Archive for November 19, 2014


July 24, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Kurdish politician Fouad Massoum has been named the new president of Iraq following a parliamentary vote.

Massoum, 76, is one of the founders of current President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party. He is considered a soft-spoken moderate, known for keeping good relations with Sunni and Shiite Arab politicians.

The vote for president — a largely ceremonial post — was delayed for a day when the Kurdish bloc requested more time to select a candidate. They named Massoum as their pick late Wednesday. Under an unofficial agreement dating back to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Iraq’s presidency is held by a Kurd while the prime minister is Shiite and the parliamentary speaker is Sunni.

Advertisements

July 23, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s parliament convened to vote for a new president on Wednesday as the extremist Islamic State group claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Baghdad the night before that killed 31 people, mainly civilians.

The bomber had rammed his explosives-packed car into a checkpoint near a revered Shiite shrine in the heart of the capital late Tuesday, as worshipers awaited security checks before visiting the site during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Another 58 people were wounded in the attack, which took place in the central Kazimiyah district.

Police officials confirmed the toll, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters. In a statement posted online late Tuesday, the Sunni Islamic State group, which seized vast swaths of northern and western Iraq last month, claimed the attack and said it was “in response to the hostility of the (Shiite-led) government” of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his “criminal militias, who spare no effort in fighting Islam and Muslims.”

The authenticity of the statement could not be independently verified, but it was posted on a militant website frequently used by the group. The Sunni militants’ capture of large areas of Iraq last month, including the second largest city Mosul, plunged the country into its worst crisis since U.S. troops withdrew at the end of 2011 and has led to widespread calls for new leadership that can unite the country.

The Islamic militants have meanwhile vowed to take their campaign all the way to Baghdad, but their initial advance seems to have crested, with the front lines largely frozen in recent weeks. Despite the crisis, lawmakers have struggled to agree on a new president and prime minister since April elections — in which Maliki’s bloc won the most seats.

With President Jalal Talabani’s term set to expire, the vote for his successor is part of broader negotiations over forming a new government. At least 95 candidates are in the running, Shiite lawmaker Adel Shershab told state television on Wednesday.

Talabani, who suffered a stroke in late 2012, returned to the country on Saturday after more than 18 months abroad for medical treatment. Since 2003, Iraq’s political parties have agreed to assign the position of president to a Kurd, prime minister to a Shiite and speaker of parliament to a Sunni.

Two names have emerged as front-runners to succeed Talabani — former deputy prime minister Barham Saleh and the Kirkuk provincial governor Najimaldin Karim.

Associated Press reporter Vivian Salama in Baghdad contributed to this report.

July 22, 2014

IRBIL, Iraq (AP) — Iraqi Christians who fled the northern city of Mosul rather than convert to Islam by a deadline imposed by extremist militants said they had to leave most of their belongings behind and gunmen stole much of what they did manage to take along.

The comments paint a dire picture of life for the ancient community that has long struggled to survive in the midst of a mainly Muslim country. Most Christians left Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, after the Islamic State group and other Sunni militants captured the city on June 10 — the opening move in the insurgents’ blitz across northern and western Iraq. As a religious minority, Christians were wary of how they would be treated by hard-line Islamic militants.

Some remained, but the numbers have dwindled further after the militants gave them a deadline of last Saturday to convert to Islam, pay a tax or face death. That was the final straw for many, including Zaid Qreqosh Ishaq, 27, and his family who fled to the relatively safe self-rule Kurdish region.

“We had to go through an area where they had set up a checkpoint,” he said. Islamic State group militants “asked us to get out of the car. We got out. They took… our things, our bags, our money, everything we had on us.”

Like so many of the families that fled Mosul, Ishaq’s took refuge at the St. Joseph Church in the northern Kurdish city of Irbil. But they may be forced to move to camps that have been set up for the flood of Iraqis trying to escape the violence.

“I don’t know what is going to happen to us,” Ishaq said. “Our future is uncertain.” The U.N. said on Sunday that at least 400 families from Mosul — including other religious and ethnic minority groups — had sought refuge in the northern provinces of Irbil and Dohuk.

