Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Stonegate Update :: Mudar Zahran: UNRWA: The Palestinians' Worst Enemy, and more

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UNRWA: The Palestinians' Worst Enemy

by Mudar Zahran
March 21, 2012 at 5:00 am

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UNRWA is not there to settle the refugees, it is there not to settle the refugees. The UN now counts as "refugees" entire generations, furious that their ancestors started a war that they then lost, and are now asking to be rewarded diplomatically with what they were unable to seize militarily.

Since its establishment, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency [UNRWA] has received billions in international aid, including more than $4 billion dollars of US taxpayers' money. While UNRWA's mission is to "relieve" and "support" the Palestinians, it has been doing exactly the opposite. It has been keeping Palestinians in pens as refugees and obstructing them from integrating and from normalizing their lives, all while UNRWA seems to be funnelling international aid money to whitewashing the terrorist organization Hamas, promoting the illegal Turkish flotilla which included members of Turkey's terrorist group the IHH, and which tried to break Israel's protection of its borders from having more weapons brought in that would be turned against it; to misrepresenting and politicizing the situation in Gaza, and to supporting the terrorist group, Hamas. One has to wonder if UNRWA is not actually an obstacle to peace in the Middle East

Although UNRWA was established in 1948 as a temporary institution, more than six decades on it still exists, larger than ever, growing exponentially, and with an annual budget exceeding half a billion dollars US, paid by the international community. Such a huge budget not only covers a large and growing number of people on the payroll; UNRWA is now the UN's largest entity with over 30,000 employees. It is such a boondoggle of a jobs program, it almost cannot let the Palestinian refugee problem be solved: if it did, 30,000 people would be out of work. If that problem makes UNRWA "too big to fail," this experiment is nothing but torture by other means, conducted on innocent human lives, forcing literally millions of people to live in squalor in perpetuity effectively forever. By comparison, maintaining a handful of prisoners caught in active anti-American combat at Guantanamo Bay should seem like a week at a country club. UNRWA, on the contrary, has been focused on keeping the Palestinians and great grandchildren of Palestinians, cought in the refugee trap. UNRWA is not there to settle the refugees, it is there not to settle the refugees.

How good, then, is UNRWA at "relieving" the Palestinian refugees?

A prominent Australian Member of Parliament, Michael Danby, protested Australia's funding of the UNRWA in 2007, describing it as "a notoriously corrupt" institution, and claiming that UNRWA was channelling the funds for "arms purchase, terrorist operations, and anti-Israel incitement as well as into the pockets of the PA leadership." On the corruption claim, Danby is not alone. Palestinians agree: in March 2011, the Palestinian Human Rights Foundation condemned the UNRWA for what it called "disregard for the lives of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon." This charge surfaced after a Palestinian boy died "at the door of a hospital" after being denied admission after UNRWA's refusal to pay for his medication.

A few months later, in June, 2011, Palestinian refugees in Southern Lebanon burned the UN flag in front of UNRWA's headquarters to protest of what they described as "UNRWA's corrupt practices;" they waved banners reading: "No to UNRWA's corrupt policy." and "People want medical care and medication," as Munir Maqdah, the Fatah military commander in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp, told the Lebanese newspaper, The Daily Star, that UNRWA had brought 43 "foreign" staff to Lebanon "with a mission that does not serve the Palestinian people."

While the Palestinians say they think UNRWA is corrupt, UNRWA issues "transparency" testimonials to Hamas: In May of 2008, the Iranian English TV Satellite network, Press TV, reported UNRWA's Commissioner-General, Karen Abu-Zayd, as saying that "institutions affiliated with Hamas were corruption-free" and
that "Gazans are gripped with a daily battle to survive" as "the siege of Gaza has deprived its people of fuel, crippling all aspects of their lives." Unsparingly, Abu-Zayed did not mention that Hamas was carrying out daily rocket attacks against Israeli cities as well as its own bloody takeover of the Gaza strip, in which members of both Fatah and Hamas threw each other out of the fifteenth and eighteenth floors of buildings there.

In 2011, Ayman Taha, a senior Hamas official, was suspended over allegations of corruption and embezzling money. That was one person who was apprehended, but how many others are still free, and how come UNRWA never made any statements about this?

