Archive for March 15, 2015

March 02, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — Backed by Iranian-supported Shiite militias, Iraqi forces launched a large-scale offensive Monday to retake Saddam Hussein’s hometown from the Islamic State group, the first in a series of campaigns to try to reclaim large parts of northern Iraq from the Sunni extremists.

Previous attempts to capture the symbolic city have failed, and hours into Monday’s operation, the military said it still hadn’t entered Tikrit, indicating a long battle lies ahead. Retaking it will help Iraqi forces secure a major supply link for any future operation to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city which has been under militant rule since June.

State-run Al-Iraqiya television said that forces were attacking from different directions, backed by artillery and airstrikes by Iraqi fighter jets. It said the militants were dislodged from some areas outside the city, but several hours into the operation, it gave no additional details.

Tikrit, the provincial capital of Salauhddin province, 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad, fell to the Islamic State group last summer, along with Mosul and other areas in the country’s Sunni heartland.

U.S. military officials have said a coordinated military mission to retake Mosul will likely begin in April or May and involve up to 25,000 Iraqi troops. But the Americans have cautioned that if the Iraqis aren’t ready, the offensive could be delayed.

The U.S.-led coalition launching airstrikes targeting the Islamic State group was not involved in the Tikrit operation, Iraqi officials said. A Pentagon spokesman, Army Col. Steve Warren, said the U.S. was alerted to the offensive before it started Monday but was not asked to provide air power.

“Right now we are not providing any air power to support the Iraqi operation in the city of Tikrit,” Warren told reporters in Washington. “We did note the Iraqi government’s statements that they are emphasizing minimization of collateral damage, and we are continuing to monitor it.”

Iraqi forces apparently have the help of Iranian Gen. Ghasem Soleimani, the commander of the elite Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, who arrived two days ago, the Iranian semi-official Fars news agency reported.

The powerful general has emerged as the chief tactician in Iraq’s fight against the Sunni militants, working on the front lines alongside dozens of advisers from his country’s Revolutionary Guard to direct Shiite militiamen and government forces in the smallest details of battle.

Fars also reported drones were flying over Tikrit, without identifying whether they were Iranian or Iraqi. The military commander of Salahuddin region, Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, told state TV fighting was taking place outside Tikrit mainly on its eastern side.

“Until this moment we have not entered the city,” al-Saadi said. “God willing, we will enter, but we need some time as planned. … God willing, victory will be achieved and Salahuddin will be turned into a grave for all terrorist groups.”

Tikrit is an important test case for Iraq’s Shiite-led government, which is trying to reassert authority over the divided country. Islamic State fighters have a strong presence in the city and are expected to put up fierce resistance.

Past attempts to retake Tikrit have failed, as Iraq struggles with its armed forces, which collapsed in the wake of the Islamic State group’s offensive last summer. The offensive comes as momentum has begun to shift since Iraqi soldiers, backed by airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition, took back the nearby refinery town of Beiji in November. Any operation to take Mosul would require Iraq to seize Tikrit first because of its strategic location for military enforcements.

Iraq is bitterly split between minority Sunnis, who were an important base of support for Saddam, and the Shiite majority. Since Saddam was toppled in a U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the Sunni minority has felt increasingly marginalized by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, and in 2006 long-running tensions boiled over into sectarian violence that claimed tens of thousands of lives.

While state TV said Shiite and Sunni tribal fighters were cooperating in Monday’s offensive, Tikrit is an important Sunni stronghold, and the presence of Shiite forces could prompt a backlash among Sunnis. The Iraqi military is heavily dependent on Shiite militias that have been accused of abusing Sunni communities elsewhere in Iraq.

Hours after the offensive began, the U.N. special envoy in Iraq appealed to warring groups to avoid attacking civilians. “Military operations reinforced by international and Iraqi air support must be conducted with the utmost care to avoid civilian casualties, and with full respect for fundamental human rights principles and humanitarian law,” Nickolay Mladenov said in a statement.

Monday afternoon, a gasoline tanker rigged with a bomb exploded as soldiers and Shiite militiamen tried to dismantle it in the village of al-Jalam south of Tikrit, killing seven troops and wounding 15, police and hospital officials said.

Al-Jalam, a farming area that has been a stronghold of Sunni militants, is located outside the Sunni city of Samarra, 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.

Ahead of the operation, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite, called on Sunni tribal fighters to abandon the Islamic State extremist group, offering what he described as “the last chance” and promising them a pardon.

“I call upon those who have been misled or committed a mistake to lay down arms and join their people and security forces in order to liberate their cities,” al-Abadi said Sunday during a news conference in Samarra.

His comments appeared to be targeting former members of Iraq’s outlawed Baath party, loyalists to Saddam, who joined the Islamic State group during its offensive, as well as other Sunnis who were dissatisfied with Baghdad’s Shiite-led government.

Saddam, whose Sunni-dominated government ruled the country for some two decades, was executed after his ouster. Tikrit frequently saw attacks on U.S. forces during the American occupation of the country.

Associated Press writers Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Robert Burns in Washington and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

March 01, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s prime minister called on Sunni tribal fighters to abandon the Islamic State group Sunday, ahead of a promised offensive to retake Saddam Hussein’s hometown from the extremists.

Haider al-Abadi offered no timeline for an attack on Tikrit, the hometown of the late Iraqi dictator some 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad that fell into the hands of the Islamic State group last summer. However, Shiite militias and Iraqi security forces have stationed themselves around Tikrit as state-run media has warned that the city “will soon return to its people.”

But sending Shiite militias into the Sunni city of Tikrit, the capital of Iraq’s Salahuddin province, could reprise the bloody, street-by-street insurgent battles that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. On Saturday, two suicide car bombers killed 16 nearby Shiite militiamen and wounded 31.

Al-Abadi offered what he called “the last chance” for Sunni tribal fighters, promising them a pardon during a news conference in Samarra, 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad. His office said he arrived in Samarra to “supervise the operation to liberate Tikrit from the terrorist gangs.”

“I call upon those who have been misled or committed a mistake to lay down arms and join their people and security forces in order to liberate their cities,” al-Abadi said. Al-Abadi said the operation will see troops come from several directions, but he declined to give an exact time for the operation’s start. However, his presence in Samarra suggests it could come soon. A statement from his office late Sunday announced the start of a security operation to “liberate” Salahuddin province, though there were no initial reports of any military action underway.

The Iraqi military previously launched an operation in late June to try to wrest back control of Tikrit, but that quickly stalled. Other planned offensives by Iraq’s military, which collapsed under the initial Islamic State group blitz, also have failed to make up ground, though soldiers have taken back the nearby refinery town of Beiji, backed by airstrikes from a U.S.-led coalition.

Tikrit, which occasionally saw attacks on U.S. forces during the American occupation of the country, is one of the biggest cities held by the Islamic State group. It also sits on the road to Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which is also held by the extremists. Any operation to take Mosul likely would require Iraq to seize Tikrit first.

Al-Abadi’s comments appear to be targeting former members of Iraq’s outlawed Baath party, loyalists to Saddam Hussein, who joined the Islamic State group during its offensive, as well as other Sunnis who were dissatisfied with Baghdad’s Shiite-led government. The premier likely hopes to peel away some support from the Islamic State group, especially as Iraqis grow increasingly horrified by the extremists’ mass killings and other atrocities.

In February alone, violence across Iraq killed at least 1,100 Iraqis, including more than 600 civilians, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq said Sunday. U.N. envoy Nickolay Mladenov blamed the deaths on the extremist group, government forces and pro-government Shiite militias.

“Daily terrorist attacks perpetrated by ISIL continue to deliberately target all Iraqis,” Mladenov said, using an alternate acronym for the Islamic State group. “There are also concerning reports of a number of revenge killings by armed groups in areas recently liberated from ISIL.”

Last year was the deadliest in Iraq since its 2006-2007 sectarian bloodshed, with a total of 12,282 people killed and 23,126 wounded, according to the U.N.

Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.

March 04, 2015

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Two convicted Australian drug smugglers arrived Wednesday at an Indonesian island prison where they are to be executed by firing squad along with seven other foreigners despite clemency appeals from several of their governments. An Indonesian is also scheduled to be executed.

The preparations at Nusakambangan Island’s maximum-security prison facilities have been completed, Attorney General Muhammad Prasetyo said. He refused to say when the executions would take place. Besides the two Australians, a Nigerian national born in Spain was also transferred to the island prison off Indonesia’s main island of Java. Two other Nigerians, a Filipino woman and four men from Brazil, France, Ghana and Indonesia are also scheduled to be executed. It was not immediately known how many have been transferred to the island.

The planned executions have soured of relations between Indonesia and other countries involved, especially Australia and Brazil. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo received phone calls from some foreign leaders asking that the executions be canceled but has rejected their requests. He has vowed not to grant mercy to drug offenders because Indonesia is suffering a “drug emergency.”

Cabinet Secretary Andi Widjajanto told reporters Wednesday that the government was following Indonesian law carefully in preparing for the executions and was being particularly cautious about the impact on relations with other countries.

Australia has repeatedly pleaded for clemency for its two citizens, Andrew Chan, 31, and Myuran Sukumaran, 33, who were arrested in April 2005 while trying to smuggle more than 8 kilograms (18 pounds) of heroin from Bali to Australia.

Chan and Sukumaran were moved from the Kerobokan Penitentiary on Bali island— where they have spent the last decade — in two police armored vehicles in a pre-dawn operation involving scores of riot police. They were taken to Nusakambangan Island by plane and then boat. Australian media camped there reported their arrival.

Prison authorities earlier turned away Chan’s older brother, Michael Chan, who attempted a visit. Television video showed Michael Chan walking away from the prison with his brother’s Indonesian girlfriend, who was in tears.

Prison governor Sudjonggo, who goes by a single name, told reporters that Chan and Sukumaran did not appear upset as they left the prison. Sukumaran took several pencils in a plastic bag, clothes, a Bible and a drawing book, he said.

The Indonesian government recalled its newly designated ambassador to Brazil, Toto Riyanto, last week to protest the postponement of the approval of his credentials by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff amid tensions over the imminent execution of its citizen, Rodrigo Gularte, 42.

The Spain-born Nigerian, Raheem Agbaje Salami, 45, and 30-year-old Filipino Mary Jane Fiesta Veloso have also been convicted of drug smuggling. Attorney General Prasetyo said authorities are waiting for the completion of a last-minute judicial review of Veloso’s case.

“Actually, they exhausted their legal options when their clemency request was rejected (by the president) because by asking for the president’s pardon, they admitted that they were guilty and were asking for clemency,” Prasetyo said. “But because they are on death row and this is related to their life, we will respect their legal efforts.”

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has called on Indonesia to “reciprocate” for Australia’s $1 billion aid package after the 2004 tsunami by sparing his two countrymen. “Right now millions of Australians are feeling sick in their guts at the prospect of execution for these two,” Abbott told reporters.

“I’ve been saying again and again that this is contrary to Indonesia’s national interest and it is contrary to Indonesia’s best values,” he added. Abbott said he understood why many Australians were threatening to never visit Indonesia, a near neighbor.

“I can very much understand their position and I think there are millions of Australians who feel quite angry at this time at what’s happening,” he said. But Abbott said the bilateral relationship must survive regardless of what happens to the pair.

“Let’s remember that a good relationship with Indonesia is very important to this country and whatever might happen in the next few days, the relationship with Indonesia must endure and, over time, it must grow stronger,” he said.

Indonesia executed six drug convicts including foreigners in January. More than 130 people are on death row, including 57 drug convicts.

Associated Press writer Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.

11 March 2015 Wednesday

Bosnia is to donate 572 tons of ammunition to Iraq to help the fight against ISIL, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Defense Ministry has said.

The ministry said in a statement on Wednesday a shipment of about 15 million rounds of 7.9mm and 400,000 14.5 mm caliber bullets from surplus ammunition owned by the Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina would be sent to the country.

