TPM World News

KOBANI, Syria (AP) — Advances against the Islamic State group in its stronghold in the Syrian city of Raqqa have slowed down amid stiff resistance from the militants, said the spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting the group.

U.S. Army Col. Ryan Dillon estimates there are around 2,000 IS militants in the northern city, saying they are using civilians and children as human shields.

“We know this is not going to be an easy fight,” Dillon told The Associated Press in a phone interview on Thursday night.

The U.S. has partnered with the Kurdish-dominated coalition fighting force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces in its fight against IS in Syria. In the seven weeks since they launched their offensive for Raqqa, they have encircled the militants and breached the heavily fortified Old City, gaining a foothold inside.

Dillon said the Kurdish-led forces are still making steady advances, but acknowledged a slower pace than the first two weeks of the operation, which saw quick and immediate progress. He said the distance between the SDF forces on the eastern side of the city and on the western fronts is now just under 2 kilometers (1.2 miles).

Dillon said IS militants are using many of the same tactics employed in the Iraqi city of Mosul, including the use of tunnel networks, vehicle-borne IEDs, drones.

But he said in Raqqa, more than in Mosul, the militant group relies more on using civilians, sometimes children, to prevent coalition forces from striking specific areas in the city.

“We know that it is not going to be an overnight success but the coalition and the SDF will continue to push forward and will be victorious,” he said.

Dillon also said the coalition is concerned about Turkish shelling and threats to launch a cross-border operation into Afrin, a Kurdish-controlled enclave in western Syria near the border with Turkey, saying the SDF should remain focused on defeating IS in Raqqa.

He said, however, that the Raqqa campaign has so far not been affected.

“As far as we know the same amount of forces that were dedicated to defeating IS in Raqqa from the beginning has sustained and has stayed the same,” he said.

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JERUSALEM (AP) — Thousands of Muslims prayed Friday in the streets near a contested shrine in Jerusalem’s Old City, kneeling on mats spread on cobble stone to protest the installation of metal detectors at the holy site.

The prayers largely ended peacefully. In three areas near the Old City, Israeli forces fired tear gas to disperse small groups of Palestinian stone-throwers.

Muslim leaders had urged the faithful not to enter the sacred compound until Israel removes the detectors, portraying Israel’s measures as an encroachment on Muslim rights — a charge Israel denies.

The city’s top Muslim cleric, Mohammed Hussein, told worshippers Friday that he expects a “long test of wills” with Israel.

Israel also dug in, saying the devices would stay. Israel had installed the metal detectors after three Palestinians launched an attack from the shrine, killing two Israeli policemen a week ago. Police said the metal detectors are needed to prevent further attacks.

On Friday, police severely restricted Muslim access to the area of the Muslim-administered shrine, which is revered by Muslims and Jews.

Police set up checkpoints in and around Jerusalem to prevent widespread protests.

Some 3,000 police were deployed near the Old City, turning away Muslim men under the age of 50. Some worshippers who came from Israel and the West Bank were intercepted before reaching Jerusalem.

The dispute over the detectors has led to rising tensions between Israel and the Muslim world.

Jordan, the custodian of the Jerusalem shrine, has repeatedly appealed to Israel to remove the devices. The two countries cooperate closely on regional security issues, but frequently disagree on Israel’s policies at the shrine, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.

On Friday, several thousand Jordanians protested against Israel in the Jordanian capital of Amman.

The raised 37-acre (15-hectare) platform in Jerusalem houses the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosques. It is the third holiest site of Islam, after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

The compound, once home to biblical Temples, is Judaism’s holiest site. The Western Wall, a Temple remnant, is the holiest site where Jews can pray.

The shrine sits at the center of rival Israeli and Palestinian national narratives and has triggered major confrontations in the past.

On Friday, thousands of worshippers gathered in the streets near the shrine, laying out their prayer mats under a scorching sun. Volunteers distributed water.

