Archive for November 20, 2014


by Isra’ al-Rubai’i

Baghdad

Mon Aug 4, 2014

(Reuters) – Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered his air force for the first time to back Kurdish forces against Islamic State fighters after the Sunni militants made another dramatic push through the north, state television reported on Monday.

Kurdish peshmerga fighters, who cut their teeth fighting Saddam Hussein’s troops, were regarded as one of the few forces capable of standing up to the Sunni insurgents who faced almost no opposition from Maliki’s U.S.-trained army during their lightning advance through the north in June.

Then on Sunday the Islamic State inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Kurds with a rapid advance through three towns to reach the Mosul Dam, acquiring a fifth oil field to fund its operations along the way.

State television and witnesses said that the Islamic State had seized Iraq’s biggest dam. Kurdish peshmerga officials said they have pushed militants from the dam area and were in control of it. This could not be immediately confirmed.

Despite predictions from Kurdish commanders that their forces would launch a successful counter-offensive, one senior Kurdish official urged the United States to step in and provide weapons “for the sake of fighting terrorism”.

Maliki has been at odds with the Kurds over budgets, oil and land, and tensions deepened after the Islamic State seized control of large swathes of land in the north and west of OPEC member Iraq.

In July, the Kurdish political bloc ended all participation in Iraq’s national government in protest over Maliki’s accusation that Kurds were allowing terrorists to stay in Arbil, the capital of their semi-autonomous region known as Kurdistan.

Opponents accuse Maliki of being an authoritarian ruler with a sectarian agenda whose alienation of Sunnis fueled the insurgency. Currently ruling in a caretaker capacity after an inconclusive election in April, he has defied calls by Sunnis, Kurds and even some fellow Shi’ites to step aside to make room for a less polarizing figure.

Maliki seems to have put aside his hostility with the Kurds for now to try to prevent the Islamic State, which has threatened to march on Baghdad, from making further gains.

“The general commander of the armed forces has ordered the air force command to provide backup for the Kurdish peshmerga forces against the terrorist gangs of the Islamic State,” state television quoted Maliki’s military spokesman Qassim Atta as saying.

A senior Kurdish official said the Kurds had been overstretched and the Islamic State had overwhelming firepower.

“The Islamic State had also been intimidating people by carrying out beheadings,” he said.

After thousands of Iraqi soldiers fled their initial advance in June, the group then known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seized tanks, armored personnel carriers, anti-aircraft guns, mortars, artillery and vehicles.

“It is a very dangerous situation for the region. Something needs to be done soon,” said the senior Kurdish official, asking not to be identified.

Despite the odds, Kurdish commanders were talking tough.

One colonel said the Kurdish withdrawal was tactical and forecast that several Kurdish brigades would take back all territory lost on Sunday and even win back Mosul, Iraq’s biggest northern city which is firmly in the hands of the Islamic State.

“We will attack them until they are completely destroyed we will never show any mercy,” he told Reuters. “We have given them enough chances and we will even take Mosul back. I believe within the next 48-72 hours it will be over.”

(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Peter Graff)

Source: Reuters.

Link: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/08/04/us-iraq-security-idUSKBN0G40ZY20140804.

by Ned Park and Suleiman al-Khalidi

Arbil, Iraq

Mon Aug 4, 2014

(Reuters) – Sheikh Ali Hatem Suleiman, one of the leaders of the Sunni revolt against the Shi’ite-led government of Iraq, sat cross-legged on a couch last month, lit another Marlboro Red, and discussed the struggle with visitors from his home city of Ramadi, where the uprising began late last year.

Instead of taking delight in the rebellion’s progress, though, the 43-year-old crown prince began lamenting the fact that Iraq’s patchwork quilt of ethnicities and religions was being torn apart. “How do we guard what we still have?” he asked his visitors.

The revolutionary sheikh’s doubts may seem surprising. Over the past seven months the Sunni armed factions which Suleiman helps lead, and their allies in the far more extreme al Qaeda offshoot known as Islamic State, have captured most of the north’s largest Sunni cities. The battle against Prime Minister Noori al-Maliki in Baghdad has spread north and east and threatens to fracture Iraq altogether. In late June, Islamic State declared a new Caliphate.

Suleiman has become one of the public faces of the rebellion. But the brash figure also encapsulates the contradiction at its heart, and his story explains why Iraq will be so difficult to put back together.

The alliance between Sunni tribesmen, nationalists, old Baath regime loyalists and military veterans on one side and Islamic State on the other is based almost entirely on a mutual hatred of Maliki’s Shi’ite government and a desire for an independent Sunni region.

But like most Iraqi Sunnis, Suleiman is no Islamic extremist. He helped crush an earlier incarnation of al Qaeda in Iraq. And he was disturbed recently by the news that tens of thousands of Christians were fleeing the city of Mosul after an Islamic State ultimatum that they should convert, leave or be put to the sword. The notion was an affront to Suleiman, who grew up in cosmopolitan Baghdad and has often spoken publicly of the need for tolerance.

In a series of interviews since the fall of Mosul in early June, Suleiman described how Islamic State fighters and his Sunni rebels gradually came together. He expressed deep concerns about the ability of the groups he leads – they identify themselves as ‘tribal revolutionaries’ – to stand up to their more extreme allies, who operate in both Syria and Iraq and are sometimes known by the acronym ISIL.

