Category: Lost Land of the Two Rivers


2017-01-07

ISTANBUL – President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday announced that some of the millions of Syrian and Iraqis who have fled to Turkey would be given Turkish nationality.

“Our interior ministry is carrying out work, and under this work, some of them will be granted our nationality after all the necessary checks” have been carried out, Erdogan said in a speech broadcast on television.

“There are highly qualified people among them, there are engineers, lawyers, doctors. Let’s make use” of that talent, he argued.

“Instead of letting them work illegally here and there, let’s give them the chance to work as citizens, like the children of this nation,” he said.

Erdogan said the interior ministry “is ready to implement the measure at any time.” But he gave no further details, notably about how many would gain Turkish nationality.

According to Turkish government figures, the country is hosting more than three million Syrians and Iraqis who have fled war.

Erdogan outlined a naturalization plan last summer but the idea met with angry protests and xenophobic comments on social media.

The country’s political opposition saw the plan as a scheme to widen Erdogan’s electoral basis at a time when he is pushing for constitutional reform that will strengthen his powers.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=80716.

March 8, 2017

A joint study by two European non-governmental organisations that have strong links to EU parliamentarians and other senior European and international figures has accused Iran of meddling in the affairs of 14 Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and playing a “destructive role” in the region.

The study by the European Iraqi Freedom Association (EIFA), led by former Scottish Conservative MEP Struan Stevenson, and the International Committee in Search for Justice (ISJ), both Brussels-based NGOs, paints a dire picture of Iranian interventionism in the region, and accuses Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of being directly involved.

“[Iranian] meddling in the affairs of other regional countries is institutionalized and the IRGC top brass has been directly involved,” the report said, directly implicating the Iranian military and state apparatus in destabilization operations around the Middle East.

The report, released earlier this week, criticized the IRGC for undertaking a “hidden occupation” of four countries, namely Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.

“In all four, the IRGC has a direct, considerable military presence,” the report detailed, adding that the troop presence in Syria alone in the summer of 2016 was “close to 70,000 Iranian regime proxy forces”. This included not only Iranians, but also sectarian Shia jihadists recruited, trained, funded and controlled by the IRGC, hailing from Iraq, Afghanistan and further afield.

The report exposed the locations of 14 IRGC training camps within Iran where its recruits are divided up according to their nation of origin and the tasks they are allotted, whether front line combat or international terrorist activities.

The European study said: “Every month, hundreds of forces from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Lebanon – countries where the [Iranian] regime is involved in frontline combat – receive military training and are subsequently dispatched to wage terrorism and war.”

According to the researchers who compiled this report, one of the worst affected countries due to Iranian meddling and interventionism is Iraq. Even Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, Brigadier General Iraj Masjedi, who was recently appointed to the post in January 2017 used to be the head of the Iraq desk at the IRGC.

‘Designate IRGC as terrorists’

Iran has been increasingly emboldened to act since former US President Barack Obama authorized the much touted nuclear deal with the Tehran regime, the NGOs argued. The deal, brokered by the so-called P5+1, was designed to limit Iranian nuclear ambitions that likely sought to acquire atomic weapons in exchange for sanctions relief.

Since sanctions have been largely lifted at the beginning of 2016, Iran has enjoyed increased financial and economic clout, which it has subsequently invested in its efforts to destabilize and influence more than a dozen countries in the Middle East.

The main countries assessed in the report include: Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Palestine. The latter is seen by experts on the region to be a public relations campaign conducted by Tehran to increase its Islamic credentials by appearing to support the Palestinians against Israel, while helping regimes around the region crush Palestinian refugee communities.

A prominent example of Iranian support for the brutal crackdowns against Palestinians was in Iraq after the illegal 2003 US-led invasion, where Palestinian refugees were perceived by Iran and their proxy Shia jihadists as being pro-Saddam Hussein. Iranian assistance for killing Palestinians also occurred in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, during the ongoing war against dictator Bashar Al-Assad.

Among its recommendations in its conclusion, the report argued that the IRGC should be designated as a terrorist organisation in the US, Europe and Middle East, with its operations curtailed and the organisation expelled from the entire Middle East, especially Iraq and Syria.

The NGOs also recommended “sanctioning all financial sources and companies affiliated with the IRGC” as well as “initiating international efforts to disband paramilitary groups and terrorist networks affiliated with the [IRGC’s] Quds Force.”

