A presidential record: Trump tweets, retweets 125 times in a day

US President Donald Trumps Twitter feed is seen on a laptop screen [File: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto/Getty Images]

US President Donald Trump set a presidential record for activity on his favorite social media platform on Wednesday, tweeting and retweeting at length about the Senate impeachment trial, the Democrats who want to replace him and much, much more.

By 4:25pm in Washington, DC, Trump had barreled through his previous record of 123 Twitter postings in a day that he set a little over a month ago, according to Factba.se, a service that compiles and analyses data on Trump’s presidency.

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Trump’s previous record for tweets on a single day during his time in the White House was set on December 12, 2019, the day the House Judiciary Committee opened its marathon session to approve two articles of impeachment against the president.

Trump’ set his all-time record for tweets in a day before he became president, with 161 posts in January 2015, according to Factba.se. Most of his tweeting that day was dedicated to plugging his reality television show.

Trump, who began his day in Davos, Switzerland, where he was attending the World Economic Forum, started his Wednesday morning by hammering out 41 tweets between 12am and 1am in Washington, DC (6am to 7am in Davos).

The vast majority of his postings to his more than 71 million followers were retweets of messages, videos and images from Republican lawmakers and other backers haranguing Democrats over the impeachment trial.

His barrage of tweets included plenty of incendiary posts excoriating Representative Adam Schiff, one of the House Democratic impeachment managers, and a retweet of a provocative image posted by White House social media director Dan Scavino that shows Trump walking in front of a fiery scene meant to symbolise the incineration of the “Deep State”.

Factba.se said the record-breaking tweet was a retweet of Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who announced a new podcast about the impeachment trial. 

Opening arguments 

Democrats kicked off their first of three days of opening arguments on Wednesday, attempting to appeal to sceptical Republican senators.

Schiff outlined what the Democrats contend was the president’s “corrupt scheme” to abuse his presidential power and then obstruct Congress’s investigation. He then called on senators not to be “cynical” about politics, but to draw on the intent of the nation’s Founding Fathers who provided the remedy of impeachment.

“Over the coming days, we will present to you – and to the American people – the extensive evidence collected during the House’s impeachment inquiry into the president’s abuse of power,” said Schiff standing before the Senate. “You will hear their testimony at the same time as the American people. That is, if you will allow it.”

Most senators sat at their desks throughout, as the rules stipulate, though some stretched their legs, standing behind the desks or against the back wall of the chamber, passing the time. Visitors watched from the galleries, one briefly interrupting in protest.

Trump’s lawyers sat by, waiting their turn, as the president blasted the proceedings from afar, threatening jokingly to face-off with the Democrats by coming to “sit right in the front row and stare at their corrupt faces”.

The House impeached Trump on December 18 for abuse of power related to his dealings with Ukraine and obstruction of Congress for refusing to participate in the impeachment investigation.

Source: Aljazeera

Former CIA contractor defends brutal post-9/11 interrogations

Control tower as seen through razor wire inside the Camp VI detention facility in Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba [Alex Brandon/AP Photo]

An architect of the brutal CIA interrogation and detention programme developed after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, has defended the agency and its practices as those techniques become the focus of an effort to dismiss key evidence against five men charged in the terrorist plot.

On Tuesday, James Mitchell spent the first day of what is expected to be at least a week of questioning by defence teams at the US base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, providing details about the CIA’s interrogation programme as well as what he said was the “context” necessary to understand it.

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The CIA was the “tip of the spear” in the months after the 9/11 attacks and was urgently trying to gather vital intelligence using techniques that had been authorised by the US government, the retired Air Force psychologist told the court.

“We were trying to save American lives,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell is facing questions now because lawyers for the five men accused of planning and providing logistical support for the 9/11 attacks are seeking to prevent the government from using statements the defendants gave to the FBI as evidence against them in a war crimes trial scheduled to start next January at the US base in Cuba.

The testimony in Guantanamo is an important milestone in the 9/11 war crimes proceedings, which have been bogged down in the pretrial phase since the May 2012 arraignment.

