Archive for January 18, 2016

Islamabad (AFP)

Dec 10, 2015

Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan Thursday said that he would seek compensation for victims of a controversial US drone strike program, vowing to take their cases to parliament and the courts.

Khan, whose Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party opposes drone attacks, was speaking at the launch of a report demanding compensation for drone victims, organized by the independent Foundation for Fundamental Rights and international legal aid charity Reprieve.

Drone attacks are meant to target militants but are controversial among rights groups because of the high reported numbers of civilian casualties and lack of transparency over targets.

Islamabad officially opposes US strikes in its territory, calling them a violation of its sovereignty, though leaked documents in the past have shown the two countries worked together on the campaign.

“PTI will raise this issue in parliament and also go to court to get compensation for the drone victims,” Khan said.

Afghanistan’s government gets compensation for the families of civilians killed in strikes, he said — but Islamabad neither receives any from the US government and nor has any been offered to a single victim.

Clive Stafford Smith, the director of Reprieve, said that the US does not acknowledge the innocent civilians it has killed in drone strikes.

“This report reflects in stark terms the fact that we value Pakistani life at zero, a situation that is offensive and simply cannot continue. I therefore, call upon my own government to compensate those innocent people caught in America’s cross-fire,” he said.

Fahim Qureshi, 18, whose entire family was killed in a drone strike in 2009 in northwest Pakistan that left him critically wounded, said he still did not know why they had been targeted.

“There is a question in my heart, why did it happen to us? What did we do?” he said, adding that they had no links with militants.

According to the independent Britain-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, since 2004 the CIA has carried out 421 drone strikes in northwestern Pakistan killing up to 3,989 people, as many as 965 of whom were civilians, including dozens of children.

Source: Space War.


December 22, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi forces on Tuesday reported progress in the military operation to retake the city of Ramadi from the Islamic State group, saying they made the most significant incursion into the city since it fell to the militants in May.

Losing Ramadi — the capital of sprawling western Anbar province and Iraq’s Sunni heartland — was a major blow to the Iraqi government. It was the government’s biggest defeat since IS militants swept through areas in the country’s north and west, including Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul, in the summer of 2014.

Iraqi forces announced a counteroffensive shortly afterward Mosul fell but progress has been sluggish and clawing territory back from IS has proven more difficult than expected. Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad, said there are 250 to 350 Islamic State fighters in Ramadi, as well as several hundred outside the city on the northern and western perimeter.

“I think the fall of Ramadi is inevitable,” Warren told Pentagon reporters. “But that said, it’s going to be a tough fight … it’s gonna take some time.” He said American military advisers remained outside the city at al-Taqaddum, a desert air base that is serving as a training site. It was a U.S. military hub during the 2003-2011 war.

Iraqi spokesman Sabah al-Numan said troops crossed the Euphrates River north of the city and its Warar tributary to the west and pushed into downtown Ramadi. From the south, troops led by the counter-terrorism agency made progress in the Dubbat and Aramil neighborhoods, about 3 kilometers (less than 2 miles) from the city center, Gen. Ismail al-Mahallawi, the head of operations in Anbar province, told AP.

Sporadic clashes broke out and advancing Iraqi forces were forced to remove roadside bombs planted by the extremists, al-Numan added. On Tuesday, the Dubbat neighborhood saw heavy fighting, with one soldier killed and 14 wounded, said an official in the Anbar operations room, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.

Warren said U.S. officials found a pamphlet in Fallujah that was distributed to IS fighters, calling on them to disguise themselves as Iraqi security forces and then film themselves committing atrocities, such as killing and torturing civilians and blowing up mosques.

According to a copy of the document distributed to reporters, it said the video clips should be distributed to television outlets “to depict the conflict as if it is a sectarian war.” It was signed by a security and military official named Abou Hajer al-Issawi and dated early October.

Warren said he believed the document is legitimate, but so far there were no reports of IS fighters posing as Iraqi forces. Al-Numan said no paramilitary forces — a reference to pro-government Shiite militias whose actions have raised concerns in Sunni territory — were taking part in the operation. The Iraqi air force and the U.S.-led international coalition were providing air support to troops on ground and bombing IS targets, he said.

Since overrunning Ramadi, just 130 kilometers (80 miles) west of Baghdad, the Islamic State group has destroyed all the bridges around the city. It also demolished the Anbar operations command and fanned out into the city’s residential areas to set up less conspicuous centers of command.

As the military operation continues, Ramadi’s civilian population — estimated to be between 4,000 and 10,000 — remains mostly trapped inside the city. Iraqi officials say they believe civilians will be able to get out, but coalition officials report that so far they have only witnessed small groups doing so.

