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Terrorism & Security

A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

People at a station in Osaka, western Japan, watch a TV screen showing an image of Katsuya Takahashi, a former Aum Shinrikyo cult member, being driven to Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department after his arrest in Tokyo Friday, June 15. (Kyodo News/AP)

Japan catches final fugitive in 1995 nerve gas attack

By Correspondent / 06.15.12

Japanese police ended a 17-year-long manhunt today with the arrest of the final suspect in a gas attack on the Tokyo subway system. The arrest closes a chapter on one of the worst acts of domestic terrorism in Japan’s history.

In 1995, members of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult killed 13 people and injured as many as 6,000 others when they released sarin nerve gas into the subway system during rush hour. The group’s founder and 12 followers are awaiting death sentences for their participation in the attack. Another 200 members have been convicted on charges related to the attack. 

On Friday, police caught the remaining fugitive, Katsuya Takahashi, at a cafe in Tokyo after an employee tipped them off.

"The case has never been fully resolved," said Masaki Kito, a lawyer and Aum Shinrikyo watcher, according to the Associated Press. "He was a last piece of a jigsaw puzzle."

Police received a major breakthrough in the case about five months ago, after fellow cult member Makoto Hirata turned himself in for his involvement in the attack, giving new life to a case that had gone cold, reports The New York Times.

Mr. Takahashi is accused of delivering a fellow member of the group to the train station on March 20, 1995. That member then boarded a train and released the sarin gas, reports the Asahi Shimbun. Followers of Aum Shinrikyo believed the attack would trigger an apocalyptic battle with the government.

Japan’s Mainichi newspaper reports that Takahashi’s arrest represents a significant moment, as his testimony may provide new insights into the attack.

Takahashi has reportedly already confessed to authorities about his involvement.

"I did it under the instructions of high-ranking cult members," he told police, according to Mainichi.

Prior to his arrest, Takahashi had been using a fake name and working in construction south of Toyko, reports the Japan Times. About two weeks ago, authorities arrested Naoko Kikuchi, another suspect in the attack, and Takahashi went missing after it was reported in the news.

Police say Ms. Kikuchi told authorities that Takahashi had managed to elude arrest for so long by avoiding air travel and trains, as well as by mixing in with people in large cities.

“I don't want to take any chances of being caught. We should mix in with urban crowds, rather than living in a rural area," Takahashi told Kikuchi, according to police in an article by The Yomiuri Shimbun. “But we should avoid Tokyo, as there are too many police officers and security cameras.”

Japanese police say Kikuchi’s arrest also played a crucial role leading to Takahashi’s arrest. He had already fled when police raided the room where he lived while working in construction, but a search of his living quarters yielded a recent photo, reports the BBC. The photo, along with images from a bank surveillance video, was released to the public last week. A citizen recognized Takahashi and tipped off police.

Following the 1995 attack, the government revoked Aum Shinrikyo’s status as an officially recognized religion. On the eve of the attack, the cult had about 20,000 to 40,000 followers and about $1.5 billion in assets, reports Wired magazine. The group still exists today on a much smaller scale and is currently known as Aleph. 

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Iran's top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili speaks in a meeting with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, unseen, in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, June 13. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Tehran's No. 1 demand for Iran nuclear talks in Moscow

By Staff writer / 06.14.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Heading into Iran nuclear talks next week, Tehran's top demand is that Western powers acknowledge its right to uranium enrichment, reports the Tehran Times.

That is one of five Iranian proposals will be on the table at next week's Iran nuclear talks in Moscow, the third round in negotiations that were renewed this spring. The Moscow talks, held June 18-19, will be crucial in determining whether any headway can be made on the diplomatic track before a European oil embargo that is due to take effect next month.

A drumbeat of comments from Iranian officials in recent weeks – all insisting on Iran's "inalienable right" to enrich uranium – seem to be trying to build a case for blaming Western powers if the talks in Moscow fail by making their opening position clear.

Earlier this week Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehman-Parast said that Iran is "very serious and prepared" for the negotiations. "Grounds for the success of this meeting depend on the manner of cooperation and positive and constructive approach of the [P5+1]," he said, according to Fars News Agency. "The more seriously they will be ready to enter the talks and recognize our inalienable rights, the more the grounds will be for the success of the talks."

While Iran in principle has the right to enrichment as a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the West has insisted that it suspend all enrichment activity until it can assuage international concerns that it is conducting nuclear weapons-related work under the guise of a civilian nuclear power program.