The five defendants, who include the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 hijacking plot, were subjected to waterboarding and other methods now widely regarded as torture. Mitchell, who helped develop the programme with another private contractor and others, insisted the CIA feared “another catastrophic attack”, possibly involving nuclear weapons, and was trying to stop it.

“My sole focus was stopping the next attack,” he said.

Mitchell agreed to come to Guantanamo to testify without a subpoena to give his version of events, which he also detailed in a book, called Enhanced Interrogation, that he cowrote with a CIA spokesman.

“I’m happy to talk about my role in the programme and what the programme did,” he told the court.

At times, however, he appeared to bristle at the questioning. When defence lawyer James Connell thanked him for coming to court, he replied: “I did it for the victims and families not for you.”

Mitchell and another psychologist, Bruce Jessen, were contracted by the CIA to develop the interrogation programme, which also included intense sleep deprivation, confinement in a small box, prolonged shackling in “stress positions,” and being doused with cold water.

Defence lawyers for the five men charged in the attacks have called the contractors, who observed and took part in interrogations at clandestine CIA facilities, as witnesses in an effort to disqualify statements the defendants made to the FBI after they were transferred to Guantanamo in September 2006.

It was the first time that the defendants and one of the main architects of their brutal treatment had faced each other in court.

Mitchell and Jessen gave depositions in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of three former prisoners, including one who died in custody. The case was settled for undisclosed terms in August 2017 and the two former contractors did not testify in court.

“This testimony marks a critical moment for reckoning with the torture committed in the American people’s name,” said ACLU staff attorney Dror Ladin, “Mitchell and Jessen, along with collaborators in the US government, are responsible for shameful cruelty that the CIA is still trying to cover up.”

Mitchell was expected to be followed on the stand by Jessen. Their testimony will likely take up much of a pretrial hearing scheduled to last two weeks.

‘Tainted by torture’

The defendants include Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, an al-Qaeda operative who has portrayed himself as the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. All five face the death penalty if convicted of charges that include terrorism and nearly 3,000 counts of murder for their alleged roles in planning and providing logistical support for the hijacking plot.

Under a 2006 law that set up the military commission, any statements must be voluntary to be admitted into evidence and the government is not seeking to use at the trial anything the men said while in CIA custody.

But the prisoners also gave what prosecutors have called “clean” statements to the FBI after they arrived at Guantanamo.

Lawyers for the five defendants argue that everything the men have said in custody was tainted by the torture they were subjected to while in CIA confinement.

Connell, a lawyer for defendant Ammar al-Baluchi, said he believes the FBI helped guide some of the questioning of the men and that others in the government were also involved in developing the programme starting with the capture of a prisoner known as Abu Zubaydah in 2002.

“Dr Mitchell plays an important role but ultimately a small one,” in developing and carrying out the interrogations, said Connell, whose client is a nephew of Mohammad.

A Senate investigation in 2014 found that the interrogation programme designed by Mitchell and Jessen was used on 39 detainees and produced no useful intelligence. They were paid $81m for their work, according to the Senate report.

Mitchell and Jessen previously worked at the Air Force survival school at Fairchild Air Force Base outside Spokane, Washington, where they trained pilots to avoid capture and resist interrogation and torture. The CIA hired them to reverse-engineer that training to break terrorism suspects.

They defended their work when the lawsuit was settled, arguing that neither contractor condoned or conducted any mistreatment of prisoners and that the overall programme was authorised by the government.

Jessen said in a statement then that he and Mitchell “served our country at a time when freedom and safety hung in the balance.”

Source: Aljazeera

Harvey Weinstein rape trial: Opening arguments set to begin

Film producer Harvey Weinstein arrives at New York Criminal Court in the United States with his attorney Donna Rotunno for his sexual assault trial [Eduardo Munoz/Reuters]

Once-powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein arrived at a Manhattan court on Wednesday for opening statements in his rape trial, which has become a watershed moment for the #MeToo movement.

