Haaretz’s latest Middle East analyses and opinions: The adolescent phase of Islam (David Barzilai) | Israeli citizens fighting for Islamic State: a small, yet worrying trend (Jack Khoury)
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8:15 P.M. Iran says number of foreign tourists surges
Iran’s top tourism official says the number of foreigners visiting the country has jumped dramatically over the 12-month period ending in March, with 35 percent more tourists compared to the same period a year earlier.
Masoud Soltanifar said on state TV Saturday that the thriving industry could help boost Iran’s economy out of recession and bring in much-needed hard currency. He said the 4.5 million foreign tourists that came to the Islamic Republic over the period brought in some $6 billion in revenue.
Soltanifar attributed the increase to the 2013 election of President Hassan Rohani, described as a moderate compared to his predecessor, hard-line Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Soltanifar says each foreign tourist spends about $1,500 in Iran, and that most come from neighboring countries. The number of European tourists increased dramatically, he added.
Rohani has worked to promote tourism since taking office to try and offset plummeting oil revenues due to sanctions over Tehran’s disputed nuclear program. (AP)
5:50 P.M. Eight killed in U.S.-led strike on Kobani
A U.S.-led coalition airstrike on a gas distribution facility in an eastern Syrian stronghold of the Islamic State group set off a series of secondary explosions and killed at least eight people, activists said Saturday.
The airstrike targeted a distribution station in the town of Khasham in the oil-rich province of Deir el-Zour late Friday, Deir el-Zour Free Radio, an activist collective, said on its Facebook page. The collective named four of those killed and said another four charred bodies were placed in a nearby mosque. It said the slain men were mostly fuel tanker drivers.
Another activist group, the Deir el-Zour Network, described “long tongues of flames” from the strike. The incident was also reported by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria.
There was no immediate comment by the U.S. military. (AP)
3:57 P.M. U.S.-led coalition jets strike Kobani after Islamic State shelling
U.S.-led coalition jets struck suspected Islamic State targets at least twice in the besieged Syrian town of Kobani on Saturday after fierce shelling by the insurgents hit the town center.
Shelling continued after the strikes, according to witnesses.
Islamic State militants have been battling Kurdish fighters for a month to take control of the town near the Turkish border, but stepped-up coalition air strikes have helped Kurds fend off the advance.
The coalition has been bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq since August and extended the campaign to Syria in September. (Reuters)
4:08 A.M. UN Security Council urges bolstered campaign against Islamic State
The United Nations Security Council on Friday pushed for a bombing campaign in Iraq against Islamic State militants and associated extremist groups to be strengthened and expanded. A U.S.-led military coalition has been bombing Islamic State fighters who hold a large swathe of territory in both Iraq and Syria, two countries involved in complex multi-sided civil wars in which nearly every country in the Middle East has a stake.
“The members of the Security Council urged the international community, in accordance with international law, to further strengthen and expand support for the government of Iraq, including Iraqi Security Forces, in the fight against (Islamic State) and associated armed groups,” it said in a statement.
Iraqi pilots who have joined Islamic State in Syria are training members of the group to fly in three captured fighter jets, a monitoring group said on Friday, saying it was the first time the militant group had taken to the air.
The 15-member Security Council “stressed that (Islamic State) must be defeated and that the intolerance, violence and hatred it espouses must be stamped out.” The United States has been trying to persuade Turkey to take an active role in the campaign against Islamic State. (Reuters)
3:02 AM. At least 17 killed in Benghazi; rival Libyan governments claim to control oil policy
A self-styled rival government controlling Libya’s capital announced its own oil policies this week, drawing a rebuttal from Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni who said oil revenues continued to go to the elected government.
Underscoring the turmoil gripping the major oil producer, at least 17 people were killed on Friday in the main eastern city Benghazi where pro-government forces backed by locals are fighting Islamists. A suicide bomber killed three, witnesses and medics said.
Libya is struggling with two competing governments vying for control after Operation Dawn, an umbrella of armed groups from the western city of Misrata, seized Tripoli in August, forcing Thinni’s government to withdraw to the east.
The Misrata-led forces have since formed their own rival parliament and government, which has taken over some ministries and effectively controls parts of western and central Libya.
Oil traders are concerned about the uncertainty over who is in charge of Libya’s vast oil reserves after the Misrata group appointed its own oil minister and took over the official website of state firm National Oil Corp. (Reuters)
2:36 A.M. Iraq imposes curfew in Ramadi, fearing militants
Iraq imposed a curfew in the western city of Ramadi on Friday amid fears that the Islamic State group was looking to advance on the strategically important city as attacks in Baghdad killed 28 people, officials said.
The curfew, which began before dawn, is part of an effort to limit movement in and out of the city as government forces prepared to combat pockets of resistance there, said Sabah Karhout, the chairman of the Anbar provincial council. Ramadi, the capital of the vast Sunni-dominated province of Anbar, is located 115 kilometers (70 miles) west of Baghdad.
The Islamic State group has in recent weeks been making gains against the embattled Iraqi military around Ramadi despite U.S.-led coalition airstrikes on the militants. Capturing Ramadi could have a huge ripple effect throughout Anbar, since controlling the provincial capital ultimately paralyzes the surrounding areas and further helps the militants secure yet another corridor between Syria and Iraq for the passage of fighters, munitions and field artillery. (AP)
11:14 P.M. Car bombs rock Baghdad, at least 24 killed
A string of car bombs killed at least 24 people across Baghdad on Friday night, medical and police officials said, amid a surge of violence in the capital. No one immediately said they were responsible for the blasts, but other attacks in recent weeks have been claimed by Sunni Muslim militant group Islamic State, which is battling the Shi’ite Muslim-led government and has seized large parts of neighboring Syria.
A parked car blew up near a coffee shop in the Shi’ite area of Baladiyat, killing nine people and wounding 28, the officials said. Another blast killed nine and wounded 28 in the Sunni neighborhood of Slaikh, while a third car bomb blew up by a row of liquor stores in the affluent Karrada neighborhood, killing six and wounding 14 others, the officials added.
The attack came the day after bombs killed 36 in Baghdad and areas bordering the capital.” (Reuters)
10:35 P.M. Yemeni Shi’ite rebels overrun Al-Qaida stronghold
Yemen’s Shi’ite rebels on Friday overran an Al-Qaida stronghold after days of battling the militants for the city in the country’s central heartland, a Yemeni official and a tribal leader said. The capture of the city of Radda, in the in the province of Bayda, came with the help of a Yemeni army commander, the two said.
The Shi’ite rebels known as Houthis have been fighting both Al-Qaida militants and Sunni tribes over the past few days. The rebels, who in September gained control of the capital, Sanaa, earlier this week overran a key Yemeni port city on the Red Sea.
The Houthis entered Radda on Friday, after the commander of Yemeni army’s Battalion 193 gave up his troops positions, a security official and a tribal leader from the city said. (AP)
9:05 P.M. U.S. launches six air strikes near Kobani
U.S. fighter aircraft launched six air strikes on Islamic State positions near Kobani, Syria, and its allies hit militant targets in Iraq, the U.S. military said on Friday.
U.S. forces damaged Islamic State fighting positions, vehicles and buildings near Kobani and a strike hit oil collection equipment near Shadadi in a bid to disrupt the militants’ ability to operate oil tankers, Central Command said in a statement.
The statement did not say which nations were involved in the strikes in Iraq near Baiji. (Reuters)