Archives for April 2016

Biden visits Baghdad at ‘good time’ then state of emergency declared as protesters take Iraqi parliament

The Washington Post reports: Protesters stormed Iraq’s parliament on Saturday, bursting into the capital’s fortified Green Zone, where other key buildings, including the U.S. Embassy, are located.

Live footage on Iraqi television showed swarms of protesters, who have been demanding government reform, inside the parliament building, waving flags and chanting. Lawmakers were berated and beaten with flags as they fled the building, while demonstrators smashed the windows of politicians’ cars.

Baghdad Operations Command declared a state of emergency and said all roads into the capital had been closed. A U.S. Embassy official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that staff were not being evacuated from their compound, which is about a mile away from the parliament building.

Iraq is in the grip of a political crisis, with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi attempting to reshuffle his cabinet and meet the demands of the demonstrators, who have been spurred on by the powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. But Abadi has been hampered by chaotic parliament sessions, where lawmakers have thrown water bottles and punches at one another.

The political unrest has brought a new level of instability to a country that is facing multiple crises, including the fight against the Islamic State militant group and the struggling economy. [Continue reading…]

Earlier, the Wall Street Journal reported: Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Baghdad on Thursday at a time of growing concern in the White House about the potential collapse of the government in Baghdad amid political turmoil.

Mr. Biden, the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Iraq since the rise of Islamic State and the withdrawal of American troops in 2011, met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and other government officials. Afterward, he flew to Erbil to meet with Kurdish leaders.

President Barack Obama expressed concern about the stability of Mr. Abadi’s government last week, after meeting with Gulf leaders in Saudi Arabia. Mr. Obama said the U.S. planned to “assess how the current government turmoil in Iraq plays itself out over the next couple of weeks” before deciding on new aid to Baghdad.

Senior administration officials briefing reporters on the Biden trip spoke more optimistically about developments in Baghdad. “In the last few days, things have trended in a more stabilizing direction,” one official said. “So it’s actually a good time to be here.”

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Syria truce comes into effect but Aleppo excluded

Al Jazeera reports: The Syrian government has called local truces near Damascus and in the northern province of Latakia but has excluded the main battlefield in Aleppo.

A new “regime of calm” began at 1am on Saturday and is scheduled to last one day in the capital’s eastern Ghouta suburb and three days in the northern countryside of the coastal province of Latakia, the army said in a statement.

The truces seemed to be holding as of Saturday morning, but air strikes resumed in Aleppo, hitting at least two areas.

By excluding Aleppo, scene of the worst recent violence, the narrow truces were unlikely to resurrect a ceasefire and peace talks that have collapsed this week.

The surge in fighting in the city – home to more than two million people – showed “monstrous disregard” for civilian lives, the United Nations said. [Continue reading…]

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Labour antisemitism row: There was nothing Zionist about Hitler’s plans for the Jews

By Rainer Schulze, University of Essex

When the former London mayor Ken Livingstone said in an interview that Hitler was “supporting Zionism” before he “went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”, he was quickly suspended from the Labour Party, which was already in the throes of a painful row over anti-semitism. But while Livingstone’s tone-deaf comments came at a very politically sensitive moment, the historical error at their heart is all too familiar.

Claims that Hitler was a Zionist, or supported Zionism, before his anti-Jewish policies turned into murder and extermination flare up at regular intervals. They usually cite the controversial Haavara Agreement (Transfer Agreement) of August 1933 as the most potent evidence of a wilful cooperation between Hitler and the Zionist movement. When viewed in a certain way, this deal does superficially seem to show that Hitler’s government endorsed Zionism – but just because it was a mechanism to help German Jews relocate to Palestine it does not imply it was “Zionist”.

The Haavara Agreement was the only formal contract signed between Nazi Germany and a Zionist organisation. The signatories were the Reich Ministry of Economics, the Zionistische Vereinigung für Deutschland (Zionist Federation of Germany) and the Anglo-Palestine Bank (then under the directive of the Jewish Agency for Palestine).

Under the agreement Jewish emigrants had to hand over their possessions before they left Germany, and the proceeds were used by a company specifically set up for this purpose in Tel Aviv to purchase German goods for sale in Palestine. The proceeds of these sales were then paid in Palestinian currency to the emigrants in Palestine.

The agreement was immediately criticised from all sides. The Zionist Federation was accused of collaboration with the Nazis, and the Nazi authorities were criticised by fellow Nazis for helping Jews when their official policy was to “solve the Jewish question”. Still, at this point in time, both sides no doubt saw potential benefits for themselves in such an agreement.

For the Zionist Federation, it was a way to save Jews from the claws of an increasingly hostile regime and attract them to Palestine, while for the Nazi state signing an international agreement was further proof of its legitimacy, broke the Jewish movement of boycotting German goods, and helped the recovery of German exports at a time when the German economy was still in the depth of depression.

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Ken Livingstone blames ‘embittered Blairite MPs’ for antisemitism row

The Guardian reports: Ken Livingstone has refused to apologise to the Jewish community for insensitive comments linking Zionism to Adolf Hitler, claiming the crisis at the centre of the Labour party was caused by “embittered old Blairite MPs” and is “not about antisemitism”.

The former mayor of London, speaking on LBC, took the opportunity to publicly say sorry to the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and the party for causing “disruption” but pointedly refused to apologise for his original comments, which he reasserted as “historical facts” on Saturday.

“I’m sorry to Jeremy and the Labour party that I am caught up in this but it wasn’t me that started this problem, this is embittered old Blairites bringing it up,” he said. “I’m sorry if anyone was upset by what I said, I’m sorry for that. But it happens to be a statement of fact.”

Pushed to say whether he regretted bringing the German dictator into the debate, Livingstone said: “I regret mentioning Hitler because it brought up this nonsense.

“I’m sorry that I said that because it’s wasted all this time but I can’t bring myself to deny the truth and I’m not going to do that. I’m sorry it’s caused disruption.”

Earlier in the interview, the former mayor of London appeared to mistakenly cite a statement by the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, in his defence. “This is what annoys me about the degradation of British journalism, no one does any research,” he said.

“Two days before I did that interview [on Thursday], the prime minister of Israel Binyamin Netanyahu is addressing the World Zionist Congress, this is the sentence he says: ‘Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews but only to expel them.’ Now, I haven’t seen that in any British paper, I had to get it off the internet.”

In fact, Livingstone appears to be referring to Netanyahu’s address to the WZC in October last year, where the Israeli PM did not refer to Zionists collaborating with Hitler, but instead accused the second world war Palestinian grand mufti of Jerusalem of having suggested the genocide of the Jews to the Nazi leader. [Continue reading…]

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Journalist who profiled Melania Trump hit with barrage of antisemitic abuse

The Guardian reports: Journalist Julia Ioffe has experienced this kind of harassment before: in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

In the 24 hours since her profile of Donald Trump’s wife, Melania, appeared in GQ magazine, the Russian-American journalist has received a torrent of antisemitic, vitriolic and threatening messages from supporters of the Republican frontrunner.

In the deeply disturbing response to her piece, Ioffe said she sees a frightening future of what freedom of the press – and the country – might look like under President Trump.

“What happens if Donald Trump is elected?” Ioffe said. “We’ve seen the way he bids his supporters to attack the media, his proposal to change libel laws to make it easier to sue journalists.” [Continue reading…]

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Birmingham men in court accused of funding Paris attack suspect

The Guardian reports: Two men from Birmingham have appeared in court charged with giving £3,000 to Mohamed Abrini, who was allegedly involved in the terrorist attacks on Paris and Brussels.

Abrini, captured on camera wearing a hat during the bombing of the Brussels airport in March, got the cash for terrorist purposes, British prosecutors have said.

The claims of alleged British links to those behind the November 2015 attacks on Paris that killed 130 people and the attacks on Brussels earlier this year, came during the first court appearance of the two men. [Continue reading…]

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VW and Shell accused of trying to block EU push for electric cars

The Guardian reports: VW and Shell have been accused of trying to block Europe’s push for electric cars and more efficient cars, by saying biofuels should be at heart of efforts to green the industry instead.

The EU is planning two new fuel efficiency targets for 2025 and 2030 to help meet promises made at the Paris climate summit last December.

But executives from the two industrial giants launched a study on Wednesday night proposing greater use of biofuels, CO2 car labelling, and the EU’s emissions trading system (ETS) instead.

In reality, such a package would involve the end of meaningful new regulatory action on car emissions for more than a decade, EU sources say. But Shell insisted it is not trying to block an EU push for electric cars. [Continue reading…]

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Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan: The world’s most-needed hospitals are under attack

The Washington Post reports: The al-Quds hospital in Aleppo targeted in Wednesday night’s attacks was one of 150 hospitals supported by Doctors Without Borders in Syria. The organization directly runs six in the country, but provides funding and medical supplies to other medical facilities.

The international charity group, also referred to as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in French, said the medical facility was directly hit and reduced to “rubble.” The organization has condemned the overnight attack, which also claimed the life of one of the area’s last pediatricians.

“Where is the outrage among those with the power and obligation to stop this carnage?” said Muskilda Zancada, the MSF head in Syria, in an online statement.

The United Nations estimates that at least half of Syria’s hospitals have been destroyed, and the spark of attacks on hospitals is an especially disturbing trend. In armed conflict, hospitals are protected by international law. Yet the facilities supported and run by the Nobel Prize-winning organization have frequently come under attack. And it’s not only medical structures. The group said five rescue workers from the Syrian Civil Defense organization have also been killed. [Continue reading…]

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Israelis not satisfied with offer of $40 billion military aid from the U.S.

The New York Times reports: President Obama has proposed granting Israel the largest package of military aid ever provided by the United States to another nation, but he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remain deeply at odds over a figure for the assistance despite months of negotiations.

American officials have balked as their Israeli counterparts insisted on more generous terms for a new 10-year military aid package that could top $40 billion. The divide, which could have broad national security implications for both the United States and Israel, is exacerbated by the pent-up animosity between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu, which has been stoked by their radically divergent views of the nuclear deal with Iran.

“There’s a unique place of pique for the Israelis in certain places in the administration, and I think that hovers around this negotiation,” said Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s one of the reasons it’s taken so long to reach a decision.” [Continue reading…]

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Syria’s peace talks begin to look like a cover for more war

The Guardian reports: Bombs hitting hospitals, doctors and rescue workers killed, civilians starving, scores of dead and injured every day – the raw, bleeding statistics of Syria’s unending war are making a nonsense of an already fragile truce and destroying the slim hopes that peace talks can even carry on.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy for Syria, is a consummate diplomat, but this week he has struggled to mask a sense of rising panic – appealing to the US and Russia to come together to stave off what his humanitarian coordinator warned on Thursday would be a new “catastrophe” if violence did not stop.

De Mistura reported privately to the UN security council on Wednesday on the latest “proximity” talks in Geneva, where he met the two Syrian sides separately. Opposition negotiators walked out last week, insisting they could not stay in the Palais des Nations while their people were suffering on the ground.

“How can you have substantial talks when you have only news about bombing and shelling?” De Mistura asked journalists afterwards. “Barely alive” was his blunt characterisation of the truce. And diplomats said he spoke far more forcefully on the video link to New York. [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports: Looking out from the Syrian capital these days, one can understand why President Bashar Assad would be in no hurry to make concessions at peace talks in Geneva, let alone consider stepping down as the opposition demands.

In Damascus, it is easy to forget the war. The airstrikes, the ruins and starvation, sometimes only few miles away, seem distant and unseen. Since a partial cease-fire went into effect at the end of February, the mortar shells from opposition-held suburbs have all but stopped. On Saturday, the Interior Ministry said a number of mortar shells fell in two Damascus neighborhoods, including one several hundred meters from the Russian embassy. There were no reported injuries.

With the road to the loyalist coast and most of central Syria completely cleared of insurgents, Assad has guaranteed the survival of a rump state that he could rule over should the war continue for a long time. Even if Assad’s forces have little chance of regaining large parts of the country in the near term, Russia’s military intervention changed the conflict’s course in their favor and has boosted their confidence. [Continue reading…]

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Brexiteers are pining for empire

Pankaj Mishra writes: There are no good reasons for Britain to leave the European Union. “Brexit” makes zero sense geopolitically or economically, as exasperated foreigners, including U.S. President Barack Obama, have repeatedly pointed out. But then, as with many political phenomena today, any explanation of the inexplicable Brexit campaign has to be sought deep in social, cultural and emotional history.

The impulse driving the Brexiteers is the same one former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson highlighted in 1962, when he declared, “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.” The writer Edmund Wilson expressed it, too, when he said that the British elite was “completely unreconciled to the post-war diminishment of Britain.”

The members of Britain’s Conservative Party who would withdraw from the European Union share the same stubborn belief that their small island remains great enough to stand apart from continental Europe. To be sure, the original British sense of self-sufficiency, and of power and glory, was derived from historical facts. In the 18th century, Britain’s geographical isolation, as well as entwined traditions of commerce and individual liberty, clearly distinguished it from rivals on the turbulent continent. Those virtues made ardent Anglophiles even out of hard-headed men like Montesquieu and Voltaire.

Then in the 19th century, Britain’s industrial and commercial expansion reorganized the world into an economic unity, for better and for worse. British colonists, financiers, engineers, explorers, seamen, insurers and administrators broke down many of the geographical, social and economic barriers between continents. These triumphant forays into the world outside Europe both created Britain’s distinctive modern character and gave its prospering classes a sense of splendid uniqueness within a Europe racked by war and revolution. [Continue reading…]

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Tony Blair: The former prime minister for hire

The Guardian reports: hen Jonathan Powell, the gatekeeper to the corporate empire of Tony Blair, sat down to lunch with the former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Faisal Al Turki in June 2010 he could not have known how lucrative it would turn out to be for the former British prime minister.

As the high-profile mediator of the stuttering peace process in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Blair had to be careful not to mix business with pleasure. However, one of those lunching with Powell at the annual “global mediator’s retreat”, organised by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was looking to make a deal.

Nawaf Obaid, a security analyst who accompanied Prince Faisal, emailed Powell a week later, according to documents seen by the Guardian, with a suggestion to work with his brother Tarek’s company, PetroSaudi, which he “co-founded and co-owns with Prince Turki bin Abdullah, son of King Abdullah”.

“They have several projects that [they] are working [on] and I think it would [give] a very interesting perspective to see if we could establish a strategic partnership with former PM Tony Blair and yourself,” he wrote.

Tarek Obaid was a former banker who styled himself as an adviser to members of the Saudi royal family and a director of a joint venture with Malaysia’s multibillion-dollar development fund, 1MDB. This fund had put $300m through PetroSaudi and as the latter’s chief executive, Obaid was on the lookout for deals.

On paper PetroSaudi looked impressive: its chief investment officer was a former Goldman Sachs banker, Patrick Mahony. The chief operating officer was listed as Rick Haythornthwaite, a City insider who was also chairman of Network Rail and MasterCard.

