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Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

Category: Roula Hajjar

IRAN: Ahmadinejad's newspaper in fight with hardliners over hijab

Iran's ultra-hardliners have gone after a newspaper that acts as a mouthpiece for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after it published a supplement on the Islamic dress code for women in what is perceived as a battle for the loyalty of the country's middle class.

Police officers were reportedly assigned to protect the staff of the daily paper, Iran, on Sunday, a day after publication of the supplement titled Khatoun, Persian for lady.

A Tehran prosecutor was said to be drawing up charges against the paper.

The 259-page special section on the history of the dress code, or hijab, recalled practices in pre-Islamic times, cited anti-Islamic social theorists such as Bertrand Russell and Sigmund Freud and traced the headscarf's transformation throughout history.

Conservatives condemned the supplement and accused the paper of "promoting permissiveness and religious laxity" in an effort by Ahmadinejad's press advisor, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, to increase his boss' street cred among the middle classes who despise him.

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SYRIA: Regime appears to ignore Turkey; more protesters killed

Photo: Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Syrian President Bashar Assad meet in Damascus. Credit: Syrian Arab News Agency. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivered a firm message to the regime in Damascus on Wednesday afternoon, urging the increasingly isolated yet defiant President Bashar Assad to order the removal of tanks from the streets, and giving Assad 10 to 15 days to change his ways. 

But many Syrians didn't hold their breath. Rather than heed the call of its larger neighbor to north, Assad had sent tanks into the towns of Dimnish, Taftanaz and Sermin, only miles away from the Syrian border with Turkey, activists told Babylon & Beyond. 

According to the activists, 10,000 soldiers with 32 tanks entered the border area, broke into homes, looted personal belongings and arrested 25 youths. 

"They would break into the house and if they didn't find the fathers or the brothers, they would take the children instead," said Oday Al Sayyed, a member of the Local Coordination Committee in Dimnish.

"I think expanding their offensive along the border is a clear response -- even more a challenge -- to Turkey," Al Sayyed said.  

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SYRIA: Assad's security forces increasingly violent [Video]

The camera zooms in on a group of men, walking hand-in-hand to negotiate with the soldiers, black armed figures. The sound of crackling gunfire makes the demonstrators stampede back to safety. What looks like a herd of helpless people run for their lives, and many are shown to be shot down. One man in white drops to the ground before his listless corpse is carried away by two other protesters.

Syrian security forces loyal to President Bashar Assad continue to step up their clampdown on peaceful anti-regime protesters, video shows. A crackdown in the northwestern province of Idlib, the Sunni tribal area of Dair Alzour and the historically restive city of Hama have left many dead and reduced whole neighborhoods to rubble. 

In the above video, hundreds of mourners, some chanting "God is great," are dispersed with direct gunfire. The protesters run for cover. Many refuse to hide, only to be pushed out of danger by their friends. The mourners then bravely regroup, whistling defiantly and jumping in the air waving their hands above their heads, almost to get the attention of the assailants. 

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SYRIA: Ramadan kicks off with tumult and economic hardship [Video]

Syria Ramadan protests

The holy month of Ramadan, usually a time when streets are bustling with cheery shoppers as they make their purchases throughout the night until the last hours before dawn, has begun on a dreary note in various Syrian towns as shops remain closed and mosques remain empty, residents reported.  

But it appears to also be a time of hope for many Syrians, who wonder whether Ramadan will deliver a knockout blow against the regime of Bashar Assad. 

"We haven't seen days like this in a long time," said a 60-year-old shopkeeper who goes by the honorific Abu Omar. "People don't have money, and they don't want to buy anything. As store owners, we bought many items, and now we don't know how we are going to sell them." 

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LEBANON: Popular musician briefly detained for defaming president

Zeid Zeid Hamdan, 35, singer, composer and producer in the Lebanese band Zeid and the Wings was briefly imprisoned Wednesday morning for defaming Lebanese President Michel Suleiman in his single "General Suleiman."

Before Suleiman was elected as President of the Republic, he served as General of the army.

Hamdan, who was held at the prison of the Palace of Justice in Beirut, wrote on his Facebook wall that he was arrested Wednesday morning. 

"Dear friends, I am now in the prison of the police station of the Palace of Justice in Beirut because of my song 'General Soleiman'. They are prosecuting me for defammation of President Soleiman. I dont know, until when I am staying in prison. Please mobilize!" he wrote on his wall.

News of Hamdan’s arrest spread instantly throughout Facebook, provoking widespread condemnation of the Lebanese security apparatus and inciting the mobilization of several networks of Lebanese activists. 

"Zeid was arrested this afternoon for insulting the President when he said 'General Suleiman..Go Home' in his song," said  Hamdan's lawyer, Nizar Saghieh. His release followed immense public pressure.

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UAE: Jailing of democracy activists raises human rights concern

The oil-rich country of the United Arab Emirates is full of supposedly happy citizens enjoying a generous welfare system. But even so, it has not been spared the wave of pro-democracy sentiment that has engulfed the Arab world, as scholars and academics demand greater freedoms from the ruling regime.

This week, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch came down hard on the authorities in the UAE, issuing reports condemning the imprisonment of five pro-democracy activists last April.

The activists, Ahmed Mansoor, Nasser bin Ghaith, Fahad Salim Dalk, Hassan Ali Khamis and Ahmed Abdul Khaled, were involved in creating and signing an online petition posted in March. It called for democratic reforms in the form of an elected parliament with more legislative power. In response, UAE authorities detained the five, accusing them, among other things, of insulting the president.

Prominent human rights organizations accused the UAE of breaching international human rights conventions.

