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Iraq’s parliament has been stormed by hundreds of Shia Muslim in protest against ongoing deadlock in approving a new cabinet.

Supporters of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr broke through barricades of the protected Green Zone in Baghdad after lawmakers again failed to convene for a vote.

A state of emergency has been declared in Baghdad, but not a curfew.

Security forces near the US embassy later fired tear gas to stop more protesters entering the Green Zone.

Moqtada al-Sadr wants PM Haider al-Abadi to commit to a plan to replace ministers with non-partisan technocrats.

Powerful parties in parliament have refused to approve the change for several weeks.

Earlier this week, hundreds of thousands of people marched towards the Green Zone, the most secure part of Baghdad that houses embassies and government buildings, to protest against the political deadlock.

A new protest outside the zone escalated after parliament again failed to reach a quorum on April 30.

Photo Reuters

Photo Reuters

Groups marched on the district soon after the end of a televised appearance by Moqtada al-Sadr, although he did not call for the storming of parliament.

The protesters tried to topped lawmakers attempting to flee the building.

They are reported to have begun ransacking parliament buildings. UN and embassy staff were on lockdown inside their compounds, Reuters reported.

Iraq’s system of sharing government jobs has long been criticized for promoting unqualified candidates and encouraging corruption.

PM Haider al-Abadi, who came to power in 2014, has promised to stamp out corruption and ease sectarian tensions, but he has failed to far to introduce a new technocratic cabinet.

A survey by the Pew Research Centre in 2011 found that 51% of Iraqi Muslims identified themselves as Shia, compared with 42% Sunni.

Elsewhere in Baghdad, a car bomb targeted a group of Shia Muslim pilgrims on April 30, killing at least 21 people.

The Shia cleric and his militia group, the Mehdi Army, gained prominence after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. galvanizing anti-US sentiment.

Moqtada al-Sadr’s followers clashed repeatedly with US forces, whose withdrawal the cleric consistently demanded.

An arrest warrant was issued for Moqtada Sadr in 2004 in connection with the murder of a rival cleric.

Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia was also blamed for the torture and killing of thousands of Sunnis in the sectarian carnage of 2006 and 2007.

Saudi Arabia has decided to break off diplomatic ties with Iran, amid a row over the execution of Shia Muslim cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in the Sunni Muslim kingdom, Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir has announced.

Adel al-Jubeir was speaking after demonstrators had stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and 46 others were executed on January 2 after being convicted of terror-related offences.

Adel al-Jubeir said that all Iranian diplomats must leave Saudi Arabia within 48 hours.

Saudi Arabia was recalling its diplomats from Tehran, he said.

Photo AFP

Photo AFP

Adel al-Jubeir said Saudi Arabia would not let Iran undermine its security, accusing it of having “distributed weapons and planted terrorist cells in the region”.

“Iran’s history is full of negative interference and hostility in Arab issues, and it is always accompanied by destruction,” he told a news conference.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said: “We will continue to urge leaders across the region to take affirmative steps to calm tensions.”

“We believe that diplomatic engagement and direct conversations remain essential,” he said.

Earlier on January 3, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that Saudi Arabia would face “divine revenge” for the execution – an act which also angered Shia Muslims elsewhere in the Middle East.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr a “martyr” who had acted peacefully.

Protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran on January 2, setting fire to the building before being driven back by police. The Saudi foreign ministry said none of its diplomats had been harmed in the incident.

Iran is Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival – they back opposing sides in the conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

Relations between the countries have been strained over various issues in recent decades, including Iran’s nuclear program and deaths of Iranians at the Hajj pilgrimage in 1987 and again in 2015.

Most of the 47 people executed by Saudi Arabia were Sunnis convicted of involvement in al-Qaeda-linked terror attacks over the last decade.

Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was involved in anti-government protests that erupted in Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Arab Spring, up to his arrest in 2012.

The execution sparked new demonstrations in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, where Shia Muslims complain of marginalization, as well as in Iraq, Bahrain and several other countries.

The top Shia cleric in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani denounced the execution as an “unjust aggression”.

The leader of Lebanon’s Shia Hezbollah movement, Hassan Nasrallah, launched his sharpest attack yet on the Saudi ruling family on January 3, accusing them of seeking to ignite a Shia-Sunni civil war across the world.

Hassan Nasrallah said the blood of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr would “plague the Al Saud [family] until the Day of Resurrection”, prompting cries of “Death to the Al Saud!” among an audience watching his address.

Gunmen attacked a bus carrying Ismaili Shia Muslims in the Pakistani city of Karachi, killing at least 43 and injuring other 20, police say.

According to Karachi police, six gunmen on motorcycles, appearing to be from a banned extremist group, stopped the bus and fired indiscriminately.