Blair’s team sold the former prime minister as someone who could help “unlock situations which might otherwise be blocked by political factors” in places such as China and Africa. PetroSaudi was interested in Beijing’s appetite for oil and how Blair’s firm could help. [Continue reading…]

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Stop viewing the Arab world through a narrow lens

H A Hellyer writes: If, in 2011, the West’s view of the Arab world was grounded in optimism and exhilaration, it’s an entirely different story in 2016. Five years ago, there was still the sense that something was afoot, that the region could change into something better. There was the promise of a region based more on respect for fundamental rights, better governance and freedom – rather than one where these elements were constantly sacrificed to nepotism, autocracy and the cynical exploitation of concerns around security.

Five years on, the situation looks very different.

Now it is far more about security than ever before. It used to be that different Arab leaders would privately and publicly argue that they were better than the alternative of Islamism and that would be enough to get any concerns around fundamental rights of the table for discussion. Today, the equation is the same but different: many simply argue that the alternative to their rule is chaos. And, of course, no one wants chaos – and so the cycle continues.

But the region is not simply a place where one makes short-term exchanges between security concerns and everything else. It is a catastrophic mistake to look at the region in those terms alone. [Continue reading…]

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Syria war: UN aid chief laments ‘massive suffering’

Al Jazeera reports: The United Nation’s aid chief has issued a strongly worded appeal to world powers to revive a shattered ceasefire in Syria and put an end to the “massive human suffering” that has left millions of people facing desolation, death and starvation.

Stephen O’Brien told the UN Security Council on Thursday that it must not squander what he saw as an opportunity for peace in recently stalled talks in Geneva, and again called for unimpeded access to get aid to people trapped by renewed and fierce fighting in the country.

“We must all be ashamed this is happening on our watch,” Stephen O’Brien told the Security Council during a meeting on the humanitarian crisis caused by the five-year war.

While the number of humanitarian convoys crossing borders and fighting lines has increased, O’Brien said “current levels of access still leave civilians starving and without medical care.

“Deliberately deprived of food and medicine, many face the most appalling conditions of desolation, hunger and starvation.” [Continue reading…]

Haid N Haid interviewed by BBC World discusses the situation in Aleppo, the systematic targeting of civilian facilities such as hospitals, schools etc by the Assad regime and Russian forces. He also talks about the Russian withdrawal, the besieged areas and air dropping aid.

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U.S. special ops kill 40 ISIS operatives responsible for attacks from Paris to Egypt

The Daily Beast reports: As the self-proclaimed Islamic State trumpets its global terrorist campaign, U.S. special operations forces have quietly killed more than three dozen key ISIS operatives blamed for plotting deadly attacks in Europe and beyond.

Defense officials tell The Daily Beast that U.S. special operators have killed 40 “external operations leaders, planners, and facilitators” blamed for instigating, plotting, or funding ISIS’s attacks from Brussels and Paris to Egypt and Africa.

That’s less than half the overall number of ISIS targets that special operators have taken off the battlefield, one official explained, including top leaders like purported ISIS second-in-command Haji Imam, killed in March.

The previously unpublished number provides a rare glimpse into the U.S. counterterrorist mission that is woven into overall coalition efforts to defeat ISIS, and which is credited with crippling ISIS efforts to recruit foreign fighters and carry out more plots like the deadly assault on Paris that killed 130 last fall. [Continue reading…]

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Belgian police knew since 2014 that Abdeslam brothers planned ‘irreversible act’

Politico reports: Belgian police had information as early as mid-2014 that Paris attackers Salah and Brahim Abdeslam intended to carry out “an irreversible act,” according to a classified police watchdog’s report on the country’s response to the Paris attacks.

Brahim Abdeslam blew himself up in Paris last November during the attacks that killed 130 people, while Salah fled and was captured in Brussels last month, four days before the terror attacks in Brussels.

The conclusions of the report, a copy of which was obtained by POLITICO, says the brothers’ radicalization, links to Paris attacks mastermind Abdelhamid Abaaoud, and their intention to commit some sort of act were known to Belgian security forces well before the attacks.

The police’s anti-terror unit argued that it could not file a report on the brothers into the central police database because it could not be established with certainty which brother was involved.

