Lebanese FM: Captives in Syria have been found

Lebanese FM: Captives in Syria have been found


Lebanese anti-Syrian regime critic Shadi Mawlawi, center, who was accused of belonging to a terrorist group, is carried on his friends' shoulders as they celebrate his release from jail, in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Tuesday May 22, 2012. Earlier this month, the arrest of Shadi Mawlawi, an outspoken Lebanese critic of Syrian President Bashar Assad, set of several days of clashes in northern Lebanon that killed eight people. Mawlawi was accused of belonging to a terrorist group. Mawlawi said he denies any link to such groups. The Arabic headband reads: "no God only God and Mohammed prophet of God." Photo: STR / AP

Lebanese anti-Syrian regime critic Shadi Mawlawi, center, who was accused of belonging to a terrorist group, is carried on his friends’ shoulders as they celebrate his release from jail, in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Tuesday May 22, 2012. Earlier this month, the arrest of Shadi Mawlawi, an outspoken Lebanese critic of Syrian President Bashar Assad, set of several days of clashes in northern Lebanon that killed eight people. Mawlawi was accused of belonging to a terrorist group. Mawlawi said he denies any link to such groups. The Arabic headband reads: “no God only God and Mohammed prophet of God.” Photo: STR / AP

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s foreign minister said Wednesday that authorities have located 11 Lebanese Shiites kidnapped the previous day in Syria and that he expects they will be released soon.

Adnan Mansour said he had been in touch with a number of Arab officials and his Turkish counterpart to try to secure the captives’ return to Lebanon.

“They will be released in the coming hours,” Mansour said, according to Lebanon’s state news agency. The report gave no further information on the captives’ location or on who is holding them.


Russia test-fires missile amid tensions over NATO defense shield announcement

Russia test-fires missile amid tensions over NATO defense shield announcement

By the CNN Wire Staff
File photo of Russia's Topol intercontinental ballistic missile launcher on May 6, 2012.
File photo of Russia’s Topol intercontinental ballistic missile launcher on May 6, 2012.

(CNN) — Russia test-fired a ballistic missile Wednesday, a move that comes amid tensions about a recent NATO announcement that it placed an interim missile defense shield in Europe.

The intercontinental missile was launched Wednesday morning from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northwestern Russia, the state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported.

“The new intercontinental ballistic missile is intended to strengthen the capabilities of Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces, including its capabilities for overcoming anti-missile defenses,” Defense Ministry spokesman Vadim Koval told RIA Novosti.

The launch comes days after NATO’s chief said the alliance now has an interim ballistic missile defense capability in Europe.

Among the interim capabilities are missile interceptors loaded on a U.S. ship in the Mediterranean, the first of four anticipated warships with the defense system. A defense radar is also operational in Turkey. The interim system will link the allies’ missile defense systems — satellites, ships, radars and interceptors — under NATO control from a U.S. base in Ramstein, Germany.

London’s MQM Thugs Once Again Commit Mass-Murder In Karachi

Bullets rain on rally against division of Sindh: Strike across Sindh today

Baluch Sarmachar

The rally for the “love and sanctity of Sindh Dharti” began with a lot of fanfare from Lyari’s Aath Chowk on Tuesday, but ended on a bloody note by the time it reached the Karachi Press Club.

As soon as the rally reached Paan Mandi near Denso Hall, intense firing started in the area, instantly killing seven people. Within minutes, the unrest spread to other areas of Lea Market as well, in which further deaths and injuries were reported. Till the filing of this report, 12 people were killed and 30 injured in the violence.

مہاجر صوبے کے خلاف ریلی پر فائرنگ،گیارہ ہلاک

The rally was staged by the Awami Tehreek (AT) to protest the proposed Mohajir province and the recent operation in Lyari. Other nationalist parties as well as members of the People’s Aman Committee also participated in it.

Around eight buses, 30 motorcycles and a truck full of people from Gadap, Malir and Lyari, gathered at the Football House at Aath Chowk, but dispersed before reaching the press club, where AT President Ayaz Latif Palijo was due to address them.