Mosul is home to some of the most ancient Christian communities, but the number of Christians has dropped since the outbreak of sectarian violence that began after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein. About 25 Christian families remain in the city, Duraid Hikmat, an official with the Ninenveh governor’s office, told the Associated Press. Most of the people who stayed behind could not travel for medical reasons and have found sanctuary in the homes of their Muslim neighbors, he added.

On Sunday, militants seized the 1,800-year old Mar Behnam Monastery, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of Mosul. The resident clergymen left to the nearby city of Qaraqoush, according to local residents.

“Even here in Qaraqoush, we do not feel safe because IS militants are only few kilometers away,” said Father Sherbil Issou, another priest who fled Mosul. Noel Ibrahim, who fled Mosul last week with his family, said gunmen from the Islamic State group stopped cars and stole cash and gold jewelry from the women.

“One of the gunmen told us, ‘You can leave now, but do not ever dream of returning to Mosul again,'” Ibrahim said. Irbil’s governor, Nawzad Hadi, has pledged to protect fleeing Christians and other minority groups. The territory is currently home to more than 2 million refugees and internally displaced people from Iraq and Syria, according to the United Nations.

Meanwhile, the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order — a collection of former members of Saddam’s now-outlawed Baath party said to be helping the Islamic State group in its conquests — disassociated itself from violence against Iraq’s minority groups.

“Our army is an extension of the former national Iraqi army and includes all the factions of the Iraqi people such as Sunnis, Shiites, Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen as well as Christians, Yazdis and Sabeans who want to liberate Iraq and relieve it from subordination,” the group said in a message posted on its official website Tuesday. “We don’t have any connection or coordination with any group … which calls for dividing Iraq and its people on ethnic and sectarian basis.”

The Islamic State group has vowed to continue its offensive on to Baghdad, although it appears to have crested for now after overrunning Iraq’s predominantly Sunni areas. But the country’s government has been unable to launch an effective counter-offensive against the militants and politicians are still struggling to form a government after April elections.

Yacoub reported from Baghdad. Associated Press journalists Maeva Bambuck in Irbil and Vivian Salama, Sinan Salaheddin and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.

BY MITCHELL PROTHERO

July 11, 2014

IRBIL, IRAQ — A supposedly secret but locally well-known CIA station on the outskirts of Irbil’s airport is undergoing rapid expansion as the United States considers whether to engage in a war against Islamist militants who’ve seized control of half of Iraq in the past month.

Western contractors hired to expand the facility and a local intelligence official confirmed the construction project, which is visible from the main highway linking Irbil to Mosul, the city whose fall June 9 triggered the Islamic State’s sweep through northern and central Iraq. Residents around the airport say they can hear daily what they suspect are American drones taking off and landing at the facility.

Expansion of the facility comes as it seems all but certain that the autonomous Kurdish regional government and the central government in Baghdad, never easy partners, are headed for an irrevocable split _ complicating any U.S. military hopes of coordinating the two entities’ efforts against the Islamic State.

The autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government angered Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki when early in the crisis it sent its pershmerga militia to seize the long-contested city of Kirkuk when Iraqi troops abandoned it. Relations have deteriorated since. On Wednesday, Maliki accused Kurdish President Massoud Barzani sheltering Islamic State members. The next day, Barzani demanded that Maliki resign.

Overnight, Kurdish troops seized oil fields operated by Iraq’s Northern Oil Co., whose exports had been controlled by the central government, and on Friday, Kurdish legislators began a boycott of the Iraqi government.

The developments all come as the United States, which has said it won’t come to Iraq’s assistance unless Maliki takes steps to make his government more inclusive, is expected to announce early next week its assessment of the military situation in the country. Pentagon officials said the assessment might be made public as early as Monday.

But U.S. officials have known for some time that it was likely that they’d need to coordinate any steps it takes both in Baghdad and in Irbil, where the peshmerga has worked closely over the years with the CIA, U.S. special forces and the Joint Special Operations Command, the military’s most secretive task force, which has become a bulwark of counterterrorism operations. Peshmerga forces already are manning checkpoints and bunkers to protect the facility, which sits just a few hundred yards from the highway.

“Within a week of the fall of Mosul we were being told to double or even triple our capacities,” said one Western logistics contractor who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he’d signed nondisclosure agreements with the U.S. government on the matter.

“They needed everything from warehouse space to refrigeration capacity, because they operate under a different logistics command than the normal military or embassy structures,” the contractor said. “The expansion was aggressive and immediate.”