“If any place is open, ISIL will take it over,” he said. “ISIL isn’t strong compared to the tribes, but they are strategic. They have military equipment and they use it against the (tribal) revolutionaries.”

The rise of Islamic State has helped the tribes, but Suleiman said it also threatens them. The stronger the Islamists grow, he said, the more likely the purely nationalist aims of many of his Sunni followers will be eclipsed by religion.

The tribes and their militarized offshoots greatly outnumber the jihadis, both in the overall populace and in men under arms. But Islamic State is already wooing Sunni factions with massive hauls of American and Russian weaponry seized on the battlefield, and revenue from oil fields it controls in Iraq and Syria.

The balance of power between the Islamic State and more nationalist-minded figures like Suleiman will help determine the future shape of Iraq’s Sunni regions, and whether reconciliation is possible with the country’s Shi’ite majority.

“Is this a revolution or terrorism?” one of his followers asked late that night in Suleiman’s Arbil villa.

“It’s a revolution,” Suleiman answered, “but we have problems.”

A MORE HOPEFUL TIME

In some ways Suleiman is a reminder of a more hopeful era, a pioneer of the 2006 revolt against al Qaeda and the U.S.-backed effort to reintegrate the Sunni community into Iraq’s political mainstream.

The mercurial and outspoken crown prince took on his leadership position when his father died, two years before the fall of Saddam Hussein.

His tribe, the Dulaim, numbers between two and four million. As is common in Iraqi tribes, members come from both the main denominations. Most are Sunni, with 300,000 to 400,000 Shi’ite.

Centered in the sprawling western province of Anbar but spreading north of Baghdad as well, the Dulaim is one of the

largest tribes in Iraq and a powerful social, political and economic force, with ties to royal families across the Arab Gulf and the elite of neighboring Jordan. It was a foundation of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime, with members serving in the military and government. Today, it remains a bellwether of Sunni tolerance for Iraq’s majority Shi’ite-led government.

The world Suleiman inherited was different from his father’s. After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, his first job was to preserve the Dulaim’s political power amidst a brutal Sunni insurgency. That rebellion drew on his kinsmen and targeted both the Americans, who angered Iraqis with mass arrests and indiscriminate force, and the new Shi’ite political elite, which seemed intent on marginalizing Sunnis because of their role in Saddam’s abuses.

Suleiman kept a distance from the insurgency, but did not condemn it. He later told a U.S. military historian “mistakes were made on both sides.”

BROKEN ALLIANCE

The young Sunni had sartorial flair. He wore v-neck sweaters with immaculate white dishdashas and a keffiyah held perfectly in place. He looked the part of a tribal leader, with sharp brown eyes and high cheekbones. He had a talent for speeches and his title of crown prince inspired respect and loyalty.

In early 2005, his Uncle Majid, who had served as his regent, fled for Jordan. Suleiman found himself alone navigating both the American military presence and the Iraqi arm of al Qaeda, which began killing its way through Anbar and Baghdad.

That campaign ended in 2006 when Suleiman and a group of men in their twenties and thirties used money and weapons from the Americans to take on al Qaeda. Sunnis and Americans alike called the movement the Awakening.

U.S. officers credit Suleiman with rallying tribes from Ramadi to the farmlands around Baghdad and further north. Even today, in some houses outside Baghdad, tribal sheikhs adorn their homes with pictures of the crown prince.

“He pushed the fight against Qaeda,” said Colonel Rick Welch, a retired Special Forces officer, who worked closely with Suleiman.

Suleiman exhibited a flair for dramatic gestures. Once, after a car bomb slammed into his office in Baghdad and killed several of his guards, he walked out unscathed. He welcomed the attack, he told the Americans. “We have a saying: When you are already wet don’t be afraid to go out in the rain.”

When many Sunnis still feared Shi’ite militias, he visited the Shi’ite slum of Sadr City in Baghdad’s east, walking from his Jeep into a swarm of thousands of people, Sunni and Shi‘ite alike.

He could also be pragmatic and direct. While most Sunnis despised Prime Minister Maliki from the outset, the crown prince gambled on an alliance with him. It lasted three years before collapsing in 2010 under rising sectarian tensions, acrimony and pride on all sides.

While it lasted, Suleiman thrived on his relationship with Maliki. He was awarded government contracts and bet on the premier as the man for the future. He put forward his youngest brother, Abdul Rahman, to run for parliament on Maliki’s slate.

When Rahman failed to win, and Maliki played up his Shi’ite Islamist identity, the alliance frayed. Suleiman took to satellite television to lambast Maliki and what he called the prime minister’s Iranian backers.

In 2011, Maliki sent troops to Suleiman’s riverside offices in Baghdad and evicted him. The prime minister also coaxed back Suleiman’s uncle Majid from Amman and provided him a house and guards, in an effort to erode Suleiman’s stature.

Those around Maliki still dismiss Suleiman as a terrorist and a loud mouth. Haidar Abadi, a senior member of Maliki’s Dawa party, mocked him as “one of those people talking to the media” from outside the battle zone. He said the government was talking to more influential tribesmen on the ground who could tip the balance.

THE TRIBAL MENTALITY

Even after the Sunni victory over al Qaeda, the Shi’ite-dominated government kept arresting Sunni opponents. Thousands were imprisoned on blanket terrorism charges and held for years without trial.

