Archive for November 21, 2014


October 10, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — To get a home or an office built in the central Iraqi province of Salahuddin, contractors have usually had to pay hefty bribes to corrupt officials in Baghdad to clear away the red tape.

It was just one example of the heavy hand that the central government holds over even the smallest details of life in Iraq’s provinces. That hand was often corrupt as well. Around 70 percent of the projects that the government committed to fund in Salahuddin existed only on paper, according to Najih al-Mizan, a Sunni lawmaker from the province.

“Some of the funds allocated to the province go missing in Baghdad,” said al-Mizan. The combination of interference and neglect from the Shiite-led government in Baghdad was one reason why many among the predominantly Sunni population of Salahuddin saw the Islamic State group as a possible alternative when its extremist fighters swept into the province the past month, al-Mizan said. People there were so fed up with Baghdad, they were desperate for something new.

Now, Iraq’s new government, beleaguered by the Sunni militant onslaught over much of the country, is making a concerted effort to empower local and provincial governments. The aim is in part to draw Sunni support away from the extremists. But it is also a calculation that it is better to have a controlled decentralization of power than to see the country outright fall apart into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish fragments, as many fear.

Until recently in Iraq, getting anything done on a provincial level — even routine business like hiring a street cleaner — required approval from Baghdad. Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish populations alike have long complained that the central government monopolized power and horded resources, leaving outlying regions to fend for themselves.

Provinces that are home to the Sunni minority have long felt the brunt of discrimination from Shiite authorities in Baghdad, who the Sunnis say would often either neglect their needs or exploit them through corruption. But Shiite provinces were neglected as well, particularly those dominated by Shiite parties not in favor in the capital.

The exclusion intensified feelings of resentment toward the government of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, even among one-time loyalists. That resentment finally led to al-Maliki’s replacement last month.

The Islamic State group, which now holds territory stretching from northern Syria across Sunni regions of northern and western Iraq down to the edges of Baghdad, has intentionally sought to benefit from the Sunni resentments of Baghdad. Part of its core strategy has been to establish administration over the land that it controls to win over the population. The group administers courts, cleans streets, fixes roads and even polices traffic.

Haider al-Abadi, named Iraq’s prime minister on Sept. 8, has made decentralization a paramount theme in his platform. He plans to give greater autonomy to provincial governments and construct a national guard in which recruits and leadership are conscripted from local populations.

“We have to move away from governing from the center, which is Baghdad, and having to decide all the details for the different governorates — that’s important for us,” al-Abadi said in a Sept. 17 interview with The Associated Press. “We want to have a real federal state according to the constitution,” by giving provinces more power and involving them more in the central government’s decision-making for the whole of Iraq.

Decentralization has failed to take off in the past. In 2013, parliament revised a law on provincial powers to spread authorities but the changes were never carried out. The constitution itself — written under heavy U.S. influence after the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein — has strong provisions for decentralization. It allows several provinces to vote to form a region together that would have a large degree of autonomy. That raises the possibility of a Sunni-dominated region in the center and a Shiite-dominated one in the south, similar to the already existing semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north.

No individual province has tried to officially start the process to create a region, but there have been calls. This week, protesters in the southern city of Basra held demonstrations demanding greater decentralization.

But decentralization also gets lost in the thicket of disputes between Baghdad and the provinces over issues ranging from annual budgets, investment, security, sharing of resources and balance of powers.

The Shiite-majority city of Basra, for example, has everything and nothing. It has little access to drinking water, systematic garbage collection or decent health care — ironic, since Basra is the biggest contributor to Iraq’s annual budget with its robust oil reserves.

“We are not even able to build houses for poor people because we have no control over most of Basra’s land,” said Sabah al-Bazaouni, a member of Basra’s provincial council. “The Oil Ministry has the upper hand in this issue (and) does not care whether our people are living in houses or on the sidewalk.”

Iraq has had a long history of autocratic rule since gaining independence from the British in 1932, with the central government in Baghdad maintaining a tight grip on all provincial matters. At the time, only the Kurds fought the centralized model of governance as it stymied their ambitions for an independent Kurdish state.

But in the decades that followed, Shiites clashed with the Sunni-led government claiming that they were treated like second-class citizens, persecuted, arrested, and denied basic rights. When the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam in 2003, tables turned and Sunnis expressed similar grievances about the Shiites who came to power.

One complaint voiced particularly by Sunnis and Kurds is over abuses by the security forces and Shiite militias. Al-Maliki inflamed tensions in the military by dismissing some Sunni officers and replacing them with Shiite officers loyal to him.

Al-Abadi cited the problem of indiscriminant shelling of urban areas by the military as a source of bitterness toward the central government, and within days of taking office he banned the armed forces from such shelling. The national guard plan also aims to reduce the resentments by bringing locals more into security duties.

But the fear over decentralization has always been that empowering provinces will only get the ball rolling faster toward the disintegration of the war-torn nation. “There is the risk that federalism may eventually lead to secessionism,” said Ramzy Mardini, an Iraq expert at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. “It has already taken root in Iraqi Kurdistan, and once the territorial integrity of Iraq is compromised, there’s no assurance that things won’t unravel further.”

