Iraqi forces retake all oil fields in disputed areas as Kurds retreat

The New York Times reports: Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq surrendered all disputed oil fields to Iraq’s military on Tuesday, retreating in the face of overwhelming force that appeared to halt, at least for now, their independence hopes from a referendum held less than a month ago.

In a swift and largely nonviolent operation that came a day after Iraqi forces reclaimed the contested city of Kirkuk from the Kurdish separatists, Baghdad’s troops occupied all oil-producing facilities that the separatists had held for three years, and which had become critical to the Kurdish autonomous region’s economic vitality.

The loss of those resources will erase billions of dollars in export earnings that has flowed to the Kurdish region from the sale of oil. Kurds took over the disputed areas adjacent to their region after Iraqi troops fled an assault by the Islamic State extremist organization in 2014.

Those areas were included in the Sept. 25 referendum in which the Kurdish region voted overwhelmingly for independence. The vote angered not only the central government in Baghdad and the United States, but also neighbors Turkey and Iran, which have sizable Kurdish populations.

The Iraqi military operation to retake the disputed areas was aided by an agreement with a Kurdish faction to withdraw from them peacefully.

The territorial surrender, and its economic importance, raised new doubts about the political future of the Kurdish president, Massoud Barzani, the driving force behind the referendum, who was clearly outmaneuvered by the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. [Continue reading…]

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Iraqi forces launch operation for Kurdish-held oil fields, military base

The Washington Post reports: Clashes broke out early Monday in northern Iraq as Iraqi forces moved to recapture Kurdish-held oil fields and a military base near the city of Kirkuk, setting the stage for a battle between two U.S. allies.

After a three-day standoff, Iraqi forces advanced into the contested province with the goal of returning to positions they held before 2014, when they fled in the face of an Islamic State push. The positions have since been taken over by Kurdish troops.

The conflict between Kurdi­stan and the Iraqi government over land and oil is decades old, but a Kurdish referendum for independence last month inflamed the tensions. The Iraqi government, as well as the United States, Turkey and Iran all opposed the vote.

The flare-up presents an awkward dilemma for the United States, which has trained and equipped the advancing Iraqi troops, which include elite counterterrorism forces, and the Kurdish peshmerga on the other side.

But the Iraqi side is also backed up by Shiite militia forces close to Iran, at a time when the Trump administration has been vocal about curbing Iranian influence in the region, having sanctioned Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps last week. [Continue reading…]

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Iraq conflict: Kurdish Peshmerga ‘given deadline’ in Kirkuk

BBC News reports: Kurdish Peshmerga fighters say Iraq’s central government has ordered them to surrender key military positions in the disputed city of Kirkuk within hours.

They were given a deadline of 02:00 on Sunday (23:00 GMT on Saturday) to quit military facilities and oil fields.

Brief clashes also erupted between Kurdish forces and Shia militia backing the Iraqi government.

Tensions have been on the rise since Kurds held a referendum on independence last month, which Iraq called illegal.

The oil-rich province of Kirkuk is claimed by both the Kurds and Baghdad, though the two sides were recently united in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group. [Continue reading…]

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Is the Middle East destined to fragment?

Robin Wright writes: Pity the Kurds. Theirs is a history of epic betrayals. A century ago, the world reneged on a vow to give them their own state, carved from the carcass of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. The rugged mountain people were instead dispersed into the new states of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, with another block left in Iran. Since then, all three countries have repressed their Kurds. Saddam Hussein was so intent on Arabizing Iraq’s Kurdistan that he paid Arab families to unearth long-dead relatives and rebury them in Kurdish territory—creating evidence to claim Arab rights to the land. He also razed four thousand Kurdish villages and executed a hundred thousand of the region’s inhabitants, some with chemical weapons. Syria stripped its Kurds of citizenship, making them foreigners in their own lands and depriving them of rights to state education, property ownership, jobs, and even marriage. Turkey repeatedly—sometimes militarily—crushed Kurdish political movements; for decades, the Kurdish language was banned, as was the very word “Kurd” to describe Turkey’s largest ethnic minority. They were instead known as “mountain Turks.”