The bus carrying about 60 was going to an Ismaili Shia place of worship.

Shia minority are the target of frequent sectarian attacks from Sunni militant groups.

Photo EPA

Photo EPA

No group has yet said it carried out the attack.

Provincial police chief Ghulam Haider Jamali said the attack appeared to be the work of the same group involved in recent drive-by shootings of senior police officials in Karachi.

Ghulam Haider Jamali said the bus was on its way to an Ismaili Shia Muslim place of worship when gunmen boarded it in the Safoora Goth area of Karachi and fired at those on board.

The attackers are said to have escaped easily.

The Taliban and other Sunni Muslim extremist groups have targeted Shia Muslims in Pakistan in the past.

In the last few months, several mosques belonging to religious minorities have been bombed.

Pakistan is about 20% Shia and 70% Sunni. Ismaili Shias, in common with other Shia Muslims revere Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed.

The US military has carried out a third round of airstrikes on Sunni Muslim militants to defend civilians in northern Iraq.

US jet fighters and drones destroyed armored carriers and a truck that were firing on members of the Yazidi sect, officials said.

Thousands of civilians fled into the mountains after the Islamic State (IS) overran the town of Sinjar a week ago.

IS has taken control of swathes of Iraq and Syria in the past few months.

IS (formerly known as ISIS) has declared a “caliphate”, or Islamic state, in the region, prompting thousands of religious minorities to flee their homes in northern Iraq.

President Barack Obama authorized the military offensive last week to halt the advance of IS forces threatening the Kurdish city of Irbil.

The series of strikes is the first time US forces have been directly involved in a military operation in Iraq since they withdrew from the country in late 2011.

The US military has carried out a third round of airstrikes on Sunni Muslim militants to defend civilians in northern Iraq

The US military has carried out a third round of airstrikes on Sunni Muslim militants to defend civilians in northern Iraq (photo AP)

A US military statement said the latest four strikes had been aimed at defending members of the Yazidi religious group who were being “indiscriminately attacked” near Sinjar.

IS has been widely accused of targeting and killing members of other faiths.

The US said a mix of fighter jets and drones destroyed an IS armored personnel carrier (APC) that was firing on civilians.

The statement said US aircraft also attacked other APCs and an armed truck.

The Pentagon also said a third US air-drop of food and water had been made on Saturday night to refugees on Mount Sinjar.

One C-17 and two C-130 cargo aircraft dropped a total of 72 bundles of supplies.

France and Britain have also announced that they will deliver aid consignments.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius is travelling to Baghdad and Irbil for talks on Sunday.

The UN children’s agency, UNICEF, says at least 56 Yazidi children have died of dehydration in the mountains around Sinjar.

Juan Mohammed, a local government spokesman in the Syrian city of Qamishli, told AP news agency that more than 20,000 starving Yazidis had fled across the border.

He said columns of refugees were running a gauntlet of gunfire through a tenuous “safe passage” being defended by forces of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region.

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Two huge explosions killed at least 42 people and wounded more than 400 others in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli, health officials say.

The explosions are thought to represent the deadliest attack in Lebanon since the end of the civil war in 1990.

As Friday prayers ended, a blast hit the al-Taqwa mosque, which is usually attended by prominent Sunni cleric Sheikh Salem Rafii. He was unharmed.

A second blast five minutes later hit the al-Salam mosque in the Mina area.

War in neighboring Syria has raised sectarian tensions between the city’s Sunni Muslim and Alawite communities.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has condemned the attacks and called for calm and restraint.

Sheikh Salem Rafii is one of the most prominent Sunni leaders in Lebanon and is believed to have been a possible target.

He is opposed to Lebanon’s militant Shia Hezbollah group and has previously urged young Lebanese men to join opposition fighters in Syria.

Two huge explosions killed at least 42 people and wounded more than 400 others in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli

Two huge explosions killed at least 42 people and wounded more than 400 others in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli

It is not clear whether he was at the al-Taqwa mosque at the time of the attack, although some reports say he was giving a sermon.

Ambulances rushed to the aftermath of the blasts and heavy black smoke covered the sky.

“It was as if there was an earthquake, the whole city seemed to be shaking,” a local resident told Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper.

Television pictures showed damaged cars on fire, with their windows smashed, and people running through the streets trying to carry wounded people to safety.

Bodies could be seen on the ground and windows were broken on surrounding apartment blocks.

The preacher at the al-Salam mosque – the site of the second explosion – is also an opponent of the Syrian government and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, Associated Press reports.

No group has taken responsibility for the latest attacks.

In a statement reported by Lebanon’s National News Agency, Hezbollah strongly condemned the blasts.

The group said the attacks aimed to “sow seeds of strife among the Lebanese and drag them into bickering under a sectarian guise”.