A year after the U.S. military pulled out of Iraq, many people had lost hope that life would improve; mass demonstrations erupted after the arrest of a prominent Sunni politician’s bodyguards. Suleiman threw himself into the protests, joining crowds or huddling with tribal figures and religious clerics.

The tribal leader swung between war and negotiation. He plotted a military confrontation as early as February 2013, convinced that the government would attack Sunni demonstrators. That April, government security forces shot dead at least 50 demonstrators in the northern city of Hawija, sparking violence around the country. In the following weeks, Suleiman mobilized a militia to defend the protesters.

Tensions rose. Islamic State, born from the ashes of al Qaeda in Iraq, began a series of suicide bomb attacks against Baghdad. Last December, Maliki invaded Ramadi to clear the protest camps. The war in Anbar between the government and tribes had begun and Suleiman’s militia was transformed into a full-fledged fighting force.

Suleiman commanded fighters in Ramadi and dodged Iraqi government attempts to kill him. A series of failed attacks by helicopter gunships firing what Suleiman called U.S. missiles confirmed his status as a voice of the revolt.

“SO MUCH BLOOD”

Maliki’s confidantes privately felt the war would prove popular with Shi’ite voters in April’s national election. The coalition to which his party belongs did win the biggest share of the vote. But on the ground the offensive turned into a drawn-out fight. In its first six months, at least 6,000 government soldiers were killed and some 12,000 deserted, according to medical officials and diplomats.

A tribal rival to Suleiman, Ahmed Abu Risha, broke with the uprising, and joined Maliki. Abu Risha now heads a new Awakening and works in tandem with his own uncle, Iraq’s defense minister Sadoun Dulaimi.

The chaos also presented an opportunity to the Islamic State, which sent forces into Ramadi. At first Suleiman and his followers ignored the more radical organization but by April the two groups had begun fighting alongside each other.

Suleiman said an alliance was a necessary evil. He may have once fought al Qaeda, but he recognized that Islamic State had tactical experience from the civil war in Syria. His drift away from moderation matched popular Sunni feeling. He and his followers believe that, at a minimum, Baghdad must grant concessions before the tribes confront the Islamic State. Sunnis should run their own affairs and security and receive a share of oil revenues from the central government, they say.

Suleiman nominally heads two large organizations – the Anbar General Military Council and the Tribal Revolutionaries – that loosely connect about 10 different armed factions. Some factions believe in conservative Islamist principles and an Iraqi Sunni identity. Others are offshoots of Saddam’s old Baath party regime. What links the factions is military leadership from former officers.

“The participation of officers facilitated matters,” said an Islamic cleric associated with the Sunni insurgency. “They are the brains who fought the 1980s war with Iran, so the presence of one officer in a group of 30 to 50 people was enough. He is the one who does the planning.”

Suleiman, who is often called Sheikh Ali or Ali Hatem, straddles the groups and provides a badge of legitimacy: His grandfather fought in the nation’s 1920 uprising against the British and was a friend of King Faisal, the founding father of modern Iraq.

“The revolutionaries need someone to stand out such as Ali Hatem,” the cleric said. “He grasps the tribal mentality and talks in a language that tribes relate to and understand.”

But his powers have limits.

“If Sheikh Ali had agreed with people to stop the revolution, would it stop? I don’t believe anyone would heed his call,” the cleric said.

“BARING THEIR TEETH”

The Islamist State may be smaller – somewhere between 8,000 and 20,000 fighters, compared with an estimated 30,000 Sunni tribal and nationalist fighters – but it increasingly dominates the insurgency. As the Iraqi security forces imploded in June, other Sunni armed factions joined the radical group’s gallop through Mosul, and to within 100 miles (160 km) of Baghdad.

“Leadership is in the Islamic State’s hands,” said onetime Sunni insurgent, Abu Azzam al-Tammi, now an adviser to Maliki. Suleiman, said al-Tammi, was a “genuine tribal and popular figure,” one of the “revolutionaries with genuine demands.”

But, he believes, the Islamic State will ultimately defeat all other Sunni groups. He also questioned Suleiman’s ability to marshal large numbers amidst the sea of Sunni factions.

Suleiman’s brother Abdul Razzaq said the Islamic State had bared “their teeth” and won over broad segments of the population. “They have better everything: ammunition and new vehicles.”

An intelligence officer in Ramadi told Reuters Suleiman had fooled himself in championing a war he could not win. “When he speaks about the rebels controlling land he means, without saying it, ISIL,” the officer said.

A fighter loyal to Suleiman agreed, telling Reuters that any distinction between the Sunni tribes and Islamic State has effectively vanished. The groups now share weapons from the Islamic State’s haul of Iraqi military equipment, he said.

For now, Suleiman rules out confrontation with the Islamic State because Maliki and his special forces and Shi’ite militias remain the bigger threat. “We have bad people in our Sunni areas, but who gave the government the right to bring militias to our land to kill our people?” Suleiman demanded of his guests with a smirk. “And they ask me about the Islamic State.”

Amid intense bombardments by the government in May, Suleiman moved to Arbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. He swore to return to Ramadi, but has remained in the north, citing the need for political meetings and travel to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to rally Gulf Arabs to his cause. Some say his extended exile has damaged his reputation; others disagree.

One insurgent in Baghdad described Suleiman as inspiring. In Diyala province, a fighter who had defected from the remnants of the government-funded Sunni Awakening movement called him one of the most-respected tribal figures in the country.

