Breaking News -- Middle East
|King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia dead at 90, half-brother succeeds
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, the powerful U.S. ally who joined Washington's fight against Al Qaeda and sought to modernize the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom has died at 90, according to Saudi state TV.
His successor is his 79-year-old half-brother, Prince Salman, who recently has taken on the ailing Abdullah's responsibilities.
The announcement came in statement read by a presenter on Saudi state TV, which aired video of worshippers at the Kaaba in Mecca.
Saudi state TV said he died after midnight Friday.
A former American diplomat close to the Saudi royal family told Fox News the death of King Abdullah, coupled with the collapse of the government in Yemen, is a "worst case scenario" for the U.S. because current events are allowing Iran to extend its reach and influence in the region.
With the collapse of President Hadi's government in Yemen, the former diplomat said Teheran's influence is now seen in at least four Middle Eastern capitals - Sana'a in Yemen, Baghdad in Iraq, Damascus in Syria, and to a lesser extent in Beirut, Lebanon.
In a written statement issued shortly after the announcement of Abdullah's death, President Obama expressed condolences and said, " I always valued King Abdullah's perspective and appreciated our genuine and warm friendship. As a leader, he was always candid and had the courage of his convictions.
"One of those convictions was his steadfast and passionate belief in the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship as a force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond."
Obama visited with the ailing king in his desert compound last March.
Former President George H.W. Bush said he was "deeply saddened to learn of the passing of my dear friend and partner King Abdullah. As President, I found His Majesty always to be a wise and reliable ally, helping our nations build on a strategic relationship and enduring friendship dating back to World War II."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called Abdullah "an important voice for reform in Saudi Arabia. He pushed for the modernization of the education system, curbed the authority of the religious police, and extended women the right to vote and run in municipal elections."
More than his guarded and hidebound predecessors, Abdullah assertively threw his oil-rich nation's weight behind trying to shape the Middle East. His priority was to counter the influence of rival, mainly Shiite Iran wherever it tried to make advances. He and fellow Sunni Arab monarchs also staunchly opposed the Middle East's wave of pro-democracy uprisings, seeing them as a threat to stability and their own rule.
And while the king maintained the historically close alliance with Washington, there were frictions as he sought to put those relations on Saudi Arabia's terms. He was constantly frustrated by Washington's failure to broker a settlement to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He also pushed the Obama administration to take a tougher stand against Iran and to more strongly back the mainly Sunni rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Abdullah was born in Riyadh in 1924, one of the dozens of sons of Saudi Arabia's founder, King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud. Like all Abdul-Aziz's sons, Abdullah had only rudimentary education. Tall and heavyset, he felt more at home in the Nejd, the kingdom's desert heartland, riding stallions and hunting with falcons.
Abdullah was selected as crown prince in 1982 on the day his half-brother Fahd ascended to the throne.
Abdullah became de facto ruler in 1995 when a stroke incapacitated Fahd. Abdullah was believed to have long rankled at the closeness of the alliance with the United States, and as regent he pressed Washington to withdraw the troops it had deployed in the kingdom since the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The U.S. finally did so in 2003.
When President George W. Bush came to office, Abdullah again showed his readiness to push against his U.S. allies.
In 2000, Abdullah convinced the Arab League to approve an unprecedented offer that all Arab states would agree to peace with Israel if it withdrew from lands it captured in 1967. The next year, he sent his ambassador in Washington to tell the Bush administration that it was too unquestioningly biased in favor of Israel and that the kingdom would from now on pursue its own interests apart from Washington's.
Bush soon after advocated for the first time the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The next month, the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks took place in the United States, and Abdullah had to steer the alliance through the resulting criticism. The kingdom was home to 15 of the 19 hijackers, and many pointed out that the baseline ideology for Al Qaeda and other groups stemmed from Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.
When Al Qaeda militants in 2003 began a wave of violence in the kingdom aimed at toppling the monarchy, Abdullah cracked down hard. For the next three years, security forces battled militants, finally forcing them to flee to neighboring Yemen.