Over six decades, the US has contributed more than USD $4 billion to the UNRWA nonetheless, in May 2009, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report that included UNRWA's admission that it does not screen potential staff or aid recipients for ties to Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Islamic Jihad. According to the report, the UN does not list Hamas as a terrorist organization -- the UN only lists the Taliban and al Qaeda as terrorist groups. This is the very same UN that designated "Zionism Equals Racism" through UN General Assembly Resolution number 3379, adopted in 1975 and revoked after 16 years, only thanks to the efforts US Ambassador John Bolton.

In addition to UNRWA's appeasement of Hamas, and its failure to carry out its mission in a trustworthy way, UNRWA has been at the forefront of sustaining the Palestinians' despicable status as refugees -- and not merely the refugees who left Israel during the war of 1947, in which five Arab countries, after rejecting the UN's Partition Plan to divide the land between the Arabs and the Jews, started a war against Israel in which they were humiliatingly defeated. The Palestinians are made up of those people who chose to leave Israel as it was under attack, but were then surprised when, after the war, Israel declined to let them back in on the grounds they had not stayed to help – unlike the Israeli Arabs, who chose not to leave during the war and who now make up a fifth of Israel's population.

By now, most of the original refugees have died out, leaving UNRWA in the position of maintaining their children, their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren -- and, one can assume, at some point their great-great-great-grandchildren…. The UN, in fact, currently counts as "refugees" entire generations, furious that they are being punished for a war their ancestors started but lost, and who are now asking the international community to reward them diplomatically with what they were not able to seize militarily.

As an Israeli Member of Knesset, Einat Wilf, puts it: "No other refugees in the world are afforded refugee status for generations." Even the charter by which UNRWA was created maintains that it was supposed to be only a temporary institution.

UNRWA's persistence in keeping the Palestinians refugees in abysmal, overcrowded slums is harming the Palestinians: they are not only banned from integrating, but are being used to provide Arab countries with a legal justification for denying the Palestinians the right of work and of citizenship. A US Embassy-Amman cable made public by Wikileaks confirms that only 35% of the Palestinians in Jordan are registered [with UNRWA] as refuges – a figure that seems to indicate\ that the Palestinians in Jordan are not keen to be labelled refugees. Nevertheless, according to the UN's own Minority Rights Group International's World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples of 2008, Jordan still considers Palestinian-Jordanians as "refugees with a right of return to Palestine."

The Jordanian government—as well as the Lebanese government -- discriminates against its Palestinians majority. Thanks to UNRWA, the Jordanian government not only discriminates against Palestinians, who make up more than the majority of its population – and who, at 70% of the populaton, make up the great concentration of Palestinians in the world -- but states that these Palestinians are just "refugees" -- despite their being full Jordanian citizens who pay taxes to the Jordanian government and therefore should presumably be fully Jordan's responsibility.

The Jordanian government, however, seems determined to expand UNRWA's role. UNRWA, therefore, whether willingly or unwillingly, is contributing to the isolation and disenfranchisement of the Palestinians.

A Palestinian in Bakaa refugee camp in Jordan, Muhammad (AKA Hanthlah) Abu Hamadeh explained how a Palestinian relative of his who passed away recently was denied a burial place by both the Jordanian government and the UNRWA administration of the camp, despite the fact that the deceased was a Jordanian citizen and a registered refugee. "Do we have to ask the UNRWA for permission before we die?" Abu Hamadeh asked

In 2009, UNRWA's former legal advisor and general counsel, James G. Lindsay, published a study entitled, "Fixing UNRWA: Repairing the UN's Troubled System of Aid to Palestinian Refugees," in which he argues that UNRWA has changed its function from refugee-status-based to need-based -- a situation in which the Palestinians become dependents, and in which UNRWA continues to operate in parallel not with them, but with the host governments, such as the Palestinian Authority or with the governments of Jordan, Lebanon or Hamas. The real question is, With what is UNRWA's leadership more concerned, the Palestinians' welfare or appeasing governments such as Hamas's or jobs programs such as the UN's? If UNRWA is "to big to fail," it is an ugly experiment in social engineering, conducted on innocent human lives, and a violation of human rights -- effectively in perpetuity, forever – which, in terms of confinement, squalor, and protracted time, by comparison makes other outrages, such as the conditions of enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, look like a week at a country club.

The US and the world should reconsider the premises of UNRWA, as well as its funding of UNRWA, until it not only stops obstructing the livelihoods of Palestinians, an refrains from channelling international aid money to terrorist groups, but also takes steps immediately to normalize the status of Palestinian refugees to conform more closely to the status of other refugees. Otherwise, UNRWA will continue to harm the Palestinians, all the while threatening the security of the world by tolerating and incubating terrorists.