A U.S. military officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he believed if Iraq broke down along sectarian lines, the future of Iraq’s Sunni regions rested with those like Suleiman who bore a badge of tribal legitimacy.

“Ali Hatem is the only serious Anbari sheikh,” the officer said.

“THE PEOPLE ARE GOING TO LOSE”

Suleiman himself is realistic.

In early May, he sat in an Arbil hotel room sipping coffee and fiddling with his iPhone. He recounted plotting ambushes against Iraqi special forces, which he said killed more than 100.

Fresh from the battlefield, his skin looked grey and his frame emaciated. An attempt at mediation between the government and Sunni tribes in Anbar had just failed. Mosul would not fall for another month, but Suleiman already sensed Iraq was headed toward a major change. He saw no way to halt the momentum or to remove himself from the process.

He sketched in broad strokes much of what has since transpired: An intensified fight by Sunni insurgents for Baghdad’s rural districts and attacks on the country’s critical natural resources – oil fields, pipelines and dams.

“All the communities will be divided. It is going to be too late and the people are going to lose,” he predicted. Civilians across Iraq’s Sunni region would soon be trapped in a war between the government and a multitude of armed factions.

He lay back on his couch and fell silent, his baritone voice for once not bragging about the power of tribes and armed groups. He blamed Sunnis close to the government for sabotaging the chance at compromise.

“Who hurts the Sunnis a lot in Iraq, who damages them? Do you know who?” Suleiman asked. “The Sunnis themselves.”

(Parker reported from Arbil and Al-Khalidi from Amman; Additional reporting by Isra’ al-Rube’ii in Baghdad; Edited by Simon Robinson)

Source: Reuters.

Link: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/08/04/us-iraq-security-alisuleiman-specialrepo-idUSKBN0G40OP20140804.

Sulaimaniyah, Iraq (AFP)

Aug 03, 2014

Jihadists raised their black flag in Iraq’s northern town of Sinjar Sunday in a second straight day of advances against Kurdish forces, sparking mass displacement the UN called a humanitarian tragedy.

The Islamic State’s capture of Sinjar raised fears for minority groups that had found refuge there and further blurs the border between the Syrian and Iraqi parts of the “caliphate” which the IS declared in June.

“The (Kurdish) peshmerga have withdrawn from Sinjar, Daash has entered the city,” Kurdish official Kheiri Sinjari told AFP, using the former Arabic acronym for the IS.

“They have raised their flag above government buildings,” the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party official said.

Other officials confirmed the fall of the town between the Syrian border and Mosul, which is Iraq’s second city and has been the IS hub there since it launched a major onslaught on June 9.

“The peshmerga have withdrawn to mountain areas and are getting reinforcements,” a high-ranking peshmerga source said.

Sinjar had sheltered thousands of people who were displaced by the IS offensive launched in the region nearly two months ago.

Among them are many of Iraq’s minorities, such as Turkmen Shiites who fled the city of Tal Afar, about half-way between Sinjar and Mosul, when jihadist fighters swept in.

Sinjar is also a historical home for the Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking minority that follows a pre-Islamic faith rooted in Zoroastrianism and has been repeatedly targeted.

– Fears for displaced –

“A humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in Sinjar,” the top UN envoy in Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, said.

Its capture prompted thousands of families — up to 200,000 people, according to the UN — to flee, many of them into the neighboring mountains.

“The United Nations has grave concerns for the physical safety of these civilians,” Mladenov said, as they risk being stranded with no supplies in roasting temperatures and surrounded by jihadists.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon, in a statement, said he as “particularly appalled by the humanitarian crisis the actions by IS and associated armed groups have triggered”.

He urged the Baghdad and Kurdish authorities “to put their differences aside and work closely together in addressing the urgent security needs of the nation, and adequately protecting and safeguarding the people and territorial integrity of Iraq”.

A Kurdish official and several other sources also said IS fighters had destroyed the small Shiite shrine of Sayyeda Zeinab after taking control of Sinjar.

Sinjar in normal times had an estimated population of 310,000.

“Sinjar has emptied, there are not many people left apart from the 10,000 Sunnis there,” said Abu Asaad, a 50-year-old merchant reached by phone as he fled to the Kurdish city of Dohuk with his wife and seven children.

“The world and the Iraqi government have to do something because some people — including Yazidis and Christians — have fled on foot and are now probably stuck in very dangerous areas,” he said.

The jihadist group, which effectively controls much of Iraq’s Sunni heartland, posted pictures on the Internet of its forces patrolling Sinjar’s main street.

The push on Sinjar by IS fighters came a day after they seized Zumar, another town to the northeast, which had also been under peshmerga control.

The Sunni militants also seized two nearby small oilfields which a North Oil Company official said had a combined capacity of 20,000 barrels per day.

The IS advance raised concerns that the main dam north of Mosul could fall, but Kurdish sources said the peshmerga’s elite Zerevani unit was still holding out.

Both Sinjar and Zumar are areas that the peshmerga moved into in June.

They filled a security vacuum left by retreating Iraqi government forces, while grabbing land the Kurds had long coveted and disputed with Baghdad.

The peshmerga are widely perceived as Iraq’s best organized and most efficient military force, but the autonomous Kurdish region has been cash-strapped and its troops stretched.

– Political front –

On the political front in Baghdad, MPs in parliament’s Shiite majority have until Friday, in principle, to pick their nominee for prime minister.