Weinstein exited a white sports utility vehicle with help from two members of his team, one carrying the walker that Weinstein has used for recent court appearances as he recovers from recent back surgery.

The scene outside was quiet compared with the start of proceedings earlier this month, when Weinstein’s team complained that noisy sidewalk demonstrations could be heard inside the courtroom.

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“Better,” Weinstein said when asked how he was feeling by one of the roughly 100 reporters and photographers.

Asked by a reporter if he could get a fair trial, Weinstein replied, “Of course.”

“Good lawyers,” he added.

Both legal teams will make their opening statements on Wednesday to a jury of seven men and five women.

Weinstein, 67, has pleaded not guilty to charges of assaulting two women. He faces up to life in prison if convicted of the most serious charge, predatory sexual assault.

His trial began on January 6 and could last about six more weeks.

More than 80 accusers

Since 2017, more than 80 women have accused Weinstein of sexual misconduct, fuelling the #MeToo movement in which women have gone public with allegations against powerful men in business, entertainment and politics.

Weinstein, who reshaped the independent film industry with critically acclaimed pictures such as The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love, has denied the allegations and said any sexual encounters were consensual.

Justice James Burke told potential jurors last week that they must decide Weinstein’s case based on the evidence and not make the trial “a referendum on the #MeToo movement”.

On Tuesday, Weinstein lost his bid to move the trial out of the media glare of New York City to the suburban county of Suffolk or the state capital, Albany. The defence team sought a new venue partly because sidewalk protests against Weinstein could be heard in the court.

“While I could not make out every word of what was being chanted, I clearly heard the word ‘rapist’,” said a court filing by Weinstein lawyer Diana Fabi Samson, describing the protests that she heard from inside the court during jury selection.

Serial predator?

Prosecutors are expected to paint Weinstein as a serial predator who abused his power, while the defence will try to show accusers’ behaviour contradicted how victims would react to an assault.

One of the two main accusers in the Weinstein case, former production assistant Mimi Haleyi, has said publicly that Weinstein forced oral sex on her in his Manhattan home in 2006. The other, who has not been identified, was raped by Weinstein in 2013, alleges the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, which brought the case.

The prosecutors further allege that Weinstein raped another woman, actress Annabella Sciorra, in the 1990s. Although that allegation is too old to be charged as a separate crime, it will be presented to help establish Weinstein’s pattern of behaviour as part of the case for predatory sexual assault.

State attorneys are expected to call up to three additional women, who are not mentioned in the charges, to bolster their case, according to court papers. A similar legal strategy helped Pennsylvania prosecutors convict comedian Bill Cosby in 2018 of sexually assaulting a Temple University employee.

Joan Illuzzi-Orbon

Damon Cheronis, one of Weinstein’s lawyers, said at a hearing on Tuesday that he intended to tell jurors in his opening statement that Weinstein’s accusers sent him “dozens of loving emails” and “bragged” about their sexual relationships with him.

Justice Burke ruled that Cheronis could describe the contents of the emails but not show them.

Legal experts said lawyers for Weinstein could try to show that the accusers engaged in consensual sexual activity in order to gain an edge in the entertainment industry.

Prosecutors last week accused Weinstein’s legal team of trying to exclude white women from the jury, which is comprised of six white men, three black women, one black man and two white women. Weinstein’s lawyers countered that their goal was to select a fair jury, citing specific reasons for excluding the women.

The state needs a unanimous jury to convict. A single holdout would produce a hung jury, although that would not prevent prosecutors from trying Weinstein again.

Regardless of the outcome, Weinstein faces additional charges in California. Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey announced on January 6 that Weinstein had been charged with raping one woman and sexually assaulting another in 2013.

Source: Aljazeera

Emmanuel Macron loses temper with Israeli security

French President Emmanuel Macron asks the Israeli police to leave the 12th-century Church of Saint Anne in the old city of Jerusalem on January 22, 2020 [Ludovic Marin/AFP]

“Go outside,” French President Emmanuel Macron demanded in English in a melee with Israeli security men on Wednesday, demanding they leave a Jerusalem basilica that he visited before a Holocaust memorial conference.

