Saudi Arabia bombs Yemen in bid to halt Houthis

The New York Times reports: More than 100 Saudi Arabian jets pounded Yemeni targets early Thursday in a drive to stop the Houthi advance through the country, and the Saudi news media declared that the first night of the offensive had fully disabled the Houthi-aligned air force.

Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival and the Houthis’ main ally, denounced the assault as an American-backed attempt “to foment civil war in Yemen or disintegrate the country.” Houthi-controlled television channels broadcast footage of dead bodies and wounded civilians, blaming “American-backed aggression.”

The movement’s leaders warned that the battle could widen into a regional conflict, but they also vowed to overcome the Saudi attacks without Iranian help. “The Yemeni people are prepared to face this aggression without any foreign interference,” Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a Houthi spokesman, told Reuters.

The price of crude oil spiked about 4 percent on Thursday on concerns that the fighting in Yemen might affect the passage of tankers through the Bab el Mandeb strait, a narrow chokepoint between Yemen and Africa that is the entrance to the Red Sea.
[…]
The United States and most of the Arab nations moved quickly to support the Saudi-led operation in Yemen, which Saudi Arabia has called Operation Decisive Storm.

The White House said in a statement that the United States would provide “logistical and intelligence support” to the Saudi-led military operations. “While U.S. forces are not taking direct military action in Yemen in support of this effort, we are establishing a joint planning cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate U.S. military and intelligence support,” Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said in a statement. [Continue reading…]

NBC News reports that Saudi Arabia has mobilized 150,000 troops to support its airstrikes on Yemen.

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Foreign intervention in Yemen is the worst course anyone could take

Right before Saudi Arabia started bombing Yemen, Adam Baron wrote: While the chief combatants in the civil war are certainly playing the sectarian card to some degree, there is reason to think that Yemen will not necessarily become part of some regional sectarian conflict. Regardless of their foreign ties, both the Shiite Houthis and their Sunni opponents are deeply rooted in Yemen, and they are motivated primarily by local issues.

The main danger now is that the Western powers, Saudi Arabia or Egypt will overreact and seek to intervene, ostensibly to counter Iranian influence or to quash the efforts of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to gain territory. Yet foreign intervention could very well be the worst approach now—further regionalizing what is still a local fight, injecting a stronger sectarian tone into the conflict while threatening to push Yemen closer to implosion.

The roots of Yemen’s current conflict date back more than a decade, to a little-covered series of six brutal wars fought by the government of Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in the aim of defeating an insurgent group—widely referred to as the Houthis—based in the country’s far north. The Houthis’ founder, firebrand cleric Hussein al-Houthi, hailed from a prominent Zaidi Shi’a family and was a leader of the revival of Zaidism, a heterodox Shi’a sect found nearly exclusively in Yemen’s mountainous north. Notably the group’s foundation was, itself, rooted in a reaction to foreign intervention: a key aspect of the Houthis ideology was shoring up Zaidism against the perceived threat of the influence of Saudi-influenced ideologies and a general condemnation of the Yemeni government’s alliance with the United States, which, along with complaints regarding . the government’s corruption and the marginalization of much of the Houthis’ home areas in Saada constituted the group’s key grievances. [Continue reading…]

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Iran-backed rebels loot Yemen files about U.S. spy operations

The Los Angeles Times reports: ecret files held by Yemeni security forces that contain details of American intelligence operations in the country have been looted by Iran-backed militia leaders, exposing names of confidential informants and plans for U.S.-backed counter-terrorism strikes, U.S. officials say.

U.S. intelligence officials believe additional files were handed directly to Iranian advisors by Yemeni officials who have sided with the Houthi militias that seized control of Sana, the capital, in September, which led the U.S.-backed president to flee to Aden.

For American intelligence networks in Yemen, the damage has been severe. Until recently, U.S. forces deployed in Yemen had worked closely with President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi’s government to track and kill Al Qaeda operatives, and President Obama had hailed Yemen last fall as a model for counter-terrorism operations elsewhere. [Continue reading…]

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White House still claims Yemen is a counter-terrorism success story

McClatchy: Yemen’s president is reportedly on the run amid rebel advances, but the White House insisted Wednesday that the country continues to be a model for its counter terrorism initiatives and that the U.S. continues to have extremists there “in the cross hairs.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said he could not confirm the whereabouts of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi – “I have my hands full confirming the whereabouts of one world leader,” – but said the country remains a template for thwarting terrorism.