Article IV of the NPT does make reference to the "inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination" – but under the condition that that right is exercised in conformity with Articles I and II, which prohibit the development and/or transfer of nuclear-weapons technology.

"Under NPT, uranium enrichment is a definite right of the Islamic Republic of Iran and any other NPT member. There is no prohibition under NPT over any kind of enrichment for peaceful purposes," Saeed Jalili, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, told parliament yesterday, according to Bloomberg. "It's possible that we may need higher or lower enrichment for other peaceful applications. This is our right, and we must be able to exercise this right."

Iran has enriched uranium not only to the 5 percent level required for nuclear energy, but also to 20 percent, which it says is necessary for a medical research reactor.

But Western powers involved in negotiations – comprised of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, and known as the P5+1 – are concerned because enriching to 20 percent is a process that is technically close to enriching to weapons-grade of 90 percent or more.

The P5+1 has suggested that Iran cease enrichment and ship its stockpile of enriched uranium out of the country in exchange for a promise from the West to provide it with any 20 percent enrichment uranium needed for civilian purposes.

But Iran sees such proposals as biased and stemming not only from security concerns but also antipathy toward the Iranian government.

Javad Jahangirzadeh, a member of the parliament's national security and foreign policy committee, chastised the P5+1 in parliament yesterday for its "double-standard" when dealing with Iran, saying, the P5+1 "has no right to treat us outside norms." 

The chairman of the committee, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, described the West's demands as "politically motivated" and issued a direct warning: "Undoubtedly, the US and the West have been the losing sides of this game and they had better not continue this game," he said, according to Iran's Fars News Agency.

For any concessions on the right to enrich uranium, Iran has demanded a lifting of Western economic and oil sanctions.

Yesterday Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, said that the Iranian negotiating team should show no "leniency" on the issue of uranium enrichment, according to a separate report from the Tehran Times. 

“The nuclear negotiating team has no right to show leniency in regard to the Iranian nation’s rights,” said Mr. Larijani, who was formerly Iran's top nuclear negotiator. “In relation to the degree of enrichment, Iran can determine the degree as it wishes, and this issue is no obstacle to the progress of our nuclear technology [program].” 

Iran announced earlier this week that it is preparing to produce a nuclear-powered submarine, which would require weapons-grade fuel. The Wall Street Journal reports that the US, Israel, and UN nuclear watchdog "have long worried" that Iran would do something like this that would give them a reason to enrich uranium to 90 percent or more.

But Iran is seen as far from capable of producing a nuclear submarine at this point and some analysts see the announcement as simply an attempt to gain negotiating leverage for the Moscow talks.

"One of the few if only civilian pretexts for weapon-grade uranium are nuclear submarines, so it was fairly predictable that Iran would announce its desire to build them," Karim Sadjadpour, an expert on Iran at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the WSJ. "The gap between Iran's bluster and its capabilities, especially prior to negotiations, is wider than the Strait of Hormouz."

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People and security forces inspect the scene of a car bomb attack in the Karrada neighborhood of Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, June 13. Wave of bombings targeted religious processions during the annual pilgrimage commemorating the 8th century death of a revered Shiite imam, killing and wounding scores of people, police said. (Karim Kadim/AP)

Car bombings hit Shiite pilgrimage, underscoring Iraq's sectarian divide

By Staff writer / 06.13.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

As Shiite pilgrims poured into Baghdad today, coordinated car bombings struck the annual pilgrimage, killing at least 63. 

The Associated Press reports that the attacks bore similarities to those carried out by Sunni insurgents in the past, implying a sectarian motivation – a troubling element in a country where the foremost concern is a return to the sectarian violence that left the country in shambles and continues to impede the rebuilding process today.

Today's attacks in Baghdad and at least five other cities or towns were the third this week targeting the pilgrimage, according to Associated Press. The first bomb struck in Taji, north of Baghdad, around 5 a.m. local time. It was followed by four throughout Baghdad; two in Hillah, south of the capital; one in the Shiite holy city of Karbala; and one in Balad, north of Baghdad. (See map here.) In 2005, roughly 1,000 Shiites were killed during the same pilgrimage in Baghdad when rumors of a suicide bomber spread through a procession, prompting a stampede. 

In a potentially related incident today, three bombs also went off in Kirkuk in northern Iraq today, one of them outside the office of a prominent Kurd.

Baghdad military command spokesman Col. Dhia al-Wakeel told AP that the intent of the bombings is to spark a full-fledged sectarian conflict but that Iraqis are "fully aware of the terrorism agenda and will not slip into a sectarian conflict."