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By Annabell Van den Berghe

ERBIL, Iraq, Oct 7 2014 (IPS) – “We had ten minutes to leave our hometown,” says 33-year-old Kamal Faris who, together with his entire family, was forced to flee the threat of Islamic State (IS) fighters approaching his village.

The IS advance in this region, the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, has swelled the number of refugees. Overall, they are now estimated at more than 1.8 million people.

A small minority has found a temporary home with relatives living in other, safer cities, but for most of the refugees, this was not an option and entire families became refugees overnight. Faris’ family is one of them.

After what he says was the worst journey in his life, 33-year-old Kamal Faris arrived in Erbil with his wife, children, mother and his blind brother. “There were ten of us. We all had to fit into a tiny Opel, and drive away as fast as we could. We left everything behind, all our belongings,” he says, pointing at his feet, showing that he only brought the sandals that he was wearing.

“The children were sitting in the car with three on each other’s lap, their faces pale with fear. Inside me, everything was cracking from the pain of seeing them like that.”

Under normal circumstances, the drive from Sareshka, hometown of the Faris family, to Erbil takes three hours. But, recalls Faris, “we had to sit in a broiling car for over five hours, everybody was fleeing the city. Roads were packed and our car couldn’t reach its usual speed because we were too many.”

“With every rough spot in the road,” he continues, “we could hear the chassis of the car scrape on the asphalt. Nobody dared to move, out of fear that the car would break down under our weight.”

When they arrived, it was in the middle of the summer holidays and schools that had earlier been full of children were now makeshift homes for refugees like Faris.

At the Ishtar Elementary School, where Faris is taking shelter with his family, he and other refugees had hoped that this would only be a temporary solution and that they would soon be able to return to their homes. “I thought it would only be temporary,” says Wazira, Faris’ wife. “Two, three days maybe. Not more.”

Faris and his family have now been here for more than a month, together with dozens of other families, packed into the narrow classrooms of the school in the center of Erbil.

Three weeks ago, schools had been due to open start the new school year but the at least 700 schools in the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq that have been turned into refugee camps were unable to open their doors again for classes. Having believed, like many refugees, that the situation would not last, the Iraqi government has not been able to find an alternative solution.

The upshot is that there are now more than half a million children who are not going to school as planned this year.

“Despite the efforts of the Iraqi authorities, the children who are currently living in these classrooms, as well as the children who are supposed to come here to follow classes, have no access to education,” said Save the Children’s director in Iraq, Tina Yu. She is concerned that it could take weeks or even months to solve the problem.

The United Nations has released a statement requesting its humanitarian agencies to do all that they can to help the government find proper accommodation for the refugee families, hopefully before winter sets in.

But, for the refugees, staying until the winter is far too long. “We just want to go home. As soon as possible,” says Wazira.

Source: Inter-Press Service.

Link: http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/schools-open-in-iraqi-kurdistan-but-for-refugees-not-students/.

September 30, 2014

KIRKUK, Iraq (AP) — When Sunni militants captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in June, Abu Sara and his family feared their town of Taza, located some 50 kilometers southeast of the city, would inevitably be next. Government soldiers had dropped their weapons and abandoned their posts — forcing residents to fend for themselves.

It wasn’t before long before the gas was cut, then the water, ahead of the imminent onslaught. The family was left with little choice but to flee to the closest city that could offer them safe haven — Kurdish-dominated Kirkuk.

But life has been filled with hardship for Abu Sara and the tens of thousands of Iraqi Arabs who escaped one opponent only to face another. Displaced Arabs who fled to oil-rich Kirkuk say tensions with the local Kurdish population have surged amid fears that Arabs are linked to the Islamic State militant group that has seized a third of the country. Local and displaced Arabs complain of discrimination and attack from Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga, accusing them of trying to assert a Kurdish majority through intimidation.

“When we walk in the streets we are looked at with suspicion,” Abu Sara said from his temporary residence at the home of Sheik Abdulrahman Menshed al-Assi, the head of the Sunni Obeid tribe in Kirkuk. “They assume we are all Daesh,” he added, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group, “and so they treat us like terrorists.”

Kurdish forces claimed control of long-disputed city just days after the Islamic State group advanced across northern Iraq, seizing major cities including Mosul and Tikrit. Kirkuk, located along the fluid line that separates Kurdish northern Iraq from the rest of the country, is home to Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, and all have competing claims to the oil-rich area. The Kurds have long wanted to incorporate the city into their semi-autonomous region, but Arabs and Turkmen are opposed.

In the courtyard alongside Abdullah Khalel Ibrahim’s family home in southern Kirkuk, the sound of a car bomb a few blocks away prompts a brief, disinterested pause in his conversation with displaced relatives staying with him. A lifelong resident of Kirkuk, Ibrahim said discrimination against Arabs is not new, but is on the rise.