“We would greatly prefer to have U.S. personnel on the ground in Yemen that would enhance our efforts. But the fact that they have had to temporarily relocate does not mean that we are unable to continue to apply pressure on extremists who may be plotting against the United States and the West inside of Yemen,” Earnest said. “We do continue to have that capability. So, for as dangerous as Yemen is to American personnel, Yemen is also a dangerous place for those extremists. Because the United States continues to have the ability to place significant pressure on them.”

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A historical review of relations between Yemen and Saudi Arabia

Brian Whitaker writes: Yemen has long been the odd man out in the Arabian peninsula: poor, populous and republican in a region dominated by extraordinarily wealthy but less populated monarchies. Even without the presence of al-Qaeda, it has generally been viewed warily by its neighbours.

Relations with Saudi Arabia have always been a central feature of Yemeni foreign policy, not merely because the kingdom is the dominant state in the peninsula and Yemen’s most important neighbour, but also because the Saudis’ perception of their security needs is that they should seek to influence Yemen as much as possible in order to prevent it from becoming a threat.

According to this view, Saudi interests are best served by keeping Yemen “on the wobble” (as one western diplomat put it) – though not so wobbly that regional stability is jeopardised. Before the unification of north and south Yemen in 1990, this amounted to ensuring that both parts of the country focused their attentions on each other rather than on their non-Yemeni neighbours.

For that strategy to succeed, it was essential to maintain an equilibrium between both parts, so that neither became dominant. Thus Soviet support for the south was generally matched by Saudi support for the north, coupled with frequent meddling in the internal affairs of both parts. To some extent, the north exploited this policy to its own financial advantage, but even so there were drawbacks. Most importantly, it created dependence on the Saudis. Apart from official aid and unofficial aid (in the form of bribes to various tribal leaders), by the 1980s remittances from Yemenis working in Saudi Arabia had become the mainstay of the northern economy. [Continue reading…]

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Is the Shiite revival here?

Ali Mamouri writes: In the book “The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future,” Vali Nasr, an Iranian-American researcher on the crises in the Middle East, came to the conclusion in 2006 that the religious struggle resulting from the rise of the Shiite identity in the region would reshape the Middle East. Developments in recent years have proved that this view seems accurate.

Today, Shiite forces are strongly present in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. They are united and firmly associated with the Iranian axis. This new situation did not happen by chance or overnight. Rather, it was preceded by many arrangements that Iran has been making for decades.

The sectarian rivalry in the region began with the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when Saudi Arabia and Iran raced to find and endorse revolutionary groups that fought different governments based on Islamic ideology and inspired by the Quranic terms of jihad in the Middle East. These groups include al-Qaeda for the Sunnis and Hezbollah and the Houthi movement for the Shiites. While Saudi Arabia has invested in jihadist organizations in Afghanistan — such as the Afghan Arabs, or the Arab mujahedeen, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan — Iran has invested in the Shiite opposition forces in the Arab countries, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hezbollah al-Hejaz in Bahrain and the Badr Brigade in Iraq. [Continue reading…]

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Opening new Iraq front, U.S. strikes ISIS in Tikrit

The New York Times reports: American warplanes began airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Tikrit late Wednesday, finally joining a stalled offensive to retake the Iraqi city as American officials sought to seize the initiative from Iran, which had taken a major role in directing the operation.

The decision to directly aid the offensive was made by President Obama on Wednesday, American officials said, and represented a significant shift in the Iraqi campaign. For more than three weeks, the Americans had stayed on the sideline of the battle for Tikrit, wary of being in the position of aiding an essentially Iranian-led operation. Senior Iranian officials had been on the scene, and allied Shiite militias had made up the bulk of the force.

Mr. Obama approved the airstrikes after a request from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on the condition that Iranian-backed Shiite militias move aside to allow a larger role for Iraqi government counterterrorism forces that have worked most closely with United States troops, American officials said. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps who has been advising forces around Tikrit, was reported on Sunday to have left the area. [Continue reading…]

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Why Iran’s Supreme Leader wants a nuclear deal

Trita Parsi writes: There are few world leaders as powerful yet mysterious as Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Most of what has been written about him in English only adds to the confusion surrounding the man (Akbar Ganji’s writings are a notable exception). The most common misinterpretation of him at the moment is that he is ideologically opposed to cutting a reasonable deal with the United States — the “Great Satan,” as America is known among some Iranian leaders — over his country’s nuclear program. But Khamenei wants a deal perhaps just as much as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is widely credited with being the more moderate force behind the current negotiations. Far from betraying the Iranian Revolution, Khamenei may view the negotiations as helping fulfill its ideals.