Other contractors who deal extensively with moving heavy equipment through Irbil’s airport, which has supported a rapidly expanding oil and gas drilling industry, said they were aware of the expansion. One British oil executive said he’d detected a “low-key but steady stream of men, equipment and supplies for an obvious expansion of the facility.” The local Kurdish intelligence official described what was taking place as a “long-term relationship with the Americans.”

In a statement July 3, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that Irbil would host such a center, in addition to one being set up in Baghdad, and suggested that it had already begun operating.

“We have personnel on the ground in Irbil, where our second joint operations center has achieved initial operating capability,” he said then.

“It’s no secret that the American special forces and CIA have a close relationship with the peshmerga,” said the Kurdish official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing covert military operations. He added that the facility had operated even “after the Americans were forced out of Iraq by Maliki,” a reference to the 2011 U.S. troop withdrawal after the Obama administration and the Iraqi government couldn’t agree on a framework for U.S. forces remaining in the country.

The official refused to directly identify the location of the facility but when he was shown the blurred-out location on an online satellite-mapping service he joked, “The peshmerga do not have the influence to make Google blur an area on these maps. I will leave the rest to your conclusions.”

But the official wasn’t shy discussing the past arrangement and potential for a future expansion of the relationship.

“Most of our ‘mukhabarat’ worked directly alongside both the CIA and JSOC throughout the war in Iraq because of our language ability and long experience battling both Saddam and radical terrorists,” he said, using the Arabic term for “information office,” usually ascribed to local intelligence.

“Peshmerga fighters fought closely alongside the American Green Berets throughout northern Iraq in places like Mosul, Tal Afar and Kirkuk because we are very professional and trusted,” he said. “And many of our men would work directly with the most secret units as interpreters and Iraqi experts.”

During a recent visit to the site, extensive construction of new roads off the main highway could be seen, as well as what appeared to be construction of a fortified gate complex to protect access, which previously had been controlled by a simple dirt road and checkpoint flanked by two bunkers guarded by men in peshmerga uniforms.

Armored sport utility vehicles driven by military-appearing Westerners in civilian clothes were seen entering and exiting the facility in convoy fashion.

“Irbil is a very friendly place for people in the intelligence business,” a Western military attache said on the condition he not be identified because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the matter. “So many locals worked with the Americans and remember them fondly, that you didn’t need the hardened defenses that you’d find normally this close to a battlefield.”

The attache said the existence of the facility had long been known to residents. “Nobody cared before because everyone is on good terms,” he said.

A retired American special forces officer said it would be a relatively simple matter for the United States to work with peshmerga forces. “A lot of those pesh guys were known and respected for their training and trustworthiness by ODA, OGA and the Secret Squirrels long before the 2003 invasion,” he said, using the acronyms for “Operational Detachment Alpha,” the official designation of the Green Berets, and “other government agency,” a common slang term for the CIA. “Secret Squirrels” is a term soldiers use to describe Joint Special Operations Command units that usually don’t have an obvious unit designation.

A special operations officer, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he’s legally bound not to publicly discuss his career without specific Defense Department permission, said working with the Kurds would overcome a number of difficult issues that would be present as U.S. advisers worked with the Iraqi army.

“It’s a natural fit that as these guys look around at the collapsed Iraqi army and how all of its remaining competent units are either infiltrated by or directly led by Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders that there would be a high degree of discomfort directly operating with them,” he said. “But the Kurds are trustworthy, reliable and already know how to fight alongside your units. It’s a natural fit to run an operation from Irbil with the pesh, while the other advisers in Baghdad try to stem the bleeding of the Iraqi army and protect that huge U.S. embassy complex.”

He also noted there are advantages to working with Kurdish forces if the United States decides to launch airstrikes against Islamic State positions.

“Airstrikes are close to useless without good intelligence and targeting, and that’s going to be hard to come by on the Baghdad side of things,” he said. “To me it’s a no-brainer. The only real way you can do that is with the Kurds.”

Source: McClatchy DC.

Link: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2014/07/11/233126/expansion-of-secret-facility-in.html.

