ISIS claims responsibility for bombing at Saudi mosque

The New York Times reports: The Islamic State extremist group claimed responsibility Friday for a suicide bombing during midday prayer at a Shiite mosque in eastern Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Health Ministry said at least 21 people had been killed and more than 120 others injured.

It appeared to be the first official claim of an attack inside the kingdom by the Islamic State, which has seized control of much of Syria and Iraq.

The group attributed the attack to a new unit, the Najd Province, named for the central region of Saudi Arabia around Riyadh. But it was unclear whether the attack was planned by Islamic State leaders, initiated independently by a Saudi sympathizer, or merely claimed opportunistically after the fact.

The attack was a sign that Saudi Arabia’s intervention in the sectarian conflict in Yemen may be escalating tensions at home. Members of the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia, who make up about 15 percent of the population and live mainly in the Eastern Province, have long complained of insults and discrimination by Saudi Arabia’s Sunni majority and its clerical establishment. [Continue reading…]

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1,850 killed, over 500,000 displaced in Yemen: UN

AFP: The United Nations said on Tuesday that some 1,850 people had been killed and more than 500,000 displaced as a result of the conflict raging in Yemen since late March.

As of May 15, 1,849 people had been killed and 7,394 had been injured, the UN humanitarian agency said citing numbers from Yemen health facilities.

The UN has repeatedly stressed that many of those injured and killed do not pass through health facilities, meaning the actual toll could be higher.

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Stakes getting dangerously high for Saudi Arabia and its young prince

Bruce Riedel writes: As the war in Yemen resumes after a short humanitarian truce, the stakes are getting higher for Saudi Arabia’s princes.

The Royal Saudi Air Force and its allies resumed their bombing campaign this week after a five-day cease-fire to allow humanitarian supplies into Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s 29-year-old Defense Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman has staked his future and his country’s on achieving some kind of victory in the kingdom’s war in Yemen. A truce that leaves Sanaa under the control of what the Saudis claim is an Iranian protégé regime is clearly not a decisive victory for the royals.

Instead — after weeks of air attacks on the Zaydi Shiite Houthi rebels and their allies — the prince’s war looks like a stalemate. The immense damage done to Yemen’s weak infrastructure has created considerable bad blood between Yemenis and their rich Gulf neighbors that will poison relations for years. Yemenis always resented their rich brothers, and now many will want revenge. Iran is scoring a victory on its Gulf rival without any cost to Tehran and with only limited Iranian assistance to the Zaydis. [Continue reading…]

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Wanted in Saudi Arabia: Executioners

The New York Times reports: Job seekers in Saudi Arabia who have a strong constitution and endorse strict Islamic law might consider new opportunities carrying out public beheadings and amputating the hands of convicted thieves.

The eight positions, as advertised on the website of the Ministry of Civil Service, require no specific skills or educational background for “carrying out the death sentence according to Islamic Shariah after it is ordered by a legal ruling.” But given the grisly nature of the job, a scarcity of qualified swordsmen in some regions of the country and a rise in the frequency of executions, candidates might face a heavy workload.

Saudi Arabia’s justice system punishes drug dealing, arms smuggling, and murder and other violent crimes with death, usually by beheading in a public square.

Although the law also mandates that thieves in some cases have their hands cut off, that punishment is rarely carried out because judges consider it distasteful, according to Saudi lawyers.

On Sunday, Saudi Arabia beheaded a man for a drug offense, making him the 85th person to be executed this year, according to a count by Human Rights Watch based on Saudi government statements. That is almost as many people as the country executed in all of last year, when 88 people were beheaded. Thirty-eight of this year’s executions, including the one on Sunday, were for drug-related crimes with no allegations of violence, according to Adam Coogle, a researcher with Human Rights Watch.