It is about time UNRWA stopped channelling US tax dollars to there. It is also about time that UNRWA-tailored Palestinian suffering, as well as UNRWA itself, are both denounced and shut down by the international community .

Related Topics: Mudar Zahran

Islam: The Eighth Wonder of the World?

by Ahmad al-Baghdadi
March 21, 2012 at 4:30 am

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"It is the only nation that believes it is in the right – in every way – while all others are wrong."

Translation and Postface by Raymond Ibrahim

As we know, the wonders of the world are seven; but there is an eighth "wonder -of-wonders" not counted among the seven: this is the "Muslim nation [umma]." I specifically did not say the "Islamic nation," for within this Muslim nation are wondrous matters not witnessed by any other nation since Allah Almighty created Adam. Here are some of these wonders:

1. It is the only nation that believes it is in the right—in every way—while all others are wrong;

2. The only nation that exonerates or lightens the punishment of an indicted criminal if he is Muslim and has learned some Quranic verses;

3. The only nation where a cleric evades indictment for inciting murder if he describes one of his adversaries as "an apostate";

4. The only nation that does not penalize a murderer if he killed "an apostate";

5. The only nation that shows leniency and assuages punishments for the "honor killing" of a sister or a wife;

6. The only nation whose holy book [Quran] starts with the word "read" [iqra'] and yet it is among the least nations that reads books, if any at all;

7. The only nation that still uses the word "infidel" [kafir] against those who oppose its clerics or religious groups;

8. The only nation where the ruling of a fatwa [religious edict] upstages the ruling of the law—and yet it brags about being a nation that upholds the "rule of law";

9. The only nation that does not contribute to the modern era—not even by producing a tooth brush—and yet brags about its extinct civilization.

10. The only nation that insults and condemns the West—yet lives as a parasite relying on the West in every way.

11. The only nation that incarcerates intellectuals for practicing freedom of expression.

12. The only nation that claims to be religious and guards its piety on both the official and the public level—yet there is nothing righteous about it.

13. The only nation that grants its students a PhD in religion;

14. The only nation still governed by the writings of those who died a thousand years ago;

15. The only nation where clerics serve as sycophantic toadies to the rulers, remaining silent about their transgressions, even when they go against Sharia;

16. The only nation that does not acknowledge the International Human Rights Declaration;

17. The only nation that forbids all human arts except calligraphy;

18. The only nation that believes in one religion—yet its various religious groups cannot agree on the exegeses and directives of that one religion;

19. The only nation where clerics blabber endlessly, only to conclude by saying, "Allah only knows," as if people were not already aware;

20. The only nation that believes in exorcizing Jinn from humans—even if by killing the person;

21. The only nation that has an army—and yet is occupied and fears combat;

22. The only nation wherein the Almighty Creator's description applies—"thou wouldst think they were united, but their hearts are divided: that is because they are a people devoid of wisdom" [Quran 59:14];

23. The only nation still inquiring about religious matters and looking for satisfactory answers for over a thousand years;

24. The only nation that asks more about sex than about worship during its one month of fasting every year;

25. The only nation that believes anything and everything its clerics say without questioning or verification.

This nation—with all these unique traits—does it not deserve to be described as the "Wonder-of-Wonders"?

Postface: Provided they can be objective, members of a civilization are often best placed to critique that civilization. Accordingly, this article, which recently made the rounds on various Arabic websites, can be seen as a piece of honest criticism of the Islamic world, by one of its own. Written by the late Dr. Ahmad al-Baghdadi (died 2010)—one of Kuwait's best known liberal activists and scholars (he held a PhD in the philosophy of Islamic thought and taught political science)—it recounts how Islamic civilization is the eighth, and greatest, wonder of the world. We quickly discover this is not a compliment: the article highlights some singularly troubling aspects of the Islamic world, from a liberal point of view. For what it is worth, Ahmad al-Baghdadi is not the first Muslim to portray Islamic civilization as a fantastic anachronism that has outstayed its welcome; the prophet of Islam himself, Muhammad, made a similar prophesy in a canonical hadith: "Verily, Islam started as something strange, and it will again revert to being strange just as it started, and it will recede between the two mosques [Mecca and Medina] just as the serpent slithers back into its hole."

