Baghdad, Oct 17 (AP/UNB) — A family member of a popular Iraqi blogger says authorities have detained him, apparently over his coverage of anti-government protests.
The family member, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said heavily armed masked gunmen stormed the apartment of Shujaa al-Khafaji in Baghdad at dawn Thursday and took him away.
Al-Khafaji, 29, runs a popular Facebook page called "Brothers Iraq" that focuses on human rights violations.
On Tuesday the Facebook page, which has 2.1 million likes, posted a video that showed what it said were people setting a checkpoint on fire after the protesters had left. It blamed government supporters for the fire.
The relative said al-Khafaji received threats from unknown people in recent days warning him not to publish posts about the protests.
Ankara, Oct 17 (AP/UNB) — A senior U.S. delegation led by Vice President Mike Pence pursued an uphill mission Thursday to persuade Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to call for a cease-fire in his fight with Kurdish forces in northern Syria.
Armored SUVs carrying Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien entered the vast Turkish presidency complex in Ankara. Photos released by the Turkish government showed Pence and Erdogan wearing dour expressions as they shook hands before their one-on-one meeting.
That meeting lasted a little less than an hour and a half. A second meeting with the full delegations was still ahead.
The U.S. officials were expected to warn Erdogan that he will face additional economic sanctions if he doesn't halt his assault on Kurdish forces once allied with the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State group.
President Donald Trump earlier spoke dismissively of the same crisis he sent his aides on an emergency mission to douse. The U.S. delegation's visit came hours after Trump declared the U.S. has no stake in defending Kurdish fighters who died by the thousands as America's partners against Islamic State extremists.
Trump suggested Wednesday that Kurdish fighters might be a greater terror threat than the Islamic State group, and he welcomed the efforts of Russia and the Assad government to fill the void left after he ordered the removal of nearly all U.S. troops from Syria amid a Turkish assault on the Kurds.
"Syria may have some help with Russia, and that's fine," Trump said. "They've got a lot of sand over there. So, there's a lot of sand that they can play with."
He added: "Let them fight their own wars."
The split-screen foreign policy moment proved difficult to reconcile and came during perhaps the darkest moment for the modern U.S.-Turkey relationship and a time of trial for Trump and his Republican Party allies. Severe condemnation of Trump's failure to deter Erdogan's assault on the Kurds, and his subsequent embrace of Turkish talking points about the former U.S. allies, sparked bipartisan outrage in the U.S. and calls for swift punishment for the NATO ally.
Republicans and Democrats in the House, bitterly divided over the Trump impeachment inquiry, banded together Wednesday for an overwhelming 354-60 denunciation of the U.S. troop withdrawal. Many lawmakers expressed worry that the withdrawal may lead to revival of the Islamic State group as well as Russian presence and influence in the area, besides the slaughter of many Kurds.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., publicly broke with Trump to call the U.S. relationship with the Kurds "a great alliance."
"I'm sorry that we are where we are. I hope the vice president and the secretary of state can somehow repair the damage," McConnell said Wednesday.
Even among top administration officials, there were concerns that the trip lacked achievable goals and had been undermined by Trump before it began. While Erdogan faces global condemnation for the invasion, he also sees renewed nationalistic fervor at home, and any pathway to de-escalation likely would need to delicately avoid embarrassing Erdogan domestically. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking.
The White House disclosed that Trump had both cajoled and threatened Erdogan in an unusual letter last week, urging him to act only in "the right and humane way" in Syria. The letter was sent the day Erdogan launched the major offensive against the Kurds.
Trump started it on a positive note by suggesting the two of them "work out a good deal," but then talked about crippling economic sanctions and concluded that the world "will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don't happen. Don't be a tough guy. Don't be a fool!"
Trump did place some sanctions on Turkey for the offensive. But he appeared to undercut his delegation's negotiating stance, saying the U.S. has no business in the region — and not to worry about the Kurdish fighters.
"If Turkey goes onto Syria, that's between Turkey and Syria, it's not between Turkey and the United States," Trump said during an Oval Office meeting with Italian President Sergio Mattarella.
As he sought to persuade Erdogan to agree to a cease-fire, Pence also confronted doubts about American credibility and his own, as an emissary of an inconsistent president.
"Given how erratic President Trump's decision-making process and style has been, it's just hard to imagine any country on the receiving end of another interlocutor really being confident that what Pence and Pompeo are delivering reflects Trump's thinking at the moment or what it will be in the future," said Jeffrey Prescott, the Obama administration's senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf states on the National Security Council. He is also a former deputy national security adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden.
The U.S. withdrawal is the worst decision of Trump's presidency, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who meets often with the president and is one of his strongest and most important supporters in Congress.
"To those who think the Mideast doesn't matter to America, remember 9/11 — we had that same attitude on 9/10/2001," Graham said
Even before Trump's comments, Erdogan had stated on Wednesday that he would be undeterred by the sanctions. He said the fighting would end only if Kurdish fighters abandoned their weapons and retreated from positions near the Turkish border. If Pence can persuade Turkey to agree to a cease-fire, which few U.S. officials believed was likely, experts warn it will not erase the signal Trump's action sent to American allies across the globe or the opening already being exploited by Russia in the region.
