Signs that ISIS may be in decline in Syria

Jalal Zein Eddine writes: For Syrians under Islamic State (ISIS) rule, the jihadist group is an incidental disease, not an authentic part of the society in which it has appeared, and the peak of its growth bears the seeds of its disintegration and demise. A number of factors are contributing to the group’s disintegration:

Firstly, the significant drop in the number of foreign fighters has been boosted by the pledges of allegiance Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi attained in the Sinai Peninsula, Libya and Nigeria. The damage these pledges have done to the group outweighs the publicity they have generated, as believers in ISIS’s extremist doctrine in the Arab Maghreb, Africa and perhaps even parts of Europe will join groups in their home countries. This will impact negatively on the group’s strength in Syria and Iraq.

“There are also signs of a big drop in the influx of people from the Arab Maghreb, mainly after the group’s battles against the rebels,” says Adnan, who is close to ISIS members in Aleppo Countryside. “It can even be said that emigration has stopped.” Perhaps this is what made Baghdadi accept pledges of allegiance from outside of the Levant; gaining such allegiances, even in faraway areas, was better than losing foreign fighters altogether.

The decrease in the number of foreign fighters, due to intensified international monitoring of their movement, has contributed to locals’ hesitation to join the group. “All the biggest assaults have been attributed to foreign fighters, who have a highly-effective combat doctrine,” says Mustafa, a lawyer from eastern Aleppo Countryside. “The drop in their numbers has not only reduced the Islamic State’s combat readiness, it has caused a recession in the number of local entrants in to the group.” Foreign fighters amazed young Syrians, their mad bravery attracting many local recruits. The drop in the number of foreign fighters has also weakened the identity ISIS is trying to force on the region. [Continue reading…]

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In Iraq, Maliki still looms large months after his ouster

The Washington Post reports: [Former Prime Minister Nouri al-]Maliki’s looming presence presents a continued challenge for [his successor, Haidar al-]Abadi as he attempts to win back ground from the extremists and repair rifts with Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds. Meanwhile, an offensive to retake Tikrit has highlighted the premier’s lack of control over the array of Shiite volunteers and militias that are leading it.

“He still has a role and he’s not finished,” said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a parliamentarian with Maliki’s state of law bloc. “We haven’t seen the end of Maliki.”

A Western diplomat based in the region said there are deep concerns about what Maliki may be up to, with no doubt that he is trying to undermine Abadi. “He’s irredeemable,” he said.

Maliki appears to wield influence over more members of parliament than Abadi, with more support in the security institutions, he said. However, others doubt his reach, contending he has little chance of a comeback.

On a March trip to a recently cleared town near Tikrit to meet fighters who had driven out Islamic State militants, Maliki greeted the forces as if he were still in power. He said it’s natural that some security forces would feel a sense of loyalty to him.

Since leaving power, he has become a particular champion of the legions of largely Shiite volunteers and militias known as the “popular mobilizations” – many of whom answered a call from Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric to sign up to fight.

“I established it in my time,” he says of the volunteer force that mustered in the dying days of Maliki’s leadership and has led the battle in the city of Tikrit. “And they feel very close to me, or may be loyal to me. Therefore I keep working with them and supporting them and pushing them to fight.” [Continue reading…]

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U.N. leader warns Iraq not to mistreat civilians after liberation from ISIS

The New York Times reports: Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations used a visit to Baghdad on Monday to warn the Iraqi government to treat civilians decently after it liberates territories like Tikrit, where a government offensive has been supported by heavy American-led airstrikes for the past five days.

“Civilians freed from the brutality of Daesh should not have to then fear their liberators,” Mr. Ban said, in a statement emailed to reporters after Iraqi officials canceled a scheduled news conference with him without explanation. Daesh is the Arabic pronunciation of the initials ISIS, by which the extremists in the Islamic State group are also known.

“One form of violence cannot replace another,” he said. The secretary general was clearly referring to reports, such as one by Human Rights Watch recently, that Iraqi Shiite militias were carrying out abuses in Sunni areas of Salahuddin Province that they had liberated from the extremists.

