, who today announced his resignation after four years in the job.

But the deteriorating situation of the country, particularly after President Abd-Rabu Mansour Hadi was ousted by the Zaidi Shia Islamist rebels known as the Houthis in mid-January 2015, has put an end to this rhetoric. And since March 25, when a Saudi-led coalition of Arab and other states launched a military intervention, the situation has worsened considerably.

When Jamal Benomar assumed his position as special envoy in April 2011, Yemen’s then-president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, knew that he could not hold out for long against the many opposition currents that had converged to overthrow him. This simplified the task of the UN envoy, who — along with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states — brokered the implementation of the so-called Gulf Initiative, according to which Saleh would resign and hand power to Hadi, his vice president, in a managed transition. After months of negotiations and despite the intensification of violence, Hadi was finally able to accede to the presidency in February 2012 with considerable international and Yemeni support as part of a transitional process that was not to exceed two years. [Continue reading…]

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Al-Qaeda seizes airport in eastern Yemen

The Washington Post: Al-Qaeda has seized an airport in eastern Yemen, an intelligence official confirmed Thursday, signaling that the extremist group is exploiting the chaos caused by the Saudi-led attacks in the country.

Fighters from the Yemeni branch of the militant group, known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), on Tuesday seized the Riyan Airport in the city of Mukalla, said the Yemeni intelligence officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The group was already in control of areas around the airfield, including the nearby city of Mukalla, which is the capital of Yemen’s Hadhramaut Province. According to the intelligence official, the militants faced no resistance when taking the airport, suggesting that AQAP receives significant support in the area.

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Western officials dismiss Saudi claims that Yemen’s Houthis have close ties to Iran

Bloomberg reports: European leaders are signaling to Riyadh that patience with its three-week offensive — joined by nine mostly Sunni Muslim nations with the stated aim of restoring to power a legitimate, ousted government — is starting to wear thin. Yemen’s disintegration can only be prevented by negotiations between its competing factions, they say.

“The prospect of a military solution to the Yemen problem isn’t foreseen by anybody,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Wednesday after meeting his counterparts from the Group of Seven nations in the German port city of Luebeck. He said all G7 ministers called for a return to dialogue.

There are already indications that al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen is gaining from the conflict. The group and allied fighters on Thursday seized control of an airport and oil export terminal around the town of Mukalla, which they captured this month, according to a local tribal leader.

The Houthis have been fighting against al-Qaeda for years, and say that Yemen’s government, counted by the U.S. as an ally against the jihadists, has been tacitly aiding them.

Secretary of State John Kerry and other top U.S. officials have accused Iran of providing military and financial support to the Houthis in an effort to expand its influence, American and European intelligence officers and diplomats following the issue closely say the Islamic Republic’s support is limited.

The Houthis are not aligned with the Iranian brand of Shiite Islam, two U.S. officials who requested anonymity to be critical of higher-ranking colleagues, pointed out. The group has no allegiance to Iranian leaders in Tehran or top clerics in the holy city of Qom, two European officials said.

The Houthis are fighting largely with small arms and light weapons they’ve had for years or seized from U.S.-backed Yemeni forces, according to one American official. They are not reliant on Iranian arms, money, intelligence or direction to nearly the degree that Hezbollah in Lebanon, some Shiite militias in Iraq or the Syrian government are, the official said. [Continue reading…]

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