4 protesters reportedly slain in clashes at U.S. Embassy in Yemen

SANA, Yemen -- Hundreds of Yemeni protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy in Sana and started fires on Thursday, another eruption of violence in a series of protests sweeping the Middle East and elsewhere over an online trailer for a film mocking the Islamic prophet.

Four protesters were killed and more than 30 were injured, some of them severely, after security forces fired gunshots and lobbed tear gas into the air in an attempt to scatter the demonstrators, a Yemeni security source said on condition of anonymity.

Infuriated protesters smashed security office windows and broke past barriers, hurling stones at buildings and setting two cars on fire outside. Demonstrators tore down the American flag and lifted a white banner saying, “There is no god but Allah and his messenger is Muhammad.” Graffiti sprayed on the walls read, “For the prophet.”

PHOTOS: Protesters attack U.S. embassies, consulate

"I went to this demonstration to defend my religion and to denounce this crime, which we consider a great violation against the divinity of Islam and its symbols," said protester Mohamed Ahmed.

Others demanded that the embassy be shuttered. “It is not the first time they insulted the Koran and Islam, and I think it is about time to close the U.S. Embassy and kick out its ambassador,” another demonstrator told The Times.

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Muslims hold small protest in Tel Aviv over film

JERUSALEM -- A few dozen members of the Islamic Movement in Israel held a nonviolent protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv on Thursday, holding banners saying “freedom of speech does not equal insulting the prophet Muhammad” and denouncing a film about Islam that has triggered protests in the Arab world as a “base and despicable act.” 

Wael Mahameed of Jaffa, among the organizers, told Israeli radio that “the West is trying to embarrass the Muslim world and incite against the Islamic nation, particularly where the prophet Muhammad is concerned.”

Other Islamic leaders in Israel appealed to ambassadors from the United States and European Union nations to pass legislation in their countries to prevent such insults, Israeli media reported.

The appearance on the Web of a trailer for "The Innocence of Muslims," a film made in Southern California, triggered demonstrations this week for its depiction of Muhammad as a buffoon who, among other things, condones pedophilia. A protest late Tuesday outside the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was followed by an attack that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

In Israel on Thursday, U.S. Ambassador Daniel B. Shapiro did not sound concerned for his safety, even as American missions continued to be targeted in neighboring countries. “I feel safe with our security and cooperation with Israel’s security services, yes,” he responded to a question while touring Israel’s south.

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Egyptian protesters, police continue to clash near U.S. Embassy

This post has been updated. See the note below for details.

CAIRO -- As Egypt's security forces fired tear gas Thursday to disperse rock-throwing crowds near the U.S. Embassy here, President Mohamed Morsi condemned attacks on American missions in his country and Libya.

Two days after protesters scaled the embassy's walls to take down the U.S. flag, hundreds of people clashed with security forces in downtown Cairo. As the scuffles have continued throughout the day, about 70 people have been injured, among them members of security forces, according to the state-run news agency.

[Updated 2:01 p.m. Sept. 13: The state news agency later reported that at least 224 people had been injured. The state-run Al Ahram newspaper reported 24 arrests so far in the ongoing clashes.]

The protests purportedly were initially sparked by anger over a video produced in the United States that many Muslims deem insulting to the prophet Muhammad and Islam.

PHOTOS: Protesters haul down flag at U.S. Embassy in Cairo

On Thursday, live video from Cairo showed hundreds of protesters chanting as they charged at security forces on the outskirts of the embassy: "With our soul, our blood, we’ll sacrifice ourselves for you, prophet." 

But unlike earlier in the week, the protesters clashing with security forces on Thursday were primarily street youths and so-called soccer hooligans with no clear political affiliation.

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Four suspects reportedly arrested in breach of U.S. Embassy in Cairo


This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

CAIRO -- Four suspects accused of breaching the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo were arrested Wednesday, Egyptian state media reported.

The brief report from the official Middle East News Agency said the four arrestees had been transferred to the state prosecutor. Security forces were still searching for others who had scaled the embassy walls during a demonstration Tuesday, the news agency said.

Protesters enraged over a film mocking the Islamic prophet Muhammad climbed over the embassy walls and tore down an American flag, briefly raising a black flag that carried the words: "There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet."

PHOTOS: U.S. ambassador killed in attack on consulate in Libya

More severe violence erupted later Tuesday in Libya, where U.S. Ambassador Christopher  Stevens and three other Americans were killed as a mob attacked and burned the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.