However, Mr. Ban may have joined his Iraqi governments hosts in speaking too soon about progress in Tikrit. Evidence is mounting that fighters of the Islamic State are much more numerous in the city, and hold much more territory, than the Iraqi government has previously revealed. [Continue reading…]

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Iraqi forces in no hurry to expel ISIS from Tikrit

The New York Times reports: Here at the headquarters of Iraqi ground forces, after three days of American airstrikes that at times witnesses here described as “carpet bombing,” Iraq’s military seemed in no great hurry on Saturday to press its advantage.

It also seemed to be moving very slowly on promises to withdraw Shiite militias from the battlefield.

An Iraqi Air Force C-130 carrying 150 fresh militia volunteers, a dozen federal police officers, a few soldiers back from leave and two American journalists landed here late in the morning. Although the intensive bombardment of the night had eased, within half an hour two large explosions rattled the windows of the Salahuddin Operations Command building as bombs dropped by unseen aircraft brought satisfied smiles from the assembled military men.

Missing from this picture was any sense of urgency. The holdouts from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, who remain in the center of Tikrit are believed to number “about 400,” as one general here said. But the extremists have so far held off an offensive by an estimated 30,000 Iraqi troops and volunteer militiamen for nearly four weeks. [Continue reading…]

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Is ISIS in trouble in Iraq?

Der Spiegel reports: The trip from Baghdad to Tikrit remains extremely dangerous. There may be bombs planted along the road and snipers occasionally lurk nearby. As such, nobody knows for sure which car Iraqi Interior Minister Mohammed al-Ghabban is traveling. His convoy, protected by heavily armed soldiers, is heading north, driving by walls and schools where the black flag of Islamic State (IS) is still flying. And it passes through empty villages and past trenches that reflect the ongoing fighting.

The minister is headed for the front-line city of Tikrit, 180 kilometers (110 miles) north of Baghdad, from which IS has been forced to retreat in recent days. Ghabban, 53, is a wiry man in a simple police uniform. He was jailed at the young age of 18 during the Saddam Hussein regime and later joined the Iran-founded Shiite Badr Party. Tikrit is a place of some significance for him. This is where the hated dictator was born and it is not far from where he is buried.

The Tikrit water tower can be seen from afar: It too has been painted black and bears the white IS script. Tikrit used to have 260,000 inhabitants, but now it is a ghost town. Burnt-out vehicles dot the roadside, there is no electricity and the cell phone towers have been destroyed. But the Iraqi flag is once again flying over Alam Square. Behind it, on the main street, stand the men responsible for this victory: policemen, soldiers and, above all, Shiite militia members.

They have lined up hundreds of cartridges of mortar shells they say IS fighters fired during the battle for the city. An old police commander steps up to the interior minister and reports that his unit lost 60 troops during the fighting. But, he adds, the streets of Tikrit’s Qadisiya district are littered with the corpses of IS fighters. [Continue reading…]

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Salafists and sectarianism: Twitter and communal conflict in the Middle East

Geneive Abdo writes: The widening divide between Shi‘a and Sunni believers has become one of the most important factors in destabilizing the Middle East, and there seems to be no end in sight. The blossoming of the Syrian war into a full-scale sectarian conflict between Shi‘a and Sunni Muslims and its spillover into parts of Iraq and Lebanon has re-ignited a debate among U.S. policymakers and Western analysts over whether fundamental doctrinal differences or political rivalry and socio-economic grievances lie behind the conflict.

Although actors on both sides are driving this conflict, it is today’s Salafists who are proving to be the dominant standard-bearers of anti-Shi‘a discourse — not taking into account the violent jihadists, whose popular appeal and staying power have yet to be demonstrated despite some spectacular and headline-grabbing territorial gains and terrorist acts. The Salafist movement has shown itself adroit at exploiting opportunities to advance its rhetorical and theological positions amid the religious re-examination and outright contestation among religious subgroups sparked by the recent Arab uprisings and their successful challenge to existing institutions of power in the region.