But the watchdog questions that argument, saying the names of both Abdeslam brothers, who lived in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, were already in the database. [Continue reading…]

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Baghdad’s border badlands: Why the Iraqi capital can never truly be secure

Mustafa Habib writes: While Baghdad is still the venue for many suicide bombers and car bombs, it is the capital city’s borders that present one of the greatest security problems for locals – and the problem in the so-called “Baghdad belt” looks to be getting worse.

In Yusufiyah, an area on the southern outskirts of the city, Sheikh Othman al-Janabi and his nine-member family have been resisting leaving and have just been dealing with the increasing insecurity here.

Over the past two weeks though that has changed. Two of al-Janabi’s children were killed – one in fighting in the area and one in a roadside bomb. Then al-Janabi’s wife also died. “Now I can no longer plant my farm but I am still refusing to leave our house – I built it with my own hands,” al-Janabi said. “I will not leave my childhood home.”

Karim al-Mashadani lives in Tarimiyah, on the other side of Baghdad but he is dealing with the same kinds of problems as the al-Janabi family.

“The security forces don’t trust the population,” al-Mashadani, a professor who has been living in the area for over two decades, told NIQASH. “They think they are all terrorists because the terrorists are in hiding, on the farms in the area. The terrorists are continuously attacking the security forces but it is the ordinary people around here who pay for their crimes.”

Just like Yusufiyah, Tarimiyah is located on the outskirts of Baghdad. Along with Latifiyah, Madaen and Arab Jabour in the south, Abu Ghraib in the west and Mushahada and Taji to the north, these areas make up what’s known as the Baghdad belt. In the past, these more rural areas provided shelter to the extremist organisation, Al Qaeda in Iraq. Now the same areas are being used by the new incarnation of the latter, the Islamic State group. [Continue reading…]

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With Iraq mired in turmoil, some call for partition

The New York Times reports: With tens of thousands of protesters marching in the streets of Baghdad to demand changes in government, Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, appeared before Parliament this week hoping to speed the process by introducing a slate of new ministers. He was greeted by lawmakers who tossed water bottles at him, banged on tables and chanted for his ouster.

“This session is illegal!” one of them shouted.

Leaving his squabbling opponents behind, Mr. Abadi moved to another meeting room, where supportive lawmakers declared a quorum and approved several new ministers — technocrats, not party apparatchiks — as a step to end sectarian politics and the corruption and patronage that support it.

But, like so much else in the Iraqi government, the effort fell short, with only a handful of new ministers installed and several major ministries, including oil, foreign and finance, remaining in limbo. A new session of Parliament on Thursday was canceled.

Almost two years after the Islamic State swept through northern Iraq, forcing the Obama administration to re-engage in a conflict it had celebrated as complete, Iraq’s political system is barely functioning, as the chaotic scenes in Parliament this week demonstrated. [Continue reading…]

Kevin Knodell writes: Iraqi security forces backed by the U.S.-led international coalition have launched a campaign to dislodge Islamic State militants from Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

It’s an ambitious operation involving multiple factions — and one that could determine the country’s fate as it struggles to eject ISIS and hold itself together amid sectarian bickering.

For even as the anti-ISIS coalition wages this decisive battle, Kurdish troops are clashing with Shia militiamen in the town of Tuz Khurmatu, near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Fighting erupted on the night of April 23 after Shia militiamen allegedly threw a grenade into the house of a Peshmerga commander in the town. Several Peshmerga and Shia fighters have died in the ensuing clashes.

Leaders from the two sides worked out a truce, but the peace is fragile. Such internal fighting is becoming a nearly monthly occurrence as the two groups in the town — ostensibly allies in the battle against Islamic State — fail to find common ground aside from their mutual enemy.

It’s a sobering reminder that even if the alliance manages to dislodge the Islamic State from Mosul, Iraq will continue to suffer sectarian violence. [Continue reading…]

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