Iraq’s Kurds got a bit of revenge this week. In a historic but controversial referendum, more than ninety per cent of voters endorsed a proposal to secede and declare their own country. “The partnership with Baghdad has failed and we will not return to it,” the President of Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, vowed on the eve of the poll. Jubilation erupted. Waving their distinctive flag—three stripes of red, white, and green, with a blazing golden sun in the center—Kurds across northern Iraq took to the streets.

The Kurdish vote reflects an existential quandary across the entire Middle East: Are some of the region’s most important countries really viable anymore? The world has resisted addressing the issue since the popular protests in 2011, known as the Arab Uprising, or Arab Spring, spawned four wars and a dozen crises. Entire countries have been torn asunder, with little to no prospect of political or physical reconstruction anytime soon. Meanwhile, the outside world has invested vast resources, with several countries forking out billions of dollars in military equipment, billions more in aid, and thousands of hours of diplomacy—on the assumption that places like Iraq, Syria, and Libya can still work as currently configured. The list of outside powers that have tried to shape the region’s future is long—from the United States and its European allies to the Russian-Iran axis and many of the Middle East’s oil-rich powers. All have, so far, failed at forging hopeful direction.

They’ve also failed to confront the obvious: Do the people in these countries want to stay together? Do people who identify proudly as Syrians, for example, all define “Syria” the same way? And are they willing to surrender their political, tribal, racial, ethnic, or sectarian identities in order to forge a common good and a stable nation?

The long-term impact of these destructive centrifugal forces is far from clear. But, given the blood spilled over the past six years, primordial forces seem to be prevailing at the moment, and not only among the Kurds. “The only people who want to hold Iraq together,” Lukman Faily, the former Iraqi ambassador to Washington, opined to me recently, “are those who don’t live in Iraq.” That sentiment is echoed, if not as concisely, elsewhere.

The challenge is addressing the flip side: If these countries, most of them modern creations, are dysfunctional or in danger of failing, what then will work to restore some semblance of normalcy to an ever more volatile region? No major player, in the region or the wider world, seems to be exploring solutions. [Continue reading…]

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The Syrian war is far from over. But the endgame is already playing out

The Washington Post reports: Six years after the eruption of the armed rebellion aimed at toppling President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian war is limping toward a conclusion — one that leaves many questions unanswered and many battles still to be fought, but a resolution of sorts nonetheless.

That Assad would prevail on the battlefield has been evident for years — since at least 2015, when Russia intervened to prop up his flagging army, and probably well before that, after the rebels failed to capitalize on their early momentum.

The absence of resolve on the part of the international community to prevent an Assad victory has also been clear for some time, perhaps as early as the first failed Geneva peace talks in 2014 and certainly since the government’s recapture of Aleppo in December heralded the collapse of the Obama administration’s diplomacy.

Those realities are now in the process of being cemented, bringing the blurred outlines of an endgame into view.

“The war as we knew it is over. What’s left now is dividing the cake,” said Joe Macaron, an analyst at the Arab Policy Center in Washington.

Under the scenario that is emerging, Assad remains in power indefinitely, there is no meaningful political settlement to remove or redeem him, and the war grinds on.

It is a bleak outlook, foreshadowing an unstable Syria mired in at least low-level conflict for years to come, its towns and cities in ruins, its people impoverished, and its economy starved of the funding it needs to rebuild the country. [Continue reading…]

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Iraq orders Kurdistan to surrender its airports

The New York Times reports: Iraq’s prime minister, angered by a vote on independence by his nation’s Kurdish minority, has given the country’s Kurdish region until Friday to surrender control of its two international airports or face a shutdown of international flights.

Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq had antagonized Iraq, Turkey and Iran by holding the referendum on Monday. The results have not yet been announced, but the Kurdish Regional Government said on Tuesday that the vote had gone overwhelmingly in favor of independence from Iraq.