At the heart of the resurgent Salafist movement is the seemingly sudden emergence of a compelling message of a return to the ideas and morals of the era of the Prophet Mohammad at the expense of Islam’s subsequent rich tradition of religious interpretation. Given that the uprisings occurred on the heels of a surge in Shi‘a power in both Iraq and Lebanon, the Sunnis were predisposed to feel threatened. The sectarian war in Syria has been pivotal in providing a narrative for both sides in answering the fundamental questions within the world of Islam: Who is a Muslim, and who gets to decide? Although these are age-old questions within Islam, the violence that has ensued since the Arab uprisings over these very issues threatens to redraw the map of the Middle East and create instability for years to come.

The conflict over resolving these two questions is both a Shi‘a-Sunni debate as well as an internal conflict among the different strands of Sunni thought. While some scholars and specialists argue that the root of the conflict is the result of weakening or collapsed states in the aftermath of the Arab rebellions, this study will open a much-needed window on one of the fundamental causes — if not the fundamental cause — of today’s violence: Islam itself is being revised in the midst of political upheaval in the Middle East. Jihadists, Salafists, Shi’a militias, and other non-state actors are actively trying to redefine Islam as they see it.

The following study focuses on rising Salafist players who are intimately engaged in the public debate — not the radical jihadists who are fighting in Syria and Iraq but the non-violent Salafists who are successfully using social media and other such platforms to express their negative views of the Shi‘a and, by association, the Alawites and Iran. They are using social media to take advantage of conflicts throughout the region in order to raise their public profiles and influence public opinion. Although much media focus and attention is devoted to the radical jihadists, those Salafists who do not condone violence also have an important role in the future of destabilizing the Middle East. Uncovering and understanding their subculture, and in particular their public discourse, is vital to prudent and responsible policy formulation.

Penetrating and engaging with the world of contemporary Salafism presents a number of challenges to the researcher. However, as this study will show, new social media technologies taking hold around the world, in particular Twitter feeds, can offer valuable insight into Salafist ideas and practice and help identify leading personalities, uncover important relationships, and reveal significant discursive trends. “Social media has revolutionized the way that the world has understood the Syrian conflict and how that conflict has been waged,” asserted a study published by the United States Institute of Peace. “Syria has been at the cutting edge of the evolution of new uses of social media and the Internet by political actors, insurgent groups, journalists and researchers.” As skeptics of the power of social media have noted, Twitter cannot inspire revolutions and did not create the Arab uprisings, for example. The political and social conditions for revolution or violence must be present and do not emerge from cyberspace. These same critics argue that individuals are responsible for creating the Arab uprisings, not the tools available to them.

Nonetheless, Twitter and other forms of social media have proven to be valuable tools in influencing events on the ground once they are already underway, creating an interactive discussion between those in cyberspace and the foot soldiers on the ground.

In her new paper “Salafists and Sectarianism: Twitter and Communal Conflict in the Middle East,” Geneive Abdo shows that chief among the central threads of Salafist discourse in Arabic is an abiding belief that the Shi‘a are not real Muslims, and are out to extinguish Sunni believers who, in the Salafist view, are the only true Muslims. [Continue reading…]

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The Nusra Front’s game-changing rise in Syria

The Washington Post reports: Syrian rebels captured the key northern city of Idlib from government forces on Saturday in what amounts to the most significant defeat for forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in two years.

The rebel force, led by the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, surged into the city center overnight Saturday and by day’s end had ousted government forces almost entirely.

The loss for the government came amid a number of recent indications that the Assad regime is struggling to maintain the momentum it won on the battlefield last year, including the failure of two recent offensives that fizzled in the north and the south of the country. [Continue reading…]

Lina Khatib writes: The Nusra Front’s ability to deliver results is largely driven by its pragmatism. The group has been collaborating with a wide variety of local forces that are not pushed to fight under its umbrella. Instead, they fight with Nusra as allies — a radical departure from the Islamic State’s model, which does not tolerate collaboration unless absolutely necessary.