Incumbent Nuri al-Maliki seems intent on hanging on for a third term, but his support base, including within his own Dawa party, has crumbled since his coalition comfortably won April elections.

Many key domestic and international players in the ongoing conflict, which has killed thousands and displaced more than 600,000, have made it clear that any organized fightback against IS can start in earnest only if Maliki steps aside.

Facts on Iraq’s Yazidi minority

Baghdad (AFP) Aug 03, 2014 – The Yazidi minority faces a struggle for survival in Iraq after their bastion Sinjar was taken over Sunday by Islamic State jihadists, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee.

The existence of the small Kurdish-speaking community on its ancestral land is now critically endangered. Here are a few facts about the Yazidis:

– The largest community is in Iraq — 600,000 people according to the highest Yazidi estimates, but barely 100,000 according to others — while a few thousand are also found in Syria, Turkey, Armenia and Georgia. They are mostly impoverished farmers and herders.

– They follow a faith born in Mesopotamia more than 4,000 years ago. It is rooted in Zoroastrianism but has over time blended in elements of Islam and Christianity. Yazidis pray to God three times a day facing the sun and worship his seven angels — the most important of which is Melek Taus, or Peacock Angel.

– Yazidis discourage marriage outside the community and even across their caste system. Their unique beliefs and practices — some are known to refrain from eating lettuce and wearing the color blue — have often been misconstrued as satanic. Orthodox Muslims consider the Peacock a demon figure and refer to Yazidis as devil-worshipers.

– As non-Arab and non-Muslim Iraqis, they have long been one of the country’s most vulnerable minorities. Persecution under Saddam Hussein forced thousands of families to flee the country. Germany is home to the largest community abroad, with an estimated 40,000.

– Massive truck bombs almost entirely destroyed two small Yazidi villages in northern Iraq on August 14, 2007. More than 400 people died in the explosions, the single deadliest attack since the 2003 US-led invasion.

Five key battles on Iraq’s scattered frontlines

Baghdad (AFP) Aug 01, 2014 – Jihadist fighters from the Islamic State (IS) group swept in from the northwest of Iraq and across much of the country’s Sunni areas nearly two months ago.

The forces battling them and their motivations are diverse. Here is a snapshot of five flashpoints to watch across Iraq:

– BAIJI REFINERY

Where: 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of Baghdad

Who: Iraq special forces

Iraq’s largest refinery, which at times was providing a third of its fuel, has been besieged by IS militants for weeks. Special forces tasked with defending the facility, which IS also sees as crucial to its own parallel economy, have looked isolated.

Fighting there led to a huge fire on Thursday but despite repeated attempts and claims by the jihadists, government forces have never completely lost control of the plant and were still holding out.

– AMERLI

Where: 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Baghdad

Who: Turkmen fighters and government forces

The Turkmen town has been completely surrounded by IS fighters for six weeks, trapping thousands of civilians who have taken up arms to fight for their lives.

Residents say a humanitarian disaster is imminent in the town, which has been without power and drinking water for days. Some Shiite volunteers have joined army units who have so far stopped south of Amerli, unable to break the siege.

– JALAWLA

Where: 130 kilometers (80 miles) northeast of Baghdad

Who: Kurdish peshmerga

Jalawla is where the Kurds are being drawn into the conflict. It is one of the formerly contested areas the Kurdish peshmerga forces moved into when government troops fled in the face of the IS advance in June.

The town, south of the recognized autonomous Kurdish zone, has seen almost daily fighting in which the peshmerga have lost dozens of men. Cash constraints mean they have just managed to hold their positions but been unable to establish firm control.

– DHULUIYA

Where: 90 kilometers (55 miles) north of Baghdad

Who: Police and Sunni tribal fighters

Dhuluiya has been repeatedly attacked by IS fighters but one Sunni tribe has held out in the south of the town, which is essential for IS if it wants to progress towards Baghdad.

Fighting there has been fierce, notably because a destroyed bridge means there is no easy escape and because any surrender would likely lead to mass executions among Sunni tribes that once collaborated with the US army and now with the Shiite-led regime.

– JURF AL-SAKHR

Where: 50 kilometers (30 miles) southwest of Baghdad

Who: Government forces and Shiite militia

The small town nestled along the Euphrates has seen some of the most relentless fighting since the start of the IS offensive. Seventeen soldiers were killed there on Friday alone.

Using the IS-controlled city of Fallujah as a rear base, jihadists in Jurf al-Sakhr have battled pro-government forces keen to prevent a foray that would expose the nearby holy Shiite city of Karbala and further encircle Baghdad by cutting the main road to the south.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Iraq_jihadists_seize_another_town_from_Kurdish_forces_999.html.

29 Jul 2014

Sophie Cousins

Qaraqosh, Iraq – In the dark of night, on a farm about 30km southeast of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, Sabah Zura Sukkariyya woke to the sound of a truckload of gunmen arriving on his property.

It was late June and the air was stagnant, still hot from the blistering sun earlier in the day. “They didn’t talk to me or my family. They didn’t tell us anything, they just took over my farm,” the balding man with a thick mustache told Al Jazeera.

“It was Daesh [the Islamic State group],” Sukkariyya recalled. “They stayed on my farm and ate our food and everything we had. They hit my kids and the rest of my family. They took everything from my warehouse and took it to other Islamic State members.”