“We want to tell people that Sindh cannot be distributed on the basis of ethnicity. We are Sufis by nature and we consider everyone our brother,” said a man named Shahid “Footballer”, while taking a seat atop an overcrowded bus.

Many people in the Old City areas were unable to leave their office buildings until the firing and arson attacks subsided, and commuters were stuck for hours in massive traffic gridlocks. Panicked citizens tried to rush home in a bid to escape the chaos that gripped these areas.

Banned Aman Committee chief Uzair Baloch and leader Zafar Baloch, also a part of the rally, were sent back when the shooting did not stop for over an hour.

“We sent back some men, women and children as we couldn’t understand where the bullets were coming from,” said Abdul Razzaq, a man from Lyari, while standing onII Chundrigar Road, where a heavy contingent of police was deputed to resist any attempt by protesters to head for the Red Zone.

A crowd of angry men tried arguing with the police, who did not move until they had to be deputed to other areas as violence spread to several parts of the city. “If you want to be a leader in Pakistan, you need to be a criminal first,” said a man named Abdul Moiz, infuriated over the scattered bodies he saw at Denso Hall.

“As for honesty and leading a simple life, that’s not possible here at all. Inequality, injustice and barbarism is the only rule left, as we are done with humanity,” he added.

On reaching the press club and amid slogans of ‘dehshatgardi bund karo’, Ayaz Latif Palijo was flanked by members of the Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz, Awami National Party’s Abdul Bari Kakar and Sidique Baloch of the Aman Committee, along with a horde of AT supporters.

Outwardly looking calm and starting off politely, Palijo went on to give a fiery speech in which he said the blood of those killed “will be avenged”, not by punishing innocent Urdu-speaking people, but terrorists.

“Unarmed innocent women were attacked, and as I speak here, I received a message that two of the women succumbed to their injuries at the hospital just now. This is quite a reward given to the people, who gave food and shelter to migrants,” he sarcastically remarked.

He warned that the People’s Party may choose to be a silent spectator and continue appeasing its coalition partner, but if they are pushed any further, the consequences will be dire for every terrorist involved.

Taking his speech a notch higher, Palijo said he does not understand where the demand of a separate province is emanating from.

“Sindhis are not hired in the Karachi Port Trust or as judges of the Sindh High Court and there has been no Sindhi army general either. Yet some people get insecure even though they are a part of government, the governor is of their choice and everything happens the way they want, without anyone ever questioning them,” he said.

Thanking the Pakistan Muslim League and the Jamaat-e-Islami, Palijo said these parties have supported them every step of the way.

The jam-packed hall at he press club grew silent, as Palijo, pointing towards “three closed cameras at the back” asked as to why the media is scared to name “certain people,” and reminded reporters of the times when under the rule of military dictator Ziaul Haq, they were supported by the AT.

Similarly, he asked the chief justice ofPakistanwhether or not he will take suo moto notice of “the women who were killed today?”

He also added that a night before the rally, he received a text message on his cell phone “from a particular party” that a May 12-like situation will be repeated tomorrow. “And they proved it today. The point is, does anyone have the answer as to when these barbaric acts will stop?”

Presenting a solution, he said Karachi should be de-weaponised and those “who are playing a game fromLondon”, need to stop soon, as “we will not allow the division of our land”.

Awami Tehreek (AT) on Tuesday called for a general strike today (Wednesday) throughout Sindh in protest against firing on its rally against the campaign of Muhajir province, killing of over 11 people during the rally and Lyari operation. He appealed to all the political parties to support the strike call and hold peaceful protests.

Is India Capable of Resisting American Aggression?

No, India Cannot Be the US’ Poodle

By Melkulangara BHADRAKUMAR (India)


The Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s warning about the possibility of outbreak of “full-blown wars” with the use of nuclear weapons in the current global security scenario can be seen as a timely interjection on the eve of the G8 and North Atlantic Treaty Organization summits that have taken place in the United States. Russia has already put the American hosts on prior notice that it will dissociate from any attempt at the G8 to impose views on Syria or Iran.

