Fallujah: The Iraq victory that could lose the war

The Daily Beast reports: The Iraqi government, which has been shaken by weekly protests that charge its senior leadership with corruption, needed to win a military victory to try to salvage its political reputation. Thus was begun the Third Battle of Fallujah.

The city that had been the symbolic capital of Sunni resistance to American occupation and Shia domination has collapsed into a network of bombed-out homes, criss-crossing sand berms, and half-finished cement structures. Thousands of bullet casings, water bottles, and other discarded items litter the landscape. The Iraqi Security Forces have turned what remains of Fallujah, the City of Mosques, into an ash heap.

Last week, although scattered resistance by fighters from the so-called Islamic State continues in parts of the city, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi felt confident enough to declare Fallujah liberated on June 17 after the elite U.S.-trained soldiers of the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service (ICTS) recaptured a former government headquarters in the city center. [Continue reading…]

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Record 65 million displaced by global conflicts, UN says

flight-from-Aleppo

The New York Times reports: More people are on the run than ever before in recorded history, the United Nations said in a report released Monday.

They include those fleeing marauders in South Sudan, drug gangs in Central America, and the Islamic State in the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Falluja. While most are displaced within their own countries, an unprecedented number are seeking political asylum in the world’s rich countries. Nearly 100,000 are children who have attempted the journey alone.

All told, the number of people displaced by conflict is estimated to exceed 65 million, more than the population of Britain.

The new figures, part of the United Nations refugee agency’s Global Trends Report, come as hostility is surging toward migrants and refugees in the Western countries where they are seeking sanctuary and relief.

The European Union has shown signs of fracturing over how to handle the influx of people crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

The United Nations high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, expressed alarm on Sunday about what he described as a “climate of xenophobia that is very worrying in today’s Europe.” [Continue reading…]

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Why the Western-backed assault on ISIS in Iraq and Syria is failing

Shiraz Maher writes: The first signs of a Western-backed attempt to recapture Raqqa, ­Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria, came a fortnight ago when fighter jets dropped leaflets over the city telling residents to leave. “The time has come,” the warnings read, alongside an illustration of residents evacuating the city as incoming forces overran IS fighters.

Although up to half of Raqqa’s residents fled when IS first took control of the city in 2014, the militants have made it ­increasingly difficult for the people who stayed behind to leave. Following the US-led coalition’s warnings of an impending attack, however, the jihadis relaxed their restrictions on movement. Citizens were allowed to disperse into the nearby countryside. The idea was to spare them whatever onslaught was planned against Raqqa while keeping them within IS territory.

Ever since the latest offensive against IS began in Syria and Iraq in late May, it has become clear that the group will not concede territory easily around Raqqa – or elsewhere. It might lose small villages from time to time, but all of its major urban centres remain well fortified. Few observers expect them to fall any day soon. IS has too much invested in Raqqa, as well as Mosul in Iraq. Occupying the cities fuels the group’s prestige by projecting the impression of ­viable statehood and by allowing it to house fighters and military equipment. [Continue reading…]

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A war of brothers in Iraq: ‘I will kill him with my own hands’

The New York Times reports: In the days leading up to the storming of Falluja by Iraqi forces, Brig. Gen. Hadi Razaij, the leading Sunni police commander in the campaign, sat on a cot in an abandoned house near the front line. He described the resistance that lay ahead: a determined force of hundreds of jihadists that had months to prepare.

General Razaij’s presence on the battlefield shows that local Sunnis, and not just the Shiite forces that now dominate Iraqi politics, are fighting to liberate their own communities, and has helped tamp down fears that the battle for Falluja would heighten sectarian tensions.

He was dispassionate as he described the challenges, but for him the fight was personal, too. General Razaij’s brother stands accused of being a member of the Islamic State and is in a prison cell after being arrested at a checkpoint with a car full of explosives.