Tunisia: Thousands of Salafists Rally for Sharia Law

by Anna Mahjar-Barducci
March 21, 2012 at 4:00 am

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"Tunisia, by opening to democracy, changed its face, and now the country's main components are Islamist and extremist."

Thousands of Salafists calling to include Sharia Law in the new Tunisian Constitution gathered in front of the National Constituent Assembly on March 16. As reported by the Agence France-Presse, the slogans called to have the Koran as the country's only constitution. "The people want the application of God's Sharia," "Our Koran is our constitution" "No constitution without Sharia," and "Tunisia is neither secular nor scientific, it is an Islamic state," the demonstrators cried. Revealing that Tunisia's government supports Sharia Law in the Constitution, two MPs, Sahbi Atig and Habib Ellouze, members of the Islamist party, Ennahda, were among the protesters.

Following are excerpts from an op-ed that appeared in the North African magazine, Le Courrie de l'Atlas, reporting on the Salafists' "show of strength" during the demonstration in the streets of Tunisia:

"On this sunny afternoon, Bardo [Tunisian city/suburb west of Tunis] looked like Afghanistan. Following a call launched by Salafists on social networks, a flood of people, around midday, gathered in Bardo to put pressure on Tunisian MPs and demand that Sharia be included as the only source of law.

"[…] According to Salafists' Internet pages, there were 30.000 protesters. Never before had Bardo Square been so filled with people. The crowd was compact and excited. When all the protesters started shouting together "Allahhu Akbar!" [Allah is the Greatest!"], they sent shockwaves through the floor. […] The event was marked by a strongly missionary spirit […].

"The few foreign media that attended this event were astonished by the separation between men and women in the demonstration [Organizers of the protest had arranged separated sections for men and women]. However, the men incited the women systematically to repeat slogans, such as "The people want the enforcement of Sharia…" […]. There were also many slogans […] very hostile to secular people and meant to demonize them".

Some worrisome abuses

"1. Zitouna FM Koranic radio, a radio station that was put under judiciary control after the revolution, and which belongs to the state, had launched a call to demonstrate a few days earlier. This is an unprecedented decision […]

"2. […] Each and every demonstration [after the Revolution] had been followed by a counter-demonstration conducted by pro-government elements, with the exception of this one. […]

"3. [Protesters were intimidating journalists] when our camera was taking longer shots of somebody, it was not rare that this person came immediately to us asking for our papers and for whom we were working.

"4. […] Ennahda's most radical base was represented. This allows predicting that, considering the increasing popularity of the Salafist movement, the Islamic party Ennahda will have to compromise more and more with these movements that are harming the image of moderation that the party, ever since it came to power, is trying to promote. […]

"Today was a black day [for Tunisia][…]. Tunisia that belongs to a non-secularized region, by opening to democracy, changed its face […], and now the country's main components are Islamist and extremist."

Related Topics: Anna Mahjar-Barducci

Turkey Eyes Uniting Divided Dissidents
And more from the Turkish Press

by AK Group
March 21, 2012 at 3:00 am

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Turkey is redoubling its efforts to unite Syria's fractured opposition ahead of the prime minister's visit to Iran, and the Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul next month, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said yesterday.

There will be "tight contact traffic as efforts continue to extend the Syrian National Council and to strengthen the social base," Davutoğlu said, noting Ankara's tight schedule, which revolves around an upcoming Arab League summit, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's visit to Iran, and the Friends of Syria meeting.

Turkey is also working "day and night" to locate and secure the return of two missing Turkish journalists in Syria, he said at a joint press conference with his Moroccan counterpart, Saad-Eddine al-Othmani.

Turkey has asked Syria to locate Adem Özköse, from the newspaper, Milat, and freelance cameraman, Hamit Coşkun, and ensure their safe return home, said Hüseyin Çelik, a deputy chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP; a reply from Syria has not been received.

The pair was last heard from on March 11, when they called Milat from the northern Syrian city of Idlib.

In Ankara, main opposition party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu appealed to Damascus to free Özköse and Coşkun without any conditions. He urged the government "to make more serious, responsible and efficient efforts to rescue the journalists, instead of just saying that they are taking care of the issue."

Asked about the allegations of a possible exchange of the Turkish journalists for defected Syrian generals in Turkey, Çelik said the claims were "just made up."

"I have heard about these rumors, and we asked foreign minister about them during the group meeting. He did not confirm them," Çelik said.

Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç said last week that the journalists were being held by Syrian forces. But other Turkish officials have said there was not "confirmed" information.

"There has been no confirmed information at the moment on the whereabouts of the missing Turkish journalists," Davutoğlu said, stressing that "the profession of journalism depends on freedom of expression and universal values." The minister called on the Syrian authorities and other parties to respect those values.

Asked whether Turkey was considering the establishment of a buffer zone in Syria, the minister said, "with concern both for our border security and for ending our Syrian brothers' pain, we are determined to consider every possible measure."

Two more Syrian generals fled to Turkey over the weekend, bringing to nine the number of defected generals, a Turkish official told the Hürriyet Daily News. The total number of Syrians taking refuge in Turkey has reached nearly 16,500, according to the General Directorate of Natural Disasters.

Turkish authorities are setting up a fully equipped 70-bed field hospital in Islahiye in the southern province of Gaziantep, which borders Syria, to treat Syrian refugees, the Anatolia news agency reported. Ufuk Diri, the Health Ministry's emergency coordinator, said doctors would be able to perform any type of surgery in the facility, which is expected to be ready this week.

Çelik said Turkey was helping not only opponents of the al-Assad regime, but also Syrian public servants. "Some public servants cornered by the opposition are also seeking Turkey's help, mainly for food and security," Çelik told reporters.

He did not elaborate, but diplomatic sources explained that Syrian customs officials at the Turkish border are occasionally given food.

Prosecutor Seeks Jail Time For Intellectuals In Turkey

An Istanbul chief prosecutor has demanded prison terms up to 23 years against 193 suspects in the ongoing Kurdistan Communities Union, or KCK, trials, including a prominent publisher and a professor.

Specially authorized Istanbul Chief Prosecutor Adnan Çimen sent a 2,400-page indictment to the court Sunday, charging Professor Büşra Ersanlı with "leading a terrorist organization" and publisher Ragıp Zarakolu with "aiding a terrorist organization." Çimen demanded 15 to 23 years for Ersanlı and 8 to 15 years for Zarakolu, the Doğan news agency reported.

More than 140 of the 193 suspects in the indictment are currently behind bars. Zarakolu and Ersanlı were arrested on Nov. 1, resulting in protests from national and international organizations. Zarakolu was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last month by a group of Swedish lawmakers.

The indictment discusses the establishment and structure of the KCK, the alleged urban wing of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK,, while also describing some of the acts undertaken on the PKK's behalf. Istanbul's 15th Court of Serious Crimes has two weeks to decide whether to accept or reject the indictment.

Among the suspects charged was independent lawmaker, Aysel Tuğluk, according to reports, but the charges against her were not clear as the Hürriyet Daily News went to print Monday.

The indictment also includes sections about the "Politics Academy," which is regarded as the PKK's urban center for ideological training, according to the reports. Those who attend the academy eventually either join the PKK's field cadres and receive military training or participate in the organization's urban activities, the indictment said.

The bill also includes the testimonies of five secret witnesses in connection with the arrests of Zarakolu and Ersanlı, who formerly lectured at the Politics Academy. Turkey's Supreme Court of Appeals declared the KCK an armed terrorist group last month after it upheld the ruling of a court in the eastern province of Van sentencing a member of the organization to nearly eight years in prison.

The KCK's charter clearly spells out its ideological, moral, philosophical and organizational links with the PKK, which it aims to transform into a state-like structure, said the appeals court's decision.

Since 2009, around 700 people have been arrested over their alleged links to the KCK, according to government figures, although the BDP puts the figure at more than 3,500. Five BDP parliamentarians are also under arrest on similar charges.

The trials against the KCK started last year with 150 defendants, including 12 mayors of Southeast Anatolian cities, like influential Diyarbakır Mayor Osman Baydemir, as well as many local politicians who support Kurdish rights. Some 100 defendants have been under arrest for more than two years.

Iraqi Oil To Flow Via Turkey If Strait Of Hormuz Closed

Iraq has approved a plan to expand its oil export routes by adding capacity from its northern fields and building a pipeline to ship oil from southern fields to Ceyhan in Turkey, a government spokesman said.

The contingency plan was set by the government's energy and economic committee to deal with any potential crisis should Iran close the Strait of Hormuz, which would halt about 80 percent of Iraq's oil exports.

Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, used for a third of the world's seaborne oil trade, if Western moves to ban Iranian crude exports crippled its energy sector.

"Short and mid-term plans will be through boosting crude pumping and upgrading export capacity via Ceyhan port in Turkey. Also to increase the number of trucks that are shipping crude oil," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said on Sunday.

Iraq exported 2.014 million barrels per day in February, including 1.711 million bpd from its southern oil hub of Basra and via exports terminal in the Gulf, and 375,000 bpd from its northern fields around Kirkuk to Ceyhan. Dabbagh said plans approved by the government were a short-term measure based on recommendations from the oil ministry, and said stepping up efforts to convince Iran and the United States of the need to avoid closing the Strait of Hormuz.

"The oil ministry suggested accelerating work to complete building the north strategic pipeline and connect it to the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline to export oil from Basra via Ceyhan port," Dabbagh said.

Iraq has also been moving ahead with building a 680 kilometer pipeline able to transport 1 million bpd of crude from southern oilfields around Basra to a main pumping station in Haditha in the west, an oil ministry spokesman said.

"We managed to complete constructing 200 kilometers of the pipeline with plans to finish all work in 2013. We will have the flexibility of shipping Basra crude to various destinations, including towards Ceyhan port," spokesman Asim Jihad said.

The Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline has come under sabotage attacks many times since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and frequently breaks down due to technical faults. Under the contingency plan, Iraq may revive the Iraq-Syria pipeline as a long-term measure to ship crude from southern fields to Banias in the Mediterranean. Plans to build a pipeline to transport crude to Jordan's Aqaba port were also considered.

Last year, Iraqi and Jordanian officials said the two countries had agreed in principle to build a pipeline to supply Jordan with crude oil in future. Iraq transports 10,000-15,000 bpd of crude exports in trucks to Jordan. Dabbagh said the plan also encouraged talks with top OPEC oil exporter Saudi Arabia to ship Iraqi crude to Yanbu on the Read Sea. Iraq has managed to operate a first floating terminal which could help boosting oil exports from the southern fields to 2.2 million bpd.

Syrian Capital Of Damascus Sees Heaviest Fighting In Uprising

Opposition fighters battled government forces in Damascus on Monday, in the most violent gun battles the Syrian capital has seen since the start of the year-long revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, opposition activists said.

At least 86 people were killed on Monday, while 150 others were injured in clashes and bomb attacks in the Syrian capital of Damascus, the Anatolian news agency reported. The agency also said the death toll since the uprising began last March now stands at over 11,000.

The fighting near the center of Assad's power base appeared to be an attempt by the opposition, who have been forced out of Homs and Idlib, and came under attack in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor on Monday, to show they still pose a serious challenge.

The heavy fighting shattered the night calm in the al-Mezze district, home to intelligence offices and foreign embassies, and left two "terrorists" and one member of the security forces dead, Syria's official news agency SANA said.

The armed confrontation came just two days after a double car bombing killed at least 27 people in the heart of the city, raising fears the capital might sink into mayhem.

"These clashes were the most violent and the closest to the security force headquarters in Damascus since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution," said Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

He said 18 pro-Assad fighters were wounded in the shooting, with the sound of heavy machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades echoing through the pre-dawn gloom. Reports from Syria cannot be independently verified as the authorities have barred access to rights groups and journalists.

Assad is fighting for the survival of his family dynasty, which has ruled Syria with an iron fist for more than four decades, and has rejected calls from much of the West and the Arab world to stand aside.

His troops have launched fierce crackdowns in recent weeks, winning back much lost ground, but the violence has not abated and analysts warn the uprising could degenerate into civil war, pitting Assad's minority Alawite sect against the Sunni Muslims, who make up 75 percent of the 23-million-strong population.

Witnesses said pro-Assad forces had stormed the eastern Sunni Muslim city of Deir al-Zor on Monday to seize areas held by the Free Syrian Army -- a lightly armed and disparate resistance force led by army defectors.

"I heard the sound of several explosions. They could be tanks firing their guns or the opposition using dynamite to try and slow down their advance," Tariq, one of the residents, told Reuters by phone from the city, which lies on the road to Iraq.

SANA reported that 13 civilians were shot dead by opposition "terrorists" near Syria's third largest city Homs on Sunday and said opposition forces had also destroyed a railway bridge linking Damascus to the southern Deraa region.