One of the main gathering points was the Old City’s Lion’s Gate, near the spot where the policemen were killed last week.

Jerusalem resident Hashem Abu Diab, 60, led the crowd at Lion’s Gate in chants of “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is Great,” before noon prayers, the highlight of the Muslim religious week.

Abu Diab said the dispute has united Jerusalem’s Palestinians who consider the compound as their last sanctuary from Israel’s 50-year occupation of the eastern part of the city.

“The Al Aqsa Mosque is the last place we have in this country,” he said. “If Al Aqsa goes, we lose everything. We don’t leave until they remove the metal detectors.”

Hussein, the mufti of Jerusalem, delivered the sermon at Lion’s Gate, where dozens of Israeli police stood near five metal detectors.

Hussein said the faithful must not enter the compound until Israel has removed the devices.

“We are exhausting Israel because all their military and intelligence are in the streets,” he said.” We are steadfast and we will not back off.”

Israeli police said in a statement that the metal detectors will remain in place, but suggested police may at times choose to only conduct spot checks. “Israeli police can decide on the level of checks,” said police spokeswoman Luba Samri.

The age restriction and police deployment came hours after Israel’s security Cabinet decided not to overrule an earlier police decision to install the metal detectors.

The decision to defer to police came amid reports of disagreement among Israel’s security services about the need for the metal detectors. The military and the Shin Bet security services, which deal directly with Palestinians and potential unrest, were reportedly opposed to the devices.

Israel had come under growing pressure this week, including from Jordan, to remove the metal detectors. The rule of Jordan’s Hashemite dynasty, said to trace its ancestry back to the Prophet Muhammad, rests to a large degree on its role as guardian of the site.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who oversees autonomous enclaves in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, asked the United States to “intervene urgently” and compel Israel to remove metal detectors, said an adviser, Nabil Abu Rdeneh.

Abbas discussed the growing tensions in Jerusalem in a phone call with Trump’s top adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, Abu Rdeneh said.

The Palestinian leader told Kushner that the situation is “extremely dangerous and may go out of control,” Abu Rdeneh said.

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. Security Council has voted unanimously to impose sanctions against eight individuals and businesses linked to the Islamic State extremist group and al-Qaida.

The eight additions to the U.N. sanctions blacklist include IS leaders in Southeast Asia, IS-affiliated extremist groups in Syria, foreign fighters from the Caucuses and illicit money exchange businesses.

The U.S.-drafted resolution adopted Thursday also urges greater international cooperation to cut off funding to extremist groups, prevent them from acquiring weapons, and step up cooperation to address the issues of fighters for IS and al-Qaida returning home.

U.S. deputy ambassador Michele Sison called the resolution “another important step” to defeat the two extremist groups, stressing that “for the United States, there is no higher priority.”

Sison said “there will be more designations” to the sanctions blacklist.

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AIN ISSA, Syria (AP) — Some 250 residents of Syria’s Raqqa province Thursday became the latest batch to graduate from a brief U.S. training course, part of an internal security force to hold and secure areas as they are captured from Islamic State group militants.

The graduation ceremony in the desert town of Ain Issa, north of Raqqa, was attended by a few American trainers who oversee the force and its preparation. Members will man checkpoints, identify IS sleeper cells and detect explosives.

The U.S. has partnered with a Kurdish-dominated coalition fighting force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces in the fight against IS in Syria, but the issue of who would hold and administer predominantly Sunni Arab areas freed from the militants is an uneasy one.

U.S. officials say once Raqqa is liberated, the SDF will hand over local governance to the Raqqa Civilian Council, a local group of primarily Arab locals who will govern and administer essential service.

Col. Joseph Scrocca, a spokesman with the U.S.-led anti-IS coalition, told AP in an email last month that security will be provided by the Raqqa Internal Security Forces, a vetted multiethnic force expected to reach approximately 3,500 members.