"The UAE government is using defamation as a pretext to prosecute activists for peacefully expressing their beliefs about the way their country should be run. We consider all five men prisoners of conscience and call on the UAE authorities to release them unconditionally," said Philip Luther, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa deputy director.

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SYRIA: Some doubt explanation for mystery blast

An explosion echoed through the area of Tayana in the eastern Syrian province of Dair Azour late Tuesday night when a pipeline caught fire.

The incident, which occurred around midnight, may have been the result of a wildfire that reached the oil pipeline, said SANA, the official Syrian Arab News Agency, quoting an unnamed official. Syrian state officials said the fire was an accident caused by technical mishaps rather than sabotage.

But many doubted the official story. 

According to Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the explanation provided by state officials was unlikely, owing in great part to the timing of the explosion.

"It is unlikely that a wildfire is going to start at 11 p.m. in the evening. How can grass surrounding the pipeline catch fire by itself? And if it was really just a fire, why did they wait till today to mention it?" he said.

The impoverished southeast region has been the scene of almost daily protests as Syrian security forces keep a close eye on the area from the outside, surrounding the city. Many are afraid the security forces will use the blast as an excuse to crack down harder.

"The implications of this event are dangerous, irrespective of whoever is behind it," said Abdel Rahman."One of the residents in Tayana heard the sound of a blast and hurried to the tribal chief there to notify him of what he had heard and to tell him that the residents had nothing to do with it."  

"There are so many stories. What if it's not an explosion of an oil pipeline? No one buys the narratives propagated by state media and state officials," said Ahed el Hindi, prominent Syrian dissident based in Washington. "But still, it does not suit the regime to look weak at this time." 

Protesters have largely observed peaceful protest in the 4-month-long uprising that has consumed various provinces, towns and villages throughout Syria.  

"Faced with the question of who was more likely to have done something like this, my answer would be the Syrian regime," said Yaser Tabbara, Syrian lawyer, activist and executive director of the Syrian American Council. "I don't put it beyond the regime to have done this to distract."  

-- Roula Hajjar in Beirut

SYRIA: Government official slams Clinton's criticism of Assad, 'flagrant' Western interference

An unnamed government source sharply denounced Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's condemnation of Syrian President Bashar Assad, calling it "provocative" evidence of the West's "flagrant" intervention in local affairs, the Syrian state news agency SANA reported.

"We believe that any relationship between states should be built on the principle of noninterference and we hold the United States to this condition, hoping that they will not act in a way that is offensive to the Syrians," added the official source. 

Syria dialogueAccording to the source, the purpose of Clinton’s statement was to aggravate the already dire situation, an aim that coincides neither with Syrian interests nor with the wellbeing of the Syrian people as a whole. 

Clinton's criticism of Assad came after an attack by pro-regime protestors on the American and French embassies Monday afternoon.

"He has lost legitimacy. He has failed to deliver on the promises he's made," Clinton told reporters in Washington. "He is not indispensible. We have absolutely nothing invested in him remaining in power," she said. 

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IRAN: Ahmadinejad urges Arabs to democratize even as his nation doesn't

Iran president

Some would consider it rather rich. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who got his post after a widely disputed election and serves under an unelected cleric whose powers are officially second only to God, encouraged Arab governments to heed their people's demands for reform.

"Today, the people of the region must enjoy equal rights, the right to vote, security and dignity, and no government can deprive them of freedom and justice or refuse their peoples' demands," Ahmadinejad said in a meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Monday evening, according to the president's official website (in Persian).  "The Islamic Republic of Iran believes that all regional governments can run their countries by introducing reforms and realizing their peoples' demands." 

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SYRIA: Activists snub regime's invitation to 'national dialogue'


The Syrian Local Coordination Committee, the primary mouthpiece of anti-regime protestors now posing the largest threat to the four-decade rule of the Assad family, released a statement Tuesday rejecting the regime’s invitation to a July 10 meeting aimed at compromise.

President Bashar Assad and the recently formed National Dialogue Commission chaired by Vice President Farouk Sharaa called for the consultation meeting last week.

According to the Syrian state-owned news agency SANA, the purpose of the meeting would be to "establish bases and mechanisms of dialogue in preparation for holding a National Dialogue Conference."

Sharaa's group extended invitations to all Syrian intellectual and political figures, SANA reported. 

The group representing the protesters responded to the invitation by questioning the meeting’s purpose, dismissing the regime’s call for dialogue as unlikely to arrive at actual solutions.

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SYRIA: Cameraman apparently shot by security officer [Video]

Shocking amateur video footage posted online Monday captures another heartbreaking moment in the brutal crackdown against peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators in Syria. 

The video, purportedly recorded on Friday in the town of Karm Shami in Homs province, reveals jerky footage filmed by a young man from the rooftop of one building. He documents gunfire before apparently being shot by an armed man wearing a military uniform. 

The cameraman's shaky voice takes the viewer through what he describes to be an arbitrary assault on civilians by a blurred figure in an army-green  uniform. Unsettling roars are heard throughout the neighborhood as the gunman gradually moves forward and indiscriminately opens fire.

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SYRIA: Brutal crackdown ravages northern cities, brings several casualties

Seven civilians were killed Wednesday as security forces stormed two northern towns in the larger governorate of Idlib, Agence France-Presse reported, citing a human rights activist. 

Ammar Qarabi, president of the Syrian National Human Rights Organization, told Reuters that Syrian security troops, still loyal to the Syrian President Bashar Assad, entered the town of Rama and used tank machine guns against civilians, killing four. 

Wissam Tarif, director of human rights organization INSAN, said "a military operation" was going on in Idlib and that the army entered three more towns early  in the morning.

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