Feared Militia

Damascus residents told Reuters that the fighting in Mezze included an attack by the opposition in the Western Villas area, near the home of Assef Shawkat -- Assad's brother-in-law and deputy chief-of-staff of the armed forces.

The grassroots Local Coordination Committees said security was subsequently beefed up, with the feared Shabbiha militia taking to the streets. The government had previously tried to maintain a semblance of normality in the area, sparing it the roadblocks and concrete barriers seen elsewhere in the capital.

On Sunday, car bombs targeted a criminal police headquarters and a security intelligence center in Damascus, killing 27 and wounding more than 100. A car bomb also hit a residential area of Syria's second city Aleppo on Sunday, killing two people.

The United Nations says more than 8,000 people have been killed and some 230,000 forced to flee their homes, including at least 30,000 who have escaped abroad. The government says about 2,000 members of the security forces have been killed.

Turkey has raised the prospect of setting up a "buffer zone" in Syria to protect those trying to flee. Turkey's Disaster and Emergency Management Department said on Monday 279 Syrians had crossed the border since March 18 and March 19, bringing the total number of Syrian refugees in the country to 16,446.

The UN-Arab League envoy for Syria, Kofi Annan, is expected to send a team of experts to Damascus later on Monday to discuss his proposal to deploy international monitors in Syria in a bid to stem the violence.

Assad, who has received crucial backing from both Russia and China on the UN-Security Council, has questioned the worth of such a mission.

Arms deliveries to Syria surged 580 percent from 2007 to 2011 compared with the previous five years, a leading think tank said on Monday, with Russia supplying most of the weapons.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said Moscow had supplied 78 percent of Syria's weapons imports during the period. A top Russian official said last week he saw no need for any change to military cooperation accords with Damascus.

Turkey Pays Final Respects To Soldiers Killed In Kabul Chopper Crash

The official commemorative ceremony for the 12 Turkish soldiers who were killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan last week began early on Tuesday at the 4th Army Corps Command in Ankara.

President Abdullah Gül, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel, as well as top military officers, attended the ceremony.

The plane carrying the bodies of the soldiers -- among whom were nine officers, two non-commissioned officers and one specialized sergeant -- landed at Ankara's Etimesgut Military Airport around 12:30 a.m. on Sunday. The bodies were then taken to a forensic medicine institute. Five of the soldiers will be buried at Cebeci Military Cemetery in Ankara after an official ceremony, while the bodies of the other five soldiers will be sent to their hometowns for burial from Etimesgut Military Airport.

A Turkish military helicopter crashed into a home near the Afghan capital on Friday, killing 12 Turkish soldiers on board and four Afghan civilians on the ground. It was by far the deadliest incident involving Turkish soldiers in Afghanistan, where they play a noncombatant role.

The helicopter, a Sikorsky, was on a mission for United States-led NATO forces when it went down near Kabul, the Turkish military said in a statement. Iran, the U.S. and Afghanistan have extended their condolences to Turkey over the incident.

The names of the soldiers killed in the helicopter crash in Afghanistan on Friday are as follows: Maj. Mithat Çolak, Maj. Şükrü Bağdatlı, Maj. Serkan Doğan, Maj. İsmail Cem Yakınlar, Capt. Adil Erdoğan, Commanding Sgt. Maj. Salih Helvacı, Commanding Sgt. Maj. Mehmet Akbaş, Spec. Sgt. Önay Vurucu, Capt. İlker Aydın, 1st Lt. Murat Yıldız, 1st Lt. Tahsin Barutçu and 1st Lt. Okan Melikoğlu.

Home Study Will Have Limited Scope, Minister Says

Educatiom Minister Ömer Dinçer dismissed claims that many children will be out of the school system if the government goes through with its education reform.

"A cabinet decree will determine those within the scope of distance learning. Their number will be very limited, not more than 2 percent,' Dinçer said. "Graduates of secondary schools will have to enroll in high school. It is a must under the bill. Not everyone will have the distance-learning option. A cabinet decree will determine those within the scope of distance learning."

Critics have said the option of home study after eight years would encourage conservative parents to take girls out of school and marry them off. In further remarks, Dinçer said the "religious culture and ethics" classes would remain compulsory under the bill and students would be allowed to choose elective courses to study Islam, Christianity or Alevism.

On another much-criticized point, the minister said the school-starting age would be five years old and the upper limit six years old. If a child turns five in September, he or she will be enrolled in primary school.