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170308-study-iran-plays-destructive-role-in-iraq-syria-and-12-other-nations/.

December 7, 2016

Daesh militants have managed to force Iraqi soldiers to withdraw from districts in southeast Mosul today, less than a day after Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) claimed to have made advances towards the Tigris River, sources including an army officer and Amaq news agency have said.

The fighting came after the army’s campaign commander for the Mosul operation said soldiers surged into the city and took over the Al-Salam hospital, less than a mile (1.5 km) from the Tigris River which divides eastern and western Mosul.

Yesterday’s apparent rapid advance was thanks to an apparent change in military tactics after more than a month of grueling fighting in the east and southeast of the city, in which the army has sought to capture and clear neighborhoods block by block.

However, the new tactics have now turned out to have been undone by Daesh ambush tactics that drew ISF units into areas before subjecting them to fierce counterattacks.

Attacking ISF were exposed, and Daesh’s Amaq news agency said today that some units were surrounded. It said a suicide bomber blew himself up near the hospital, killing 20 soldiers. Eight armored personnel carriers (APCs) were also destroyed in the fighting that led to an Iraqi withdrawal, Amaq said.

There was no official Iraqi military comment on the fighting but the army officer, whose forces were involved in the clashes, said they had come under multiple attacks by suicide car bombers in the Al-Wahda district where the hospital is located.

“We managed to make a swift advance on Tuesday in Al-Wahda but it seems that Daesh fighters were dragging us to an ambush and they managed later to surround some of our soldiers inside the hospital,” he told Reuters by telephone, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

He said an armoured regiment and counter terrorism units, backed by US-led air strikes, were sent to support the stranded troops early today and had opened up a route out of the neighborhood.

“They have secured the position, evacuated the wounded and pulled out the destroyed military vehicles from around the hospital,” he said, adding that they were coming under fire from snipers and rocket-propelled grenades.

Amaq said it attacked the relief convoy as it advanced in the Sumer district, south of Al-Wahda near the outer edge of the city. This led to the convoy being forced to withdraw, in addition to the losses suffered by the ISF in the Al-Salam hospital.

Iraqi forces and allies numbering 100,000 men have been battling for seven weeks to crush Daesh fighters in Mosul, now estimated to be around 3,000 men strong. The city was seized by the militants in 2014 and is the largest in Iraq or Syria under their control.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161207-iraq-daesh-reverse-army-assault-in-mosul/.

By W.G. Dunlop with Delil Souleiman in Ain Issa, Syria

Baghdad (AFP)

Nov 10, 2016

The battle for Iraq’s second city Mosul neared the remains of ancient Nimrud on Thursday, as the offensive against the Islamic State group’s Syrian stronghold Raqa was hampered by a sandstorm.

Backed by a US-led coalition, Iraqi forces and a Kurdish-Arab militia alliance are advancing on Mosul and Raqa in separate assaults aimed at driving IS from its last major bastions.

The coalition, which launched air strikes against IS two years ago, is looking to deal a fatal blow to the self-styled “caliphate” the jihadists declared in mid-2014.

Launched on October 17, the Iraqi offensive has seen federal forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters advance on Mosul from the east, south and north, pushing inside the eastern city limits last week.

On Thursday the military said troops and allied militia were moving forward on two IS-held villages near Nimrud, which is some 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of Mosul.

“Units of the 9th Armored Division and the Hashed al-Ashaeri (tribal militia) are beginning to advance to liberate the villages of Abbas Rajab and Al-Nomaniyah, toward Nimrud,” the Joint Operations Command said, later announcing that Abbas Rajab had been retaken.

Nimrud was the one of the great centers of the ancient Middle East. Founded in the 13th century BC, it became the capital of the Assyrian empire, whose rulers built vast palaces and monuments that have drawn archaeologists for more than 150 years.

– Third of the way to Raqa –

In April last year, IS posted video on the internet of its fighters sledgehammering monuments before planting explosives around the site and blowing it up.

It was part of a campaign of destruction against heritage sites under jihadist control that also took in ancient Nineveh on the outskirts of Mosul, Hatra in the desert to the south and Palmyra in neighboring Syria.

IS says the ancient monuments are idols that violate the teachings of its extreme form of Sunni Islam.