But tensions between majority Shiites and minority Sunnis are high, with Shiite President Nouri al-Maliki recently using a technicality to dodge an effort to oust him from office, according to a separate AP report. His coalition partners in parliament, particularly the Sunni Iraqiya bloc, accuse him of failing to share power, of consolidating his power among other government institutions, and launching politically driven prosecutions against their leaders.

The Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds have been struggling to find a way to share power since Saddam Hussein was ousted during the US invasion, and the difficulties have only become more substantial since the US withdrawal last year. 

But recent high-profile diplomatic gatherings illustrate that Iraq is making slight progress at regaining stability and conveying a sense of progress. Last month's nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the US, Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany) and the Arab League summit in March both went relatively smoothly, albeit with substantially elevated security to prevent the meetings from being disrupted by violence.

“My brothers, it was an impossible dream that we meet you in Baghdad less than three years ago,” Mr. Maliki told Arab leaders gathered for the Arab League summit, according to The Christian Science Monitor. “Baghdad was a ghost town, its institutions abandoned, mosques and churches in ruins … neighborhoods isolated and hospitals full of the dead and wounded.”

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This video image taken from amateur video and broadcast by Bambuser/Homslive shows a series of devastating explosions rocking the central Syrian city of Homs, Syria, Monday, June 11. Live streaming video caught the devastation during one of the heaviest examples of violence since the uprisings began over a year ago. (Bambuser/Homslive via AP video/AP)

US: Syria plotting more massacres, but intervening would make it worse

By Staff writer / 06.12.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

As the United Nations sounds the alarm about Syrian government forces using new tactics, the US is warning of impending massacres in several towns across the country.

The United Nations said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime has in the last week begun using helicopter gunships to fire on towns from the air. It also voiced concerns about reports of government troops using children as human shields.

The New York Times reports that the turn to helicopters might be partially driven by the loss of tanks and other ground vehicles in clashes with rebel forces, who have been making territorial gains, seemingly driven by an influx of more sophisticated weapons and funds. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 25 government tanks have been destroyed since May 29 alone.

Syrian Army defections are also on the rise. The Los Angeles Times reports, citing an opposition member, writes that an entire base in the former garrison town of Rastan defected this week.

In a US State Department briefing yesterday, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland described the helicopter development as a "very serious escalation." She also said that UN monitors report that the regime looks to be organizing another massacre in Al Haffa, while bombardments of Deir al-Zour, Deraa, Homs, Hama, and the Damascus suburbs continue. The regime has blocked UN monitors from those areas, making it difficult to confirm who is behind the violence in those towns (previous massacres have been blamed on unofficial pro-government militia), she said.

The UN envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, has expressed concern that there are large numbers of civilians trapped in those areas. If a massacre does happen in any of those spots, it would be the fifth in three weeks, according to the Associated Press.

While Syrian commanders may be able to act with impunity now, given the relatively small number of UN monitors on the ground, Ms. Nuland warned that they should heed the lessons of Bosnia. "The international community can and does learn what units were responsible for crimes against humanity, and you will be held responsible for your actions," she said.

Nuland made clear at yesterday's press briefing that the US has no plan for stopping the massacres, or intervening in Syria, despite its increasingly strident warnings or the threat of mass killing of civilians. That contrasts sharply with Libya, where the threat of massive civilian casualties prompted international intervention.

Nuland defended the US position by saying that foreign military intervention "may actually cause a greater explosion of violence," and that the best course of action was to bring to light the abuses of the Syrian regime. But she faced strong pushback from reporters who cited international regret after the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

QUESTION: I mean, I thought after Rwanda, it was “Never again,” ... I just don’t understand why it is that if you’re – if you know or have evidence that there’s about to be a massacre of potentially thousands of people, no one’s going to do anything to stop it except for ... to tell Assad not to do it.

MS. NULAND: Again, this is why we have the monitors there, so that they can play the role that they are --

QUESTION: See these people be killed?

MS. NULAND: -- designed to play to be able to get in there and stop this kind of thing from happening. But in the context of a regime that is refusing to meet its own commitments, that is refusing to cooperate even on the most basic level with what it has agreed to, we are, at this point, doing what we can to make it clear that this is an absolutely brutal, continued assault on individuals.

QUESTION: But you’ve just gotten up and said that there’s going to be a massacre someplace and no one’s going to do anything to stop it except for flail their arms and go running to Assad to tell him not to it when he hasn’t listened or done anything that you’ve told him or asked him to do for the last 15 months.

