Clashes expand in Syria as White House says regime has to launch reform or quit

Campaigns mounting against Mikati government in Lebanon

Jordan monarch calls for drawing line between democratic transition or sedition risks

Moroccan constitution-amending panel offers proposals to King Mohammed VI

Obama urges Sudan to discard military solutions

Russia urges Iran to show constructive cooperation on nukes as Gulf states condemn Iran’s interference in their affairs

Syria:

Thousands of civilians fled in panic as tank columns pushed into the north-west of Syria in an expanding military campaign against the protest movement. It came as Bashar al-Assad sent envoys to Turkey for talks, and also as the president prepared to deliver a televised speech promising reforms.

Reports from Ma'arat al-Numan, on the road between Damascus and Aleppo, described armored vehicles advancing while troops were deployed by helicopter, as loudspeakers on mosques broadcasting warnings.

It was a similar story in the east, on the Iraqi border near Deir al-Zor and around Albu Kamal, where mass protests began last week.

In the capital, thousands turned out for loyalist rallies as a pro-government website reported that the president was to address the nation on constitutional changes "within the coming hours".

Assad has spoken twice to the nation since the uprising began, but both times his intervention was seen as too little and too late. The president has not been seen in public since 19 May, but he is thought to be firmly in charge, while his brother, Maher, is overseeing military operations.

The Syriasteps website reported that the constitutional changes to be mentioned by Assad could involve article eight, which guarantees the supremacy of the ruling Ba'ath party.

In London and other western capitals, diplomats said that a UN resolution condemning Syria could be tabled with the support of 11 of the 15 members of the security council, challenging Russia and China to veto it.

Efforts were focusing on Brazil, South Africa and India, which have voiced reservations about a resolution drafted by Britain, France, Germany and Portugal.

In stark contrast to international action on Libya, the UN has so far failed to condemn the violence in Syria, in which an estimated 1,300 people have been killed in three months.

The UN's high commissioner for human rights repeated that Syrian security forces have used executions, mass arrests and torture to repress pro-democracy protests.

Pressure was mounting on Damascus from neighboring Turkey, where Syria's foreign minister, Walid al-Muallim, and Hassan Turkmani, Assad's national security adviser, were holding emergency consultations. Britain and the US have been urging Turkey to get tougher.

The once close relationship between the neighbors has been tested by the thousands of refugees crossing the border into Turkey, fleeing Syrian forces in the Jisr al-Shughour area.

Turkey's tone has sharpened, with prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaking of Syrian "savagery". Ankara's concerns are over the spreading of unrest to Kurdish areas of Syria, and in preventing a new wave of refugees.

In Damascus, streets were packed and traffic blocked as crowds headed to the main highway in the upper-class neighborhood of Mezze for a pro-Assad rally. Text messages had been sent earlier in the week to alert people to join. Many seemed eager to be there, underlining the huge divide between those for and against the regime.

Young boys sat on top of cars holding up portraits of Assad on placards, lorries carrying groups of people waving national flags beeped their horns, and women old and young wearing T-shirts featuring Assad's face over the Syrian flag rushed towards the highway. Chants of "we will die for you Bashar" and "God, Syria, Bashar – that's all!" rang out.

In stark contrast to what happens at anti-regime demonstrations, police cordoned off the road and vendors sold flags, adding to a party mood. Ambulances and buses were nearby.

"We love out president, he's smart and does what's best, which outsiders don't understand," said one man, in a sign that by using the rhetoric of outside threats, from both "armed gangs" and hostile governments, Syria's government has succeeded in rallying some to its side. "We have security here," said another. "Even the Iraqi refugees are telling us not to go down this route of protests."

State TV carried non-stop coverage of the rally interviewing participants young and old, and showed off the unfurling of a national flag over 2 kilometers long stretching down the length of the highway.

Pro-Assad rallies have increased in the last week, especially in front of the French and Turkish embassies to protest their governments' angry condemnations of the crackdown.