It’s clear that Khamenei is deeply suspicious of the United States and skeptical of both its intent and ability to come to terms with Iran. When President Barack Obama first extended a hand to the Iranians in his 2009 Persian New Year greeting, Khamenei immediately shot back. In a lengthy speech from his birth town of Mashhad, Khamenei went over the entire litany of American crimes against Iran — from support for the hated shah (overthrown by Khamenei’s predecessors in the revolution of 1979), to aid to Saddam Hussein during the Iraq-Iran war, to the downing of an Iranian passenger plane in 1988, to years of sanctions. He cast doubt on the intentions of the United States, even under its new president. He went on to question Obama’s ability to shift America’s position on Iran. “I would like to say that I do not know who makes decisions for the United States, the president, the Congress, elements behind the scenes?” he asked.

Understanding the depth of this suspicion requires recalling that Khamenei has not merely read about the tortuous history of U.S.-Iran relations. As a close associate of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and a former president of Iran, he was there. He lived through — as a participant, not an observer — every dark chapter he cites in his speeches, from the hostage crisis to the Axis of Evil speech. His skepticism of U.S. intentions, rightly or wrongly, is a product of the four decades of baggage he carries on his shoulders.

Yet, in the end, that’s all he is: a skeptic. He is not an ideological opponent who will undermine, or refuse to accept, any deal struck by Iran’s more moderate negotiators. [Continue reading…]

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Iran stalls U.N. probe into its atomic past

The Wall Street Journal reports: Talks over Iran’s nuclear program have hit a stumbling block a week before a key deadline because Tehran has failed to cooperate with a United Nations probe into whether it tried to build atomic weapons in the past, say people close to the negotiations.

In response, these people say, the U.S. and its diplomatic partners are revising their demands on Iran to address these concerns before they agree to finalize a nuclear deal, which would repeal U.N. sanctions against the country.

“Progress has been very limited,” Yukiya Amano, who heads the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, told The Wall Street Journal this week. “No more new issues” have been addressed. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS’s strategy in Libya

Kevin Casey and Stacey Pollard write: Early media coverage of the Islamic State (IS) in Libya has centered on the group’s swift seizure of territory and the expansion of the caliphate’s authority into an increasingly lawless Libya. Yet IS’s efforts in the North African state have not lived up to these fears, as the organization — once thought to command control of cities such as Derna and Sirte — remains only one of many factions vying for power in these areas.

This does not mean the Islamic State is failing in Libya — indeed its trajectory inside Libya is mirroring its Iraq strategy, which sought to maximize its local competitive advantages. The group’s shift of gravity from Derna to Sirte is a highly deliberate strategic decision based on the assumption that Sirte provides greater opportunities for the group than Derna does.

But unlike Iraq and Syria, Libya is missing some of the key conditions that allowed for the group’s rapid gains in the Levant last summer. Namely, it lacks enduring ties to influential Libyan tribes and social groups, and Libya has no strong sectarian divide or a common enemy around which to rally a community. Thus, the Islamic State’s strategy in Libya seems to be directed instead at hastening state failure and fracturing the population’s sense of common nationhood. Meanwhile, it is also intensifying the conditions that will allow it to deepen its influence and form a national-religious identity in line with the caliphate’s own views. [Continue reading…]

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The myth of the two-state solution

Israel declared its independence in 1948. Less than twenty years later it expanded its territorial control across the West Bank and Gaza (and Sinai).

What has subsequently come to be referred to as “The Occupation” has referred to the status quo which (with a few modifications) has endured for the overwhelming majority of Israel’s existence.

The Oslo Accords, signed in 1993, and the so-called “peace process” which followed, have merely provided political cover for the relentless expansion of Jewish settlement and Palestinian dispossession across the West Bank.

What right-wing Zionists refer to as Judea and Samaria is not an aspiration — it is the political reality of a state in which full democratic rights are granted to Jews but not Palestinians.

While the mantras of ending the occupation and dismantling the settlements have tirelessly been repeated, year after year, the settlements have grown.

