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Explosion near Saudi’s Medina holy site

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The world has witnessed yesterday a terrible suicide booming near a Saudi holy site – exactly what many Muslims globally feared to happen for too long as Saudi Arabia also joined the USA in attacking Muslims and financing the NATO terror war essentially on Islam, thereby promoting Islamophobia as well.

The supposed Sunni Muslim jihadist group has called for the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy and its supporters have previously carried out bombings in the Gulf state, targeting the Shia minority community and security forces.

ISIS has also claimed, or been blamed for, a series of deadly attacks in the predominantly Muslim countries of Turkey, Bangladesh and Iraq during the holy month of Ramadan.

Even as tension building up between super power USA and Arab leader Saudi Arabia over crucial issues and amid war in Syria and terror attacks in Turkey, a suicide bomber, according to Saudi internal ministry, has killed four security officers and injured five others near one of Islam’s holiest sites in the Saudi city of Medina on July 05.

In fact, the Bombings rocked three cities across Saudi Arabia, including near the Prophet’s Mosque in the holy city of Medina, raising the specter of increasingly coordinated attacks by ‘militants’ who were seeking to destabilize the monarchy serving the cause of USA and anti-Islamism.

A suicide bomber struck near the United States Consulate in the coastal city of Jidda in the morning, wounding two security officers. Then, near dusk, when Muslims were ending their daily Ramadan fasts, other blasts struck near a Shiite mosque in the country’s in the eastern region of Qatif and killed no one but the bomber, according to witnesses quoted by the Reuters news agency.

Medina, where Millions of pilgrims visit every year, is Islam’s second holiest city, after Mecca and the burial place of the Prophet Muhammad (SAS).

The attacks occurred amid fears that extremists had planned further violence during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and for the holiday that celebrates its conclusion this week, Eid al-Fitr. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the Saudi bombings, although Islamic State extremists have attacked the kingdom repeatedly in recent years, mostly targeting the Shiite minority and state security personnel.

One of the suspects is a young Kuwaiti man who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and was planning to bomb a mosque during Eid al-Fitr. The man had studied petroleum engineering in Britain and had moved to Syria to work in oil production for the Islamic State after his older brother was killed while fighting for the group in Iraq. The man said after his arrest that he had received instructions from an Islamic State operative abroad, the agency reported, to send a young recruit with no security record to obtain explosives and guns for the attack. Another is a Pakistani origin. An interior ministry spokesman identified the assailant as a 35-year-old Pakistani expatriate called Abdullah Qalzar Khan, who it said had worked as a private driver in Jeddah for 12 years. The second attack took place near dusk outside a Shia mosque in the mainly Shia eastern city of Qatif.

The Medina attack struck the security office of the mosque where the Mosque of Prophet Muhammad (SAS), which has been an important stop for millions of pilgrims who visit the holy cities each year. The blasts in Saudi Arabia followed a bloody week in which terrorist attacks caused mass casualties in the largest cities of three predominantly Muslim countries: Turkey, Bangladesh and Iraq.

The Jidda attack took place when security officers confronted a man acting suspiciously near the United States Consulate. He detonated his explosives, killing himself and wounding two guards. The US Embassy in Riyadh, the capital, said in a statement that none of its consular staff members in Jidda had been wounded, and it warned American citizens to limit nonessential travel to the kingdom and to remain cautious inside it. An attack by Al Qaeda on the consulate in 2004 left five staff members and four gunmen dead.

In Kuwait, officials announced the arrest of four people accused of plotting two attacks in the country and said they had repatriated a Kuwaiti family who had joined the Islamic State in Syria. Two Kuwaitis and a man from an unspecified Asian country were arrested in the second plot and had two assault rifles, ammunition and the black flag of the Islamic State, the report said. Kuwait is predominantly Sunni, but Sunnis and Shiites live together with few sectarian tensions.

An Islamic State suicide attack on a Shiite mosque in Kuwait City killed 27 a year ago. The bomber was a Saudi citizen. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has claimed responsibility for the attacks in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and in Baghdad, and it is suspected of carrying out the one in Istanbul. Earlier, at least one explosion rocked Qatif, an eastern city which is home to many minority Shia Muslims. The blast appeared to target a Shia mosque. The attacker was killed but no other casualties were reported.

