A sequel to a nightmare for Iraqi refugees living in Syria


BAGHDAD -- For some Iraqi refugees living in Syria, it feels like a sequel to a nightmare.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis fled to Syria during the brutal sectarian war that followed the U.S.-led ouster of Saddam Hussein.

Syria beckoned as a haven of religious tolerance, especially for many Shiite Muslims and Christians targeted by Sunni extremists in Iraq.

Now many Iraqis are returning, home fearing an ugly replay in Syria where, as in Iraq, they worry that the fall of a secular autocrat, Bashar Assad, may give rise to a Sunni Islamist wave of religious intolerance.

This time, they say, it is the Syrian rebels — mostly from that nation’s Sunni Muslim majority — who are stoking a sectarian agenda.

“There are signs of religious extremism, and that extremism means they will be against the Shiites,” said Salim Mohammed Alwan, who returned to Baghdad on Saturday after living in Syria since 2007.

Alwan, 45, a restaurant worker, said his religious identity only became an issue with the emergence of the Sunni-led uprising against Assad, a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

“No one used to ask me about my sect until this crisis began,” Alwan said upon arriving in Baghdad. “Now we are asked about it almost every day.”

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Syrian rebels reportedly seize border crossings into Turkey, Iraq

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

Syrian rebels reportedly took over major border crossings to Turkey and Iraq on Thursday, a gain for the opposition fighters trying to overthrow President Bashar Assad.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group based in London, said rebels took control of the Turkish border crossing of Bab Hawa after Syrian forces retreated. The group also told Reuters that fighters had taken over the Abu Kamal gate near the Iraqi town of Qaim, a major transit point between the two countries, where amateur video showed the rebel flag hoisted over a building.

The video above, shared by opposition activists, shows rebel fighters firing their guns into the air and shouting, “God is great!” near a crossing station, purported to be the Bab Hawa gate into Turkey.

Other videos showed fighters pulling pictures of Assad and his father, the late Hafez Assad, off the walls at a building and stomping on them and torching the Baathist Syrian flag.

[Updated 2:04 pm July 19: The rebels later withdrew from controlling the Turkey crossing, a Free Syrian Army official said, holding it for just a few hours to videotape their accomplishment.

“We as the Free Syrian Army can’t hold an area for long, especially strategic areas like Bab Hawa,” Lt. Col. Khaled Hamoud told The Times. “But we showed the world that we were able to take over the Bab Hawa crossing.”]

An Iraqi general told the Associated Press that rebels had also taken over another border crossing into Iraq, at a remote outpost near the Sinjar mountain range. Twenty-one Syrian border guards were killed at the Sinjar post, Brig. Gen. Qassim Dulaimi told the news agency.

“If this situation continues, we are going to close the entire border with Syria,” Iraqi Deputy Interior Minister Adnan Assadi told the Agence France-Presse news agency, describing Syrians being executed before the eyes of Iraqi soldiers.

Although rebels have already been smuggling weapons across the porous borders with Turkey and Iraq, which stretch for hundreds of miles, seizing the crossing points is a boon for the opposition fighters, allowing them to ferry in more weapons, vehicles and supplies without having to traverse difficult terrain.


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-- Alexandra Sandels and Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut and Emily Alpert in Los Angeles




Al Qaeda moving from Iraq into Syria, Iraqi foreign minister says


Iraq's foreign minister said Thursday that Al Qaeda fighters were flowing from Iraq into Syria to carry out "terrorist attacks," a phenomenon that Western governments and Middle East analysts have increasingly feared in the chaos and violence now raging in Syria.

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters in Baghdad that Iraq had "solid evidence" that members of the extremist group, who previously had streamed from Syria into Iraq to aid its insurgency, were moving in the opposite direction.

"Our main concern, to be honest with you, is about the spillover -- about extremist, terrorist groups taking root in neighboring countries," Zebari was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.

Syrian President Bashar Assad often casts the uprising as the work of Islamic terrorists funded from abroad. Rebels have rejected the term and tried to distance themselves from extremist groups, accusing the government of orchestrating "terrorist" bombings in Damascus to gin up alarm about Islamic extremism and undermine their fight for greater freedoms and democracy.

The Syrian National Council and other opposition groups announced earlier this year that they "are all united in rejecting the message of Al Qaeda, as it only serves the regime’s propaganda."

