Saudi-Iraqi talks tackle stability in war-torn country

Iraqiya calls for international monitoring on vote recount, threatens to withdraw from political process

3 top Al-Qaeda operatives killed in Iraq

Tension flares up between Yemeni government, Houthi rebels

UAE likens Iran’s occupation of islands to Israel’s occupation of Arab lands

Iraq's most senior Sunni Arab official, Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, on Wednesday became the latest politician to hold talks with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia after an indecisive March election.

The two men discussed "issues of common interest," said a terse report on the official Saudi Press Agency.

Hashemi's visit to Riyadh follows similar trips by leading Iraqi politicians from all communities -- Kurdish and Shiite as well as Sunni Arab.

Less than a couple of weeks ago, the president of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, Massoud Barzani, and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who is also a Kurd, have both traveled to Saudi Arabia.

So too have Ammar al-Hakim, one of the key leaders in the main Shiite religious bloc, and Iyad Allawi, a Shiite who heads the secular alliance that emerged as the largest single faction in the new parliament.

The March 7 election left Allawi's Iraqiya bloc ahead of his rival Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law Alliance.

But neither has been able to piece together a governing coalition and the visitors to Riyadh are believed to be seeking Saudi support in forming a stable government.

Saudi Arabia has professed it does not interfere in Iraqi politics.

"We do not interfere in (Iraq's) internal affairs. We support all Iraqis, and Iraq's unity, independence and sovereignty over its territory, and we maintain the same distance from all politicians," Prince Saud told the London-based Asharq al-Awsat on Saturday.

Predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia is most concerned about Shiite arch-rival Iran's potential influence over any Baghdad administration.

Observers have speculated that Riyadh could upgrade relations if Allawi, whose Iraqiya has the support of both Sunni Iraqis and some secular Shiites, is successful in forming a parliamentary majority.

Iyad Allawi, secular politician and head of Iraqiya electoral bloc, said Tuesday that his bloc respects the decision of the appeals panel to recount votes of March 7 parliamentary elections, but stressed such process must be under "strict international monitoring."

"We respect the latest measures (of appeals panel for manual recount for votes in Baghdad), which must be under international strict monitoring," Allawi told news conference.

However, Allawi warned that such recount should include areas that his bloc submitted complaints about alleged manipulation other than Baghdad, otherwise, his bloc would take decisions which he refused to name.

"If such measures (manual recount) would not cover other areas that we have submitted complaints, the Iraqiya bloc would take a decision which I don't want to disclose now," Allawi said.

Allawi hinted that the appeals panel yielded to Maliki's demands for recount when he (Allawi) asked why the appeals panel did not discuss with his bloc's team of lawyers about his complaints, like they did with the lawyers of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law bloc.

Allawi's comments came a day after an appeals panel ordered manual recount for ballots in Baghdad after looking in complaints by political blocs.

"The appeals panel tasked with reviewing the complaints of the political blocs about the parliamentary elections decided to carry out manual recount for Baghdad province only," Hamdiya al-Husseiny, a member of the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) said.

Earlier, several blocs, including Maliki's bloc, demanded manual recount claiming that hundreds of thousands of votes have been manipulated in five provinces.

On April 11, Hachim al-Hassani, spokesman of Maliki's bloc said that his bloc demanded manual recount in five provinces, including Baghdad, but he added that his bloc would accept manual recount even if it is only in Baghdad.

The manual recount may change the seat ranking of the two leading blocs with a narrow gap of two seats. And any change in seat numbers is likely to bring about more subsequent political rows.

On March 7, some 62.4 percent of more than 18 million eligible voters turned out in some 8,920 polling centers across the country to vote for the 325-seat Iraqi Council of Representatives out of some 6,300 candidates.

Bombs targeting Shiite areas killed at least 56 people in Baghdad on Friday in a possible backlash after Iraq touted a series of blows against al Qaeda.

Eight people were also killed by bombs in the Sunni west of the country.

Seven blasts hit different areas of the Iraqi capital around the time of Muslim prayers, mostly near Shiite mosques and at a marketplace, an interior ministry source said. Around 112 people were wounded.

"Targeting prayers in areas with a certain majority," Baghdad security spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said, referring to Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, "is a revenge for the losses suffered by al Qaeda.

"We expect such terrorist acts to continue."

Last Sunday, al Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the purported head of its affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq, were killed in a raid in a rural area northwest of Baghdad by Iraqi and U.S. forces.

In Friday's attacks, at least 21 people were killed and more than that number were wounded when three bombs exploded in populated Sadr City slum.

Another bomb killed at least 11 and wounded 17 near a Shiite mosque in al-Ameen district in southeastern Baghdad. An earlier car bomb killed three people near a Shiite mosque in the northwestern neighborhood of al-Hurriya, police said.

Hours earlier, seven members of one family were killed in a series of blasts in Khalidiya, a town in Iraq's turbulent western province of Anbar 83 km (50 miles) west of Baghdad. One police officer died trying to defuse a bomb.

The mainly Sunni province of Anbar has been relatively quiet since tribal leaders in 2006 started turning on Sunni Islamist groups such as al Qaeda who had once dominated it. But insurgents continue to operate in the vast desert province.

"At four in the morning, I heard a movement behind my house and found some barrels nearby, so I took my family out of the house," said Fadhil Salih, a judge at the Khalidiya courthouse.

