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Mideast Weekly Roundup

Kurdish President Masoud Barzani has declared that the Kurds of Northern Iraq intend to press forward on a referendum of independence. This after Iraq’s Supreme Court ordered [1] a halt to the upcoming September 25 vote [2], which has been discouraged by the United States, Great Britain and Turkey. On Sunday, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres urged [3] the Kurdish people to scrap the referendum [4], adding that the U.N. “respects the sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of Iraq, and considers that all outstanding issues between the federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government should be resolved through structured dialogue and constructive compromise.”

The date for President Donald Trump’s deadline to certify whether Iran is complying with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is less than a month away. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said [5] this week that Tehran is in “technical compliance” with the deal, and urged the president to recertify the 2015 accord [6] – but make changes to address American concerns [7]. Earlier this week, Trump called the JCPOA “an embarrassment to the U.S.,” and said that he has already made a decision [8] on the deal. During a press conference, a reporter asked Trump, “Have you decided to stay or to leave?” He replied simply, “Well, I have decided.” The JCPOA recertification deadline [9] is October 15.

Iraqi forces have begun the offensive to reclaim the town of Hawija from the Islamic State. Earlier this week, the Popular Mobilization Forces joined in the fight [10] to push ISIS militants out of the town, which is one of the group’s last remaining strongholds in Iraq and a key area it has used to threaten [11] the nearby, oil-rich city of Kirkuk. “Hawija provides a strategic position and a main source for Daesh funding,” Counterterrorism Forces Spokesman Sabah al-Noman reported, adding that the town “now comes second in significance only to Raqqa in Syria.” When announcing [12] the start of the Hawija offensive, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said that the operation [13] is “a fulfillment to our pledge to our people to liberate all Iraqi lands and cleanse them from Daesh terrorist gangs.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week used an address at the United Nations General Assembly to denounce the body’s “global anti-Semitism.” The prime minister called [14] the U.N.’s recent decisions on Israel “absurd,” and warned [15] Iran of the “mortal peril” it faces if it continues to threaten to annihilate his nation. “For too long, the epicenter of global anti-Semitism has been right here at the U.N.,” Netanyahu said. He then denounced the World Health Organization’s resolution criticizing Israel for health conditions at the Golan Heights, and the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s declaration [16] that Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs is a Palestinian World Heritage Site. “That’s worse than fake news,” he added [17]. “That’s fake history. If you want to, you can read about [it.] It’s called the Bible. I highly recommend it. I hear it even got 4 1/2 out of five stars on Amazon. And it’s a great read. I read it every week.”

The United Nations will create an investigative team to collect evidence of Islamic State crimes in Iraq. During a U.N. Security Council meeting on September 21, the international body unanimously adopted a resolution [18] to establish a team that will “support domestic efforts” to hold the Islamic State accountable for killings, sexual slavery and other crimes [19] committed in Iraq. Use of the collected evidence [20] will “be determined in agreement with the government of Iraq on a case by case basis.” Last month, Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari sent a letter [21] asking the United Nations for help; noted human rights lawyer Amal Clooney has also repeatedly requested this type of investigation. When drafting the resolution, British Minister of State for the Middle East Alistair Burt pledged $1.3 million to help establish the investigative team.

The United Nations this week declared that Iran’s imprisonment of an American father and son violates international law. The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention – which is made up of international law experts – said that it is illegal for Tehran to continue to detain [22] Siamak Namazi, 46, and his father Baquer, 80, who were arrested in Iran in October 2015 and February 2016, respectively. Both are naturalized American citizens who have been sentenced [23] to 10 years in prison in Iran on unannounced charges. Their appeal [24] was denied last month. During a recent speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Trump called for the Namazis’ release, adding [25], “It is time for the [Iranian] regime to free all Americans and citizens of other nations they have unjustly detained.”

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a London subway explosion that wounded 29 people. The group’s Ameq news agency reported [26] that one of the militant group’s affiliated units was behind the September 15 attack in which a homemade bomb was planted [27] in a plastic bucket inside a rush-hour subway car. Experts based in the United Kingdom said that the bomb only partially exploded, and could have otherwise caused [28] far worse carnage. “Clearly, this was a device that was intended to cause significant harm,” said Prime Minister Theresa May. 

The first permanent American military base on Israeli soil opened this week. The new base is located [29] inside the Israeli Air Force’s Mashabim Air Base and will provide Israel with improved aerial defenses. “It’s a message that says Israel is better prepared,” said [30] Brig. Gen. Zvika Haimovich, the commander of Israel’s aerial defense. “It’s a message that says Israel is improving the response to threats.” This base [31] will “serve dozens of soldiers operating a missile defense system.”

Syrian troops are closing in on the Islamic State in a district of Deir al-Zor, which is located in the eastern part of the country. ISIS troops seized [32] an enclave of the city three years ago, but lost the strategic al-Jafra district – which is located on the western bank of the Euphrates River – to the Syrian military last weekend. A source [33] told Reuters that the Islamic State has “no outlet except crossing the Euphrates toward the eastern bank and fleeing towards the desert, or [the towns of] al-Bukamal and al-Mayadin.” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights later reported [34] that ISIS now holds only one-third of the city.

Saudi Arabia has announced that it will lift a ban on Internet phone and video call services such as Skype and WhatsApp. In a move [35] that the country hopes will attract more business to Saudi Arabia, the government said that this change is part of a larger drive to diversify the nation’s economy. In a statement [36], Saudi Arabia’s information ministry said, “Digital transformation is one of the key kick-starters for the Saudi economy, as it will incentivize the growth of internet-based businesses, especially in the media and entertainment industries.” The kingdom’s 2013 ban [37] on voice-over Internet protocol was lifted at 8 p.m. on September 21.

Israel this week said that it will amend its adoption law to give same-sex couples equal rights to adopt a child. The announcement [38] was made during a Supreme Court hearing on a petition filed by the Association of Israeli Gay Fathers and the Israeli Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement against the Social Affairs Ministry and the country’s attorney general. The state pledged [39] to legislate adoption rights for gay couples and introduce the new adoption law by June 2018. Riki Shapira Rosenberg, lead attorney for the Israel Religious Action Center, said, “From now on, same-sex families – who deserve the right to adopt like any other family – will have that right.” While adoption [40] by same-sex couples is technically legal in Israel already, it is a difficult process; only three out of 550 same-sex applicants have successfully adopted.

The mega-popular Snapchat has pulled Al Jazeera’s channel from its app in Saudi Arabia. At the request [41] of the Saudi government, the social media platform blocked the Qatari-backed broadcaster’s channel [42] from appearing in the app’s “discover” section, making it more difficult for its users to view the news network’s content. While the Saudis said that Al Jazeera has broken local laws [43] related to published materials and cyber crimes, a spokeswoman from the news network said that Al Jazeera makes “an effort to comply with local laws in the countries where we operate.” Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s “most restrictive media environments,” although the kingdom has one of the largest social media markets [44] in the Middle East.