This approach has enabled the Nusra Front to widen its network of support quickly, including the addition of some Free Syrian Army brigades in Aleppo, Hama, and Daraa. Crucially, Nusra engages in friendly competition with Ahrar al-Sham, which has recently become the largest group under the Islamic Front umbrella following its merger with another Islamic Front faction, the Suqour al-Sham Brigades. This development has made Ahrar al-Sham almost as large as the Nusra Front, and the alliance between the two could become an important factor in the Syrian conflict.

Nusra also learned from the mistakes of both the regime and the Free Syrian Army. In northern Syria, people saw the corruption of the regime replaced with that of brigades fighting under the banner of the FSA, such as the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front, which imposed inconsistent taxes on the population, established checkpoints at which its members regularly seized people’s property, and controlled food supplies.

Nusra used the anticorruption framework to win hearts and minds. People quickly began to see FSA checkpoints replaced with Nusra checkpoints that “did not demand anything in return for protecting us,” as one Nusra supporter said in an interview. The Nusra Front also used the fight against corruption to justify its attacks on uncooperative FSA brigades. Nusra’s assault on the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front in late 2014 won wide popular support, despite the fact that the main aim of the attack was actually to eliminate one of Nusra’s key military rivals.

The Nusra Front also noticed that FSA leaders in the north who had become warlords abandoned the front lines, and Nusra ensured that its leaders remained in the field. This presence underscored the idea that the Nusra Front was providing protection — military as well as social — and vastly increased its acceptance among ordinary Syrians.

While not everyone likes Nusra’s ideology, there is a growing sense in the north of Syria that it is the best alternative on the ground — and that ideology is a small price to pay for higher returns. “The one who defends me has the right to impose whatever law they see fit,” one sympathizer told me.

The international coalition’s airstrikes that began in September 2014 took Nusra by surprise, but they further increased the group’s popularity. Many Syrians felt disappointed that the West did not act against the Assad regime, but instead attacked an entity that was fighting the regime. Many rallied around Nusra, providing local support and contributing to its intelligence-gathering capabilities. This allowed Nusra to increase the areas under its control not through territorial gains or the provision of services — methods the Islamic State uses to extend its reach — but through expanded local networks and influence. [Continue reading…]

Rebels in Idlib destroying a statue of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad

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The U.S. is providing air cover for ethnic cleansing in Iraq

Michael Weiss and Michael Pregent write: American warplanes have begun bombing the Islamic State-held Iraqi city of Tikrit in order to bail out the embattled, stalled ground campaign launched by Baghdad and Tehran two weeks ago. This operation, billed as “revenge” for the Islamic State (IS) massacre of 1,700 Shiite soldiers at Camp Speicher last June, was launched without any consultation with Washington and was meant to be over by now, three weeks after much triumphalism by the Iraqi government about how swiftly the terrorist redoubt in Saddam Hussein’s hometown was going to be retaken.

U.S. officials have variously estimated that either 23,000 or 30,000 “pro-government” forces were marshaled for the job, of which only slender minority were actual Iraqi soldiers. The rest consisted of a consortium of Shiite militia groups operating under the banner of Hashd al-Shaabi, or the Population Mobilization Units (PMU), which was assembled in answer to a fatwah issued by Iraq’s revered Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani in June 2014 following ISIS’s blitzkrieg through northern Iraq. To give you a sense of the force disparity, the PMUs are said to command 120,000 fighters, whereas the Iraqi Army has only got 48,000 troops.