The explosions come with the holy month of Ramadan drawing to a close and ahead of the Eid al-Fitr holiday. A series of deadly attacks worldwide were either claimed by, or blamed on, IS over the past week: A suicide gun and bomb attack targeted Istanbul airport on 28 June, killing 45 people. Attackers struck a cafe in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, last Friday night. Twenty hostages and two policemen were killed. A massive truck bomb in Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, on Sunday left at least 165 people dead.

Early Monday, the Saudi police became suspicious of a man who appeared to be roaming around a parking lot of a major hospital, the news agency reported. When officers approached him, the man detonated what appeared to be an explosive belt. The explosion happened roughly 33 feet (10 meters) from the consulate’s wall. The blast occurred about 3 a.m. local time. The Saudi news agency reported that two policemen were slightly injured and that they were taken to the hospital. The report did not specify how many were hurt. None of the bystanders in the parking lot were injured in the attack, according to SPA. Police found three devices inside the bomber’s car. A bomb disposal unit used a robot to detonate them, said a journalist who was on the scene.

A US State Department official told CNN that all chief of mission personnel were accounted for. The bombing came after a week of attacks in Turkey, Bangladesh and Iraq, which have left many on edge. In 2004, the US consulate in Jeddah was attacked by gunmen linked to al Qaeda, who killed five employees.

Being a close ally of USA and NATO, Saudi Arabia has been the target of attacks by IS over the past two years. In June, the interior ministry said there had been 26 “terror attacks” in the kingdom in that time.

No-one has yet said they were behind any of the attacks. A suspected suicide bomber also died after detonating a device near the US consulate in the city of Jeddah in the early hours of Monday. Two security officers were slightly injured as they tackled the man, but no-one else was hurt.

The bomber detonated his explosives after being stopped outside the Prophet’s Mosque. The mosque is the burial place of the Prophet Muhammad and Medina the holiest city in Islam after Mecca. The fact that an attack happened in Medina at such a place is likely to leave Muslims around the world aghast. Four guards were killed near the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, while only the bombers died in Jeddah and Qatif. No group has yet said it was behind the attacks, but suspicion has fallen on so-called Islamic State (IS).

Suspicion is likely to fall on so-called Islamic State (IS). Al-Arabiya gave a different account of the incident, saying the bomber had targeted the security officers by pretending he wanted to break his Ramadan fast with them. Qari Ziyaad Patel, 36, from South Africa, who was in the mosque, told the Associated Press news agency people had at first thought it was the sound of the cannon fire that marks the breaking of fast. The ground shook, he said, adding: “The vibrations were very strong. It sounded like a building imploded.”

Ramadan is traditionally viewed as the most holy and spiritual month in the Islamic calendar, a time of penance and temperance. Mosques are consequently fuller than usual, typically packed with worshippers seeking divine mercy and blessings. Juxtaposed alongside that ascetic puritanism is the view of radicals who regard Ramadan as a month of conquest and plunder. They may believe it is an opportune moment to double down on their millenarian war against civilization and therefore launch more attacks than normal.

The foreign minister of Shia power Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, wrote on Twitter: “There are no more red lines left for terrorists to cross. Sunnis, Shiites will both remain victims unless we stand united as one. The Afghan Taliban also condemned the attack, saying: “The Islamic Emirate (Taliban) – which has been shocked by this gruesome act – condemns this incident in the strongest of terms and considers it an act of enmity and hatred towards Islamic rituals.”

Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body has denounced the three suicide attacks in the kingdom on Monday, including one near Islam’s second holiest site. The Senior Council of Ulema said the bombers had “violated everything that is sacred”. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and Interior Minister, Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, meanwhile sought to reassure his fellow citizens.

One does not know if ISIS hit the targets in Saudi Arabia on instructions from USA or on their own. But the USA is very eager to get Saudi Arabia and GCC back on US board and the explosions in Saudi kingdom may have been inspired by such hidden agenda.

After all, USA is the surveillance master who watches and controls world affairs to suit pursuance of its national requirements.

Middle East

Turkey and Iran find soft power more difficult than hard power

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The times they are a changin’. Iranian leaders may not be Bob Dylan fans, but his words are likely to resonate as they contemplate their next steps in Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon, and Azerbaijan.

