Archive for November 16, 2014

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

A senior Sunni leader in Iraq has claimed that ISIS fighters make up less than one-third of the rebels in the country. Major General Montasir Al-Anbari said that the decision to form the Sunni fighting groups was taken by clerics and tribesmen in the wake of the Hawija Protest Massacre, which was carried out by the Iraqi army in May last year; dozens were killed and wounded in the incident.

Al-Anbari stressed that the formation of the fighting groups was decided in a meeting of all Sunni groups apart from ISIS. He did not disclose the place of the meeting, but said that some groups suggested starting action after the elections, giving a chance for Al-Maliki to respond to their demands for reform.

ISIS, he said, asked to join the groups several months after their formation and asked to be part of the Sunni military action. Many reservations were expressed, claimed Al-Anbari, before it was agreed to accept the ISIS request.

“Without doubt, though, we are worried about unilateral movements of ISIS because they attacked the city of Telafer and kidnapped the Turkish consul,” said Al-Anbari, “and they are threatening to head to Baghdad, Karbala and Al-Najaf.” All of this, he insisted, violates the agreement reached between the Sunni rebel groups. “In any case, ISIS only forms around 30 per cent of the rebel fighters but it is linked to us by certain agreements and recognizes that it cannot face other fighting groups.”

According to the rebel general, any political solution on the ground that meets the demands of the Sunnis and saves them from Al-Maliki’s oppression will be accepted.

Source: Middle East Monitor.


June 17, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — The Iraqi soldiers tell of how they can hardly live with the shame of their rout under the onslaught of the Islamic militants. Their commanders disappeared. Pleas for more ammunition went unanswered. Troops ran from post to post only to find them already taken by gunmen, forcing them to flee.

“I see it in the eyes of my family, relatives and neighbors,” one lieutenant-colonel who escaped the militants’ sweep over the northern city of Mosul told The Associated Press. “I am as broken and ashamed as a bride who is not a virgin on her wedding night.”

Iraq’s military has been deeply shaken by their collapse in the face of fighters led by the al-Qaida breakaway group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, who in the course of just over a week overran Mosul then stormed toward Baghdad, seizing town after town, several cities and army base after army base over a large swath of territory.

The impact is hurting efforts to rally the armed forces to fight back. Shiite militiamen and volunteers have had to fill the void as the regular army struggles to regroup. Top commanders have been put under investigation. Conspiracy theories are running rampant to explain the meltdown. Some Shiite allies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have accused Kurds in the north of encouraging the military collapse so they could grab territory and weapons for themselves — an accusation that they’ve provided no proof for but that is straining already tense ties with the Kurdish autonomous zone, where officials deny the claim.

On Tuesday, al-Maliki retired three generals who had been deployed in Mosul and ordered legal proceedings against them. He also dismissed a brigadier general and ordered his court martial in absentia. He said he planned to retire off or court martial more senior officers, but gave no details.

Already he had ordered the questioning of the military’s Chief of Joint Operations Gen. Abboud Gambar and the ground forces commander Gen. Ali Gheidan, according to security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. The two face no charges and no legal action has been taken against them.

Al-Maliki has also vowed to bring the full weight of military law, including the execution of deserters, on anyone who is found out to have fled the battle. Al-Maliki is trying to turn the armed forces around. He told army commanders and volunteers in a rally south of Baghdad this week that the rout served as a much needed wake-up call. He said it would lead to the exposure and punishment of military commanders and politicians he accuses of betraying their country. He has also cryptically blamed conspiracies, acts of treachery and meddling Arab nations.

The blow was particularly harsh in a country that has traditionally prided itself on the prowess of its soldiers, with the faith of its Shiite majority immersed in a narrative of martyrdom that is rooted in the fabled bravery of its saints.

In an attempt to restore faith in the armed forces, state-run Iraqiya television has been airing little over the past week besides clips of troops and police marching or in action, helicopters strafing what is purportedly militants’ positions and soldiers and policemen performing traditional dancing with civilians.

Members of the political coalition led by al-Maliki openly accused the Kurdish self-rule government of collusion with the Islamic militants in the capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, by doing nothing to prevent its fall. They said Kurdish fighters illegally seized large quantities of weapons and equipment left behind by fleeing Iraqi troops.

