Iraqi government forces are continuing to battle al Qaeda linked militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) who have controlled parts of the Anbar province cities of Ramadi and Fallujah for several days. Iraqi air forces reportedly launched a strike on Ramadi Sunday killing up to 34 people. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has appealed to residents to force out insurgents from Fallujah so "their areas are not subjected to the danger of armed clashes." Iraqi troops have surrounded the city, and dozens of families have fled the area. Fallujah, 40 miles west of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, is a highly symbolic city for Sunni Muslims and was the site of fierce battles between U.S. troops and insurgents in 2004. Recent violence was sparked last week after Iraqi police broke up a Sunni protest. Iran has offered to provide Iraq with military equipment and advisors, but ruled out deploying troops.
Fighting has continued Monday between Syrian rebel groups in the northern Idlib and Aleppo provinces. Clashes were sparked on Friday after residents accused ISIL militants of killing a popular doctor. According to opposition activists, ISIL began pulling out from al-Dana and Atma in Idlib province Sunday, as fighters from al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham entered. Fighting between ISIL fighters and brigades from the Islamic Front spread into Raqqa and Tal Abyad Sunday night. In Aleppo, ISIL forces threatened to leave the city to government forces unless rival fighters stop their attacks. Meanwhile, the opposition Syrian National Council said it would not participate in the Geneva II peace conference set to begin in Switzerland on January 22, claiming the Assad regime has not been committed to the goals of the original Geneva talks. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for the first time alluded to Iranian involvement in the peace talks on Syria. While he said Tehran should not take a formal role in the conference, there might be ways it could "contribute from the sidelines."
- In a second day of protest thousands of African migrants in Israel are marching to embassies demanding recognition as refugees as the U.N. criticizes the Negev "open" detention facility.
- Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he is not opposed to the retrial of hundreds of military officers convicted of a coup plot.
- Al Qaeda commander in Lebanon Majid al-Majid, suspected of involvement in the November attack on the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, has died of kidney failure while in custody according to officials.
- The condition of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon continues to deteriorate, according to doctors.
- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed optimism after three days of peace talks and thanked Saudi Arabia for its support for U.S. efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Arguments and Analysis
'Why Iraq's Most Violent Province Is a War Zone Again' (Ned Parker, Time)
"On the eve of national elections, scheduled for April 30, Anbar province is in chaos. The instability is likely to spread beyond Anbar and affect the rest of Iraq. That risks disrupting the upcoming election in Sunni regions, where violence is likely to be smoldering between different Sunni factions and al-Qaeda, and among the different Sunni groups running for parliament. The tense relationship between Maliki and the general Sunni population is also likely to fuel unrest.
There is not a Sunni region in the country now that is not enmeshed in strife. To the north, Nineveh province is seen as a stronghold of al-Qaeda fighters, while to the east of Baghdad, Diyala province has witnessed fighting between Sunni and Shiite armed groups, causing an uptick in internal displacement. The conflict in Sunni regions is creating an atmosphere of perpetual crisis that could tip the country into civil war or be used by Maliki as a justification to stay in power after what is expected to be a closely fought election. The more chaos, the greater the chance for al-Qaeda-linked fighters to hide among the population and reap chaos.
Hopes for stability in Iraq become more elusive by the day. Even as the U.S. government rushed surveillance drones and hellfire missiles to Iraq last month to help Maliki combat al-Qaeda, the complicated battlefield and conflicting motives of both the government and Sunni tribes makes it that much harder for the Obama Administration to find a policy that will offer a solution to Iraq's growing al-Qaeda problem and sectarian woes. The province that cost so many American lives is once more the crucible of a country riven by violence."
'US drone attacks in Yemen protect no one but Al Qaeda' (Farea Al Muslimi, The National)
"In many parts of Yemen, it is not Aqap that is feared, but America. Not long ago, I visited the area of Khawlan, a 30-minute drive from Sanaa, where a US missile struck a vehicle full of passengers, killing everyone, including a local schoolteacher. He'd been with his cousin, the driver, who had picked up other people as a normal fare ride. How were the cousins to know that these people were on the US kill list? Children were waiting in the classroom for two hours the next morning before the news came that their teacher, Ali, was dead. Now, whenever teachers are late for class, students at the school become terrified that the US may have killed them.
US drones also undermine the legitimacy of America's valuable ally in Yemen, president Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi. In August, Mr Hadi visited the US, and while meeting with CIA director John Brennan a drone was fired into his hometown of Abyan. The president's return to Yemen was followed by days of intensive drone strikes across the country. Mr Hadi then publicly defended the drone strikes -- all of which made him look like more of an American stooge than a man of his people. Mr Hadi is already in an uphill battle to prove himself to Yemenis, as regional and western powers had selected him as the only name on the ballot to replace former president Ali Abdullah Saleh."
--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber