Category: Uprising in Iraq


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.

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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 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.

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.

by Ned Park and Suleiman al-Khalidi

Arbil, Iraq

Mon Aug 4, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A MORE HOPEFUL TIME

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BROKEN ALLIANCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE TRIBAL MENTALITY

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

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

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

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

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

“SO MUCH BLOOD”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But his powers have limits.

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

“BARING THEIR TEETH”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“THE PEOPLE ARE GOING TO LOSE”

Suleiman himself is realistic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Reuters.

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

Sulaimaniyah, Iraq (AFP)

Aug 03, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Fears for displaced –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Political front –

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

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

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

Facts on Iraq’s Yazidi minority

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five key battles on Iraq’s scattered frontlines

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

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

– BAIJI REFINERY

Where: 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of Baghdad

Who: Iraq special forces

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

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

– AMERLI

Where: 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Baghdad

Who: Turkmen fighters and government forces

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

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

– JALAWLA

Where: 130 kilometers (80 miles) northeast of Baghdad

Who: Kurdish peshmerga

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

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

– DHULUIYA

Where: 90 kilometers (55 miles) north of Baghdad

Who: Police and Sunni tribal fighters

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

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

– JURF AL-SAKHR

Where: 50 kilometers (30 miles) southwest of Baghdad

Who: Government forces and Shiite militia

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

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

Source: Space War.

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

2014-07-30

By Jean Marc Mojon, Ammar Karim

Baghdad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Wrecking ball on backswing? –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Mosul’s Eiffel Tower –

There are signs that his wish could come true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Middle East Online.

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

July 12, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Kurdish security forces took over two major oil fields outside the disputed northern city of Kirkuk before dawn Friday and said they would use some of the production for domestic purposes, further widening a split with the central government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The takeover of the Bai Hassan and Kirkuk oil fields were the latest land grabs by Kurds, who have responded to the Sunni militant insurgency that has overrun large parts of Iraq by seizing territory of their own, effectively expanding the Kurdish autonomous zone in the north. Those moves have infuriated al-Maliki’s government while stoking independence sentiment among the Kurds.

Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga pushed into the city of Kirkuk, a major hub for the oil industry in the north, and the surrounding area weeks ago in the early days of the Sunni militant blitz. But until now they had not moved into the oil fields in the area. On Friday, however, the fighters took over the Bai Hassan and Kirkuk fields and expelled local workers, the Oil Ministry in Baghdad said.

Oil Ministry spokesman Assem Jihad denounced the move as “a violation to the constitution” and warned that it poses “a threat to national unity.” The Kurdish Regional Government said its forces moved to secure the fields after learning of what it said were orders by officials in the Oil Ministry to sabotage a pipeline linking oil facilities in the area. It said production would continue, and that staff can return but will operate under Kurdish management.

Production from the fields will be used to fill the shortage of refined products in the domestic market, it said, in a reference to a fuel crunch in the Kurdish region. It also said the Kurdish Regional Government will claim its “constitutional share” of revenues from the fields to compensate for Baghdad’s cutting off the 17 percent of the state budget — some $20 billion in this year’s projected budget — that is supposed to be given to the Kurdish region.

The central government withheld the funds after the Kurds began moving oil from fields inside the autonomous zone to Turkey independently against Baghdad’s wishes. The Kurds have said their earlier moves into disputed lands were intended to protect the areas from Sunni militants after the collapse of the Iraqi military in the face of the insurgency the past month. But the territory they seized has large Kurdish communities and has long been claimed by the autonomy zone.

In past weeks, the president of the Kurdish zone has said the areas won’t be returned — including the highly disputed, flashpoint city of Kirkuk — and he called for Kurdish lawmakers to prepare to hold an independence referendum in the area, a move strongly opposed by Baghdad and the United States. Sunni Arabs and ethnic Turkmens who also claim Kirkuk as theirs have warned of a backlash if Kurds try to monopolize the oil in the region.

The Kurds and Baghdad have feuded for years over oil resources, disputed territory and a host of other issues. Yet, they have also found room for compromise, and the Kurds have provided critical backing to help al-Maliki become prime minister.

But their ties are rapidly unraveling as the country fragments in the face of the Sunni militant blitz, led by the Islamic State extremist group. The country is effectively being cleaved along ethnic and sectarian lines — the swath of militant-held Sunni areas, the Shiite-majority south and center ruled by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and the Kurdish north.

The conflict has also fueled fears of sectarian bloodshed between Shiites and Sunnis. On Friday, Human Rights Watch said Iraqi security forces and government-affiliated militias appear to have killed at least 255 prisoners in six cities and villages since June 9. It said five of the mass killings took place as the security forces were fleeing as militants advanced, and that the vast the prisoners killed were Sunni. Most members of the security forces and militias are Shiite.

The six incidents appear to be aimed at avenging the deaths of Shiites captured and killed by the Islamic State group. The Kurds also find themselves fighting the Sunni militants across the northern front. On Friday, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a peshmerga checkpoint outside Kirkuk, killing 28 people and wounding 30, said Kirkuk police chief Maj. Gen. Torhan Abdul-Rahman Youssef. The explosion set several vehicles in the vicinity on fire.

Hospital officials confirmed the casualty figures. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to brief the media. In recent days, the political divisions between Baghdad and the Kurds have grown increasingly bitter. On Wednesday, al-Maliki accused the Kurds of harboring Sunni militants.

The Kurds responded by declaring their politicians will boycott Cabinet meetings, renewing demands that al-Maliki step down. Baghdad, in turn, suspended all cargo flights to the Kurdish region’s two main airports. And on Friday, al-Maliki appointed temporary replacements for all five Kurdish ministers in his Cabinet, said Deputy Prime Minister Hussain al-Shahristani.

Al-Shahristani said he himself was appointed acting foreign minister to stand in for Hoshyar Zebari, who was one of the most prominent Kurds in the government and has been Iraq’s top diplomat for more than a decade.

The dispute comes as al-Maliki is struggling to fend off an attempt to remove him from his post by political factions — including the Kurds but also from former Shiite allies who blame him for the failures to confront the Sunni militant offensive and have long accused him of monopolizing power.

In Baghdad, national lawmakers are struggling broker an agreement on a new government and leadership, including the posts of prime minister, president and speaker of parliament, after April elections.

The legislature is scheduled to meet Sunday for its second session amid calls for the quick formation of a new government that can confront the militants and hold the country together. Al-Maliki, whose State of Law bloc won the most seats in the elections, has shrugged off calls to step aside.

The United States and other world powers, as well as Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, have pressed for a more inclusive government that Iraqis of all stripes can rally around. On Friday, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani again urged lawmakers to move swiftly toward a compromise, calling on them to “rise above selfish aims.”

“The challenges … threaten civil peace and the unity of the social fabric and forecast a divided and disputed future for Iraq,” Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie, a cleric who represents the reclusive al-Sistani, told worshipers in a sermon Friday in the holy city of Karbala.

Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Ryan Lucas in Baghdad, and Maamoun Youssef and Mariam Rizk in Cairo contributed to this report.