Against this impressive array of paramilitaries, a mere 400 to 1,000 IS fighters have managed to hold their ground in Tikrit, driving major combat operations to a halt. This is because the Islamic State is resorting to exactly the kinds of lethal insurgency tactics which al Qaeda in Iraq (its earlier incarnation) used against the more professional and better-equipped U.S. forces. BuzzFeed’s Mike Giglio has ably documented the extent to which IS has relied upon improvised explosive devices, and just how sophisticated these have been. Even skilled explosive ordnance disposal teams — many guided by Iranian specialists — are being ripped apart by what one termed the “hidden enemy” in Tikrit. [Continue reading…]

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Opening new Iraq front, U.S. strikes ISIS in Tikrit

The New York Times reports: American warplanes began airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Tikrit late Wednesday, finally joining a stalled offensive to retake the Iraqi city as American officials sought to seize the initiative from Iran, which had taken a major role in directing the operation.

The decision to directly aid the offensive was made by President Obama on Wednesday, American officials said, and represented a significant shift in the Iraqi campaign. For more than three weeks, the Americans had stayed on the sideline of the battle for Tikrit, wary of being in the position of aiding an essentially Iranian-led operation. Senior Iranian officials had been on the scene, and allied Shiite militias had made up the bulk of the force.

Mr. Obama approved the airstrikes after a request from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on the condition that Iranian-backed Shiite militias move aside to allow a larger role for Iraqi government counterterrorism forces that have worked most closely with United States troops, American officials said. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps who has been advising forces around Tikrit, was reported on Sunday to have left the area. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS’s strategy in Libya

Kevin Casey and Stacey Pollard write: Early media coverage of the Islamic State (IS) in Libya has centered on the group’s swift seizure of territory and the expansion of the caliphate’s authority into an increasingly lawless Libya. Yet IS’s efforts in the North African state have not lived up to these fears, as the organization — once thought to command control of cities such as Derna and Sirte — remains only one of many factions vying for power in these areas.

This does not mean the Islamic State is failing in Libya — indeed its trajectory inside Libya is mirroring its Iraq strategy, which sought to maximize its local competitive advantages. The group’s shift of gravity from Derna to Sirte is a highly deliberate strategic decision based on the assumption that Sirte provides greater opportunities for the group than Derna does.

But unlike Iraq and Syria, Libya is missing some of the key conditions that allowed for the group’s rapid gains in the Levant last summer. Namely, it lacks enduring ties to influential Libyan tribes and social groups, and Libya has no strong sectarian divide or a common enemy around which to rally a community. Thus, the Islamic State’s strategy in Libya seems to be directed instead at hastening state failure and fracturing the population’s sense of common nationhood. Meanwhile, it is also intensifying the conditions that will allow it to deepen its influence and form a national-religious identity in line with the caliphate’s own views. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. ready to back Iran with airstrikes against ISIS

Nancy A. Youssef reports: The U.S.-led coalition is preparing to expand its air strike campaign into the city of Tikrit where Iraqi forces, backed by Iranians, have stalled in their efforts to reclaim the hometown of Saddam Hussein from the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

Two U.S. officials told The Daily Beast that the United States is awaiting a formal request from the Iraqi government for the strikes. Once they receive that request, it could be only a matter of days before the attacks begin.

“The preparatory work is probably already done. The [U.S. military] has started to bring in more assets for a Tikrit air support campaign,” an adviser to the U.S. government tasked with monitoring and engaging with Iraqi officials told The Daily Beast. “Unless there is an impediment on the Iraqi side, and I don’t see it happening, the campaign could begin within days.” [Continue reading…]

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230 suspected jihadis prevented from leaving Australia in March

The Associated Press reports: Counterterrorism squads have prevented 230 suspected jihadis from departing Australian airports for the Middle East this month, including at least three teenage boys, officials said Wednesday.

Officials had previously announced that two Sydney-born brothers, aged 16 and 17, were intercepted at Sydney International Airport on March 8 attempting to board a flight for Turkey without their parents’ knowledge. The siblings were returned to their families and were to be charged.

Within a week, a 17-year-old boy was intercepted at the same airport on suspicion that he was headed for a Middle Eastern battle, Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton said Wednesday.

The boy was also returned to his family, but remains under investigation, Dutton said.