In the United States, 35 prisoners were executed in 2014. [Continue reading…]

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Shakeup in the Saudi royal family

Steve Coll writes: Last January, Salman bin Abdulaziz ascended to the throne of Saudi Arabia and installed his son Mohammed bin Salman as Minister of Defense. The Minister, who is thirty-four, holds an undergraduate degree in law from King Saud University. In late March, the Saudis launched a bombing campaign against neighboring Yemen, to contain a rebel force known as the Houthis, whom the Saudis see as allies of Iran, a rival. Bin Salman oversaw pilots flying advanced U.S.-made jets that, according to Human Rights Watch, dropped U.S.-made cluster bombs. Since the campaign began, Saudi-led strikes have killed hundreds of Yemeni civilians in schools and homes and at a camp for internal refugees. The Houthis have expanded the area under their control since the bombing started.

Bin Salman’s war is an inauspicious start to a new era for the royal family. The kingdom hasn’t experienced this kind of political shakeup since 1975, when Faisal bin Musaid, a failed student and an LSD dealer at the University of Colorado, assassinated King Faisal, his uncle. The King had been an economic modernizer, but, after the shock of his death, the Saudi throne passed laterally among aged half brothers, who ruled cautiously. It was unclear how power would ever pass to a younger generation. King Salman, who is seventy-nine, boldly resolved that question earlier this year by naming a nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef, who is fifty-five and runs the Interior Ministry, as his Crown Prince and successor, and installing bin Salman as second in line. This plan empowers Salman’s branch of the House of Saud, who are known as the Sudairis, after Salman’s mother.

The new princes are rising amid an unusual estrangement between Riyadh and Washington. Last week, at the last minute, the King declined to attend a conference at Camp David, where President Obama gathered potentates from Saudi Arabia and smaller Persian Gulf emirates to discuss security coöperation. (Salman sent his nephew and his son in his stead.) The snub seemed a hollow gesture of passive-aggressiveness, yet it signalled how Obama’s nuclear negotiations with Iran are unsettling the kingdom. [Continue reading…]

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Iran these days is a greater focus of Arab ire and disquiet than Israel

From Dubai, Roger Cohen writes: When Amr Moussa, the former secretary general of the Arab League, spoke here of the Arab world’s humiliation by three non-Arab states — Iran, Israel and Turkey — and the way they had, through their “hegemony,” turned Arabs into a “laughingstock,” I asked him what exactly he meant.

His response focused on Iran. This in itself was interesting. Statements from Tehran about Iran calling the shots in several Arab capitals — including Damascus, Baghdad and Sana — had “enraged many of us,” he said, leaving Arabs humiliated that any power “would dare say that.”

As this remark suggests, Iran these days is a greater focus of Arab ire and disquiet than Israel, a country with which many Arab states have aligned but unsayable interests.

Cut to Camp David and President Obama’s attempt to reassure Persian Gulf leaders that the United States can, in Secretary of State John Kerry’s words, “do two things at the same time” — that is, conclude a nuclear deal with Shiite Iran and honor its alliances with the Sunni monarchies, whose oil is now of less strategic importance to an America in the midst of an oil boom.

The walk-and-chew-gum American argument is a tough sell because Arab honor and Arab humiliation are in play. That’s why King Salman of Saudi Arabia stayed away from Camp David. That’s why the Saudis started a bombing campaign in Yemen: to stop the Houthis, portrayed in Riyadh as pure Iranian proxies. That’s why much of what you hear these days in Dubai (where many Iranians live and trade) is talk of Obama’s betrayal of the Arabs through infatuation with Iran. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi Arabia vows to match Iran in nuclear capability

The New York Times reports: When President Obama began making the case for a deal with Iran that would delay its ability to assemble an atomic weapon, his first argument was that a nuclear-armed Iran would set off a “free-for-all” of proliferation in the Arab world. “It is almost certain that other players in the region would feel it necessary to get their own nuclear weapons,” he said in 2012.

Now, as he gathered Arab leaders over dinner at the White House on Wednesday and prepared to meet with them at Camp David on Thursday, he faced a perverse consequence: Saudi Arabia and many of the smaller Arab states are now vowing to match whatever nuclear enrichment capability Iran is permitted to retain.

