Category Archives: Iraq

(Haaretz) New Iraqi Leader Proclaims Jews Can Return: ‘They Are Welcome’

(Haaretz) Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who formed a coalition with a pro-Iranian political bloc, is known to call for ending sectarianism in Iraq.

Jewish writings on the tomb are seen at a Jewish cemetery in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, Iraq March 29, 2018. Picture taken March 29, 2018.  REUTERS/Wissm Al-Okili
\ WISSM AL-OKILI/ REUTERS

The newly elected Iraqi leader, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said that Jews, who were expelled decades ago, are welcome to return, Newsweek reported Tuesday.

Al-Sadr, who recently formed an alliance with a pro-Iranian political bloc, said that “If [Jews’] loyalty was to Iraq, they are welcome.” He stated that Jews who wanted to return would receive full citizenship rights. Currently, the Iraqi constitution does not recognize Judaism as one of the country’s official religions.

Iraq’s Jewish community is one of the most ancient in the world. Before Jews either left or were displaced from Iraq following the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, they accounted around two percent of the country’s population, around 150,000 strong. In 1951 most Iraqi Jews immigrated to Israel, to be followed in the following decades by the few thousand who remained. All in all, Iraq expelled 120,000 Jews, and today few Jews remain.

In this Dec. 29, 2015 file photo, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr speaks during a press conference in Najaf, 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Baghdad, Iraq.
AP Photo/Karim Kadim, File

Al-Sadr’s political bloc, the Sairoon Alliance, won the largest number of parliamentary seats in elections in mid-May. Al-Sadr then announced that he was teaming up with a pro-Iranian political bloc, the National Iraqi Alliance, led by Hadi al-Amiri, in order to form a coalition.

The comments from the cleric come amidst political upheaval in Iraq, as the country is still reeling from a contentious election, which members of the political opposition have alleged was rigged.

Al-Sadr’s comments welcoming Jews are not new. He made similar remarks in a 2013 interview, saying he “welcomes any Jew who prefers Iraq to Israel and there is no difference between Jews, Muslims or Christians when it comes to the sense of nationalism. Those who do not carry out their national duties are not Iraqis even if they were Shiite Muslims.”

(Economist) A new war in Iraq, now between Shia Arabs and Kurds

(Economist) Iraqi leaders act to retake the city and its oilfields from the Kurds.

WITH its rich reserves of oil and multitude of ethnicities and religions, the city of Kirkuk was always contested. The jihadist takeover of much of northern and western Iraq in 2014 allowed the Kurds both to take over the disputed city, and pose as defenders of Iraqi freedom. Now that Islamic State (IS) is being defeated, the old disputes over who controls the city have reignited.

In the early hours of October 16th, Iraqi government forces advanced on the city, taking over the oilfields, the biggest military base outside the city, and then the governorate building in the centre.

Oil production was briefly shut down. Thousands of civilians are fleeing the city and surrounding province, choking the Kurdish checkpoints on the roads into the mountainous north.

So far the casualties have been relatively light. Most Peshmerga fighters withdrew without much of a fight. But some Kurds in the city have responded to calls from their leaders to take up arms in Kirkuk’s defence.

Several factors are inflaming tensions. The first was a referendum on Kurdish independence last month. It had been called by the regional government’s president, Masoud Barzani, against the advice of many officials. Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has vowed to prevent secession and halted international flights into Kurdish cities. Rival Kurdish factions are openly accusing each other of betraying Kirkuk.

Mr Abadi, sounding uncharacteristically belligerent, says the referendum will cost the Kurds “everything” they have gained since establishing an autonomous government in 1991. The loss of Kirkuk’s oilfields would certainly cost the Kurdish regional government its prime source of revenue at a time when it is already struggling to finance its rule.

Trade routes into the landlocked region have been severely impaired after Iran closed their common border. And Kurdish business interests elsewhere in Iraq have come under attack. Last week, gunmen attacked a regional office of Korek Telecom, a mobile-phone network run by Mr Barzani’s nephew, disabling its coverage in southern Iraq.

A second cause of conflict is the mounting tension between America and Iran. American diplomats are shuttling between Erbil and Baghdad, urging Messrs Abadi and Barzani, both of whom they consider allies, to restrain their forces. But America’s president, Donald Trump, risks undermining their efforts. On October 13th Mr Trump spoke out against Iran and vowed to curb its influence in the region.

He denounced the nuclear deal struck with Iran (and five other global powers) by his predecessor, Barack Obama, to lift certain sanctions on Iran in exchange for it curbing its nuclear programme and submitting it to tighter international scrutiny. Mr Trump also threatened to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the country’s praetorian guard, as a terrorist organisation.

The IRGC has responded to his bombast with force. Ahead of the Kirkuk offensive, General Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force, the IRGC’s foreign-operations arm, arrived in Iraq. Two armed groups closely linked to Iran—the Popular Mobilisation Units (or Hashd al-Shaabi) and the Federal Police—led the assault.

Across the border in Syria, Iran’s allies are also advancing, rubbing close to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which are backed by America. On October 14th, Syrian forces took al-Mayadin, another town on the Euphrates, from Islamic State. Across the region, General Suleimani is demonstrating that while Mr Trump talks, Iran speedily acts.

Underlying these local fights is a broader scramble for vast swathes of the Fertile Crescent from which IS has retreated. Local militias and regional powers are racing to create facts on the ground. Raqqa, the capital of IS in Syria, is about to fall to American-backed Syrian rebels. But the Syrian government, and its Iranian and Shia allies, seem likely to win the race for control of Syria’s borders. Some still look for an agreed way forward. Last week Mr Abadi suggested establishing a joint administration in Kirkuk, involving Iraqi government and Kurdish officials. But as erstwhile allies in the struggle against IS turn their guns on each other, calls for negotiations look worryingly late.

(ZH) Iran, Iraq, And Turkey Unite To Block Kurdish Oil Exports

(ZHIraq, Iran, and Turkey are taking a unified stance against Kurdistan’s oil sector after the region elected to seek independence from Baghdad in a referendum in September, according to a new report by Rudaw.

“In the case of northern Iraq; Iran, Iraq and Turkey will form a tripartite mechanism and will decide on shutting down the oil,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said after a meeting with leaders from the other two nations on Thursday.

day before the vote, the Iraqi central government issued a statement calling on “neighboring countries and countries of the world” to stop buying crude oil directly from Kurdistan and only deal with Baghdad.

Turkey’s Ceyhan port provides an outlet for the Kurdish Kirkuk oil to meet international markets without interference from Baghdad. Erdogan, Tehran and other members of the international community had censured Erbil for proceeding with the independence referendum as Iraq recovers from a three-year war against the Islamic State (ISIS). The Turkish leader had previously threatened to cut Kirkuk off from Ceyhan, but did not provide details on how such a measure would be carried out.

Russia’s oil majors side with Kurdistan in its quest for an independent fossil fuel establishment. Rosneft signed off on a $1 billion gas pipeline deal with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) a week prior to the historic vote, signaling Moscow’s approval of a hypothetically separate Kurdistan.

Both Iran and Turkey house sizeable Kurdish populations, so the referendum raises fears that Kurds from other nations may seek similar political solutions.

Kurdistan produces around 600,000 bpd of crude oil, or about 15 percent of Iraq’s total output. After the votes were counted, the KRG said that the ‘Yes’ to independence option won at the polls, with 92.73 percent of voters opting to grant Erbil its own regime.

(BBC) Iraqi Kurds decisively back independence in referendum

(BBC)

People celebrate on the streets after voting in a referendum on Kurdish independence in Kirkuk, Iraq (25 September 2017)Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionKurds took to the streets of Kirkuk on Monday to celebrate after voting in the referendum

People living in northern Iraq voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence for the Kurdistan Region in Monday’s controversial referendum.

The electoral commission said 92% of the 3.3 million Kurds and non-Kurds who cast their ballots supported secession.

The announcement came despite a last-minute appeal for the result to be “cancelled” from Iraq’s prime minister.

Haider al-Abadi urged Kurds to instead engage in dialogue with Baghdad “in the framework of the constitution”.

Kurdish leaders say the “Yes” vote will give them a mandate to start negotiations on secession with the central government in Baghdad and neighbouring countries.

Iraq’s parliament meanwhile asked the prime minister to deploy troops to the oil-rich region of Kirkuk and other disputed areas held by Kurdish forces.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters took control of Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic region claimed by the Kurds and Arab-led central government, when jihadist militants from so-called Islamic State (IS) swept across northern Iraq in 2014 and the Iraqi army collapsed.

Map showing Iraqi Kurdistan and areas controlled by Kurdish forces

The referendum was held in the three Iraqi provinces that make up the Kurdistan Region, as well as “areas of Kurdistan outside the region’s administration”.

Electoral commission officials told a news conference in Irbil on Wednesday afternoon that 2,861,000 people had voted “yes” to independence and 224,000 had voted “no”. Turnout was 72.61% among those eligible to vote.

In a speech to parliament before the result was announced, Mr Abadi insisted that he would “never have a dialogue” about the referendum’s outcome with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi (L) meets Parliament Speaker Saleem al-Jubouri (R) at the Iraqi parliament building in Baghdad, Iraq (27 September 2017)Image copyrightEPA
Image captionHaider al-Abadi (left) met Parliament Speaker Saleem al-Jubouri on Wednesday

The vote was vehemently opposed by Baghdad and much of the international community, which expressed concern about its potentially destabilising effects, particularly on the battle against IS.

Mr Abadi said his priority now was to “preserve citizens’ security” and promised to “defend Kurdish citizens inside or outside” the Kurdistan Region.

“We will impose Iraq’s rule in all districts of the region with the force of the constitution,” he added.

Media captionIraq’s Kurdish region foreign affairs minister says independence is ‘inevitable’

The prime minister also reaffirmed his threat to prevent direct international flights to the Kurdistan Region if Baghdad was not given control of Irbil and Sulaimaniya airports by Friday afternoon.

The KRG’s transport minister said he was seeking clarification from Baghdad.

“We don’t understand how to give them the two airports,” Mowlud Murad told reporters. “They are already subject to the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority.”

People are seen inside Irbil International Airport on 27 September 2017Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionMr Abadi has demanded that his government be given control of Irbil international airport

The United States, which was “deeply disappointed” that the referendum was held, has also questioned Mr Abadi’s threat to ban international flights.

State department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Tuesday that such a move “would not be an example of engaging constructively”.

Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines and EgyptAir meanwhile warned customers they would halt flights to Irbil from Friday until further notice.

Media captionKexit? Iraqi Kurdistan referendum explained – by the voters themselves

Mr Abadi has also demanded control of all border crossings and oil revenues.

Kurds are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East but they have never obtained a permanent nation state.

In Iraq, where they make up an estimated 15% to 20% of the population of 37 million, Kurds faced decades of repression before acquiring autonomy in 1991.

(Reuters) Turkey threatens retaliation after Iraqi Kurdish independence vote

(Reuters) The Iraqi government ruled out talks on possible secession for Kurdish-held northern Iraq on Tuesday and Turkey threatened to choke it off, after a referendum on independence there showed strong support for a split.

Initial results of Monday’s vote indicated 72 percent of eligible voters had taken part and an overwhelming majority, possibly over 90 percent, had said “yes”, Erbil based Rudaw TV said. Final results are expected by Wednesday.

Celebrations continued until the early hours of Tuesday in Erbil, capital of the Kurdish region, which was lit by fireworks and adorned with Kurdish red-white-green flags. People danced in the squares as convoys of cars drove around honking their horns.

In ethnically-mixed Kirkuk, where Arabs and Turkmen opposed the vote, local Kurdish-led authorities lifted an overnight curfew imposed to maintain control.

The referendum has fueled fears of a new regional conflict; on Tuesday Turkey, which has fought a Kurdish insurgency within its borders for decades, reiterated threats of economic and military retaliation.

Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani says the vote is not binding, but meant to provide a mandate for negotiations with Baghdad and neighboring countries over the peaceful secession of the region from Iraq.

But Iraq’s opposition to Kurdish independence did not waver.

“We are not ready to discuss or have a dialogue about the results of the referendum because it is unconstitutional,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a speech on Monday night.

The Kurds held the vote despite threats to block it from Baghdad, Iraq’s powerful eastern neighbor Iran, and Turkey, the region’s main link to the outside world.

“This referendum decision, which has been taken without any consultation, is treachery,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said, repeating threats to cut off the pipeline that carries hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil a day from northern Iraq to global markets.

Oslo-based broker Sparebank 1 Markets said oil companies could sell some oil locally if exports were blocked but their revenues would take a hit.

Iraqi Kurds – part of the largest ethnic group left stateless when the Ottoman empire collapsed a century ago – say the referendum acknowledges their contribution in confronting Islamic State after it overwhelmed the Iraqi army in 2014 and seized control of a third of Iraq.

Voters were asked to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the question: “Do you want the Kurdistan Region and Kurdistani areas outside the (Kurdistan) Region to become an independent country?”

With 30 million ethnic Kurds scattered across the region, mainly in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, governments fear the spread of separatism to their own Kurdish populations.

Iraqi soldiers joined Turkish troops for military exercises in southeast Turkey on Tuesday near the border with Iraq’s Kurdistan region.

Turkey also took the Rudaw TV channel off its satellite service TurkSat, a Turkish broadcasting official told Reuters.

The U.S. State Department said it was “deeply disappointed” by the KRG’s decision to conduct the referendum but added that Washington’s “historic relationship” with the people of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region would not change.

Asked about the referendum, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said on Monday: “We hope for a unified Iraq to annihilate ISIS (Islamic State) and certainly a unified Iraq to push back on Iran.”

Iran announced a ban on direct flights to and from Kurdistan on Sunday, while Baghdad asked foreign countries to stop direct oil trading with the Kurdish region and demanded that the KRG hand over control of its international airports and border posts with Iran, Turkey and Syria.

Iranian Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, a top military adviser to the Supreme Leader, called on “the four neighboring countries to block land borders” with the Iraqi Kurdish region, according to state news agency IRNA.

Tehran supports Shi‘ite Muslim groups that have ruled or held security and government positions in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Syria, embroiled in a devastating civil war and whose Kurds are pressing ahead with their own self-determination, rejected the referendum.

KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said he hoped to maintain good relations with Turkey. “The referendum does not mean independence will happen tomorrow, nor are we redrawing borders,” he said in Erbil on Monday. “If the ‘yes’ vote wins, we will resolve our issues with Baghdad peacefully.”

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson reiterated London’s opposition to the vote, urging ”all sides to refrain from provocative statements and actions in its aftermath.

“The priority must remain the defeat of Daesh and returning stability to liberated areas,” he added, a reference to Islamic State militants who continue to control parts of Iraq and Syria, including a pocket west of Kirkuk.

(France24) Iraq’s Supreme Court orders suspension of Kurdish independence referendum

(France24Iraq’s Supreme Court on Monday ordered the suspension of a September 25 referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan to examine whether such a vote would be constitutional.

“The Supreme Court has issued the order to suspend organising the referendum set for September 25 … until it examines the complaints it has received over this plebiscite being unconstitutional,” the court said in a statement.

Court spokesman Ayas al-Samouk, told AFP: “We have received several complaints and this is why we decided to suspend the referendum.”

A source in parliament said at least three lawmakers had filed complaints against the poll.

Neighbours Turkey and Iran, as well as the United States and the United Nations, have pleaded for theautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq to settle its differences with Baghdad through negotiations rather than secession.

France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Monday added to those calls to hold talks instead of a vote, calling the referendum “inappropriate”.

Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani has said a “Yes” vote would not trigger an immediate declaration of independence but would rather kick-start “serious discussions” with Baghdad.

(Reuters) Iraq declares end of caliphate after capture of Mosul mosque

(Reuters) After eight months of grinding urban warfare, Iraqi government troops on Thursday captured the ruined mosque at the heart of Islamic State’s de facto capital Mosul, and the prime minister declared the group’s self-styled caliphate at an end.

Iraqi authorities expect the long battle for Mosul to end in coming days as remaining Islamic State fighters are bottled up in just a handful of neighborhoods of the Old City.

The seizure of the nearly 850-year-old Grand al-Nuri Mosque — from where Islamic State proclaimed the caliphate nearly three years ago to the day — is a huge symbolic victory.

“The return of al-Nuri Mosque and al-Hadba minaret to the fold of the nation marks the end of the Daesh state of falsehood,” Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement, referring to the hardline Sunni Mulsim group by an Arabic acronym.

The fall of Mosul would in effect mark the end of the Iraqi half of the IS caliphate, although the group still controls territory west and south of the city, ruling over hundreds of thousands of people.

Its stronghold in Syria, Raqqa, is also close to falling.

A U.S.-backed Kurdish-led coalition besieging Raqqa on Thursday fully encircled it after closing the militants’ last way out from the south, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.

These setbacks have reduced Islamic State’s territory by 60 percent from its peak two years ago and its revenue by 80 percent, to just $16 million a month, said IHS Markit.

“Their fictitious state has fallen,” an Iraqi military spokesman, Brigadier General Yahya Rasool, told state TV.

However, it still occupies an area as big as Belgium, across Iraq and Syria, according to IHS Markit, an analytics firm.

Islamic State fighters blew up the medieval mosque and its famed leaning minaret a week ago as U.S.-backed Iraqi forces started a push in its direction. Their black flag had been flying from al-Hadba (The Hunchback) minaret since June 2014.

Much of the mosque and brickwork minaret was reduced to rubble, said a Reuters TV reporter who went to the site with the elite units that captured it.

Only the stump of the Hunchback remained, and a green dome of the mosque supported by a few pillars which resisted the blast, he said.

The mosque grounds were off limits as the insurgents are suspected to have planted booby traps.

Abadi “issued instructions to bring the battle to its conclusion,” by capturing the remaining parts of the Old City, his office said.

The cost of the fighting has been enormous. In addition to military casualties, thousands of civilians are estimated to have been killed.

About 900,000 people, nearly half the pre-war population of the northern city, have fled, mostly taking refuge in camps or with relatives and friends, according to aid groups.

Those trapped in the city suffered hunger, deprivation and IS oppression as well as death or injury, and many buildings have been ruined.

ARDUOUS TASK

Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) troops captured the al-Nuri Mosque’s ground in a “lightning operation” on Thursday, a commander of the U.S.-trained elite units told state TV.

CTS units are now in control of the mosque area and the al-Hadba and Sirjkhana neighborhoods and they are still advancing, a military statement said.

Other government units, from the army and police, were closing in from other directions.

An elite Interior Ministry unit said it freed about 20 children believed to belong to Yazidi and other minorities persecuted by the jihadists in a quarter north of the Old City which houses Mosul’s main hospitals.

A U.S.-led international coalition is providing air and ground support to the Iraqi forces fighting through the Old City’s maze of narrow alleyways.

But the advance remains arduous as IS fighters are dug in the middle of civilians, using mortar fire, snipers, booby traps and suicide bombers to defend their last redoubt.

The military estimated up to 350 militants were still in the Old City last week but many have been killed since.

They are besieged in one sq km (0.4 square mile) making up less than 40 percent of the Old City and less than one percent of the total area of Mosul, the largest urban center over which they held sway in both Iraq and Syria.

Those residents who have escaped the Old City say many of the civilians trapped behind IS lines — put last week at 50,000 by the Iraqi military — are in a desperate situation with little food, water or medicines.

“Boys and girls who have managed to escape show signs of moderate malnutrition and carry psychosocial scars,” the United Nations Children’s Fund UNICEF said in a statement.

Thousands of children remain at risk in Mosul, it said.

IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself ruler of all Muslims from the Grand al-Nuri Mosque’s pulpit on July 4, 2014, after the insurgents overran swathes of Iraq and Syria.

His speech from the mosque was the first time he revealed himself to the world and the footage broadcast then is to this day the only video recording of him as “caliph”.

He has left the fighting in Mosul to local commanders and is believed to be hiding in the border area between Iraq and Syria, according to U.S. and Iraqi military sources.

The mosque was named after Nuruddin al‑Zanki, a noble who fought the early Crusaders from a fiefdom that covered territory in modern-day Turkey, Syria and Iraq. It was built in 1172-73, shortly before his death, and housed an Islamic school.

The Old City’s stone buildings date mostly from the medieval period. They include market stalls, a few mosques and churches, and small houses built and rebuilt on top of each other over the ages.

(Economist) The Iraqi army is on the brink of defeating Islamic State

(Economist) But the government must move fast if it is not to squander its victory.

IN A series of lightning advances over the past few days, Iraq’s army has seized control of most of western Mosul, the last redoubt of Islamic State (IS) in the country. On March 7th, a day that may have marked a turning point, army units took Mosul’s main government complex, as well as the city’s famous antiquities museum and about half of the old city. The airport had fallen a week or so earlier, and all roads in and out of the city in which the leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared his “caliphate” in June 2014 are firmly in government hands.

In the command centre responsible for the eastern half of the city, which was liberated in December, Brigadier Qais Yaaqoub was jubilant. “They are in full collapse now,” he said. “When an army breaks it happens very quickly. Within a week or two, this will all be over.” He may be speaking prematurely, but probably not by much. The liberation of west Mosul, which started only last month, has proceeded much faster than expected. That said, the last of the fighting could be a lot more difficult. IS clings on in the oldest parts of the city, where streets are narrow, making it hard to manoeuvre vehicles and increasing the risk of ambushes and civilian casualties. However, tens of thousands have been able to make their way to safety.

American officers working closely with the Iraqi army estimate that as few as 500 IS fighters now remain in the city, the others having fled or been killed in a devastating campaign of well-targeted air strikes. The evidence is clear from a tour of east Mosul, on the left bank of the Tigris river, which has split the city in two since IS blew up all its five bridges as it fell back.

Residents point out building after wrecked building that had been used by jihadists, only to be knocked out from above. “This was a shopping centre, but Daesh [IS] took it over,” says Muammar Yunnis, an English teacher. “Then the planes destroyed it.” The liberation, he reckons, “could not have been handled better. Some have died. That happens in a war. But the government and the Americans have been careful.”

Driving IS out of the city may come to be seen as the straightforward part, however. Judging by what has happened in east Mosul, rebuilding will be a slow process. Three months after their liberation, east Mosulites are getting fed up. They are still without running water, and the only electricity comes from private generators.

“We have security now, but no services at all,” complains Muhammad Ahmed, a pharmacist. “There is no government here.” The provincial governor lives in Erbil, a couple of hours’ drive away, partly along roads ploughed up by IS that show no sign of being repaired. No international agencies are to be seen in the recaptured city, bar a few clinics and some empty school satchels donated by UNICEF. The central government has failed to provide it with an emergency civilian administration, leaving it either to the army, which is otherwise occupied, or to the local government, which barely functions.

Mr Ahmed probably speaks for many when he recalls that in the days immediately after IS took control of Mosul, the jihadists were rather popular. The previous elected authorities had been corrupt and incompetent, and unable to deliver the basics. Electricity, he recalls, was available for just three hours a day. Under the caliphate the lights stayed on, at least until coalition air strikes began and then, shortly before losing control of east Mosul, IS blew up the city’s main power station and its water-pumping station.

At least they kept the lights on

If squabbling and corruption on the part of the politicians hinder the provision of services, citizens will once again consider supporting alternative groups. “What can we do?” laments the brigadier. “The government does not have the resources to fix all this. It will take 12 years or more. We need a lot of help from outside.”

Many will blame the inaction on insecurity. But this is overblown. Although the chatter of machineguns and the crump of mortar rounds can be heard from across the Tigris, east Mosul already looks and feels reasonably safe. The Shia militias have been kept out of the city to avoid sectarian killings, as have the Kurdish peshmerga fighters. There is no curfew; policemen guard many street corners, and the IS “sleeper cells” that some warn of seem to be soundly asleep, if indeed they exist. The last incident in the city was a month ago, when a terrorist blew himself up in a restaurant, killing three people.

Children are back at school, to the delight of parents who had kept them at home after the city fell to IS rather than send them off to be indoctrinated by homicidal zealots. But even though restaurants and shops are open, business is slow. Muhammad Attar, who runs a falafel restaurant, says this is because no one has any money. Iraq’s economy is dominated by the state and most people with regular jobs work for the government. Amazingly, it kept paying salaries for about a year after IS conquered Mosul. But even so, most of the city’s workers have not been paid for more than a year. Pensions, somehow, are still getting through, and families are managing on those and on debt.

With Mosul recaptured, the rout of IS in Iraq will be complete. Undoubtedly, though, some of its surviving fighters will revert to suicide-bomb attacks. And, for a while, the group will live on in Syria. But there too it is surrounded and shrinking back to its “capital”, Raqqa. The caliphate’s short, brutal life is drawing to a close.

In the longer term, huge problems remain for Mosul. Many of its people undoubtedly collaborated with the occupiers, and scores will be settled. Sunnis will want to be sure that they are given a full share of power in the city and its surrounding province of Nineveh, even though it is a Shia-dominated army that liberated them. The Kurds will want some sort of reward for their part in beating IS back. Much of the city will need to be rebuilt. Getting the power back on and the water running as the roasting Iraqi summer approaches would be a good place to start.

(Reuters) Iraqi PM says three months needed to rout Islamic State

(Reuters) Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Tuesday it would take three months to remove Islamic State from Iraq, as U.S.-backed forces battle to dislodge the militants from Mosul, their last major stronghold in the country.

Abadi had previously pledged the northern city would be retaken by the end of this year. But the operation has been slowed by concern to avoid casualties among civilians, who have mostly stayed in their homes rather than fleeing as was initially expected.

Asked to respond to comments by the commander of a U.S.-led coalition supporting Iraqi forces that it would take as long as two years to eliminate Islamic State and its cells in Iraq and neighboring Syria, Abadi said:

“The Americans were very pessimistic. They used to talk about a really long period, but the remarkable successes achieved by our brave and heroic fighters reduced that. I foresee that in Iraq it will take three months.”

Overnight the coalition bombed the last remaining bridge connecting the eastern and western parts of Mosul “to reduce enemy freedom of movement”, a spokesman said on Tuesday.

A statement published by Amaq, a news agency supporting Islamic State, said the bridge was now completely out of service, and an unconfirmed video circulated online showed a segment of the span had fallen into the river.

The United Nations has previously expressed concern that the destruction of Mosul’s bridges could obstruct the evacuation of civilians. Up to 1.5 million are thought to remain inside.

More than two months into the Mosul operation, elite Iraqi soldiers have retaken a quarter of the city, but entered a planned “operational refit” this month.

A U.S. battlefield commander told Reuters on Monday that Iraqi forces would resume their offensive in the coming days, in a new phase of the operation that will see American troops deployed closer to the front line inside the city.

Mosul, the largest city seized by Islamic State anywhere across the once vast territory it controlled in Iraq and neighboring Syria, has been held by the group since its fighters drove the U.S.-trained army out in June 2014.

Besides Mosul, Islamic State still controls the towns of Tel Afar and Qaim as well as Hawija and the surrounding area.

The city’s fall would probably end Islamic State’s ambition to create a self-styled caliphate, but the fighters could still mount a more traditional insurgency in Iraq, and plot or inspire attacks on the West.

(ZH) Saddam Hussein’s CIA Interrogator Admits Being Convinced He Should Have Been Left In Power

(ZH) In a new book due to hit shelves later this month, John Nixon, a former CIA officer who was responsible for interrogating Saddam Hussein after he was captured in 2003, admits being convinced by the fallen dictator that he was best suited to rule Iraq.  Per an excerpt published in Time Magazine, Nixon recalls an encounter with Hussein in which he warned that America would fail in Iraq because “you do not know the language, the history, and you do not understand the Arab mind.”

When I interrogated Saddam, he told me: “You are going to fail. You are going to find that it is not so easy to govern Iraq.” When I told him I was curious why he felt that way, he replied: “You are going to fail in Iraq because you do not know the language, the history, and you do not understand the Arab mind.”

Saddam Hussein

 

While Nixon found Hussein “thoroughly unlikeable,” he admits to walking away with a “grudging respect” for the fallen dictator’s ability maintain the Iraqi nation through forced consensus. 

Although I found Saddam to be thoroughly unlikeable, I came away with a grudging respect for how he was able to maintain the Iraqi nation as a whole for as long as he did. He told me once, “Before me, there was only bickering and arguing. I ended all that and made people agree!”

 

Saddam used every tool in his repertoire to maintain Iraq’s multi-ethnic state. Such tools included murder, blackmail, imprisonment, threats, and these were to be used to cow his enemies. For his friends, Saddam would dole out patronage to tribal leaders and supporters in the form of cash, elaborate gifts, land, and other largesse that was the lifeblood of an oil rich state. Today’s Iraq has been riven by deepening sectarianism that always seems to be only a step away from igniting again, as it did after Saddam’s overthrow.

 

Saddam also would have inevitably maintained a hostile stance toward Iran; he was very proud of his opposition to the Islamic Republic and reserved special contempt for the Shia in Iraq who would follow Iran’s guidance over his. Iraq is now very much the junior partner to a much emboldened Iranian regime that has expanded its military and security influence in the chaotic aftermath of Saddam’s overthrow and the aborted Arab Spring.

Of course, Trump has made similar comments about Hussein, comments that have drawn a lot of heat from the mainstream media.

“Saddam Hussein was a bad guy, right?  He was a bad guy.  Really bad guy.  But, you know what he did well?  He killed terrorists.  He did that so good.  They didn’t read them the rights. They didn’t talk.  They were a terrorist it was over.”

 

“Today, Iraq is Harvard for terrorism.  You want to be a terrorist, you go to Iraq.”

 

Finally, Nixon concludes that Trump has the opportunity to help shape a new regional order in the Middle East, though it will “require making tough decisions and, ultimately, recognizing that we may have to deal with people and leaders that we abhor if we want to help bring stability back to the region and limit the scope of terrorism’s reach.”

Our incoming president has the opportunity to play a very large role in shaping a new regional order in the Middle East. This will require making tough decisions and, ultimately, recognizing that we may have to deal with people and leaders that we abhor if we want to help bring stability back to the region and limit the scope of terrorism’s reach. Most of all, it will require placing diplomacy back into our foreign policy. President-elect Trump has shown with his election victory that he is a believer in “the art of the deal.” Maybe his administration can use this negotiating skill and end our involvement in the forever war.

Without opining on the merits of the strategy, certainly if there’s one thing we know for sure about Trump, it’s that he’s never shy to make the difficult decisions that will draw endless criticism from the mainstream media.

+++ (JN) MNE já pediu ao Iraque levantamento da imunidade diplomática

(JNO Ministério dos Negócios Estrangeiros português já pediu ao Iraque o levantamento da imunidade diplomática dos filhos do embaixador iraquiano em Lisboa. O procedimento tem lugar depois de pedido do Ministério Público.

O Ministério dos Negócios Estrangeiros (MNE) português já pediu ao Iraque o levantamento da imunidade diplomática dos filhos do embaixador daquele país em Lisboa.

“O Encarregado de Negócios da Embaixada do Iraque foi hoje [25 de Agosto] recebido, no Ministério dos Negócios Estrangeiros, pelo Embaixador Chefe do Protocolo de Estado que tem competência em matéria de imunidades. Nessa reunião, foi entregue pelo Ministério dos Negócios Estrangeiros o pedido de levantamento da imunidade diplomática com os fundamentos e para os efeitos comunicados pela Procuradoria-Geral da República, sobre o qual as autoridades iraquianas terão agora de se pronunciar”, revela o comunicado do MNE enviado às redacções.
Esta quarta-feira, a Ministério Público pediu a intervenção do MNE com o objectivo de apurar se o Iraque “pretende renunciar expressamente” à imunidade diplomática dos filhos do embaixador do Iraque em Lisboa, envolvidos numa alegada agressão a um jovem português.
“No âmbito do inquérito relativo aos factos ocorridos em Ponte de Sor no dia 17 de Agosto, o Ministério Público suscitou ao Ministério dos Negócios Estrangeiros a ponderação de intervenção no âmbito diplomático, ao abrigo da Convenção de Viena Sobre Relações Diplomáticas, no sentido de saber se o Estado Iraquiano pretende renunciar expressamente à imunidade diplomática de que beneficiam os dois suspeitos, filhos do Embaixador do Iraque em Lisboa”, pode ler-se no comunicado da Procuradoria-geral da República (PGR) enviado às redacções.

O documento esclarecia ainda que “face aos elementos de prova já recolhidos, na sequência de diligências de investigação efectuadas, considera-se essencial para o esclarecimento dos factos, ouvir, em interrogatório e enquanto arguidos, os dois suspeitos que detêm imunidade diplomática”.
“Em causa estão factos susceptíveis de integrarem o crime de homicídio na forma tentada”, referia ainda a PGR.

Pouco depois, o Ministério liderado por Augusto Santos Silva emitiu uma nota em que revelava que o pedido de levantamento de imunidade diplomática às autoridades iraquianas ia ser feito esta quinta-feira.

 

De acordo com uma nota publicada esta quarta-feira pelo MNE português, cabe às autoridades judiciárias portuguesas pedir às autoridades iraquianas, através do MNE, o levantamento de imunidade na fase de inquérito para realizar interrogatórios ou outras diligências. De imediato, o MNE dirige o pedido às autoridades iraquianas. Isto porque cabe ao país acreditante da imunidade diplomática, neste caso o Iraque, renunciar à imunidade de jurisdição das pessoas abrangidas por esta faculdade.

+++ (AP) Portugal Asks Baghdad to Lift Immunity for Ambassador’s Sons

(AP) Portugal’s foreign ministry has asked Baghdad to lift the diplomatic immunity of the Iraqi ambassador’s teenage sons who are suspected of attempted homicide.

The foreign ministry said in a statement it conveyed the request to the Iraqi charge d’affaires in Lisbon on Thursday.

The Portuguese attorney-general’s office says investigators suspect the ambassador’s twin 17-year-old sons in the brutal beating last week of a 15-year-old Portuguese boy, who spent five days in a coma. He has severe facial and skull fractures.

The Iraqi teenagers have admitted to Portuguese media they assaulted the boy during night-time fighting with local youths in a rural town in northeastern Portugal.

The attorney-general’s office wants the boys’ immunity lifted so they can be interrogated by detectives.

(Reuters) Iraq inquiry slams Blair over legal basis for war

(Reuters) A British inquiry into the Iraq war strongly criticized former Prime Minister Tony Blair and his government on Wednesday for joining the U.S.-led invasion without a satisfactory legal basis or proper planning.

Blair responded that he had taken the decision to go to war in Iraq “in good faith”, that he still believed it was better to remove Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and that he did not see that action as the cause of terrorism today, in the Middle East or elsewhere.

The long-awaited inquiry report stopped short of saying military action was illegal, a stance that is certain to disappoint Blair’s many critics.

“We have, however, concluded that the circumstances in which it was decided that there was a legal basis for military action were far from satisfactory,” said John Chilcot, the inquiry’s chairman, in a speech presenting his findings.

Blair argued the report should exonerate him from accusations of lying.

“The report should lay to rest allegations of bad faith, lies or deceit,” he said in a statement.

“Whether people agree or disagree with my decision to take military action against Saddam Hussein; I took it in good faith and in what I believed to be the best interests of the country.”

Relatives of some of the British soldiers who died in Iraq said they would study the report to examine if there was a legal case to pursue against those responsible.

The Chilcot report said there was no imminent threat from Saddam in March 2003, and the chaos in Iraq and the region which followed should also have been foreseen. The invasion and subsequent instability in Iraq had, by 2009, resulted in the deaths of at least 150,000 Iraqis, mostly civilians, and displaced more than a million.

The report said Britain had joined the invasion without exhausting peaceful options, that it had underestimated the consequences of the invasion, and that the planning was wholly inadequate.

Published seven years after the inquiry was set up, the report runs to 2.6 million words – about three times the length of the Bible – and includes details of exchanges Blair had with then U.S. President George W. Bush over the invasion.

“It is now clear that policy on Iraq was made on the basis of flawed intelligence and assessments. They were not challenged and they should have been,” Chilcot said.

He also said that Blair’s government’s judgments about the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were “presented with unjustified certainty”.

Iraq remains in chaos to this day. Islamic State controls large areas of the country and 250 people died on Saturday in Baghdad’s worst car bombing since the U.S.-led coalition toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

The inquiry rejected Blair’s view that Iraq’s post-invasion problems could not have been known in advance.

LEARNING LESSONS

The inquiry’s purpose was for the British government to learn lessons from the invasion and occupation that followed, in which 179 British soldiers died.

Chilcot outlined a catalog of failures made in the run-up to and aftermath of the war.

He said days before the invasion, Blair had been asked by the government’s top lawyer to confirm Iraq had committed breaches of a United Nations Security Council resolution, which would justify war.

Blair said such breaches had been committed but Chilcot said: “The precise basis on which Mr Blair made that decision is not clear.”

He also said Blair changed his case for war from focusing on Iraq’s alleged “vast stocks” of illegal weapons to Saddam having the intent to obtain such weapons and being in breach of U.N. resolutions.

“That was not, however, the explanation for military action he had given before the conflict,” Chilcot said.

British media have reported lawmakers led by the Scottish National Party were considering invoking an ancient law, last used in 1806, to impeach Blair in parliament.

“You cannot have a situation where this country blunders into an illegal war with the appalling consequences and at the end of the day there isn’t a reckoning,” SNP lawmaker Alex Salmond told Sky News.

The Sunday Times newspaper also reported that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – whose own position is in jeopardy after Britain voted last month to leave the European Union – was simply hanging on because he wanted to “crucify Blair”.

+++ V.V.I. (FT) Iraq has been eaten up by its political elite

(FT) After the jihadis of Isis stormed back into Iraq in mid-2014, the US, with the eventual consent of Iran, elbowed out Nouri al-Maliki and replaced him as prime minister with Haider al-Abadi.

The idea was to regroup an Iraq divided on sectarian and ethnic lines against the jihadist menace, and in particular to mend the breach between the country’s politically dominant Shia majority and its disaffected Sunni minority, pushed out of power after the US-led invasion of 2003 and systematically marginalised by Mr Maliki’s sectarian policies.

Now, as a popular rebellion against an inept and corrupt political class gathers strength, and Isis bombings against Shia targets in Baghdad intensify with the clear aim of reigniting sectarian war, not just the future of Mr Abadi and his government looks to be in question but the survival of Iraq as a unitary state.

On April 30, popular impatience at the inability of oil-rich Iraq’s self-serving political elite to provide basic services such as electricity and water, let alone basic security, broke all bounds.

Hundreds of protesters stormed parliament in Baghdad’s Green Zone, the fortified cocoon housing politicians and diplomats, slapping, jostling and chasing a cross-section of MPs. This was an expression of public rage at their purported leaders, whether Shia, Sunni or Kurd, pursuing factional advantage instead of public good, and treating Iraq’s institutions as booty in a zero-sum game.

The outburst came after parliament had serially thwarted Mr Abadi’s attempt to assemble a more technocratic government of non-partisan experts in charge of finance, utilities and the oil ministry.

Among those blocking the prime minister’s efforts to reunite Iraq and make it work was Mr Maliki, and his faction of their Shia Islamist Da’wa party, whose sectarian policies had so alienated the Sunni and Kurdish minorities with which Iraq’s Shia majority was supposed to share power once US forces left Iraq in 2011.

The protests, which have spread from the capital across the predominantly Shia south, are led by Muqtada al-Sadr, the young Shia cleric who launched insurrections against the US-led occupation from 2004. Now he paints himself as an Iraqi nationalist outside the sectarian spoils system known locally as muhasasa, the heart of a failing state based more on the looting of resources than the sharing of power.

Yet insofar as the protests represent a potentially national, grass-roots response to the breakdown of governance, they are not just a challenge to the political elite but to the jihadis of Isis who are feeding on state failure to sustain their cross-border caliphate in Iraq and Syria. They come, moreover, at a time when Baghdad has rallied, with US and Iranian support, to retake territory from Isis, with the intent of eventually recapturing Mosul, the northern city Isis took from a demoralised Iraqi army in 2014.

A third challenge to Mr Abadi and Iraq’s survival as a plural entity is the growing power of Iran-backed Shia militias, such as the Badr Organization or the Asaib Ahl al-Haq, stitched into a national network parallel to the army by Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian revolutionary guard commander, who came in for his share of insults during last month’s storming of parliament.

No wonder, then, that Isis has stepped up its murderous assaults on Shia civilians. The jihadis look as though they are trying to reprise Iraq’s collapse into sectarian carnage 10 years ago, after al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Isis precursor, bombed a revered Shia shrine.

Mr Abadi has made recognisable efforts to reconstruct some sort of national consensus, but the damage done by Mr Maliki’s persecution of the Sunni and refusal to work with the Kurds — which opened Iraq’s gates to the Isis jihadi comeback — may prove to be too great for a state that has been eaten and hollowed out inside.

Ordinary Iraqis have tried before to revive their institutions; voters in 2010, for instance, braved the bombers to oust more than two-thirds of sitting MPs — to little avail.

As a region in meltdown marks the centenary on May 16 of Sykes-Picot, the secret Anglo-French pact during the first world war to carve up the sinking Ottoman Empire’s Arab territories, which would assemble disparate elements of Mesopotamia into the Iraqi nation-state, Iraq confronts the twin spectre of state failure and partition.gggjhkklyynbnrt

+++ V.I. (FT) Iraq: What happens next?

(FT) Isis is on the run but cities are in ruins, 3m people displaced and Baghdad cannot afford to rebuild.

epa05194313 A picture made available on 04 March 2016 shows the Iraqi military troops taking up position at Jazirat Samarra area, west of Tikrit city, northern Iraq, 03 March 2016. Iraqi Ministry of Defense announced on 03 March 2016, that the security forces raised the Iraqi flag over the banks of Al-Tharthar Lake and liberated Umm Al-Arab village in Jazirat Samarra which was under the control of Islamic State (IS) group fighters, and the security forces also carried out an operation and were able to cut the supply of IS terrorist group. EPA/BARAA KANAAN
Faces of war: Iraqi troops are part of a billion dollar military programme to eject Isis from the country © EPA

When they returned to their battered city of Tikrit last year, local volunteers tried to scrub away every trace of Isis rule. They cleared charred rubble from the streets and, in an act of exorcism, even filmed themselves in the places where the militant group once staged public beheadings, to prove to others it was safe.

Some remnants of Isis’s 10-month rule, however, have been harder to expunge. Omar, a volunteer who asks to remain anonymous, recalls that efforts by Tikrit residents to connect to the Iraqi government’s electricity grid were so unsuccessful that they reverted to a localised power system improvised while the jihadi force was in charge.

“The local system that people rigged under Isis still works better than our government’s,” he laughs — but beneath the joke lies an uncomfortable truth.

Recapturing territory from Isis, which at one stage controlled a third of Iraq, has been an enormous challenge. Cities like Tikrit show that rehabilitating these areas may be an even greater test.

The US-led coalition and Iraqi government have spent billions on defeating Isis and they have been winning, with 40 per cent of the territory the jihadi group once held back in government hands. Less effort has been put into planning the reconstruction of a country that the jihadi force has torn apart. The Pentagon says it has spent $6.5bn since 2014 on the military effort to force Isis out of Iraq. In contrast, it has spent just $15m on “stabilisation” support — highlighting the risk that once again, western powers could win the war but neglect the aftermath.

Iraq is facing a looming economic crisis, with a displaced population of 3.3m people, according to the UN,and renewed sectarian bloodshed which could fuel the very resentments that helped Isis seize control of Sunni majority areas. Such problems could turn military victories into practical defeats.

One year on from its “liberation”, Tikrit is lauded as a success story of post-Isis rule. For Tikritis like Omar, there are reasons to celebrate: up to 90 per cent of the 160,000 people who fled the city have returned. They are re-creating basic infrastructure. Revenge killings are rare.

But for US-led coalition forces and the government, the irony of falling back on Isis-era infrastructure highlights the challenges Iraq is still failing to meet.

“The government needs to convince people that things will be better,” says Zaid al-Ali, author of The Struggle for Iraq’s Future. “If they maintain the same systems then all this effort is purposeless and Isis, or some newer version of it, will come back.”

Success story

The birthplace of Saddam Hussein and the capital of Salahuddin province, Tikrit was among the first cities to fall to Isis in its whirlwind offensive in summer 2014, and one of the first to be freed, in April the following year. Rows of blown-up houses and dirt berms that criss-cross the city are a reminder that every inch of this land was hard won — and how long it will take to rebuild.

Falling crude revenues have put oil-rich Iraq on the verge of financial collapse. Officials say they need between $6bn and $10bn in loans just to cover the budget for the year. The central government has yet to fund any reconstruction projects in the country. Instead the bill has been picked up by the UN, humanitarian groups and locals.

At the University of Tikrit, professors like Awatif Jassim come on weekends to inspect bullet-scarred classrooms. They have 20,000 students back in class, but little equipment to teach them with.

“My college was completely looted — computers, machines, even the desks. We’d need ID45bn [about $4m] to rebuild,” says Ms Jassim, a dean of science. “For now, we do what we can.”

Down the road, local volunteers hand out food to impoverished families displaced from other Sunni villages, taking shelter in Tikrit’s bombed-out houses.

“Tikrit has had success, but it is the people who brought this city back to life,” says resident Yusra Saidi, a schoolteacher. “Our government has nothing to do with it.”

Iraq ISIS map

Aid workers worry that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for some of the displaced, who are largely Sunni, to reintegrate amid the destruction and suspicion wrought by the war. Once all-powerful under Saddam, the Sunni have been marginalised by a government dominated by the Shia majority. Their frustration was one reason that Isis — with former supporters of the deposed ruler in its ranks — was able to take root.

The UN has spent $8m helping Tikritis rebuild basic infrastructure but it says the full cost of the destruction is incalculable. Some parliamentarians say smaller towns near Tikrit could cost up to $10bn each to repair. This worries those looking ahead to the recapture of Mosul, the country’s second city and the main Isis stronghold, which the coalition wants to reclaim by the end of the year. It is expected to be the group’s last stand in Iraq.

“We’re saying to the coalition guys — can you not destroy entire towns please?” one humanitarian official says privately. “One, we have no idea how long it will take to repair this, or who’s going to pay. Two … you have lots of very frustrated Sunni.”

Bombed out mosques

More than reconstruction, the psychological scars and sectarian tension that Isis has ripped open may be more difficult to heal. Iraqis know some of their Sunni countrymen, even neighbours, joined or at least tolerated Isis when it blitzed across parts of Iraq. That is making it hard to convince many Shia leaders, foreign diplomats say, to prioritise the rehabilitation of Sunni areas.

If Tikrit is on a shaky path to progress, places like Muqdadiya, in north-eastern Diyala province, look frozen in time.

At the al-Quds mosque, commander Ahmad al-Tamimi and some of his fighters pick their way through the mangled furniture and melted mounds of flesh stuck on the floor. In February, an Isis suicide bomber blew himself up among Shia worshippers, killing 40. Two months later, local Shia officials and the paramilitary Shia forces, known as the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation units, are still refusing to clean up the macabre tableau.

“All of the blood lost in this mosque is Shia. We paid in blood to liberate our Sunni brothers. Yet we are accused of being bloodthirsty,” says Mr Tamimi, a commander in the Hashd 24th division. It is close to the powerful Badr organisation, a Shia group that Sunni MPs argue has more control over the province than the government. The sensitive region borders both Baghdad and the regional Shia power, Iran. Mr Tamimi says the refusal to clean up al-Qudis is a protest at the lack of security in Diyala, whose territories were liberated from Isis even earlier than Tikrit.

Many Sunni are wary of security efforts dominated by the Shia group, accusing it of being involved in kidnap and murder. Abdelsalam al-Jubouri, a Sunni parliamentarian from Diyala, says many Sunni politicians are too scared to leave Baghdad to visit his province. He blames the Hashd. “We receive outright threats … and people call all the time reporting kidnappings,” he says. “The Hashd uses them for ransom money.”

Diyala shows that expelling Isis is unlikely to be enough to bring back stability without addressing sectarian tension. Shia residents fear bombings. Their Sunni counterparts fear retribution — not only from Shia gunmen but Isis infiltrators who see them as traitors. After the attack on al-Quds, residents said, nine Sunni mosques in the area were firebombed.

Umm Hadi, who asked not to use her full name, is repairing the torched walls of her home in a Sunni district, but she is prepared to leave at a moment’s notice if the family is forced to flee again: “I keep bags packed and ready.”

The anxiety and distrust is shared with many Shia fearful of what happens if they reabsorb displaced Sunnis. Diyala has a brutal legacy of sectarian bloodshed. On a drive through the countryside, Mr Tamimi points to villages his men fought to recapture from Isis: the same places he fought al-Qaeda in 2004.

“Isis uses weak minds — especially people from the countryside,” he says during a drive to the village of Adhaym. It took the Hashd a year before it agreed to let Adhaym residents return, he says. Security officials let in about 500 families, which locals say is still only a third of the town. The miles of agricultural fields between Adhaym and Muqdadiya are verdant, but empty. Most villages look like ghost towns.

Despite the tension, the urge to go home is palpable across Iraq — even when there is no home to return to. In Adhaym, Umm Maher lives next to a pile of rubble that was once her home. At night, she sleeps in a plastic caravan trailer with her husband and five children, which they have parked next to the ruins. By day, she digs through the rubble, looking for bits of material they can salvage in the hope that some day they can afford to rebuild.

“For a year, we just dreamt of coming home,” she says. “Now I spend my days picking through bricks.”

Sunni parliamentarians like Adnan Janabi, of Babel province, are urging the government to do more to help people return to areas once under Isis control. He says Iraq needs to take a risk.

“We should be courageous enough to trust these people,” he says. “[If we don’t] we will end up pushing them to sympathise more with [Isis] instead of fighting it — unless they feel that we are their government, and they are our people.”

Sectarian fear

Before Tikritis were allowed to return, many feared there would be a wave of sectarian killings to avenge the Isis massacre of hundreds of Shia soldiers in a former Saddam palace near the Tigris river. It is now virtually a shrine, and Shia militiamen pray at a makeshift mosque just next to the concrete block where Isis filmed its gunmen shooting the soldiers and dumping their bodies into the river.

“Tikrit is a pretty remarkable success story by those standards. Everyone had these doomsday scenarios, and none of it happened,” says Mr Ali, the author, who is from the city. However, he warns, Tikrit is not a good barometer for other parts of Iraq. The population is politically and economically well-connected to the capital compared with other Sunni areas. Yet even here, signs of future troubles linger below the surface.

The Hashd works mostly at the main checkpoint outside Tikrit. Shia religious banners hang along the outskirts of town, and locals like Omar are still painting over the graffiti that Hashd fighters scrawled on city buildings.

On the city’s edge, hundreds of families have been detained in food storage facilities, residents say. They are Tikriti families displaced by the fight against Isis in nearby towns. They wait days, or even weeks, for the Hashd and local officials to give them security clearance to enter their own provincial capital.

“It’s completely wrong — these are human beings,” says one volunteer, who asks not to be named. “But no one here [in Tikrit] will complain. They are too grateful their own areas were liberated — that they got to go home.”

++ (BBG) Islamic State Retreats in Iraq as Military Retakes Key City

(BBG – click to see) Iraqi officials said security forces recaptured a second strategic city from Islamic State militants, dealing a blow to the group’s military campaign in OPEC’s second-biggest oil producer.