Since counterterrorism units were attached to eight Australian airports in August, 86,000 travelers have been questioned and 230 people prevented from flying on suspicion that they were headed for the battlefields of Iraq and Syria to fight with groups including Islamic State, Prime Minister Tony Abbott told Parliament.

Experts disagree about why Islamic State had been so effective recruiting in Australia, which is widely regarded as a multicultural success story, with an economy in an enviable 24th straight year of continuous growth.

The London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence reports that between 100 and 250 Australians have joined Sunni militants in Iraq and Syria. The center estimates that about 100 fighters came from the United States, which has more than 13 times as many people as Australia. [Continue reading…]

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The many names of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Ali Hashem writes: Even to those who have hunted him and followed his every move, Islamic State (IS) Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi remains a mystery.

“Before anything I want to understand why he became like this, why an academic would make such a choice and how he feels toward the thousands of people he has killed around the Middle East. Then I’ll make sure he gets punished,” Maj. Bakr (a pseudonym), a member of the elite Iraqi counterterrorist unit the Falcon Brigade, said.

Iraqi forces had him in their crosshairs on Nov. 8, 2014, but an airstrike came too late and a wounded Baghdadi, 44, managed to slip across the Syrian border. The self-styled caliph now travels secretly and has avoided the public eye, apart from his infamous Friday sermons at a mosque in Mosul. While seclusion has only raised his profile, Baghdadi’s origins remain wreathed in more mystery than his movements. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS in Iraq siphon state pay

The Wall Street Journal reports: Islamic State militants are skimming tens of millions of dollars a month from salaries paid to Iraqi government employees in occupied areas such as Mosul, and Baghdad continues to send the cash to maintain local support.

The group is using the money to fund operations, U.S. officials say, underlining the delicate balancing act U.S. and Iraqi governments face in what they know is a hearts-and-minds campaign against Islamic State ahead of a military operation to retake Mosul, for which U.S. officials are training Iraqi troops.

U.S. defense officials say U.S.-led strikes have put pressure on Islamic State, hurting its command-and-control operations, but they remain cautious about the near-term prospects of retaking Mosul and other territory under the group’s firm control.

A lack of desirable options has put U.S. officials in an awkward position, forced to choose between the goal of denying funds to Islamic State and the goal of persuading Sunnis to back the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. [Continue reading…]

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Iraq opts for consolidation over advance in Tikrit battle against ISIS

The New York Times reports: As a small force of Islamic State militants holds out in parts of Tikrit for a fourth week, Iraqi forces have been forced to shift tactics, officials say: Rather than storming in to clear the city at any cost, the security forces are trying to seal off the area and begin preparing for even more challenging battles to the west and north.

The Iraqi forces’ progress has put them closer to the doorstep of Nineveh Province, where the city of Mosul looms as the most important battle against the Islamic State. But the hard lessons of the Tikrit offensive, with a heavy cost in casualties for the Shiite militiamen and soldiers involved, have Iraqi officials thinking more cautiously about their next steps.

To that end, officials say, their next goal will be securing the western province of Anbar, in part to keep Islamic State fighters there from ambushing and harassing the main Iraqi force to the east. [Continue reading…]

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Yemen, long on the brink of catastrophe, may have tipped over the edge

The Wall Street Journal reports: The militant group that controls Yemen’s capital moved to extend its power southward with an attack on a major city, deepening chaos that has given terror groups greater room to proliferate and forced the U.S. to suspend military operations inside the country.

American officials now see Yemen teetering on the brink of a civil war involving the besieged president, a former president and a patchwork of militant groups. The leader of the Houthi militant group behind the southern offensive and a United Nations envoy both warned that Yemen is in imminent danger of becoming another Iraq, Syria or Libya — a conflict fueled by sectarian violence and warring terrorist networks.