But U.S. and British officials say some suicide bombings and other attacks in the country point to the presence of Al Qaeda, which has called for its followers to head to Syria and help overthrow Assad. Some Middle East analysts say the sectarian overtones of the Syrian conflict are catnip for the extremist group, which sees the carnage as a battle against oppressed Sunni Muslims.

"They’re attracted like a moth to a flame," Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Los Angeles Times in May. "It does seem that there are some there, and it does seem to be growing."

Fears that the violence might spread beyond Syria's borders have grown as Turkey spars with the Assad regime over its recent attack on a Turkish air force jet. Worries about Al Qaeda jumping into the fray have only aggravated the anxiety over how the Syrian conflict could spread, as the Iraqi minister warned.


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari speaks to media in Baghdad on Thursday. Credit: Mohammed Jalil / European Pressphoto Agency


Tighter sanctions on Iran trigger threats and defiance

Iranian missiles test-fired during military exercises Tuesday
Harsh new sanctions imposed on Iran were intended to so deprive its citizens of life's necessities that the government would be forced to end what the U.S. and its allies fear is a program to build nuclear weapons.

GlobalFocusInstead, Iran's Revolutionary Guard on Tuesday test-fired missiles capable of reaching Israel and the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet base in Bahrain. Iranian lawmakers have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz to bottle up Persian Gulf neighbors' oil shipments. Senior officials warned that progress in nuclear negotiations won't occur until the United States and its allies show Iran more respect.

Iran says that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only, and since U.S. and European Union sanctions went into effect Sunday its officials have reacted with defiance and bluster. The Central Bank chief has reassured the public that $150 billion in foreign currency reserves should see the country through the trade cutoffs, and officials have said they stockpiled plenty of imported food and consumer goods.

But Middle East analysts see Tehran's posturing as unsustainable in the long run. As food prices soar, gasoline lines lengthen and the rial currency is eroded by inflation, Iranians who care more about their day-to-day existence than having a nuclear program will force leaders to make a choice, experts predict.

Iran gets 80% of its revenue from oil exports, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which valued that trade at about $73 billion for 2010. Due to previous sanctions that have curbed Iranian exports and international bank transactions, production has already fallen from 4 million barrels a day two years ago to 3.3 million a day in May, the EIA said. The new sanctions are expected to cut exports by half, creating storage problems for what Iran can't sell and potentially forcing the government to shut down wells.

Those prospects have instigated the muscle-flexing coming out of Tehran in recent days, according to those monitoring the situation.

"I don’t think Iran will try, or that it would succeed in closing the Strait of Hormuz, but they will probably harass shippers in hopes of having an impact on the neighbors' ability to ship out oil," said Suzanne Maloney, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Attempts to cast Iran as a victim won't rally nationalist spirits for long, Maloney said.

"These themes of conspiracy and economic warfare and of the world being against Iran are part of their history, but they are going to feel the impact of these sanctions in a way that nothing else in the revolution or the Iran-Iraq war had on their lives and wallets in the past 33 years," she said.

The rial has lost 40% of its value against the U.S. dollar since a round of sanctions were approved late last year. As jobs disappear in a shrinking oil industry and household incomes decline, Iranians may come to see their leaders as the cause of their hardships.

Alon Ben-Meir, an Iraqi-born Middle East scholar at New York University's Center for Global Affairs, expects the standoff over Iran's nuclear program to be resolved if and when its leaders realize they will lose power unless they abandon it.

Iran's Islamic leaders see themselves as the guiding influence of the Shiite-inhabited crescent that extends from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, said Ben-Meir. That is why Tehran has insisted on inclusion in the Syrian peace process, he said, to ensure that the minority Shiite-offshoot Alawite sect of Syrian President Bashar Assad retains its grip on power and its political allegiance to Iran.

Israel has threatened to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities if they appear to be near to producing atomic weapons or entering what Ben-Meir calls the "zone of immunity," the relocation of development activities to fortified compounds like one at Fordow, near Qom, that would be invulnerable to air strikes.

Iranian lawmakers have already summoned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to parliament to explain why the economy has deteriorated so rapidly, said Ben-Meir, and the public is "not buying all of this" when told the setbacks are the result of unjustified sanctions.

Defiance is playing well on the domestic front in these early days, say the analysts, but Tehran's leaders will ultimately have to decide between the nuclear program and popular demands for decent living standards.