The reversal in Ramadi, 110 kilometers (68 miles) west of Baghdad, came after U.S. and coalition aircraft stepped up their bombing of Islamic State positions, including four airstrikes near the city on Saturday targeting vehicles, weaponry and tactical staging areas.

Government forces have “wrested the city of Ramadi from the claws” of Islamic State militants, Iraq’s joint forces command said in a statement Monday. The retaking of the city marks another step in attempts to reverse the militant group’s momentum in Iraq, following the fall of Tikrit to government forces earlier this year.

The government has said its next target is to recapture Mosul, which in June 2014 became the first major city to fall to the extremists, and to drive remaining Islamic State fighters out of Fallujah.

Ramadi, which fell to Islamic State in May, is strategically important because it lies in a province that links Iraq with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and allows direct entry into Baghdad. A large U.S. military base is also located there.

The militants had last taken refuge in two neighborhoods in the northeastern part of the city, according to Sheikh Rafaa al- Fahdawi, a tribal chief from Anbar province.

Counterterrorism forces, backed by Sunni fighters, had entered the governmental compound in the city center of Ramadi earlier in the day, al-Fahdawi said in a telephone interview. Iraqi forces were defusing booby-traps and other explosives the militants left, he said.

The taking of Ramadi marks a comeback of sorts for Iraq’s troops, criticized by U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter as having had “no will to fight” when Islamic State overran the city in May.

“We congratulate the Iraqi Security Forces for their continued success against ISIL in Ramadi,” U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman in Baghdad for the American-led coalition against Islamic State, said Monday, using an acronym for the group.

Warren said in an emailed statement that support from the coalition in the fight for Ramadi has included training, special engineering equipment to clear explosives and more than 630 airstrikes.

Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition were intensified after the militant group claimed responsibility for the Paris terrorism attacks in November, which killed 130 people and injured hundreds more.

On Saturday, a defiant message purportedly by Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the militant group to be as strong as ever. In the message, the first said to be from al-Baghdadi since May, he said the group had sustained setbacks before in Iraq and Syria, only to return stronger.

He also warned Israel that “Palestine will only be your graveyard.” That first explicit threat to Israel echoed a typical rallying cry used by Arab leaders for more than six decades. Sultan Barakat, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, said the warning may reflect an attempt to win support in the region by targeting a “common cause.”

Islamic State has declared a caliphate in areas of Syria and Iraq it has seized. The U.S. is undertaking a significant effort to find and kill Baghdadi, who is in hiding, an Obama administration official said earlier this month.

The U.S. has promised to send additional special forces to Iraq and Syria to combat the group. U.S. officials have said aerial bombing alone can’t defeat Islamic State, and that ground forces are needed. Baghdadi said the U.S. and its allies wouldn’t dare to send ground forces to fight Islamic State after being bogged down in lengthy conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Baghdadi was also dismissive of a newly announced Islamic alliance against terrorism, led by Saudi Arabia.

“If this coalition was Islamic, it would have staged a war against the Alawites and the Russians in Syria, it would have announced war against the Shiites and the Kurds in Iraq,” Baghdadi said, calling on Saudi citizens to join Islamic State.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/article51842510.html#storylink=cpy

(FT) Saudi Arabia unveils antiterrorism coalition

(FT) Saudi Arabia has unveiled a “military alliance” of Muslim nations to fight “terrorism,” another sign of the conservative Gulf monarchy’s growing interventionist approach amid proxy conflicts with rival Iran and the rise of Sunni militancy.

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud announced on Tuesday that the kingdom would set up a joint operations centre in Riyadh to “support military operations to fight terrorism” and to co-ordinate with “friendly peace-loving nations and international bodies”.

The formation of the 34-strong Saudi-led alliance comes ahead of international mediation efforts in regional sectarian conflicts, such as the civil wars in Syria and Yemen.

The alliance is mainly formed of Sunni-majority Muslim states, including powerful armed nations such as Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan and most of the Gulf Cooperation Council states.

The creation of the alliance marks another step in Saudi Arabia’s quest for the role of regional policeman. Riyadh, a target of Sunni Islamic radical group Isis, is also concerned about the expansion of interference in the Arab world of its Shia rival Iran.

Saudi Arabia is also concerned by the nuclear deal between its traditional western allies and Iran and their refusal to bomb the Iran-backed Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, choosing instead to focus on Isis.

Many Arabs believe that the civil war in Syria and sectarian conflict in Iraq are radicalising young Sunnis into the arms of Isis. Western powers — while bombing Isis — are also negotiating with Mr Assad’s military backer, Russia, over which Syrian rebel groups should be part of future political talks over a political transition.

Saudi Arabia has come under criticism for its military campaign against Yemen, another state in the new alliance, where Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have intervened with ground troops in a bid to restore the elected president to power against Zaydi Shia rebels backed by Iran.Saudi-Arabia-unveils-antiterrorism-coalition-FT

+++ V.V.I. (FT) The deadly contest between Isis and al-Qaeda

(FT) Scathing dismissal of its rival is one way Isis highlights status as the top terrorist group.

Isis fighters in Syria©AP

Isis fighters in Syria

Dabiq makes for chilling reading. Isis’ slick-looking magazine celebrates the killing of innocent people and offers sordid advice to jihadis. But reading Dabiq can also prove useful, giving rare insight into the warped mindset of the world’s chief terrorists.In the latest issue, number 12, I found an article devoted to al-Qaeda, the rival group that once dominated global terrorism. “Sahwa fever”, the article claims, is spreading through the ranks of al-Qaeda.

The Sahwa movement comprised a group of Iraqi tribesmen that collaborated with the US a decade ago to root out the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda. That branch took its revenge: it eventually became the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, better known as Isis.

Such scathing dismissal of its rival is Isis’ way of highlighting its status as the world’s number one terrorist organisation and setting out its claim as the true heir to Osama bin Laden. The message to readers: al-Qaeda has lost its way. The future belongs to Isis.

Isis seems obsessed with al-Qaeda, from which it split in 2013 following disagreements over the goals of jihad in Syria. Since then Isis has distinguished itself from its parent through its savagery (there is no limit to the violence it is willing to inflict) and its move to create a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria.

Whereas al-Qaeda’s killing machine operated in the name of jihad abroad, Isis at first looked within, calling on jihadis around the world to join in building its caliphate. Indeed, because Isis appeared to pose a greater threat to the Middle East than to the rest of the world, western reaction towards it was at first relatively muted.

In the past few months Isis has changed tack. To maintain momentum in the face of intensifying military pressure, it has accelerated its attacks abroad. Within weeks it claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai and the atrocities in Paris, for a bomb attack in Beirut and a bus explosion in Tunis. Its objectives and those of al-Qaeda are now in alignment. The impact is terrifying.

Al-Qaeda’s response to Isis came days after the Paris attacks, with the storming of a luxury hotel in Bamako, the capital of Mali. Re-asserting itself in the jihadi world, al-Qaeda’s social media highlighted that, unlike Isis, it had spared Muslim hostages in the siege at the Radisson Blu hotel.The-deadly-contest-between-Isis-and-al-Qaeda-FT

 

+++ V.I. (FT) Isis: Boots on the ground?

See also:

(FT) Paris attacks: Sarkozy shifts right with swipe at multiculturalism
November 27, 2015

 
(FT) Air strikes are unlikely to dislodge Isis in Iraq and Syria, so policymakers are looking at other options

epa05026913 Members of the Iraqi armed forces take up positions during a military operation in the village of Sigariya, near Ramadi city, 70 km west of Baghdad, Iraq, 15 November 2015. The Iraqi armed forces, backed by militias and coalition aristrikes, continue efforts to retake the Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi, captured by the group calling themselves the Islamic State (IS) May 2015. However efforts to date have stalled due in part of lack of training of the Iraqi forces and IS abilities to be resupplied as a result of failed attempts by Government forces to encircle the city, sources report. EPA/STR©EPA

When US forces moved in 2004 to oust al-Qaeda in Iraq from Fallujah, the small city that is the gateway to Anbar province, it took thousands of troops and months of violence. The city of mosques became one of rubble.

“The resources needed to do that were phenomenal,” recalls Afzal Ashraf, a former RAF group captain who at the time was a senior counter-terrorism adviser at the multinational force headquarters in Baghdad.

“The city was leafleted for weeks beforehand to get civilians to leave. And then when we went in with the Iraqis, we went from house to house and room to room trying to clear it.”

In total, 13,500 US, Iraqi and British forces in Operation Phantom Fury cleared a core of an estimated 500 al-Qaeda operatives from the city. The battle left 107 coalition soldiers dead — 95 of them Americans — and 613 wounded.