There, they created a new Al Qaeda branch, and Saudi Arabia has played a behind-the-scenes role in fighting it.
The tougher line helped affirm Abdullah's commitment to fighting Al Qaeda. He paid two visits to Bush -- in 2002 and 2005 -- at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
When Fahd died in 2005, Abdullah officially rose to the throne. He then began to more openly push his agenda.
His aim at home was to modernize the kingdom to face the future. One of the world's largest oil exporters, Saudi Arabia is fabulously wealthy, but there are deep disparities in wealth and a burgeoning youth population in need of jobs, housing and education.
Abdullah was a strong supporter of education, building universities at home and increasing scholarships abroad for Saudi students.
Abdullah for the first time gave women seats on the Shura Council, an unelected body that advises the king and government. He promised women would be able to vote and run in 2015 elections for municipal councils, the only elections held in the country. He appointed the first female deputy minister in a 2009. Two Saudi female athletes competed in the Olympics for the first time in 2012, and a small handful of women were granted licenses to work as lawyers during his rule.
One of his most ambitious projects was a Western-style university that bears his name, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which opened in 2009. Men and women share classrooms and study together inside the campus, a major departure in a country where even small talk between the sexes in public can bring a warning from the morality police.
But he treaded carefully in the face of the ultraconservative Wahhabi clerics who hold near total sway over society and, in return, give the Al Saud family's rule religious legitimacy.
Regionally, perhaps Abdullah's biggest priority was to confront Iran, the Shiite powerhouse across the Gulf.
Worried about Tehran's nuclear program, Abdullah told the United States in 2008 to consider military action to "cut off the head of the snake" and prevent Iran from producing a nuclear weapon, according to a leaked U.S. diplomatic memo.
Abdullah had more than 30 children from around a dozen wives.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Malawi floods kill 176 people
Flooding in Malawi has killed more than 176 people, displaced at least 200,000 others, left homes and schools submerged in water and roads washed away by the deluge, according to the vice-president of the southern African country.
Downriver in neighbouring Mozambique, floodwaters have left at least 38 dead, according to the Mozambican news agency AIM, displaced tens of thousands and damaged the main road linking the north and south of the country.
While the Mozambican government’s flood plan, announced last year, may have lessened the damage, Malawi was caught off guard.
Dozens of people are missing in Malawi, with at least 153 unaccounted for in the worst affected southern parts of the country, the vice-president, Saulos Chilima, said.
“It’s a very bad situation,” he said, speaking at a press conference in Malawi’s commercial capital, Blantyre.
A joint operation between the police and the army was under way to rescue hundreds who were trapped in their villages by flood waters caused by weeks of heavy rain, Chilima said. Rescue workers had found a woman who had given birth while trapped by floodwaters. The mother and newborn were healthy, Chilima said.
“I flew over some parts of the Lower Shire but we could not find anywhere to land,” he said of the south. “It’s a big challenge we have before us.” Thousands of homes had been destroyed, hundreds of hectares of crops submerged and livestock had been washed away, Chilima said.
“We have lost everything,” said Kalenga, a man who took shelter in a tent camp set up by the Malawi Red Cross and Red Crescent Society, and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). He gave only his first name.
Tents have been set up for those left homeless, and many have found refuge with friends and neighbours whose homes remained habitable, MSF said in a statement. The international medical organisation said it was concerned that displaced people were also vulnerable to water-borne disease due to unsanitary conditions.
US, Iranian opponents could blow up nuclear negotiations
by Barbara Slavin
Before meeting this week in Geneva with Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said he hoped to accelerate the drawn-out negotiations over a comprehensive nuclear deal.
While Zarif did not specify the reason for expediting talks, pressures have been mounting in both countries from skeptics and outright opponents of an agreement. If the spoilers succeed in preventing a deal, the result could be an escalatory spiral of retaliatory measures.
In the U.S. Congress, sponsors are lining up behind legislation limiting the foreign policy prerogatives of the executive branch. One bill, a revised version of legislation introduced in the last Congress by Sens. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., but never voted on, threatens to restore restrictions on Iran’s battered energy sector if no comprehensive agreement is reached by July 6.