The French tricolour has flown over the Church of St Anne in Jerusalem’s walled Old City since it was gifted by the Ottomans to French Emperor Napoleon III in 1856.

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France views it as a provocation when Israeli police enter the church’s sandstone complex, in a part of Jerusalem captured and annexed by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.

Wednesday’s incident was a case of deja vu all over again.

In 1996, France’s then-president Jacques Chirac lost patience with Israeli security agents at the same church, telling one of them that his treatment was a “provocation” and threatening to get back on his plane.

Chirac refused to enter St Anne until Israeli security left the site.

Video showed Macron, jostled in the centre of a crowded circle between his own protective detail and Israeli security personnel, including several paramilitary policemen in uniform, under an archway leading into the church.

Macron then stopped the shoving and shouted at the Israeli security guards in English: “I don’t like what you did in front of me.”

Lowering his voice, he then said: “Go outside. I’m sorry, you know the rules. Nobody has to provoke nobody.”

Speaking later to reporters, Macron said the incident ended pleasantly and that he shook hands with the Israeli security officials.

Israeli police said that when Macron arrived at the church “there was a discussion” between Israeli and French security officers about entering with the president.

“When the president and the delegation finished the visit, he apologised about the incident and shook hands with the security personnel,” a police statement said.

An Israeli government spokesman did not immediately comment on behalf of the Shin Bet internal security agency, which also helps guard foreign dignitaries.

French diplomats had cautioned that they want to leave little room for mishaps on Macron’s trip.

Earlier on Wednesday, a separate squabble ensued when Israeli police tried to enter St Anne before Macron’s visit.

Macron is one of dozens of world leaders due to attend Thursday’s World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial centre in Jerusalem, which will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.

The 42-year-old head of state had seen his visit to St Anne as a symbolic stop underscoring Paris’ historical influence in the region.

Before heading to the church, Macron walked through the Old City, speaking to shopkeepers and stopping by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Source: Aljazeera

'Perilous times' for Iraq's Shia militias after Soleimani killing

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis attends a funeral procession of PMF members killed by US air strikes in Qaim district [File: Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters]

Baghdad, Iraq – On January 3, soon after Iranian General Qassem Soleimani left Baghdad airport in an armoured vehicle, a US drone fired rockets at his convoy, killing the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Iraqis accompanying him.

The brazen assassination sent shockwaves through the Middle East and beyond, triggering fears of an all-out war between the United States and Iran in Iraq, where the two foes compete for influence. 

Iran did choose Iraqi soil to retaliate, sending a volley of missiles at two bases hosting US forces outside Baghdad and Erbil. The attacks on January 8 ended without any fatalities, however, easing worries of a regional conflagration. As the smoke clears, what is worrying observers in Iraq is the death of the powerful Shia militia leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was killed in the same US strike targeting Soleimani. 

His killing leaves the paramilitary he commanded – the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) – without a clear successor, throwing the future of the 100,000-strong force into uncertainty and raising new concerns over instability in war-ravaged Iraq. The leadership vacuum is also likely to weaken Tehran’s hand in Iraq, according to experts.

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The PMF, or Hashd al-Shaabi, was formed in 2014, in response to a fatwa by Iraq’s most influential Shia leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The religious leader had put out a call for volunteers to take on ISIL (ISIS) after the Sunni armed group conquered more than a third of Iraqi territory. 

Al-Muhandis, the widely used nom-de-guerre for Jamal Jaafar al-Ibrahimi, was “the creator of the PMF, its over-seer”, said Sajad Jiyad, managing director of Baghdad-based think-tank al-Bayan. With military backing from Soleimani’s Quds Force, al-Muhandis helped unite the group of 50 disparate militias – most of them Shia fighters – into an effective force against ISIL.