“I would say it’s still the model that can and should be applied,” says Mr Ashraf, now a consultant fellow at Rusi, the UK defence think-tank.

A decade later, Fallujah was taken by Isis, becoming one of the first dominoes to fall in the jihadi group’s takeover of swaths of Iraq and Syria.

The battle for Fallujah is a salutary tale for western governments as they attempt to step up their military campaign against the terrorist group. US and French presidents Barack Obama and François Hollande pledged at the White House on Tuesday to expand air strikes against key Isis centres, but Mr Obama has largely ruled out any broader shift in strategy.

Speed read

  • Beyond air powerThe option for Syria that has been discussed the most by the US is the setting up of a safe zone
  • Iraqi strife If Ramadi could be retaken, local forces will then face a long fight to secure the rest of Anbar province
  • Long view One analyst sees a realistic timescale ‘of three to five years at the very least’ to degrade and destroy Isis

For many officials and military experts, an exercise in “more of the same” will not be enough seriously to weaken Isis.

“If we are in a containment phase with Isis right now, then we are not doing a great job of it,” says Harleen Gambhir, counterterrorism analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “And a lot of these new proposals are just little things that we can do to try and affect Isis. They don’t add up to a strategy.”

Notwithstanding the complex task of securing a political concord over Syria’s future — the US and Russia are still at loggerheads over the role of President Bashar al-Assad in a postwar government — there are shortcomings in the parallel military effort and divisions over what any escalation might achieve. The anti-Isis alliance is also complicated by an increase in tensions between Ankara and Moscow after a Russian fighter jet was downed by the Turkish air force on Tuesday.

Few, if any, policymakers in the west and Middle East seem willing to consider augmenting the aerial effort with the sort of immense ground campaign that many analysts think will be needed — on a scale far larger than the Iraqi “surge” instigated by the US in 2007 for which the earlier battle of Fallujah became the template — if the jihadis are to be destroyed.

“The air campaign has its limits,” says Mr Ashraf.

France has been courting US and Russian support for a war on Isis in the wake of the Paris terror attacks. But while Russia and Turkey, a Nato member, claim to be fighting the same foe, they themselves saw armed combat this week when Turkey shot down a Russian jet on its border with Syria. Mark Vandevelde asks Gideon Rachman and Geoff Dyer whether world powers are capable of making common cause against Isis.

If military planners are serious about destroying Isis, they need to think about what that will require on land. “Tackling one city at a time is not going to be effective in getting rid of Isis,” he says. “You need to be hitting Ramadi, Tikrit, Mosul — and Syria too — simultaneously. That is a massive operation.” At its peak, the “surge” saw about 140,000 US troops deployed in Iraq.

Broadening the scope

For months, some of the most influential military figures within the 65-nation anti-Isis coalition have complained that the efforts are far too limited.

In the wake of the Paris attacks , there are some signs that the US-led coalition has become bolder. A senior diplomat in London describes a “new phase” in military operations, characterised by the realisation that caution has carried its own risks too. New targets for the US and its allies include Isis’ economic infrastructure and military positions in civilian areas. US jets blew up a line of 116 oil trucks last week and another 283 in recent days. Such targets had been considered off-limits, in part because the smugglers are not always Isis militants. To reduce the risk of casualties, coalition aircraft dropped leaflets on the trucks 45 minutes before the bombing began, telling the drivers to flee.

“This was a tidal wave that swept across these oilfields and really crippled them,” says Col Steve Warren, a spokesman for the US military in Baghdad, of the strikes against Isis oil operations.

But the bombing campaign is still limited. David Deptula, a retired US Air Force general, says the US is conducting about six air strikes a day in Syria that actually drop bombs, compared with 1,200 a day during the 1990-91 Gulf war when he was in charge of targeting. A more effective air campaign could speed up the disintegration of Isis, he says, saving more civilian lives in the long run.

“We are not giving air power a chance,” he says. “We could do it in a matter of weeks, not years.” He adds that the excessive caution about potential civilian casualties is “yielding an advantage to our adversaries that I find difficult to understand”.

Beyond further use of air power, the option that has been discussed the most by the administration is the establishment of a safe zone in Syria. Supporters say this would provide a haven for refugees and create space for opposition fighters to assemble and receive training. But it has been ruled out by Mr Obama in the past. US defence officials say policing a safe zone would require a major increase in coalition aircraft and a significant commitment of ground forces from a regional ally.

Washington’s other options for ramping up the war are even more incremental. They include sending in more special forces to help provide intelligence and call in air strikes; allowing US troops in Iraq to operate nearer the front lines to assist with ground operations; and sending Apache attack helicopters to Iraq to assist local security operations.

But for some analysts, these approaches — even if they were all used — fail to address the central issue.

Insurgents’ resilience

Isis is far better armed and prepared — militarily and politically — than al-Qaeda in Iraq ever was. The struggle that Iraqi Security Forces are experiencing in retaking Ramadi gives a hint of the difficulties coalition forces will face.

More than 10,000 ISF troops have been trying to recapture the city for months. It is a test of their ability. Unlike other conflicts with the insurgents, Baghdad has been able to ensure that its operations in Anbar province are free from the participation of Shia militia under Iran’s direction that could exacerbate sectarian tensions.

But progress has been excruciatingly slow. Hampered by hundreds of improvised explosive devices, the ISF has barely made it to the city limits.

The problem, says a military official who was based in Baghdad until recently, is that the Iraqis do not have sufficient numbers, or mobility. As a result, operations have succeeded in clearing areas — such as the Olympic stadium west of Ramadi in July — only to see them fall back under Isis control.

“Who will hold the city is a huge question, and one that says a lot about how able we are going to be to defeat Isis,” says Ms Gambhir. “Isis is dug in and the ISF is moving at a snail’s pace.”

If Ramadi could be retaken, it would only be the start. Iraqi forces would then have a long campaign ahead to secure the Euphrates river valley up through Anbar province.

A strategy to hold territory there would require either the establishment of fortified outposts, in an echo of previous US strategy, or a far larger and more capable helicopter strike capability than the ISF possesses.

In either case, the buy-in of local Sunni militia groups would be essential. Many have little appetite for co-operation with Baghdad or Washington after their alliance against al-Qaeda — the 2006 Sahwa or the Awakening movement — was abandoned by its backers and left to be torn apart by revenge assassinations and politicking.

Securing Anbar, according to a coalition diplomat, is Baghdad’s first priority, since it relieves pressure on the capital from the insurgents, and because “it’s the easiest thing to do”.

Syrian imbroglio

If pushing Isis out of its Iraqi cities is hard, the situation in Syria — the focus of so much of the debate since Paris — is even more intractable.

Kenneth Pollack, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, argues that the only way to create a military stalemate that can bring the civil war to an end — other than through an intervention by an outside power — is to create a major Syrian opposition army that can retake territory.

This is essentially a bigger version of the “train and equip” programme that the Pentagon abandoned last month after suffering a series of humiliating setbacks when one group of troops was kidnapped and a second handed over weapons to an al-Qaeda affiliate. While the principal US role would be to train the opposition army, he argues that a significant deployment of troops would be required to secure a postwar power-sharing arrangement.

“It [the new army] is going to have to be disciplined, it is going to have to be conventional, it is going to have to be able to hold territory and it is going to need to have a very heavy American presence so that it does not become a new cat’s paw of some would-be dictator,” says Mr Pollack.

The army would cost $1bn-$2bn a year to develop but the US would also need to spend at least $6bn a year on air support and another $1.5bn-$3bn a year on aid, he adds.

The biggest problem in creating such a force could be finding sufficient numbers of effective soldiers. Many in the US defence and intelligence community think a Sunni force battling Isis would have to be drawn from tribes in the areas it was fighting in. But where militia have fought beyond their traditional areas of interest they have largely failed to achieve lasting successes.

In eastern Syria, where Isis’ caliphate has its nominal capital, Raqqa, potential recruits for such a force are in short supply. Isis has killed many men of fighting age there as part of a deliberate strategy, says one US intelligence official. Pre-empting efforts to nurture any form of uprising of Sunni tribes has been a cornerstone of Isis’ strategy, they add.

“Seriously, in terms of beginning to degrade and destroy Isis, I think we are on a scale of three to five years at the very, very least,” says Ms Gambhir.

Isis, meanwhile, is not sitting still. Its recent attacks in Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt’s Sinai region and Paris are part of a co-ordinated strategy that is as much about securing its territory in Iraq and Syria as about waging global jihad, says a European intelligence official.

Inciting its enemies into more vicious and precipitate responses in Syria and Iraq, the group’s leaders appear to believe, will only make the group stronger by deepening sectarian and tribal divisions in both countries.Isis_-Boots-on-the-ground_-FT