In Syria, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said their advance on Raqa was being held back by a sandstorm that had hit the desert province.

“The situation is dangerous today because there is no visibility due to a desert sandstorm,” an SDF commander told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“We fear that Daesh will take advantage of this to move in and launch a counter-attack,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

Speaking in Ain Issa, the main staging point for the operation some 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Raqa, the commander said the sandstorm was also impeding visibility for coalition warplanes.

The SDF launched the offensive on Saturday and has been pushing south from areas near the Turkish border towards Raqa.

The commander said SDF forces advancing south from Ain Issa and Suluk were close to converging at a position some 30 kilometers (20 miles) from Raqa.

“We have been able to cover a third of the distance that separated us from Raqa,” SDF spokeswoman Jihan Sheikh Ahmed said, adding that 15 villages and hamlets had been taken.

– Thousands flee homes –

Ahmed said thousands of civilians had fled their homes since the start of the assault and pleaded for international assistance.

“More than 5,000 displaced people have arrived in regions liberated and secured by our forces. They are coming from combat zones through a corridor we opened for them,” she said.

“We need international help because our capacities are limited and, with winter coming, there is no camp to host them,” she said.

Dozens of families have been seen fleeing towards SDF lines in recent days.

Many have been arriving in trucks and cars around Ain Issa, loaded down with belongings and in some cases with livestock including cows and sheep.

Raqa had a population of some 240,000 before the eruption of Syria’s civil war in 2011 but more than 80,000 people have since fled there from other parts of the country.

Mosul is much bigger, home to more than a million people, and more than 45,000 people have fled since the offensive began.

Aid workers have expressed fears of a major humanitarian crisis once fighting begins in earnest inside the city, where IS is expected to use civilians as human shields.

Rights groups have also raised concerns for fleeing civilians, amid accusations of abuses by some Iraqi forces.

Amnesty International called Thursday on the Iraqi government to investigate the killings of six residents south of Mosul who it said were executed by men in federal police uniforms during the offensive.

Iraq’s federal police issued a statement denying its forces had been involved in extrajudicial killings.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Battle_for_IS-held_Mosul_nears_ancient_site_999.html.

November 4, 2016

Daesh launched yet another surprise attack against Iraq’s rear areas in a town that was supposed to have been “liberated” in September, exposing how Iraqi forces have been ineffective in securing towns and cities before moving on to launch their almost three-week-old offensive against Mosul.

In the early hours of this morning, Daesh assaulted Shirqat in Salahuddin province, over 100 kilometers from Mosul, Iraq’s second city and Daesh’s last major urban stronghold in the country.

Daesh claims that it has taken over several districts in the small town, and has apparently torched a police station, capturing five police officers and killing other Iraq Security Forces (ISF) troops, including an officer. Daesh also control the main hospital.

Local activists have confirmed that several Iraqi armored vehicles and personnel carriers were destroyed by the militants, including supply trucks apparently destined for Shia militias near the Mosul frontlines.

Fighting in Shirqat is ongoing, with ISF in disarray.

When Shirqat was recaptured by ISF in September, their victory was touted as a stepping stone on the road to prising Mosul from Daesh’s grip. At the time, it was hailed as a significant advance but today’s attack highlights the weakness of ISF soldiers in holding territory.

Iraqi authorities failing to prevent Daesh attacks

Since the Iraqi government launched its US-backed offensive to recapture Mosul on 17 October, Daesh have not only managed to hold off any real advance into the city itself, but have also managed to launch devastating attacks across the country.

Daesh first breached Kirkuk’s defenses, more than 170 kilometers from Mosul, and put the city into disarray for almost a week. The attack was eventually repulsed, but not before dozens of Kurdish security forces died, shaking confidence in their ability to detect and prevent attacks.

Following the assault on Kirkuk, Daesh successfully attacked Rutba, almost 600 kilometers south of Mosul, and held it for three days until ISF forces managed to take it back with air support from the international US-led coalition.

Analysts have said that this may herald a future Daesh strategic shift from holding towns and cities to disrupting security and economic activity in these cities once they are retaken, making the rule of Iraqi and Kurdish authorities untenable.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161104-daesh-invades-shirqat-liberated-by-iraqi-forces-2-months-ago/.