Speaking at an international conference on international law at St. Petersburg, Medvedev said last Thursday, “The introduction of all sorts of collective sanctions bypassing international institutions does not improve the situation in the world while reckless military operations in foreign states usually end up with radicals coming to power. At some point such actions, which undermine state sovereignty, may well end in a full-blown regional war and even – I’m not trying to spook anyone – the use of nuclear weapons.”

Who could Medvedev have had in mind as the madcap to use nuclear weapons in the 21st century? His remarks pertained to the trend in international life to use “all sorts of collective sanctions bypassing international institutions.” Conceivably, Syria and Iran sail into view as the potential arena of conflict.

Consider the following. The US finally decides to shed its ambivalence and intervenes in Syria. Of course, the US would overpower Syria – eventually. Equally, Syria will likely resist, because for Damascus, it is an existential crisis. Large sections of the Syrian nation also militate against foreign intervention. In short, western interventionist forces will have to take some beating as they wade into the Syrian cauldron. This is one context where the temptation may arise to use tactical nuclear weapons to assert the military superiority. The NATO did commit war crimes in Libya to break the stalemate.

Reckless military adventures

A similar scenario is possible also over Iran. In fact, the probability is higher since Iran will resist a US attack like nobody’s business. It may seem horrific that the US may contemplate – after a gap of so many decades since Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the use of nuclear weapons to conclusively register victory in a bloody war, but then, there is also a “sleeping partner” to consider – Israel.

Clearly, Israel lacks the military superiority to defeat Iran. And if Iran sets out to teach Israel a harsh lesson or two, US will find itself protecting its ward from annihilation. Moreover, at what point would Israel decide to unleash its own nuclear weapons? And Israel has a consistent track record of using overpowering military might. By the way, Israel is highly likely to be drawn into any conflict over Syria as well.

Now, who says Medvedev had Syria and Iran mind? A US intervention in Pakistan is also an eventuality that cannot be ruled out at some stage if the defeat in Afghanistan turns out to be terribly humiliating to American prestige. Also, factor in that NATO’s destiny as a military alliance and a potential global security organization is at stake in Afghanistan. A hard-hitting blow at Pakistan could be just the characteristic US response if the US military bites the dust in Afghanistan. Simply put, the Cambodia analogy repeats.

Of course, it will be an unequal battle since the US is far more powerful than Pakistan. But then, Pakistan also has nuclear weapons. This is where trouble begins. As Medvedev put it, US’ reckless military adventures “usually end up with radicals coming to power.” The observation holds relevance for Syria and Iran, where almost certainly, any “regime change” will result in the ascendancy of radical forces in Damascus and Tehran. But it is almost tailor-made for the developing new phase of the Afghan civil war.

In the event of an extremist takeover in Afghanistan, regional powers may get drawn in, especially Pakistan and India, which are of course nuclear powers. Needless to say, any Pakistan-India rivalry over the Afghan situation in the post-2014 period would have dangerous consequences for regional security. The two countries are engaged in an incipient dialogue that may appear promising at the moment but there is a real danger that the debris of the US’ Afghan strategy may fall on the dialogue and simply emasculate the voices of sanity. It can’t be otherwise, because for Pakistan, a “friendly” government in Kabul constitutes a crucial national interest, which is not open to discussion, while for India, influence in Afghanistan is a key element of its medium and long term regional strategy toward China, which is increasingly becoming an obsessive thought in all that it does.

Again, Medvedev’s words have an even greater relevance to the situation surrounding Pakistan. The point is, with all the aberrations that the US may today find in the Pakistani policies, there is still an elected government in Pakistan. The Pakistani military, which controls the nuclear weapons, also has a tradition of being a cautious player. The mainstream Pakistan temper is of a moderate Muslim country. However, the “moderate” pillars of the Pakistani state will be the casualties if the US continues to humiliate Pakistan at the present rate. Under immense pressure from Washington, for example, the Pakistani establishment is reportedly about to cave in and reopen the transit routes for the NATO convoys heading toward Afghanistan. The US certainly pins hopes on using Pakistan as the gateway for its “New Silk Road”. But what is being overlooked is that Pakistan is also a sea of discontent, seething with resentment over the US’ bullying tactics in the region and in the Muslim world on the whole.

