Archive for November 14, 2014

April 25, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Suicide bombers killed 31 people Friday at a sports stadium hosting a campaign rally for thousands of supporters of a militant Shiite group before parliamentary elections, authorities said — an attack that could unleash more sectarian violence.

An al-Qaida breakaway group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, claimed responsibility for the attack at the Industrial Stadium in eastern Baghdad, which drew about 10,000 backers of the Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq group.

It said on a militant website that the bombings were to avenge what it called the killing of Sunnis and their forced removal from their homes by Shiite militias. The authenticity of the claim could not be independently verified.

The attack was a stark reminder of the sectarian violence that has plagued Iraq more than two years after U.S. troops ended an eight-year presence that often served as a buffer between the nation’s Shiite majority and its Sunni Arab minority.

Last year, the death toll in the country climbed to its highest levels since the worst of the sectarian bloodshed between 2006 and 2008. The U.N. says 8,868 people were killed in 2013, and more than 1,400 people were killed in the first two months of this year alone.

The rally was organized to introduce the group’s candidates for Wednesday’s vote. More than 9,000 candidates are taking part and will vie for 328 seats in parliament. Parts of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province won’t take part in the election due the clashes there between security forces and al-Qaida-inspired militants.

A top intelligence officer and security officials said a senior Sunni politician in the southern city of Basra, Abdul-Kareem al-Dussary, was shot and killed Friday night in what appeared to be a revenge attack for the Baghdad bombings. The officer and the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.

The resurgence of sectarian violence is in part a reflection of the 3-year-old conflict in neighboring Syria, where forces loyal to President Bashar Assad are battling mostly Sunni rebels whose ranks are dominated by Islamists or militants from al-Qaida-inspired or linked groups. Assad follows the Alawite faith, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Asaib Ahl al-Haq, like Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah, has sent fighters to Syria to join Assad’s side in the civil war.

The bombings at the heavily guarded stadium struck about 10 minutes apart, according to two Associated Press reporters at the rally. Intense gunfire rang out after the first explosion and continued throughout, but it is not uncommon for Iraqi security forces to fire in the air after major attacks.

Some in the crowd fled to a nearby building under construction in the complex as female parliamentary candidates screamed and prayed for safety. Others ran from the stadium or took refuge behind the large stage erected for the rally.

Adding to the panic was the appearance overhead of a low-flying small aircraft that dropped election pamphlets. The first explosion struck as men and women in colorful Arab medieval costumes were engaged in a short performance of a play depicting the 7th century martyrdom of the Shiites’ most revered saint, Imam Hussein, in Karbala, Iraq.

An AP driver outside the stadium’s main gate said he was thrown back by the first blast before a second shook the area. He said guards around him began firing in all directions. Another witness said he rushed out of the stadium with his friends after the first explosion.

“I saw four charred bodies and several wounded people asking for help. There were also several damaged cars. Then, other blasts took place. People were in panic,” said the man, who gave his name as only Abu Sajad.

The rally was addressed by Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s leader, Sheik Qais al-Khazali, a young cleric who had spent years in U.S. detention but was released after he was handed over to the Iraqi government. In his speech, he challenged the Sunni militants holding parts of two cities in Anbar province, which is predominantly Sunni.

“We are ready and prepared to defend this nation,” said al-Khazali, a one-time close aide of anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. “Let it be known that Asaib will be the remedy.” Security guards jumped on al-Khazali after the first explosion, and then rushed him to his armored SUV.

The group remained defiant after the attack. “This is a desperate act that will not stop us from moving on and challenging” the Sunni militants, said a senior Ahl al-Haq official, Wahab al-Taie. “They wanted to send us a message and they did, but that will not deter us.”

Police and medical officials say the attack killed at least 31 people and wounded 37. They said the first two blasts were caused by bombs, but the third was the work of a suicide bomber. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to release the information. It was not immediately possible to reconcile the officials’ version with that given by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which spoke of two suicide bombers.

Followers of Asaib Ahl al-Haq attacked U.S. troops before their withdrawal in 2011 and claimed responsibility for the 2007 kidnapping in Baghdad of a British contractor along with his four guards. The group is backed by Iran and openly admits sending fighters to Syria to bolster Assad’s forces.