"An hour later the bomb went off and destroyed my house but, thank God, there were no casualties in my family," Salih said.

At least 10 people were wounded in the blasts, including two policemen. Authorities imposed a ban on vehicles and motorbikes in Khalidiya after the blasts.

Iraqi officials say they have been expecting revenge attacks from Sunni Islamist insurgents after security forces scored a number of victories against al Qaeda in the past month.

The strike against al Qaeda's Iraq leadership has been accompanied by a string of smaller battlefield victories in which more than 300 suspected al Qaeda operatives have been arrested and 19 killed, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.

Overall violence in Iraq has fallen in the last two years as the sectarian bloodshed that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion faded, but tensions were stoked last month after a national election that produced no clear winner.

Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's bloc came a close second to a cross-sectarian alliance heavily backed by the once-dominant minority Sunni community.

But Maliki's allies are attempting to capture the lead through a recount of votes in Baghdad and through court challenges to winning candidates because of their alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath party.

Meanwhile, in Sana’a, three people were killed when a gunfight broke out in northern Yemen, rebels and tribal sources said on Thursday, in the latest outbreak of violence that threatens to undermine a two-month-old truce.

Yemen's government agreed a truce with Shiite Muslim rebels led by Abdel-Malek al-Houthi in February to halt a war that has raged on and off since 2004 and displaced 250,000 people.

The ceasefire has largely held, but unrest has risen in recent weeks, raising fears of growing instability in a country that neighbors the world's biggest oil exporters and sits on the strategic Bab al-Mandeb shipping channel.

Rebels and tribal sources gave conflicting accounts of Thursday's clash, highlighting the confusion that has long surrounded the conflict in the Saada area of north Yemen.

"The Houthis opened fire on a position of the central security forces, who responded in kind," a Yemeni tribal source said of the gunbattle, adding that three rebels were killed.

The rebels denied involvement, saying it was tribal gunmen who had clashed with security forces after they tried to shake them down for money at a checkpoint in Saada on Wednesday.

The rebels, on their website, said the three dead were civilians caught in the crossfire. A government official denied any violence had taken place at all.

But several people were wounded in a separate clash between Houthi rebels and pro-government fighters and dozens of pro-rebel gunmen held a peaceful protest to complain that Sana’a was not serious about ending the conflict.

Yemen jumped to the forefront of Western security concerns after al Qaeda's Yemen-based regional arm claimed responsibility for an attempted attack on a U.S.-bound plane in December.

Western governments and Saudi Arabia fear al Qaeda is exploiting instability in Yemen to use the Arabian peninsula state as a base for attacks in the region and beyond.

Yemen's allies want Sana’a to quell its domestic conflicts to turn its focus and resources to the battle against al Qaeda.

But previous ceasefires have not lasted and analysts say more trust must be built between the sides for this one to hold.

The government freed scores of Shiite prisoners this month to cement the truce after rebels freed 170 soldiers and pro-government tribal fighters in March. But the rebels complain that hundreds more from their ranks are still being held.

"The government is not serious about the peace process because it has not freed the prisoners or released the salaries of civil servants or started rebuilding what was destroyed in the war," one rebel official in the northern Jawf region said.

Sana’a says the rebels have violated the truce but Houthi's followers have denied involvement in any of the recent violence. "These acts hinder the peace, but we can overcome it. But if the Houthis continue with violations they will bear the responsibility," a government official told Reuters.

On the other hand, Arab Emirates (UAE) likened Iran’s control of three disputed Gulf islands to Israel’s occupation of Arab territories on Tuesday, while Tehran reiterated its rule over islands and rebuked the UAE’s comments on Wednesday.

“The occupation of any Arab land is an occupation,” Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan said in a question-and-answer session of the consultative Federal National Council, according to WAM state news agency.

“There is no difference between Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights, southern Lebanon, the West Bank or Gaza, as occupation remains occupation … No Arab land is more precious than another,” he said, referring to the tiny islands of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa.

“As an Emirati, it is normal that I should be … more sensitive about an occupied part of the UAE than other Arab territories. Otherwise, one would be fooling himself,” he added.

Iran, under the rule of the Western-backed shah, gained control of the islands in 1971, as Britain granted independence to its Gulf protectorates and withdrew its forces.

The Islamic Republic took possession of the Lesser and Greater Tunbs, while a third, Abu Musa – the only inhabited island – was placed under joint administration in a deal with Sharjah, now part of the UAE.

But the UAE says the Iranians have since taken control of all access to the strategic island and installed an airport and military base on Abu Musa.

Nahyan’s comments drew the ire of Iran on Wednesday, which reiterated its rule over the disputed Gulf islands.

“Comments made about the Iranian islands in the Persian Gulf are neither right nor well-considered,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told Mehr news agency.

“With cooperation within the Islamic world in mind, we have always sought to warn against the main threat in the region which is the regime occupying Al-Quds [Jerusalem],” he said alluding to Israel.

“Misunderstandings among friends can be resolved through bilateral talks,” he said, while calling on UAE leaders to “avoid comments which benefit the Zionists.”

The UAE, facing Iran across the Gulf waterway vital for world oil supplies, has a large Iranian expatriate community and is a major conduit for Tehran’s trade with the outside world.