“Kidnappings, killings, difficulties finding jobs, difficulties moving around freely,” he began, “all of that has doubled now. I lived in Kirkuk all my life and I feel unwelcome here.” Oum Hakem, his relative from Tikrit, said peshmerga soldiers almost denied her family entrance into the city when they were fleeing violence at home. “I have three college-age sons,” Oum Hakem said, preferring to provide only her nickname. “They did not want to let them in, but it was very important for them to settle someplace to take their (annual) exams.”

At government buildings across the city, pictures of Jalal Talibani, Iraq’s former president, decorate private offices, conference halls and corridors, underlying the overwhelming loyalty of many in Kirkuk to his People’s Union of Kurdistan.

Calls for Kurdish independence however have intensified since the militants began their lightening advance across northern Iraq. But to do so, the region would need a clear Kurdish majority, a status currently being undermined by a wave of refugees. At least 60,000 Arab and Turkmen displaced by the fighting have flooded into Kirkuk since June, according to Rakkan Ismail Ali, the province’s deputy governor, and more than a million have fled to northern Iraq this year. The influx is prompting major security concerns.

“The city is not ready,” said Ali, himself an Arab. “We don’t know how the security forces are dealing with the situation. With the current mess, (we can’t tell) if those who are coming to Kirkuk are Daesh or not,” he said.

The Islamic State militants have looked to capture a number of oil fields, power plants, dams and factories in Iraq and Syria and have made an effort to push toward Kirkuk itself, which is home to over 10 billion remaining barrels of proven oil reserves, making it an appealing prize.

U.S. airstrikes began on Aug. 8 to support Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces taking on the Islamic State, and a number of countries have moved to support the Kurds with newer, more sophisticated weapons to boost their capabilities on the battle field. U.S. Central Command has reported a number of airstrikes near Kirkuk, including an attack on an Islamic State convoy this week.

Peshmerga soldiers who spoke to The Associated Press acknowledged that practices of exclusion take place at many of the checkpoints across the city, but insisted that it is strictly a security precaution.

“Peshmerga are now surrounding the borders of Kirkuk,” and we have to pick out civilians from militants every day, said peshmerga Lt. Gen. Asso Ali, adding that sometimes that requires screening certain people in times of uncertainty. “It’s our responsibility to keep the city safe.”

01 Sep 2014

Iraqi Kurdish forces and Shia armed volunteers have retaken more northern towns from the Islamic State group, killing at least two of its senior fighters, sources have told Al Jazeera.

A day after breaking the siege in the town of Amerli north of Baghdad, government forces retook the town of Sulaiman Bek on Monday, removing another key stronghold of the Islamic State group.

Iraqi officials said they killed, Mussab Mamoud, the town’s Islamic State head, and Mazen Zaki, the military wing commander, along with more than 20 other Sunni rebel fighters.

Iraqi security officials said eight of the fighters were Chechen. They also said the fighters include dozens of nationalities, including experienced Chechen snipers.

Government forces are still trying to clear the town of explosives left by the armed group which was previously known as ISIL.

Iraqi security forces backed by Shia armed volunteers have now begun clearing operations – meant to flush out remaining fighters and detonate bombs laid by the fighters and expected to take several days.

The small farming town became an Islamic State stronghold after it was seized last year by Jaish al-Tariqiyah al-Naqshabandiyah – Baath party loyalists led by Saddam Hussein’s former deputy Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri.

Iraqi security forces took it back and occupied the town, only to lose it in the sweep by Islamic State fighters through vast areas of Iraq’s north and west.

“The town of Suleiman Bek has been liberated from Islamic State by the Iraqi Army and Peshmerga as well as local volunteers including the Peace Brigade, Badr Corps and Asaib Ahel-al-Haq,” General Abdul Amir al-Zaidi, head of the Dijala Operations commander told Al Jazeera.

The Peace Brigade is an offshoot of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s former armed group the Mehdi Army, while Asaib Ahel-al-Haq is an Iranian-backed group that has now entered Iraq’s political mainstream.

Security sources said fighting was also ongoing to retake the remaining villages still held by Islamic State fighters.

Sulaiman Bek is located near Amerli, where thousands of mainly Shia Turkmen civilians were trapped by the Islamic State siege until Iraqi forces broke through on Sunday.

With the latest government advance, half of the main road between the northern city of Kirkuk and Baghdad is now under the control of the Iraqi army, from the southern side of Amerli to the north of Baghdad. The other half linking the road between Tuz Kharmatu to Sulaiman Bek is still contested.

Offensive against IS

The Amerli operation on Sunday was the government’s biggest offensive success since the Islamic State captured a huge chunk of northern and north-central Iraq in June.

The southern entry point of the town is now cleared by the Iraqi forces, and other local volunteers and government recruits backed by the Shia armed groups Peace Brigades and Badr Corps.

These combined forces are trying on Monday to break into the other northern and western villages surrounding Amerli to push back the Islamic State.

On the west entry point of the town 100km from Tikrit City, which has a number of villages controlled and affiliated to Islamic State, the clashes is also continuing between the Sunni rebel group and the local volunteers from within the town itself backed by Iraqi forces.