July 12, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Kurdish security forces took over two major oil fields outside the disputed northern city of Kirkuk before dawn Friday and said they would use some of the production for domestic purposes, further widening a split with the central government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The takeover of the Bai Hassan and Kirkuk oil fields were the latest land grabs by Kurds, who have responded to the Sunni militant insurgency that has overrun large parts of Iraq by seizing territory of their own, effectively expanding the Kurdish autonomous zone in the north. Those moves have infuriated al-Maliki’s government while stoking independence sentiment among the Kurds.

Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga pushed into the city of Kirkuk, a major hub for the oil industry in the north, and the surrounding area weeks ago in the early days of the Sunni militant blitz. But until now they had not moved into the oil fields in the area. On Friday, however, the fighters took over the Bai Hassan and Kirkuk fields and expelled local workers, the Oil Ministry in Baghdad said.

Oil Ministry spokesman Assem Jihad denounced the move as “a violation to the constitution” and warned that it poses “a threat to national unity.” The Kurdish Regional Government said its forces moved to secure the fields after learning of what it said were orders by officials in the Oil Ministry to sabotage a pipeline linking oil facilities in the area. It said production would continue, and that staff can return but will operate under Kurdish management.

Production from the fields will be used to fill the shortage of refined products in the domestic market, it said, in a reference to a fuel crunch in the Kurdish region. It also said the Kurdish Regional Government will claim its “constitutional share” of revenues from the fields to compensate for Baghdad’s cutting off the 17 percent of the state budget — some $20 billion in this year’s projected budget — that is supposed to be given to the Kurdish region.

The central government withheld the funds after the Kurds began moving oil from fields inside the autonomous zone to Turkey independently against Baghdad’s wishes. The Kurds have said their earlier moves into disputed lands were intended to protect the areas from Sunni militants after the collapse of the Iraqi military in the face of the insurgency the past month. But the territory they seized has large Kurdish communities and has long been claimed by the autonomy zone.

In past weeks, the president of the Kurdish zone has said the areas won’t be returned — including the highly disputed, flashpoint city of Kirkuk — and he called for Kurdish lawmakers to prepare to hold an independence referendum in the area, a move strongly opposed by Baghdad and the United States. Sunni Arabs and ethnic Turkmens who also claim Kirkuk as theirs have warned of a backlash if Kurds try to monopolize the oil in the region.

The Kurds and Baghdad have feuded for years over oil resources, disputed territory and a host of other issues. Yet, they have also found room for compromise, and the Kurds have provided critical backing to help al-Maliki become prime minister.

But their ties are rapidly unraveling as the country fragments in the face of the Sunni militant blitz, led by the Islamic State extremist group. The country is effectively being cleaved along ethnic and sectarian lines — the swath of militant-held Sunni areas, the Shiite-majority south and center ruled by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and the Kurdish north.

The conflict has also fueled fears of sectarian bloodshed between Shiites and Sunnis. On Friday, Human Rights Watch said Iraqi security forces and government-affiliated militias appear to have killed at least 255 prisoners in six cities and villages since June 9. It said five of the mass killings took place as the security forces were fleeing as militants advanced, and that the vast the prisoners killed were Sunni. Most members of the security forces and militias are Shiite.

The six incidents appear to be aimed at avenging the deaths of Shiites captured and killed by the Islamic State group. The Kurds also find themselves fighting the Sunni militants across the northern front. On Friday, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a peshmerga checkpoint outside Kirkuk, killing 28 people and wounding 30, said Kirkuk police chief Maj. Gen. Torhan Abdul-Rahman Youssef. The explosion set several vehicles in the vicinity on fire.

Hospital officials confirmed the casualty figures. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to brief the media. In recent days, the political divisions between Baghdad and the Kurds have grown increasingly bitter. On Wednesday, al-Maliki accused the Kurds of harboring Sunni militants.

The Kurds responded by declaring their politicians will boycott Cabinet meetings, renewing demands that al-Maliki step down. Baghdad, in turn, suspended all cargo flights to the Kurdish region’s two main airports. And on Friday, al-Maliki appointed temporary replacements for all five Kurdish ministers in his Cabinet, said Deputy Prime Minister Hussain al-Shahristani.

Al-Shahristani said he himself was appointed acting foreign minister to stand in for Hoshyar Zebari, who was one of the most prominent Kurds in the government and has been Iraq’s top diplomat for more than a decade.

