Mecca, Jun 1 (AP/UNB) — Saudi Arabia's King Salman slammed Iran over recent attacks targeting the kingdom, describing the incidents on Saturday in a speech before Muslim leaders gathered in Mecca as "terrorist acts" that threaten global energy supplies.
It was the monarch's strongest words yet since tensions spiked in recent weeks between the two regional heavyweights.
Iran had a representative present at the 57-nation summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, or OIC, but its top leadership did not attend.
The Islamic summit drew political figures and heads of state from countries spanning Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
They come with widely varying policies and priorities, but share a common reverence for the Al-Aqsa mosque in east Jerusalem, known as the first "Qibla" because Muslims prayed toward it before the cube-shaped Kaaba in Mecca.
Despite sharp differences between OIC member-states on a gamut of issues, a final statement by the group stressed support for a future Palestinian state, as well as the rejection of any deal or plan that prolongs Israeli occupation and undermines the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
The language stood in contradiction to the Trump administration's decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in recognition of it as Israel's capital, as well as a still undisclosed White House plan already rejected by the Palestinian leadership.
Glimpses of the plan suggest it sidelines or ignores the longstanding goal of Palestinian independence. A meeting next month in Bahrain aimed at rallying Arab economic support for the plan is being boycotted by the Palestinian Authority, but Saudi Arabia and the UAE are attending amid growing ties with Israel in the face of shared enemy Iran.
The U.S. recently sent an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf as tensions run high. The escalation stems from the Trump administration's decision to withdraw the U.S. from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers last year and impose crippling economic sanctions on the country.
Speaking to leaders from OIC countries, King Salman opened the summit saying the world must fight the sources and funding of terrorism around the world.
He then said the alleged sabotage of four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in past weeks represents a "grave danger" to the security of maritime traffic and regional security.
He blamed Iranian-backed terrorist militias of being behind a subsequent drone attack on a Saudi oil pipeline.
"We emphasize that these subversive terrorist acts are aimed not only at the kingdom and the Gulf region, but also on the security of navigation and energy supplies to the world," King Salman said.
Iran denies being involved in the incidents.
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani had his own message for OIC leaders ahead of the summit, urging them to stay focused on the rights of Palestinians.
In a letter published online Friday, Rouhani said Muslim leaders should not let the importance of Palestinian statehood be "marginalized" in the face of the Trump administration's forthcoming Israeli-Palestinian plan.
Rouhani also noted in the letter he was not invited to the Islamic summit, but expressed Iran's readiness to work with all Muslim leaders to confront the White House's so-called "Deal of the Century."
King Salman told OIC leaders that the rights of Palestinians remains the cornerstone issue of the organization, which was formed 50 years ago in response to an extremist arson attack on the Al-Aqsa Mosque in east Jerusalem, one of Islam's most sacred sites.
He said the mosque remains under occupation and threat.
"We reiterate with emphasis the rejection of any measures that infringe upon the legal status of Al-Quds Al-Sharif," King Salman said, referring to east Jerusalem and the mosque compound.
Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said any peace deal that does not include an independent and sovereign Palestinian state along 1967 borders with east Jerusalem as its capital will be rejected by the OIC body.
"We shall not accept the rewriting of history, exchanging justice with economic benefits and disregarding dignity and legitimacy," he told the OIC summit.
The meeting began after midnight and ran into the early hours Saturday due to evening prayers and day-long fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.
Saudi Arabia's effort to bring leaders to Mecca reflects the kingdom's desire to project a unified Muslim and Arab position on Iran to isolate it internationally.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said Tehran regrets "Saudi Arabia's abuse of its privilege as the host" of the OIC "to sow division between Islamic and regional countries."
The summit follows two emergency Arab meetings the night before in Mecca criticizing Iran's behavior and influence in countries like Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
Presenting a unified stance on Iran faces obstacles within OIC member-states, which includes Iran. Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is attending the summit, has sought good ties with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, for example.
The leader of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group told supporters in Lebanon on Friday the Mecca summits are a Saudi call for help from Arab countries after Saudi Arabia failed to win in Yemen, where the kingdom and its allies have been at war since 2015 against Iranian-allied Yemeni rebels.
"It is a sign of failure," Hassan Nasrallah said. "These summits are calls for help ...that express the failure and the inabilities in confronting the Yemeni army, popular resistance and people."
Afghanistan, May 31 (AP/UNB) — In a second suicide attack in as many days to rattle the Afghan capital, a car bomb targeting a U.S. convoy exploded early Friday morning in an eastern neighborhood, leaving seven Afghan casualties, police said.