The same is true for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The president’s shine as a fierce defender of Muslim causes, except for when there is an economic price tag attached as is the case of China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims, has been dented by allegations of lax defences against money laundering and economic mismanagement.

The setbacks come at a time that Mr. Erdogan’s popularity is diving in opinion polls.

Turkey this weekend expelled the ambassadors of the US, Canada, France, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden for calling for the release of philanthropist and civil rights activist Osman Kavala in line with a European Court of Human Rights decision.

Neither Turkey nor Iran can afford the setbacks that often are the result of hubris. Both have bigger geopolitical, diplomatic, and economic fish to fry and are competing with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama for religious soft power, if not leadership of the Muslim world.

That competition takes on added significance in a world in which Middle Eastern rivals seek to manage rather than resolve their differences by focusing on economics and trade and soft, rather than hard power and proxy battles.

In one recent incident Hidayat Nur Wahid, deputy speaker of the Indonesian parliament, opposed naming a street in Jakarta after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the general-turned-statemen who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire. Mr. Wahid suggested that it would be more appropriate to commemorate Ottoman sultans Mehmet the Conqueror or Suleiman the Magnificent or 14th-century Islamic scholar, Sufi mystic, and poet Jalaludin Rumi.

Mr. Wahid is a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and a board member of the Saudi-run Muslim World League, one of the kingdom’s main promoters of religious soft power.

More importantly, Turkey’s integrity as a country that forcefully combats funding of political violence and money laundering has been called into question by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international watchdog, and a potential court case in the United States that could further tarnish Mr. Erdogan’s image.

A US appeals court ruled on Friday that state-owned Turkish lender Halkbank can be prosecuted over accusations it helped Iran evade American sanctions.

Prosecutors have accused Halkbank of converting oil revenue into gold and then cash to benefit Iranian interests and documenting fake food shipments to justify transfers of oil proceeds. They also said Halkbank helped Iran secretly transfer US$20 billion of restricted funds, with at least $1 billion laundered through the US financial system.

Halkbank has pleaded not guilty and argued that it is immune from prosecution under the federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act because it was “synonymous” with Turkey, which has immunity under that law. The case has complicated US-Turkish relations, with Mr.  Erdogan backing Halkbank’s innocence in a 2018 memo to then US President Donald Trump.

FATF placed Turkey on its grey list last week. It joins countries like Pakistan, Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen that have failed to comply with the group’s standards. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned earlier this year that greylisting would affect a country’s ability to borrow on international markets,  and cost it an equivalent of up to 3 per cent of gross domestic product as well as a drop in foreign direct investment.

Mr. Erdogan’s management of the economy has been troubled by the recent firing of three central bank policymakers, a bigger-than-expected interest rate cut that sent the Turkish lira tumbling, soaring prices, and an annual inflation rate that last month ran just shy of 20 per cent. Mr. Erdogan has regularly blamed high-interest rates for inflation.

A public opinion survey concluded in May that 56.9% of respondents would not vote for Mr. Erdogan and that the president would lose in a run-off against two of his rivals, Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas and his Istanbul counterpart Ekrem Imamoglu.

In further bad news for the president, polling company Metropoll said its September survey showed that 69 per cent of respondents saw secularism as a necessity while 85.1 per cent objected to religion being used in election campaigning.

In Iran’s case, a combination of factors is changing the dynamics of Iran’s relations with some of its allied Arab militias, calling into question the domestic positioning of some of those militias, fueling concern in Tehran that its detractors are encircling it, and putting a dent in the way Iran would like to project itself.

A just-published report by the Combatting Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy West Point concluded that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) faced “growing difficulties in controlling local militant cells. Hardline anti-US militias struggle with the contending needs to de-escalate US-Iran tensions, meet the demands of their base for anti-US operations, and simultaneously evolve non-kinetic political and social wings.”

Iranian de-escalation of tensions with the United States is a function of efforts to revive the defunct 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program and talks aimed at improving relations with Saudi Arabia even if they have yet to produce concrete results.

In addition, like in Lebanon, Iranian soft power in Iraq has been challenged by growing Iraqi public opposition to sectarianism and Iranian-backed Shiite militias that are at best only nominally controlled by the state.