The top of the Baghdad stadium’s terraces was adorned by images of Asaib Ahl al-Haq fighters killed in Syria. “They fight Iraq’s enemies there on the land of Syria,” al-Khazali said, alluding to fighters in Syria.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and other Sunni militants frequently use car bombs and suicide attacks to target public areas and government buildings in their bid to undermine confidence in the Shiite-led government and target Shiite groups.

Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.


BAGHDAD – Iraq has closed Abu Ghraib prison, made infamous by Saddam Hussein’s regime and US forces, due to security concerns following a mass breakout last year, the justice ministry said Tuesday.

The country is suffering a protracted surge in violence that has claimed more than 2,550 lives so far this year, and the area west of Baghdad where the prison is located is particularly insecure.

“The ministry of justice announced the complete closure of Baghdad Central Prison, previously (known as) ‘Abu Ghraib,’ and the removal of the inmates in cooperation with the ministries of defense and justice,” it said in an online statement.

The statement quoted Justice Minister Hassan al-Shammari as saying that 2,400 inmates arrested or sentenced for terrorism-related offences have been transferred to other facilities in central and northern Iraq.

“The ministry took this decision as part of precautionary measures related to the security of prisons,” Shammari said, adding that Abu Ghraib prison is “in a hot area.”

It was not immediately clear whether the closure was temporary or final.

The prison is located between Baghdad and the city of Fallujah, which has been held by anti-government fighters since early January.

The prison served as a notorious torture center under now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein, with an estimated 4,000 detainees perishing there.

Abu Ghraib later became a byword for abuses carried out by US forces following the 2003 invasion when photographs surfaced the following year showing Iraqi detainees being humiliated by American guards, igniting worldwide outrage.

In July 2013, militants assaulted Abu Ghraib prison and another in Taji, north of Baghdad.

Officials said hundreds of inmates escaped and over 50 prisoners and members of the security forces were killed in the assaults, which were claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a powerful jihadist group.

Iraq has been hit by a year-long surge in violence, driven principally by widespread anger among the Sunni Arab minority, who say they are mistreated by the Shiite-led government and security forces, as well as by the civil war in neighboring Syria.

Violence in Iraq has killed more than 340 people since the beginning of the month, according to figures based on security and medical sources.

Source: Middle East Online.


Baghdad (AFP)

April 14, 2014

Militants have closed all gates of a Euphrates River dam they control in Iraq, blocking a major water source, a minister said on Monday, while violence killed 15 people.

The latest unrest comes amid a protracted surge in nationwide bloodshed that has claimed more than 2,550 lives so far this year and sparked fears of Iraq slipping back into the all-out sectarian killings of 2006 and 2007.

The unrest has been driven principally by widespread anger among the Sunni Arab minority over claims of mistreatment at the hands of the Shiite-led government and security forces, as well as by the civil war in neighboring Syria.

Militants have “completely closed the gates of the Fallujah dam since yesterday (Sunday) morning,” Water Resources Minister Muhanad al-Saadi said in a statement.

The move blocks a major source of water for central and southern Iraq.

The militants, who seized the dam several weeks ago, had previously cut the flow of water through the dam near the city of Fallujah, just a short drive west of Baghdad, but reopened it when water accumulated and caused the area to flood.

In a sign of both the reach of anti-government fighters and the weakness of security forces, all of Fallujah and shifting parts of Anbar provincial capital Ramadi, to its west, have been out of government control since early January.

The US embassy issued a statement Monday condemning “ongoing terrorist acts” by powerful jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and the dam closure in particular.

“Targeting dams and other vital infrastructure victimizes innocent Iraqi citizens. In the past week, hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis have suffered from water shortages as a result of ISIL’s actions,” the embassy said.

It added that the US has provided Iraq with “essential military equipment,” and “will continue to accelerate such deliveries in order to ensure Iraqi security forces are equipped with modern and effective weaponry appropriate to the serious threat that ISIL poses.”

Violence in various areas of Iraq left 15 people dead on Monday.

Shelling and shoulder-fired rockets killed two people and wounded seven in Fallujah, while clashes in Ramadi left five militants dead.

Bombings in three areas close to Baghdad killed five people, among them two Sahwa anti-Al-Qaeda militiamen, and wounded nine.

And north of the capital, a firebomb thrown at a checkpoint killed a policeman in the city of Tikrit, while gunmen killed a Kurdish security forces member and a civilian in Kirkuk.