Wissam, a Kurdish resident of Ain Issa who gave only his first name, is one of the trainers. He said so far around 800 forces have been trained and deployed around at least five areas in Raqqa province.

One American official at the site said the Internal Security Forces of Raqqa are not a combat or police force, but are trained to be a hold force in the areas as they are liberated from Islamic State militants. He spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

The training program appears to be accelerating as the campaign to liberate the city of Raqqa enters its seventh week and the need for a security force to secure the city post-IS becomes more pressing. Critics say the Kurdish-led SDF forces and the affiliated Kurdish administration are not apt for holding the majority Arab province.

The newly graduated force is comprised mostly of Arab cadets.

For Wissam Eid, a 17-year old resident of Raqqa, this is personal. His twin brother was shot in the head by IS after they detained him for seven months in late 2015. At the age of 15, his brother Ayman was accused by the IS militants of collaborating with the Kurdish militias that operate in northern Raqqa and Aleppo. A friend had ratted on him.

Eid said he too was detained for three months as they investigated his brother, held in solitary confinement for a month and hung from this arms for over 12 hours. After he was released he went looking for the person who ratted on his brother.

It was his mother that urged him to join the new force. “If you arrest a Daesh, just drink his blood, she told me,” Eid said, using a variation on an Arabic saying.

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BRUSSELS (AP) — Britain and a frustrated European Union hesitantly edged forward during their first full divorce negotiation session this week, though it became clear Thursday that one of the biggest stumbling blocks will be agreeing which court will have the final say in settling legal disputes after Brexit.

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, urged Britain to flesh out its positions on a variety of issues that need to be dealt with before discussions on a wide-ranging trade deal to follow the country’s exit from the bloc can begin.

He asked for a clear British plan on how much it should pay, the rights of citizens living in each other’s nations and how to keep make sure that the handling of the land border with Ireland doesn’t negatively impact on business and on the Northern Ireland peace process.

“This week’s experience has shown, we make better progress when our respective positions are clear,” Barnier said, in a comment that highlighted the bloc’s impatience with the British foot-dragging to start discussions following the June 2016 referendum that backed Brexit.

One major barrier is how much Britain will pay to meet its obligations as part of any Brexit deal. Estimates have ranged from around 40 billion euros ($34 billion) and 100 billion. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has said the EU can “go whistle” for its money if it comes with excessive demands.

“Accounts have to be settled,” Barnier countered.

Barnier said during a joint news conference that the “clarification of the U.K. position is indispensable for us to negotiate and for us to make sufficient progress on this financial dossier which is inseparable from other dossiers.”

British negotiators — 99 of them arrived on Monday — have been pushing back against EU allegations that they were ill-prepared, insisting they needed less public paperwork since they did not have to report back to 27 nations.

Britain’s Brexit minister David Davis said that four days of talks among dozens of negotiators had provided “a lot to be positive about.”

Davis said he’s “encouraged by progress” on key issues, even though negotiators barely moved beyond exploratory issues during talks that are expected to stretch into late 2018.

One problem stood out, though. The EU wants its top court, the European Court of Justice, still to be the final arbiter on many issues in the wake of the Brexit agreement, which Britain rejects.

The court was a key issue during the 2016 referendum campaign, with ‘leave’ campaigners arguing that the primary role of the European court over national courts represented a substantial loss of sovereignty.

Barnier insisted the ECJ still needs a strong role.

“Quite frankly,” he said, “any reference to European rights imply their oversight by the court of justice of the European Union.”

It leaves the negotiators with plenty of work for the rest of the summer and early fall. Since the talks have taken four months to fully kick off, negotiators will now be pressed to make up lost time on a host of wickedly complicated issues which could take years, if comparable international examples like trade agreements are any guide.

While the official deadline is March 2019, there’s a practical deadline of late fall next year, since any agreement would still face ratification in the EU and its nations.