Yemen:

The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Ibn Abdulaziz Al Saud made on Tuesday a telephone call to President Ali Abdullah Saleh of the Republic of Yemen, during which the King was reassured about the health of the Yemeni President, wishing a speedy recovery for the Yemeni President and all the injured, and for Yemen to overcome the current crisis, stressing the Kingdom's position in support of a united, secure and stable Yemen.

On his part, the Yemeni President expressed his thanks and gratitude to the King for his brotherly noble feelings and attention and care accorded to him and a number of Yemeni leaders and senior officials in the Kingdom's hospitals after the treacherous criminal incident which took place while they were performing Friday's prayer at Al-Nahdeen Mosque at the presidential palace.

The Yemeni President reassured the King that his health is good and constantly improving, appreciating the Kingdom's stance by its brothers in Yemen in view of the current crisis and exerted efforts to overcome it to achieve the supreme national interests of the Yemeni people.

During the conversation, they also discussed the brotherly relations between the two countries and their peoples and ways of their enhancement in various fields.

Meanwhile, al-Qaeda-linked militants temporarily seized parts of a provincial capital in southern Yemen on Wednesday, the latest in a series of brazen attacks by extremists taking advantage of the turmoil in the poor Arab nation.

The increasingly bold fighters are expanding their reach after wounded President Ali Abdullah Saleh left Yemen for Saudi Arabia and cast the country into deeper chaos. Their gains in a nearly lawless region of southern Yemen lend urgency to U.S. efforts to bolster military capabilities that can be used to strike at the terrorist network.

Yemen is at the southern corner of the Arabian Peninsula close to the Gulf's vast oil fields and strategic shipping lanes in the Arabian and Red seas. It is home to one of the most active al-Qaeda branches, which has been linked to several nearly successful attacks on U.S. targets, including the plot to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner in December 2009.

The group also put sophisticated bombs into U.S.-addressed parcels that made it onto cargo flights.

Yemen is also home to U.S.-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, whom the United States has put on a kill-or-capture list. Washington accuses him of inspiring attacks on the U.S., including the 2009 shooting at a military base in Texas that killed 13 people.

Saleh left Yemen for treatment of wounds he suffered in a rocket attack on his compound in Yemen's capital, Sanaa.

The president, who is nearly 70, was quoted by the Saudi media Wednesday as saying he was "in good health and steadily improving."

Yemen's leader of nearly 33 years, Saleh has held onto power in the face of massive protests demanding his ouster since February.

Some of his top aides, military commanders, Cabinet ministers and diplomats have defected to the protesters' side in recent months.

This month, troops loyal to him fought rival tribesmen in Sanaa's streets, with both sides using rockets, mortars and artillery.

The turmoil has created a vacuum in Yemen, the Arab world's poorest nation, threatening to cause the country to unravel or break up.

Up to 200 militants from the al-Qaeda-linked group Ansar al-Sharia, or supporters of Islamic Sharia laws, launched a surprise dawn attack on Houta, capital of southern Lahj province, killing one soldier and wounding three before taking control of several neighborhoods, according to security officials.

They held them for nearly 12 hours, forcing stores to close and residents to stay home. They pulled out in late afternoon, taking new positions in farmlands just outside the city's southern outskirts.

It was not clear why they withdrew, but some residents said the incursion appeared to be a show of force by the militants, who since late May have seized and held two cities, including a provincial capital, in the neighboring province of Abyan.

The security officials also said bands of militants drove through some neighborhoods in the southern port city of Aden early Wednesday, opening fire on security forces.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

The gunfire in Aden prompted a warning by Defense Minister Mohammed Nasser Ahmed of an "imminent danger" to the city by the militants. He also said at a meeting with the city's military and police leaders to rally together to defend the city.

Wednesday's attacks in Houta and Aden underlined Washington's worries that Yemen's ongoing unrest could fuel connections between al-Qaeda-linked militants and al-Shabab insurgents in Somalia across the Red Sea in the Horn of Africa.

Witnesses in Houta said some of Wednesday's attackers had Somali features and did not speak Arabic. Lahj is home to a refugee camp housing several thousand Somalis who fled violence in their country.