“We can’t sit back and be nowhere as Iran is allowed to retain much of its capability and amass its research,” one of the Arab leaders preparing to meet Mr. Obama said on Monday, declining to be named until he made his case directly to the president. Prince Turki bin Faisal, the 70-year-old former Saudi intelligence chief, has been touring the world with the same message. [Continue reading…]

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Yemen is being held hostage by opposing forces

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad writes: Early last year, the Houthis, followers of a revivalist anti-Western cleric, moved out of their northern highlands and marched south towards Sanaa, promising to end corruption, to fight al-Qaida, challenge US hegemony – al-Qaida and the Americans were allies in the subjugation of Muslims, they said – and raise Yemenis out of poverty and powerlessness into a shining and more dignified future. In 2011 President Saleh had been toppled to be replaced by his deputy, the aloof Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who had allowed al-Islah – the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood – to control many offices of state. One crony kleptocratic elite had made way for another. Yemen wanted change and the Houthis faced little or no resistance.

The Houthis marched towards Sanaa slowly but with determination. They laid siege to sectarian rivals, fought tribal leaders aligned with those rivals and outmanoeuvred their own allies. Towns fell before their troops, army bases surrendered or switched allegiance without much of a fight and the houses of those who dared to oppose them were demolished with explosives. In mid-September they built protest camps around Sanaa, ostensibly to demonstrate against a planned hike on fuel prices but effectively laying siege to the city. The army did what it usually does and shot and killed several demonstrators. Two days later, on 21 September, after defeating tribal and military units affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Sanaa went down without much of a crash or a thud. The UN special envoy and the president came up with an agreement that enshrined the Houthis as the new masters of the city, and to preserve the façade of the political process and safeguard their jobs they declared that in every other way it was business as usual.

With the help of Popular Committees, representing their military wing, the Houthis raided and blockaded ministries, scrutinised bank accounts and removed ministers and officials from office. They even confiscated that sacred sceptre of the state, the departmental rubber stamps. The state was held hostage. The Supreme Revolutionary Committee became the authority that wielded political power and was housed in the city centre in a white hotel building with square balconies and green stone cornicing. From the early hours of the morning until late at night a motley crowd came and went through its gates. They included farmers seeking to address injustices inflicted by wealthy landlords, tribal leaders pledging allegiance, maverick politicians seeking positions in the new administration or businessmen looking for ways to avoid punishment. Even tribesmen who had long bickered over blood feuds came seeking a solution. Everyone wanted absolution from the new rulers of Sanaa. [Continue reading…]

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Obama and the Gulf states

Brian Whitaker writes: This week’s meeting at Camp David between President Obama and leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council is still being described as a “summit”, though it has already slithered some way down from the mountain top. The Sultan of Oman and the president of the UAE are both too ill to attend and will be sending representatives instead. The kings of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have pulled out too, in a move that is seen as a snub to President Obama. That leaves only Kuwait and Qatar to be represented by their heads of state.

In the US, even before it happens, the meeting has opened up a space for anti-Obama stirring from the political right, especially among opponents of the proposed nuclear deal with Iran. For the purposes of bad-mouthing Obama, the Gulf’s bumbling monarchs are presented as good guys – “determined to take the initiative” in “confronting Iran’s regional expansion” (to quote a briefing paper from the Orient Advisory Group) – against a US president with “a regional policy that no one can define or even understand”.

So the big question – indeed, the only question as far as some commentators are concerned – is what the US can do to reassure the Gulf’s plutocrats that it is still committed to their security.

The irony is that it ought to be the other way round. Given the spread of jihadist activity in the region and beyond, Obama should (but probably won’t) be asking the emirs and their stand-ins for more evidence of a commitment to other countries’ security. It’s all very well to thank them for resisting ISIS and supporting counterterrorism efforts at an international level by sharing intelligence, but in the current situation that is simply not enough. It’s time to start reversing the damage they have caused in the minds of many Muslims.

They should stop promoting sectarian politics and consider how their actions legitimise religious intolerance: the laws that prescribe punishment for apostasy, blasphemy and other kinds of nonconformity, the policies that treat the followers of different faiths (and even different branches of Islam) as inferior beings – in fact, anything that leads people to think it’s right to impose religion by force. Obama should tell them that until they take such a stand, no matter how many bombs they drop, there is virtually no hope of putting an end to jihadist violence.