Warren said Iraqi forces had dropped leaflets telling residents what routes to use to escape. Ramadi, like the rest of Anbar province, is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, the minority community that complains of discrimination by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. Some Sunnis in other parts of Anbar and in northern Iraq welcomed IS rule, at least initially.

Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.

December 22, 2015

HEIDELBERG, Germany (AP) — The Qasus do not normally cry, but this felt nothing like normal. Like hundreds of thousands before them and untold more to come, the Iraqi family had just completed a disorienting dash across Europe and found refuge in Germany.

Settling down in the city of Heidelberg, the parents comforted their four children as the reality of what they had just endured struck like a thunderclap and the tears flowed freely. They were tears of trauma, loss — and flickering hope.

“We used to have a home. A fine life. We used to have money and never needed anyone,” said the mother, Bessi Qasim, who uses her father’s surname. Dabbing at her eyes, the 42-year-old homemaker said her job now was to make a new home.

“I just want my children to be happy and see them growing up. I want to be able to replace the bad memories with new good ones.”

Those bad memories include at least three brushes with death: with murderous invaders, the fear of drowning, a daughter’s cancer.

Had they not left Iraq so quickly, the Qasus might well be dead or abducted now. They are Yazidis, a religiously distinctive ethnic group within Iraq that has been singled out for persecution by Islamic State miltants, who have slain thousands, particularly in and around Sinjar, where the Qasus are from.

The Qasus escaped as IS forces seized the city on Aug. 3, 2014. All six — Bessi, husband Samir, daughters Delphine and Dunia, sons Dilshad and Dildar — climbed aboard a truck heading north for the Turkish border. They soon heard word of wholesale slaughter, rapes and kidnappings back home as thousands behind them retreated without food or water to Mount Sinjar.

“We took nothing with us. I didn’t need to see IS to know how horrifying they are,” said Samir, 45, who abandoned his convenience store in Sinjar. He said cousins who stayed behind have vanished.

For 15 months, the Qasus existed on the fringe of Turkish society. As a refugee, Samir was barred from working legally and said his children faced intimidation at school because of their Yazidi identity.

“We had a miserable life,” said Samir, who kept his family out of Turkish refugee camps and rented an apartment, but struggled to pay bills by working illegally part-time in construction jobs. “I reached a point where I couldn’t take it anymore. We had no dignity. I just wanted my children to live in a safe, peaceful place.”

The smuggler in Istanbul demanded $10,000 for the six of them to join 26 others on a cabin cruiser designed to carry perhaps a quarter that many. They left the Turkish coast before dawn on Dec. 3 bound for the island of Lesbos, the first port of EU call for nearly 400,000 asylum seekers this year. Scores have drowned as boats, typically helmed by novice refugees, are swamped or overturned.

Samir paid in part with money provided by his brother, who had already made it to Sweden. The boat appeared more substantial than the typical rigid inflatables that smugglers deploy as one-use throwaway items. That didn’t stop the engine of the overloaded boat from breaking down midway, leaving the Qasus to bob helplessly on the choppy Aegean.

“I was 95 percent certain that death would take us,” said Samir, who said he prayed for God to claim him and save his loved ones.

Greek rescue officials spotted their dying craft and towed them close to shore, where aid workers waded knee-deep to carry the Qasu family the final few meters into Europe. This was the moment The Associated Press met the Qasu family: struggling to remove their knotted life vests and caressing each other with shaking hands, emotions overwhelming them.

An AP photographer spent that week following the Qasus as they nimbly hopped from border to border. Their rapid progress reflects Europe’s concession that German-bound asylum seekers should not be left pointlessly stranded for days outdoors in the bleak Balkans winter.

Within two days, the Qasus had traveled by midnight ferry from Lesbos to Athens and then by bus to Greece’s northern border with Macedonia. They slept chiefly on trains, buses and benches while passing through registration centers in four Balkan countries, getting their first proper sleep in a bed in a massive tent holding hundreds of asylum seekers near the Austrian city of Salzburg on Dec. 7.

Life has been a German whirlwind since then: ID photographs and fingerprints, housing in a former development for U.S. Army families that now holds 5,500 refugee applicants, distributions of free food and clothing — and most importantly for the Qasus, the most thorough medical check in years for 13-year-old Dunia.

In February 2012, Turkish doctors performed a life-saving liver transplant on the girl, removing a cancerous section and replacing it with a liver portion donated by her mother. The liver is the only human organ able to regenerate in this way, but Dunia remains vulnerable to infections and must take daily injections to block antibodies from attacking her mother’s donated tissue. Underscoring her vulnerability, she wore a surgical mask throughout December’s odyssey from Turkey to Heidelberg.

“I want to be cured and grow up. I love Germany and the people here,” Dunia said.