The U.S. withdrew its remaining 100 military personnel from a base in southern Yemen over the weekend, American officials said on Sunday. Special Operations Forces had to halt, at least temporarily, the training of Yemeni troops and cooperation in operations against one of the world’s most dangerous al Qaeda offshoots. The U.S. had already closed its embassy in the capital San’a last month. [Continue reading…]

Brian Whitaker writes: Yemen has often been portrayed as a country on the brink of catastrophe. Equally often, it has defied expectations and muddled through – if only just. But the suicide attacks on two mosques that left at least 142 people dead in Sana’a last Friday are one sign, among many, that it has finally tipped over the edge.

The UN is warning helplessly about a rapid downward spiral and calling for a resumption of efforts towards a political settlement, but the prospects of that happening are virtually nil and the scene is set for a protracted civil war with multiple protagonists.

Inside Yemen, the lineup of forces is complicated. One key player is Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted from the presidency in 2012 after 34 years in power and has been causing trouble ever since.

Saleh appears to be colluding with the Houthis, whom he previously fought in a series of wars in the far north of the country. His alliance with the Houthis is seen by many as a tactical move aimed at eventually installing his son, Ahmad, as president. [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports from Aden: This port city, perched on an extinct volcano protruding into the Arabian Sea on Yemen’s far southern edge, has become perhaps the last refuge of the country’s embattled president, and it feels like now all his enemies are bearing down on it.

Driven out of the capital, Sanaa, by Shiite rebels who have taken over much of the north, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the remains of his government have made Aden their provisional capital. If they lose here, Hadi – the man the U.S. had hoped would stabilize the chaotic nation and fight al-Qaida’s powerful branch – likely will fall, plunging Yemen into a civil war.

In his first speech since fleeing Sanaa, Hadi on Saturday denounced the rebel takeover as “a coup against constitutional legitimacy” and declared Aden the country’s “temporary capital.” [Continue reading…]

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Yemeni implosion pushes southern Sunnis into arms of al Qaida and ISIS

The intrepid, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, reports: In a hollow in the sands of eastern Yemen, a line of pickup trucks carrying tribal fighters idled. A squat man with a shock of black hair, dressed in an overflowing dusty dishdasha, walked around slowly, inspecting the men and the vehicles, loaded with heavy machine guns and light artillery.

“The Houthis are behind that hill,” he shouted, pointing at a rocky outcrop sheltering the imaginary foe – northern Yemenis who overthrew the government last autumn, and seized the country’s third largest city on Sunday, according to security and military officials. “We will start by shelling their positions, and then you will storm the hill by cars and finally climb the hill on foot.”

His men call him the Biss – the Cat. After a rather desultory attempt to overrun the supposed adversary, they discovered that he had claws. “If the Houthis were actually there, they could have ended you all with one shell,” the Cat spat.

It’s a forlorn landscape, but one that contains compelling clues as to the shifting balance of power in the Middle East, and the new faultlines.

In Yemen there is little history of sectarian strife. The two main sects, Shia Zaidi and Sunni Shafi, have traditionally been seen as moderate with minimal differences.

But this changed when the Houthis, followers of an obscure Shia tradition who are accused of serving Iranian interests in Yemen, stormed the capital, Sana’a, in September, forcing President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee to the southern port city of Aden.

Their advance had a galvanising effect in the country’s Sunni-dominated south, where al-Qaida is particularly strong and the jihadis of Islamic State are just starting to secure a toehold. [Continue reading…]

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Kurds accuse Iran of sending 30,000 troops to fight in Iraq

Al Jazeera: Kurdish authorities in Iraq have accused Iran of sending 30,000 soldiers and military experts to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.

Shakhawan Abdullah, the head of the Iraq’s parliamentary security and defence committee, told Al Jazeera on Sunday that Iranian soldiers were operating in a number of Iraqi cities and fighting on Iraqi soil.

Abdullah said Iran’s presence went beyond military advisers and experts, and that Iranians were fighting under the banner of the Popular Mobilisation Forces.

The Popular Mobilisation Forces is an umbrella organisation of Shia armed groups composed of around 100,000 fighters.

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