Archive for November 22, 2014


September 12, 2014

ISLAMABAD (AP) — The Pakistani military stepped up rescue efforts as floods wreaked havoc in more districts of the country’s eastern Punjab province on Friday, leaving hundreds of thousands a people homeless.

In neighboring India-controlled Kashmir, meanwhile, flood waters started receding but triggered concerns of possible spread of disease in the devastated areas. The floods, which began Sept. 3 in both sections of the divided Kashmir, have so far killed 264 people in Pakistan and the Pakistan-administered Kashmir while 200 have died in the India-controlled part of the disputed region.

Another wave of flooding is expected to hit southern Pakistan next week. After destroying hundreds of villages in the Jhang district this week, the floods on Friday hit three more Punjab districts — Multan, Bahwalpur and Rahim Yar Khan. Troops air-dropped food rations as three more deaths were registered there, according to disaster management spokeswoman Reema Zuberi.

The Pakistani army said its helicopters were plucking people from rooftops and air-dropping food in flood-hit areas. So far, the military rescued 29,295 people by helicopters and boats, while 47,963 were rescued by civilian rescue services, said Ali Imam Syed, an official with emergency services in eastern Punjab.

In neighboring India, officials said their military and private doctors set up medical camps to treat flood-affected people in India’s part of Kashmir, where water-borne diseases like cholera and diarrhea were reported.

Shakila Butt, who runs the Al Ameen hospital in the Indian part of Kashmir, appealed to authorities and non-governmental organizations to supply medicines as she expected an influx of patients in the coming days.

“There are chances of epidemic diseases,” she said. The Indian government said its army’s 80 medical teams treated over 21,500 patients this week at field hospitals in Avantipur, Pattan and Anantnag in the Kashmir valley.

The Indian army also set up 19 relief camps in Srinagar and elsewhere. Authorities in India said 84 transport aircraft and helicopters and 30,000 troops were participating in rescue operations. Pakistan and India have a history of uneasy ties, but relations have improved in recent years. Each side has offered to help the other recover from the floods, the worst to hit Pakistan since 2010, when some 1,700 people died.

Sharma reported from New Delhi. Associated Press writers Merajuddin and Shonal Ganguly in Srinagar, India, contributed to this report.

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November 20, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s prime minister said on Thursday that his country and neighboring Turkey have agreed on closer security and intelligence cooperation in the face of the threat posed by the Islamic State group.

“We have a key agreement to exchange information and have full security cooperation,” Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told a news conference after talks with his visiting Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu. “The Turkish prime minister also wants us to have military cooperation in the face of terrorism and Daesh and we welcome that,” said al-Abadi, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.

Davutoglu confirmed the two sides’ agreement on closer security cooperation. “I can say that Daesh threatens both Iraq and Turkey, but we will cooperate and do everything we can to stand up to terrorism,” he said. “There is a new page in relations between Turkey and Iraq and that is why I hope that there will be close cooperation between our security and intelligence agencies to defeat terrorism.”

The Turkish prime minister also rejected charges that his country facilitated the transit of militants through its territory to Syria. “Turkey receives 35 million tourists a year and we cannot stop people from entering unless we have a case against them,” he said in reply to a question. “There is no evidence or proof any Daesh leader transited through Turkey and if anyone has one he should come forward.”

About a third of Iraq, which shares a porous border with Turkey, is held by the Islamic State group. Earlier this year, the group declared a caliphate on the large swaths of territory under its control in both Iraq and Syria.

Relations recently soured between Turkey and Iraq over what Baghdad sees as illegal oil exports through Turkey by its Kurdish self-ruled northern region. Al-Abadi said on Thursday the two countries have reached an agreement on the issue but did not elaborate.

He said Davutoglu has made clear to him that Turkey was keen to have “transparent and clear” relations on the oil issue and that Baghdad would be informed of any Iraqi oil exports going through Turkish territory.

Baghdad moved to withhold the 17-percent share of the national budget normally earmarked for the Kurdish region — an estimated $20 billion — after the Kurds independently shipped oil to Turkey in January. In May, the Kurdish government sold 1.05 million barrels — worth more than $100 million at the time — in Turkey.

Negotiations between Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government yielded some progress last week after Baghdad agreed to release $500 million in frozen budget payments. In return, the Kurds will provide 150,000 barrels of oil per day for Baghdad to sell.

In Paris, the prosecutor’s office said investigators on Thursday formally opened a terrorism investigation into three French Islamic State recruits calling for attacks back home in a propaganda video.

The three men, who appear under Arabic pseudonyms, appear in a montage that also shows multiple French passports being burned in a campfire. They call on fellow French citizens to join them or carry out attacks in France.

Agnes Thibault-Lecuivre, spokeswoman for the Paris prosecutor’s office, said the anti-terrorism investigation would seek to identify the men. A former French fighter linked to the Islamic State group is accused in a deadly shooting at a Brussels Jewish museum, and European officials fear that newly radicalized and trained militant recruits will return from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq to cause havoc at home.

In the embattled northern Syrian town of Kobani along the Turkish border, the U.S.-led coalition carried out at least four airstrikes against Islamic State positions on Thursday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Islamic State militants launched their offensive against Kobani in mid-September. After an initial rapid advance, the campaign has slowed to a grind as they faced stout resistance from the town’s Kurdish defenders backed by international airstrikes.

Amnesty International has meanwhile called on the Turkish government to ensure safe passage for Syrian refugees seeking a safe haven in Turkey. In a new report, the London-based human rights watchdog said it has recorded at least 17 refugee deaths by border guards who used live ammunition at unofficial crossings between December 2013 and August this year.

Turkey is currently home to at least 1.6 million refugees from Syria, of which over 220,000 are accommodated in government-run refugee camps, Amnesty said. While Turkey maintains an open-border policy for Syrian refugees at official crossings, there are only two fully open crossing points along a 900-kilometer (559-mile) stretch of the border.

Associated Press reporters Lori Hinnant in Paris and Ryan Lucas in Beirut contributed to this report from Paris.

November 19, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Kurdish forces, backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, launched a new offensive Wednesday targeting the Islamic State group in areas of Iraq that the extremists had captured this past summer.

The operation came as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said details haven’t been finalized for a deal that would have his country train rebels to battle IS in Syria, where the militants also hold territory

A U.S.-led coalition is targeting IS from the sky in Iraq and Syria, supporting Western-backed Syrian rebels, Kurdish fighters and the Iraqi military on the ground. The strikes have helped halt the extremists’ move to take the Syrian city of Kobani near the Turkish border, and enabled Iraqi forces to make key advances.

The U.S. Central Command said that the U.S. and allied nations have conducted 24 airstrikes against IS militants in Iraq since Monday, a majority near the city of Kirkuk. In Syria this week, the coalition has carried out six airstrikes against IS. Most of the strikes targeting IS in Syria took place in Kobani, according to the statement.

On Tuesday, the Kurds captured six IS-controlled buildings in Kobani and confiscated a large amount of weapons and ammunition, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. In Iraq, the new offensive by Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, targeted areas in Diyala and Kirkuk provinces, said Jaber Yawer, a peshmerga spokesman. The IS extremists had seized the territory in their August offensive that saw them capture a third of Iraq.

In Diyala, the peshmerga worked with Iraqi security forces to retake the towns of Saadiya and Jalula, Yawer said. In Kirkuk, Kurdish forces backed by coalition airstrikes launched attacks to retake territory near the town of Kharbaroot, located 35 kilometers (22 miles) west of the city of Kirkuk.

The offensive began as a suicide car bomber struck in the heart of Irbil, killing at least five people, officials said. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the midday attack in the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, though authorities suspected the Islamic State group. Authorities also suspected IS in three Baghdad bombings that killed at least 10 people and wounded almost 30.

Turkey, while previously backing Syrian rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad, has been hesitant to aid the Kobani fight over its own fears about stoking Kurdish ambitions for an independent state. On Wednesday, Erdogan said no deal had been finalized for Turkey to train rebels under the auspices of the U.S.-led operation against IS.

“If we only talk about train and equip, we would be lying to ourselves,” Erdogan said, reiterating that overthrowing Assad must be a priority as well. Retired Marine Gen. John Allen, the U.S. envoy for the international coalition, held talks with Turkish officials in Ankara on Wednesday but few details were released.

The IS group has declared a self-styled Islamic caliphate in areas under its control in Iraq and Syria, governing it according to its violent interpretation of Shariah law. The group has carried out mass killings targeting government security forces, ethnic minorities and others against it, including a video released Sunday with militants showing they beheaded American aid worker Peter Kassig.

Among the militants in that video were two French citizens, identified by the government in Paris as Maxime Hauchard, 22, and Mickael Dos Santos, 22. Both men were said to have left for Syria in August 2013.

France also said Wednesday it would send an additional six fighter jets to back the U.S.-led coalition. The jets will be deployed next month to Jordan, reducing the flying time to Iraq, said Col. Gilles Jaron, a French military spokesman. France already has 12 aircraft taking part in strikes in Iraq.

Riechmann contributed from Istanbul. Associated Press writers Bram Janssen in Irbil, Iraq, Hamza Hendawi in Baghdad, Lori Hinnant and Jamey Keaten in Paris, Ryan Lucas in Beirut and Jon Gambrell in Cairo contributed to this report.

2014-11-15

By Marwan Ibrahim – KIRKUK

Iraqi forces broke a months-long siege by jihadist fighters of the country’s largest oil refinery Saturday as the top US officer flew in to discuss the expanded war against the Islamic State group.

Ousting IS fighters from around the refinery would mark another significant achievement for Baghdad, a day after pro-government forces retook the nearby town of Baiji.

“Iraqi forces… reached the gate of the refinery,” the governor of Salaheddin province, Raad al-Juburi, said.

Three officers confirmed that Iraqi forces had reached the refinery, 200 kilometers (120 miles) north of Baghdad, where security forces have been encircled and under repeated attack since June.

The new success for Iraqi forces came a day after they recaptured nearby Baiji, the largest town they have taken back since IS-led militants swept across Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland in June.

Fully clearing the Baiji area of jihadist fighters would further boost Baghdad’s momentum and cap a week which also saw pro-government forces retake a major dam.

A joint operation by the army and Shiite militia earlier this week wrested back the Adhaim Dam in the eastern province of Diyala.

A breakthrough preliminary deal reached on Thursday between the federal government and the autonomous Kurdish region on long-standing budget and oil disputes also raised the prospect of increased coordination in the fight against IS.

The group on Thursday released an audio recording purportedly of its chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, after rumors that air strikes may have killed or wounded him.

The IS group has had most of the initiative, both on the ground and in the propaganda war, in recent months.

But the man said to be Baghdadi seemed at pains to reassure his followers and the lack of video failed to dispel speculation he might still have been wounded.

America’s top military officer, General Martin Dempsey, arrived in Iraq for talks on the the further expansion of military operations against the jihadists.

A US-led coalition is carrying out air strikes against IS jihadists in both Iraq and Syria, while Washington has announced plans to increase the number of its military personnel in the country to up to 3,100.

Dempsey was to hold talks with “Iraqi political and security officials on (the) next phase of the campaign to defeat (IS),” Brett McGurk, the number two US envoy for the coalition battling the jihadist group, said on Twitter.

The US and other governments have pledged trainers and advisers to aid Iraqi security forces in their battle against IS.

American personnel are assessing possible deployment sites in Iraq, including Al-Asad Air Base in Anbar province, a key area that stretches from the borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the western approach to Baghdad.

The operation to retake Baiji began more than four weeks ago when security forces and pro-government fighters began advancing towards the town from the south, slowed by bombs militants had planted on the way, and finally entered the town on October 31.

The huge refinery once produced 300,000 barrels a day, accounting for half of the nation’s needs in refined oil products.

It is also on the road linking the two largest cities under jihadist control, Mosul and Tikrit.

Washington has repeatedly stated that it will not deploy “combat troops” to Iraq, but Dempsey said on Thursday that sending out advisers alongside Iraqi forces was something that “we’re certainly considering.”

As federal forces, Kurdish peshmerga, Sunni tribesmen and Shiite militia battle IS on several fronts, car bomb blasts in Baghdad continue to take a near-daily toll.

At least 17 people were killed in two explosions in northwestern neighborhoods of the capital.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=68934.

November 12, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s prime minister on Wednesday ordered his first major shakeup of his military since taking office three months ago, relieving 26 army officers of their commands and retiring 10 others as a monitoring group said airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group and other extremists in neighboring Syria have killed more than 860 people, including civilians, since they began in September.

The Iraqi military shakeup, which included the appointment of 18 new commanders, was ordered “as part of efforts to reinforce the work of the military on the basis of professionalism and fighting graft in all its forms,” according to a statement posted on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s official website.

“The aim is not to punish anyone, but rather to improve our military performance,” al-Abadi later said in comments to senior army officers. A government official said the shake-up followed the findings of a probe ordered last month by al-Abadi on corruption in the military. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Under Iraq’s constitution, al-Abadi, like Nouri al-Maliki before him, holds the post of General Commander of the Armed Forces. But it was al-Maliki, now a vice president, who had tightly controlled the military during his eight-year rule, with several elite units taking their orders directly from him.

Al-Maliki, in the final months of his administration, had spoken at length about corruption in the military — particularly in the wake of an embarrassing rout of Iraqi forces which saw the Islamic State militants capture about a third of the country in a few months. He cited cases where soldiers paid half their salary to their commanders so they could stay away from their units and work a second job. He also relieved several top commanders from their command and ordered others investigated for dereliction of duty.

Al-Abadi’s move comes as government security forces and Shiite militias have largely halted the Islamic State militants’ advance, even rolling them back from some areas with the help of coalition airstrikes. But heavy fighting still rages on multiple fronts, and attacks on government troops and civilians remain common, particularly in Baghdad.

On Wednesday, three bombings in and around the Iraqi capital killed at least 17 people and wounded nearly 40, police and hospital officials said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks, but they all bore the hallmarks of the Islamic State group’s tactics.

The deadliest bombing took place in the turbulent Youssifiyah district south of Baghdad, where a suicide car bomber hit an army checkpoint, killing six soldiers and wounding 16 people, including 10 civilians. Earlier in the day, a car bomb near a cluster of shops in western Baghdad killed six civilians and wounded 13 just minutes before a suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance of a nearby police station, killing five policemen and wounding 10.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, meanwhile, said on Wednesday that the vast majority of the more than 860 people killed in coalition airstrikes in Syria — 746 people — were Islamic State militants, while another 68 were members of al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front. At least 50 civilians, including eight children and five women, also have been killed in the airstrikes, the group said.

The U.S.-led coalition’s aerial campaign in Syria began before dawn on Sept. 23 in what President Barack Obama has called an effort to roll back and ultimately destroy the Islamic State group. The militant extremist group has been the primary target of the coalition’s strikes, although on at least two occasions the United States has targeted what it says is a specific cell within the Nusra Front allegedly plotting attacks against American interests.

In northern Syria, meanwhile, Kurdish forces defending the town of Kobani from Islamic State militants took control of much of a strategic hill overlooking the town, local official Idriss Nassan and Kurdish fighter Dalil Boras said.

Nassan also said the Kurds managed to secure a road on the southeastern side of the town that the Islamic State had used to ferry supplies and reinforcements to its fighters besieging Kobani. “This is big progress for the Kurdish forces,” Nassan said.

The U.S. Central Command said the U.S. and allied nations conducted sixteen airstrikes in Syria and seven in Iraq since Monday. Most of those airstrikes were carried out near Kobani. Elsewhere in Iraq, government forces backed by Shiite militiamen are facing tough resistance from Islamic State fighters in the refinery town of Beiji north of Baghdad, a day after they pushed militants out of the town center, according to two military officials reached there by telephone.

They said government forces were inching closer to the besieged refinery in Beiji, which accounts for a quarter of Iraq’s refining capacity. Lifting the siege of the refinery was the next objective in the campaign, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Lucas reported from Beirut.

Associated Press correspondent Zeina Karam in Beirut and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Boston contributed to this report.

November 11, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi soldiers battling the Islamic State group recaptured most of the town of Beiji, home to the country’s largest oil refinery, state television and a provincial governor said Tuesday.

The strategic town, 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Baghdad, will likely be a base for a future push to take back Saddam Hussein’s hometown just to the south, one of the main prizes overrun by the extremists last summer. But troops backed by Shiite militias faced pockets of stiff resistance around Beiji, hindering their advance.

There was no word on the fate of the refinery, which lies on Beiji’s northern outskirts, but the advances in the town could help break the five-month siege of the facility by Islamic State fighters. Since June, a small army unit inside the refinery, resupplied and reinforced by air, has successfully resisted wave after wave of extremist assaults.

Lifting the siege of the refinery, which sits inside a sprawling complex, was likely the next objective in the campaign to rid Beiji of the militants, according to military officials reached in the town by telephone.

Hours after news from Beiji broke, a suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden car into a military outpost in the Tarmiyah district north of Baghdad, killing seven soldiers and wounding 13 others, according to police and hospital officials. Those killed included the post’s commander, a major, and two other officers, a captain and lieutenant, they said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, but it bore the hallmarks of the militant Sunnis of the Islamic State group. Also, nine people were killed and 24 injured in three separate blasts in and around Baghdad.

State television quoted the top army commander in Beiji, Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, as saying troops recaptured Beiji’s local government and police headquarters at the center of the town. It aired footage taken Tuesday of army tanks and armored personnel carriers moving around the town’s dusty streets and a ball of white smoke rising in the background.

Al-Saadi later spoke to state television by telephone but the line appeared to be cut off after he said his forces were meeting stiff resistance. Three military officials later reached by The Associated Press in the town said the advancing army troops and Shiite militiamen are being slowed down by booby-trapped houses and ambushes.

Raed Ibrahim, the governor of Salahuddin province, where both Beiji and Tikrit are located, said the military had secured about 75 percent of the town as of Tuesday, retaking the center of the town and outlying districts. He said government forces continued to meet fierce resistance from the militants, whom he said were using suicide bombers to stall the military’s advance.

Ibrahim, speaking to the AP by telephone, also said booby-trapped buildings posed an added threat in Beiji. Neither the military officials nor Ibrahim gave casualty figures for the government forces or the militants.

The officials, however, said the forces had blocked access to Beiji from Anbar province, where militants control vast swaths of land, prior to their assault on the town to prevent militant reinforcements from reaching the city.

The military, police and hospital officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. Government officials in Baghdad offered no immediate comment on the news.

The Beiji oil refinery has a capacity of some 320,000 barrels a day, accounting for a quarter of Iraq’s refining capacity. A fire raged for days back in June at one of its storage units, but the refinery is believed to have also suffered major damage elsewhere.

Iraq’s army and security forces have partially regrouped after melting away in the face of the summer’s Islamic State group offensive. In recent weeks, they recaptured a string of small towns and villages, but taking Beiji would be strategically significant in what is shaping up to be a drawn-out campaign of attrition against the extremists.

Recapturing Beiji also would be a major boost for Iraq’s Shiite-led government. Airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition have aided Iraqi forces, militias and Kurdish peshmerga fighters battling Islamic State militants. Hundreds of U.S. advisers and trainers also have been working with the Iraqis.

U.S. Central Command said Monday that coalition aircraft conducted seven airstrikes near Beiji since Friday, destroying three small militant units, a sniper position and two militant vehicles, including one used for construction.

Meanwhile in Syria, U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura repeated his call for a truce in the northern city of Aleppo where rebels still hold large areas, although they are under increasing attack from advancing government forces. De Mistura, who met Syrian President Bashar Assad on Monday, said an Aleppo truce could be a step toward a wider resolution of the country’s civil war.

Assad has said the suggestion was “worth studying.” And in Qatar, ruling emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani warned that U.S.-led airstrikes won’t be enough to defeat “terrorism and extremism” in Iraq and Syria. Speaking to the Gulf nation’s legislative advisory council, he said the policies of Assad’s government and “some militias in Iraq” — a thinly-veiled reference to Iranian-backed Shiite militias — are the most important factors contributing to extremism in the two countries.

Qatar allows U.S.-led coalition forces to use its vast al-Udeid air base to launch airstrikes against IS positions in Syria and Iraq. It also has provided arms and other aid to Syrian rebels, but has come under fire from critics for its support of Islamist groups. Qatar denies the charge.

__ Associated Press writers Vivian Salama in Baghdad; Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Boston, Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria; Abdullah Rebhy in Doha, Qatar; and Diaa Hadid in Beirut contributed to this report.

November 03, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Islamic State group militants shot and killed 36 Sunni tribesmen, women and children in public Monday, an Iraqi official and a tribal leader said, pushing the total number of members slain by the extremists in recent days to more than 200.

Sheik Naim al-Gaoud, a senior figure in the Al Bu Nimr tribe, said the militant group killed 29 men, four women and three children, lining them up in the village of Ras al-Maa, north of Ramadi in Anbar province.

The tribal leader said that 120 families were still trapped there. “These massacres will be repeated in the coming days unless the government and its security forces help the trapped people,” al-Gaoud said.

An official with the Anbar governor’s office corroborated the account of Monday’s killings. He spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to brief journalists. Some Sunnis in Anbar province supported the militants when they seized Fallujah and parts of Ramadi in December. That came after widespread Sunni protests against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad for what they described as second-class treatment.

At least 214 members of the Al Bu Nimr tribe have been killed recently by the Islamic State group. Analysts believe IS may be trying to take revenge for the tribe’s siding with Iraqi security forces and, in the past, with U.S. forces. The killings are also likely intended as a warning to other Sunni tribes.

A number of Sunni tribes have played an important role in stalling the IS advance across Iraq, taking up arms and fighting alongside Iraqi security forces. A U.S.-led campaign of airstrikes is targeting the group as well, with nine strikes hitting its fighters Sunday and Monday in Beiji, Fallujah and Ar Rutbah, U.S. Central Command said.

Meanwhile, IS claimed responsibility for two bombing attacks against Shiite Muslim pilgrims that killed 23 people in Baghdad on Sunday. In a statement, the group boasted that the bombings took place despite the tight security measures protecting the Shiites’ “biggest infidel event.” The attacks targeted pilgrims on their way to the holy city of Karbala to mark the Ashoura holiday.

Ashoura commemorates the 7th-century death of Imam Hussein, a grandson of Prophet Muhammad and an iconic martyr among Shiites. Sunni insurgents frequently target Shiites, whom they consider heretics. In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the reported massacres of the Al Bu Nimr tribe and other attacks on Shiite pilgrims “proves once again that ISIL does not represent anything but its warped ideology,” using an acronym for the Islamic State group.

The attacks provide “more evidence, if any were needed, why our coalition partners, including Iraqis from every background, must work together to defeat these terrorists,” Psaki said Monday. Also Monday, police said a bomb struck a group of Shiite pilgrims, killing five people and wounding 11 in Baghdad’s southwestern suburb of Nahrawan.

Another bomb blast on a commercial street killed three people and wounded 11 others in Baghdad’s western district of Amil, police said. In the western suburbs of Baghdad, police said a roadside bomb blast struck an army patrol, killing two soldiers.

At night, police said three mortar shells landed on the edge of Baghdad’s district of Khazimiyah, where thousands of Shiites are converging to mark Ashoura, killing five people and wounding 17. Hospital officials confirmed the casualty figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to journalists.

Associated Press writer Lara Jakes in Washington contributed to this report.

October 22, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi students returned to school on Wednesday amid tightened security as the academic year began a month late because thousands of people displaced by last summer’s onslaught by the Islamic State group had taken shelter in school buildings.

But the day was marred by violence and after sunset, car bombings in Baghdad killed at least 29 people, police said. In the areas of northern and western Iraq captured by the extremist group earlier this year — including the country’s second largest city of Mosul — students are not required to attend classes, but will be able to watch lectures on state-run TV to prepare for final exams, Education Ministry spokeswoman Salama al-Hassan said.

She told The Associated Press only a few schools are still occupied by displaced families and that authorities have set up trailers to be used as classrooms. She could not provide a specific number for the students, but said around nine million attended classes last year.

More than 1.8 million people have been uprooted from their homes by the militants’ advance, with many sheltering in schools, mosques and abandoned buildings. Last month authorities decided to delay school by a month in order to provide alternate housing arrangements.

In Baghdad’s eastern Zayona neighborhood, hundreds of students in blue and white uniforms stood in lines in the school yard, chanting the national anthem and shouting “long live Iraq” before heading into class.

The road leading to Konous elementary school was blocked with razor wire as four policemen stood guard, highlighting security concerns in a city that has seen near-daily attacks by insurgents. Nawal al-Mihamadawi, the school principal, said she believed the security measures taken were enough.

Authorties said the schools would have classes every Saturday for the rest of the year to make up for the delay. But the security situation still worries some parents. “Considering the current bad security situation, we thought that the school year would never start, but thank God, my girl is attending classes today,” Omar Abdul-Wahab, 42, said as he accompanied his daughter to school.

Iraq’s schools closed during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion but opened weeks after the fall of Baghdad and operated normally even during the worst spasms of sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007. Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called on students to work hard “because with your success you will break the back of the enemy that means harm to the country.”

“You will be the cornerstone for a country with a prosperous future,” he said in a statement. Schools have also theoretically resumed inside the territories controlled by the Islamic State group. The militant group declared the start of the academic year on Sept. 9, but no students have shown up.

Early last month, the group set new rules for students and teachers in the areas it controls in Iraq and Syria and abolished classes about history, literature, music and Christianity. It also declared patriotic songs blasphemous and ordered certain pictures torn out of textbooks.

The group later announced the establishment of the “Islamic State Education Diwan” to oversee the schools and introduce the new curriculum. It stipulated that any reference to the republics of Iraq or Syria be replaced with “Islamic State.” Pictures that violate its ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam must be ripped out of books. And anthems and lyrics that encourage love of country are now viewed as a show of “polytheism and blasphemy,” and are strictly banned.

The new curriculum even went so far as to explicitly ban the teaching of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution — which was not previously taught in Iraqi schools. Abu Abdullah, a physician in Mosul who asked that his full name not be used for fear of retribution, said he did not send his three sons to school because he did not want them to be indoctrinated by the extremist group.

“I am sad to see my sons not able to continue their studies. They are missing a school year because of the political and sectarian struggle in the country,” he said. Asma Ghanim, a 38-year old Mosul resident who fled when the militants overran the city in June, managed to register her daughter in Konous school after settling in her parents’ house in Zayona.

Ghanim said she hoped her daughter would have a good school year in Baghdad after “leaving everything behind in Mosul.” Elsewhere in Iraq, militants shot down a military helicopter Wednesday morning near the city of Beiji north of Baghdad, killing the pilot and his assistant, a local official, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to media.

After sundown, police said a car bomb exploded near small restaurants in Baghdad’s eastern district of Sadr city, killing 14 people and wounding 27. A car bomb near Kabab al-Badawi restaurant in downtown Baghdad killed 15 people and wounded 32, said police.

Hospital officials confirmed the casualties. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

October 22, 2014

IRBIL, Iraq (AP) — Lawmakers in Iraq’s largely autonomous Kurdish region Wednesday authorized peshmerga forces to go to neighboring Syria and help fellow Kurds combat Islamic State militants in the key border town of Kobani, providing much-needed boots on the ground.

The unprecedented deployment will almost certainly depend on the support of Turkey, whose president criticized a U.S. airdrop of arms to Kurdish fighters after some of the weapons wound up in the hands of the extremists.

Turkey, which has riled Kurdish leaders and frustrated Washington by refusing to allow fighters or weapons into Kobani, said this week it would help Iraqi Kurdish fighters cross into Syria to help their brethren against the militants, who also are being attacked by a U.S.-led campaign of airstrikes.

But it is not clear how many fighters will be allowed in or whether they will be allowed to carry enough weapons to make an impact. The Kurds of Syria and Iraq have become a major focal point in the war against the Islamic State group, with Kurdish populations in both countries coming under significant threat by the militants’ lightning advance.

Lt. Gen. Frederick Hodges, the outgoing commander of NATO’s Land Command in Izmir, Turkey, said the Turks have agreed to open up “a land bridge of sorts” so that the peshmerga can get into Kobani to help with the fighting there.

“It seems to me that between the United States, Turkey and other countries, they are figuring out what is permissible to make sure that ISIL is not successful and that it is something that Turkey can live with,” he added, using an acronym for the group.

Anwar Muslim, a Kobani-based senior Kurdish official, praised the parliament’s decision, saying “all help is welcome.” He said there seemed to be a solidifying international push to help Kobani combat the militants.

“The next days will show the seriousness” of the Turks, he said. In August, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds took part in cross-border operations to help rescue tens of thousands of displaced people from the Yazidi minority group under threat by the IS militants in Iraq’s Sinjar Mountains.

The fight in Kobani has also grabbed the world’s attention and raised sympathy for the outgunned Kurds. The overwhelming vote in the Kurdish parliament to send fighters to Kobani underscored growing cooperation between Kurds in these countries and marked a first mission for the peshmerga outside Iraq.

Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish politician and Iraq’s long-serving foreign minister, told Al-Arabiya TV the decision was “part of an understanding” reached between Kurdish, Turkish and U.S. officials to provide military aid to Kobani.

“This is a big turning point in Kurdish history,” said Youssef Mohammed, the speaker of parliament. “Troops used to be sent to occupy Kurdish lands, but now we are sending soldiers to protect our Kurdish brothers abroad,” he said.

There were few details about the fighting force, however, and Kurdish officials said they would be worked out later. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the United States made a mistake in airdropping weapons to Kurdish fighters in Kobani earlier this week because some of the weapons ended up in IS hands.

“It turns out that what was done was wrong,” he said, according to Turkey’s private Dogan news agency. The Turkish government is reluctant to aid the Syrian Kurdish forces — the People’s Protection Units, or YPG — because it views them as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a 30-year insurgency in Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and NATO.

The Pentagon confirmed that IS militants were able to seize one of the 28 bundles of weapons and medical supplies intended for Kurdish fighters. Col. Steve Warren said it appears the wind caused the parachute to go off-course, and that the weapons in the bundle were not enough to give the enemy any type of advantage.

A video uploaded by a media group loyal to the IS group showed the weapons seized included hand grenades, ammunition and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. The caches were dropped early Monday to Kurds in embattled Kobani. Differences about how to defend Kobani have sparked tensions between Turkey and its NATO partners.

Turkey’s decision to give Kurds passage to fight in Syria marked a shift in position, even though Ankara in recent years has built friendly ties with the leadership of the largely autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region.

Peshmerga spokesman Halgurd Hekmat in Irbil said there is still a lot of uncertainty on the details of the deployment, including how many forces will be sent and when. “We’re sending the peshmerga, not to become YPG but to fight alongside the YPG,” Hekmat said. “We will send the peshmerga to do their job for as long as they’re needed and to come back after that.”

Hekmat said Iraqi forces will also provide weapons, but he did not say what kind. Turkey is under pressure to take greater action against the IS militants — not only from the West but also from Kurds in Syria and Turkey who accuse Ankara of inaction while their people are slaughtered. Earlier this month across Turkey, widespread protests threatened to derail talks to end the PKK insurgency.

Sunni extremists of the Islamic State group, which has rampaged across Iraq and Syria, have been attacking Kobani for a month. The U.S. and its allies are assisting the Kurds with airstrikes targeting IS infrastructure in and around the town.

Meanwhile, Kurdish officials and doctors said they believed Islamic State militants had released some kind of toxic gas in a district in eastern Kobani. Aysa Abdullah, a senior Kurdish official based in the town, said the attack took place late Tuesday, and that a number of people suffered symptoms that included dizziness and watery eyes. She and other officials said doctors lacked the equipment to determine what kinds of chemicals were used.

The reports could not be independently confirmed. Kurdish officials have made similar allegations before. Also Wednesday, Syria’s information minister said the country’s air force destroyed two of three fighter jets seized and reportedly test-flown over Aleppo by the Islamic State group last week.

Omran al-Zoubi told Syrian TV late Tuesday that Syrian aircraft bombed the jets on the runway as they landed at Jarrah air base. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that IS militants flew three MiG fighter jets with the help of former Iraqi air force pilots who were now members of the militant group. The report could not be independently confirmed, and U.S. officials said they had no reports of the militants flying jets.

The group is known to have seized warplanes from at least one air base captured from the Syrian army in Raqqa province earlier this year. Militant websites had posted photos of IS fighters with the warplanes, but it was unclear if they were operational.

Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Desmond Butler in Istanbul, Turkey, Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and Elena Becatoros in Suruc, Turkey, contributed reporting.

October 18, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi lawmakers approved Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s remaining Cabinet nominees on Saturday, including for the critical posts of defense and interior, completing the formation of a government that will strive to push the Islamic State extremist group out of the sprawling territory it has seized in recent months.

Control over the two powerful security ministries has long been a source of tension among Iraq’s feuding political factions. The U.S. and other allies have been pushing for a more representative government that can reach out to Sunnis, who felt marginalized by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Sunni discontent is widely seen as having fueled the IS group’s dramatic advances in Iraq since June, when it captured the country’s second largest city Mosul.

Khaled al-Obeidi, a Sunni lawmaker from Mosul, was selected for the post of defense minister, by a vote of 175-85. He had served as an officer in Saddam Hussein’s military and holds a PhD in political science.

Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban, a Shiite lawmaker with al-Abadi’s State of Law political bloc, was approved as minister of interior by a 197-63 vote. He holds degrees from universities in both Tehran and London and he is currently pursuing a PhD in political science in Baghdad. He was a long-time opponent of Saddam and was detained in 1979.

Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish politician and Iraq’s long-serving foreign minister, was named minister of finance, having previously been voted in as deputy prime minister. Shiite lawmaker Adel Fahd al-Shirshab was named tourism minister, and Kurdish lawmaker Bayan Nouri was appointed minister of women’s affairs.

Iraq is facing its worst crisis since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops, with the Islamic State extremist group in control of about a third of the country. Iraq’s U.S.-trained and equipped armed forces collapsed in the face of the militants’ advance, abandoning heavy weapons that the extremist group is now using in battles across both Iraq and Syria.

Many have blamed the army’s poor performance on al-Maliki, saying he replaced top officers with inexperienced or incompetent political allies in order to monopolize power. From 2010 until his resignation in August, al-Maliki had held both the interior and defense portfolios, in part because lawmakers could not agree on nominees for them.

The U.S. began launching airstrikes against the Islamic State group in August and along with Western allies has provided aid to Iraqi forces and Kurds fighting in the north. But Washington has repeatedly called on Baghdad to reach out to the Sunni and Kurdish minorities and enact meaningful reforms, saying only a unified Iraqi government can defeat the extremists.

Lawmakers approved most of al-Abadi’s Cabinet on Sept. 8 and officially voted him in as prime minister, bringing a formal end to al-Maliki’s eight-year rule, but al-Abadi requested a delay in naming defense and interior ministers because lawmakers had not agreed on his proposed candidates. Candidates put forward on Sept. 16 were rejected by parliament.