The Middle East Channel

Suicide Bomber Kills 13 Iraqi Army Recruits in Baghdad

A suicide bomber killed 13 Iraqi army recruits and injured more than 30 others in Baghdad Thursday. A man detonated an explosive vest as recruits were registering at Muthanna airfield, responding to a government appeal for volunteers to assist in a battle against al Qaeda-linked militants in Anbar province. In a televised address Wednesday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed to eradicate al Qaeda in Iraq, saying the army was prepared to launch an offensive against militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) who have overtaken parts of Fallujah. U.S. officials have urged Maliki to secure the support of Sunni tribal leaders before launching a major attack on Fallujah, but many leaders, angry with the Shiite-run government, have refused. Human Rights Watch has condemned abuses by both government troops and militants since the upsurge in violence over the past week. In a report released Thursday, the human rights organization cited government attacks on residential areas, in some cases where there was no apparent al Qaeda presence. Additionally, the United Nations warned of a "critical humanitarian situation" in Anbar province as thousands of families have fled the area, and food, water, and medical supplies have diminished.

Syria

A car bomb killed an estimated 18 people Thursday in the village of Kafat in the Syrian province of Hama. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, women and children were killed in the explosion as well as members of a pro-government militia. On Wednesday, the Syrian government reported attacks on two of its chemical weapons storage facilities for the first time since the beginning in October of a joint mission with the United Nations to eliminate Syria's chemical arsenal. The German government has decided to assist in destroying a portion of Syria's chemical weapons materials. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said, "we in the German government have decided not to shirk our responsibility and to make our contribution. That means getting rid of part of the chemical waste," which he said could be done by the German armed forces in Munster. Additionally, the Belgian waste management group Indaver has expressed interest in taking on the destruction of some of Syria's chemical weapons, and said it could submit a bid to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) this month if it gets approval from authorities. Meanwhile, Russia has blocked a U.N. Security Council statement condemning Syrian government air strikes against civilians in Aleppo. The Syrian ally blocked a similar statement drafted by the United States in December, and along with China, has blocked three Security Council resolutions on Syria since the conflict began in March 2011.

Headlines  

  • Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei said nuclear talks show U.S. enmity toward Iran just hours before negotiations were set to resume with world powers on activating a deal to curb Iran's nuclear program.
  • Tunisia's Constitutional Assembly has appointed a new nine-member High Electoral Commission to oversee elections in 2014.
  • Bahrain officially suspended its national dialogue after a coalition of political societies pulled out of the reconciliation talks that have been boycotted by the main Shiite opposition since September.
  • Kurdistan plans to sell its first two million barrels of oil by the end of January via its new pipeline to Turkey, despite lack of approval from the Iraqi government. 

Arguments and Analysis

'Al-Maliki's divisive leadership has opened a window for al-Qaida in Iraq' (Fawaz Gerges, The Guardian)

"Iraq's crisis is essentially political -- revolving around power and distribution of resources -- and could be resolved if the ruling elite have the will and wisdom to compromise, both of which have been in short supply.

The war in Syria has poured gasoline on a raging fire in Iraq, and conflicts in both countries feed upon one another and further complicate an already complex struggle. Al-Qaida in Iraq founded both the al-Nusra Front and Isis in Syria. Hundreds of Shia Iraqis have travelled to Syria to fight on the side of the Assad regime. Now the reverberations of the Syrian war are being felt on Arab streets, particularly Iraq and Lebanon, and are aggravating Sunni-Shia tensions across the Arab Middle East.

Sectarianism is poisoning the veins of Arab and Muslim societies and threatening to tear apart their social fabric. It is no wonder then that al-Qaida-linked militants have recently gained strength in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.

However, the sectarian faultline masks a bigger geostrategic struggle between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, a struggle that is playing out in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain and Lebanon. The two rival powers vie for mastery in the Gulf and the Levant."

'Egypt's Unsustainable Crackdown' (Anthony Dworkin and Helene Michou, European Council on Foreign Relations)

"The rebirth of electoral politics will introduce a degree of openness and political accountability, but these will operate within strict limits imposed by the security-focused agenda of the army and Egypt's other powerful state institutions. With a background climate of populist intolerance and a media sector that currently functions as a cheerleader for the state, conditions seem set in the coming months for the continued repression of dissent and the absence of institutional reform.

The current interim government is not monolithic; it contains some comparatively liberal ministers who have a vision for political openness and pluralism. At the same time, though, there is little sign that they have been able to exert any influence on significant decisions, and the move to brand the MB as a terrorist organisation is a clear setback for these politicians. The coming series of popular votes also brings with it an element of unpredictability. It is not certain that the authorities will get enough support for the new constitution to make it into the kind of resounding popular endorsement for their ‘road map' that they are seeking. It is also not known whether parliamentary or presidential elections will be held first and whether the leader of the army, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, will stand as a presidential candidate or seek to control developments from the wings. The future strategy of the MB in the face of the most serious challenge that it has faced in its history is another factor that is yet to be resolved, as is the strength and durability of secular protests that have flared up sporadically in recent weeks.

Despite these variables, certain fundamental aspects of Egypt's direction appear clear. In the short term, the momentum is towards further confrontation between the state and a majority of the people on the one hand and supporters of the MB on the other, with some revolutionary and political groups also standing in opposition to the regime. A continuation of the recent spate of terrorist attacks seems likely, and it is increasingly evident that the next phase of Egypt's development will play out within a security framework. Looking further ahead, it can also be predicted that the current track of security-led ‘normalisation' will not lead to the stable development and reform that is necessary to meet the needs and aspirations of the Egyptian people. Given the volatility of public opinion in Egypt in recent years, it is also plausible to think that a failure to deliver tangible economic and social benefits will lead to growing popular opposition to the new political dispensation."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images

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