Samir said the German doctors at the Heidelberg camp “have been so kind to us. As soon as they learned about her situation, they went through all the proper procedures to check her and told us that she is fine.”

Dildar, 10, now dreams of becoming a soccer star in Germany. As he kicks a ball outside with siblings Dilshad, 17, and Delphine, 18, their talk turns to the possibility of school in January and of using one of their first German words: “Danke” — thank you.

Delphine says she hopes to train to become a doctor and continue the cycle of aid to others less fortunate.

“I dream of helping people, the ones who need the most,” she said.

The parents watch from a park bench, pleased to be in a land that offers a future now unimaginable where they came from.

“Iraq is destroyed, shattered into millions of pieces,” Samir said. “It’s no longer my home and no longer a home for my family. … Home is where your family is safe and happy.”

Muheisen, the Associated Press’ chief photographer for the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan, followed the Qasu family from Greece to Germany on Dec. 3-10. Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin contributed to this report.

December 05, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — The presence of Turkish troops near the Islamic State-held city of Mosul in northern Iraq is a “violation” of international law, Iraq’s president said Saturday.

President Fuad Masum called the move a “violation of international norms, laws and Iraq’s national sovereignty,” and said it was contributing to increased tensions in the region. Hakim al-Zamili, the head of parliament’s security and defense committee, went a step further, calling on Iraq’s prime minister to launch airstrikes against the Turkish troops if they remained in Iraqi territory.

Turkey has said a military battalion equipped with armored vehicles has been in the Bashiqa region close to Mosul in the northern Ninevah province for the last five months as part of a training mission to help forces fighting the Islamic State group. Mosul fell to the extremists in June 2014 amid a stunning collapse of Iraqi security forces.

Plans to try to retake Mosul last spring were sidelined as the extremist group advanced on other fronts. The founder of the training camp outside Mosul, former Ninevah governor Atheel al-Nujaifi, told The Associated Press that the Turkish trainers were at his base at the request of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi. He said the Turkish forces are training but not arming Sunni fighters.

“They didn’t give us any weapons even though we asked them to,” he said. “We equipped this force from the black market with our own money and we believe they’re the best force to liberate Mosul… These people will be very effective to hold ground because they are from there and there’ll be no resistance to them from local people.”

Sunni fighters in Ninevah and the western Anbar province say the Shiite-dominated government has failed to provide them with the support and weaponry needed to defeat the IS group. The government fears that arming Sunni tribes and militias could backfire. Sunni grievances were a key factor fueling the rise of the IS group, and many Sunnis initially welcomed the extremists as liberators.

The U.S.-led coalition launched 12 airstrikes on IS targets in Iraq on Friday, including two near Mosul targeting tactical units and fighting positions.

Associated Press writers Susannah George in Baghdad and Balint Szlanko in Irbil, Iraq contributed to this report.

January 16, 2016

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip (AP) — More than 1,000 Palestinian families took possession of new apartments Saturday as part of a large Qatari-funded housing project in the Gaza Strip.

The units are the first batch of a 3,000-apartment complex that was announced when the former Qatari ruler, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, became the first head of state to visit Hamas-ruled Gaza in 2012.

Hamad City sits on dunes that were part of the former Jewish settlement of Gush Katif. They started before the Israel-Hamas war in 2014 that damaged or destroyed nearly 100,000 homes. The construction of the residential city is separate from the post-war rebuilding, but being the largest housing project ever makes it significant for the 1.8 million residents of the coastal enclave, who live under Israeli and Egyptian blockade and travel restrictions.

Israel restricts building materials to Gaza for fears that the coastal strip’s Islamic Hamas rulers may use them in building its attack tunnels. To overcome the restrictions, Qatar arranges with Israel and the Palestinian Authority directly to deliver the needed materials for its projects.

Qatar allocated $145 million for Hamad City. The Qatari envoy overseeing the project, Mohammed al-Amadi, says Gaza needs 130,000 housing units. “We are replenishing parts of Gaza’s needs,” he said. On Saturday, Qatari and Palestinian flags adorned the complex as buses dropped hundreds of people who will receive the apartments. Posters of the former Qatari emir, his succeeding son and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hung from the buildings.

The families received certificates at the event, but won’t move in for another two months due to minor infrastructure work, such as paving the roads to the city and connecting it with water network. Among those who received certificates was Samia al-Nakhala, 39, who lives with her husband and son in a home that costs $250 a month in rent. Now she will pay the cost of the house in monthly installations of $170. “Instead of throwing my money in the air every month, now I will be paying for my own home,” she said.

Ismail Haniya, Hamas’ chief in Gaza, described the opening of the first part of the city as “a historic moment.” Hamas still holds control of Gaza despite ceding power to a transitional government it formed after a reconciliation deal with Abbas’ Fatah party in 2014.