Archive for November 15, 2014

June 11, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi security officials say al-Qaida-inspired militants have seized the northern city of Tikrit.

The two officials in Baghdad told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Saddam Hussein’s hometown was under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, whose fighters this week took control of Mosul, the country’s second largest city.

The officials say the provincial governor based in the city is missing. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to release the information.

June 10, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — In a stunning assault that exposed Iraq’s eroding central authority, al-Qaida-inspired militants overran much of Mosul on Tuesday, seizing government buildings, pushing out security forces and capturing military vehicles as thousands of residents fled the second-largest city.

The rampage by the black banner-waving insurgents was a heavy defeat for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as he tries to hold onto power, and highlighted the growing strength of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The group has been advancing in both Iraq and neighboring Syria, capturing territory in a campaign to set up a militant enclave straddling the border.

There were no immediate estimates on how many people were killed in the assault, a stark reminder of the reversals in Iraq since U.S. forces left in late 2011. Earlier this year, Islamic State fighters took control of Fallujah, and government forces have been unable to take it back.

Mosul is a much bigger, more strategic prize. The city and surrounding Ninevah province, which is on the doorstep of Iraq’s relatively prosperous Kurdish region, are a major export route for Iraqi oil and a gateway to Syria.

“This isn’t Fallujah. This isn’t a place you can just cordon off and forget about,” said Michael Knights, a regional security analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s essential to Iraq.”

Al-Maliki pressed parliament to declare a state of emergency that would grant him greater powers, saying the public and government must unite “to confront this vicious attack, which will spare no Iraqi.” Legal experts said these powers could include imposing curfews, restricting public movements and censoring the media.

State TV said lawmakers would convene Thursday. Parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni from Mosul, called the rout “a disaster by any standard.” Regaining Mosul poses a daunting challenge for the Shiite prime minister. The city of about 1.4 milliion has a Sunni Muslim majority and many in the community are already deeply embittered against his Shiite-led government. During the nearly nine-year American presence in the country, Mosul was a major stronghold for al-Qaida. U.S. and Iraqi forces carried out repeated offensives there, regaining a semblance of control but never routing the insurgents entirely.

“It’s going to be difficult to reconstitute the forces to clear and hold the city,” Knights said. “There aren’t a lot of spare forces around Iraq.” White House spokesman Josh Earnest deplored what he called the “despicable” acts of violence against civilians in Mosul. He said Washington is committed to its partnership with Baghdad but is urging the government to take steps to be more inclusive of all Iraqis.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attacks across Iraq in recent days “that have killed and wounded scores of civilians.” He urged all political leaders “to show national unity against the threats facing Iraq, which can only be addressed on the basis of the constitution and within the democratic political process,” according to U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

Insurgents and Iraqi troops have been fighting for days in Mosul, but the security forces’ hold appeared to collapse late Monday night and early Tuesday. Gunmen overran the Ninevah provincial government building — a key symbol of state control — Monday evening, and the governor fled the city. The fighters stormed police stations, bases and prisons, capturing weapons and freeing inmates. Security forces melted away, abandoning many of their posts, and militants seized large caches of weapons.

They took control of the city’s airport and captured helicopters, as well as an airbase 60 kilometers (40 miles) south of the city, the parliament speaker said. Later Tuesday, Islamic State fighters took over the large town of Hawija, 125 kilometers (75 miles) south of Mosul, according to officials there.

On Tuesday, the militants appeared to hold much of the eastern half of Mosul, which is bisected by the Tigris River. Residents said fighters were raising the black banners that are the emblem of the Islamic State.

Video taken from a car driving through the streets of Mosul and posted online showed burning vehicles in the streets, black-masked gunmen in pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns, and residents walking with suitcases.

ISIL supporters posted photos on social media showing fighters next to Humvees and other U.S.-made military vehicles captured from Iraqi forces. The video and photos appeared authentic and matched Associated Press reporting of the events.

A government employee who lives about a mile from the provincial headquarters, Umm Karam, said she left with her family Tuesday morning. “The situation is chaotic inside the city and there is nobody to help us,” she said “We are afraid. … There is no police or army in Mosul.” She spoke on condition she be identified only by her nickname for fear of her safety.