Even worse, militias, including Hezbollah, the Arab world’s foremost Iranian-supported armed group, have been identified with corrupt elites in Lebanon and Iraq. Many in Lebanon oppose Hezbollah as part of an elite that has allowed the Lebanese state to collapse to protect its vested interests.

Hezbollah did little to counter those perceptions when the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, threatened Lebanese Christians after fighting erupted this month between the militia and the Lebanese Forces, a Maronite party, along the Green Line that separated Christian East and Muslim West Beirut during the 1975-1990 civil war.

The two groups battled each other for hours as Hezbollah staged a demonstration to pressure the government to stymie an investigation into last year’s devastating explosion in the port of Beirut. Hezbollah fears that the inquiry could lay bare pursuit of the group’s interests at the expense of public safety.

“The biggest threat for the Christian presence in Lebanon is the Lebanese Forces party and its head,” Mr. Nasrallah warned, fuelling fears of a return to sectarian violence.

It’s a warning that puts a blot on Iran’s assertion that its Islam respects minority rights, witness the reserved seats in the country’s parliament for religious minorities. These include Jews, Armenians, Assyrians and Zoroastrians.

Similarly, an alliance of Iranian-backed Shiite militias emerged as the biggest loser in this month’s Iraqi elections. The Fateh (Conquest) Alliance, previously the second-largest bloc in parliament, saw its number of seats drop from 48 to 17.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi brought forward the vote from 2022 to appease a youth-led protest movement that erupted two years ago against corruption, unemployment, crumbling public services, sectarianism, and Iranian influence in politics.

One bright light from Iran’s perspective is the fact that an attempt in September by activists in the United States to engineer support for Iraqi recognition of Israel backfired.

Iran last month targeted facilities in northern Iraq operated by Iranian opposition Kurdish groups. Teheran believes they are part of a tightening US-Israeli noose around the Islamic republic that involves proxies and covert operations on its Iraqi and Azerbaijani borders.

Efforts to reduce tension with Azerbaijan have failed. An end to a war of words that duelling military manoeuvres on both sides of the border proved short-lived. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, emboldened by Israeli and Turkish support in last year’s war against Armenia, appeared unwilling to dial down the rhetoric.

With a revival of the nuclear program in doubt, Iran fears that Azerbaijan could become a staging pad for US and Israeli covert operations. Those doubts were reinforced by calls for US backing of Azerbaijan by scholars in conservative Washington think tanks, including the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

Eldar Mamedov, a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, warned that “the US government should resist calls from hawks to get embroiled in a conflict where it has no vital interest at stake, and much less on behalf of a regime that is so antithetical to US values and interests.”

He noted that Mr. Aliyev has forced major US NGOs to leave Azerbaijan, has trampled on human and political rights, and been anything but tolerant of the country’s Armenian heritage.

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Middle East

Process to draft Syria constitution begins this week

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The process of drafting a new constitution for Syria will begin this week, the UN Special Envoy for the country, Geir Pedersen, said on Sunday at a press conference in Geneva.

Mr. Pedersen was speaking following a meeting with the government and opposition co-chairs of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, who have agreed to start the process for constitutional reform.

The members of its so-called “small body”, tasked with preparing and drafting the Constitution, are in the Swiss city for their sixth round of talks in two years, which begin on Monday. 

Their last meeting, held in January, ended without progress, and the UN envoy has been negotiating between the parties on a way forward.

“The two Co-Chairs now agree that we will not only prepare for constitutional reform, but we will prepare and start drafting for constitutional reform,” Mr. Pedersen told journalists.

“So, the new thing this week is that we will actually be starting a drafting process for constitutional reform in Syria.”

The UN continues to support efforts towards a Syrian-owned and led political solution to end more than a decade of war that has killed upwards of 350,000 people and left 13 million in need of humanitarian aid.

An important contribution

The Syrian Constitutional Committee was formed in 2019, comprising 150 men and women, with the Government, the opposition and civil society each nominating 50 people.

This larger group established the 45-member small body, which consists of 15 representatives from each of the three sectors.

For the first time ever, committee co-chairs Ahmad Kuzbari, the Syrian government representative, and Hadi al-Bahra, from the opposition side, met together with Mr. Pedersen on Sunday morning. 