A “yes” vote would not lead to an immediate declaration of independence for the semiautonomous region, but it would direct the regional government to begin the process of creating an independent state, including negotiating a separation with Baghdad.

Iraqi officials have called the referendum unconstitutional and have refused to negotiate with the Kurdish leadership. The Iraqis fear losing a third of the country and a major source of oil should Kurdistan break away. [Continue reading…]

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5 things to know about the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan

Morgan L. Kaplan and Ramzy Mardini write: On Sept. 25, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) is expected to hold its long-awaited referendum on independence. While it has generated much nationalist excitement among Kurds in the KRI capital of Irbil and abroad, the central government in Baghdad and the international community have objected to the vote. The United States has mobilized diplomatic capital to persuade Irbil to postpone the vote. Last week, Western diplomats offered an alternative proposal: Postpone the vote and enter into new mediated negotiations with Baghdad. But without ironclad guarantees or a specified timetable, Irbil has rejected those initiatives, continuing to prepare for the referendum.

The referendum was never meant to be a silver bullet, ending negotiations on Kurds’ path to statehood. But recent escalations by all sides have produced a self-fulfilling crisis with the prospect of military conflict, fueled by both Arab and Kurdish nationalism.

Here are five things you need to know: [Continue reading…]

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What is at stake in Iraqi Kurdish vote for independence?

Michael Knights writes: On 25 September, the residents of Kurdish-controlled areas inside Iraq will have the opportunity to vote in a referendum on their preference for the future of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), a semi-autonomous region within Iraq’s current borders.

The referendum ballot asks: “Do you want the Kurdistan region and the Kurdistani areas outside the region’s administration to become an independent state?”

Being that the majority of voters in the balloted areas are ethnic Kurds with a strong history of seeking self-determination, the result will almost certainly be a Yes.

However, no matter what the residents of Kurdish-controlled areas decide, the referendum has no immediate administrative effects.
There is no mechanism for a part of Iraq to secede from the country, so the referendum will not trigger a “Kexit” the same way that the recent UK referendum on whether to stay in or leave the European Union triggered “Brexit”.

One may well ask, why then are they holding a vote and why now? [Continue reading…]

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Iraq: The battle to come

Joost Hiltermann writes: As an eight-month battle to retake Mosul from ISIS is coming to an end in the labyrinthine alleyways of the Old City, a parallel battle to defeat its fighters in the Syrian town of Raqqa is gathering force. But further battles await: downstream along the Euphrates in Deir al-Zour, in the vast desert that spans the Iraq–Syria border, and in a large chunk of territory west of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk. To members of the US-led coalition and to Western audiences, this has been a necessary military campaign, directed at a jihadist group whose brutal methods and ambition to carry out attacks in western capitals pose an intolerable threat.

To local people, the picture is decidedly different. ISIS’s military defeat, which Western officials believe will come sometime later this year or early next, will hardly put an end to the conflicts that gave rise to the group. For much of the battle against ISIS has taken place in a region that has been fought over ever since oil was found in Kirkuk in the 1930s. The deeper conflicts here—between Arabs and Kurds, between Shia and Sunni, between neighboring powers such as Iran and Turkey, and among the Kurds themselves—will only escalate as the victors, fortified by weapons supplies and military training provided by foreign governments, engage in a mad scramble for the spoils.

When ISIS conquered Iraq’s predominantly Sunni Arab areas three years ago, it faced off with Kurdish forces along a frontline that ran through the middle of what one might call the borderlands between Arab Iraq, with Baghdad as its capital, and Kurdish Iraq, which is governed from Erbil in the north. Kurdish leaders claim that significant parts of these so-called disputed territories are “Kurdistani,” by which they mean that even if the local population is not majority-Kurdish, it nevertheless should be incorporated into the Kurdish region—and thus into a desired future Kurdish state. Many local Arabs, on the other hand, insist that these areas are inalienably Iraqi and must remain under Baghdad’s authority. [Continue reading…]

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Amid Turkey’s purge, a renewed attack on Kurdish culture

The New York Times reports: Gosto’s kebab shop is not the only diner on its block, let alone on its street. It is, however, the one that perhaps reveals most about the threat to Kurdish culture.