Turkish troops and Turkish-backed Syrian fighters launched their offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria a week ago, two days after Trump suddenly announced he was withdrawing the U.S. from the area.
Ankara has long argued the Kurdish fighters are nothing more than an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has waged a guerrilla campaign inside Turkey since the 1980s and which Turkey, as well as the U.S. and European Union, designate as a terrorist organization.
Akcakale, Oct 16 (AP/UNB) — Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu says Turkey won't be affected by "sanctions and threats" against Turkey over its military incursion into northeast Syria.
In a speech to Parliament on Wednesday, Cavusoglu also said that Turkey would retaliate against sanctions imposed on the country.
He said: "No sanctions or threats are acceptable and will not affect our resolve."
"We will give the appropriate answer to these sanctions. We will take the necessary steps," he added.
The United States has announced a limited set of sanctions on Turkey and U.S. President Donald Trump warned he could obliterate Turkey's economy.
Several European nations have announced they are halting arms sales to Turkey.
The U.N. Special Envoy for Syria says there must be a cessation of hostilities between Turkish troops and Kurdish fighters as the world is "extremely alarmed by the humanitarian consequences of the crisis."
Geir Pedersen spoke to reporters after meeting Wednesday with Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem saying that he wants to make sure that the fighting in the north is not threatening "the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Syria."
Pedersen said there is only a political solution also to the crisis in the northeast and "we are appealing on all parties to participate in this."
The U.N. envoy said he is very optimistic that the committee that will draft a new constitution for Syria will start meeting at the end of the month.
He said it will work "as a door opener for the broader political process that is necessary to find a solution for the crisis in Syria."
The Kremlin says it expects Turkey's military action in Syria to be proportionate to its declared goal.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that Russia respects "Turkey's right to take measures to ensure its security" but also expected it be "proportionate to the task." He wouldn't comment on how long Moscow believes the Turkish offensive should last.
Russia moved quickly Tuesday to fill the void left by the U.S. troops' withdrawal from northern Syria, deploying its military to act as a buffer as Syrian government forces moved north under a deal with the Kurds, who have sought protection from the Turkish offensive.
In Tuesday's call, Russian President Vladimir Putin invited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to visit Russia to discuss Syria.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says Syrian Kurdish fighters must leave a designated border area in northeast Syria "as of tonight" for Turkey to stop its military offensive.
Erdogan made the comments in Parliament on Wednesday amid pressure for him to call a cease-fire and halt its incursion into Syria, now into its eighth day.
Erdogan made clear Turkey would not bow to pressure and would press ahead with the military operation until Turkish troops reach a depth of some 30 or 35 kilometer inside Syria.
He also called on the world to support Turkey's battle against Kurdish groups it considers to be "terrorists" for links to an insurgency within its own borders.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says that Russia is committed to mediating between the Syrian government and Turkey in order to ensure security in the region, as a Turkish offensive against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria enters its eighth day.
Lavrov said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies on Wednesday that Moscow will also continue to encourage Syria's Kurds and government to seek rapprochement after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the northern border area.
Lavrov also blamed the United States and Western nations for undermining the Syrian state, thus "pushing the Kurds toward separatism and confrontation with Arab tribes."
Lavrov during his visit to Iraq last week met with the leaders of the Kurdish autonomous region and said that Moscow is sympathetic to their need for autonomy.
Russia has been the most powerful backer of Syria's President Bashar Assad in the eight-year-old civil Syrian war.
France is calling on European and other members of the coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Syria to regroup as the U.S. abdicates its leadership role in the region.
French Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian said in an interview on French television channel BFM Wednesday that France is notably now looking to Russia, given their "common interests" in defeating IS in Syria.
He said the American military withdrawal from northeastern Syria is forcing European leaders to re-examine their alliance with the U.S. in the region.
Le Drian said France's "own security is at stake" amid the Turkish offensive against Syrian Kurdish fighters.
He said that "to accept this invasion" was giving IS "an open door" to return, as the chaos could allow thousands of Islamic State fighters detained in Kurdish-run prisons to escape.
Russia has moved to fill the void left by the U.S. in the conflict, deploying its forces toward Syria's border with Turkey.
Turkey's president says he won't halt its military offensive in northeast Syria, despite growing pressure and sanctions from NATO allies.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's comments came as Washington, which has announced limited sanctions on Turkey, said U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will travel to Ankara Wednesday to try and reach a cease-fire deal.
Speaking to a group of journalists, Erdogan said he told President Donald Trump: "We could never declare a ceasefire," adding that Turkey wouldn't negotiate with "terrorists."
Erdogan said he was "not concerned" by sanctions imposed on Turkey.
Turkey launched its offensive against Syrian Kurdish fighters it considers terrorists after Trump announced he was withdrawing U.S. troops.
Russia has signaled its role as de facto power broker in the conflict, deploying forces near the border following America's pullout.
Tehran, Oct 16 (AP/UNB) — Iran's semi-official Tasnim news agency is reporting that President Hassan Rouhani's brother has begun serving a five-year prison sentence on corruption charges.