MS. NULAND: Do you have a specific proposal in mind?

Pressed further about US opposition to intervention, Nuland reiterated concerns about fueling the war in Syria.

"The concern has been that putting foreign military forces into this situation, which is on the verge, as everybody has said, of becoming a civil war, will turn it into a proxy war. … There is a concern, obviously, that you could have some states supporting one side, other states supporting another side. Our goal here is to stop the violence, not to increase the military activity inside Syria. The goal is to stop the violence," she said.

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This citizen journalism image provided by Shaam News Network SNN, taken on Friday, June 8, purports to show a girl holding the Syrian revolutionary flag during a demonstration in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, Syria. (Shaam News Network/AP)

In bid for unity, Syrian opposition group picks Kurd to lead

By Staff writer / 06.11.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

As fighting intensified between the Syrian regime and rebel fighters this weekend, the main Syrian opposition group chose a new president in a bid to unify the fractious organization and thereby gain greater international support.

The Syrian National Council (SNC) has struggled since its inception last year to establish itself as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and thus has failed to secure the kind of logistical, humanitarian, and military support that helped Libyan rebels to oust Muammar Qaddafi.

The pressure is on for the SNC's newly elected president, Abdelbaset Sieda, to unify the council if he wants greater international assistance, writes The Daily Star of Lebanon in an editorial.

… Their disunity and differences have, until now, been the stumbling block in their progress in deposing the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

This fragmentation has served as a key justification for those – whether in the West or in the Arab world – who have claimed that they would otherwise provide greater support, material or otherwise, to the rebels.

The election of Sida comes at a critical time, when violence appears to be intensifying at an alarming rate. Civil war is now in full swing, despite the tendency for commentators, politicians and journalists to define it otherwise.

But the SNC has few ties with the Free Syrian Army, the rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad's regime, reports the Washington Post in a piece evaluating the pros and cons of Sieda's election. The SNC has also faced criticism from Syrian activists on the ground that it is out of touch, since it is comprised of Syrian expats and its conferences have all been held abroad.

The SNC's choice of Mr. Sieda, a secular Kurd who has lived in Sweden for the past 17 years, is being portrayed as a bid to broaden the opposition by rallying Syria's 1 million Kurds, Reuters reports. Opposition figures are also portraying his election as a sign that Syria's various minorities, who worry about their safety in a post-Assad Syria run by the majority Sunni population, would be safe. The SNC's three-month rotating presidency had been held by a Sunni since last summer.

“We will expand and extend the base of the council so it will take on its role as an umbrella under which all the opposition will seek shade," Sieda said to reporters at a news conference, according to The New York Times.

"There will be no discrimination based on religion, faith or ethnicity," he added.

While there have been some anti-Assad protests in Kurdish parts of the country, support for the opposition is not as strong there and one key Kurdish group, the Kurdistan Workers Party, is suspected of assassinating Kurdish anti-Assad figures, according to Reuters. Most Kurds have refused to participate in the council because it has not declared its support for semiautonomy for Kurds nor guaranteed their rights.

In addition to being an attempt to woo Kurds, Sieda's election is also seen as an attempt to defuse criticism that the council has become autocratic after 10 months with a Sunni at the helm.

“The ideal leadership of the council is not through one person – because no one is elected and has actual legitimacy,” said Bassma Kodmani, a member of the executive committee, according to The New York Times.

“The revolution does not want to see a big leader, or one individual who leads everything,” she added. “Personalization leads to polarization.”

But critics say Sieda, who ran unopposed was able to be a consensus candidate "precisely because he represents no one," writes the Times. Without constituents he is no threat to the dominant forces on the council and will lack authority, they say.

On his first day as president of the council, Sieda called on the United Nations to authorize military action on behalf of the Syrian opposition and, barring that, said the countries should take action without a UN mandate, Reuters reports.

The Daily Star warns that continued disunity could abet the regime's brutality.

Should Sida fail in his attempt to unite the Syrian opposition, it will only provide the regime with more breathing space in which to continue with its security solution, and the country’s tragic landscape will continue to be dotted with killing fields.

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Iran's Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Ali Asghar Soltanieh (r.) arrives for talks with the IAEA at the International Center, in Vienna, Austria, on Friday, June 8. The UN nuclear agency has started new talks with Iran aimed at getting access to what it suspects was the site of secret tests to make nuclear arms. (Ronald Zak/AP)

World powers watch IAEA talks for signs of Iranian flexibility (+video)

By Staff writer / 06.08.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

World powers will be watching closely today as Iran and the United Nations nuclear watchdog meet in Vienna, looking for signs of how their own talks with the Islamic Republic later this month might go.