Its owner and manager — the cheery, chubby Vural Tantekin — turned to the kebab trade only in January, after the city authorities sacked most members of his municipally run theater troupe.

“The reason,” said Mr. Tantekin, during an interview squeezed between kebab orders, “was to stop us from performing in Kurdish.”

For people like Mr. Tantekin, the fate of Diyarbakir’s theater troupe is emblematic of an ongoing assault on Kurdish culture at large.

Since the founding of the Turkish republic in 1923, which enshrined a monocultural national identity, the country’s sizable Kurdish minority — around 20 percent of the population — has often been banned from expressing its own culture or, at times, from speaking the Kurdish language. [Continue reading…]

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Short of allies, Syria’s rebels are down but not out

The Associated Press reports: They are veterans of Syria’s rebellion, trying for years to bring down President Bashar Assad. But these days they’re doing little fighting with his military. They’re struggling to find a place in a bewildering battlefield where several wars are all being waged at once by international powers.

Syria’s civil war has become a madhouse of forces from Turkey, the United States, Syrian Kurds, the Islamic State group, al-Qaida as well as Assad’s allies Russia, Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraqi and Afghan Shiite militias — all with their own alliances and agendas.

Syrian rebel factions, battered by defeats and as divided as ever, reel around trying to find allies they can trust who will ensure their survival.

“We have become political dwarfs, fragmented groups which hardly have control over the closest checkpoint, let alone each other,” said Tarek Muharram, who quit his banking job in the Gulf to return home and join the rebellion in 2011.

Over the years he fought alongside several different rebel groups, including ones backed by the United States. Now he has now joined the alliance led by the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

Rebel leaders have limited options — none of them good. They can line up behind Turkey, which is recruiting factions to fight its own war in Syria against Syrian Kurds primarily, as well as Islamic State militants.

Or they can ally themselves with al-Qaida’s affiliate, the strongest opposition faction. It leads a coalition that is still battling Assad and dominates the largest cohesive rebel territory, encompassing the northwestern province of Idlib and nearby areas.

Or they can try to go it alone.

Despite differences with Washington, all of them hope for support from the United States. But they feel it has abandoned them after deciding to arm and finance Kurdish-led militias to fight IS.

They see an enemy in IS but also potentially in the Kurds, who have carved out their own territory across northern Syria. Now in the fight against IS, the Kurds could capture Sunni Arab-majority regions like Raqqa and Deir el-Zour, to the alarm of the mainly Sunni Arab rebels.

The Associated Press spoke to a series of veteran rebels who move between Syria and Turkey and found them desperate for resources and support but intent on fighting for years to come. [Continue reading…]

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UN accuses Turkey of killing hundreds of Kurds

The New York Times reports: Turkey’s military and police forces have killed hundreds of people during operations against Kurdish rebels in southeastern Turkey, the United Nations said on Friday in a report that listed summary killings, torture, rape and widespread destruction of property among an array of human rights abuses.

The report, by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, details how operations by the Turkish infantry, artillery, tanks and possibly aircraft drove up to half a million people from their homes over a 17-month period from July 2015 to the end of 2016.

Though the report is focused on the conduct of security forces in southeastern Turkey, the 25-page document underscores the deepening alarm of the United Nations over the measures ordered by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, since a failed coup attempt last July.

The state of emergency Mr. Erdogan imposed after the coup attempt appeared to “target criticism, not terrorism,” Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said here on Tuesday. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. military aid is fueling big ambitions for Syria’s leftist Kurdish militia

The Washington Post reports: In a former high school classroom in this northeastern Syrian town, about 250 Arab recruits for the U.S.-backed war against the Islamic State were being prepped by Kurdish instructors to receive military training from American troops.

Most of the recruits were from villages surrounding the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa, and the expectation is that they will be deployed to the battle for the predominantly Arab city, which is now the main target of the U.S. military effort in Syria.