December 9, 2016

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq — Three Iraqi Caucasus tribes are uniting to seek recognition under the Iraqi Constitution. The Circassians, Chechens and Dagestanis want to unify their communities under one national name, “Caucasus,” much like the Christians of Iraq did when they formed the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council political party in 2007.

The tribes seek formal recognition in the constitution to guarantee equal rights and legal protection from violence against minorities. On Nov. 24, the nongovernmental organization Masarat for Cultural and Media Development (MCMD) hosted a meeting of representatives of the three groups in the Sulaimaniyah governorate in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. There, they asked to be included among Iraqi minorities and officially declared their demands. MCMD is preparing a draft law regarding rights for minorities that it will submit to parliament.

Ahmed Kataw, the leader of Circassians in Iraq, spoke to Al-Monitor about these demands, saying, “The Iraqi Constitution should recognize the Iraqi Caucasus tribes — Circassians, Chechens and Dagestanis — like the rest of the officially recognized minorities. Their names should be included within the Iraqi minorities protected under the draft law. … We want to make sure the Caucasian minorities are represented in the parliament according to the quota system, by virtue of which other minorities are represented.”

The Caucasus tribes were late presenting their demands to MCMD because, they said, they were unable to form a political party to represent them at the official level, and there were disagreements about selecting leaders to convey these demands.

Kataw said tense security situations, such as scattered armed confrontations and the battle against the Islamic State, have made it risky to start a political movement. “We did not form a political party. We did, however, start establishing a cultural-social organization called Solidarity Association back in 2004, headquartered in Kirkuk,” he said. “As a representative of the Circassians in Iraq, I have served as vice president of the association, and a Chechen was nominated president, while the secretary-general was a Dagestani. The 450 members of the general assembly took a vote, but the security conditions impeded us from turning the association into a political body. In addition, we were afraid we would be dominated by major political movements once we had announced we were forming an independent political party.”

Adnan Abdul Bari, who represents the Dagestanis in the Solidarity Association, spoke to Al-Monitor about the importance of joint work between the representatives of the Caucasus tribes. “These tribes are considered from the same origins. Their common history, geography, culture and traditions differentiate them from other tribes,” he said. “They have the identity of the peoples of the North Caucasus, so it is time for them to come forward as one people with a single cultural identity.”

The small number of Caucasus tribes and the fact that they are not concentrated geographically has weakened their participation in public life.

Researcher Mohammed Hussein Dagestani, the editor of the magazine Tadamon (Solidarity), which is concerned with Circassians, Chechens and Dagestanis, is head of the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate in Kirkuk. He told Al-Monitor, “Russia forced the Caucasus tribes into displacement in 1864. They had to move from North Caucasus to Turkish territory, and the Ottomans then forced them out to Jordan, Syria and Iraq.”

Hussein Dagestani added, “This tragedy is similar to some experienced by other minorities, such as the Armenians, who fled to Iraq and other countries after the massacres committed by the Turks in 1915. We also share some experiences with the Yazidis, who had been subjected to a series of genocides, most recently by the Islamic State in 2016.”

Mazen Abdul Rahman, the Chechen representative of the Solidarity Association, told Al-Monitor there are scattered Chechen settlements, but “there are no settlements for either Dagestanis or Circassians because they are rather integrated into the urban centers.”

According to Katwa, there are more than 15,000 Caucasians, and the tribes’ representatives agree that the Chechens are ranked first in terms of number, followed by the Dagestanis, then the Circassians.

Only a limited number of seniors in Caucasus families still speak Caucasian languages, but their numbers are gradually decreasing, which means their languages will inevitably be forgotten.

Another factor contributing to the demise of Caucasian culture is their way of blending in and their refusal to stand out in society. They act as Arabs in Arab areas, as Kurds in Kurdish areas and Turkmen in Turkmen areas. The Caucasian families who lived in Shiite-dominated areas embraced the Shiite sect, while those who lived in Sunni areas followed the Sunni sect.

However, the long years of blending in did not stop these tribes from practicing their traditions, such as applying the norms and principles of the so-called Adiga law, by virtue of which parents and grandparents have to follow Caucasus traditions when it comes to marriage, childbirth and other social occasions.

Source: al-Monitor.

Link: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/12/caucasus-circassians-chechens-dagestanis-iraq.html/.

Monday 12 December 2016

Little is left standing in Bashiqa, a formerly Christian town now gutted of both its infrastructure and inhabitants.