Iraq’s security forces will face a major test on April 30, when Iraqis go to the polls for the first parliamentary election since American forces quit the country at the end of 2011.

While they were able to keep violence to a minimum during provincial polls last year, the security forces have failed to halt a subsequent year-long surge in unrest.

Source: Space War.


April 3, 2014

Omar al-Jaffal

In 2010 at the age of 16, Wissam left his home in Babil province to find work in Basra. At times, he had to beg to survive. Wissam’s parents searched for him for nearly four years, but to no avail, and then on Feb. 27, they saw him on television.

The police had picked up Wissam and transferred him to a homeless shelter in Baghdad. There he met Sabrine Kazem, a young journalist covering social issues for Alhurra Iraq TV. It was her story for a news bulletin that led Wissam’s family to find their son.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Kazem said, “The shelter is full of tales of homeless persons who are neglected by their families. Some of them have passed the legal age [until which time they are required to stay at the shelter]. I wanted to highlight this category of people that no one pays attention to.” Kazem also said, “All of the young men in the shelter have pale faces. They are uncomfortable and do not receive high-quality rehabilitation so they can return to normal city life.”

Wissam had repeatedly told the police and the homeless shelter that he had family in Babil province awaiting his return. His appeals, however, went unheeded. No one tried to reunite him with his family or to even inform them of his whereabouts.

Kazem said she was surprised when her office received a telephone call from Wissam’s family, requesting that they be put in contact with him. He had appeared frightened and weak in the shelter.

Although the news report helped reconnect Wissam with his family, after four years in the homeless shelter, they have not been reunited. The legal procedures involved would cost the boy’s family a good deal of money, which it does not have.

Baghdad has a number of homeless communities with people ranging between 10 and 20 years of age. In Liberation Square, in the center of the city, a group of homeless beg while others pickpocket passersby or steal from the shops in nearby areas. Most of them do not have homes or families to protect them. Some sleep in the streets, while others have joined begging networks that provide them with shelter.

One homeless young man in the Karada district of central Baghdad told Al-Monitor, “[There is] coordination between some of the beggars’ networks and the police, which prevents us from being arrested.” Nonetheless, there are other dangers. A security source informed Al-Monitor, “Armed groups exploit the homeless in some provinces of Iraq.” He added, “A number of those [who got involved with armed groups] have been arrested, and they are now in juvenile prison.”

There are only two homeless shelters in Iraq — one for males and one for females. While there are no official figures available on the number of homeless, various unofficial statistics estimate that they exceed 500,000.

Kazem’s story sparked reactions in the street and on Iraqi social networking sites, raising questions about the steps that the government should take to return people to their families or to integrate them into society after having been neglected. Kazem noted, “The shelters’ dealings with the media are fraught with concerns,” and further explained, “They are afraid of journalists entering the shelters, for fear of exposing themselves to criticism.”

Wathiq Sadiq, a social researcher, told Al-Monitor, “If homeless shelters don’t rely on actual programs, within the framework of the adequate economic and social conditions, then their results will not be as efficient as required.” He observed, “These shelters, despite the many changes that occurred in Iraq post-2003, are still unable to truly perform their tasks. This is because they are subject to the general reality [in the country], which is largely characterized by confusion.”

Sadiq also explained, “There is currently no clear governmental program to guarantee the elimination, or even reduction, of negative social phenomena, including homelessness.” He stressed, “Homelessness is one of the most common channels [leading to] behavioral and social deviation. … The government, represented by state institutions, is the primary one responsible for imposing the agreed-upon social order and thus ensuring socially acceptable standards of conduct.”

Source: al-Monitor.


November 13, 2014

CAYKARA, Turkey (AP) — Their collars pulled up against the evening cold, a group of men and women peer through binoculars, scanning the fields along a barbed wire fence. A few kilometers (miles) away across the Turkish border, black smoke rises from the besieged Kurdish Syrian town of Kobani, the dull thud of mortars carrying across on the breeze.

They are some of the hundreds of volunteers, predominantly Turkish Kurds, who have traveled from villages, towns and cities across southeastern Turkey and even from Istanbul, to keep watch on the border. They are on the lookout for potential fighters of the extremist Islamic State group attempting to cross into Kobani, besieged since mid-September by IS and defended by Kurdish Syrian fighters known as the People’s Protection Units.