By October this year, they will be looking for agreement on “sufficient progress” on the rights of citizens living in each other’s nations, the bill Britain will have to pay, the border issue in Ireland and the place of the European Court of Justice as an ultimate arbiter. Once enough progress has been made on all these issues, both sides can also start looking at building a new trade and political relationship.

Davis held out hope Britain and the EU would remain the best of allies and that any settlement should not seek an edge on an opponent.

“Nobody expects a punishment deal. Michel and I are both going for a good deal,” Davis said.

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JERUSALEM (AP) — Israelis and Palestinians dug in over new security measures at a contested Jerusalem shrine after a deadly attack there, as international efforts were underway to try and stave off a major conflagration after Muslim clerics called for mass protests at the site on Friday.

Israel’s public security minister insisted Thursday that the metal detectors were essential to maintaining security, while Palestinians and Muslim religious leaders called for mass protests in the city if they are not removed.

Gilad Erdan told Israel’s Army Radio that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will rule on the issue later in the day after he holds security consultations upon his return from a working visit to Europe. The Israeli security services are reportedly divided over what to do given the rising tensions surrounding the site. But Erdan rejected Arab accusations that new Israeli measures were an attempt to expand control over the site and insisted they were necessary to carry out proper security checks.

“The Israeli police needs these metal detectors so the security checks can give a proper response to the security considerations,” he said. “I assume there are contacts internationally to try to calm the situation, but in my eyes there is no reason why the situation should not be calm.”

Israeli security forces are on high alert ahead of Friday, the highlight of the Muslim religious week, when tens of thousands of Muslims typically attend prayers in the walled compound in Jerusalem’s Old City. Muslim leaders have called for mass protests if the metal detectors are not moved before then.

Conflicts over the holy site — known as the Temple Mount to Jews and Noble Sanctuary to Muslims — have repeatedly triggered Israeli-Palestinian confrontations. Three Arab gunmen launched an attack from there last week, killing two Israeli policemen at a gate to the Muslim-administered compound.

In response, Israel began installing metal detectors — a security measure it said is used routinely at holy sites around the world.

Hamas called the initial closure a “religious war” and called on followers to attack Israelis.

Muslim clerics have been urging the faithful to skip prayers in neighborhood mosques on Friday and converge on the shrine, in an attempt to draw larger crowds. Worshippers have been asked this week to pray in the streets rather than submit to the new security procedures.

Netanyahu, who is in Hungary, held a pair of urgent phone conversations with his security chiefs Wednesday and appears to be under intense international pressure to back down.

Netanyahu said Israel is in close contact with Jordan, the traditional Muslim custodian of the shrine, to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. Jordan’s ruling Hashemite dynasty, with ancestry said to go back to Prophet Muhammad, derives much of its legitimacy from custodianship over the shrine. The White House has also called for tensions to be reduced.

The site remained quiet Thursday and Azzam Khatib, the director of the site’s Muslim administration, or Waqf, said he was hopeful an arrangement could be found before the Friday prayers.

“We will never ever accept any changes in the mosque, and Israel has to put an end to this crisis by removing the metal detectors,” he said.

Jerusalem resident Ruben Abu Shamsi said the status of the gates posed a “borderline” for tragedy. “I hope the Israeli government will be so wise to avoid the violence,” he said at the site.

Nationalist Israeli politicians have been pressuring Netanyahu from the opposite direction. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, warned of an Israeli “capitulation” that “will damage Israel’s power of deterrence and will endanger the lives of the visitors, the worshippers and the police officers.”

After last week’s shooting, Israel closed the site for two days for searches. It was only the third closure since Israel captured the shrine, along with east Jerusalem and other territories, in the 1967 Mideast war.

The closure drew wide condemnation from the Muslim world. Israel began opening the site gradually on Sunday.

Jews revere the 37-acre (15-hectare) raised platform as the site of their biblical temples. It is the holiest site in Judaism and the nearby Western Wall, a remnant of one of the temples, is the holiest place where Jews can pray.