After two years of Islamic State occupation, it is little more than a skeleton, a name on a map. But sitting to the east of the city of Mosul the town, or what remains of it, encapsulates the precipice on which Iraq, and perhaps even the wider Middle East, sit.

Having besieged the city for months on end, Kurdish forces have drawn a new line in the sand here. The town, formerly outside of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, represents the western frontier of a new Kurdistan.

The official line had always been that Arab towns such as Bashiqa would be returned to Arab rule, but this was, perhaps unsurprisingly, tossed in the air when Kurdish Premier Massoud Barzani made a defiant speech in the town last month asserting that the Kurds would never relinquish control over towns for which Kurdish blood had been spilt.

Indeed these tensions are already visible in rhetoric. Baqir Jabr al-Zubeidi, a senior Shia politician and former commander of the Badr organisation, the country’s largest Shia militia involved in fighting near Mosul, has threatened to attack Kurdish forces with the militia if it wasn’t returned to Arab control.

To add to this, a searing report from Amnesty International released last month accused Kurdish authorities of forcibly displacing Arabs from the contested city of Kirkuk.

If there is one thing we can learn from Iraq’s traumatic history, it is the power of memory. Barely a conversation passes in Kurdish circles without a reference to the Halabja massacre conducted by Saddam Hussein in 1988. In a similar vein, the expulsion of Arabs by Kurdish forces from Kirkuk and towns and villages to the east of Mosul is something that will remain entrenched in the Iraqi psyche for many years.

Return of ‘the man who ruined Iraq’?

As the largely Shia Iraqi army enters the city, many are also fearful of a sectarian backlash. Rasha Al Aqeedi, a Mosul native now based in Dubai as a research fellow at Al-Mesbar Studies and Research Centre, writes: “Mosul’s alienation from post-2003 Iraq can be partially understood within the context of a general Sunni distaste for Shia ascendency.”

Despite being a minority, Sunnis ruled Iraq from 1932 until Saddam Hussein’s toppling in 2003 when elections put Iraq’s Shia majority in charge of the government, and with that the army. Al-Aqeedi is cautiously optimistic that Haider al-Abadi’s Shia government is doing enough to fight this fearfulness “thanks to the professional conduct of the Iraqi army and [Abadi’s] calming leadership” but, as she warns “that could easily change”.

But al-Abadi’s efforts have made him deeply unpopular and none more so than with disgraced tyrant and former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. With the world’s and particularly the US’s attention understandably focused on the fight for Mosul, al-Maliki is on maneuvers, and scheming a return to power.

It was under al-Maliki that the Sunni disenfranchisement capitalized on by Islamic State reached its apex – a result of his intensely sectarian rule. Now, under the pretext of an anti-corruption drive, he is picking off al-Abadi’s ministers one by one through secret ballot. A tragic irony considering his alleged siphoning off of billions from the Iraqi treasury during his time in office, something some have described as “the greatest political corruption scandal in history”.

His first target, former defense minister Khaled al-Obeidi, who had successfully overseen the recapture of the strategically critical Qayyarah airbase in July, was forced from office as a result of a secret ballot orchestrated by al-Maliki in late August. Then in late September under almost identical circumstances finance minister Hoshyar Zebari was also forced from his ministry.

Neither has been replaced and some believe that the next target is the country’s minister of foreign affairs Ibrahim al-Jaafari. If successful, Haider al-Abadi’s government would be untenable, and the stage would be set for “the man who ruined Iraq” to return.

‘My daily life was the same’

The other elephant in the room remains IS’s ideology. It goes largely unchallenged on an intellectual level within Iraq and hundreds of thousands of children have spent some of their most formative years having it drilled into them.

Liberated towns such as Qayyarah and Hamam al-Alil to the south of Mosul are undoubtedly grateful to be freed from the gratuitous violence of the jihadists. But these deeply conservative areas remain susceptible to the ideological underpinnings of the jihadists.

Four months after the town’s liberation, women in Qayyarah are rarely seen outside the house and the ones that are remain clad in niqabs. As one woman fleeing the eastern Mosul suburb of Gogjali said to me: “I can’t tell you how things changed, because for me, apart from the violence, they haven’t, there were bombs and beheadings, but my daily life was the same, my faith was the same.”