No such thing as “absolute security”

It does not need much ingenuity to foresee that Medvedev’s prediction can come true unless the US exercises great restraint in its Pakistan policy. Any US attack on Pakistan in the heat of the moment during a catastrophic setback on the Afghan battlefield (which cannot be ruled out in the prevailing politico-military conditions) will radicalize Pakistan. And it is unthinkable that radical forces would gain access to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Besides, these radical forces have never hidden the agenda of an old score to settle with Pakistan’s old adversary, India, which also is a nuclear power.

No doubt, Medvedev’s statement quintessentially underscores the critical importance of all players on the world theatre playing by the rules of the game, according to international law and the United Nations Charter. This is where India, which enjoys repute as a responsible nuclear power, needs to be very careful in formulating its regional policies on Iran, Pakistan or Afghanistan. The heart of the matter is that the killing of an Archbishop on a Serajevo street in a morning in June some 98 years ago was in itself an innocuous event, but eventually it turned the world upside down. It may seem that the Indian government’s decision to cut back on oil imports from Iran is an obligatory step in tune with the best spirit of US-Indian strategic partnership.

The Indian decision may be Innocuous in itself, and, arguably, Indian diplomats may aim to extract reciprocal concessions out of the Obama administration during the forthcoming meeting of the US-India Strategic Dialogue in Washington. Again, for argument’s sake, Obama may decide to oblige his Indian partner – especially if the latter also fulfills his pledge to award lucrative nuclear commerce to the Westinghouse in the Indian market worth dozens of billions of dollars – and all that may lead to a quick membership for India in the international technology control regimes such as the Nuclear Supply Group.

But given the style of US diplomacy which is always fixated on stringing its reluctant partners to lead them to seamless vistas from where there is no turning back easily, where does India ultimately draw the line vis-à-vis the US-Iran standoff or the US-Pakistan tensions or the failure of the US strategy in Afghanistan? Besides, it becomes impossible to draw the line if and when the fire engulfs the neighbor’s house. Simply put, these are all neighboring countries for India – Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan – and India will be stupid to put trust blindly in absolute security when the region is edging dangerously close to catastrophe.

There are times when India needs to stand up and speak out that the US’ regional policies – toward the Middle East and Central Asia – seriously endanger India’s long-term interests. To meekly behave, instead, like a poodle, as the Indian government has done on the Iran sanctions, may not even be the best opportunistic course available.

SourceStrategic Culture Foundation 

Obama’s Afghanistan Policy Riddled With Errors

Obama’s Afghanistan Policy Riddled With Errors



He cut out the generals. He cut out the secretary of defense. He cut out the secretary of state. And in the end, he produced a schizophrenic policy that will almost certainly go down as the greatest foreign-policy debacle of his administration.

Afghanistan may not be Barack Obama’s Vietnam, but that is only because it has failed to stir national tensions in the way the war in Southeast Asia did. He may therefore get away with his errors in judgment and his victimization by circumstance to a degree that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon could not. But it is impossible to read accounts like David Sanger’s in The New York Times this weekend without concluding that the primary drivers behind U.S. AfPak policy for the past three years have been politics, naivete, and intellectual dishonesty. It also clear that on this issue, the White House’s self-imposed distance from the rest of the president’s cabinet and the military may have kept the United States from making even more egregious errors and suffering even greater losses in this latest tragic round of the distant region’s great game.

The question remains whether, as it scuttles for the door in Afghanistan, the United States will intentionally or inadvertently usher in forces that could leave the region more dangerous. The charade of the NATO summit wrapping up in Chicago does not bode well in that respect. While President Barack Obama and Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai posed for cameras and spoke warmly of their shared vision for the country after the U.S. departure, what they offered up was a kind of joint hallucination — a better-functioning, more democratic, more stable Afghanistan that is patently impossible if it continues to be ruled by the weak and corrupt Karzai, if the country remains as fragmented as it is, if its neighbors continue to meddle in its affairs (as they will), if we deal in the Taliban as if somehow they were now changed men, if we turn our backs on the undoubtedly worsening plight of Afghan women, and if we ignore the fact that the single most successful U.S. agricultural development program in history was the restoration of Afghanistan’s heroin industry.