The breakthrough against the Islamic State was aided by expanded US air strikes, which destroyed Islamc State armed vehicles near Amerli as well as near Mosul Dam further north.

On Saturday, the US military attacked Islamic State positions and along with the French and Australians airdropped humanitarian aid to the trapped civilians, mostly Shia Turkmen minority. The US Central Command said the aid drop was accompanied by British fighter jets.

In the previous weeks, the US forces have conducted airstrikes in support of Iraqi and Kurdish forces on the ground, fighting against the Islamic State, which controls large areas in Syria and Iraq.

Source: al-Jazeera.

Link: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/09/iraq-retakes-more-towns-from-islamic-state-20149183142780549.html.

August 31, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi security forces and Shiite militiamen on Sunday broke a six-week siege imposed by the Islamic State extremist group on the northern Shiite Turkmen town of Amirli, as a suicide bombing killed 14 people in Anbar western province, officials said.

Army spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said the operation started at dawn Sunday and the forces entered the town shortly after midday. Speaking live on state TV, al-Moussawi said the forces suffered “some causalities,” but did not give a specific number. He said fighting was “still ongoing to clear the surrounding villages.”

Breaking the siege was a “big achievement and an important victory” he said, for all involved: the Iraqi army, elite troops, Kurdish fighters and Shiite militias. Turkmen lawmaker Fawzi Akram al-Tarzi said they entered the town from two directions and were distributing aid to residents.

About 15,000 Shiite Turkmens were stranded in the farming community, some 105 miles (170 kilometers) north of Baghdad. Instead of fleeing in the face of the Islamic State group’s rampage across northern Iraq in June, the Shiite Turkmens stayed and fortified their town with trenches and armed positions.

Residents succeeded in fending off the initial attack in June, but Amirli has been surrounded by the militants since mid-July. Many residents said the Iraqi military’s efforts to fly in food, water and other aid had not been enough, as they endured the oppressive August heat with virtually no electricity or running water.

Nihad al-Bayati, who had taken up arms with fellow residents to defend the town, said some army units had already entered while the Shiite militiamen were stationed in the outskirts. He said residents had fired into the air to celebrate the arrival of the troops.

“We thank God for this victory over terrorists,” al-Bayati told The Associated Press by phone from the outskirts of Amirli. “The people of Amirli are very happy to see that their ordeal is over and that the terrorists are being defeated by Iraqi forces. It is a great day in our life.”

State TV stopped regular programs and started airing patriotic songs following the victory announcement, praising the country’s security forces. They have been fighting the militants for weeks without achieving significant progress on the ground.

On Saturday, the U.S. conducted airstrikes against the Sunni militants and air-dropped humanitarian aid to residents. Aircraft from Australia, France and Britain joined the U.S. in the aid drop, which came after a request from the Iraqi government.

The Pentagon’s press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, said military operations would be limited in scope and duration as needed to address the humanitarian crisis in Amirli and protect the civilians trapped in the town.

The Islamic State extremist group has seized cities, towns and vast tracts of land in northeastern Syria and northern and western Iraq. It views Shiites as apostates and has carried out a number of massacres and beheadings — often posting grisly videos and photos of the atrocities online.

The U.S. started launching airstrikes against the Islamic State extremist group earlier this month to prevent the insurgents from advancing on the Kurdish regional capital Irbil and to help protect members of the Yazidi religious minority stranded on Mount Sinjar, in Iraq’s northwest, where U.S. planes also dropped humanitarian aid.

The U.S. also launched airstrikes near Mosul Dam — the largest in Iraq — allowing Iraqi and Kurdish forces to retake the facility, which had been captured by Islamic State fighters. Earlier Saturday, the U.S. Central Command said five more airstrikes had targeted Islamic State militants near Mosul Dam. Those attacks, carried out by fighter aircraft and unmanned drones, brought to 115 the total number of airstrikes across Iraq since Aug. 8.

On Sunday night, police officials said a suicide driver rammed an explosives-laden car into a police checkpoint in Ramadi city, killing 14 people, including nine policemen. About 27 people were also wounded in the attack.

Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar province, is 115 kilometers (70 miles) west of Baghdad. Hospital officials confirmed the casualties. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin contributed from Baghdad.

 

August 29, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — As Islamic militants rampaged across northern Iraq in June, seizing vast swaths of territory and driving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, the Shiite Turkmens living in the hardscrabble town of Amirli decided to stay and fight.

The wheat and barley farmers took up arms, dug trenches and posted gunmen on the rooftops, and against all odds they have kept the Islamic State extremist group out of the town of 15,000 people. But residents say they are running low on food and water despite Iraqi army airlifts, and after more than six weeks under siege they don’t know how much longer they can hold out.

“We are using all of our efforts, all of our strength to protect our city and protect our homes,” Nihad al-Bayati, an oil engineer now fighting on the outskirts of the town, told The Associated Press by phone. “There is no other solution. If we have to die, so be it.”

Every three days he makes his way back into the town to see his family. He travels on back roads, hoping to avoid shelling and snipers, and keeps an eye out for flying checkpoints manned by Islamic State militants who would surely kill him.

In Amirli his extended family — 17 women and children — share a single room. They have no electricity, and food and water is extremely scarce. During the day temperatures soar well above 110 degrees, and on some nights shells rain down on the town, forcing the family to huddle indoors in the darkness and stifling heat.

A few of the men on the front lines have access to power generators for one to two hours per day and are able to charge their phones in order to maintain contact with the outside world. Residents say militants with the Islamic State group first approached the town in late June. When the townsmen fought them off, the militants retaliated by blowing up the main power station to the north, according to Ali al-Bayati, head of the Turkmen Saving Foundation, a local NGO. The insurgents also destroyed several water wells on the outskirts of the town, he said.

The town, located some 170 kilometers (105 miles) north of Baghdad, has been completely surrounded by the insurgents since mid-July. The Iraqi military has been flying in food, medicine and weapons, but residents say the aid isn’t enough, and that many are falling victim to disease and heat stroke in the relentless August heat.

“The food we are getting only meets 5 percent of our need,” said Qassim Jawad Hussein, a father of five living in Amirli who also spoke to the AP by phone. He said two Iraqi military helicopters landed Tuesday with 240 boxes of beans, rice, lentils, sugar, tomato paste and cooking oil. The helicopters have also evacuated the sick and wounded, but only have room for those most in need of care.

They face a far worse fate if the town falls. The Islamic State group, which has carved out a vast, self-styled caliphate straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border, views Shiites as apostates. The group has posted grisly videos and photos of mass killings and beheadings, including the killing of American journalist James Foley, who was captured in Syria.

Amirli is no stranger to extremist violence. In 2007 a truck carrying 4.5 tons of explosives concealed under watermelons exploded in the town center, leveling dozens of mud brick homes and killing at least 150 people, making it one of the deadliest single bombings in Iraq. That attack was blamed on al-Qaida in Iraq, a precursor to the Islamic State group.

Earlier this week, the UN Special Representative for Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, called for immediate action in Amirli “to prevent the possible massacre of its citizens.” The Obama administration, which has carried out airstrikes and aid flights to protect the Kurdish autonomous region and religious minorities elsewhere in northern Iraq, is weighing an aid operation in Amirli, three U.S. defense officials said earlier this week on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal deliberations.

Iraqi troops loyal to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad are trying to relieve the town by breaking the blockade with an incursion from the west. Their U.S.-made Apache helicopters have targeted militant positions with airstrikes, but ground troops have faced fierce resistance from the insurgents, who have also slowed their progress with booby-trapped homes and roadside bombs.

Amirli has “become an iconic point of resistance for the Shiites in Iraq,” said Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute who made numerous visits to the town before the latest fighting began. “It is the last non-Sunni community that is totally exposed to (the Islamic State) right now, and it is fully encircled.”

Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.

August 23, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — For nearly a decade Abu Omar has been fleeing Iraq’s many conflicts, but they always seem to catch up to him.

In his Sunni family’s ancestral home in Fallujah it was the heavy shelling — first by the Americans in 2004 and then again this past January, when the walls shook and the roof caved in over their heads. In the Baghdad neighborhood where they have twice sought refuge, it is the persistent fear of a late-night knock on the door by shadowy sectarian militias.

Abu Omar’s grim odyssey is shared by countless members of Iraq’s once-dominant Sunni minority, who feel maligned by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, hounded by its security forces and increasingly threatened, once again, by the militias that terrorized them during the darkest days of sectarian bloodletting in 2006 and 2007.

Their grievances have metastasized since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003 and handed power to the long-oppressed Shiite majority. Their anger fueled the rampage of Sunni militants across northern and western Iraq this summer, and the militant onslaught has aggravated sectarian tensions elsewhere, again driving Iraq to the brink of civil war.

After a humiliating retreat from much of the north in June, the Iraqi military managed to halt the offensive by the Islamic State extremist group on the outskirts of Baghdad. But in the mostly Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah in the heart of the capital, Abu Omar feels he is under a different kind of siege.

The patriarch of a 13-member family says he’s afraid to let his sons leave Azamiyah because their names give them away as Sunni. “They hear Omar and Othman and right away think they are with Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. “The (Shiite) militias want to make trouble for anyone who is Sunni.”

The family, which asked that their last name not be published for fear of harassment, first fled to Azamiyah from Fallujah in 2005, when U.S.-led forces launched a massive assault on the restive western town aimed at rooting out insurgents.

Two years later they returned to Fallujah, fleeing the sectarian violence then engulfing the capital, when Sunni and Shiite militants abducted and killed scores of people every day, leaving the streets littered with corpses, many bearing signs of torture.

The worst of the sectarian violence subsided in the following years under the leadership of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who deployed the military against Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias and briefly united Iraqis under the banner of security.