An estimated 500,000 people have fled Mosul, according to a U.N. spokesman in New York, citing the International Organization for Migration. The spokesman said aid organizations hope to reach those in need with food, water, sanitation and other essential supplies as soon as the volatile security situation permits.

The Islamic State has ramped up its insurgency over the past two years, presenting itself as the Sunni community’s champion against al-Maliki’s government The group was once al-Qaida’s branch in Iraq, but under its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi it has escalated its ambitions, sending fighters into Syria to join the rebellion against President Bashar Assad. Its jihadists became notorious as some of the most ruthless fighters in the rebellion — and other rebels turned against it, accusing it of trying to hijack the movement. Al-Qaida’s central command, angered over its intervention in Syria, threw the group out of the terrorist network.

But it has been making gains on both sides of the border. In Syria, it took control of an eastern provincial capital of Raqqa, and in the past month it has launched an offensive working its way toward the Iraqi border.

Islamic State fighters in eastern Syria crossed into Iraq to help their brethren in the Mosul area, activists on the Syrian side said. They tried to take the border crossing itself, but Kurdish fighters on either side fended them off. The militants were able to seize the nearest Iraqi town to the border, Rabeea, the activists said.

The group earlier this year took over Fallujah and parts of Sunni-dominated Anbar province, and has stepped up its long-running campaign of bombings and other violence in Baghdad and elsewhere. The Mosul crisis comes as al-Maliki is working to assemble a coalition after elections in late April, relying even more on Shiite parties. Sunnis and Kurds have grown increasingly disillusioned with al-Maliki, accusing him of dominating power.

The autonomous Kurdish region in the north has its own armed forces — the peshmerga — and on Tuesday, the region’s prime minister suggested his willingness to intervene beyond the formal borders of the self-ruled enclave. That could be politically explosive, since the Mosul region lies on Kurdistan’s doorstep, has a significant Kurdish population, and the Kurds claim parts of the area.

Militant gains in territories the Kurds consider theirs could push them “to send in their own troops to protect communities they consider as part of their jurisdiction,” said Jordan Perry, an analyst at risk analysis firm Maplecroft.

Kurdistan’s prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, sharply criticized Baghdad’s handling of the Mosul crisis, saying the Kurds had tried unsuccessfully to work with Iraqi security forces to protect the city.

“Tragically, Baghdad adopted a position which has prevented the establishment of this cooperation,” he said in a statement. Barzani urged the Kurds to aid those displaced from Mosul and called on the U.N. refugee agency to help with the relief effort. He said the peshmerga are prepared to handle security in areas outside the regional government’s jurisdiction — presumably referring to parts around Mosul inhabited by Kurds that are disputed with the central government.

Kurdish official Razgar Khoushnaw said about 10,000 Mosul residents took refuge Tuesday in the Kurdish province of Irbil, while security officials in neighboring Dahuk province said 5,000 displaced people were let in there.

Far larger numbers of people are believed to have fled Mosul for other communities in the Ninevah countryside.

Schreck reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Diaa Hadid and Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.


April 30, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq voted Wednesday in its first nationwide election since U.S. troops withdrew in 2011, with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki confident of victory and even offering an olive branch to his critics by inviting them to join him in a governing coalition.

But his optimism will do little to conceal the turmoil and violence that still stalk Iraq in the eight years he has held office, with the looming threat of the country sliding deeper into sectarian bloodshed and risking a breakup.

“Our victory is certain, but we are talking about how big is that certain success,” he said after voting in Baghdad. “Here we are today, successfully holding the … election while no foreign troops exist on Iraqi soil. I call upon all the other groups to leave the past behind and start a new phase of good brotherly relations,” said al-Maliki, who faces growing criticism over government corruption and persistent bloodshed as sectarian tensions threaten to push Iraq back toward the brink of civil war.

The election was held amid a massive security operation, with hundreds of thousands of troops and police deployed across the country to protect polling centers and voters. The streets of Baghdad, a city of 7 million, looked deserted. Police and soldiers manned checkpoints roughly 500 meters (yards) apart and pickup trucks mounted with machine guns roamed the streets that were otherwise devoid of the usual traffic jams.