Houta resident Anees Mansour painted a picture of disarray in Lahj province.

He said the attackers met with little resistance from army and security forces in the city, provincial Gov. Ahmed Al-Maguidi has not been to his office in three days, and that the province's security chief, Mohammed Aqlan, was fired earlier this week.

Daniel Benjamin, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, said insurgents in Yemen were operating more in the open and have been able to acquire and hold more territory.

Anticipating worsening conditions in Yemen, the United States is building a secret CIA air base in the Persian Gulf region to target al-Qaeda terrorists in case anti-American groups emerge victorious from the country's current political impasse and shut U.S. forces out, The Associated Press has learned.

The AP also learned that the White House has increased the number of CIA officers in Yemen and stepped up the schedule to construct the base, from a two-year timetable to eight months.

The AP has withheld the exact location of the base at the request of U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because portions of the military and CIA missions in Yemen are classified.

The new base suggests a long-term U.S. commitment to fighting al-Qaeda in the region, along the lines of the model used in Pakistan, where CIA drones hunt militants with tacit, though not public, Pakistani government approval.

Underlining the growing threat from the militants in Yemen, Ansar al-Sharia, whose fighters have captured the Abyan towns of Zinjibar and Jaar, listed in a statement obtained Wednesday the names and ranks of 12 air force and army officers it said it intended to kill for taking part in attacks last week against its members there.

Lebanon:

Lebanese President Michel Sleiman said Wednesday Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s Cabinet was “100 percent Lebanese,” indirectly rejecting March 14 claims that the government had been formed under Syrian pressure.

For his part, Mikati said the Cabinet would work for all Lebanon and would not engage in vengeful acts.

The two leaders made their remarks during the Cabinet’s first session, which was chaired by Sleiman at Baabda Palace and attended by all ministers except for Talal Arslan.

Arslan, who was appointed minister of state, quit from Mikati’s 30-member Cabinet shortly after it was formed Monday, in protest against being assigned a ministry without a portfolio.

Information Minister Walid Daouk told reporters after the meeting that Sleiman said Cabinet had been formed without foreign interference. “The Cabinet was born 100 percent Lebanese without any foreign interference and its agenda is 100 percent Lebanese.”

Politicians were accustomed to turning to Syria “in the first 20 years following the Taif Accord, but Syria did not interfere this time and this is what we need. We proved we are able to resolve our matters by ourselves,” Sleiman said.

The president highlighted the need for solidarity among ministers.

“The Constitution stipulates that the Cabinet reach its decisions by consensus, and it resorts to voting only when it [consensus] cannot be reached,” said Sleiman. “This means that voting is the exception … but also a constitutional and democratic act.”

Sleiman said the Cabinet’s policy statement should be based on national principles, the Constitution and the Taif agreement, which ended Lebanon’s 1975-90 Civil War.

The president also said that the Cabinet would be productive, given the qualification of ministers.

Meanwhile, Mikati was quoted by Daouk as saying that “the Cabinet will work for all Lebanon and Lebanese and will not differentiate between pro-government and opposition groups.” “We will play this role without revengeful acts and under law,” Mikati added.

The prime minister said that Lebanon was the winner in this Cabinet, given the sacrifices that were made to facilitate its birth. “Especially Speaker [Nabih] Berri’s initiative … this unprecedented move emphasizes unity among Sunnis and Shiites and indicates that strife cannot break out between these two sects.”

Berri helped break the deadlock over the representation of the former Sunni opposition by ceding a Shiite seat to Faisal Karami at the last minute. Karami, son of ex-Prime Minister Omar Karami, was granted the Youth and Sports portfolio.

Mikati also touched on the economic and social challenges awaiting the Cabinet, stressing that facing these problems would require cooperation under the principle of separation of powers. “The real challenge is to prove our ability to protect our country and distance it from troubles,” Mikati said, highlighting the “keenness of the Cabinet on maintaining Lebanon’s firm friendly ties with sister Arab states and especially those that stood by our side during difficult circumstances, and most importantly during the confrontation with the Israeli enemy in the south.”