But Sunnis, who supplied the country’s rulers from Ottoman times until the 2003 invasion, say the grievances underpinning the insurgency — the discrimination, the mass arrests and the prosecution of top Sunni leaders — only grew worse, eventually paving the way for the militant takeover of nearly one-third of the country.

Late last year the Islamic State group and allied Sunni militants seized Fallujah, and in a grim repeat of 2005 the Iraqi military surrounded the city and began bombarding it. The shelling was even worse this time, Abu Omar said, and when the roof collapsed, he and his family returned to Baghdad — again seeking what can only be described as relative safety.

The decision by al-Maliki to step down earlier this month in favor of Haider al-Abadi, a fellow member of his Shiite Islamic Dawa Party, has raised hopes for a more inclusive government that can address Sunni grievances and present a united front against the Islamic extremists.

Sunni lawmaker Ahmed al-Misari told The Associated Press al-Abadi has an “historical opportunity” to reverse tensions that have festered under the previous Shiite-led governments. But he said al-Abadi must respond to Sunni demands, including “abolishing anti-terrorism laws, ending the discrimination against people and letting the people in Sunni provinces handle their own security.”

Whether Shiite leaders can meet such demands at a time of war, and following years of near-daily car bombs and other attacks by Sunni insurgents, many targeting Shiite civilians, remains to be seen. Little is known about al-Abadi, a longtime lawmaker who until now had largely avoided the media spotlight.

And events on the ground may defy his best intentions. When al-Maliki and other leaders called on Iraqis to join the security forces after Sunni militants seized Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul in June, long-dormant Shiite militias mobilized yet again, holding parades in the capital in which they brandished heavy weapons.

Human Rights Watch said last month that government-backed militias have been kidnapping and killing Sunni civilians in Baghdad and surrounding provinces over the past five months. The rights group has also accused the government of carrying out “indiscriminate airstrikes” on four Sunni-majority towns and cities, including Fallujah and Mosul, which killed at least 75 civilians.

“The government seems to think that if people blame militias for killings it can wash its hands of the matter,” Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “The government needs to rein in these militias and call a halt to killing people just because of their sect.”

In the southern Shiite-majority city of Basra, nearly two dozen Sunnis reportedly have been killed and many more wounded in a spate of targeted killings and abductions since late June, the United Nations said Wednesday.

“In each incident the local community has expressed the view that the victims were targeted for no other reason than their faith,” said Francesco Motta, chief of the human rights section of the U.N. mission in Iraq. Authorities have listed the perpetrators as “unidentified gunmen” and no arrests have been made, he said.

In Azamiyah, residents say the Shiite militias returned, even before this summer’s militant blitz. In February 2013, Umm Mawloud, who also asked that her last name not be published, had just finished clearing off the dinner table when there was a knock at the door. When she opened it, around 30 men with assault rifles barged in, stealing money, laptops and cellphones, and even sifting through the family Quran to see if anything was hidden inside. When her son Mawloud and son-in-law Omar confronted the gunmen, they hustled both men out of the house. Neither has been heard from since.

“Go to every house in Azamiyah and everybody has a terrible story like ours,” Mouayed said. “We pleaded with everyone in the government to tell us where our sons are but nobody helped us. Will the next government be better? God only knows.”

Baghdad (AFP)

Aug 11, 2014

Iraq moved closer to turning the page on Nuri al-Maliki’s controversial reign Monday when his own clan spurned him for another prime minister to save the country from breakup.

The much-awaited political breakthrough in Baghdad came as Kurdish troops backed by US warplanes battled to turn the tide on two months of jihadist expansion in the north.

“The country is in your hands,” President Fuad Masum told Haidar al-Abadi after accepting his nomination by parliament’s Shiite bloc, in a move immediately welcomed by the United States.

Abadi, long considered a close Maliki ally, has 30 days to form a government, whose breadth the international community has stressed would determine Iraq’s ability to stop sectarian bloodshed.

Maliki, who has been in power since 2006, did not immediately react to the rebuke. While he could still seek to challenge the decision, he looked more isolated than ever.

His last appearance was when he gave a midnight address vowing to sue the president for failing to nominate him, in what looked like a desperate move by a beleaguered leader making his last stand.

Simultaneously, special forces and armored vehicles deployed across strategic locations in Baghdad.

The UN’s top envoy in Iraq called on the security forces to “refrain from actions that may be seen as interference in matters related to the democratic transfer of political authority.”

Washington had warned its erstwhile ally Maliki to “not stir those waters” and promptly welcomed Abadi’s nomination as a “key milestone”.

According to the White House, Abadi told US Vice President Joe Biden he intended “to move expeditiously to form a broad-based, inclusive government capable of countering the threat” posed by the Islamic State.

The jihadist group, which had already been controlling parts of Syria, launched an offensive on June 9, swiftly taking over the main northern city of Mosul before sweeping across much of the Sunni heartland.

Kurdish peshmerga initially fared better than federal troops but jihadist fighters carried out fresh attacks earlier this month, bringing them within striking distance of autonomous Kurdistan.