After the seizure of Mosul, Kurdish fighters deployed in the vital oil city of Kirkuk in the north and parts of Diyala province northeast of Baghdad that the Kurds have long claimed as their own. Al-Maliki’s allies have not produced evidence to back up their claims, which the Kurds categorically denied. The Kurds say they moved into the areas to protect them after Iraqi government forces left. Otherwise, Islamic State fighters would have taken them, they argue.

And in what seemed an implicit dig at the military’s rout, the prime minister of the Kurdish region, Nechirvan Barzani, dismissed Baghdad’s charges as “running away from the truth.” The breakdown is rooted in multiple factors. Even after the United States spent billions of dollars training the armed forces during its 2003-2011 military presence in Iraq, the 1 million-member army and police remain riven by sectarian discontents, corruption and a lack of professionalism.

The territory that the Islamic State has captured has an overwhelmingly Sunni population, where resentment is high against al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government because of what they see as discrimination against their communities. Sunnis in the armed forces are hesitant to be seen fighting for al-Maliki, and Shiite troops deployed in Sunni areas feel isolated and vulnerable amid hostile territory. Morale in the military is already low in a battle against a Sunni insurgency that has grown the past two years, with desertions rife, particularly by Sunnis.

At the time Islamic State fighters overran Mosul a week ago, there were about 50,000 federal and regular local police in the city and two army divisions totaling about 24,000 troops. The federal police were largely Shiites, the locals mainly Sunnis from Mosul. One of the army divisions was mixed Sunni-Shiite and the other was mainly composed of Kurds.

Among the troops who escaped Mosul, the humiliation hits deep. The lieutenant colonel, a Shiite who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because of fears of reprisals, had been stationed in an air base in Mosul. They received orders to pull out and fall back to their division headquarters, but when they got there they found it had already been captured by militants who were looting its arsenals. So he and his comrades fled to the city of Kirkuk, to the southeast, then proceeded to Baghdad.

He said they were detained briefly at a checkpoint near Baghdad and questioned by other soldiers why they fled — a further shame. “I have been fighting in Mosul for five years, we never ran away. Some of us were killed and injured, but we never ran away,” he said. “Now, people tell me we are cowards, can you imagine? I cannot sleep. Death is more merciful.”

Montazar al-Rubiae, a member of the paramilitary federal police force in Mosul, said his unit battled for 18 hours against militant fighters in Mosul until they ran out of ammunitions. Their calls for reinforcements and ammunition went unanswered. They pulled back to their headquarters, where they heard other federal police had fled, putting on civilian clothes and abandoning their weapons. His unit redeployed and fought more, but then pulled back to a checkpoint on Mosul’s southern outskirts — which they too found already taken by militants.

They received orders to withdraw — and the commander of his brigade and his top aides quickly left in three pickup trucks. “When we tried to get a lift with them, they just drove on in the direction of Irbil,” he said, referring to the nearby capital of the Kurdish autonomous zone.

Then the remains of his unit came under attack, prompting them to change into civilian clothes and flee for Kurdish areas. “They came out from everywhere and started hunting us one after the other, like birds,” he said.

17 Jun 2014

Sunni rebels have briefly held parts of Baquba, the provincial capital of Diyala province, just 60km north of Baghdad before being repelled by government forces following a battle that left dozens dead.

Three police officers said on Tuesday that the police station in Baquba, which has a small jail, came under attack overnight by the Sunni fighters of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant armed group who tried to free the Sunni detainees, the AP news agency reported.

The officers said Shia gunmen, who rushed to defend the facility, killed the detainees at close range. A morgue official in Baquba said many of the dead had bullet wounds to the head and chest. All four officials spoke on condition of anonymity fearing for their own safety.

Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, reporting from Baghdad, said at least 63 prisoners were reported killed by the Shia gunmen, according to local sources, but the government released a statement blaming ISIL for the killings in Baquba.

“So clearly there is an information war going on here as well as that battle for Baquba,” Khan said.

Meanwhile, Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister, fired the country’s four top security officers for the fall of another city, Mosul, a government statement said later on Tuesday.

Battle near Kirkuk

Sunni rebels also attacked a northern Iraqi village of Basheer, 15km south of Kirkuk city, inhabited by Shia ethnic Turkmens, police said on Tuesday.

The fighters, using mortar and machineguns, were beaten back from Basheer after an hour of clashes with local gunmen and police forces assisted by forces from a nearby Iraqi Kurdish semi-autonomous region, police said.