Prior to the Cabinet session, a meeting was held between Berri and Sleiman, who were later joined by Mikati. The three officials posed with 28 ministers for a commemorative photograph at the palace.

The Cabinet established a ministerial committee to draft the Cabinet’s policy statement. The committee is headed by Mikati and includes Labor Minister Charbel Nahhas, Health Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, Environment Minister Nazim Khoury, Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour, State Minister Ali Qanso, Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi, Minister of State for Administrative Affairs Mohammad Fneish, Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi and Economy Minister Nicholas Nahhas.

The committee, which will formulate the government’s position on thorny issues like Hezbollah’s arms and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, is set to hold its first meeting Thursday at the Grand Serail.

Sources close to Sleiman expected that a draft policy statement would be finalized “within a maximum of one week,” adding that it would stipulate that Lebanon’s army, people and resistance have the right to liberate Lebanese territories occupied by Israel and uphold Lebanon’s commitments to U.N. Resolutions, especially1701, which ended Israel’s 2006 war against Lebanon, and to the country’s protocol of cooperation with the STL.

Meanwhile, March 14 officials continued their attacks on Mikati’s Cabinet.

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea said the new government placed Lebanon in confrontation with the international and Arab communities, tying the country’s fate to that of the Syrian regime, which is at the opposite end of the democratic movement in the region. “The full association of this government to the Syrian regime represents the worst strategic choice for Lebanon at the current time,” Geagea told reporters at his residence in Maarab.

The March 14 Secretariat General said in a statement that Damascus was behind the formation of the new government, in a bid to take Lebanon hostage.

The secretariat said it would stand firm to prevent Hezbollah from turning military, security, social and economic state institutions into establishments affiliated with the party, turning Lebanon into an “Iranian base in the Arab world.”

Separately, Mikati received at his Verdun residence Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt accompanied by the three PSP ministers. Following the meeting, Jumblatt told reporters that the atmosphere was “excellent.”

“We thank Prime Minister Mikati for his patience and efforts. I praise the central and major role of Speaker Nabih Berri … taking into consideration President Sleiman’s [blessings],” Jumblatt said.

He said that the Cabinet was neither one-sided nor imposed by others. “It is a diverse Cabinet which embraces all democratic opinions. Others have to accept the rotation of power,” he said.

The PSP leader said a “misunderstanding” might have taken place regarding Arslan, saying however that the latter had made “inappropriate” remarks against Mikati which did not suit the Druze sect, of which both Jumblatt and Arslan are members. “We hope that a suitable formula will be reached,” he added. Efforts are being made to appoint an ally of Arslan in the post.

Earlier Wednesday, a statement by Hezbollah said Jumblatt held talks with the party’s Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.

Jordan:

Jordan's King Abdullah II announced sweeping reforms in a nationally televised address Sunday, promising to establish a parliamentary majority government -- a key demand of protesters calling for changes to the regime.

"Today, and on this occasion, we announce our reform vision for the Jordan of the future, in which democracy and popular participation take root as a consistent approach for the sake of building the Jordanian state, in which promoting justice is a purpose, tolerance is a mission and respect for human rights is the goal," Abdullah said.

As part of the announced reforms, Abdullah emphasized that the new law should "guarantee the fairness and transparency of the electoral process through a mechanism that will lead to a parliament with active political party representation; one that allows the formation of governments based on parliamentary majority and political party manifestos in the future."

The king also announced economic reforms, including changes to the country's tax system in order to "raise the level of competitiveness, enhance the atmosphere for investment, secure work opportunities for youth and maintain the state's active, observatory role in an open market economy."

It was not clear when the reforms would be implemented.

The address comes six months after protests broke out in the country. Most of them, unlike demonstrators in Arab countries that have seen uprisings, have not been seeking regime change but changes to the regime.

In February, Abdullah fired his prime minister and cabinet and instituted a number of economic measures and promises of political reform in an effort to appease those demands. But the protesters' list of demands grew longer as many Jordanians felt emboldened by the popular uprisings in the region.

