- - Sunday, January 9, 2011

IRAQ

Arab summit plan faces stiff challenges

BAGHDAD | Insurgent threats and a lack of hotel space for delegations pose stiff challenges to Iraq’s plan to host the annual Arab League meeting for the first time in 20 years, despite assurances from the body’s leader Sunday.

Iraq's government is hoping the summit will showcase what Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has described as the nation’s improved security and pump foreign money into the parched local economy.

“We are seeking this summit because it will confirm Iraq’s return to its leading role, and that Iraq is an important Arab country,” Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa said during a short speech Sunday to Iraq’s parliament. “The Arab League is concerned about Iraq now and in the future.”

The government is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild palaces and hotels where thousands of delegates from the 22-nation group are expected to stay on the summit’s March 23 start.

Observers say, however, that a lack of hotel space and threats from militants could stymie the government’s dream to host the summit.

This week, a militant website posted a message from insurgent group Ansar al-Islam threatening to attack the summit and any political or business officials associated with it. Ansar al-Islam is a radical Sunni Arab group linked to al Qaeda.

AFGHANISTAN

Cleric’s arrest sparks protest

KABUL | Hundreds gathered in a mosque in northern Afghanistan on Sunday, demanding NATO forces release an influential cleric arrested in a raid that touched a raw nerve among Afghans who said they were shut out of the operation.

Opening another potential trouble spot for the coalition, three civilians, including a child, were killed Saturday in the crossfire as militants battled NATO forces, according to officials in the southern province of Helmand, a Taliban stronghold.

Separately, NATO said one of its service members was killed by a bomb blast in southern Afghanistan — the 11th killed so far this year.

In the northern province of Kunduz, NATO said its forces, in tandem with its Afghan counterparts, arrested five people early Sunday in connection with a Dec. 19 attack that killed at least eight Afghan security soldiers and police in the area.

Provincial authorities said hundreds gathered at the main mosque in the city of Kunduz to protest the arrest of Mullah Nurallah, the apparent target of the raid early Sunday.

But irate Afghan authorities denied that local forces were involved.

IRAN

70 perish in plane crash

TEHRAN | An IranAir passenger jet carrying close to100 people crashed as it was making an emergency landing Sunday in a snowstorm in the country’s northwest and broke into several pieces, killing 70 of those on board, Iranian media reported. The others survived with light injuries.

It was not clear what caused the Boeing-727, operated by Iran’s national airline, to attempt an emergency landing in the city of Orumiyeh, 460 miles northwest of the capital, Tehran. A spokesman for the Iranian civil aviation organization, Abbas Mosayebi, said only that the plane “faced an incident,” state TV reported.

The network also said the aircraft disappeared from radar and went down on farmland after making a second attempt to land. There was no word on what might have caused the crash.

Thirty-two people survived, the Islamic Republic News Agency reported, quoting Heidar Heidari, an official with Iran’s Red Crescent Society. He put the number of confirmed dead at 70.

BELARUS

Opposition creates coordination council

MINSK | Belarus’ opposition Sunday created a national council tasked with coordinating their work to ward off “increasing terror and repression” by the country’s authoritarian regime, an opposition leader said.

“The opposition begins to unite and coordinate its activities in order to mend the current situation in Belarus,” Fair World leader Sergei Kalyakin told Agence France-Presse.

The council is to work for the “release of people arrested for political reasons, inform Belarus citizens and the international community, oversee Belarus’ return to legality and democracy and create the conditions for free and democratic elections,” it said in a statement.

Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who has led the former Soviet republic for 16 years, swept the Dec. 19 presidential elections with nearly 80 percent of the vote.

Nine opposition candidates denounced the election as a sham.

From wire dispatches and staff reports