According to a summary of the bill, the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015, obtained by Al-Jazeera, it would add penalties over five months beginning in August by closing “loopholes in existing petroleum sanctions” to block Iranian exports of “condensates, fuel oil and certain other petroleum products.”
The summary, prepared by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — a strong proponent of new sanctions, which White House officials have warned could wreck prospects for a deal — says that in the event an agreement is reached, President Barack Obama would be obliged to send the text for 30 days of review by appropriate congressional committees.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is working on other legislation to boost the options for a Congress skeptical of nuclear compromise with Iran to set tougher terms for a deal. And the House of Representatives is preparing its own new sanctions legislation.
A veto vowed
While Obama has vowed to veto any further sanctions approved by Congress while negotiations continue — and he has the power to waive existing sanctions on national security grounds — Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and hard-line members of Iran’s parliament are likely to interpret any new sanctions legislation as a sign that the White House may not be able to implement an accord. The Iranian parliament could retaliate by passing its own bills mandating that an agreement retain all elements of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, for example, or that Iran be able to manufacture a certain amount of nuclear fuel by 2021, when the current contract with Russia to supply fuel for Iran’s only nuclear power plant expires.
Iranian legislators could even up the ante by mandating that Iran resume enriching uranium beyond 5 percent, as suggested by an Iranian journalist on Thursday. Enrichment above 5 percent reduces the time required for conversion to weapons-grade materiel, which is why Iran’s previous efforts in this regard caused such anxiety among its international interlocutors in the P5+1, which comprises the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.
Obama administration officials have urged Congress to refrain from acting now, arguing that sanctions-in-waiting are harmful and unnecessary.
Washington’s ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, speaking Monday in Louisville, Kentucky, where she was a guest of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said that passing new sanctions would “dramatically undermine our efforts” to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Iran, she said, “would be able to blame the United States for sabotaging negotiations and causing the collapse of the process.”
New sanctions would also shred the multinational consensus that has “made our sanctions exponentially more effective than bilateral sanctions alone,” she said. “If we pull the trigger on new nuclear-related sanctions now, we will go from isolating Iran to potentially isolating ourselves.”
But Congress is unlikely to buy Power’s arguments without concrete evidence of progress in the talks. Iran and its interlocutors have set March as a soft deadline for a political framework agreement and the end of June for finalizing technical issues.
They hope that meeting a March deadline would contain the negative currents in Iranian society and provide a more difficult target for opponents in Washington. the American Israel Public Affairs Committee holds its annual convention in Washington March 1 through 3 and typically sends its delegates to Capitol Hill to lobby for passage of anti-Iran legislation.
Quiet on status of talks
Iranian and U.S. officials have been quiet about the status of the talks, which move from bilateral conversations this week to a P5+1 plenary with the Iranians next week.
According to Robert Einhorn, a former member of the U.S. negotiating team and key adviser to the Obama administration, Iran is still refusing to significantly reduce the enrichment capacity it is prepared to accept and is demanding rapid removal of U.N. and other sanctions instead of acquiescing to a schedule that ties sanction easing to Iran’s implementation of an accord.
There are also gaps on the duration of an agreement, although Iran appears to have moved from its demand that a deal restrict its activities for only three to five years and is now talking about eight years —- closer to the U.S. position of 10 to 15 years.
Einhorn suggested that political infighting in Iran accounted for the failure last year to reach a deal, which required extending a 2013 interim agreement for six months. “The domestic obstacles are more formidable on the Iranian side,” he wrote for The National Interest this week.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani certainly faces pushback from his right flank, including members of an economic mafia that has benefited from sanctions. In a recent speech, Rouhani blamed Iran’s poor economic performance on these groups and on Iran's isolation from international markets. He hinted that he would hold a referendum on a nuclear deal to demonstrate the popularity of such an agreement.
On both sides, the challenge will be to pre-empt opponents determined to prevent the sort of compromises that would be essential to achieve an agreement. Given the urgency, it should become apparent in the coming weeks whether such compromises are still possible.
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