The threat to Kurdistan, where some US personnel is based, was one of the reasons Obama gave for sending drones and fighter jets, a potential game changer in the two-month-old conflict.

Obama’s other justification was what he said was the risk of an impending genocide against the Yazidi minority, many of whose members were trapped on a barren mountain for days after fleeing a jihadist attack.

US intervention appeared to make some impact on both fronts, with the Kurds reclaiming two towns on Thursday and more than 20,000 stranded Yazidis escaping their mountain death trap.

– Arming Kurds –

Their flight led to biblical scenes of traumatized civilians flocking back to Kurdistan after surviving with little food and water on Mount Sinjar, which legend holds as the final resting place of Noah’s Ark.

Several thousand were still thought to be hiding in the mountain however as the area remained far from safe on Monday.

Stretched thin along a 1,000-kilometer front, the peshmerga were defeated in Jalawla, a long way southeast from the US bombing’s targets, in a two-day battle that left 10 dead in their ranks.

Western powers were ramping up a coordinated effort to provide the Kurds with more arms to fight the Islamic State, which in late June proclaimed a “caliphate” straddling Iraq and Syria.

“We’re working with the government of Iraq to increasingly and very quickly get urgently needed arms to the Kurds,” a State Department spokeswoman said.

France also called for a European-wide mobilization to supply the autonomous region in northern Iraq with more weapons.

Western powers have also provided aid, air-dropping survival kits directly on Mount Sinjar or supporting the huge relief effort to cope with the hundreds of thousands of displaced people.

Many had come to see Maliki as partly responsible for the violence because the June offensive exposed the weakness of the armed forces and the support IS found in some areas revealed the level of disaffection felt among Sunnis.

People in a Sunni neighborhood of the city of Baquba gathered in the street and fired shots in the air to celebrate Maliki’s political defeat.

Abadi, a Shiite politician considered close to Maliki, was born in Baghdad in 1952 and returned from British exile in 2003 when US-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein.

“Up until recently, he’s been a Maliki surrogate. I have never seen much daylight between the two of them,” said Kirk Sowell, the Amman-based publisher of the Inside Iraqi Politics newsletter.

Maliki’s eight years in power

Baghdad (AFP) Aug 11, 2014 – Here are the main dates of the eight years in power of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Iraq, whose president on Monday appointed Haidar al-Abadi as his successor:

–2006–

– April 22: Newly-re-elected President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, announces that he asked Maliki, a Shiite, to form the next government, replacing Ibrahim Jaafari, who was contested by Sunnis and Kurds.

– May 21: A national unity cabinet is sworn in, dominated by Maliki’s United Iraqi Alliance which won most seats in parliamentary election.

– October 11: Parliament approves a law allowing the country’s 18 provinces to hold referendums to merge themselves into larger federal regions with a measure of self-government.

The law was opposed by some in the minority Sunni community, who feared that their group would be left only with a rump territory in the barren west and center of the country.

–2007–

– August 14, 2007: At least 400 are killed in the most deadly attacks since the overthrow of dictator Saddam Hussein in the US-led invasion of 2003, targeting members of the ancient Kurdish-speaking Yazidi religious sect in the northern province of Nineveh. Al-Qaeda is blamed.

In spite of the deployment of some 155,000 US soldiers, since the blowing up of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad, on February 22, 2006, Iraq goes through a bloody sectarian war that costs tens of thousands of lives up until 2008.

–2010–

– March 7: Parliamentary elections marred by sectarianism. Shiites vote for Maliki’s State of Law Alliance and the United Iraqi Alliance, while Sunnis vote for the secular Iraqiya bloc of Iyad Allawi. Neither side has enough seats to form a government.

– November: Political leaders announce a deal on the ethnic and sectarian make-up of the three main posts — president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament. Talabani is re-elected president and Maliki named prime minister.

– December 20: A government of national unity is set up, and completed in February, with Maliki holding the three vacant security porfolios on an interim basis.

–2011–

– February 3: The start of protests calling for improved public services, more jobs and less corruption and for broader political reforms.

– December 18: US troops complete their withdrawal, ending nearly nine years of occupation, leaving country mired in a political crisis.

A day later an arrest warrant is issued for Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, who takes refuge in Kurdistan. Iraqiya bloc briefly boycotts the cabinet.

–2012–

– December 23: The start of major protests, particularly in the Sunni province of Anbar, demanding Maliki’s ouster and accusing him of monopolizing power and discriminating against Sunnis.

–2013–

– April 23: Start of a week of clashes in Hawijah in northern Iraq between security forces and anti-government protesters allegedly infiltrated by militants that leave more than 240 dead.

According to the NGO Iraq Body Count, 2013 was the deadliest year since 2008, with 9,475 civilians killed.

–2014–

– January 2-4: Iraq loses control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi in Anbar province to Al-Qaeda-linked fighters, after security forces cleared an anti-government protest camp in December.

– April 30: Maliki wins the most seats in the first general election since US troops departed, but his State of Law alliance falls short of an overall majority.