Both the terms settlement and occupation, mask with seeming impermanence a reality that has been set in reinforced concrete.

Given that over the course of more than twenty years, no progress whatsoever has been made towards the implementation of a two-state solution, the fact that it has now been rejected by Benjamin Netanyahu is a non-event. Yet this is a non-event that is deeply upsetting to many American Jews.

It’s not that they believed that peace was just around the corner. On the contrary, the value of the two-state solution has never derived from expectations about the future. Instead, its value is based very much in the present.

For liberal Americans — Jewish and non-Jewish — the two-state solution ideologically sanitized Israel by ostensibly embodying the desire that the political aspirations of both Jews and Palestinians could be recognized. If this promise is taken away, liberals are deprived of a fiction that allowed them to avoid confronting the illiberal nature of the Jewish state.

Americans want to be able to say they support Israel and democracy and Israel is forcing them to choose between the two.

Noam Sheizaf provided a reality check for participants at the J Street conference in Washington DC this week, when he said:

In Israel, we’ve got to the point where arguing for a state for all its citizens — equal rights for everyone — is a form of ‘Arab nationalism’ that should be made illegal. While arguing for an ethnic state that gives privileges to one group over the other is ‘democracy’…

I am 40 and I only know one Israel — and that’s from the [Jordan] River to the [Mediterranean] Sea. And in which there live Palestinians and Jews, roughly the same size of populations — they’re totally mixed with each other. They’re mixed in the Galilee, they’re mixed along the coast, they’re mixed in the West Bank by now, they’re mixed in the Negev — everywhere Jews living next to Palestinians.

One group has everything — all the rights — the other one has privileges given to it according to a complicated system of citizenship and where they happen to live and where their grandparents were in ’48…

I think we need to start looking at this in civil rights issues, if that’s what we believe in — and that’s the kind of activism I’m looking for. Not redrawing maps in a way that will keep some people in and some people out so that we can call themself [a] democracy.

Sheizaf also took J Street to task for its failure to talk about Gaza:

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Did Israel steal uranium from the U.S. to build its first nuclear weapons?

Scott C. Johnson writes: Beginning in the early 1960s, investigators from the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the agency that regulated U.S. nuclear facilities at the time, began to question how large amounts of highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium had gone missing from NUMEC [the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation in Apollo, Pennsylvania]. Any nuclear site had a certain amount of loss, from seepage into walls and floors, for instance. In fact, between 1952 and 1968, lax standards at 20 of the country’s commercial nuclear sites resulted in an apparent loss of 995 kilograms (2,194 pounds) of uranium-235. But investigators found that at NUMEC, hundreds of pounds went missing, more than at any other plant.

NUMEC’s founder, Zalman Shapiro, an accomplished American chemist, addressed the concern in 1978, telling Arizona Congressman Morris Udall that the uranium simply escaped through the facility’s air ducts, cement, and wastewater. Others, such as the late Glenn Seaborg, the AEC’s chairman in the 1960s — who had previously helped discover plutonium and made key contributions to the Manhattan Project — have suggested that the sloppy accounting and government regulations of the mid-20th century meant that keeping track of losses in America’s newborn nuclear industry was well near impossible. Today, some people in Apollo think that at least a portion of the uranium might be buried in Parks [Township], contaminating the earth and, ultimately, human beings.

But a number of nuclear experts and intelligence officials propose another theory straight out of an espionage thriller: that the uranium was diverted — stolen by spies working for the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. In the 1960s, to secure nuclear technology and materials, Israel mounted covert operations around the world, including at least one alleged open-ocean transfer of hundreds of pounds of uranium. Some experts have also raised questions about Shapiro himself. He had contacts deep within Israel’s defense and intelligence establishments when he ran NUMEC; several of them even turned up at his facility over time and concealed their professional identities while there.

Fifty years after investigations began — they have involved, at various times, the AEC and its successors, Congress, the FBI, the CIA, and other government agencies — NUMEC remains one of the most confounding puzzles of the nuclear era. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. ready to back Iran with airstrikes against ISIS

Nancy A. Youssef reports: The U.S.-led coalition is preparing to expand its air strike campaign into the city of Tikrit where Iraqi forces, backed by Iranians, have stalled in their efforts to reclaim the hometown of Saddam Hussein from the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

Two U.S. officials told The Daily Beast that the United States is awaiting a formal request from the Iraqi government for the strikes. Once they receive that request, it could be only a matter of days before the attacks begin.