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--Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles

Photo: An upgraded medium-range Shahab-1 missile is launched during the second day of military exercises on Tuesday by Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard at the Lut desert in southeastern Iran. Tehran's response to tightened sanctions has been defiance. Credit: Mojtaba Heydari/European Pressphoto Agency

Refugees of 2011 underline 'suffering on an epic scale'

One in four new refugees in 2011 were from Afghanistan.

More people became refugees in 2011 than in any other year since the new millennium began, with one out of every four of them coming from Afghanistan, the United Nations refugee agency reported Monday.

The agency called the new numbers a sign of “suffering on an epic scale.”

Though more than 800,000 people fled across borders last year, the highest number since 2000, the number of people displaced worldwide actually dropped as millions of people returned to their homes, the agency said.

All in all, 42.5-million people were displaced or seeking asylum last year, a figure that could actually be higher since many countries do not report the number of people believed to be stateless.

Afghanistan produced the most refugees, followed by Iraq, Somalia and Sudan. Most fled to neighboring countries such as Pakistan, Iran and Kenya; Pakistan hosted more than 1.7-million refugees last year, the largest number in the world according to government estimates. Nearly all of them came from Afghanistan.

The U.N. refugee agency said while growing numbers of displaced people have returned home, it is alarmed that almost three out of every four refugees under its watch have been exiled from their homes for at least five years, many of them languishing in refugee camps.

The report was released ahead of World Refugee Day on Wednesday. The day comes as the agency is grappling with several new crises.

The U.N. recently lamented a dire shortfall of funding to help people uprooted by conflict in northern Mali, where Tuareg rebels have declared their own state. Bangladesh has turned away Rohingya Muslims trying to leave Myanmar after a recent eruption of ethnic violence, despite calls from the U.N. and other countries to allow them in. And in South Sudan, tens of thousands of refugees crossing from Sudan are suffering from deadly dehydration.


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— Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Afghan refugees travel on a truck as they cross the border between their homeland and Pakistan  at Torkham on May 20. Credit: A. Majeed / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.

Scores, many of them Shiites, killed in Iraq bombings

BEIRUT -- Iraq suffered its latest spasm of apparently sectarian bombing attacks Wednesday, as more than a dozen explosions struck Baghdad and a broad swath of the country, leaving scores of people dead and hundreds injured.

Many of the victims were Shiite Muslim pilgrims out to honor one of their sect’s most revered saints.

Coordinated bombings shook the capital, the southern city of Hillah and the northern city of Kirkuk, among other sites. The  now-familiar images of bloodied corpses, shattered storefronts and stunned survivors abounded in the stricken locales.

Wire service reports indicated at least 16 explosions took place.

Authorities said the death toll was at least 65 nationwide, but it seemed certain to rise, possibly surpassing the 78 killed in a slew of bombing attacks on Jan. 5, the deadliest so far this year.

Iraq has seen a steady stream of such bombings this year, most targeting the majority Shiites.


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Iran, leading powers stake out positions ahead of nuclear talks

As Iranian officials prepared to meet this week with a six-nation bloc on the future of Tehran's nuclear programs, they hinted at a willingness to allow inspections to resume if the international community shows "good will." Read that to mean an easing of sanctions.

GlobalFocusIranian state-run media and politicians heralded the Monday visit of the U.N. nuclear agency chief as a promising start in the latest effort to draw Tehran into the international nonproliferation fold. They portrayed the International Atomic Energy Agency and its director, Yukiya Amano, as having wisely kept their distance, and their credibility, from America's misguided pursuit of weapons of mass destruction in neighboring Iraq.

The Vienna-based nuclear agency "could not be considered as accomplice to the crimes committed by the U.S. statesmen in Iraq," Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency, or IRNA, said in holding up the nuclear agency as a more reliable force against proliferation than the "Hiroshima culprits" in Washington.

But arms control experts say there is little difference in the positions of the IAEA in demanding access to Iranian nuclear facilities and those of the United States and its allies in the so-called 5-plus-1 forum that will convene in Baghdad on Wednesday.

Negotiators from the five permanent member states of the U.N. Security Council -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France -- and Germany want Tehran to cease enriching uranium to 20%, a level that can be elevated to weapons-grade quality in a matter of months, and to ship what stockpiles it has out of the country to ensure it isn't upgraded.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated Monday his insistence that all uranium enrichment cease in Iran and that the underground nuclear facility at Qom be shuttered. Israel is not party to the talks but its threat to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities to thwart what Israel sees as a plot to destroy it has ratcheted up tensions in the region and made resolution of the destabilizing inspection standoff a priority.