That the United States and Pakistan, a country the Obama team acknowledged, according to Sanger, as the region’s primary threat from its first days in office, had yet another public diplomatic tiff on the edges of the Chicago conference only shows that every inch of the fabric of America’s policies in the region seems to be fraying simultaneously. That the tiff was over the reopening of Pakistani supply lines into Afghanistan illustrates the confounding circularity of U.S. problems in the region: To reach al Qaida in Afghanistan we needed Pakistan’s assistance, so we dialed back the pressure over Pakistan’s nuclear program and ignored the fact that its intelligence services were key supporters of al Qaida and its Taliban allies. We also started pouring in aid, which enabled the Pakistanis to expand their nuclear stockpiles and their military. Once we went in to Afghanistan to get al Qaida and the Taliban, they fled to Pakistan. When we pursued them, it inflamed the Pakistanis. But we failed to effectively pressure them to act against the militants for fear that the country might fracture irreparably. And now, after more than a decade of this, we are willing to cut a deal with anyone to paper over the problem in our eagerness to get out of Afghanistan and declare “mission accomplished” even if it includes the not persuasively rehabilitated Taliban we were after in the first place.

As Sanger’s story reveals, the president opposed his own policy of sending in more troops to stabilize Afghanistan from the moment he approved it after months and months of messy internal wrangling. So why did he do it? The answer is that that Obama was leaving Iraq and could not afford to look weak in Afghanistan at the same time or he would come under political attack from the right. Getting out faster might also alienate the military to the point that public discord would damage the president. Although White House-military relations were strained from the beginning of his administration, Obama’s team worked hard to keep a lid on tensions. So they swallowed their doubts about the military judgments they were getting about a conflict they were increasingly sure was unwinnable.

The result was a strategy straight out of the Wizard of Oz: As the scarecrow informed Dorothy when she reached a fork in the Yellow Brick Road, “Of course, some people do go both ways.” The United States would increase its troops but only as a prelude to getting them out. Sanger’s reporting suggests that this was not a confused policy, but rather an intellectually dishonest one. Obama’s plan from the beginning was to cover his tracks to the exits with the Afghan “surge.”

“I think he hated the idea from the beginning,” Sanger quotes one of the president’s advisers as saying about his boss. “(T)he military was ‘all in,’ as they say, and Obama wasn’t.”

Within just over a year of the announcement of sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, the president ordered his advisers to start making plans for a U.S. exit. “This time there would be no announced national security meetings, no debates with the generals. Even Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton were left out until the final six weeks,” according to Sanger. In other words, the planning process would be left to those who agreed with the president. Dissenters were not invited. It’s hardly the picture of a harmonious policy process or a “tough-guy” leader in sync with the military that the White House was eager to sell around the moves against villains like Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, or Moammar Gadhafi.

The process is troubling, but in the final analysis, Obama’s biggest error was in not trusting his judgment earlier. His White House team — from Vice President Joe Biden to National Security Adviser Tom Donilon — were Afghan skeptics from Day 1. And frankly, they were right about the situation even while many in the Pentagon were calling for much deeper involvement. Perhaps the president felt he had no choice, defending himself with those 30,000 troops not so much against AfPak enemies as against political opponents on the right. Perhaps he was right that this approach produced the swiftest, least acrimonious exit.

Still, the whole thing leaves a bad taste. In handling the matter as he did, the president has now assured that when the post-conflict mess in Afghanistan and Pakistan grows uglier still, he will own those results. He may have protected himself against attacks from the right for a brief while, but the judgment of history may prove harsh.

Rothkopf, CEO and editor at large of Foreign Policy, is author of “Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government — and the Reckoning That Lies Ahead.”