The ministry said: “Bosnia and Herzegovina has been a member of the coalition in the fight against the Islamic state since 2014 and, in addition to political and diplomatic support, Bosnia and Herzegovina had decided on concrete assistance in the form of a donation of surplus ammunition to the government of Iraq.”

The order was issued by the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina after the United States requested Bosnia and Herzegovina join the fight against Daesh, previously referred to as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

While no exact date was announced by the ministry, it said the U.S. embassy would provide assistance in distributing the ammunition.

Since the end of Bosnian War, the country has held 16,000 tons of surplus ammunition and 40,000 items of weaponry which it intends to dispose of by 2020 as it becomes increasingly unreliable.

Source: World Bulletin.


11 March 2015 Wednesday

Turkey has closed two border crossings with Syria as a security precaution as fighting around the northern Syrian city of Aleppo intensifies, Turkish officials said on Wednesday.

The crossings at Oncupinar and Cilvegozu in Turkey’s Hatay province had been shut to vehicles and individuals crossing from Syria since March 9, officials at both told. Syrians with passports are allowed to cross back into Syria.

Turkey has kept its borders open to refugees since the start of Syria’s civil war four years ago. But it has come under criticism for doing too little to keep foreign fighters crossing and joining armed groups, including ISIL.

Source: World Bulletin.


24 February 2015 Tuesday

Turkey accused Libya on Tuesday of targeting its companies there after the internationally recognized government said it would cancel contracts of Turkish businesses operating in the troubled north African state.

Libya’s beleaguered official government, which only controls eastern parts of the country, announced a ban on Turkish firms after accusing Ankara of supporting the rival administration that seized control of the capital Tripoli last summer.

A Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman on Tuesday rejected the official government’s decision and appeared to question the legitimacy of its leader, Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni.

“The decision to bar Turkish companies … carries no value, considering the political and security crisis Libya has been going through and the debate regarding legitimacy,” Tanju Bilgic said in an emailed statement.

“The transitional government which is expected to make efforts for peace and stability in Libya has, on the contrary, targeted our companies, which work for the development of Libya.”

But Libya’s Tripoli-based government has dismissed a ban on Turkish companies imposed by the rival government based in Tobruk, saying such a ban could only be applied in the latter government’s area of control in the country’s east.

“The Tobruk government is using the issue of Turkish companies as a pressure tool to achieve political goals,” Omar Hussein Baio, spokesman for the Tripoli government, told The Anadolu Agency.

The ban, he said, could only be applied in the Libya’s eastern region, which is controlled by troops loyal to the Tobruk-based cabinet.

Last week, Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni warned Turkey of measures that could be potentially taken against Turkish companies due to what he described as Turkish “interference” in Libya’s affairs.

This interference, al-Thinni said at a press conference, “negatively impacts Libya’s security and stability.”

Last week, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgic said his country’s support for Libya since the country’s 2011 revolution had “always been clear,” especially in the form of Turkish support for Libya’s reconstruction efforts and the development of the country’s state institutions.

Turkey has close historic ties with Libya and Turkish businesses have traditionally had a strong presence there. But the country has been riven with conflicts since the toppling of strongman Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

The Turkey Contractors’ Association said last year that $19 billion of construction projects alone have been mothballed by Turkish firms in Libya because of fighting between rival factions.

Turkey’s special envoy to Syria last year became the first foreign diplomat to meet publicly with the Tripoli government.

Major world powers have boycotted the Tripoli government, but the United Nations has included lawmakers from the rival parliament in a dialogue aimed at defusing the power struggle.

Libya’s official government banned Palestinians, Syrians and Sudanese from entry in January, saying their countries were undermining Libya’s security.

Libya has remained in a state of turmoil since a bloody uprising ended the decades-long rule of autocratic leader Muammar Gaddafi in late 2011.

Since then, sharp political divisions have yielded two rival seats of government in the country, each of which has its own institutions.

Vying for legislative authority are the House of Representatives, which convenes in Tobruk, and the General National Congress, which – even though its mandate has ended – continues to convene in Tripoli.

The two assemblies support two different governments, respectively headquartered in the two cities. Both have substantial military capacities.

Source: World Bulletin.