IS is undoubtedly on the decline, the group’s unofficial motto of “remaining and expanding” is now as expired as their treatment of women. But the opportunism of Iraq’s Kurds, coupled with unaddressed Sunni grievances and Shia expansionism, are a deadly cocktail.

Al-Abadi is stretched in every imaginable direction, but if al-Maliki’s efforts to topple his government and return to power are a success, then the fall of Mosul will likely just spell a new chapter of trauma for Iraq.

Source: Middle East Eye.

Link: http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/iraq-post-islamic-state-837887658.

December 7, 2016

Iraqi army units launched fresh attacks towards the center of Mosul yesterday in an offensive from the city’s southeastern edges that could give fresh impetus to the seven-week-old battle for Daesh’s last major Iraqi stronghold.

Campaign commander Lieutenant-General Abdul Ameer Rasheed Yarallah was quoted by Iraqi television as saying troops had entered the Al-Salam Hospital, less than a mile (1.5 kilometers) from the Tigris River running through the city center.

If confirmed, that would mark a significant advance by the Ninth Armored Division, which had been tied up for more than a month in close-quarter combat with Daesh on the southeastern fringes of the city.

Some residents of Daesh-controlled districts of east Mosul said by telephone the army had punched deep into the east bank of the city getting close to the Tigris, while others said that the army was still some distance away.

“The fighting right now is very heavy – Iraqi forces have gone past our neighborhood without entering it. Our area is now practically surrounded by the river and the Iraqi forces,” said a resident of the Hay Falasteen neighborhood.

On Sunday, Reuters reported residents inside Mosul as saying that the Intisar neighborhood, claimed by the Iraqi military as being under their control, was still Daesh-controlled.

“Daesh still controls our neighborhood, and the Iraqi forces have not taken a single step forward in three weeks. We’re in despair,” a resident living in Intisar told Reuters.

Although still unconfirmed, Daesh’s Amaq news agency said that they had launched three car bomb attacks that struck troops trying to breach Al-Salam hospital. Reuters reporters saw thick black smoke rising from the area around the hospital.

Army struggling to advance in Mosul

The army says it is facing the toughest urban warfare imaginable – hundreds of suicide car bomb attacks, mortar barrages, sniper fire and ambushes launched from a network of tunnels. More than a million civilians are still in the city.

“The quality of the enemy we are facing now is markedly declined from a month ago,” said Brigadier General Scott Efflandt, a coalition deputy commander, adding that the number of militants in the city had probably fallen to around 3,000, from around 5,000 at the start of the campaign.

Although the Iraqi government does not publish its casualty figures, a number of sources, including the UN, appeared to confirm Daesh’s own kill count of close to 4,000 Iraqi and allied forces.

Mosul is by far the largest city under Daesh control in either Iraq or Syria, and defeat there would roll back the territorial gains the self-styled caliphate managed in 2014.

Some 100,000 Iraqi soldiers, security forces, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and mainly Iran-backed Shia paramilitary forces are participating in the Mosul campaign that began on 17 October with air and ground support from a US-led coalition.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161207-iraq-army-creeps-deeper-into-mosul/.

November 29, 2016

BAGHDAD (AP) — When Iraq’s top generals finalized the plan to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group, they gave themselves six months to finish the job. “It was the maximum time cap,” Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said last week. “We had to plan for the worst, so we don’t get surprised.”

Six weeks into the battle, the force made up of 50,000 troops, Shiite and Sunni tribal militias and Kurdish fighters is a long way from winning back the country’s second-largest city. The fight is showing the limitations of Iraq’s military and security forces, suggesting it has still not fully recovered from the collapse it suffered two years ago in the face of the militants’ blitz across much of northern and western Iraq.

As expected, IS militants are tenaciously defending their last major foothold in Iraq, and the 1 million civilians who remain inside prevent the use of overwhelming firepower. But what is alarming, according to Iraqi field commanders, is that the progress so far has been lopsided. The battle-seasoned special forces are doing most of the fighting and slowly advancing inside the city. Other military outfits are halted outside the city limits, unable to move forward because of resistance, battle fatigue, inexperience or lack of weaponry suited for urban warfare.

Another major challenge for the Iraqis is the command of large and disparate forces maneuvering for a coordinated assault on a large city, according to retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, the top American soldier in northern Iraq during the troop surge of 2007-2008.