But first, said the instructors, the recruits must learn and embrace the ideology of Abdullah Ocalan, a Kurdish leader jailed in Turkey whose group is branded a terrorist organization both by Washington and Ankara.

The scene in the classroom captured some of the complexity of the U.S.-backed fight against the Islamic State in Syria, where a Kurdish movement that subscribes to an ideology at odds with stated U.S. policy has become America’s closest ally against the extremists.

The People’s Protection Units, or YPG, is the military wing of a political movement that has been governing northeastern Syria for the past 4 1 / 2 years, seeking to apply the Marxist-inspired visions of Ocalan to the majority Kurdish areas vacated by the Syrian government during the war.

Over the past two years, the YPG has forged an increasingly close relationship with the United States, steadily capturing land from the Islamic State with the help of U.S. airstrikes, military assistance and hundreds of U.S. military advisers. [Continue reading…]

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The Mosul Dam is failing

Dexter Filkins writes: On the morning of August 7, 2014, a team of fighters from the Islamic State, riding in pickup trucks and purloined American Humvees, swept out of the Iraqi village of Wana and headed for the Mosul Dam. Two months earlier, ISIS had captured Mosul, a city of nearly two million people, as part of a ruthless campaign to build a new caliphate in the Middle East. For an occupying force, the dam, twenty-five miles north of Mosul, was an appealing target: it regulates the flow of water to the city, and to millions of Iraqis who live along the Tigris. As the ISIS invaders approached, they could make out the dam’s four towers, standing over a wide, squat structure that looks like a brutalist mausoleum. Getting closer, they saw a retaining wall that spans the Tigris, rising three hundred and seventy feet from the riverbed and extending nearly two miles from embankment to embankment. Behind it, a reservoir eight miles long holds eleven billion cubic metres of water.

A group of Kurdish soldiers was stationed at the dam, and the ISIS fighters bombarded them from a distance and then moved in. When the battle was over, the area was nearly empty; most of the Iraqis who worked at the dam, a crew of nearly fifteen hundred, had fled. The fighters began to loot and destroy equipment. An ISIS propaganda video posted online shows a fighter carrying a flag across, and a man’s voice says, “The banner of unification flutters above the dam.”

The next day, Vice-President Joe Biden telephoned Masoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdish region, and urged him to retake the dam as quickly as possible. American officials feared that ISIS might try to blow it up, engulfing Mosul and a string of cities all the way to Baghdad in a colossal wave. Ten days later, after an intense struggle, Kurdish forces pushed out the isis fighters and took control of the dam.

But, in the months that followed, American officials inspected the dam and became concerned that it was on the brink of collapse. The problem wasn’t structural: the dam had been built to survive an aerial bombardment. (In fact, during the Gulf War, American jets bombed its generator, but the dam remained intact.) The problem, according to Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi-American civil engineer who has served as an adviser on the dam, is that “it’s just in the wrong place.” Completed in 1984, the dam sits on a foundation of soluble rock. To keep it stable, hundreds of employees have to work around the clock, pumping a cement mixture into the earth below. Without continuous maintenance, the rock beneath would wash away, causing the dam to sink and then break apart. But Iraq’s recent history has not been conducive to that kind of vigilance. [Continue reading…]

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Russia is drawing a weak and unstable Turkey into its orbit

Cengiz Candar writes: When a Turkish police officer assassinated Andrey G. Karlov, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, on Monday, it felt for a moment as if the whole world shook. The killing took place at a time of global uncertainty and reminded some observers of the start of World War I.

The truth, however, is that despite shaky relations between Russia and Turkey in recent years, the assassination is unlikely to lead to more tension between the countries. Indeed, it will probably push them even closer together, as Moscow realizes that this is a perfect opportunity to draw a weak and unstable Turkey into the Russian orbit.

Mr. Karlov’s assassination is not the first test for the Turkish-Russian relationship. The war in Syria, where Russia backs the government of President Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey has supported rebel groups, has also threatened to suck the two historical powers into confrontation.