Outgoing Lebanese PM Najib Mikati and President Michel Suleiman have also condemned the attacks, calling on citizens to unite against violence.

A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: “The secretary-general calls on all Lebanese to exercise restraint, to remain united, and to support their state institutions… in maintaining calm and order in Tripoli and throughout the country, and in preventing the recurrence of such destructive actions.”

Tripoli, a city of nearly 200,000 people and Lebanon’s second largest, is one of the country’s most volatile sectarian fault lines, with a small Alawite population living in the midst of a Sunni majority.

The Alawite community tends to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with Sunnis mostly backing the rebels fighting him.

The bombs come a week after a massive car bomb rocked a Shia district of Beirut, leaving 27 people dead. The area hit contained Hezbollah strongholds.

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Egypt’s Islamist-run assembly has backed a draft constitution, including a measure keeping sharia, or Islamic law, as the main source of legislation.

The draft will now be sent to President Mohammed Morsi, who is expected to call a referendum on the issue.

The move comes after the constitutional court said it would rule on Sunday whether to dissolve the assembly.

Egypt’s judiciary is in a stand-off with the president after he granted himself sweeping new powers.

Egypt has been gripped by protests since the decree was issued last week – more demonstrations are planned for later on Friday.

Mohammed Morsi says his decree should only apply for as short a time as possible.

Liberal, left-wing and Christian members of the constitutional assembly boycotted the vote, accusing the Islamists of trying to impose their vision.

The assembly backed all the 234 articles of the draft after a marathon session that began on Thursday and continued through the night.

Its aim was clearly to pre-empt any challenge by the courts, which are in a confrontation with Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood which backs him.

According to Egyptian state TV, the articles passed stipulate that Islam is the religion of the state, and the principles of sharia are the “main source of legislation”.

This is unchanged from the previous constitution under Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled as president last year.

Salafists and some members of the Muslim Brotherhood failed to have “principles” replaced by “rules”.

The draft also says that Christianity and Judaism will be the “main source of legislation” for Egyptian Christians and Jews, state TV reported.

The assembly also adopted a new article that al-Azhar mosque and university, authorities on Sunni Muslim jurisprudence, must be consulted on “matters related to sharia”.

The president will be limited to two four-year terms of office.

The opponents of the draft voiced concern that some clauses – such as the importance of promoting family values – could be used to restrict freedom of speech.

They also said that there was no specific article establishing equality between men and women.

Opposition figure and former Arab League chief Amr Moussa told Reuters news agency: “This is nonsensical and one of the steps that shouldn’t be taken, given the background of anger and resentment to the current constitutional assembly.”

Another opposition leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, said the document would be consigned to the “garbage bin of history”, and would only sharpen the current divisions in Egypt.

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Pope Tawadros II, the new leader of Egypt’s Coptic Christian church, has been formally enthroned in Cairo.

Pope Tawadros II was confirmed as the new leader of Egypt’s Christian minority at a ceremony at St Mark’s cathedral in the Egyptian capital.

The 60-year-old succeeds Pope Shenouda III, who died in March after four decades on the patriarchal throne.

The enthronement comes at an uncertain time for Egypt’s Christians, following the fall of Hosni Mubarak last year.

Pope Tawadros II, the new leader of Egypt's Coptic Christian church, has been formally enthroned in Cairo

Pope Tawadros II, the new leader of Egypt’s Coptic Christian church, has been formally enthroned in Cairo

Sectarian attacks against Coptic Christians and churches in Egypt have increased since his fall, and many Christians are concerned about the rise of Islamist political forces.

Christians make up 5-10% of Egypt’s majority Sunni Muslim population and form the largest Christian minority in the Middle East.

Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Mursi did not attend Sunday’s enthronement, though Prime Minister Hisham Qandil was there.

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Moaz al-Khatib, a leading Damascus cleric who fled Syria, has been chosen at a meeting in Qatar to head a new coalition to oppose President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Cleric Moaz al-Khatib, former Sunni Muslim imam of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, is seen as a moderate.

Earlier, Syrian opposition groups agreed a deal to bring together their disparate factions.

The fractious opposition has been under pressure from the US and other backers in the region to clinch a deal.

Sheikh Moaz al-Khatib, 52, left Damascus for Cairo in July after several periods of detention by the Syrian authorities.

He had earlier attempted to bring the conflict to an end and in an interview with Reuters news agency in July said: “I want the Syrian people to remain as one hand.”

In a speech in Doha last month Moaz al-Khatib called for a political solution to save Syria from further destruction, arguing that negotiation would not “rescue the regime” but enable its departure with the least harm possible.

More than 36,000 people have been killed in the long-running uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Many thousands more have fled the country since the unrest began last year.

Earlier on Saturday the Israeli military said it had fired warning shots into Syria, after a mortar round from Syria hit an Israeli outpost in the occupied Golan Heights.