(c) 2012, Foreign Policy

Wahhabi Internal Contradictions as Saudi Arabia Seeks Wider Gulf Leadership

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz last December called for promoting the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), including the Saudi kingdom, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Oman, into a unified body, which has been described as a “super-state.” The Saudis and the other GCC members are currently engaged in discussions intended to bring closer coordination, if not fusion, within the council.
Regional ambitions by Shia Iran and the chaos in Syria are the main stimuli for such an enhanced Gulf relationship and possible complete unification. All six GCC members except Oman, the largest aside from Saudi Arabia, are ruled in the name of Sunni Islam. Oman is unique in following Ibadhi Islam, an interpretation that is distinct from Sunnism and Shiism.

Syrian aggression has spread intermittently across the border into Lebanon, with Syrian irregular militia accused of kidnapping Shia inhabitants of the neighboring state, and Syrian military reported shooting over the frontier, killing several people. Armed conflict has reappeared in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Forty Syrian Sunnis allegedly have been kidnapped as a reprisal for the abduction of three Lebanese Shias. The UAE recalled its ambassador from Iran last month when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited the Gulf island of Abu Musa, claimed by Iran and the Emirates. Saudi authorities have repressed the Shia minority among their citizens, as the Sunni sovereigns of Bahrain have their Shia majority, and Sunni dominance in Bahrain has been enforced by the Saudi-led GCC occupation forces. Abuses against Shias in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have fed Iranian propaganda around the world.

Notwithstanding the threat of a wider Syrian-Lebanese upheaval, with Iranian intrigue behind the scenes, proposals for greater GCC integration have been nebulous. But most significantly, they include full merger of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – which Bahraini prime minister Prince Khalifa Bin Salman Al-Khalifa described in Riyadh on May 12 as “imperative.”

Saudi King Abdullah has an unenviable task in addition to broader leadership of the Gulf states. The monarch must reconcile his absolute power, and the Wahhabi theological hierarchy which stands ostensibly behind it, with the reform measures that he has undertaken since his accession to the throne in 2005. Royal corrective decrees, and the debate over the nature of Saudi society, focus on women’s issues. These include expanded educational opportunities for women, and, earlier this year, aproclamation that women would be allowed to vote and run as candidates in local elections to be held in 2015.

The entrenchment of the Wahhabi caste in Saudi public life, however, presents the most serious obstacle to the changes King Abdullah has initiated. Wahhabi clerics are not alone in repudiating any alteration of the Saudi system. An anti-reform faction of the royal family is led by Crown Prince NayefBin Abdul Aziz, King Abdullah’s half-brother, designated successor, interior minister, and an outspoken defender of Wahhabi prerogatives.

Women living under Saudi rule face conditions widely-exposed as abhorrent. All women in the kingdom have had to contend with imposition of the abaya, or total body cloak, and niqab, the face veil; limited opportunities for schooling and careers; prohibition on driving vehicles; a ban on social contact with unrelated men, and compulsory supervision of personal activities, such as opening bank accounts, by a male family member or “guardian.” In admitting women to the limited Saudi electoral process, King Abdullah provided that they could participate in the system without the permission of a “guardian.”

Wahhabi strictures have been enforced by the mutawiyin, or morals militia, also known as “the religious police,” officially designated the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV). The mutawiyin patrolled Saudi cities, armed with leather-covered sticks which they freely used against those they considered wayward. They assured that ordinary activities halted during prayer times, when they hurried Saudis into mosques, and that unrelated couples did not meet in public places. They raided homes looking for alcohol and drugs, and harassed non-Wahhabi Muslims as well as believers in other faiths. They killed people they detained.