A fluent Farsi speaker who spent most of his adult life in Iran, al-Muhandis was the dominant administrator in charge of handling logistics, supply, personnel administration and coordinating the various competing factions of the PMF – many of whom had a history of conflict with one another and represented a range of allegiances, including to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the powerful Iraqi nationalist and Shia leader, Moqtada al-Sadr. 

While Iran-aligned groups likely constitute a minority in the PMF’s total number of fighters, al-Muhandis’s command of the umbrella group gave Iran an influential stake in its affairs, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a London-based think-tank.

Some experts contend it was Iranian pressure that pushed Iraq’s government to incorporate the PMF into the state’s security apparatus in 2016, a move that provided the militia with heavy weaponry and significant financial resources. In 2019 alone, the group was allocated $2.16bn from the Iraqi state budget.

Al-Muhandis played a key role in the process. “He bought a visionary aspect to the PMF. He saw it not just as an organisation or state-sanctioned business, but more as a system relying on feedback loops, he understood the dynamics underlying the different divisions within the organisation,” said Inna Rudolf, research fellow at the United Kingdom-based King’s College, London.

‘Perilous time’

In recent years, the PMF has also grown into a powerful political faction, with politicians aligned to the militia taking the most seats in Iraq’s parliament in the 2018 legislative elections. Politicians from the Iran-allied factions in the PMF won 48 seats, coming in second behind al-Sadr’s Sairun alliance, which took 54 in the 329-member assembly. 

The force’s political and military clout has worried Washington, which has thousands of troops in Iraq to prevent a resurgence of ISIL, which was defeated in 2017.

And as US-Iran tensions escalated last year – in the aftermath of US President Donald Trump‘s pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and reimposing punishing sanctions on Tehran – the US army and the PMF accused the other of attacks on their positions in Iraq.

The long-simmering hostilities boiled over late last year when a rocket attack on an Iraqi base hosting US troops killed an American defence contractor. Washington blamed the incident on Kataib Hezbollah, a militia founded by al-Muhandis, and carried out air raids on the group’s bases in Syria and Iraq, killing 24 of its fighters. Days later, on December 29, PMF supporters stormed the US embassy, prompting a severe diplomatic crisis that culminated in the US killing of Soleimani.

Hezbollah supporter

It is not clear if the US intended to kill al-Muhandis in the same attack, but the dramatic US escalation makes for “perilous times for Iraq’s Shia militias”, said Ranj Alaaldin, fellow at the Brookings Institute in Doha, Qatar. 

The heavily armed groups fear “becoming displaced or weakened by rivals”, said Alaaldin, predicting a contentious succession battle pitting Iran-aligned groups that dominate the PMF against al-Sadr’s bloc.

Tehran has a lot at stake. The main contender from the pro-Iranian faction is Hadi al-Amiri, a former transport minister and the head of the Badr Organization, which forms the backbone of the PMF. Al-Amiri is a fluent Farsi speaker and an admirer of Soleimani, and thus likely to prioritise Iran’s interests, according to observers. Al-Sadr, however, has long opposed both US and Iranian influence in Iraq.

The uncertainty hanging over the PMF presents a rare opportunity for the US to curb Tehran’s hold over Baghdad, said one Iraqi diplomat who spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity.

“Since Qassem Soleimani was killed, Iranian influence has lost the aggressiveness, the expansionist idea it used to have. So we have three or four years for a functional US policy in Iraq, after that, we’ll go back to how it was before Soleimani’s death, so it’s now or never to do something to confront the Iranian influence in Iraq.”

Iraqi demonstrators gather during ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq January 20, 2020. REUTERS/Thaier al-SudanI

Public opinion, too, appears to be turning against the PMF. There have been calls to disband the group from protesters who have taken to the streets across cities in Iraq since October. Many question the value of the group in the wake of ISIL’s defeat, while human rights groups have accused some groups of war crimes and extortion in some of the areas they took back from ISIL. 