“This will continue to be a tough fight,” he said. Many of the Iraqi army commanders are seasoned, but “most of the soldiers are young, new and have not experienced combat.” The special forces are under considerable pressure to push on, slugging it out through treacherously narrow streets and alleys while enduring a daily barrage of suicide bombings and mortar and rocket shells.

As policy, the Iraqi military does not release casualty figures, but special forces’ officers speak privately of scores killed and wounded. “We must continue to advance because we suffer fewer casualties than if we hold still and wait for other units to advance in their sectors,” said Brig. Gen. Haider Fadhil of the special forces. “We are trying to advance cautiously to minimize casualties, and we are convinced that we will eventually be asked to liberate the western sector of the city when we are done here.”

That may be a while yet. The special forces have driven IS militants from about 15 of eastern Mosul’s estimated 39 neighborhoods, some of which are no more than a handful of blocks. Their progress to date places them about 3 kilometers (nearly 2 miles) from the Tigris River, which divides the city in half.

It’s a deceptively short distance: The area is densely built up and heavily populated, and the men are advancing on multiple fronts, constantly assigning valuable resources to securing their flanks and rear as they capture more territory. For example, in a week of fighting, they have only taken about 60 percent of the large and densely populated Zohour neighborhood, site of one of Mosul’s busiest food markets.

Mosul’s eastern half has a greater population than the western half. In a positive note, coalition airstrikes that cut off the city’s four bridges across the river have helped reduce the number of car bombs, commanders say.

In contrast, the regular forces, which have been battling for weeks through towns and villages on the way to the city, are now stalled on the edges, facing the prospect of diving into an urban battle, according to commanders in the field.

The 16th Infantry Division met stiff resistance about 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of the city and has had to halt its advance and hold its positions. It did send a brigade to the eastern side of Mosul to help hold territory taken by the special forces there. South of Mosul, forces from the 9th Division along with some 10,000 members of the paramilitary federal police have stopped about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) short of the city’s boundaries to regroup and rest after the long fight to reach that point.

“We are not equipped or trained to fight inside cities. We are an armored outfit with tanks,” acknowledged a senior officer from the 9th Division, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations. “Even if we are able to advance toward the city, we need forces to hold the territory we liberate. Our men are exhausted after a six-week battle deployment.”

The IS militants are putting up resistance not seen in past major battles with the Iraqi military north and west of Baghdad. They are drawing on a vast arsenal of weapons, while fighting in a city they called home for the past two years. The militants have also dug an elaborate network of tunnels, some as long as 3,000 meters (yards), that offer cover from drones.

The battle “will require a combination of siege warfare and continuous attacks against targets identified by sophisticated intelligence, all taking place while civilians are still in the city and its surroundings,” Hertling wrote in response to questions emailed by The Associated Press. “It will take longer than any of them have predicted, and they will sustain significant casualties.”

Commanders suspect the worst may yet to come. Up to 6,000 IS fighters remain in Mosul, including as many as 1,500 foreign fighters, with French and Belgians believed to number several hundreds, according to a senior military intelligence officer in Mosul.

“Their escape from Mosul is now difficult, so they will either fight to the death or become suicide bombers,” said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations. IS also appears to use its own drones to gather intelligence on troop movements. An example of their information-gathering abilities came Thursday, when fighters accurately hit with several mortar rounds a tent near the airstrip outside the town of Tal Afar, west of Mosul. The attack took place just minutes after the prime minister concluded a meeting there with leaders of the Shiite militias tasked with liberating Tal Afar.

Two senior militia leaders and four members of their security details were hurt, according to Jaafar al-Husseini, a militia spokesman.

November 27, 2016

BAGHDAD (AP) — Rekindling sectarian rivalries at a sensitive time, Iraq’s parliament on Saturday voted to fully legalize state-sanctioned Shiite militias long accused of abuses against minority Sunnis, adopting a legislation that promoted them to a government force empowered to “deter” security and terror threats facing the country, like the Islamic State group.

The legislation, supported by 208 of the chamber’s 327 members, was quickly rejected by Sunni Arab politicians and lawmakers as proof of the “dictatorship” of the country’s Shiite majority and evidence of its failure to honor promises of inclusion.

“The majority does not have the right to determine the fate of everyone else,” Osama al-Nujaifi, one of Iraq’s three vice presidents and a senior Sunni politician, told reporters after the vote, which was boycotted by many Sunni lawmakers.