In January 2012, King Abdullah appointed a moderate director of the mutawiyin, Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh, to replace Abdul Aziz Al-Humain. Al-Humain, who was named to the post in 2009, was deemed a reformer; he reorganized the mutawiyin, met with human rights monitors, and consulted with public relations agencies. The new supervisor of the mutawiyin has expressed more advanced views – at least in Saudi terms – on women’s status, including support for females to work in shops that sell female clothing, where only men were previously employed. In 2010, Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh backed an official in Mecca who denied that Islam requires gender separation or the closing of businesses during prayer. Within two weeks of his appointment, the new chief of the mutawiyin barred volunteers from serving in the institution, a move considered positive in curbing abuses by its members. Since “mutawayin” is interpreted generally to mean “pious volunteers,” this was a major gesture.

In an example of the convoluted nature of Saudi political and religious affairs, Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh is a lineal descendant of the founder of the Wahhabi sect, Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab. But as the royal family is divided over the future, so are the descendants of the Wahhabi founder, who have intermarried since the 18th century with the House of Saud. The latest mutawiyin overseer is a younger relative of Sheikh Abdul Aziz Ibn Abdullah Aal Ash-Sheikh, the Wahhabi grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, who recently advised the Kuwaiti followers of the Wahhabi “Revival of Islamic Heritage Society” that Christian churches should be removed from the Arabian Peninsula, including Kuwait.

The “Revival of Islamic Heritage Society” was designated in 2008 by the U.S. Treasury as a provider of services to Al Qaeda and its affiliates, as well as for terrorist acts. The Kuwaiti government rejected the Saudi grand mufti’s view, stating that Christians would not be prevented from worship, and churches would not be destroyed. Grand mufti Aal Ash-Sheikh elsewhere declared that Saudi women could be married at age 10 or 12, without their consent, by contract between families.

Nevertheless, some amelioration of Wahhabi callousness was visible even before the change at the top of the mutawiyin. Women increasingly have resisted wearing niqab in Mecca, Medina, and Jedda, where the covering of women’s faces was never common before the arrival of Wahhabism, and it is now admitted that in rural areas, women drive cars and trucks. Saudis observe that since the change in the leadership of the mutawiyin, fewer morals patrols are visible in the streets.

After a medical visit to the United States in March, Crown Prince Nayef addressed another aspect of the controversy over women’s standing: whether Saudi women may take part in the 2012 London Olympics. Previously, Saudi women were blocked by their government from entering all international games, a violation of International Olympic Committee regulations against discrimination. But Prince Nayef told the influential Saudi-owned daily Al-Hayat, published in London, that Saudi women could participate in the Olympics, in sports that would “meet the standards of women’s decency and don’t contradict Islamic laws.”

Wahhabi resistance to Abdullah’s reform program is not, however, to be disregarded. Prince Nayef’s apparent concession to women athletes was followed by a stipulation by Saudi Olympic Committee president Prince Nawaf Bin Faysal that official endorsement would be denied to female participants in the Saudi Olympic team.

In further evidence of Wahhabi intransigence, foreign Asian and African women working as domestic servants in Saudi Arabia continue to experience extreme degradation. In April 2011, the Indonesian government instituted a moratorium on immigration by its nationals to Saudi Arabia when a 54-year old grandmother, Ruyati Binti Satubi, a household worker from West Java, was beheaded by the Saudis for murder. Saudi Arabia announced that at the end of April 2012, the exclusion of Indonesian domestic workers would be lifted. When Satubi was executed, 40 Indonesian women faced beheading in Saudi Arabia. By last month, 22 had been repatriated, while 25 more remained under death sentences.

Still, King Abdullah is as persistent in his efforts to expand women’s rights, as the Wahhabi opposition to it continues. Early in May, the king dismissed 81-year-old Sheikh Abdul-Mohsen Al-Obeikan, a Wahhabi adviser considered previously to be close to the monarch. Al-Obeikan had argued openly against improvements for Saudi women, in a radio interview denouncing Westernization and secularism, as “schemes by influential people to corrupt Muslim society by removing women from their natural position.” After his removal, Al-Obeikan issued a Twitter comment in which he warned against “bad advisors” to the royal family.