Yet, others said any attempts to sideline the group could provoke a backlash given its entrenchment in the Iraqi state. “Can you just suddenly clamp down on this behaviour? It’s very difficult to do without leading to violence and blowback,” said Jiyad of al-Bayan. 

For now, despite the lack of a figurehead, the PMF appears to be united.

Its various factions have promised to avenge al-Muhandis’s killing by expelling US troops from the country. On January 13, al-Sadr held a meeting in the Iranian city of Qom to coordinate the PMF’s efforts to expel US forces. In attendance were the leaders of several militias, including Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba.

The groups have now announced a “million-man march” against the US’s military presence for Friday.

Meanwhile, PMF-aligned legislators pushed through a resolution on January 5 ordering caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi‘s government to end US military presence in Iraq – something Washington has opposed vehemently.

Abu Hadi al-Daraji, spokesman for the PMF, told Al Jazeera the group would remain a force in Iraq. 

“As long as the Iraqi army, and the Iraqi police force are legitimate forces under the control of the Iraqi government, the Hashid Shaabi will be too,” he said. “It’s a legitimate organisation.”

Source: Aljazeera

'Unsporty and political': Anger as AFC matches moved out of Iran

The games have been rescheduled to take place in the UAE on Saturday [Suhaib Salem/Reuters]

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has moved two Asian Champions League matches out of Iran citing security concerns in the country.

In a statement on Twitter, the AFC said on Wednesday that two home matches involving Iranian teams “have been moved to neutral venues because of ongoing security concerns and the decision of several governments to issue travel warnings to the Islamic Republic of Iran”.

The games, originally scheduled for Tuesday, will now be held on Saturday in the United Arab Emirates, the governing body for Asian football said. The decision came despite threats of a boycott from Iran, which has four teams playing in the continental club competition.

A spokesman for Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani slammed the AFC’s decision as a political move.

“This is an unsporting and unprofessional move,” he was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency.

There was no immediate comment from Iran’s football federation.

The decision to relocate match comes amid heightened tensions between the United States and Iran following Washington’s assassination of a top Iranian general in Baghdad earlier this month.

Tehran responded to the killing of Qassem Soleimani by striking US targets in Iraq on January 8. On the same day, the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps accidentally shot down a Ukrainian airliner, killing all 176 people on board.

The four Iranian clubs competing in the AFC Champions League – Persepolis, Sepahan, Esteghlal, and Shahr Khodro – told the AFC on Monday they would only turn up for the games if they were allowed to host their games in Iran, according to IRNA.

When news of the AFC decision initially became public, Iran’s Sport and Youth Minister, Masoud Soltanifar, told reporters the move was “totally political and unathletic” based on “false pretexts of lack of security and safety of aerial routes to Iran”, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency.

The AFC’s move has prompted anger in Iran. A young football fan in Tehran, Hojat Vafaee, described the decision as a “pure political decision taken under the pressure of some Arab countries”.

He called on FIFA, football’s world governing body, to intervene and defend Iran’s rights, saying its president, Gianni Infantino “was here in Tehran last year and he has seen the spectacular and safe atmosphere of our stadiums”.

Ali, a 20-year-old supporter of Sepahan, a major sport club from Esfahan in central Iran, also slammed the decision.

“The AFC always says Iran has the best and greatest football fans in Asia and take so much credit for itself. But because of politics, they close their eyes on the feeling of millions of Iranian football fans,” he told Al Jazeera. “We’ve always been told that politics should be kept out of sports, but yet we see it happening by AFC itself.”

Many took to social media in protest, using hashtags including “Shame_On_AFC”, “ACLneedIranianfans” and “AFC_Iran_Is_Safe”. Many criticised the decision on AFC’s Instagram account.

One Iranian football fan wrote on Twitter: “I don’t know if I should be happy or sad, national pride or global backwardness, pity.”

Some Iranian fans, however, said the AFC’s decision did not affect them.

Nooshin, a female football fan in the northern city of Noshahr, said the move held no weight for her as Iranian women are largely barred from attending football matches.

Source: Aljazeera