Muslims believe the hilltop marks the spot from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. It is Islam’s third-holiest site after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

Also on Thursday, the Israeli military said it shot and killed a 26-year-old Palestinian attacker who tried to stab soldiers at a checkpoint near the West Bank city of Hebron.

In the past two years, Palestinians have killed 45 Israelis, two visiting Americans and a British tourist in stabbings, shootings and car-ramming attacks. During that period, Israeli forces have killed more than 255 Palestinians, most of them said by Israel to be attackers while others were killed in clashes with Israeli forces.

Israel blames the violence on incitement by Palestinian political and religious leaders to commit attacks. Palestinians say the attacks stem from anger over decades of Israeli occupation of territories they claim for their future state.

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Saudi Arabia announced Wednesday that a woman who was detained after wearing a miniskirt in a video that went viral has been released without charge.

The decision not to press charges was a rare win for supporters of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, who criticized the public outcry against her. It also comes as Saudi Arabia overhauls its prosecution system under a new, young heir to the throne who has taken steps to try and modernize the country and its public image.

The viral video and the reaction to it in Saudi Arabia prompted police to bring the woman in for questioning for wearing “immodest clothes” in violation of the kingdom’s conservative Islamic dress code.

Her release from detention without charge suggests that the subsequent international attention brought to the case may have helped lead to her quick release. Some women fleeing allegedly abusive families have languished in prison without charge, and others in the past have been imprisoned for defying Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving.

The young woman drew attention over the weekend when the video appeared online showing her walking in a historic village north of the capital, Riyadh, wearing a miniskirt and crop top, and showing her hair.

Saudi rules require all women living in the kingdom, including foreigners, to wear long, loose robes known as abayas in public. Most Saudi women also wear a headscarf and veil that covers the face.

A statement released by the Center for International Communication said police released the woman, who was not named. It says she was released Tuesday evening after a few hours of questioning and that she told investigators that the video posted on social media was published without her knowledge.

“She was released without charge and the case has been closed by the prosecutor,” the statement said.

It is common in Saudi Arabia to see heavily blurred or pixelated images of women’s faces on billboards and storefronts — in stark contrast to the many towering images of senior male royals displayed across the country.

Despite such government controls, more than half of Saudi Arabia’s population is under 25 and many are active on social media where they can access the internet and bypass government censors. Twitter is wildly popular among Saudis as a place to vent frustrations and gauge public opinion.

Conservatives and others angered by the video took to Twitter , writing that she violated rules and should be arrested to set an example. Others rushed to her defense, questioning why the video had sparked such outrage when violations that affect human rights, for example, have not led to similarly fierce internal debate.

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Residents of Venezuela’s capital say they are blocking streets on their own initiative to voice frustration ahead of a general strike in protest of a government push to rewrite the constitution.

Protester Jimmy Arvelo says he and neighbors set up a barricade of tree trunks and tires in his Caracas neighborhood. Arvelo says they are protesting peacefully, but “we are resisting.”

Such roadblocks paralyzed much of Caracas on Wednesday, with some public bus lines shutting down.

Venezuela is in the throes of a political crisis that has seen months of protests in which scores of people have died.

The government intends to hold a July 30 election to select an assembly charged with rewriting the nation’s charter.

President Nicolas Maduro’s allies have called on the assembly to impose executive-branch authority over the few remaining institutions outside the control of the ruling party.

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PARIS (AP) — A French woman captured in the Iraqi city of Mosul with her four children is facing possible prosecution in Iraq for allegedly collaborating with the Islamic State group, in a test case for how governments handle the families of foreign fighters now that the extremists are in retreat.

The fate of the children, ranging in age from 6 months to 8 years old, is in legal limbo. Their father’s whereabouts are unknown.