In 2010, Al-Obeikan was forbidden by King Abdullah from delivering fatwas (which are religious opinions, and not limited to death sentences as in the case of Salman Rushdie) on television. The royal order removing Al-Obeikan from regular broadcasting was described as part of a Saudi campaign to curb media and websites that specialize in “instant fatwas” without the approval of the state clerics in the High Authority of Religious Scholars. But Al-Obeikan had attracted attention earlier that year as the author of one of the more bizarre opinions in Islamic jurisprudence. He claimed that the Wahhabi-dictated separation between unrelated men and women could be avoided if a man drank the breast milk of a woman, establishing a family relationship between them.

King Abdullah’s outreach to Saudi women avoids such weird, Wahhabi schemes, but the transformation of the kingdom will not be accomplished until the Wahhabi sect loses its authority as “official Islam.” As has been visible during the seven years of King Abdullah’s reign, such an achievement will not be easy.

Free Syrian Army Abducts 16 Lebanese Shiite Pilgrims in Aleppo

The rebel Free Syrian Army on Tuesday abducted 16 Lebanese men in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo who were on their way back from a pilgrimage trip to Iran.

“Buses belonging to the Badr al-Kobra and Jannat al-Redwan pilgrimage campaigns were ambushed in Aleppo shortly after crossing the Syrian-Turkish border,” al-Jadeed television reported.

A woman who was in the convoy told al-Jadeed: “After we crossed the Turkish-Syrian border, we were ambushed by gunmen from the Free Syrian Army in the Azzaz area. They forced the men to dismount the buses and took them to an unknown destination and left us there.”

Al-Jadeed said women headed to a Syrian police station and that policemen reassured them that they have started negotiations with the kidnappers.

State-run National News Agency put the number of those abducted at 16 while Syrian media said an “armed terrorist gang” had kidnapped 11 Lebanese and their Syrian driver.

NNA identified the 16 abductees as Abbas Shoaib, Hassan Mahmoud, Mehdi Ballout, Hussein al-Siblani, Ali Abbas, Abu Ali Saleh, Hussein Omar, Mustafa Yassine, Ali Zgheib, Awad Ibrahim, Mohammed Monzer, Hussein Arzouni, Ali al-Ahmar, Ali Safa, Rabih Zgheib and Ali Termos.

“My two brothers-in-law were among about 12 people kidnapped by the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo as they were heading back to Beirut on board a bus after visiting religious sites in Iran,” said one man who refused to give his name.

“The women who were with them were allowed to go free,” he told Agence France Presse.

The man was among family members of those detained and hundreds of supporters who gathered on Tuesday afternoon in the Beirut southern suburb of Bir al-Abed to demand their release.

Meanwhile, protesters blocked roads in the Beirut southern suburbs of al-Kafaat, Bir al-Abed, Shatila and al-Msharrafiyeh in protest at the kidnap.

Roads were later reopened after Hizbullah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah urged calm in a televised speech and called on protesters to leave the streets.

The brother of one of those kidnapped said the Free Syrian Army had vowed to release the men in exchange for FSA members detained by Syrian authorities.

Prime Minister Najib Miqati’s office said he was making the necessary contacts to ensure the release of the Lebanese abducted.

“Prime Minister Miqati has urged families of the kidnapped to remain calm and assured them he was following the issue closely to ensure the safety of those kidnapped and their quick release,” a statement said.

One man who refused to give his name said his two bothers-in-law were among those abducted.

“They were heading back to Beirut on board a bus after visiting religious sites in Iran,” said the man. “The women who were with them were allowed to go free.”

The brother of Abbas Shaayb, who organized the pilgrimage, said the women were staying in a hotel in Aleppo.

“Let’s see what the friends of the Free Syrian Army in Lebanon are going to do now,” said the man, referring to the Sunni-led opposition in Lebanon that has backed the 14-month uprising in neighboring Syria.

The reported kidnappings were sure to further inflame sectarian tensions in Lebanon over the Syrian crisis.

Clashes between the pro- and anti-Assad camps in the country have left some 12 people dead in the past 10 days.

Nasrallah said it was necessary for all Lebanese to remain calm.

“The atmosphere is tense because of the events of recent days,” he said. “Everyone is urged not to make matters worse.”