But don’t hold your breath. It’s far more likely the Americans will send them home with assurances about Iran and arms deals in their pockets. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi forces and Houthis trade heavy fire along border

Al Jazeera reports: Yemen’s Houthi fighters and Saudi Arabian forces have traded heavy artillery and rocket fire in border areas, residents say, a day before a proposed ceasefire.

The Houthis said they fired Katyusha rockets and mortars on the Saudi cities of Jizan and Najran on Monday, after the Saudis hit Saada and Hajjah provinces with more than 150 rockets, the Reuters news agency reported.

Saudi Arabia’s civil defence department said that one Saudi person was killed in the shelling in Najran, which it said targeted a school and residence adjacent to a military post. [Continue reading…]

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Yemen: Coalition blocking desperately needed fuel

Human Rights Watch: The Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s blockade of Yemen is keeping out fuel needed for the Yemeni population’s survival in violation of the laws of war. Yemen is in urgent need of fuel to power generators for hospitals overwhelmed with wounded from the fighting and to pump water to civilian residences.

The 10-country coalition, which has United States logistics and intelligence support, should urgently implement measures for the rapid processing of oil tankers to allow the safe, secure, and speedy distribution of fuel supplies to the civilian population. The Houthis and other armed groups controlling port areas should permit the safe transfer of fuel to hospitals and other civilian entities. Fuel should be allowed to go through whether or not a proposed ceasefire takes effect.

“The rising civilian casualties from the fighting could become dwarfed by the harm caused to civilians by the coalition blockade on fuel, if it continues,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “It is unclear how much longer Yemen’s remaining hospitals have before the lights go out.” [Continue reading…]

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Houthi rebels agree to 5-day cease-fire in Yemen

The New York Times: Yemen’s Houthi rebels said on Sunday that they had agreed to a five-day cease-fire proposed by Saudi Arabia that would allow desperately needed humanitarian relief supplies to be delivered to the country, according to a Houthi-controlled news service.

The Houthis’ acceptance of the cease-fire came as a Saudi-led military coalition bombed the private residence of Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s former president and the Houthis’ most important ally in the war. Mr. Saleh apparently survived the attack on his residence, in Sana, the Yemeni capital.

In its statement accepting the cease-fire, the Houthis said the group would “respond” to any violation of the truce by “Al Qaeda or those who stand with them.” The Houthis frequently assert that their opponents, who include southern separatists; supporters of Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s exiled president; moderate Islamists; and more hard-line groups, all belong to Al Qaeda.

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Saudi Arabia announces cease-fire in Yemen

The New York Times reports: Saudi Arabia announced on Friday that it would halt its bombing campaign in Yemen for five days beginning on Tuesday, in a sign that it was bowing to international pressure to ease a worsening humanitarian crisis in a country battered by weeks of war.

Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir of Saudi Arabia said the cease-fire would begin at 11 p.m. Tuesday. Mr. Jubeir, who spoke at a news conference in Paris with Secretary of State John Kerry, said the success of the cease-fire was contingent on cooperation by the Houthis, the Yemeni rebel group that has been the target of a Saudi-led military offensive that began in late March.

“It is our hope and our desire that the Houthis will come to their senses,” Mr. Jubeir said. The Houthis did not react to the cease-fire proposal later on Friday. [Continue reading…]

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The war in Yemen is splitting us

Ruba al-Eryani writes: Last week, after finishing my morning lectures, I called my family in Yemen – a daily routine since the escalation of the conflict last month.

“Most of the windows in the house are shattered. But the Saudis have stopped [striking] for now,” my dad said. “Oh, wait, I was wrong. They’re at it again.”

Except, they weren’t. The ‘pounding’ my father was hearing was my nine-year-old brother in the next room beating cushions with his fists as he imitated the sound of airstrikes.

Ever since a Saudi-led coalition launched ‘Operation Decisive Storm’ – a bombing campaign that aims to reinstate President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and push back Houthis rebels – I have been struggling to sleep. Caught between two time zones, the gulf between my life as a university student abroad and that as an activist watching Yemen fall apart, widens every day. [Continue reading…]

Middle East Eye reports: Weeks of airstrikes by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition have devastated Yemen’s northern province of Saada, a remote stronghold of the Shiite Houthis who the coalition are trying to drive back.