If Iran appears willing in today's meeting to make concessions, it could be a sign that they will approach talks in Moscow on June 18 with a more conciliatory attitude, making it possible that the Islamic Republic and the  "P5 + 1" ( (the permanent five members of the UN Security Council: the US, Britain, France, Russia, China, plus Germany) will be able to find some common ground. 

Last month's anticipated P5 + 1 talks with Iran in Baghdad began with high hopes but ended with little concrete progress, and so far there's been no indication either side is willing to back down from its irreconcilable starting points. Iran has requested an easing of strict sanctions in order for talks to go forward, while Western powers are requesting that it reduce its nuclear fuel production for "some modest givebacks, such as spare airplane parts," which are currently blocked by sanctions, according to the Associated Press

With today's talks, the International Atomic Energy Agency is hoping to secure an agreement to allow immediate inspections of the Parchin military complex, where the agency suspects that tests related to nuclear weapons development took place. Iran insists the accusations are "forged and fabricated," Reuters reports.

Both the IAEA and Iran say they've laid out the terms for the investigation, but the US is skeptical that Iran will actually permit the level of investigation needed to reassure it that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapons program, Reuters reports.

"I'm not optimistic," Robert Wood, the acting U.S. envoy to the IAEA, told reporters on the sidelines of a meeting of the U.N. agency's governing board. "I certainly hope that an agreement will be reached but I'm not certain Iran is ready."

His skepticism was reinforced by defiant remarks by Soltanieh, who accused the U.N. body on Wednesday of acting like a Western-manipulated spy service and said that Iran's military activities were none of its business.

The Iranian envoy said Iran would "not permit our national security to be jeopardized," suggesting it might limit the scope of the U.N. inspectors' investigation.

A European diplomat said Soltanieh's remarks signaled that Iran would be in no mood to compromise in Friday's Vienna talks.

Earlier this week, the IAEA acknowledged a series of satellite photos of the Parchin complex that appeared to show evidence of a massive clean-up effort – demolished buildings, use of water in the area, and recently moved soil and fences – ratcheting up pressure on Iran to allow the investigation in order to alleviate Western suspicions about its purportedly civilian nuclear energy program.

If Iran agrees to a framework for investigating Parchin ahead of the Moscow talks, it could give the negotiations some much-needed flexibility. There is substantial distance between two parties' negotiating points right now – "Diamonds in return for peanuts,” as former nuclear negotiator for Iran Hossein Mousavian described them to AP.

According to a separate AP report, Chinese leader Hu Jintao urged Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a meeting today to arrive at the next talks willing to truly talk.

“China hopes the Iranian side can weigh up the situation, take a flexible and pragmatic approach, have serious talks with all six related nations, and enhance dialogues and cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency so as to ensure the tensions can be eased through negotiations,” Hu told Ahmadinejad, according to a Foreign Ministry statement.

China, along with Russia, has been Iran's staunchest supporter in the P5 + 1 talks. It has opposed new sanctions on Iran as well as unilateral efforts to pressure Iran into concessions.

The only thing Iran and the P5 + 1 have in common right now is concern that a failure to reach an agreement would renew Israel's calls for a military strike on Iran, AP reports.

“This is both a poker game and a chess match on all sides,” said Bruno Tertrais, senior researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “There’s bluffing like with poker. There’s the effort to plot several moves ahead like in chess.”

“The only real tactic agreement, it seems, is that nobody wants the talks to fall apart,” he added. “They want — they need — to find a way to keep them going.”

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U.N.-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan pauses during a photo opportunity at the start of a meeting with Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva June 5. (Denis Balibouse/REUTERS)

Kofi Annan to propose role for Iran to revive Syria peace plan

By Staff writer / 06.07.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Kofi Annan, the United Nation's mediator in Syria, will present a new proposal today for bringing international powers on board with his peace plan in hopes of avoiding both a full-out war and international powers acting beyond the auspices of the UN.

Western powers, fed up with Russian and Chinese intransigence on stronger action against the Syrian government, began threatening last week to take action outside the United Nations Security Council. US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice suggested they would have no choice but to act without UN authorization.