Diplomats preparing the 5-plus-1 agenda at the Baghdad talks said they would offer Iran help with a small reactor used in medical research and a promise of no further sanctions for its violation of nonproliferation agreements, according to The Times' diplomatic correspondent Paul Richter.

That is an offer that may have to be sweetened if Tehran is going to take it, says Leonard S. Spector, a former Energy Department nuclear security official now at the Monterey Institute's James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Iran wants suspension of the sanctions curbing its foreign oil sales and access to international banks.

"The U.S. position is the U.N. position, that the program must be stopped and then we'll talk about removing sanctions," said Spector. But the best the 5-plus-1 side can hope for, he suspects, is that Tehran won't walk away from the table before tweaks to the deal can be pondered.

Iran is suffering under sanctions that curb its oil sales and international commerce, and may demand some relief in exchange for any concession on inspections to avoid an appearance of bowing to U.S. pressure.

That may be why Iranian politicians and commentators sought to present Amano and the IAEA as the more even-handed mediators with whom Tehran can expect to be dealt with respectfully.

"Iran considers IAEA's independence and promotion as a factor which would prevent violation of the member states' rights,” IRNA reported after Amano's meeting with Iran's lead negotiator on nuclear matters, Saeed Jalili.

Iranian lawmaker Heshmatollah Falahtpisheh, a member of the national security and foreign policy committee, told the semiofficial Fars news agency that Tehran will probably accept some inspections of Parchin, a key nuclear site south of Tehran where IAEA officials believe a nuclear bomb test was carried out inside a secret pressure chamber nine years ago. Iran has denied having such a chamber.

Iran would like to ease tensions over its nuclear programs by reopening its sites to IAEA inspection, Falahtpisheh said, if officials detect "good will" on the part of the IAEA.

What latitude the U.S. and fellow negotiators will have to reach a deal on inspections is uncertain, especially given the potential political fallout for President Obama in the midst of a reelection campaign.

John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush who has endorsed Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential campaign, told Fox News on Monday that he was "worried they’re going to lose the substance of the deal in an effort to get the political spin" of a breakthrough on inspections.

Obama's Republican political opponents may be "putting down a marker" for the Baghdad meeting, intending to portray any advances as a concession to Iran, Spector said.

"But there is certainly a point where Obama can say that if we can move the ball forward, it's a risk worth taking."


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Photo: IAEA director Yukiya Amano at the Vienna airport as he embarked Monday on a trip to Tehran two days ahead of a gathering in Baghdad where the U.N. nuclear agency and a six-nation bloc will meet in hopes of getting Iran to agree to resume IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities. Credit: Ronald Zak / Associated Press


Iranians criticize U.S. 'crimes' in Iraq while praising IAEA

Yukiya Amano, the head of the U.N. nuclear agency, said after meeting with Iran's chief negotiator on nuclear issues, Saeed Jalili,  that the atmosphere among Iranian officials was "positive" ahead of scheduled meeting in Baghdad with six world powers
The head of the U.N. nuclear agency said Monday after meeting with Iran's chief negotiator on nuclear issues that the atmosphere among Iranian officials was "positive" ahead of Wednesday's scheduled meeting in Baghdad with six world powers.

Iranian state-run media also described the talks with International Atomic Energy Agency director Yukiya Amano as promising, but cast the U.N. agency as a more credible partner in the negotiations than the United States because the IAEA had stayed out of the American pursuit of suspected weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003.

"The IAEA's opposition to the U.S. false claim over Iraq helped the agency steer clear of Washington so that the U.N. agency's officials could not be considered as accomplice to the crimes committed by the U.S. statesmen in Iraq," Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency, or IRNA, reported from Amano's meeting with Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in Tehran.

The Iranian media posture suggested that if Iran is willing to make any concessions in its nuclear programs, such as reducing its uranium enrichment levels below what would be suitable for weapons production, that it would be done through the U.N. auspices in the talks in Baghdad, not in response to U.S. pressure.

The so-called 5-plus-1 talks bring Iran together with the five permanent U.N. Security Council members -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France -- and Germany. The United States has been lobbying for tighter controls on Iran's nuclear industries to prevent Tehran from developing and acquiring nuclear weapons. Iran insists that its programs are aimed at peaceful uses and that it has a right to develop nuclear energy.