Jordan's economy has been hit hard by the global downturn and rising commodity prices, and youth unemployment is high.

Officials close to the palace have told CNN that Abdullah is trying to turn a regional upheaval into an opportunity for reform.

n his speech Sunday, Abdullah sought to paint Jordanians as one family, "and as head of the family, I favor no one individual or group ... or differentiate between them," he said.

"I am one of you, and I am all for you," he said.

Morocco:

Thousands marched through Morocco's largest city on Sunday calling for greater democracy and an end to corruption even as the king prepares to unveil new constitutional amendments to address calls for reform.

There was only a light police presence blocking off traffic as about 6,000 protesters flowed through the wide streets of downtown Casablanca chanting slogans against the government. Past demonstrations had been violently dispersed.

The march showed the continuing viability of the February 20 pro-democracy movement, even as the king's own constitutional reform process seeks to co-opt many of their demands.

"In Morocco we learned something, never trust the Makhzen," said demonstrator Kamel Reda, referring to the government and the king's advisers. "We don't believe them out of experience."

Unlike the popular uprisings sweeping other Arab countries, Morocco's activists are not calling for the king's ouster, just a limiting of his powers and changing the country into a constitutional monarchy.

On March 9, the king acknowledged protester demands and ordered a panel of experts to modify the constitution to limit his powers, strengthen the judiciary and promote greater democracy.

The February 20 movement expressed skepticism at the process, noting that the king had appointed the constitutional committee and so the activists refused to participate in the process.

On Friday, the king was presented the new constitution and it was shown to political party leaders. Though its contents have not been made public, media accounts suggest many of its provisions meet protesters' demands.

But Sunday's demonstrators remained deeply skeptical of the new constitution because of the way it had been drawn up, and many of the slogans chanted called for greater popular input into reform.

Jihad Oufaraji, a 34-year-old activist, said that while he had heard the new constitution had some good elements to it, there was still the whole overarching power structure that had to be changed.

"We need to clean up the country of the thieves and take back the money they are sending out of the country," he said as marchers chanted behind him.

Many protesters carried pictures of Kamal Amari, a 30-year-old member of the February 20 movement who died in a hospital on June 2 after allegedly being beaten by police at a protest a few days earlier in the city of Safi, south of Casablanca.

The official coroner's report maintains he died from heart and respiratory troubles from a pre-existing condition — something his parents deny. Pictures of a bruised face bearing the slogan "we are all Kamal Amari" were everywhere in the march.

A similar slogan was used after the death at police hands in Egypt of young businessman Khaled Said, which helped spark the popular uprising that a few months later brought down the president.

Since Amari's death, Moroccan police have refrained from violently dispersing demonstrations as had been their earlier policy.

Sudan:

U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday voiced “deep concern” over the widening violence in Sudan as his top envoy prepared to travel to the region this month to help resolve a political and military crisis that threatens to upend one of the United States’ principal priorities in Africa: the peaceful division of Sudan into two states.

The White House statement followed Obama’s meeting with his top Sudan envoy, Princeton Lyman. It came as representatives from northern and southern Sudan continued talks Thursday in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to try to settle a disagreement over the fate of the disputed region of Abyei, which was attacked by government forces this month in an operation that U.N. officials think might lead to ethnic cleansing.

The Khartoum government and the southern Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement were discussing a deal that would lead to the withdrawal of government troops from Abyei and the deployment of thousands of Ethiopian peacekeepers in the area, according to diplomatic sources familiar with the talks.

Meanwhile, fighting has spread in recent weeks to neighboring Blue Nile state and South Kordofan state, where Khartoum’s air force bombarded the area while ground troops and militias sought suspected supporters of the south around the capital of Kadugli.

In recent weeks, senior Obama administration officials have warned Khartoum that its military actions in Abyei, South Kordofan and beyond could undercut the prospects of normalization of U.S. relations with Sudan.

On Thursday, the White House said Lyman would press the sides to reach a deal that would lead to a “withdrawal from Abyei and a cessation of hostilities across the region and to support the emergence of two viable states at peace.”