Sukkariyya didn’t know what to do. The Islamic State group, which had captured the city of Mosul on June 10, was now on his farm and the family had nowhere to flee. After being forced to stay there for a few days, the family was finally able to leave when the fighters guarding them were in-between shifts.

“I fled with my wife and children and we hurried into town. We walked 5 kilometers at sunset in 50C heat,” he said.

Six days after the fall of Mosul, rumors spread that Islamic State fighters would continue their advance and capture Qaraqosh, a traditionally Christian town, also known as al-Hamdaniya. The Islamic State launched mortar attacks into Qaraqosh, forcing nearly all of the city’s 50,000 residents to flee to Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region. Many residents also fled to Dohuk.

The Syrian Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, Yohanna Petros Mouche, was one of the few who stayed behind in Qaraqosh. He told Al Jazeera that he refused to leave the city no matter what. “I stayed [in] Qaraqosh with a few other people when everybody left,” he said, adding that without the presence of Kurdish Peshmerga forces, the city would likely have been destroyed.

But despite holding back the Islamic State group’s advances, and while many residents have since returned, fear is still in the air. Many streets are deserted and shops are shut. Louis Marcus Ayub, a Syrian Catholic member of the Qaraqosh city council, said locals were scared of living within firing range of the Islamic State fighters.

“The city has basically been turned into a military zone,” he told Al Jazeera, explaining that the fighters have taken control of agricultural lands about 2km outside of the security perimeter local residents have set up on the outskirts of the city.

“If you asked if people were comfortable or at ease with the situation here, I would say no. They’re afraid. The west side of the city is the most important part economically because all agricultural land is located there, along with the farmers,” Ayub said.

The story of Sukkariyya’s farm is not an isolated one. At least 40 other farmers lost their livelihoods because of the Islamic State’s takeover of the agricultural fields on the edge of the city.

“I’m a traditional Iraqi farmer. This business I had was passed down from my father and my grandfather. It was passed down through generations,” said Tawfiq Abbosh Jubbo Sakat, as he sat sipping tea, wearing a traditional white caftan. Sakat told Al Jazeera that armed people came in the middle of the night and drove his family out of their home. He said the economic impact of losing his farm has been devastating.

“All my cows were stolen and they were worth $15,000 each,” the farmer, who sold milk, eggs, chicken, and meat, explained. “I’ve lost all my income. Everything. I have a family of 17, what am I supposed to do? Iraq is finished for us.”

“There were thousands of families in the city that depended on us. They relied on us for milk and good quality meat, chicken, turkey, and eggs that were fresh and local,” Sukkariyya said.

Local residents said the takeover of the agricultural fields was also being felt in the city, as meat and milk have since had to be shipped in from other areas of Iraq which has, in turn, driven up prices. Sukkariyya, meanwhile, said that his farm and factory were worth $1m. “This is such a big problem. You can’t imagine the impact. It’s a catastrophe,” he said.

The farmers said they also previously exported hundreds of thousands of kilograms of produce to central and north Iraq each month. “What has happened hasn’t only affected us and the city, but the whole of central and north Iraq,” Sukkariyya said.

Frank Gunter, a professor of economics at Lehigh University and a former economic adviser in Iraq, told Al Jazeera the conflict in Iraq was having a substantial but uneven impact on food availability and prices.

“Urban areas are beginning to experience food shortages reflected in higher food prices, while there are rural communities where excess agricultural products are rotting by the side of the road,” he said.

While he didn’t have price comparisons, Gunter said the impact would continue to worsen, especially as transportation routes continue to be obstructed.

“In towns such as Qaraqosh and the destruction [and] confiscation of trucks has broken the Islamic State-occupied region into many separate food markets,” he told Al Jazeera. “This will result in an increase in food prices in urban areas until transportation links can be restored. But even if transportation links are quickly restored, certain food shortages will probably continue until next year’s harvest.”

Residents are also dealing with a serious water shortage, after Islamic State fighters captured Mosul and cut off the town’s supply from the Tigris river. Taps have since run dry and water is now trucked in, making it too expensive for many. Several free water tanks have been set up around the city, but that only covers about five percent of the residents’ needs.

“If you don’t have a car or water storage tanks, you have to walk or cycle many kilometers to get water,” said a man who fled from Mosul to Qaraqosh, but didn’t give Al Jazeera his name. “The water is not very clean and it’s difficult because it’s about 50 degrees here. We just don’t know what the future of Iraq is. We need help.”

Source: al-Jazeera.

Link: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/07/islamic-state-evicts-iraq-farmers-2014728111016983465.html.

2014-07-30

By Jean Marc Mojon, Ammar Karim

Baghdad

The dynamiting of some of Mosul’s most precious heritage has spurred a group of students and officers into the first act of armed resistance against the Iraqi city’s jihadist rulers.

Islamic State fighters have faced few challenges in holding the city since they took it over seven weeks ago, with Kurdish forces grounded at its gates and routed government forces in disarray.

But Anwar Ali, 23, hopes the snipers he said killed four jihadists on Sunday fired the opening shots of a broad popular uprising that will kick the jihadists back into the desert.

“With a group of mainly students, but also young civil servants and merchants, I joined something we named Kataeb al-Mosul (The Mosul Brigades),” he said.

“But some people suggested we rename it Nabi Yunus Army in reaction to the blowing up by Daash (IS’ former Arabic acronym) of the shrines.”

On July 24, IS rigged the Nabi Yunus shrine, revered by both Muslims and Christians as the tomb of Prophet Jonah, with explosives and blew it up in a public display of might.