It was the first time the two sides have exchanged fire since the 1973 Middle East war.

Moaz al-Khatib has been chosen at a meeting in Qatar to head a new coalition to oppose Bashar al-Assad's government

Moaz al-Khatib has been chosen at a meeting in Qatar to head a new coalition to oppose Bashar al-Assad’s government

Ali Sadreddine al-Bayanouni, a Muslim Brotherhood delegate at the Qatar talks, said the new body would be called the National Coalition for Opposition Forces and the Syrian Revolution.

The group, formed after a week of talks in Doha, will have two vice-presidents – prominent dissident Riad Seif and leading secular activist Suhair al-Atassi.

The coalition’s leadership was set to become the face and voice of the Syrian opposition in the coming phase.

The Syrian National Council (SNC), which was formerly recognized as the main opposition, had been concerned it might be sidelined by the new opposition body.

One source at the meeting told Reuters that the SNC had agreed only under pressure and that it had been given a deadline of 10:00 a.m. to sign up or risk being left out.

The new body had been proposed by Riad Seif with the backing of the US, which had signaled its frustration with the SNC.

He confirmed on Sunday that a “12-point agreement to establish a coalition” had been sealed.

Proposals for the new body include an assembly of some 55-60 members, with a leadership that will seek international recognition as the voice of the Syrian people.

Delegates said the body would carry representation for ethnic Kurds, Christians, Alawites and women.

Bassem Said Ishak, of the SNC, said the Kurds required 48 hours to get the approval of their leadership.

The new body will also have a military council that will include the Free Syrian Army.

The backers of the new body hope it will boost the mainstream of the Syrian opposition and sideline any extremist elements.

Violence continued inside Syria on Sunday.

Opposition activists said government forces had attacked an area along the border with Turkey, after rebels had captured a crossing point.

The activists said helicopters and artillery units had bombarded the Ras al-Ain border area.

Clashes were also reported in Damascus, Albu Kamal near the Iraqi border, Irbin and in Deir Ezzor in the east.

Meanwhile, the Israeli military said the shell from Syria that hit a military post in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights was stray fire from fighting between Syrian government forces and rebels.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu warned Israel was “ready for any development” on the border with Syria.

Israel and Syria are still technically at war, and a UN force patrols the buffer zone.

Moaz al-Khatib

  • Born 1960
  • Son of long-standing imam of Damascus’s Grand Umayyad mosque
  • Studied applied geophysics
  • Imam of Grand Umayyad mosque
  • Detained by Syrian military intelligence
  • Fled Syria for Cairo in July 2012

Iraq’s fugitive vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi has been sentenced to death in absentia after a court found him guilty of running death squads.

The court ruling came as at least 45 people were killed in a wave of about 24 attacks across Iraq.

Tariq al-Hashemi was the most senior Sunni Muslim in the predominantly Shia Iraqi government until he was charged last December and went on the run.

The charges against him sparked a political crisis in Iraq.

Iraq's fugitive vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi has been sentenced to death in absentia after a court found him guilty of running death squads

Iraq's fugitive vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi has been sentenced to death in absentia after a court found him guilty of running death squads

Other Sunni politicians denounced Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – who issued the warrant for Tariq al-Hashemi – as a dictator, accusing him of deliberate provocation that risked plunging the country back into sectarian conflict.

Correspondents say the fragile government coalition between Sunnis, secularists and Shia has seemed in danger of collapse ever since.

Sunni insurgents linked to al-Qaeda have been blamed for much of the recent violence in Iraq.

The Iraqi government issued the warrant for Tariq al-Hashemi’s arrest on 19 December 2011, the day after the last US troops left the country.

He fled first to the largely autonomous Kurdish north of the country, and from there to Qatar and on to Turkey.

Prosecutors said Tariq al-Hashemi was involved in 150 killings. During his trial in absentia in Baghdad, some of his former bodyguards said Tariq al-Hashemi had ordered murders.

He says the charges against him are politically motivated and has accused PM Nouri al-Maliki of fuelling sectarianism.

On Sunday, an Iraqi court found Tariq al-Hashemi and his son-in-law guilty of two murders and sentenced him to death by hanging. The judge dismissed a third charge for lack of evidence.

Although violence has decreased since its peak in 2006 and 2007, attacks have escalated again after the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq at the end of last year, amid increasing political and sectarian tensions.

The Iraqi government has been hampered by divisions between Sunni, Shia and Kurdish political groups.

The Iraqi government said July 2012 was the deadliest month in nearly two years, with 325 people killed.

Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was a Sunni, and many Sunnis believe they are being penalized by Shias, who have grown in influence since the US invasion.

Sunnis have accused Nouri al-Maliki of taking an authoritarian approach to government.