In New York, the United Nations’ top peacekeeping and humanitarian aid officials gave a grim closed-door briefing to the U.N. Security Council on events unfolding in South Kordofan, where more than 60,000 people have fled their homes.

The United Nations also cited reports that Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) reinforcements may be advancing on Kadugli, raising fears of a resumption of all-out civil war.

“There is a growing sense of panic among some of the displaced population who find themselves trapped by the ongoing violence and ethnic fault lines,” according to a situation report issued by the U.N. emergency relief coordinator this week.

After the briefing, Catherine Bragg, the deputy emergency relief coordinator for the United Nations, said that “in the state capital city of Kadugli it is estimated that more than 70 percent of the population have been displaced and many of the 1.4 million residents of the 11 localities where fighting has been reported have been affected.”

Khartoum fought one of Africa’s bloodiest and longest civil wars against the south. The 22-year conflict, which began in 1983, left more than 2 million people dead. The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, brokered by the George W. Bush administration, formally ended the war and set the stage for southern Sudan to vote on an independence referendum. In January, the south voted to secede from the north, and it is expected to declare independence on July 9.

Although the referendum proceeded with little violence, the two sides remained divided over critical issues: the delineation of the border between the two states; citizenship; water rights; the sharing of oil revenue; and the status of Abyei, which is claimed by the north and south.

Critics of the Khartoum government said the latest military operations in Abyei and South Kordofan were intended to strengthen the government’s hand at the negotiating table. But Sudanese leaders maintain that they have used force only in response to provocation by southern fighters.

The latest flare-up began June 5, when troops from the SPLA opened fire on a U.N. convoy escorting Sudanese government troops in Abyei. The Sudanese army responded with what U.N. officials think was a premeditated military invasion of Abyei, which drove more than 100,000 civilians from their homes around Abyei.

The Washington Post obtained an internal draft report by the U.N. human rights office in Sudan describing the military campaign as “tantamount to ethnic cleansing.” But the United Nations, after a pledge by Khartoum to let civilians return, later revised the text of the report to say that the military campaign might lead to ethnic cleansing if the residents were not allowed to resettle there.

The Sudanese military, meanwhile, has barred the United Nations from the Kadugli airport or from gaining full access to thousands of displaced civilians who have gathered on the outskirts of town and beyond.

“Humanitarian agencies have been able to distribute food . . . and do medical screenings to some of its displaced population,” Bragg said after the council briefing. “However, shortage of water and shelter are a concern for us.”

Iran:

Russia urged Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday to be "more constructive" when dealing with global powers on nuclear issues, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after the leaders of the two countries met.

Russia believes Iran could do more to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the 5+1 grouping of the five permanent United Nations Security Council members and Germany, Lavrov told reporters in the Kazakh capital Astana.

"We raised the question with Ahmadinejad about the necessity of more constructive cooperation with 5+1 and, more importantly, about increasing the transparency of contacts between Iran and the IAEA," Lavrov said.

He was speaking after Ahmadinejad, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev held discussions following a meeting of a regional security bloc.

"The reaction of the Iranian president was positive," Lavrov said. "He acknowledged that 5+1 is an important instrument, an important mechanism with which Iran is ready to cooperate, including on the Iranian nuclear program."

Russia and China joined Western powers last week in telling Iran its "consistent failure" to comply with U.N. resolutions "deepened concerns" about possible military dimensions to its nuclear program.

Their joint statement with the United States, Germany, France and Britain was issued a day after Iran said it would triple production of high-grade uranium and shift it to an underground bunker protected from possible U.S. or Israeli air strikes.

Russia and China have often voiced unity in opposition to perceived U.S. global dominance and in the past have been less inclined to try to isolate Iran over its uranium enrichment, which Tehran says is solely to generate electricity.

Western nations say they suspect the Islamic Republic wants to enrich uranium to a higher level to be able to make nuclear weapons if it chooses.

Lavrov added that Iran also wanted to discuss "other issues, including the softening of the sanctions regime".

Russia has supported four rounds of U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, but has said it opposes further sanctions at least for now.