Egyptian officials have condemned the movie but stressed that the U.S. government had nothing to do with making the film, calling the Tuesday incident “regrettable and unacceptable.”

The Egyptian prosecutor general has also placed nine Coptic Christians living abroad and Florida pastor Terry Jones, who praised and promoted the amateur film, on a travel watch list. Jones and the Copts are wanted for questioning by Egyptian officials after several lawyers filed complaints against them, alleging they were tied to the film and had defamed Islam.

The U.S. Embassy in Cairo said visa services Wednesday and Thursday were canceled. The embassy said it would still be offering emergency services to American citizens, who it advised to avoid large areas where large gatherings may occur.

"The security situation remains fluid," it warned on its website.

[For the record, 10:42 a.m. Sept. 12: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that the embassy would be closed Thursday; it will be open but visa services are not being offered.]


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Photo: Egyptian soldiers stand guard in front of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Wednesday. The Arabic on the wall reads, "anyone but God's prophet." Credit: Nasser Nasser / Associated Press

Clinton praises ambassador to Libya, calls attackers 'savage group'

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday said officials were still trying to determine the motives and methods of the heavily armed men who stormed a U.S. consulate and killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in eastern Libya, calling the attackers a “small and savage group.”

She hailed the slain ambassador, Christopher Stevens, as a veteran diplomat who began his career as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in Morocco. He was named envoy to the Libyan rebels early in 2011 to support their uprising against longtime strongman Moammar Kadafi, and first entered their stronghold, Benghazi, on a cargo ship.

“He risked his life trying to stop a tyrant, then gave his life trying to build a better Libya,” Clinton said at the State Department. She said she had told Stevens' sister, Ann, that “he will be remembered as a hero by many nations.”

Clinton said that Sean Smith, a State Department information technology specialist who also was killed in the attack, was an Air Force veteran and father of two young children. Smith was in Benghazi on a brief assignment.

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Egyptian protesters haul down flag at U.S. Embassy in Cairo

CAIRO -- More than a dozen Egyptian protesters, angry over what they called an anti-Muslim video, scaled the outer wall of the fortress-like U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Tuesday and took down an American flag.

In its place, they raised a black flag that read: "There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet" before Egyptian security forces sought to tame the crowd.

As night fell, protesters continued to gather outside the embassy in one of the biggest demonstrations  there since the fall of Hosni Mubarak's regime early last year. Security forces surrounded the compound to prevent protesters from again storming the facility, though some demonstrators remained on the wall, waving the black flag.

PHOTOS: Protesters haul down flag at U.S. Embassy in Cairo

As many as 2,000 demonstrators had rallied outside the embassy earlier in the day to protest video footage posted on  YouTube that demonstrators said had been made by Egyptian Coptic immigrants in the United States.

A segment of the low-budget video refers to Muhammad and his followers as "child lovers." In one part of the preview, the actor portraying the Islamic prophet tells his followers to take children through their battles for their pleasure. It also shows the prophet speaking to a Muslim donkey, asking him if he loves women.

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Envisioning a post-Assad Syria as civil war grinds on

Assad posters near aleppo
With no end in sight for the bloody fratricide ravaging Syria, and with the world's most powerful nations bitterly divided over what to do next, U.S. and European diplomats have redirected their efforts from trying to halt the civil war to planning for a new Syria once it is over.

GlobalFocusThe blueprints emerging are necessarily vague, given that no one yet knows how or when Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime will fall or what constellation of political opponents will replace it. The proposals also lack any common strategy, reflecting discordant views among advocates of a free Syria on how best to aid the outgunned rebels. Washington is more wary than its allies of sending arms that could end up in the hands of Al Qaeda and other Islamic militants who have infiltrated the civil war to gain a new foothold in the Middle East.

French President Francois Hollande this week called on rebel factions to cobble together a transitional government that the international community can officially recognize and work with. But U.S. diplomats and political analysts argue that Assad's opponents are too fractious to put forward a united front or cohesive strategy for the war's end game. And with President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney equally loath to endorse bolder action on Syria -- fearing another costly, faraway conflict -- responsibility for contingency planning has fallen to academia instead of the Pentagon.

On Tuesday, the United States Institute of Peace issued "The Day After" plan for a post-Assad Syria. The 133-page statement of goals and principles for a new Syria was six months in the making. It was produced by 45 Syrian opposition figures brought together by the State Department-funded institute's Middle East experts and partners from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. It is long on institution-building wonk-speak and short on how the opposition is supposed to get to the post-Assad era. But analysts hailed it as a worthy undertaking even as government and rebel forces are mired in protracted battles to control key areas of Damascus and Aleppo.

