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Death toll climbs in Lebanon clashes

At least four people have been killed in clashes between neighbouring communities in northern Lebanon linked to the conflict in Syria.

The latest deaths brings to at least 21 the number killed since the violence erupted in Tripoli one week ago.

Battles have raged between Bab al-Tabbana, where there is strong support for Syrian rebels, and Jabal Muhsin, which backs President Bashar al-Assad.

Fighting between the two districts has flared since the Syria conflict began.

About 150 people have been wounded in the clashes since last week, the Associated Press reports.

It says gunmen with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades continued to exchange fire after three people were killed overnight.

A fourth person was killed on Friday.

The predominantly Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh, and Jabal Muhsin, populated mainly by Alawites, the heterodox sect of President Assad, have fought on-and-off for years.

The war in Syria has exacerbated tensions between the two districts in the northern port city.

Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper says six soldiers were among those injured in attacks across the city.

Iran is building a mock-up of the USS Nimitz-class nuclear carrier near Bandar Abbas
DEBKAfile Special Report

At the same time as President Barack Obama was sending New Year greetings to the Iranian people Thursday, March 20, US satellites snapped shots of a mockup of Iran’s first aircraft carrier under construction at the Revolutionary Guards naval base of Bandar Abbas. After decoding the images, US intelligence experts were astonished to find it was a replica of a US Nimitz-class super-carrier. debkafile reports that the construction work was first picked up by drones from the US Navy's 5th Fleet, which operates in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and Arabian Sea.

In his message, the US president challenged Iran’s leaders to “take meaningful and verifiable steps to assure the world that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only” for the sake of "a new beginning," including “a better relationship with the United States and the American people, rooted in mutual interest and mutual respect.”

Of the US Navy’s 10 operational Nimitz-class carriers, two - the USS George H.W. Bush and the USS Harry S. Truman — are currently deployed in the Middle East. Each is 330 meters long and carries on is decks up to 3,000 naval and air crew and 85-90 fighter craft and helicopters.

The Pentagon’s first response to the discovery was uncertain: "We are aware that Iran has constructed a floating barge that resembles a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier near Bandar Abbas,'' spokesman Lt. Col. Tom Crosson said Saturday. "Commercially available imagery shows its construction. We are not sure what tactical value Iran hopes to gain by building a mock-up of a US aircraft carrier.”

Since the disclosure, Iran experts have been speculating on that question. Some have suggested that it was a crude model which the Iranians were planning to destroy as a propaganda stunt during a naval training exercise.

However some military experts are taking it more seriously and warn that the mock-up carrier signaled a new level of sophistication in the use of unconventional doctrine and capabilities for confronting superior US naval power."

Obama’s message of friendship for Nowraz was not exactly reciprocated: At a speech in Mashhad the next day, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the US the "enemy" and a "dictatorial and arrogant" power. Khamenei said the Americans “used rhetoric and language that was less courteous and more aggressive… and insulting to the people.”

debkafile’s military experts offer six points of interest about Iran’s attempt to replicate a US carrier:

1. The discovery of this project was not random. Its construction has been going on for more than two years, but the Obama administration preferred to keep it dark so as not to spoil the climate of détente it was striving to build with Tehran. And indeed, the first response to the disclosure from the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee Rep. Eliot Engel was that the mock-up “demonstrates Iran’s continued lack of good faith.”

2. The Iranians deliberately exposed the project by placing air force fighter jets on the deck of the fake Nimitz to make sure they were detected by US surveillance.

3. Its purpose is neither for propaganda nor for show in a training exercise. Iran’s method for its most ambitious military projects is to start from scratch and advance step by step until their goal is reached, our Iran experts sources report. Their UAV program began with primitive models, which were perfected stage by stage over a period of years, with the help of Chinese, Russian and North Korean experts. The drone project has by now advanced enough for Iran to hand the Lebanese Hizballah a fleet of drones with high-grade technological and surveillance capabilities.

4. The mockup vessel program is adjusted to the long-term prospects of nuclear diplomacy - in Iran’s estimation. Tehran is certain that negotiations with the six powers are going nowhere, fated to be dragged out to bar any diplomatic or military solution of their nuclear controversy forthcoming before the end of Barack Obama’s presidency. By 2017, when his successor takes office, Iran’s policy-makers calculate that their mockup will have been developed into a full-scale operational aircraft carrier ready to go from Bandar Abbas.

5. On various occasions in the past year, officials associated with Iran’s nuclear program and senior commanders of its Navy and Revolutionary Guards have said that high-grade nuclear fuel will be needed for their nuclear-powered naval vessels and submarines – which they don’t possess. Iranian negotiators will for the first time be able to present a complete aircraft carrier to support their claim when they are confronted by skeptical world powers.

6. Iran obviously lacks the capacity to build an aircraft carrier to US standards. Nor does it possess advanced fighter jets comparable to US or Israeli air force aircraft; or the technology for constructing and operating the sophisticated military electronic devices installed in American warplanes and carriers.

At the same time, Tehran has surprised the world by its strides in drone and cyber technologies, while at the same time demonstrating the military and tactical mastery for turning the tide of the Syrian civil war from Bashar Assad’s almost certain defeat to success. Iran’s aggressive ambition to outperform its enemies should therefore not be underestimated.

Thousands join rare Algeria rally

Thousands of Algerian opposition supporters have called for a boycott of next month's presidential election, during an unprecedented mass rally.

Islamist and secular opposition parties at the rally denounced 77-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's attempt to win a fourth term of office.

They say a stroke last year has left him unfit to govern.

Mr Bouteflika, in power since 1999, scrapped constitutional rules in 2008 limiting him to two terms in office.

He has rarely been seen in public in recent months, but correspondents say the backing of the governing National Liberation Front (FLN), army factions and business elites almost guarantees him election victory.

'The real Algeria'

Chanting "boycott" and "the people want the regime out" about 5,000 people packed into the sports stadium where various opposition leaders denounced Mr Bouteflika's re-election bid and demanded reforms to a political system they see as corrupt.

Large opposition gatherings are unusual in Algeria, where FLN elites and army generals have dominated politics since independence from France in 1962.

"The people here are the people who have been excluded, who have been put aside, but this is the real Algeria," Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) party spokesman Mohsen Belabes told cheering crowds.

"The regime will collapse, but Algeria will survive."

Correspondents say Mr Bouteflika ordered heavy spending from Algeria's oil earnings on housing, public services and infrastructure projects to offset social unrest after the Arab Spring uprisings across North Africa in 2011.

But the parties within the opposition are not united and remain weak, analysts say.

Evidence of this disunity was evident at Friday's rally, where rival Islamist and secular supporters heckled and taunted at each other across the stadium.

The president is one of the few remaining veterans of the war of independence against France.

But he has had persistent health problems and his rule has recently been dogged by corruption scandals implicating members of his inner circle.
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