– June 10: Hundreds of Sunni Arab militants, led by radical jihadists, seize Iraq’s second biggest city Mosul as government forces take flight. They go on to seize broad swathes of territory in the north and the west. On August 8, US jets strike jihadist positions.

– August 11: President Fuad Masum tasks Abadi with forming a government, moments after he was selected as nominee for prime minister by the National Alliance bloc.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Maliki_spurned_as_Iraq_president_nominates_new_PM_999.html.

August 09, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Thousands of members of a religious minority group under attack by Islamic extremists have fled across the border from Iraq to seek refuge with the Kurds of northeastern Syria, said two Kurdish officials and an activist on Saturday.

Ekrem Hasso and Juan Mohammad told The Associated Press that the Yazidis fled after Kurdish fighters were able to open a safe passage into Syria following clashes with the Islamic State group. Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, also said thousands of people have fled from Iraq into Syria but had no exact number.

The U.S. has launched airdrops to aid thousands of Yazidis who have been trapped on a mountaintop near the Syria border for days by the militants. The extremists have captured hundreds of Yazidi women, according to an Iraqi official, while thousands of other civilians have fled in fear as the militants seized a string of northern Iraqi towns and villages in recent days.

The Yazidis are a Kurdish speaking minority practicing an ancient pre-Islamic religion with links to Zoroastrianism. Mohammed, a spokesman for the local administration in the Syrian city of Qamishli, said there are currently about 7,000 people in Norouz Camp, which has about 300 tents, as well as thousands others who have arrived in other parts of the region.

“We are doing all we can to bring them to Rojava,” Mohammed said giving the name used by Kurds to refer to a predominantly Kurdish region in northeastern Syria. “People are dying on the way.” He added that some women have lost their children on the way because of exhaustion and fear. Talking about Yazidis who were able to make it into Syria he said they are arriving “in miserable conditions. They are barefoot, tired and left everything behind.”

“If we don’t help those people they will be subjected to genocide,” said Mohammed referring to the people who are still in Iraq. Mohammed said more than 20,000 Yazidis are on their way to Syria through the safe route but they and Kurdish fighters are coming under attack by Islamic State group fighters. He said that so far nine Kurdish fighters have been killed since Friday between Iraq and Syria while protecting the fleeing Yazidis.

Hasso, an official at administration of the Syrian Kurdish region known as Jazeera, said Kurdish fighters with the People’s Protection Units were able to open the safe route Thursday night after intense clashes with the Islamic State that left dozens dead or wounded. He said the majority of Iraqis arriving are Yazidis in addition to a smaller numbers of Christians.

The units are dominated by members of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, Syria’s most powerful Kurdish group, affiliated with the Turkish Kurdish movement PKK, which long fought for autonomy in southeastern Turkey.

Members of the units have been fighting against jihadis in northern Syria since last year and have been able to force them out of predominantly Kurdish areas. The oil-rich northeastern Syrian province of Hassakeh has its own Christians and Yazidis populations.

“Our (local) government is on alert and we call upon international relief agencies to come here and help us. We need tents, blankets and food,” said Hasso by telephone from the Norouz camp. He added that three other camps are also receiving Iraqis who are fleeing.

“The conditions are catastrophic here and our capabilities are very modest,” Hasso said adding that some Syrians have received Iraqis in their homes while others are donating food and clothes. The Yazidis practice an ancient religion that the Sunni Muslim radicals consider heretical. The Islamic state views Yazidis and Shiite Muslims as infidels, and has demanded Christians either convert to Islam or pay a special tax.

Baghdad (AFP)

Aug 04, 2014

ISIS warned Monday it would seek to further expand into autonomous Kurdish territory after claiming key towns and areas over the past 48 hours.

“Islamic State brigades have now reached the border triangle between Iraq, Syria and Turkey. May God Almighty allow his mujahideen to liberate the whole region,” it said in a statement.

ISIS listed the gains achieved over the weekend in what was its most significant territorial push since first sweeping across Iraq nearly two months ago.

It seized the large town of Sinjar on Sunday, as well as two others in the same area. It took the town of Zumar the previous day and is now threatening Mosul dam, the country’s largest.

“The mujahideen (holy fighters) conquered several areas controlled by secular Kurdish gangs and militias,” said the statement, issued by ISIS’ branch in the northwestern Iraqi province of Nineveh.

“In a day-long series of battles involving a variety of weapons… the apostate enemies were humiliated, dozens were killed and wounded and hundreds fled.”

The Kurdish government has not provided casualty figures nor commented on reports that several Kurdish peshmerga fighters were captured.

The areas ISIS fighters took were regions the peshmerga moved into in the initial chaos that saw government soldiers retreat in the face of the rebel offensive launched on June 9.

The latest fighting in Nineveh province means that the peshmerga have largely pulled back to the old borders of their autonomous region.

It also allows ISIS men to move easily between Iraq’s second city of Mosul, which they overran on June 10, and the Syrian border.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Iraq_jihadists_threaten_Kurds_after_battlefield_victories_999.html.