Other precious monuments deeply rooted in Mosul’s rich history were reduced to rubble.

“This campaign of destruction of our mosques, churches and heritage sites is an attempt to suppress Mosul’s identity,” Anwar Ali said.

Many residents from Mosul’s Sunni majority who watched the fearsome jihadists roll in from the western badlands on the Syrian border in June initially expressed relief at the riddance of a sectarian policing by Shiite-dominated government forces.

“The blowing up of the shrines was a turning point for people who had planned on delaying any clash with Daash,” said Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Mosul’s Nineveh province.

“The Mosul Brigades were supposed to come out of hiding later,” he said, speaking from Kurdistan where he had to flee when IS took Mosul on June 10.

– Wrecking ball on backswing? –

An officer in the newly-formed resistance group who asked that his name not be published said snipers picked off four IS militants in three different parts of Mosul at the weekend. Witnesses and Nujaifi spoke of five.

“We are now on duty. There will be more operations,” he said. “We warn the population not to cooperate with Daash in any way.”

The demolitions even appear to have alienated some of IS’ traditional following.

“You claim to follow in the path of the Prophet (Mohammed), but you are the first to stray from his word,” said one member of a jihadist Internet forum, writing under the name Faruq al-Iraq.

He said there was no theological justification for destroying the shrines, an argument echoed by many other posts from users who, only weeks ago, had fully endorsed the “caliphate” proclaimed by IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last month.

By blowing up some of the ancient city’s proudest heritage, Mosul’s jihadist rulers may have become the architects of their own downfall, as fear slowly gives way to outrage.

“I think popular opposition may be the only way left to save the remaining historic monuments,” Ihsan Fethi, from the Iraq Architects Society, said after the first destructions.

“I know I am asking and hoping for a very difficult action in view of the horrific record of these fanatics but some courage is needed now before it is too late,” he said.

– Mosul’s Eiffel Tower –

There are signs that his wish could come true.

When IS militants announced that the “hunchback” (Hadba), a 12th century minaret that leans like the Tower of Pisa, was next some residents formed a human chain to protect it, witnesses said.

“That might just be what turns it around,” said Patrick Skinner, an analyst with the US-based intelligence consultancy Soufan Group.

“IS militants don’t have numbers on their side if enough people say enough,” he said. “There would be bloodshed, but they could kick IS out in hours.”

Mosul has a population of around two million while IS fighters in the city are thought to number between 5,000 and 10,000.

Skinner said IS militants were likely aware they could be overplaying their hand by blowing up the Hadba, a national icon featured on 10,000 dinar banknotes.

“This is like Mosul’s own Eiffel Tower. I would think (its destruction) would trigger what is missing in Iraq: a national reaction… So I imagine there’s a calculation on the part of IS.”

Nujaifi said a grassroots Sunni mobilization against IS was the necessary starting point of any fightback and he appealed for foreign assistance.

“For the moment, the Mosul Brigades have no funding and nothing but themselves. If they get support and supplies, they can defeat Daash, because they have support from a majority of Muslawis (Mosul residents),” he said.

“In the meantime, they can at least ensure that Daash does not enjoy peace.”

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=67368.

Omar al-Jaffal

July 27, 2014

In his weekly speech delivered July 23, caretaker Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appeared as if he had lost a regional ally. On July 15, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan allowed 150 opposition Iraqi figures from various religious, tribal, armed and Baathist factions to convene a two-day conference in Amman. The participants called on the international community to “end its support for the current government” and “back the people’s revolution and its demands.” Jordan was thus been transformed into a host for figures who strongly oppose Maliki, among them the businessman Khamis al-Khanjar, who backed the 2013 demonstrations in Anbar.

Iraqi reactions to the conference were sharp. Some parliamentarians suggested that the government sever economic ties with Jordan and withdraw its preferential prices for oil exports. Others described the conference as an attempt to undermine the political process in Iraq, which prompted the Foreign Ministry to recall Baghdad’s ambassador from Jordan for consultation.

Despite a number of participants proclaiming the Jordanian government’s sponsorship of the conference, Amman categorically denied doing so. In this regard, Jordanian author and journalist Mohammad al-Fadeilat told Al-Monitor in a phone interview, “Jordan was endeavoring to appease Iraqi anger about Amman’s hosting of a conference of revolutionary forces that called for the toppling of outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.”

The conference was held amid a deteriorating political and security situation in Iraq, with tensions mounting between the Baghdad central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government and with Sunni factions rebelling against the government. This situation led to the fall of a number of Iraqi cities to militants of the Islamic State (IS) and allied armed tribal factions and former members of the constitutionally outlawed Baath Party.

The conference represented a new development on many levels for the factions opposing the Maliki government. None of the Sunni personalities or parties taking part in the Iraqi political process were in attendance, yet numerous Sunni lawmakers called afterward for considering some of the conference resolutions, which reflect the demands of the Iraqi Sunnis who have become a problem for the Maliki government, which they continually describe as “sectarian.”

The conference could be viewed as the embodiment of the 13 demands raised by demonstrators in four Sunni provinces in 2013. Maliki’s government never took the demands seriously or made an effort to address them, leading to matters further deteriorating on the ground. The struggle came to a head in the Hawija incident in April, when 54 demonstrators were killed.