In November 2015, the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian plane near the Syrian border, the first time a member of NATO is believed to have fired on a Russian plane in some 50 years. For weeks afterward, the two countries engaged in a war of words.

It never escalated, though, and in June, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey apologized to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir V. Putin, for the incident. Mr. Erdogan was rewarded the next month when, at least according to the story put forward by both governments, Mr. Putin was the first head of state to come to his defense after a failed coup attempt.

Since then, relations between the two countries have improved considerably. Turkey’s stability, on the other hand, has only deteriorated. [Continue reading…]

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Iraqi Kurdistan slides toward autocracy

Akbar Shahid Ahmed reports: Most mornings this August, Wedad Hussein Ali, a 28-year-old Kurdish journalist with a trim beard and a penchant for spiking his hair, would get up early to drive his big brother, Sardar, to work. The trip from Kora, their leafy, ancient village in Iraqi Kurdistan’s mountains, to Dohuk, the nearest big town, took 30 minutes.

On Aug. 13, they reached Sardar’s construction site at 9:15 a.m. He got out of the car as usual. Ali drove on.

Minutes later, two unmarked cars cut off Ali. Three men got out. One pointed a gun to the journalist’s head. The others tied his wrists and placed a hood over his head. As witnesses watched, the men loudly announced that they had official business with Ali. They placed him in one of their cars and drove away.

A few hours later, a police officer called Ali’s family to say his body was at a local morgue. It had been transferred there after police in a neighboring village found it dumped by the side of a road, the police contact said. Ali had been cut, beaten and bruised, showing signs, one doctor said, of having been hit by a long object like a bat or a baton. To the family, it looked like he had suffered third-degree burns and beatings with electric cables. His eyes appeared to have been torn out with knives.

There were plenty of groups that could have killed Ali. The vicious Islamic State group maintains sleeper cells across Iraq, including in Kurdistan; Dohuk is just an hour’s drive from Mosul, the chief ISIS hub in the country. Iran-backed Shiite militias have tortured and terrorized thousands of their fellow Iraqis over the past decade, focusing their attention on people who follow the rival Sunni branch of Islam — which most Kurds do. And Iraqi Kurdistan has long hosted an internationally condemned Kurdish movement called the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has issued harsh punishments, including executions, to Kurds who refuse to collaborate with it.

But Ali’s family doesn’t blame ISIS, Shiite militias or the PKK for his murder. They believe Iraqi Kurdistan’s U.S.-friendly leaders were responsible for his death.

Nine weeks after Ali’s murder, Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, held a triumphant press conference. The day before, 4,000 Iraqi Kurdish fighters had begun moving toward Mosul. Scores of American advisers boosted their ranks, and American B-1 and F-15 jets provided air support.

The Kurds’ advance was sold as a key sign that the U.S. had rallied its partners in Iraq and prepared them to push ISIS out of the country for good. Brett McGurk, the top American managing the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, wished the Kurds and others “Godspeed” on Twitter. “We are proud to stand with you,” he added.

Since the U.S. and Kurdistan first began major cooperation against ISIS in August 2014, Barzani, an iconic former militia man who has been close to winning Time’s Person of the Year award, has pushed the region ever closer to autocracy.

But the Obama administration and President-elect Donald Trump have largely ignored warning signs — including Ali’s death — that point to a dark future for Kurdistan.

Parliament has not functioned since last October, because Barzani banned its speaker, an opposition politician, from entering the capital. Thousands of refugees who have sought sanctuary in the region have seen their freedoms restricted. Kurdish authorities have meted out particularly harsh treatment to Sunni Arabs, mimicking the Iraqi policies that provoked Sunni dissatisfaction and enabled the initial rise of ISIS. U.S.-backed Kurdish forces have demolished the homes of Sunni Arabs in areas recaptured from ISIS. Kurdistan has subjected many of the Yazidis, the minority group whose genocide prompted U.S. action against ISIS, to painful shortages of food, water, fuel and medicine because of their affinity for the anti-Barzani PKK ― only strengthening the militant Kurdish group’s appeal. [Continue reading…]

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After ISIS, Iraq at risk of a new battle for disputed territory

The Washington Post reports: When the Kurdish peshmerga commander arrived in this town in northern Iraq last month, he knew he was there to stay.