Scattered attacks took place north and west of Baghdad, killing at least five people and wounding 16. Roadside bombs killed two women and two election workers in the northern town of Dibis. Al-Maliki’s upbeat comments sharply contrasted with voters’ sentiments, which ranged from despair to a gritty resolve to participate despite the threat of violence.

“I see this election as the last chance, my last bet on Iraq. If things continue to be the same, I will leave, and this time for good,” said Saad Sadiq Mustafa, a 55-year-old retired army officer who fled with his family to neighboring Syria to escape the worst Sunni-Shiite violence of 2006 and 2007 and came home in 2008. A Sunni Arab and a father of four from Baghdad, Mustafa voted for Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who became Iraq’s first post-Saddam Hussein prime minister in 2004.

“We are living in a diverse country in which only seculars can maintain a balance between all ethnic and religious groups,” he said. Al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc was widely expected to win the most seats in the 328-member parliament but fall short of a majority, according to analysts. That would allow al-Maliki to keep his post only if he can cobble together a coalition — a task that took nine months after the last election in 2010.

Even some of his onetime Shiite backers accuse him of trying to amass power for himself, but many in the majority sect see no alternative to the 63-year-old al-Maliki or are looking for a successor who would follow in his footsteps and jealously guard Shiite political domination.

However, al-Maliki enjoys the crucial support of neighboring powerhouse Iran, which aides have said will use the vast influence it enjoys in Iraq to push discontented Shiite factions into backing him for another term.

Salam Ibrahim, a 25-year-old engineer and father of one, is a Shiite who places the sect’s interests above all else. “I believe the main mission of the leader I am looking for is to continue fighting for the survival of the Shiite community and force those who oppose it to acknowledge its right to govern as the majority,” he said as he headed to vote in central Baghdad.

Al-Maliki said he would have no objection to an alliance with any other bloc, provided it denounced sectarianism and worked for Iraq’s unity. But the Kurds had already suggested they will not be part of a coalition he leads, while some of his onetime Shiite allies may want to join with the Sunnis and Kurds to push al-Maliki out of contention.

“We have decided that joining an alliance with the prime minister is a red line for us,” parliament’s Sunni speaker Osama al-Nujaifi said as he voted. Last year, he called on al-Maliki to step down, accusing him of consolidating power in his hands.

Another thorny issue likely to dominate the post-election political scene is who gets to be the next president. The incumbent, ailing elderly statesman Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, has served the maximum two terms. His departure will revive calls by Iraqi Arabs, Shiite and Sunnis alike, for an Arab president. That, in turn, will strain relations between Baghdad and the self-ruled Kurdish region in the north, which are already tense over Baghdad’s perceived meddling in Kurdish affairs.

In a statement, the U.N. Security Council welcomed the election and urged “Iraq’s leaders to engage, as quickly as possible, to form a Government that represents the will and sovereignty of the Iraqi people.”

For the election, stores were closed and many had long walks to the polls after authorities banned civilian vehicles to prevent car bombs. Voters were searched multiple times before being allowed inside polling centers, and surrounding streets were blocked by police trucks and barbed wire.

Hamid al-Hemiri and his wife, Haifaa Ahmed, walked five kilometers (three miles) to vote in Baghdad’s Mansour district. “We were determined to take part in the election to save our country and so that future generations don’t curse us,” he said. His wife added: “I am voting to stop the bloodshed in my country. Enough sorrow and pain.”

Turnout of Iraq’s 22 million eligible voters was estimated at about 60 percent, according to Muqdad al-Shuraifi, a senior election commission member. The figure, he explained, excluded “restive areas.”

They chose from more than 9,000 candidates. Authorities did not offer a timetable for releasing results, but they were expected to start trickling in to election officials in the coming days. In 2010, results weren’t announced for about two weeks.

“I decided to go and vote early while it’s safe. Crowds attract attacks,” said Azhar Mohammed, a mother of four who voted with her husband shortly after 7 a.m. in Baghdad’s mainly Shiite Karradah district. The 37-year-old woman said her brother — a soldier — was killed last week in the northern city of Mosul.

“There has been a big failure in the way the country has been run and I think it is time to elect new people,” she said, shrouded in black. Not far away, 72-year-old Essam Shukr wept as he remembered a son killed in a suicide bombing in Karradah last month. “I hope this election takes us to the shores of safety,” he said. “We want a better life for our sons and grandchildren who cannot even go to playgrounds or amusement parks because of the bad security situation.”