"Iran considers IAEA's independence and promotion as a factor which would prevent violation of the member states' rights,” IRNA reported, drawing a contrast between the Vienna-based U.N. agency and what Iranian officials see as U.S. efforts to restrict its rights.

Jalili was quoted by the news agency as referring to Washington as "Hiroshima culprits" who continue to produce and stockpile nuclear weapons and as such cannot lead the global nonproliferation campaign.

Amano was quoted in news postings on the IAEA website as saying that his meeting with Jalili heralded a "good atmosphere" at the Baghdad gathering that is scheduled to begin Wednesday.

Amano's visit ahead of the Baghdad meeting was reportedly in hopes of securing Tehran's agreement to let IAEA inspection of its nuclear facilities resume after a four-year suspension.


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--Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles

Photo: IAEA chief Yukiya Amano, left, talks with reporters after meeting Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, right, in Tehran on Monday. Credit: Adel Pazzyar / Associated Press / Islamic Republic News Agency

Could Al Qaeda be infiltrating the Syrian uprising?

Damascus bomb
Suicide bombings and sophisticated attacks on key Syrian government sites have stirred fear among some Middle East analysts that Islamic extremist groups are trying to infiltrate the 14-month-old rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

GlobalFocusAssad has blamed foreign militants for the uprising against him since it began in March 2011, trying to cast his bloody crackdown as part of the broader fight against Islamic terrorists, including Al Qaeda.

Although no direct evidence of Al Qaeda involvement has emerged, some Obama administration officials and Middle East analysts say they have detected the group's hand in recent attacks. They point to the scale and tactics of recent suicide car bombings in Damascus and to calls by Al Qaeda leaders for Muslim holy warriors to join the fight against Assad.

“We do have intelligence that indicates that there is an Al Qaeda presence in Syria, but frankly we don't have very good intelligence as to just exactly what their activities are,” U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last week in Washington.

In February, Ayman Zawahiri, the elusive Al Qaeda strategist who took the reins of the terrorist network after Osama bin Laden was killed last year, called on Muslims from neighboring countries to flock to Syria to help their embattled brethren topple the Syrian regime.

A little-known militant group calling itself Al Nusra Front has claimed responsibility for bombing Syrian government sites, including the coordinated suicide attacks in Damascus on May 10 that killed 55 people. Al Nusra Front has said its attacks are carried out by fighters returning from battles elsewhere, triggering suspicion of links to Al Qaeda and the insurgency in Iraq.

Rebel leaders in the Free Syrian Army have insisted that  they want nothing to do with the terrorist  network. But some security analysts contend that Al Qaeda or other extremist groups could take advantage of Syria's chaos and violence to resume operations in the region.

“Al Qaeda has this historical interest in having a stronger base in the Levant,” Bilal Y. Saab, a Middle East analyst at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, said of the eastern Mediterranean region that spans Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and parts of Turkey, Egypt and Iraq.

Some argue that the failure of the West to come to the aid of Syria's outgunned rebels provides an opening for an opportunistic Al Qaeda to infiltrate the disparate forces fighting Assad.

"Given the chaos in Syria over the last year, it's probable that some radical groups with links to Al Qaeda have made their way into Syria," said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. "They're not being accepted into the communities as a legitimate movement but they are still effective as armed gangs, and maybe some rebels accept it when they go and blow up a Syrian army intelligence building."

Salem sees a danger of some rebel factions, desperate for assistance in their fight to oust Assad, cooperating with extremists on the fringes of the Syrian conflict.

"They do share in some objectives, and Al Qaeda has lethal capacities that some people may be looking for," Salem said.

Al Qaeda's influence in the Middle East has  eroded over the last decade, damaged by its reckless violence in Iraq that  added to the thousands of civilian deaths from the U.S. invasion, occupation and the anti-American insurgency that followed. Al Qaeda was ultimately defeated in Iraq by fellow Sunnis who rose up against them, no longer willing to tolerate the carnage.

In Syria, Al Qaeda may be ideologically drawn to a fight in which the Sunni majority is paying the heaviest price in a conflict that has taken on increasingly sectarian overtones as the killing escalates.

“From their point of view, the battle going on in Syria is against defenseless Sunnis, that no one is helping them,” said Elliott Abrams, a senior national security advisor to President George W. Bush and staunch advocate of more decisive action in the Middle East to contain Iran and Shiite militias.