Much of the international community, as well as Syrians on the ground, have been calling the peace plan a failure for weeks. Violence has continued, and one of the most horrific events of the conflict – the Houla massacre, in which 108 Syrians were killed – happened several weeks after the cease-fire went into effect. There were reports yesterday of another massacre, this time in the village of Qubair in Hama region, with 86 dead, according to The Wall Street Journal

UN monitors have so far been unable to get into the village to verify reports of the massacre, according to Reuters.  

The thrust of Annan's proposal is a contact group that would bring the UN Security Council members – Russia, China, the US, Britain, and Francetogether with critical regional players, like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, who back the rebels, and Iran, which supports President Bashar al-Assad, Reuters reports.

The goal is to create a plan for a "political transition" that would remove Mr. Assad from power and hold elections for his successor. The point of the contact group, according to diplomats speaking with Reuters, is to bring Russia on board with the idea of replacing Assad.

"We're trying to get the Russians to understand that if they don't give up on Assad, they stand to lose all their interests in Syria if this thing blows up into a major regional war involving LebanonIran, Saudis," a Western diplomat told Reuters. "So far the Russians have not agreed." 

Further details of Annan's plan were leaked to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. He writes that including Russia and Iran – the "key supporters" of Assad's survival – in the contact group gives them an incentive to help along his removal from power and the ability to protect their substantial interests in Syria.

The Russians’ participation could help stabilize Syria during the transition, because they might get buy-in from the Syrian military, many of whose senior officers are Russian-trained. As Syria’s main weapons supplier, Moscow has, over many decades, developed and cultivated contacts throughout the regime power structure.

Would Russia or Iran support this unconventional proposal? It’s impossible to know. In recent days, the United States is said to have held exploratory talks with Russian officials who apparently have indicated some interest. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said a week ago that Moscow wasn’t wedded to Assad’s remaining in power, but the Russians have done nothing to move the Syrian dictator toward the exit.

Russian news outlet RT reports that Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mikhail Bogdanov said recently, “Moscow is not trying to keep Assad in power, his fate is in the hands of the Syrian people." And while in Beijing this week, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia considered it "necessary" to bring Iran into the diplomatic process because it has "real influence on different opposition groups," of which there are "not that many." 

According to Ignatius, Russia has offered Assad exile, allowing him to avoid prosecution for war crimes.

But the inclusion of Russia and Iran also makes the plan a controversial one, he writes – some countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, will not be happy about making Iran part of the diplomatic process. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Iran was "stage-managing" the Syrian government's crackdown and "reacted coolly" to the idea of including it more actively, according to Reuters.

Perhaps the biggest thing Annan's new proposal has going for it is the fact that there is still no other option that is palatable to the international community. All chatter about international intervention has been just that: chatter. The result of a failure is all too clear to everyone involved, Ignatius writes.

If Annan’s idea for a contact group proves to be a non-starter, there aren’t any obvious alternatives, other than a deepening civil war. Assad last week resisted the former secretary general’s de-escalation proposals, such as withdrawing Syrian troops from conflict zones and releasing political prisoners. And if progress isn’t made soon, Annan probably will have to abandon his peace effort — with all sides understanding this means a bloody war to the finish. 

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A still image from October 2011 video footage shows Abu Yahya al-Libi, a Libyan cleric and top Al Qaeda leader, who was killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan earlier this week, confirmed Tuesday afternoon. (Courtesy of IntelCenter/Reuters/File)

US confirms Al Qaeda's No. 2 killed in Pakistan by CIA drone attack (+video)

By Staff writer / 06.06.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

The US confirmed yesterday afternoon that Abu Yahya al-Libi, a Libyan cleric and top Al Qaeda leader, was killed in northwest Pakistan

After initial anonymous confirmations from US officials, White House spokesman Jay Carney confirmed Mr. Libi's death, saying that "there is no clear successor" and that it brings Al Qaeda "closer to its ultimate demise than ever." 

Many of the other Al Qaeda figures killed in drone strikes in the area were relatively unknown figures, but Libi became a well-known figure after escaping from US custody at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in 2005. He was "a virtual ambassador for global jihad," making regular videos, according to The New York Times. After Osama bin Laden's death, he was moved up to Al Qaeda's deputy, behind leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. He had a $1 million bounty and was rumored to have been killed once before, in December 2009 in South Waziristan.

Bill Roggio, the managing editor of the Long War Journal website, cautioned that until Al Qaeda issues a statement acknowledging his death, it shouldn't be considered a sure thing. He describes Libi as "one of Al Qaeda's most prolific propagandists."