A senior Kurdish police brigadier was wounded and six of his bodyguards were killed in the clashes, police said.

Meanwhile, the gunmen loyal to the rebel Free Syrian Army and al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front took control of al-Qaim, the Iraqi side of a border crossing with Syria, on Tuesday after Iraqi security forces withdrew, police and army officers told the AFP news agency.

Source: al-Jazeera.


June 17, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — In a sign of Iran’s deepening involvement in the Iraqi crisis, the commander of Tehran’s elite Quds Force is helping Iraq’s military and Shiite militias gear up to fight the Sunni insurgents advancing across the country, officials said Monday.

Washington signaled a new willingness work with Iran to help the Iraqi government stave off the insurgency after years of trying to limit Tehran’s influence in Baghdad — a dramatic shift that would have been unthinkable a few weeks ago.

The United States is deploying up to 275 military troops to Iraq to protect the U.S. Embassy and other American interests and is considering sending a contingent of special forces soldiers. But the White House insisted anew the U.S. would not be sending combat troops and thrusting America into a new Iraq war.

The insurgents seized the strategic city of Tal Afar near the Syrian border Monday, part of its goal of linking areas under its control on both sides of the Iraq-Syria frontier. West of Baghdad, an army helicopter was shot down during clashes near the city of Fallujah, killing the two-man crew, security officials said.

The Quds Force commander, Iranian Gen. Ghasem Soleimani, has been consulting in Iraq on how to roll back the al-Qaida-breakaway group, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, according to Iraqi security officials.

Soleimani’s presence in Iraq is likely to fuel longtime Sunni suspicions about the Shiite-led government’s close ties with Tehran. The security officials said the U.S. government was notified before Soleimani’s visit.

Soleimani has been inspecting Iraqi defenses and reviewing plans with top commanders and Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militias, the officials said. He has set up an operations room to coordinate the militias and visited the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala south of Baghdad, home to the most revered Shiite shrines, and areas west of Baghdad where government forces have faced off with Islamic militants for months.

The Islamic State has vowed to march to Baghdad, Karbala and Najaf in the worst threat to Iraq’s stability since U.S. troops left in 2011. A call to arms Friday from Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, gave prominence to the need to defend the holy shrines.

Soleimani’s visit adds significantly to the sectarian slant of the mobilization by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Armed Shiite militiamen have been parading on the streets and volunteers joining the security forces are chanting Shiite religious slogans.

Al-Maliki rejects charges of sectarianism and points to recruiting efforts by some Sunni clerics, but there is no evidence of Sunnis joining the fight against the Islamic State in significant numbers, if at all.

The legitimacy accorded by his government to the Shiite militias poses a risk of Iraq sliding back into the deadly sectarian bloodshed of 2006 and 2007. Such tensions were rising months before the Islamic State’s lightning incursion of last week, with thousands killed since late last year. Bombings killed Shiites and security forces as militants took hold of vast territory and at least one city in the mainly Sunni Anbar province west of Baghdad.

Soleimani is one of the most powerful figures in Iran’s security establishment, and his Quds Force is a secretive branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard involved in external operations. In the mid-2000s, it organized Shiite militias in a campaign against U.S. troops in Iraq, according to American officials. More recently, it has been involved in helping Syrian President Bashar Assad in his fight against Sunni rebels.

His visit and the empowerment of the Shiite militias that his Quds Force trains and arms means Iran could take a role in Iraq similar to the one it plays in Syria. The Quds Force — along with Iraqi and Lebanese Shiite fighters — has been crucial to the survival of Assad, himself a member of a sect that is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in an interview with Yahoo! News that Washington is “open to discussions” with Tehran if the Iranians can help end the violence and restore confidence in the Iraqi government.

A senior State Department official said the issue was briefly discussed with Iranian officials Monday on the sidelines of nuclear talks in Vienna. “We are open to engaging the Iranians, just as we are engaging other regional players,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official said any engagement with Iran “will not include military coordination or strategic determinations about Iraq’s future over the heads of the Iraqi people.” In a formal report to Congress, President Barack Obama said the troops in the deployment he was announcing would be equipped for combat and would remain in Iraq until the security situation improved. About 160 troops are already in Iraq, including 50 Marines and more than 100 Army soldiers.