Bob Purtiman, Public Affairs officer with the U.S. military in Kabul, said four service members also received minor injuries when the suicide bomber struck the convoy. The one-line statement did not elaborate.
Firdous Faramaz, Kabul police chief spokesman, could not immediately say how many of the seven Afghan casualties were dead or wounded, saying it was "too early" to tell.
The suicide bomber struck as a U.S. convoy was passing through Kabul's eastern Yakatot neighborhood, where U.S. and NATO forces maintain complexes. Facilities operated by the Afghan National Security Forces are also located in the same area.
In a telephone interview Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid took responsibility for Friday's attack, claiming 10 U.S. soldiers were killed. Taliban claims are often exaggerated.
Witnesses said the explosion was powerful, blowing out windows in neighboring buildings. Traffic on the streets was light because the bombing occurred on a Friday, the weekly day off.
On Thursday, six people were killed when a suicide bomber blew himself up outside an Afghan army academy and training center, also in the same area but several kilometers (miles) away from Friday's explosion.
The Interior Ministry on Thursday said a soldier had noticed a suspicious person, and as he approached him the attacker detonated his explosives near the academy. The soldier's action likely saved lives.
No one has taken responsibility for Thursday's attack. Both the Taliban and an Islamic State affiliate have infiltrated the capital in the past.
Afghanistan's beleaguered security forces come under near daily assaults. While the Afghan Defense Ministry no longer releases casualty figures for its troops, the estimate is as many as 50 Afghan security personnel die each day in Afghanistan.
The attacks by the Taliban have continued unabated despite peace talks with the United States as well as a fresh round of talks with Afghan notables this week in the Russian capital Moscow. Following the Moscow talks, Suhail Shaheen, spokesman for the Taliban's political office in Doha, said "spectacular progress" was made on some issues, without elaborating.
The Taliban have rejected repeated demands for a cease fire, saying the fighting will continue until U.S. and NATO troops withdraw from Afghanistan. They also continue to refuse to hold direct talks with the Afghan government, calling them U.S. puppets, yet several senior government personalities, including members of a Kabul peace council attended the Moscow meeting. The Taliban have said they will meet with members of the government, but as ordinary Afghans, rather than as government representatives.
Saudi Arabia, May 31 (AP/UNB) — Saudi Arabia's King Salman opened an emergency summit of Arab leaders in Islam's holiest city of Mecca on Friday with a call for the international community to use all means to confront Iran, but he also said the kingdom remains committed to peace.
King Salman delivered his remarks at Arab summits in Mecca that were hastily convened after a spike in tensions between Saudi Arabia and its rival Iran.
Tensions have also spiked between Tehran and Washington in recent weeks, with the U.S. sending an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf. The Trump administration's taken a hard line with Iran, first withdrawing from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers last year, then imposing punishing economic sanctions on the country.
Saudi Arabia's effort to draw regional leaders to Mecca reflects the kingdom's desire to project a unified Muslim and Arab position on Iran.
Still, there were visible signs of tension and disagreement among the Arab officials gathered at the meetings, which began just before midnight on Thursday and ran into the early hours of Friday due to Ramadan, which practices include day-long fasts and extended evening prayers.
Morocco did not send its king amid a cooling of ties with Saudi Arabia, while Qatar sent its prime minister rather than its ruling emir amid a diplomatic standoff with Arab neighbors. Iraq, which lies on the fault line between Shiite Iran and the mostly Sunni Arab world, rejected the Arab League's final statement after the summit and was not a signatory to it.
All, however, condemned the alleged sabotage of four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates and a drone attack on a key Saudi oil pipeline earlier this month.
Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of arming Yemeni rebels behind the pipeline attack. Iran denies being involved in the incidents.
In his opening remarks, King Salman called on the international community to thwart Iran's behaviors and for "using all means to stop the Iranian regime from interfering in the internal affairs of other countries, harboring global and regional terrorist entities and threatening international waterways."
He added that Saudi Arabia is keen to protect the region from the scourge of war and that its "hand remains extended for peace."
Iraq, meanwhile, struck a sharply different tone. President Barham Salih said in his remarks that Iran is a Muslim country and neighbor.
"We do not hope for its security to be targeted since we are sharing 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) of border and a number of relations," he told the gathering of Arab League heads of state.
"Honestly, the security and stability of a neighboring Islamic country is in the interest of Muslim and Arab states," he added.
Another summit in Mecca is expected on Friday, focusing largely on Palestinian statehood and independence. It will bring together leaders from the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which is headquartered in Saudi Arabia.