“To be honest, we don’t trust (the Turkish border guards), because we have seen many occasions that the Turkish government has loosened its borders for ISIS fighters, weapons and logistical support to cross,” said Ibrahim Binici, a Kurdish lawmaker for the left-wing HDP party, which put out a call in September for the volunteers.

It’s a claim Turkey vehemently rejects. But the deep distrust of Turkish authorities in the border area reflects Turkey’s complicated attitude toward the Islamic extremists who captured swaths of Iraq and Syria, and its strained relations with its own Kurdish population.

The country’s reluctance to join a U.S.-led international coalition action against IS in Syria and Iraq, mainly through airstrikes, has frustrated Turkey’s American and European allies. Ankara, however, insists the priority should be the unseating of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose 2011 crackdown on protesters sparked an uprising that soon spun into a vicious civil war.

Turkey’s position on IS is “ambivalent at best, uncertain at worse,” said Serhat Guvenc, international relations professor at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. One reason, Guvenc explained, is that Turkey suspects IS “is here to stay” — that the group will eventually become part of the Sunni establishment in Syria and Iraq, which also borders Turkey. Ankara therefore fears it will inevitably have to deal with the group.

Another is the Kurdish issue. Separatists, mainly led by the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, have fought a 30-year guerrilla war in Turkey’s southeast which has left tens of thousands dead. An uneasy ceasefire has been in place for only about two years. The PKK is on the terrorist list of Turkey, the European Union and the U.S., and Ankara is deeply suspicious of the People’s Protection Units, which it views as an extension of the PKK.

When the IS onslaught in Kobani began, Turkish Kurds were furious that their government was not doing more against IS or allowing them to cross into Syria to help fellow Kurds defend the town from extremists beheading prisoners and carrying out mass executions. Riots in predominantly Kurdish towns and cities ensued, leaving more than a dozen people dead.

But Kurdish resistance in Kobani has been a major public relations success for the Kurds, who have managed — along with the coalition airstrikes — to prevent IS from taking the town. “Empowerment of the Kurds in the region is kind of upsetting the Turkish positions … because they’re getting credit as the only group in the region that could put up a fight and win against ISIS,” said Guvenc.

However, he noted, credit was due to Ankara for recently allowing 150 Peshmerga troops — Kurdish fighters from northern Iraq — to cross through Turkey to bolster the People’s Protection Units with artillery in Kobani.

Binici, the Kurdish member of parliament, said the border observers’ main aim was to prevent “the mass passage of IS fighters, since you cannot control individuals. … We believe that we managed to stop that.”

About 10,000 people responded to the initial call for volunteers and were deployed in 10 villages. Now, about 2,000-3,000 people remain in three villages, numbers falling due to winter weather and what activists said was targeting by Turkish authorities with tear gas and rubber bullets.

“We’ve had police intervening and we had many injuries” from the tear gas,” said Ipek Gunes, a volunteer from the city of Mardin. In the villages still hosting volunteers, tents stand among mud and concrete brick houses and meals are provided in outdoor communal kitchens, with everyone taking turns to cook stews in vats over wood fires.

With a roughly 900-kilometer border with Syria and 330-kilometer border with Iraq, Turkey’s attraction as an entry point for fighters is obvious. Ankara insists it has cracked down. Checks have increased at ports and airports, a government official said, with 2,000 people interrogated, 1,400 deported and more than 7,000 people denied entry into Turkey since October 2013.

The official, who was not authorized to comment on the issue and therefore demanded anonymity, said allegations of cooperation between border guards and IS fighters were “deliberate disinformation.” The army had strengthened border security with fences, thermal cameras and patrols, the official said — but added that authorities “can’t check every meter” of the border. The official also noted that hundreds of wounded fighters from the People’s Protection Units had been treated in Turkish hospitals.

The foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment. The credibility of reports that Turkish guards are ignoring IS fighters crossing the border — or even helping them — is hotly contested. Fighters of the People’s Protection Units also cross the border, often using smuggling routes.

“What we are witnessing is part reality, partly constructed reality. There is a big PR war going on, on both sides,” said Guvenc. “It seems that the Kurds are more successful at this level of struggle.”

Mohammed Rasool contributed from Caykara.