Under the authorization Obama outlined Monday, a U.S. official said, the U.S. would put an additional 100 soldiers in a nearby third country where they would be held in reserve until needed. Separately, U.S. officials emphasized that a possible limited special forces mission — which has not yet been approved — would focus on training and advising beleaguered Iraqi troops, many of whom have fled their posts across the nation’s north and west.

The capture of the city of Tal Afar was a key prize for the militants because it sits on a main highway between Syria and Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which the Islamic State seized last week. Iraqi military officials said about 500 elite troops and volunteers were flown Monday to Tal Afar and preparing to try to retake the city.

Tal Afar, with a population of about 200,000, is located 420 kilometers (260 miles) northwest of Baghdad. Its residents are mostly ethnic Shiite and Sunni Turkomen, raising fears of atrocities by Islamic State fighters, who brand Shiites as heretics.

Over the weekend, the group posted graphic photos purporting to show its fighters killing scores of Iraqi soldiers captured when it overran other areas. Tal Afar Mayor Abdulal Abdoul said the city was taken just before dawn. One resident, Hadeer al-Abadi, said militants in pickup trucks mounted with machine guns and flying black jihadi banners roamed the streets as gunfire rang out.

The local security force fled before dawn, and local tribesman who continued to fight later surrendered to the militants, al-Abadi said as he prepared to leave town with his family. Another resident, Haidar al-Taie, said a warplane dropped barrels packed with explosives on militant positions inside the city Monday morning, and many Shiite families had left the town shortly after fighting broke out a day earlier.

“Residents are gripped by fear and most of them have already left the town for areas held by Kurdish security forces,” al-Abadi said. The city is just south of the self-rule Kurdish region and many residents were fleeing to the relatively safe territory, joining refugees from Mosul and other areas that have been captured by the militants.

Some 3,000 others from Tal Afar fled west to the neighboring town of Sinjar. Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Tal Afar was often hit by car bombings and other attacks by Sunni militants targeting its Turkomen minority.

At one point, after a major American offensive in 2006 to drive out insurgents, then-President George W. Bush declared Tal Afar a success story that shows “the outlines of the Iraq that we and the Iraqi people have been fighting for. … A free and secure people are getting back on their feet.”

Farther south, the ISIL militants battled government troops at Romanah, a village near another main border crossing to Syria in Anbar province, according to a security official in Baghdad. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

The Islamic State already controls territory in Syria in several regions next to the Iraq border. Its fighters move relatively freely across the porous, unprotected desert border, along with money, weapons and equipment. Seizing an actual border crossing, however, would be a major symbolic gain for the group.

Also Monday, militants ambushed a vehicle carrying off-duty soldiers to Samarra, a city north of Baghdad that is home to a much-revered Shiite shrine. Six soldiers were killed and four wounded, a government official said.

Security has been tightened around Baghdad, particularly on its northern and western edges, and food prices have dramatically gone up because of the transportation disruptions on the main road heading north from the capital.

Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Saad Maan Ibrahim said Iraqi security forces killed 56 “terrorists” and wounded 21 just outside the capital in the last 24 hours. He made no mention of Tal Afar.

Security at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has been strengthened and some staff members sent elsewhere in Iraq and to neighboring Jordan, the State Department said Sunday. The State Department also cautioned U.S. citizens to avoid all but essential travel to Iraq. The warning said the Baghdad International Airport was “struck by mortar rounds and rockets” and the international airport in Mosul also has been targeted.

A senior Baghdad airport official, Saad al-Khafagi, denied the facility or surrounding areas have been hit. State-run Iraqiya TV also denied the attack, quoting the Ministry of Transport. The United Nations said it has relocated 58 staff members from Baghdad, and may move additional personnel out of the capital due to security concerns.

Associated Press writers Matthew Lee, Lara Jakes and Julie Pace in Washington, George Jahn in Vienna, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad contributed to this report.


Kirkuk, Iraq (AFP)

June 12, 2014

Kurdish forces took control Thursday of the disputed Iraqi oil hub of Kirkuk to protect it against jihadists who have seized large chunks of neighboring territory, officials said.

Iraqi Kurds want to incorporate Kirkuk province into their autonomous region, a move Baghdad strongly opposes in a bitter, long-running dispute with them.

“We tightened our control of Kirkuk city and are awaiting orders to move toward the areas that are controlled by ISIL,” Brigadier General Shirko Rauf of the Kurdish peshmerga security forces told AFP.