“The preparatory work is probably already done. The [U.S. military] has started to bring in more assets for a Tikrit air support campaign,” an adviser to the U.S. government tasked with monitoring and engaging with Iraqi officials told The Daily Beast. “Unless there is an impediment on the Iraqi side, and I don’t see it happening, the campaign could begin within days.” [Continue reading…]

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Pipeline nation: America’s broken industry

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What’s your mother’s name?

In Egypt and across much of the Middle East, Mother’s Day is celebrated at the Spring Equinox, which was March 21 this year.

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Saudi Arabia building up military near Yemen border

Reuters reports: Saudi Arabia is moving heavy military equipment including artillery to areas near its border with Yemen, U.S. officials said on Tuesday, raising the risk that the Middle East’s top oil power will be drawn into the worsening Yemeni conflict.

The buildup follows a southward advance by Iranian-backed Houthi Shi’ite militants who took control of the capital Sanaa in September and seized the central city of Taiz at the weekend as they move closer to the new southern base of U.S.-supported President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The slide toward war in Yemen has made the country a crucial front in Saudi Arabia’s region-wide rivalry with Iran, which Riyadh accuses of sowing sectarian strife through its support for the Houthis.

The conflict risks spiraling into a proxy war with Shi’ite Iran backing the Houthis, whose leaders adhere to the Zaydi sect of Shi’ite Islam, and Saudi Arabia and the other regional Sunni Muslim monarchies backing Hadi.

The armor and artillery being moved by Saudi Arabia could be used for offensive or defensive purposes, two U.S. government sources said. Two other U.S. officials said the build-up appeared to be defensive.

One U.S. government source described the size of the Saudi buildup on Yemen’s border as “significant” and said the Saudis could be preparing air strikes to defend Hadi if the Houthis attack his refuge in the southern seaport of Aden. [Continue reading…]

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Yemen’s Houthi militia close in on president’s Aden base

Reuters: Houthi militia forces in Yemen backed by allied army units seized an air base on Wednesday and appeared poised to capture the southern port of Aden from defenders loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, local residents said.

After taking al-Anad air base, the Houthis and their military allies, supported by heavy armor, advanced to within 20 km (12 miles) of Aden, where Hadi has been holed up since fleeing the Houthi-controled capital Sanaa last month.

Soldiers at Aden’s Jabal al-Hadeed barracks fired into the air to prevent residents from entering the base and arming themselves, witnesses said, suggesting that Hadi’s control over the city was fraying.

The Wall Street Journal reports: Western-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has fled the port of Aden on a boat after Houthi militants drew closer to seizing the southern city where he had been holed up amid an intensifying assault, local officials said Wednesday.

A convoy of Saudi Arabian diplomatic officials helped Mr. Hadi escape, according to local officials and Houthi spokesman Mohammed Al Bukhaiti.

The Shiite-linked Houthi militant group recently seized control of Yemen’s capital, San’a, and forced Mr. Hadi from power. He fled the capital to Aden, where he enjoys support from local security forces. [Continue reading…]

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230 suspected jihadis prevented from leaving Australia in March

The Associated Press reports: Counterterrorism squads have prevented 230 suspected jihadis from departing Australian airports for the Middle East this month, including at least three teenage boys, officials said Wednesday.

Officials had previously announced that two Sydney-born brothers, aged 16 and 17, were intercepted at Sydney International Airport on March 8 attempting to board a flight for Turkey without their parents’ knowledge. The siblings were returned to their families and were to be charged.

Within a week, a 17-year-old boy was intercepted at the same airport on suspicion that he was headed for a Middle Eastern battle, Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton said Wednesday.

The boy was also returned to his family, but remains under investigation, Dutton said.

Since counterterrorism units were attached to eight Australian airports in August, 86,000 travelers have been questioned and 230 people prevented from flying on suspicion that they were headed for the battlefields of Iraq and Syria to fight with groups including Islamic State, Prime Minister Tony Abbott told Parliament.

Experts disagree about why Islamic State had been so effective recruiting in Australia, which is widely regarded as a multicultural success story, with an economy in an enviable 24th straight year of continuous growth.

The London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence reports that between 100 and 250 Australians have joined Sunni militants in Iraq and Syria. The center estimates that about 100 fighters came from the United States, which has more than 13 times as many people as Australia. [Continue reading…]

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