He described it as “a substantial and frank discussion on how we are to proceed with the constitutional reform and indeed in detail how we are planning for the week ahead of us.”

Mr. Pedersen told journalists that while the Syrian Constitutional Committee is an important contribution to the political process, “the committee in itself will not be able to solve the Syrian crisis, so we need to come together, with serious work, on the Constitutional Committee, but also address the other aspects of the Syrian crisis.”

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North Africa: Is Algeria Weaponizing Airspace and Natural Gas?

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In a series of shocking and unintelligible decisions, the Algerian Government closed its airspace to Moroccan military and civilian aircraft on September 22, 2021, banned French military planes from using its airspace on October 3rd, and decided not to renew the contract relative to the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline, which goes through Morocco and has been up and running since 1996–a contract that comes to end on October 31.

In the case of Morocco, Algeria advanced ‘provocations and hostile’ actions as a reason to shut airspace and end the pipeline contract, a claim that has yet to be substantiated with evidence. Whereas in the case of France, Algeria got angry regarding visa restrictions and comments by French President Emmanuel Macron on the Algerian military grip on power and whether the North African country was a nation prior to French colonization in 1830.

Tensions for decades

Algeria has had continued tensions with Morocco for decades, over border issues and over the Western Sahara, a territory claimed by Morocco as part of its historical territorial unity, but contested by Algeria which supports an alleged liberation movement that desperately fights for independence since the 1970s.

With France, the relation is even more complex and plagued with memories of colonial exactions and liberation and post-colonial traumas, passions and injuries. France and Algeria have therefore developed, over the post-independence decades, a love-hate attitude that quite often mars otherwise strong economic and social relations.

Algeria has often reacted to the two countries’ alleged ‘misbehavior’ by closing borders –as is the case with Morocco since 1994—or calling its ambassadors for consultations, or even cutting diplomatic relations, as just happened in August when it cut ties with its western neighbor.

But it is the first-time Algeria resorts to the weaponization of energy and airspace. “Weaponization” is a term used in geostrategy to mean the use of goods and commodities, that are mainly destined for civilian use and are beneficial for international trade and the welfare of nations, for geostrategic, political and even military gains. As such “weaponization” is contrary to the spirit of free trade, open borders, and solidarity among nations, values that are at the core of common international action and positive globalization.

What happened?

Some observers advance continued domestic political and social unrest in Algeria, whereby thousands of Algerians have been taking to the streets for years to demand regime-change and profound political and economic reforms. Instead of positively responding to the demands of Algerians, the government is probably looking for desperate ways to divert attention and cerate foreign enemies as sources of domestic woes. Morocco and France qualify perfectly for the role of national scapegoats.

It may be true also that in the case of Morocco, Algeria is getting nervous at its seeing its Western neighbor become a main trade and investment partner in Africa, a role it can levy to develop diplomatic clout regarding the Western Sahara issue. Algeria has been looking for ways to curb Morocco’s growing influence in Africa for years. A pro-Algerian German expert, by the name of Isabelle Werenfels, a senior fellow in the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, even recommended to the EU to put a halt to Morocco’s pace and economic clout so that Algeria could catch up. Weaponization may be a desperate attempt to hurt the Moroccan economy and curb its dynamism, especially in Africa.

The impact of Algeria’s weaponization of energy and airspace on the Moroccan economy is minimal and on French military presence in Mali is close to insignificant; however, it shows how far a country that has failed to administer the right reforms and to transfer power to democratically elected civilians can go.

In a region, that is beleaguered by threats and challenges of terrorism, organized crime, youth bulge, illegal migration and climate change, you would expect countries like Algeria, with its geographic extension and oil wealth, to be a beacon of peace and cooperation. Weaponization in international relations is inacceptable as it reminds us of an age when bullying and blackmail between nations, was the norm. The people of the two countries, which share the same history, language and ethnic fabric, will need natural gas and unrestricted travel to prosper and grow and overcome adversity; using energy and airspace as weapons is at odds with the dreams of millions of young people in Algeria and Morocco that aspire for a brighter future in an otherwise gloomy economic landscape. Please don’t shatter those dreams!

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