He was referring to jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which has spearheaded a major offensive this week that has overrun all of one province and parts of two others, one of which is Kirkuk.

Meanwhile, Kirkuk Governor Najm al-Din Karim said Kurdish peshmerga forces were filling in gaps left by Iraqi soldiers who withdrew from their positions in the province.

“Army forces are no longer present, as happened in Mosul and Salaheddin,” Karim said.

Source: Space War.


June 12, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Al-Qaida-inspired militants pushed deeper into Iraq’s Sunni heartland Wednesday, swiftly conquering Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit as soldiers and security forces abandoned their posts and yielded ground once controlled by U.S. forces.

The advance into former insurgent strongholds that had largely been calm before the Americans withdrew less than three years ago is spreading fear that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, struggling to hold onto power after indecisive elections, will be unable to stop the Islamic militants as they press closer to Baghdad.

Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militant group took control Tuesday of much of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, sending an estimated half a million people fleeing from their homes. As in Tikrit, the Sunni militants were able to move in after police and military forces melted away after relatively brief clashes.

The group, which has seized wide swaths of territory, aims to create an Islamic emirate spanning both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. The capture of Mosul — along with the fall of Tikrit and the militants’ earlier seizure of the western city of Fallujah — have undone hard-fought gains against insurgents in the years following the 2003 invasion by U.S.-led forces.

The White House said the security situation has deteriorated over the past 24 hours and that the United States was “deeply concerned” about ISIL’s continued aggression. There were no reliable estimates of casualties or the number of insurgents involved, though several hundred gunmen were in Tikrit and more were fighting on the outskirts, said Mizhar Fleih, the deputy head of the municipal council of nearby Samarra. An even larger number of militants likely would have been needed to secure Mosul, a much bigger city.

The militants gained entry to the Turkish consulate in Mosul and held captive 48 people, including diplomats, police, consulate employees and three children, according to an official in the office of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkish officials believe the hostages are safe, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment to reporters on the sensitive issue.

The White House said in a statement that Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Erdogan and called for the safe and immediate return of the Turkish personnel and family members. “The Vice President told Prime Minister Erdogan that the United States is prepared to support Turkey’s efforts to bring about the safe return of its citizens.”

Turkish officials did not make any public comment on the seizure, but the state-run Anadolu Agency reported that Erdogan convened an emergency Cabinet meeting. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned the abductions and the seizure of Iraqi territory by the militants, urging “the international community to unite in showing solidarity with Iraq as it confronts this serious security challenge.”

“Terrorism must not be allowed to succeed in undoing the path towards democracy in Iraq,” Ban said. While the insurgents have advanced southward, Baghdad did not appear to be in imminent danger from a similar assault, although Sunni insurgents have stepped up car bombings and suicide attacks in the capital in recent months.

So far, ISIL fighters have stuck to the Sunni heartland and former Sunni insurgent strongholds where people are already alienated by the Shiite-led government over allegations of discrimination and mistreatment. The militants also would likely meet far stronger resistance, not only from government forces but by Shiite militias if they tried to advance on the capital.

Mosul, the capital of Ninevah province, and the neighboring Sunni-dominated province of Anbar share a long and porous border with Syria, where the Islamic State is also active. Mosul’s fall was a heavy defeat for al-Maliki. His Shiite-dominated political bloc came first in April 30 parliamentary elections — the first since the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011 — but failed to gain a majority, forcing him to try to build a governing coalition.

Al-Maliki said a “conspiracy” led to the massive security failure that allowed militants to capture Mosul, and warned that members of the security forces who fled rather than stand up to the militants should be punished.

He stopped short of assigning direct blame, however, choosing to focus instead on plans to fight back — without giving specifics. “We are working to solve the situation,” al-Maliki said. “We are regrouping the armed forces that are in charge of clearing Ninevah from those terrorists.”

Al-Maliki has pressed parliament to declare a state of emergency over the Mosul attack — a decision expected later this week. Iranian airlines cancelled all flights between Tehran and Baghdad due to security concerns, and the Islamic Republic has intensified security measures along its borders, Iran’s official IRNA news agency reported.

Shiite powerhouse Iran has strong ties with Iraq’s government. Some 17,000 Iranian pilgrims are in Iraq at any given time, the agency quoted Saeed Ohadi, the director of Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization, as saying.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest warned that the instability was rapidly becoming a humanitarian issue requiring a coordinated response by Iraq’s leaders to halt ISIL’s advance and wrest territory away from insurgents.