Between 2006 and 2010, he has appeared in more al Qaeda propaganda tapes than any other member of the terror group, including bin Laden and Zawahiri. He has weighed in on some of the most controversial and important issues on al Qaeda's agenda. He was the first al Qaeda leader to urge the Pakistani people and the Army to turn against then-President Pervez Musharraf's regime after the military stormed the radical Red Mosque in the heart of Islamabad

While his death is confirmed, how much of a blow this will deal to Al Qaeda is contested. One American official told the Times: “Zawahri will be hard-pressed to find any one person who can readily step into Abu Yahya’s shoes. In addition to his gravitas as a longstanding member of A.Q.’s leadership, Abu Yahya’s religious credentials gave him the authority to issue fatwas, operational approvals and guidance to the core group in Pakistan and regional affiliates. There is no one who even comes close in terms of replacing the expertise A.Q. has just lost.”

Mr. Roggio acknowledges that Libi has been a top figure for the group, but writes that Al Qaeda has been able to replace other leaders killed by the US. One US intelligence official told him Al Qaeda did not rely on Libi alone. "Libi was an important member, without a doubt, but he didn't operate in a vacuum," he said, according to Roggio. 

Dan Murphy writes in The Christian Science Monitor that Libi's death – and at least 1,800 others since 2004 – might not even be best for the US in the long run.

And are all these deaths in America's long-term interests? That's a thorny question right there. Libi for all his association with Al Qaeda, was probably among the moderates within the group's thinkers, reported to be an opponent of takfir – the practice of declaring all Muslims out of step with Al Qaeda's views on the faith as apostates, deserving of death – and some who follow the group believe his death may just create space for someone more extreme to climb up the ladder. 

Additionally, the centrality of Pakistan's lawless tribal region to Al Qaeda and other militant groups is declining as a result of drone deaths like Libi's, The New York Times reports. Al Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen, where the US does not act as freely, are becoming more active.

That it took almost 24 hours for the US to confirm that it was Libi who was killed in the strike indicates how limited the United States' intelligence presence is on the ground in northwest Pakistan, Bloomberg Businessweek reports, noting that it often relies on surveillance of phone calls, text messages, e-mails, and jihadist websites, which can be unreliable.

The delay in confirmation also highlights the fact that the strikes are often carried out without the US being certain that it is targeting the person it means to target. 

“Intelligence is never going to be 100 percent accurate,” said Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The president himself has to decide how much risk he’s willing to take when he approves a strike. You have to consider the possible benefits -- the value of a target -- against the risk.” 

In al-Libi’s case, targeting the Libyan in the Pakistani village of Khassu Khel was worth the risk of missing him, perhaps killing innocent people, and further damaging the frayed U.S. relationship with Pakistan, which condemned the strike, the two US officials said.

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International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Yukiya Amano reacts as he attends a news conference during board of governors meeting at the United Nations headquarters in Vienna June 4. The UN nuclear watchdog chief announced yesterday that his agency would hold talks with Iran again this week. (Herwig Prammer/Reuters)

UN nuclear watchdog announces talks with Iran – and suspicions about a coverup

By Staff writer / 06.05.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

The head of the UN nuclear watchdog agency announced yesterday that his agency would hold talks with Iran again on June 8 and also voiced suspicions that Iran has been destroying buildings at a military site, possibly indicating a cover-up of activities there. 

The site in question is the Parchin military complex, to which the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been pushing particularly hard to gain access. Iran has consistently refused to grant access to the site. The IAEA suspects that Iran has carried out high explosives tests at Parchin.

Although diplomats and unnamed IAEA officials have mentioned such concerns before, this is the first public acknowledgment by the IAEA head, Yukiya Amano, giving the suspicions weight, according to Bloomberg.

His comments imply that the IAEA is concerned that Parchin is being "cleansed" in preparation for an IAEA visit Iran will likely have to permit at some point, according to Bloomberg. The suspicions are based on satellite images released last month that show activities that include "the use of water, demolishing of buildings, removing fences and moving soil," Mr. Amano said, according to Bloomberg. 

Commercial satellite images published subsequently by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security showed two buildings visible on earlier photos no longer standing.

"There are visible tracks made by heavy machinery used in the demolition process," said a commentary by the think tank accompanying the photos. "Heavy machinery tracks and extensive evidence of earth displacement is also visible throughout the interior as well as the exterior of the site's perimeter."

"We have the general concern that these activities may hamper our future verification activities," at the site, [Amano] said. "Information that we have indicates that activities may have been undertaken related to the development of nuclear explosive devices and ... having access is very important to clarify this issue."