It appears that an understanding cannot be reached between any Maliki-led government and opposition members who assert that they were “forced to defend themselves with weapons.” The closing statement of the conference considered the removal of “Maliki as a prelude to any future political process to save Iraq.”

Meanwhile, on July 23, Maliki expressed his regret that “we are seeing on television screens a conference of blood mongers who embrace sectarianism and terrorism, meeting in a brotherly neighborly country, with which we have strong friendly ties.” He also said that he hoped that “Jordan’s position vis-à-vis the conference would reflect the friendship and relationship that exists between the two countries.”

In addition, Fadeilat, who attended the conference in his capacity as a journalist, stated, “The Kingdom of Jordan is concerned about losing the oil privileges offered by its easterly neighbor. But it is finding itself in a difficult situation as it tries to appease Maliki without repudiating the conference, which received official Jordanian support in a clear show of political bias against the Maliki administration, and the danger of the latter falling under the control of the Shiite crescent [Iranian influence], decried by the Jordanian monarch.” Fadeilat also concluded, “Prior to defining its future relationship with Baghdad, Jordan awaits the results of the Iraqi political process in light of the events on the ground.”

Source: al-Monitor.

Link: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/07/opposition-coonference-maliki-jordan.html.

2014-07-26

Jihadists from Islamic State group blow up Shiite shrine in city of Mosul, one day after completely leveling reputed tomb of Jonah in Mosul.

MOSUL – Sunni militants from the Islamic State group that controls large parts of Iraq have blown up a Shiite shrine in the city of Mosul, an official and witnesses said Saturday.

Jihadists destroyed the Nabi Shiyt (Prophet Seth) shrine in Mosul, the de facto Iraqi capital of the “caliphate” proclaimed last month by Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

“IS militants stopped people from coming close, set explosives in and around the shrine and then detonated them as a crowd looked on,” one resident who witnessed the demolition said.

Seth is revered in Christianity, Islam and Judaism as the third son of Adam and Eve.

Sami al-Massoudi, the deputy head of the Shiite endowment agency overseeing holy sites, confirmed that militants blew up the Nabi Shiyt shrine and added that they took some of the artifacts to an unknown location.

“These people follow this impossible religious doctrine according to which they must destroy or kill anything or anybody deviating from their views,” he said.

“That simply has nothing to do with Islam.”

The latest destruction comes a day after IS militants completely leveled the reputed tomb of Jonah (Nabi Yunus) in Mosul, sparking an outcry among religious officials.

“This most recent outrage is yet another demonstration of the terrorist group’s intention to shatter Iraq’s shared heritage and identity,” the top UN envoy in Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, said.

Moqtada Sadr, a Shiite cleric whose followers have taken up arms to protect endangered holy sites, also condemned the demolition of the Nabi Yunus shrine.

“He was a prophet for all religions,” Sadr said in a statement, adding that the perpetrators of the desecration “don’t deserve to live”.

Sunni and Shiite religious officials have said IS militants had destroyed or damaged dozens of shrines and husseiniyas in and around Mosul since they overran part of the country six weeks ago.

Husseiniyas are Shiite places of worship that are also used as community centers.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=67330.

November 20, 2014

ISTANBUL (AP) — With Turkey’s government-run refugee camps operating at full capacity, more than 1 million Syrian refugees who have flocked to Turkey to escape fighting at home are struggling to survive on their own, according to an Amnesty International report released Thursday.

Turkey, which hosts half of the 3.2 million refugees who have fled Syria, is shouldering the heaviest burden of what the report calls the world’s worst refugee crisis in a generation. “In three days in September 2014, Turkey received some 130,000 refugees from Syria — more than the entire European Union had in the past three years,” the report said.

It also detailed cases where Turkish border guards have abused — even killed — refugees trying to enter the country. An estimated 1.6 million Syrian refugees have entered Turkey since the Syrian war began in March 2011. About 220,000 are living in 22 government-run camps that offer food and essential services, the report said. The remaining 1.38 million — more than 85 percent — are living outside the camps, mostly in communities along the Turkey-Syrian border. An estimated 330,000 live in Istanbul, the Turkish commercial capital.

So far, Turkey has spent about $4 billion on Syrian refugees and granted free health care to all Syrian refugees in the country. The report said while Turkey has an open-border policy for Syrian refugees, there are just two fully open crossings along its 900-kilometer (560-mile) border. Even at those crossings, the report said, people without passports are being denied entrance unless they have urgent needs. Other refugees trek into Turkey through often dangerous crossing points.

According to Amnesty, at least 17 people were shot and killed by border guards at unofficial crossing points between December 2013 and August. The report cited 10 other incidents in which 31 people were allegedly beaten by Turkish border guards. The organization has shared the information with Turkish authorities.

“Turkey is clearly struggling to meet even the most basic needs of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. The result is that many of those who have made it across the border have been abandoned to a life of destitution,” said Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s researcher on Turkey.

The report urged Turkey to “radically revise its border practices, ending the necessity for refugees to use dangerous irregular crossings.” Jordan is hosting 619,000 Syrian refugees and as of Oct. 14, Lebanon had registered 1.13 million, although the number in the country is believed to be far higher. Last month, Lebanon announced that it won’t accept any more Syrian refugees except in special cases. Refugees already make up nearly a quarter of Lebanon’s population of 5 million, stretching the tiny Mediterranean nation’s already fragile infrastructure.

Of the United Nation’s funding appeal for $3.74 billion to aid Syrians, only 51 percent has been received, the report said.