Tasnim said Wednesday that authorities had transferred Hossein Fereidoun to Tehran's Evin prison.
Earlier in October, Iran's judiciary said an appeals court lowered Fereidoun's sentence to five years from seven on bribery charges.
The charges date back to 2016, and were brought by hard-liners who dominate the country's judiciary.
Rouhani, a relative moderate within Iran's political system, changed his surname decades ago.
Fereidoun had played a role as part of the team that negotiated Iran's 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers.
Iran has in the past jailed allies of former presidents for similar charges.
Akcakale, Oct 16 (AP/UNB) — National soccer team players give military salutes during international matches, Turkish flags flutter from balconies and storefronts, songs extolling the glory days of the Ottoman Empire blare from a border town's loudspeakers, punctuated by the occasional boom of outgoing artillery.
Since Turkey announced its incursion into neighboring Syria to clear out Kurdish fighters last week, patriotic sentiment has run high — as has bewilderment and anger at the overwhelmingly negative international reaction to Ankara's actions.
"At times of this kind of Turkish operation, we as Turkish people feel prouder about our nation," said Cuma Gunay, a 47-year-old supermarket owner in the town of Akcakale, which sits on the border with Syria.
A Turkish flag hangs above his shop entrance, and he keeps another behind his desk. "We are proud of our flag, that's why we hang it on our homes and shops. And it's also to support the Turkish army for our fight in Syria."
His town has been hit by mortars since the Turkish offensive began, causing damage but no deaths, although there have been 20 civilian deaths elsewhere inside Turkey from mortar attacks. Turkish-backed Syrian fighters occasionally drive across the border from the battlefield, flashing victory signs and chanting "Allahu Akbar" — God is Great — from the back of their pick-up trucks.
Just across the border lies the Syrian town of Tal Abyad, which fell to Turkish-backed forces on Sunday, although sporadic fighting has continued and Turkish forces were still firing artillery from Akcakale Tuesday.
News that Tal Abyad had fallen, announced on state-run media even as shelling continued, led to a flurry of random jubilatory events on the Turkish side of the border. Small convoys of flag-draped cars drove through the dusty streets, horns blaring; gaggles of flag-waving men posed and cheered for television cameras.
"I am overwhelmed by the joy of this achievement. But this achievement should be known by the whole world," 60-year-old Abbas Gulenc, a council member for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AK Party, said at one such event. He spoke beside a giant poster of Erdogan, who he said "is the real leader of the whole Muslim world and we all love him."
Turkish troops and Turkish-backed Syrian fighters launched their offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria on Oct. 9, two days after President Donald Trump suddenly announced he was withdrawing American troops from the area. Erdogan has said he wants to create a 30-kilometer (20-mile) -deep "safe zone" inside Syria.
Ankara has long argued the Kurdish fighters are nothing more than an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has waged a guerrilla campaign inside Turkey since the 1980s and which Turkey, as well as the U.S. and European Union, designate a terrorist organization.
But the offensive has led to an international outcry, causing tens of thousands to flee their homes and upending alliances in Syria's eight-year war. Having suddenly lost U.S. support, the Syrian Kurdish fighters have turned to Syrian President Bashar Assad to help them fend off Turkey's invasion, setting the stage for a potential military confrontation between Turkey and Syria.
Faced with a backlash, Erdogan launched a public relations offensive and blasted his critics, telling the EU he would "open the doors and send you 3.6 million refugees" if his Syria operation was described as an invasion.
That appears to have had little effect abroad. But at home many have rallied behind their president, and some appear genuinely taken aback by the international opprobrium raining down on Erdogan.
"Although Turkey is right to fight against terrorist organizations, European countries and America, all of them are against this operation and against Turkey. Why?" asked Gulenc, in a query often echoed in Akcakale. "Don't they know that this land is not owned by terrorist organizations? It's the land of Syria. So don't these countries know that America is bringing these terrorist organizations to this region for a purpose?"
All opposition parties, bar the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party, have voiced support for the offensive.
Criticism is not tolerated.
Last week, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said 121 people had been detained for social media posts critical of the incursion while some 500 people were under investigation for posts characterizing Turkey as an "invading" force and "insulting" the operation under Turkey's broad anti-terrorism laws.
There were dissenting voices within the main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, which many believe was forced to voice support to avoid being accused of having terrorist sympathies by Erdogan's ruling party. On Monday, authorities opened an investigation against CHP legislator Sezgin Tanrikulu over a series of critical tweets.
"While Turkey could have solved the Kurdish (issue) through dialogue, the government dragged Turkey to the swamp," Tanrikulu said. "War is death, war is pain, war is bloodshed."
There was also a backlash against Mustafa Akinci, president of the self-declared Turkish state in the ethnically divided island of Cyprus, who said although Turkey's offensive is named Operation Peace Spring, "what is being spilled is not water, it is blood." Erdogan was furious, saying Akinci "should know his place" and reminding the Cypriot politician he is in office "thanks to Turkey."
On Monday, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said there was widespread support for the operation.
"Our people's support is a source of motivation for us," he said.