Though Abrams conceded that it can't be said with certainty that Al Qaeda is involved, he argued there are compelling signs that foreign Islamic extremists are in Syria on both sides of the conflict.

"They’re attracted like a moth to a flame," he said. "How many, we don’t know. But it does seem that there are some there, and it does seem to be growing.”

For Abrams and others, the danger lies in withholding aid to the rebels even as they see indications that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Shiite Hezbollah fighters from neighboring Lebanon have come to Assad's side.

“What have we given them? Kofi Annan,” Abrams said disparagingly of the former United Nations chief,  a special U.N. and Arab League envoy whose six-point peace plan has failed to halt the Syrian bloodshed.

It is unlikely that more than tightened economic sanctions and moral support is on the way. The Obama administration is in the midst of a reelection campaign, and Americans have tired of bloody, expensive foreign wars and want to focus on economic woes at home. Neither do allies in Europe have the stomach or the money to join a fight that would almost certainly be deadlier and longer than the seven-month campaign last year to oust Libya's Moammar Kadafi.

Analysts are divided about the effect of adding an Al Qaeda presence to the volatile mix, unsure whether that would dissuade Washington and its allies from more forceful intervention to aid the rebels or encourage it. To avoid a quagmire like Iraq, the Western allies alternately could craft a response like the stepped-up U.S. targeting of an Al Qaeda branch in Yemen with airstrikes.

The rebels have shown an ability to use more sophisticated tactics in recent weeks, a sign of outside expertise, some say. But the advances could be related to the rebels getting better organized after more than a year of battling an enemy with superior firepower.

Even in the attack that most cite as a possible footprint of Al Qaeda, the massive twin car bombings that struck a government intelligence building in the capital last week, many have blamed Assad agents aiming to sow fear of the rebels and shore up support for the regime.

“The very sophistication of the attack could tell us this is the work of Al Qaeda, because of the similarity we saw in incidents in Iraq during the occupation,” said Saab of the Monterey Institute. “But it’s still not unthinkable that the Syrian government is behind it. They’ve already killed thousands of their own people.”


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Photo: Middle East experts monitoring the clashes in Syria saw traces of Al Qaeda militants' strategy and tactics in the May 10 coordinated suicide bombings in Damascus that left at least 55 people dead and damaged an intelligence compound. Credit:  Youssef Badawi / European Pressphoto Agency 


Iraq still operating secret torture site, rights group says

Baghdad's Green Zone

A clandestine jail and alleged torture site under the control of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki continues to operate more than a year after the government ordered it shut down, Human Rights Watch claims in a report being released Tuesday.

Massive roundups of suspected loyalists of late leader Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party were conducted in October and November, when government security agents went door to door in Baghdad, the capital, with lists of those targeted for secret detention, the rights group reported. Another sweep of suspected government opponents occurred in March, ahead of an Arab summit, it said.

“Iraqi security forces are grabbing people outside of the law, without trial or known charges, and hiding them away in incommunicado sites,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Iraqi government should immediately reveal the names and locations of all detainees, promptly free those not charged with crimes, and bring those facing charges before an independent judicial authority.”

The group also called for the Iraqi government to appoint an independent commission to investigate "continuing allegations of torture" and disappearances.

The continued operation of the Camp Honor detention site was disclosed by Los Angeles Times staff writer Ned Parker in July, four months after Maliki's government said the facility had been closed at the urging of Iraqi lawmakers and human rights advocates.

In March 2011, Iraqi legislators toured the prison in the Baghdad government enclave known as the Green Zone after they learned that the International Committee of the Red Cross sent a letter to Maliki's government expressing concern over reports it had received about secret detention and torture at Camp Honor. The Justice Ministry ordered it closed after the lawmakers' visit.

Two Justice Ministry officials told Human Rights Watch that dozens of prisoners have been taken to the clandestine detention site as recently as last month and have yet to be transferred to official custody, as required by Iraqi law, according to the rights group.

Human Rights Watch based its report on information conveyed in interviews over the last six months with 35 former prisoners, family members, lawyers, legislators and Iraqi government officials, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, Stork said.

A spokesman for the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, Raifet Ahmad, relayed a request from The Times for government confirmation or denial of the Human Rights Watch allegations but did not provide a reply from Baghdad authorities.

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-- Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles

Photo: An Iraqi security force member patrols a checkpoint on a street leading to the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad on March 26, 2012. Credit: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images.



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