The dispute comes as al-Maliki is struggling to fend off an attempt to remove him from his post by political factions — including the Kurds but also from former Shiite allies who blame him for the failures to confront the Sunni militant offensive and have long accused him of monopolizing power.

In Baghdad, national lawmakers are struggling broker an agreement on a new government and leadership, including the posts of prime minister, president and speaker of parliament, after April elections.

The legislature is scheduled to meet Sunday for its second session amid calls for the quick formation of a new government that can confront the militants and hold the country together. Al-Maliki, whose State of Law bloc won the most seats in the elections, has shrugged off calls to step aside.

The United States and other world powers, as well as Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, have pressed for a more inclusive government that Iraqis of all stripes can rally around. On Friday, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani again urged lawmakers to move swiftly toward a compromise, calling on them to “rise above selfish aims.”

“The challenges … threaten civil peace and the unity of the social fabric and forecast a divided and disputed future for Iraq,” Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie, a cleric who represents the reclusive al-Sistani, told worshipers in a sermon Friday in the holy city of Karbala.

Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Ryan Lucas in Baghdad, and Maamoun Youssef and Mariam Rizk in Cairo contributed to this report.

Baghdad (AFP)

July 10, 2014

Iraq’s Kurds said Thursday Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was “hysterical” and not fit to run the country, further dimming the prospect of a new leadership uniting to face jihadist fighters.

The worsening political discord comes three days ahead of a planned parliamentary session meant to revive the process of replacing what has effectively been a caretaker government since April elections.

Maliki “has become hysterical and has lost his balance”, a statement from the office of Kurdish regional president Massud Barzani said, reacting to accusations by the prime minister a day earlier that his administration was harboring militants.

Kurdish troops moved into disputed areas vacated by federal forces that failed to stop a Sunni militant onslaught that began on June 9.

The Kurds have since said those swathes of land were theirs to keep, and announced plans to hold a referendum on independence.

Maliki has accused Barzani of exploiting the chaos created by the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group’s military offensive, but the Kurdish president said the security collapse was of the premier’s own making.

“You must apologize to the Iraqi people and step down. You have destroyed the country and someone who has destroyed the country cannot save the country from crises,” the statement said.

– Fallujah air strikes –

Since IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a “caliphate” twice the size of Israel on land straddling Iraq and Syria, militants have not made any further significant advances.

But Iraqi forces have also struggled to reclaim lost ground, and the front lines north and west of Baghdad are increasingly looking like the de facto borders of a partitioned Iraq.

Despite backing in the shape of hardware, manpower and intelligence from sources as diverse as Iran, Iraqi Shiite militias and the United States, the government has so far failed to recapture Tikrit, the home town of executed former president Saddam Hussein.

And it is far from being able to even attempt retaking Mosul, a city of two million further north and the setting for a video posted online last week purporting to show Baghdadi delivering a Ramadan sermon, a stunt analysts said showed huge confidence on the part of IS.

A Sukhoi jet of the kind recently delivered by Moscow, and apparently Tehran, attacked a market Wednesday in the rebel-held city of Fallujah, which lies only 60 kilometers (35 miles) west of the capital.

According to doctor Ahmed Shami, eight people were killed and 35 wounded. He said five children were among another 12 wounded in further air strikes on Thursday.

– Dilatory tactics –

The escalating war of words between Maliki and the Kurds has already cast a pall over a key parliament session slated for July 13.

In a sign of what may be to come in parliament, Kurdish ministers said Maliki’s stance “only served the enemies of Iraq and the terrorists” and announced they were boycotting cabinet sessions.

The new Iraqi MPs’ first attempt at selecting a speaker, president and government on July 1 ended in disarray, with deputies trading threats and heckles and some eventually walking out.

The next session was announced for August 12 but the timing caused an outcry, with both regular Iraqis and the international community exasperated by the lack of urgency their politicians were displaying with the country was mired in its worst crisis in years.

While many of Iraq’s factions, apparently including some within the prime minister’s own bloc, agree that Maliki needs to step aside if deadly sectarianism is to be reined in, the incumbent has insisted his poll victory legitimized his bid for a third term.

Some observers argue Maliki is intentionally seeking to scupper the upcoming parliament vote to buy more time and tip political support back in his favor.

“He’s trying to play it long because it’s his only chance,” one Western diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Iraqs_Kurds_demand_PM_Malikis_resignation_999.html.