Amano announced last month that an "agreement was at hand" on the IAEA's request to visit sites where it suspects Iran might have developed nuclear weapons. His remarks today indicate that the announcement might have been "premature" and will reinforce the beliefs of those who say the nuclear negotiations process is merely a pretense that Iran is using to buy time to hide evidence of nuclear work until it can no longer hold off the IAEA, the NYT reports.

“They hit a bump,” David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington research group that tracks the Iranian nuclear program, said in a telephone interview. “Amano is trying to expedite things to make sure it’s not a stalling measure. The agency needs to expedite this and find out if the Iranians are serious.”

Bloomberg reports that although Amano did not specify the purpose of the June 8 talks, "it was clear" that the IAEA would pressure Iran to finalize arrangements for the organization to resume its investigation into Iran's nuclear program, which has been on hold for more than four years.

Meanwhile, world powers – the US, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany (known as the P5 + 1) – have been trying to persuade Iran to halt its uranium enrichment, which Iran insists is for civilian energy purposes. Talks are scheduled to pick up again in Moscow on June 18. The last IAEA meeting, held in Baghdad in May, opened with optimism about Iran and world powers finding some common ground, but negotiators had little to show at its conclusion, reports the Monitor. 

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said that an agreement between the IAEA and Iran could "greatly empower the diplomatic process" between Iran and the P 5 +1 if the IAEA is able to secure the ability to conduct a "rigorous" investigation into allegations of nuclear weapons work. With such a safeguard, the United Nations Security Council might be willing to allow Iran to continue enriching uranium, Reuters reports.

So far, that seems unlikely. Amano said yesterday that Iran was not giving the IAEA what it needed in order to provide "credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities," according to Reuters. 

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An armed Free Syrian Army solider stands guard at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Idlib, Syria, Sunday, June 3. Free Syrian Army soldiers are determined to bring down the regime by force of arms, targeting military checkpoints and other government sites. A U.N. observer team with nearly 300 members has done little to quell the bloodshed. (AP)

Syria likely to overshadow agenda as EU leaders gather in Russia with Putin

By Correspondent / 06.04.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

European Union officials gathering in St. Petersburg for a summit with Russia today are expected to pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin to take a firmer position on Syria.

Russia and Syria remain strong allies and Western officials have accused Russia of selling arms and providing support to the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Mr. Putin has denied these claims, but his nation has also refused to condemn Mr. Assad and call for his removal.

If the EU can persuade Moscow to take a harder line against Syria, it may enable the United Nations Security Council to take more decisive action to end the conflict without Russia exercising its veto power. EU officials will likely attempt to persuade Putin to call on Assad to remove heavy weapons from Syrian cities and step down from power.

“We need to make sure that Russia is using fully its leverage in convincing the regime to implement [the plan],” an EU official told Reuters. “The Russian side has certainly not been very helpful in finding solutions in terms of a political way out.”

Along with China, Russia has vetoed two previous UN resolutions against the Syrian government. Russian officials have denied that they are trying to protect Assad, saying that both sides are at fault and any resolution must reflect that; Russia’s RIA Novosti reports that previous resolutions had a "pro-rebel bias." Putin has already said he would not accept a “Libyan scenario” again; Russia's abstension from UN resolution 1973 in March last year enabled it to pass, paving the way for air strikes that brought down Qaddafi's regime and left political instability in its wake.

China appears equally committed to nonintervention in Syria, following a commentary today by The People’s Daily, the main paper of the ruling Chinese Communist party. The editorial called for the international community to put greater stock in UN special envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan and not declare it “dead” due to ulterior motives, reports The New York Times.

“The Syrian question should be resolved by the Syrian people,” wrote The People’s Daily. “Outside powers do not have the right to stick their hands in.”

China will likely soon be in a unique position to push for a policy of non-intervention as it is about to inherit the revolving presidency of the UN Security Council, reports CNN. Taking the presidency at such a critical time may have significant implications for international policy toward Syria.

Going into the summit, Russia showed little indication that it would change its policy toward its Arab ally, reports Al Jazeera. Like China, Russia has said violence must stop and the international community must stick to Mr. Annan’s peace plan to end the Syria crisis.

Russia will continue supporting this position and calls on other states to do the same,” said Russia’s foreign ministry.

Though the Syria question has dominated much of the summit, the main purpose of the gathering is to discuss relations between Europe and Russia and reacquaint European leaders with Putin now that he’s returned to the presidency for a six-year term in office. The Moscow Times reports that the gathering is unlikely to result in any joint press statements or signed agreements.

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