With a captive audience that included King Salman, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas used his speech in Mecca to slam the Trump administration's deal aimed at dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"I would like to reconfirm our absolute rejection of the American attempts to bring down international law and international legitimacy under what is called the 'Deal of the Century'," he said, adding that it attempts to replace "land for peace" with "land for prosperity".
Glimpses of the plan hint it will focus heavily on so-called economic peace while sidelining or ignoring the longstanding Palestinian goal of independence. The two-state solution continues to enjoy the broad support of the international community.
President Donald Trump's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner seeks to rally Arab Gulf states to back economic initiatives for Palestinians as part of the plan next month in Bahrain.
There are diverging policy differences among once clubby Gulf Arab states toward Iran, as well. Oman, for example, has relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran and acts as a facilitator of talks.
The diplomatic standoff between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt has pushed the tiny nation closer to Iran.
Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani attended the Mecca summits, marking the highest-level visit to Saudi Arabia by a Qatari official since the 2017 rift erupted.
Al Thani shook hands with his host, King Salman, but there was no eye contact with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and no visible pleasantries with Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman very quickly shook the Qatari royal's hand, but they did not appear to exchange words.
Washington has tried unsuccessfully to mediate an end to the diplomatic standoff between its Gulf Arab allies. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Thursday the U.S. welcomes Saudi efforts to discuss Iranian threats in the region.
"Gulf unity is essential in confronting Iran, to confronting their influence, to countering terrorism writ large, and, of course, to ensuring a prosperous future for the Gulf," she said.
Upon their arrival at the airport in Saudi Arabia, leaders were shown Yemeni rebel military items, such as a destroyed drone, missiles and mortar shells used in the conflict with the Saudis. They were given a brief explanation of the weapons on display by Col. Turki al-Maliki, spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition at war in Yemen.
Meanwhile, Trump said this week the U.S. wasn't "looking to hurt Iran at all."
"We're not looking for regime change — I just want to make that clear," Trump said. "We're looking for no nuclear weapons."
Jiddah, May 30 (AP/UNB) — Saudi Arabia's foreign minister on Thursday urged Muslim nations to confront recent attacks in the region that the U.S. and its allies have blamed on Iran with "all means of force and firmness."
Ibrahim al-Assaf made the comments at a meeting of foreign ministers of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation ahead of a series of summits in the kingdom beginning Thursday.
Al-Assaf said the alleged sabotage of boats off the coast of the United Arab Emirates and a drone attack on a Saudi oil pipeline by Yemen's Iranian-backed Houthi rebels requires the region to "make more efforts to counter the terrorist acts of extremist and terrorist groups."
"We should confront it with all means of force and firmness," al-Assaf said.
Iran has denied being involved in the attacks, which come amid heightened tensions between Tehran and the U.S. An Iranian official was at the meeting where al-Assaf spoke on Thursday, but Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did not attend.
The U.S. has accused Tehran of being behind the string of incidents this month, which also included a rocket strike near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
On Wednesday, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton told journalists in Abu Dhabi that there had been a previously unknown attempt to attack the Saudi oil port of Yanbu as well, which he also blamed on Iran.
Bolton described Tehran's decision to back away from its 2015 atomic deal with world powers as evidence it sought nuclear weapons, even though it came a year after America unilaterally withdrew from the unraveling agreement.
He also stressed the U.S. had not seen any further Iranian attacks in the time since, something he attributed to the subsequent military deployments — America recently sent an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf. But Bolton warned the U.S. would strike back if again attacked.
"The point is to make it very clear to Iran and its surrogates that these kinds of action risk a very strong response from the United States," Bolton threatened, without elaborating.
Meanwhile Wednesday, acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said some 900 troops coming to the Mideast over the perceived Iran threat — to reinforce the tens of thousands already in the region — would be deployed in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Another 600 attached to a Patriot missile battery have had their deployment in the region extended.
"The Iranian threat to our forces in the region remains," Shanahan said.
Bolton's trip to the UAE comes just days after Trump in Tokyo appeared to welcome negotiations with Iran.
"We're not looking for regime change — I just want to make that clear," Trump said. "We're looking for no nuclear weapons."
But Bolton himself, for years before becoming national security adviser, called for overthrowing Iran's government in interviews and in paid speaking engagement before an Iranian exile group.
"I don't back away from any of it. Those are positions I took as a private citizen," Bolton said when asked about his prior remarks. "Right now I'm a government official. I advise the president. I'm the national security adviser, not the nation security decision-maker. It's up to him to make those decisions."
Jerusalem, May 30 (AP/UNB) — Israel's parliament voted to dissolve itself early Thursday, sending the country to an unprecedented second snap election this year as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition before a midnight deadline.