Col. Nabi Ahmed Mohammed’s force of 300 fighters had been tasked with securing Bashiqa as part of the Iraqi military’s offensive against the Islamic State in the nearby city of Mosul. The town had been home to minority Yazidis who were forced to flee when the militants arrived in 2014.

When Kurdish troops pressed into the town, they faced sniper fire and attacks from militants in underground tunnels. At least eight peshmerga were killed.

Now, Mohammed’s men are making plans for a permanent presence in the bombed-out town, long claimed by both the Kurds as part of their semiautonomous region and by the central government in Baghdad. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. seeks to maintain fragile anti-ISIS alliance in Iraq

The Wall Street Journal reports: The Obama administration is trying to preserve the fragile alliance between the Kurdish fighters and Iraq’s military that has made significant battlefield gains against Islamic State in Mosul but is now threatened by a budget battle in Parliament and uncertainty over the policies of the incoming Trump administration.

Brett McGurk, President Barack Obama’s top envoy for the U.S.-led international coalition fighting Islamic State, on Monday made a rare visit to a military checkpoint near Mosul, the militants’ last major stronghold in Iraq. There he assured Kurdish fighters, called the Peshmerga, that the U.S. would continue to stand by them as long as they remain united with the Iraqi government against Islamic State.

“Without the cooperation of the Peshmerga [and] the Iraqi military…Daesh would be in Mosul forever,” Mr. McGurk told Kurdish officers, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

Mr. McGurk, a key official in the 68-nation alliance fighting Islamic State in Iraq and neighboring Syria, has been meeting with political and military leaders for several days. The visit comes as Mr. Obama’s presidency winds down and the fight grinds on to oust the Sunni Muslim extremist group from Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

Despite rapid gains since the operation was launched in October, fighting in the densely populated eastern portion of Mosul has become a bloody street-to-street undertaking, with the military and civilian death toll rising. Official casualty figures aren’t available, but Iraqi army commanders acknowledge that they are unusually high compared with previous battles to take Ramadi and Fallujah, which didn’t involve the same magnitude of urban warfare. [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports: The sand berms and trenches that snake across northern Iraq stretch toward Syria, some accompanied by newly paved roads lit by street lamps and sprawling checkpoints decked with Kurdish flags. The fighters here insist it isn’t the border of a newly independent state — but in the chaos of Iraq that could change.

Construction began in 2014, when this marked the front line between U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, and the Islamic State group, which had swept across northern Iraq that summer, routing the army and threatening the Kurdish autonomous region.

Since then, a more permanent boundary has taken shape as Kurdish aspirations for outright independence have grown. The frontier could mark the fault-line of a new conflict in Iraq once the extremists are defeated. A similar process is underway in Syria, where Syrian Kurdish forces have seized large swathes of land from IS.

“It was our front line, now it’s our border, and we will stay forever,” said peshmerga commander and business magnate Sirwan Barzani. He’s among a growing number of Kurdish leaders, including his uncle, the Kurdish region’s President Massoud Barzani, who say that lands taken from IS will remain in Kurdish hands. [Continue reading…]

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Amnesty slams lasting, forced displacement of Turkey’s Kurds

The Associated Press reports: Turkish authorities have forcibly evicted tens of thousands of people in security operations in a predominantly Kurdish district of southeast Turkey, a human rights group said Tuesday.

Amnesty International said in a new report that authorities have prevented their return by expropriating and demolishing homes in a policy that may amount to collective punishment.

Amnesty’s Europe Director, John Dalhuisen, said that “a year after a round-the-clock curfew was imposed in Sur, thousands of people remain displaced from their homes, struggling to make ends meet and facing an uncertain future in an increasingly repressive atmosphere.” [Continue reading…]

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