In Baghdad’s mostly Shiite Sadr City district, for years a frequent target of bombings blamed on Sunni insurgents, elite counterterrorism forces were deployed and helicopters hovered. Double-decker buses took voters to the polls.

“We want to see real change in this country and real security. We are not happy with the performance of the current government and parliament,” said 18-year-old Zulfikar Majid, a first-time voter in Baghdad’s mainly Shiite Habibiya neighborhood.

Another first-time voter, Umm Jaafar of the southern city of Basra, said she had boycotted past elections because of the U.S. troops in Iraq. “We hope that today’s election would lead to change the current government, which has let us down despite all the money it has,” she said as she and two of her children, also first-time voters, came out of a polling center in the mainly Shiite city.

Al-Maliki rose from relative obscurity to office in 2006, when sectarian violence began to spiral out of control, with Sunni militants and Shiite militias butchering each other. The bloodshed ebbed by 2008 after U.S.-backed Sunni tribesmen rose up to fight al-Qaida-linked militants and Shiite militias declared a cease-fire.

But attacks have surged in the past year, fueled in part by al-Maliki’s moves last year to crush protests by Sunnis complaining of discrimination. Militants took over the city of Fallujah in Sunni-dominated Anbar province and parts of the provincial capital of Ramadi.

Army and police forces battling them for months have been unable to take most areas back, and voting was not held in parts of the vast province bordering Jordan and Syria. The insurgents also have been emboldened by the civil war in Syria, where rebels are fighting to oust the regime of President Bashar Assad, a follower of a Shiite offshoot sect. The rebels are dominated by Islamists and members of al-Qaida-linked or inspired groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Shiite militiamen from Iraq fight on the side of Assad’s forces.

Last year, the death toll in Iraq climbed to its highest levels since the worst of the sectarian strife in 2006 and 2007. The U.N. says 8,868 people were killed in 2013, and about 2,000 people were killed in the first three months of this year.

Retired army officer Abu Abdullah, a native of Amiriyat Fallujah in Anbar who would not give his full name, boycotted the vote over what he said was the failure of Sunni Arab politicians to protect their community.

“I am not ready to take a risk or even be killed for the sake of corrupt people who might be in the next parliament or government because I am sure they will make a deal with al-Maliki and forget about us.”

Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.

April 29, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — If Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wins a third four-year term in parliamentary elections Wednesday, he is likely to rely on a narrow sectarian Shiite base, only fueling divisions as Iraq slides deeper into bloody Shiite-Sunni hatreds.

After eight years in power, al-Maliki is facing sharper criticism from all sides. The Sunni minority views him as a diehard champion of Shiite power. His former Kurdish allies now shun him, accusing him of trying to impose Baghdad’s power over their autonomous region in the north. And even some of al-Maliki’s Shiite backers denounce him as a would-be dictator, amassing power for himself.

The 63-year-old al-Maliki is still seen as likely to keep his post. Many in the Shiite majority see no alternative, and he holds a trump card — the support of neighboring powerhouse Iran, which al-Maliki’s own aides say will use its weight to push discontented Shiite factions into backing him for another term.

That, however, could mean a victory on an even narrower base than in his re-election four years ago, when he barely managed to cobble together enough Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni backers to form a government.

The Shiite al-Maliki rose from relative obscurity to office in 2006, when Iraq’s sectarian bloodletting began to spiral out of control, with Sunni militants and Shiite militias butchering each other’s communities. He quickly became known for a tough hand, working in alliance with American forces in the country since the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Over the years that followed, Sunni tribes backed by the Americans rose up to fight al-Qaida-linked militants, while al-Maliki showed a readiness to rein in Shiite militiamen — and by 2008, the violence had eased.

Since the withdrawal of American forces in late 2011, however, it has swelled again, stoked in part by al-Maliki. His moves last year to crush protests by Sunnis complaining of discrimination under his Shiite-led government sparked a new wave of violence by militants, who took over the city of Fallujah in the western, Sunni-dominated province of Anbar and parts of the provincial capital Ramadi. Iraqi army and police forces battling them for months have been unable to take most areas back.