The dramatic vote, less than two months after parliamentary elections, marked a setback for Netanyahu and sent the longtime leader's future into turmoil.
Netanyahu, who has led Israel for the past decade, had appeared to capture a fourth consecutive term in the April 9 election. But infighting among his allies, and disagreements over proposed bills to protect Netanyahu from prosecution stymied his efforts to put together a majority coalition.
Rather than concede that task to one of his rivals, Netanyahu's Likud party advanced a bill to dissolve parliament and send the country to the polls for a second time this year.
"I didn't spare any effort to avoid unnecessary elections," Netanyahu said after the vote, lashing out at an ally-turned-rival, Avigdor Lieberman, who refused the prime minister's offers to join the government.
He said the country was being forced to hold "unnecessary, wasteful elections because the people had their say. They didn't have their say enough for what Mr. Lieberman wants."
Had the deadline passed without the vote, Israel's president would have given another lawmaker, most likely opposition leader Benny Gantz, an opportunity to put together a coalition.
After the vote, Gantz angrily accused Netanyahu of choosing self-preservation over allowing the country's political process to run its course.
Gantz said that Netanyahu opted for "three crazy months" of a new campaign and millions of wasted dollars over new elections because he is "legally incapacitated" by looming indictments. "There is no other reason," Gantz said.
The country now plunges into a new election campaign that will last at least three months under Israeli law. With much of the country on vacation in late August, a tentative date of Sept. 17 was set.
The campaign looks to complicate Netanyahu's precarious legal standing. Israel's attorney general has recommended pressing criminal charges against him in three separate corruption cases, pending a hearing scheduled for October.
Even if Netanyahu wins the election, it is unlikely he will be able to form a government and lock down the required political support for an immunity deal before an expected indictment. That would force him to stand trial and put heavy pressure on him to step aside.
The political uncertainty could also spell trouble for the White House's Mideast peace efforts. The U.S. has scheduled a conference next month in Bahrain to unveil what it says is the first phase of its peace plan, an initiative aimed at drawing investment into the Palestinian territories.
With the Palestinians, who accuse the U.S. of being unfairly biased toward Israel, opposed to the plan, and Netanyahu preoccupied with re-election, it remains unclear how the Americans will be able to proceed. President Donald Trump's top Mideast adviser, son-in-law Jared Kushner, was in Israel and scheduled to meet with Netanyahu on Thursday.
That Netanyahu struggled to secure a majority coalition in the 120-seat parliament was a shocking turn of events for the country's dominating political figure.
In the April 9 vote, Likud and its hardline nationalist and religious parties captured a majority of 65 seats.
The immediate cause of the crisis was his dispute with Lieberman, a former aide who leads the small Yisrael Beitenu faction.
The men had clashed over Lieberman's demand to subject ultra-Orthodox religious males to the military draft, which is compulsory for most Jewish males. Without Lieberman's five Knesset seats, Netanyahu had no parliamentary majority.
But the deeper issue is connected to Netanyahu's legal troubles. Facing a likely indictment, he had pushed his coalition partners to pass legislation that would grant him immunity and curb the powers of the country's Supreme Court.
Opposition parties strongly oppose granting Netanyahu immunity, robbing him of any alternatives to Lieberman as he tried to form a coalition.
For the past two decades, Lieberman has alternated between being a close ally and a thorn in the side of his former boss. He has held a number of senior Cabinet posts, including defense minister and foreign minister.
Lieberman's base of support is fellow immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and he takes a hard line toward the Palestinians but also is staunchly secular.
He has demanded that the parliament pass pending legislation that requires young ultra-Orthodox men to be drafted into the military. Years of wide exemptions for religious men have generated resentment among the rest of Jewish Israelis, who are required to serve.
"I am not against the ultra-Orthodox community. I am for the state of Israel. I am for a Jewish state but against a Halachic state," Lieberman wrote on Facebook early Wednesday, using a term that refers to a Jewish state governed by Jewish law.
The ultra-Orthodox parties consider conscription a taboo, fearing that military service will lead to immersion in secularism, and insist the exemptions should stay in place. Netanyahu, dependent on the parties' political support, says they have compromised enough and refuses to press them further.
Netanyahu maintained contacts with Lieberman and other parties in hopes of forging a deal as a parliamentary debate took place. Many of the Likud speakers lashed out at Lieberman, accusing him of forcing an unnecessary election.
But as a parliamentary debate stretched toward midnight, it became clear there would be no compromise.
A bitter Netanyahu claimed after the vote that Lieberman "had no intention" to compromise and made unrealistic demands. "He is dragging the entire country for another half a year of elections," he said.