The woman’s lawyer says the family should be brought to France, even though she would probably be jailed and could face terrorism charges upon her return. Lawyer William Bourdon fears she could face abuse in Iraq and be used as a scapegoat for IS crimes or as a pawn in domestic political conflicts.

But French government spokesman Christophe Castaner said Wednesday the mother should be prosecuted in Iraq, saying she wasn’t in battle-torn Mosul “for tourism.”

While he said France condemns reported abuses by Iraqi troops in their campaign against IS, he insisted “the authorities in Iraq are justified in wanting to judge (foreign fighters) on site.”

How Iraq and France choose to handle this family’s case could set a precedent for the many other foreigners who joined the IS cause. France alone estimates that 750 French people are among extremists in Iraq and Syria — including up to 450 children.

Iraqi authorities wouldn’t comment Wednesday on the French family’s case.

While Bourdon could not provide details about why the French family joined IS, France has sent more extremists to Iraq and Syria than any other Western country. France has also been repeatedly targeted by deadly IS attacks, mainly staged by homegrown extremists.

The captured Frenchwoman abruptly left her home in a Paris suburb in late 2015 and followed her husband to Syria and then to Iraq, taking their three children along, according to Bourdon. The woman’s family doesn’t want her name released for their protection.

The woman gave birth to a baby girl six months ago in Mosul, Bourdon said, even as Iraqi troops — with help from U.S., French and other forces — battled to oust IS from its main stronghold in Iraq.

The woman and children were captured July 8 in Mosul’s old city, then transferred to Baghdad last week, according to Bourdon.

“The logical solution, from a judicial and human standpoint, would be for the family to be handed over to French authorities,” Bourdon told The Associated Press. “That she made the most stupid choice of her life is not a reason to have a view of her that is only judicial.”

The government spokesman said French and Iraqi authorities are working to verify the children’s identities, but would not detail where they are or might be taken next.

The French Foreign Ministry said Wednesday it had told the woman’s family last month to urge her to turn herself in to French consular authorities in Baghdad or Irbil.

Iraqi officials also said they arrested a German woman last week in Mosul’s Old City, the first time they reported arresting a foreign IS-linked woman. They said she had been recruited by an Arab IS member through social media.

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was caught Wednesday by a live microphone railing against the European Union’s “crazy” insistence on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a precondition for closer ties with the 28-state bloc, and trumpeting Israel as essential to its prosperity and survival.

Netanyahu was meeting with leaders of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia at a regional summit, where a conversation with his Czech and Hungarian counterparts discussing Iran, Syria, the Islamic State, and EU-Israel relations was accidentally broadcast to journalists covering the conference.

Netanyahu also made a rare public admission that Israel has struck Iranian arms convoys in Syria bound for Hezbollah “dozens and dozens of times.”

The Israeli premier was overheard blasting the European Union’s approach to Israel, saying “it’s crazy. I think it’s actually crazy” that the EU maintains that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must come before closer trade ties.

“There is no logic here. Europe is undermining its security by undermining Israel. Europe is undermining its progress by undermining the connection with Israeli innovation because of a crazy attempt to create conditions (for peace with the Palestinians),” said Netanyahu.

European ties with Israel would determine whether the 28-member union would “live and thrive or shrivel and disappear,” he added.

The EU doesn’t recognize Israeli sovereignty over territories it captured in the 1967 Mideast war, including the West Bank and east Jerusalem, where the Palestinians hope to establish a state. It has been a vocal critic of Israel’s settlement construction and has adopted measures mandating the labeling of goods produced in West Bank settlements.

“The European Union is the only association of countries in the world that conditions the relations with Israel — that produces technology in every area — on political conditions. The only ones. Nobody does it,” Netanyahu said, citing Russia, China and India’s willingness to do business with Israel despite politics.

Netanyahu has pushed for closer trade ties with India and China in recent years. Earlier this month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a state visit to Israel, during which the two countries signed a number of trade agreements cementing increasingly warm relations.

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