No representatives of the Free Syrian Army fighting the regime were party to the post-Assad project, said Steven Heydemann, a senior advisor on Middle East initiatives who coordinated the talks among Syrian exiles, defectors and regime opponents who managed to travel abroad or participate via video linkup.

"The group very sensibly recognized there was no way to anticipate how the transition would happen," instead focusing on identifying the challenges that would confront the next leadership whether Assad flees, negotiates an exit or is deposed in a palace coup, Heydemann said. However the Assad dynasty ends, he noted, Syrians will have to grapple with divisive questions on how to treat those accused of war crimes, deter revenge killings and get the economy and social services back in working order.

While the United States is holding firm to its policy of providing only nonlethal aid to the rebels, Heydemann said, Washington could play a more effective role in coordinating other outside support. He pointed to the mounting incidents of Islamic extremists waging strikes against the Assad regime for their own purposes and weaponry coming in from autocratic supporters like Qatar and Saudi Arabia as giving "a Wild West quality" to help for the underdog rebels.

"The United States is very concerned that support from outside for elements of the Syrian opposition not lead to strengthening of Al Qaeda or Islamic fundamentalist forces that becomes problematic in the postwar process," said Charles Ries, a career diplomat heading Rand Corp.'s Center for Middle East Public Policy.  "But our reluctance [to supply arms] has paradoxically caused the division of the Syrian opposition and has encouraged those Islamist elements to find their own sources of support and influence."

The task eluding the United States and its allies is uniting the disparate opposition forces inside and outside Syria into a cohesive leadership that they can support and ratchet up the pressure on Assad, Ries said. 

Bilal Y. Saab, a Syria expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, shares other analysts' concerns that Islamic militants are filling the vacuum left by a hands-off U.S. policy toward the rebels. But it would be "ill-advised," he said, for the United States to recognize a transitional government that isn't broadly inclusive of the myriad ethnic, sectarian, religious and political factions in Syria.

"This administration is nowhere near doing that," Saab said of the prospects for a representative rebel leadership.

That said, initiatives like "The Day After" are laudable for keeping the Syrian opposition forces and their allies focused on the daunting challenges of building a stable nation once the civil war ends, Saab said.

"This is the most comprehensive effort by a U.S. entity to date to think about scenarios for after Assad," Saab said of the peace institute project. "It's not putting the cart before the horse."


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Photo: A rebel supporter treads on posters of Syrian President Bashar Assad lining the floor of a Free Syrian Army office in the town of Tal Rifaat, near Aleppo. Fighting has ground into a bloody impasse as international mediators differ on how to end the 17-month-old conflict. In Washington, the U.S. presidential election has relegated the Syrian civil war  to the diplomatic sidelines. Credit: Phil Moore / AFP/Getty Images

Egypt's Islamist president to visit Iran, news agency reports


CAIRO -- Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi plans to visit Iran this month for an international summit in what would mark the highest level official contact between the two nations in more than 30 years, according to Egypt's state news agency.

The MENA agency, quoting a source in Morsi’s office, said the newly elected Islamist president is expected to attend the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran on Aug. 30. The decision follows an invitation hand-delivered to Morsi nearly two weeks ago in Cairo by Iranian Vice President Hamid Baghaei.

Official relations between Egypt and Iran -- dominant players in the Middle East for generations -– broke off following the Iranian Revolution and Cairo’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Iran has been trying to repair the rift, but former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a strong U.S. ally who was toppled in an uprising last year, refused to restore full diplomatic ties.

Morsi’s expected trip potentially changes that dynamic and gives Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a public relations bump at a time when Tehran is facing increased international pressure on its nuclear program and over its ties to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

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Israeli threats about Iran -- crying wolf or laying groundwork?

Israelis collect gas masks at a Jerusalem mall
They're passing out gas masks in Jerusalem and testing a new text-messaging system for alerting Israelis to incoming rockets.

The civil defense preparations follow a week of renewed warnings by Israeli officials that airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities may be imminent, despite U.S. misgivings, to thwart Tehran's alleged pursuit of nuclear bomb-making capability.

GlobalFocusWestern intelligence reports have consistently described Iran's nuclear program as many months, if not years, away from being able to produce a nuclear-armed missile. The Islamic Republic hasn't even made the decision to retool its civilian programs for military production, nonproliferation experts say.