“There should be genuine political inclusion. This law must be revised.” Another Sunni politician, legislator Ahmed al-Masary, said the law cast doubt on the participation in the political process by all of Iraq’s religious and ethnic factions.

“The legislation aborts nation building,” he said, adding it would pave the way for a dangerous parallel to the military and police. A spokesman for one of the larger Shiite militias welcomed the legislation as a well-deserved victory. “Those who reject it are engaging in political bargaining,” said Jaafar al-Husseini of the Hezbollah Brigades.

“It is not the Sunnis who reject the law, it is the Sunni politicians following foreign agendas,” said Shiite lawmaker Mohammed Saadoun. The law, tabled by parliament’s largest Shiite bloc, applies to the Shiite militias fighting IS as well as the much smaller and weaker anti-IS Sunni Arab groups. Militias set up by tiny minorities, like Christians and Turkmen, to fight IS are also covered.

According to a text released by parliament, the militias have now become an “independent” force that is part of the armed forces and report to the prime minister, who is also the commander in chief. The new force would be subject to military regulations, except for age and education requirements — provisions designed to prevent the exclusion of the elderly and uneducated Iraqis who joined the militias. The militiamen would benefit from salaries and pensions identical to those of the military and police, but are required to severe all links to political parties and refrain from political activism.

The legislation came at a critical stage in Iraq’s two-year-long fight against IS, a conflict underscored by heavy sectarian tensions given that the group follows an extremist interpretation of Sunni Islam and the security forces are predominantly Shiite. The Shiite-led government last month launched a massive campaign to dislodge IS from predominantly Sunni Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and the last major urban center still held by the extremist group.

Through the military, the government has used the campaign to project an image of even-handedness, reaching out to the city’s residents and promising them a life free of the atrocities and excesses committed by IS. It has also excluded the Shiite militias from the battle, winning a measure of goodwill from the Sunnis. But Saturday’s legislation may stoke the simmering doubts of many Sunnis about the intentions of the government.

The Shiite militias, most of which are backed by Iran, have been bankrolled and equipped by the government since shortly after IS swept across much of northern and western Iraq two years ago. Many of them existed long before IS emerged, fighting American troops in major street battles during the U.S. military presence in Iraq between 2003 and 2011. Their ranks, however, significantly swelled after Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for jihad, or holy struggle, against IS in June 2014.

They now number over 100,000 men and fight with heavy weaponry, including tanks, artillery and rocket launchers. The larger militias have intelligence agencies and run their own jails. Since 2014 they have played a key role in the fight against IS, checking its advance on Baghdad and the Shiite holy cities of Samarra and Karbala and later driving the militants from areas to the south, northeast and north of Baghdad.

Their heavy battlefield involvement followed the collapse of security forces in the face of the 2014 IS blitz, but their role has somewhat diminished in recent months as more and more of Iraq’s military units regained their strength and chose to distance themselves from the occasionally unruly militiamen.

Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and rights groups have long complained that the militiamen have been involved in extrajudicial killings, abuse and the theft or destruction of property in Sunni areas. They viewed them as the Trojan Horse of Shiite, non-Arab Iran because of their close links to Tehran and their reliance on military advisers from Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Many in the Sunni Arab community wanted them integrated into the military and police, a proposition long rejected by Shiite militia leaders, some of whom have on occasion spoken of their aspiration of evolving into a force akin to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards or the Iranian-backed Hezbollah — both well-armed military groups with substantial political leverage and large economic interests.

Senior Shiite politician Amar al-Hakim sought to reassure Sunnis on Saturday, saying several laws to be issued by the prime minister to regulate the work of the militias would allay many of their fears. He did not elaborate, but added “The law creates a suitable climate for national unity.”

In a statement, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi welcomed the legislation and said the “Popular Mobilization Forces” — the formal name of the militias — would cover all Iraqi sects. “We must show gratitude for the sacrifices offered by those heroic fighters, young and elderly. It is the least we can offer them,” said the statement. “The Popular Mobilization will represent and defend all Iraqis wherever they are.”

But Sunni lawmaker Mohammed al-Karbooly said the law ignored pleas by Sunni politicians for the expulsion and prosecution of Shiite militiamen accused of abuses. “The law, as is, provides them with a cover,” he said.