Dinçer said the curriculum for first grade would be overhauled and brought closer to kindergarten programs to facilitate children's adaptation to school. Some kindergarten teachers may be shifted to first-grade classes at primary schools, he said, without providing figures.

The ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, rushed the education bill through the Education Commission on March 11 in a session marred by unprecedented brawls. Commission Chair Nabi Avcı took advantage of the chaos and hurriedly read out the draft, which was approved by AKP votes in half an hour.

The bill is also under fire for its early introduction of vocational classes, after four years of basic education. The reform is widely seen as an AKP move to re-open the secondary stage of the imam-hatip religious schools, which were closed in the late 1990s under an eight-year uninterrupted education program.

Dinçer argued such criticism missed the fundamentals of the bill, insisting students would be able to improve themselves according to their talents.

"Highlighting the imam-hatip schools puts the issue to an ideological debate. If a student is talented in music, he or she can take music classes, the same applies for sports or other areas. The education system will be more flexible and democratic," he said.

Industry Minister Nihat Ergün, meanwhile, dismissed referendum calls for the approval of the education bill, which is to be put on a debate at the General Assembly in late March.

"The government at the time introduced eight-year uninterrupted education without any in-depth analysis. Now they call for a referendum. Was the eight-year uninterrupted education system approved by referendum so they are demanding a referendum now?" Ergün said.

Government Holds BDP Responsible For Clashes

Following the clashes between police and Kurdish protesters during banned Nevruz celebrations in Istanbul Sunday, in which one person died, officials from the Turkish government have said they hold the Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, responsible.

"It seems the BDP and its followers' concern is neither to hold meetings and demonstrations in a democratic environment, nor to celebrate Nevruz. Their concern is to make a scene, to kick up a storm, and to engage in activities that harm [other] citizens' lives and property, to gain currency in this manner and to present to the world such an image of Turkey," Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ said.

Bozdağ added that the BDP supporters did not have good intentions for the protests and did not hold democratic rallies. Meanwhile, groups of people from the BDP gathered in Istanbul's Arnavutköy district for the funeral of Hacı Zengin, who lost his life during the clashes. Zengin, 57, was reported to be a member of the BDP's Arnavutköy branch, and is alleged to have lost his life after being subjected to pepper gas during the protests.

"The police and some civilian nationalists attacked the protesters together," BDP Istanbul Deputy Levent Tüzel told the Hürriyet Daily News.

Another BDP co-chair, Gülten Kışanak, said Zengin's body bore signs of having been beaten.
But Istanbul Governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu indicated there had been no more detentions since Sunday and that roughly 135 people in all had been taken into custody since the Nevruz demonstrations began.

Gov. Mutlu also sent his condolences to the family of Zengin. Zengin was a member of the Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, but held no high-ranking position within it, Mutlu said while visiting the private Esayan Armenian High School in the Fatih district Monday.

"[Zengin] was afflicted with asthma and received treatment accordingly. He was at his home in Arnavutköy at 1:30 p.m. He fell ill at 3:30 p.m. The assessment made at the hospital indicated there was no trace on his body of injury resulting from a signal flare or other things," Mutlu said.

Meanwhile, nine of the 135 suspects detained during the Nevruz celebrations had been transferred to the courthouse, according to reports. The Chief Prosecutor's Office in the southeastern province of Diyarbakır has also launched an investigation into the Nevruz demonstrations held in that city.


The Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality made a statement Monday saying there had been extensive damage to mass transit vehicles and bus stops following Sunday's clashes.

Thirty-nine city buses were hit by stones and severely damaged, according to the statement. A bus belonging to the municipality's traffic department that was used for children's traffic education had also been torched.

Five ticket booths were destroyed along the Metrobüs route, while 42 glass panels on overpass railings were smashed. A total of 42 bus stops between Istanbul's Yenikapı and Zeytinburnu districts were allegedly demolished by protesters. Six trams were damaged, and numerous tram windows were shattered by stones hurled by protesters, the statement said, while a number of ticket booths and token-dispensing machines were damaged beyond use.

Explosives Found Near Nevruz Site In Eastern Turkey

Police have found explosives near İtfaiye square in the eastern province of Van Monday.

The square was designated as the gathering place for tomorrow's Nevruz celebrations in the city. Bomb squad destroyed the explosives as Van Governor Münir Karaloğlu said they would make a detailed statement on the quantity and type of the explosives later on.

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