“The Saudis have decimated Saada. They bombed roads, government buildings, schools and military sites,” Muammar al-Thari, the deputy governor of Saada, told Middle East Eye by telephone on Monday.

Al-Thari said the province was a “disaster area,” and that he was sending appeals to international rights organisations to pressure Saudi Arabia to halt the airstrikes.

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Situation in Yemen unchanged weeks into air war

AFP reports: Saudi-led airstrikes against rebels in Yemen have destroyed much of their military capabilities, but almost six weeks into the campaign the situation on the ground remains unchanged, analysts said.

Last month, the kingdom declared the strikes against the Iran-backed rebels that began on March 26 a success and announced the end to daily air raids, saying operations had entered a second phase focused on political efforts, aid deliveries and “fighting terrorism.”

However, the air war has continued at the same rate amid mounting criticism over a hike in civilian casualties.

“The Saudis seem to be caught in several contradictions — opening up a war with the Huthis and forces loyal to former president (Ali Abdullah) Saleh without a coherent plan for its ground component,” said Neil Partrick, a Gulf analyst at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.

So far, the coalition had only managed to bomb “military and civilian facilities needed by a Yemeni state that Riyadh claims is still ruled by President (Abedrabbo Mansour) Hadi,” Partrick told AFP. [Continue reading…]

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Yemeni fighters trained in Persian Gulf are said to join Saudi-led war

The New York Times reports: Yemeni fighters who are believed to have received training and weapons in the Persian Gulf entered combat around the southern city of Aden on Sunday, joining with militiamen who are battling Houthi rebels, according to local militia fighters in Aden.

The new troops arrived by sea in the last few days, they said. They all appeared to be Yemenis from the south who had trained in Saudi Arabia and possibly other Persian Gulf states, according to a senior local commander, a fighter and an allied resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss troop actions.

Their claims could not be independently verified. If confirmed, the influx would represent one of the first major deployments of ground troops trained by the Saudi-led coalition, and would shift the makeup of a military operation that has largely relied on airstrikes through its first weeks.

The reinforcements, who the commander said had been given equipment including anti-tank weapons, are entering a fight in Aden that has become a deadly stalemate. Hundreds of people have been killed and whole neighborhoods destroyed in fighting over the last few weeks between the local militias, on one side, and the Houthis and their allied security forces on the other. [Continue reading…]

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Senegal pledges 2,100 troops to aid effort in Yemen

The Associated Press: Senegal is sending 2,100 troops to help back the military intervention led by Saudi Arabia that is underway in Yemen, becoming the first sub-Saharan African country to contribute soldiers to the effort, the country’s foreign minister said Monday.

The decision to deploy soldiers was announced by Foreign Affairs Minister Mankeur Ndiaye, who read a message from the president before the National Assembly.

Senegal, which is made up of mostly Sunni Muslims like Saudi Arabia, has received significant financial investments from the kingdom in recent years. Last month, Senegalese President Macky Sall met with the Saudi king, who solicited troop contributions.

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Saudi-led airstrikes on Yemen used cluster bombs

Human Rights Watch: Credible evidence indicates that the Saudi-led coalition used banned cluster munitions supplied by the United States in airstrikes against Houthi forces in Yemen, Human Rights Watch said today. Cluster munitions pose long-term dangers to civilians and are prohibited by a 2008 treaty adopted by 116 countries, though not Saudi Arabia, Yemen, or the United States.

Photographs, video, and other evidence have emerged since mid-April 2015 indicating that cluster munitions have been used during recent weeks in coalition airstrikes in Yemen’s northern Saada governorate, the traditional Houthi stronghold bordering Saudi Arabia. Human Rights Watch has established through analysis of satellite imagery that the weapons appeared to land on a cultivated plateau, within 600 meters of several dozen buildings in four to six village clusters.

“Saudi-led cluster munition airstrikes have been hitting areas near villages, putting local people in danger,” said Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch. “These weapons should never be used under any circumstances. Saudi Arabia and other coalition members – and the supplier, the US – are flouting the global standard that rejects cluster munitions because of their long-term threat to civilians.” [Continue reading…]

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