“We condemn ISIL’s despicable attack on the Turkish consulate in Mosul, and we call for the immediate release of Turkey’s kidnapped diplomatic and security personnel, Earnest said. Earnest told reporters traveling with President Barack Obama that ISIL poses a “different kind of threat” to American interests than core al-Qaida, which had repeatedly and publicly vowed to attack U.S. soil. Still, he said the U.S. was watching the threat from ISIL “very carefully” because the group has proven itself to be violent and willing to consider attacking U.S. interests and American allies.

Zaineb al-Assam, a Middle East analyst at IHS Country Risk, said ISIL’s success in holding onto Mosul would significantly weaken Baghdad’s control over Sunni-dominated provinces. “The objective would be to keep Iraqi security forces off balance, tying them down on passive security duties, as well as to erode (the government’s) presence and its ability to sustain services,” al-Assam said.

Tikrit residents said the militant group overran several police stations in the Sunni-dominated city. Two Iraqi security officials confirmed that the city, 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad and the capital of Salahuddin province, was under ISIL’s control and that the provincial governor was missing.

The major oil refinery in Beiji, located between Mosul and Tikrit, remained in government control, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk to reporters. There were clashes and gunmen tried to take the town but were repelled in a rare success for Iraqi government forces protecting an important facility, the officials said.

In addition to being Saddam’s hometown, Tikrit was a power base of his once-powerful Baath Party. The former dictator was captured by U.S. forces while hiding in a hole in the area and he is buried south of town in a tomb draped with the Saddam-era Iraqi flag.

The International Organization for Migration estimated 500,000 people fled the Mosul area, with some seeking safety in the Ninevah countryside or the nearby semiautonomous Kurdish region. Getting into the latter has grown trickier, however, with migrants without family members already in the enclave needing to secure permission from Kurdish authorities, according to the IOM.

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Mosul’s fall must bring the country’s leaders together to deal with the “serious, mortal threat” facing Iraq. “We can push back on the terrorists … and there would be a closer cooperation between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government to work together and try to flush out these foreign fighters,” he said on the sidelines of a diplomatic meeting in Athens.

Mosul residents said gunmen went around knocking on doors there Wednesday, reassuring people they would not be harmed. The situation appeared calm but tense, they said. Violence raged elsewhere in Iraq on Wednesday.

Police and hospital officials said a suicide bomber struck inside a tent where tribesmen were meeting to solve a dispute in Baghdad’s Shiite Sadr City neighborhood, killing 31 and wounding 46. Car bombs in Shiite areas elsewhere claimed another 17 and maimed dozens, officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. Car bombs and suicide attackers are favorite tools of the ISIL.

Schreck reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press Writers Elena Becatoros in Athens, Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Boston, Desmond Butler in Istanbul, Josh Lederman in Washington and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

November 15, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Rare internal fighting broke out in a rebel stronghold east of the capital Damascus between armed residents and members of a powerful opposition faction, activists said Saturday.

The activists said the fighting broke out Friday and continued Saturday between residents and members of the Islamic Army in the suburb of Douma that is almost surrounded by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.

A Syria-based activist who goes by the name of Mohammed Orabi said the clashes began when residents attacked the storage units of influential merchants who dominate the local food distribution business to protest high prices.

Orabi and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said guards at the units opened fire, seriously wounding several residents. The Observatory said one of the storage units attacked is controlled by the Justice Charitable Institution that is close to the Islamic Army.

The Islamic Army, a powerful rebel faction which tightly controls Douma, receives funding from some of these merchants, activists say, and is fighting local residents to defend them. “People are angry with the Islamic Army because they back the merchants,” Orabi said via Skype. “People want the prices to go down.”

“The fighting has been ongoing since yesterday,” he added saying that at least 11 people have been wounded. Also Saturday, the Observatory, which relies on a network of activists around the country, said the government air force has conducted 581 airstrikes since the beginning of November, killing at least 115 people including 19 children.

The group said the airstrikes were carried out by warplanes and helicopter gunships. They also wounded 370 people and caused wide damage in provinces including Homs, Hama, Aleppo, Idlib and Daraa. Activists say more than 200,000 people have been killed in Syria since protests against Assad spiraled into violence in 2011.