At the same time, many Iraqis increasingly complain of government corruption and the failure to rebuild the economy. “Al-Maliki has had enough chance to prove himself, but he failed,” said Hassan Karim, a university graduate from Baghdad’s Shiite Sadr City district. “Iraqis lack security, services and housing. The only two things available in the country right now are corruption and checkpoints.”

The normally aloof al-Maliki has struck a populist tone in his campaign, aiming to show he is tackling problems like corruption and poverty that cross sectarian boundaries. He has distributed plots of land to poor Iraqis in ceremonies carried live on state television. He made heavily televised visits to government departments that provide vital services, like car registration and ID and passport offices, comforting Iraqis standing in line. During one visit, he berated an employee for being insensitive to the hardships endured by Iraqis seeking services.

In a slick campaign video, he speaks of growing up in a village south of Baghdad in a family of clan chiefs and fondly recalls playing football and swimming in a local river. He affectionately remembers a grandfather who used his poetry to criticize British colonial rule and talks of his own love for Iraq.

“I believe the election will not produce a prime minister better than al-Maliki. He is the lesser of many evils,” said hotel employee Mohammed Hadi, a Shiite from eastern Baghdad. “Al-Maliki has good experience … Any other prime minister will be starting from scratch.”

Al-Maliki’s political bloc, State of Law, is widely expected to win the most seats in Wednesday’s election for a new, 328-seat parliament. But cobbling together a majority in the chamber so he can be the next prime minister will be the tough part. It took months of tortuous negotiations after the 2010 elections to put together a coalition to ensure al-Maliki’s re-election.

This time the discontent among his allies is even stronger, with complaints that al-Maliki has monopolized power and put his trust in a handful of close aides and relatives. Prominent Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, recently issued a fatwa, or religious decree, saying his Sadrist group, a one-time backer of al-Maliki, will no longer support him.

“I offer brother al-Maliki a piece of advice: Forget about a third term,” said al-Sadr, a fiercely anti-American cleric whose movement holds about 40 seats in the outgoing parliament. The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a major Shiite party that was part of every ruling coalition since Saddam’s ouster, has been less than enthusiastic about a third term for al-Maliki and forged a tactical alliance with the Sadrists.

Also, one of Iraq’s top Shiite clerics, Grand Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi, issued a startling statement calling on voters not to elect al-Maliki, though he avoided mentioning him by name. The Pakistani-born al-Najafi has the smallest following from among Iraq’s top four grand ayatollahs, based in the holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad. But his thinly veiled denunciation of al-Maliki was unprecedented.

“We had hoped after Saddam that we will have freedom and the Iraqis will live in peace … Four years after four years, and the dead and wounded are in the hundreds,” he said. “Where does all the money go?”

An aide to al-Maliki, Sheik Halim al-Zuheiri, said al-Najafi’s comments were “regrettable” and violated what he called the traditional neutrality on political matters by Najaf’s Shiite religious establishment.

Iraq’s powerful Kurdish minority, which has had its own self-ruled region in the north since 1991, has also fallen out with al-Maliki. In a strongly worded statement this week, the Kurdish zone’s government described al-Maliki’s eight years in power as among the worst in Iraq’s history, something traditionally reserved for Saddam’s rule.

“There is not a single Kurdish party that is prepared to commit political suicide by entering an alliance with a man who does not believe in the rights of Kurdish people and stands against them,” said the statement.

Al-Maliki’s Shiite and Kurdish rivals could try to forge an alliance with Sunnis to push al-Maliki out. The Supreme Council has hinted at possible alternatives, such as former interior and finance minister Bayan Jabr. But he and other possibilities are seen as unlikely to be able to rally enough support.

A top al-Maliki aide predicted Iran would push rival Shiite groups to close ranks behind al-Maliki to retain political dominance, as it did in 2010. “Iran will be looking for someone to protect its interests … There have not been any problems between al-Maliki and Iran during his time in power,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the backroom politics.

The Sunnis are deep in a predicament of their own. Fighting in Anbar will make voting impossible in some areas, reducing their voice. “Iraq’s Sunni Arab component stands to lose a great deal in this election because they are under siege,” Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni, told The Associated Press.

“They have reached such a deep state of despair and fear that they see no reason to go and vote. Today, many Sunnis see secession as a possible solution.”

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