Still, Israeli says that the window of opportunity to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb is closing and that the time for a preemptive strike is now, even with the U.S. presidential election less than three months away and the Middle East already engulfed in war and revolution.

The drumbeat for attacking Iran has been heard periodically in Israel for more than a decade. Some international security experts ascribe the latest crescendo to seasonal saber-rattling that is no more likely than previous threats to lead to Israel going it alone on a provocative strike. But few dismiss the strident warnings of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, as cries of "wolf" that can be safely ignored.

"The Israelis don’t distinguish between Iran having the capacity to build a nuclear weapon and having the actual weapon," said Aaron David Miller at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, who served as Middle East advisor to six U.S. secretaries of State.

Israeli leaders, though split on the wisdom of attacking Iran without U.S. endorsement, are convinced that they face annihilation by the Islamic Republic should Tehran acquire nuclear weapons, Miller said. He expects Israel to make good on its threats to attack Iran in the near future, but not before the U.S. presidential election, which could be influenced by a new regional conflict that an attack would probably provoke.

"I just don’t believe there is a compelling case for the government of Israel to undertake such a risky action between now and November. Nothing is going to change that will substantially make their job harder or easier by waiting," Miller said.

Satellite surveillance of Iranian nuclear facilities suggests that Tehran has fortified the Fordow uranium-enrichment plant against a possible Israeli missile attack and cleaned up suspected traces of a nuclear test at its Parchin site, the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security reported this month. But a March report by the institute described Iran as being in a poor position to produce weapons covertly and unlikely to even attempt a "breakout" for military applications this year.

"I see this as exercising leverage on the Iranians and on the United States, as well as preparing the Israeli public for the consequences of an attack if it occurs," said Allen L. Keiswetter, a retired 36-year veteran of the State Department now teaching Middle East studies at the University of Maryland.

For Iran to pose an imminent nuclear threat to Israel, it would have to enrich its current uranium stockpiles to weapons-grade quality, build the warhead and develop the rocketry to deliver it, Keiswetter said. Tehran is probably three to five years away from completing all those elements, he said.

"But it’s what the Israelis think that matters," he observed. Surrounded by clashes in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, Syria's civil war and Arab militia threats from Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, Israel's actions on the Iranian nuclear matter may be driven as much by psychology as security strategy, Keiswetter said.

Public opinion weighs against Israel going it alone against Iran, as shown in poll results released Thursday by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University. Almost 61% of Israelis surveyed were opposed to striking Iran without the U.S. military behind the action. President Shimon Peres, Israeli Defense Forces chief Benny Gantz and the newly appointed Cabinet minister for civil defense, Avi Dichter, have warned that bombing Iran now would provoke retaliatory missile strikes on Israel, potentially killing hundreds of civilians and giving Tehran fresh incentive to rush a bomb into production.

The naysayers on unilateral Israeli action may have logic on their side, analysts say, but the hawks are building momentum for a strike and preparing the public for possible retaliation.

In his column this week, Foreign Policy magazine Editor-at-Large David Rothkopf observes that Israeli threats against Iran "come with the seasons," making it difficult to take them seriously.

"But it is worth remembering," he noted, "that the punch line of the story about the little boy who cried wolf is that, ultimately, the wolf shows up."


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Photo: Israeli shoppers at a Jerusalem mall pick up gas masks Thursday. Civil defense authorities have been distributing the protective gear as talk of launching airstrikes against Iran stirs public fears of retaliatory bombing. Credit: Jim Hollander / European Pressphoto Agency

Egypt's president orders two top military officials to retire

President Mohamed Morsi ordered two of Egypt's top military officials to retire and canceled a declaration by the military that had given the country's generals sweeping legislative and budgetary powers
This post has been corrected. See the note below for details.

CAIRO -- President Mohamed Morsi on Sunday ordered two of Egypt's top military officials to retire and canceled a declaration by the military that had given the country's generals sweeping legislative and budgetary powers. 

The announcement, which came unexpectedly, was made by the president's spokesperson. It followed last week's militant attack in the Sinai peninsula that killed 16 border patrol officers and called into question the military's preparedness.

Morsi removed the commander of the armed forces, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and the chief of staff of the armed forces, Gen. Sami Anan, appointing them instead as presidential advisors. He also named a senior judge, Mahmoud Mekki, as vice president.

It was not immediately clear whether the two military leaders agreed with the decision or whether it had the blessing of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. The council ruled Egypt following the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and has been locked in a power struggle with Morsi since the Islamist president took office June 30.

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