In northern Iraq, Nofal Hammadi, the governor-in-exile of Mosul, is working with the United States to plan for that city’s liberation from the Islamic State. He, too, has family in the fight: Mr. Hammadi’s brother is an Islamic State official, having appeared in a video pledging his allegiance to the terror group and disowning his brother.

Even as the central question of Iraq remains unanswered — whether the country’s Sunni minority and Shiite majority can ever peacefully coexist in a unified state — the experiences of General Razaij, Mr. Hammadi and others add a troubling corollary: It is not clear that Iraq’s divided Sunnis will ever be able to find peace among themselves after a conflict that in many ways is playing out as a war within families.

After all, when Iraqi Sunnis talk about fighting the Islamic State, it is not a discussion of some shadowy and unknowable force. It is about sons and brothers, nephews and neighbors. [Continue reading…]

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Washington’s war on ISIS is only making it stronger

Hassan Hassan writes: For the first time since U.S.-led coalition operations began two years ago, almost all of the group’s vital strongholds in Syria, Iraq, and Libya have come under serious pressure. In a recent statement, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the group’s spokesman, even alluded to the fact that followers should be prepared for losses, from Sirte to Mosul.

But while the group’s performance has hit an all-time low, its appeal does not seem to have diminished. CIA Director John Brennan recognizes this fact: “Despite all our progress against ISIL on the battlefield … our efforts have not reduced the group’s terrorism capability and global reach,” he told the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 16, using another term for the Islamic State. “[A]s the pressure mounts on ISIL, we judge that it will intensify its global terror campaign to maintain its dominance of the global terrorism agenda.”

Brennan also confirmed that the CIA had found no “direct link” between Omar Mateen, the gunman in Orlando, and the Islamic State. This is no surprise, as Mateen does not seem to fit familiar patterns of dogmatic support for the group. In the space of three years, he had supported Hezbollah, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State. His profile suggests that he belongs in the category of sympathizers who are only superficially influenced by the organization’s ideology, but who nonetheless can be inspired to carry out attacks in its name.

Such sympathizers are not driven by the Islamic State’s military successes, such as the takeover of Mosul in the summer of 2014. The group built its narrative around Sunni victimization, an idea that both predates its establishment of a caliphate and continues to exert a strong pull on many in the Middle East. The Islamic State has also tapped into the rampant political stagnation and popular grievances to gain popular support beyond the number of people who actually joined its ranks.

Consider, for example, the ongoing offensives against the Islamic State in Fallujah, Raqqa, and Manbij. While Washington insists the onslaughts include forces that represent the Sunni Arab communities that dominate the three cities, the prominence of Iranian-backed sectarian militias and Kurdish groups has triggered outrage in groups that are otherwise hostile to the Islamic State.

Two examples stand out. As the People’s Protection Units advanced on Raqqa, the activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently warned that civilians in the city were drifting toward the Islamic State due to their hatred for the Kurdish group. Meanwhile, Arabic media like al-Arabiya and al-Hayat — which last year described the offensive on the Islamic State-held city of Tikrit as a “liberation” — called the war on Fallujah a sectarian conflict, led by Iranian spymaster Qassem Suleimani.

Many observers throughout the region see Washington turning its back on Sunni civilians in order to cozy up to Tehran and Moscow. Reports in Arabic media have accused the United States of deliberately backing a sectarian war against Sunnis. This narrative invokes old patterns that could again help the Islamic State convert territorial losses into legitimacy among certain segments of the Sunni world. [Continue reading…]

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The torturers taking on ISIS in Fallujah

The Daily Beast reports: Twenty-three days after the Iraqi security forces started a major operation aiming to retake besieged Fallujah, the forces are still fighting to control the first neighborhood of the Anbar city.

Much of the murkiness surrounding the battle to expel ISIS from Fallujah, which lies 64 kilometers to the west of Baghdad and has long been a cynosure of the Sunni insurgency, has to do with who, exactly, is doing the fighting. And that’s a question that touches on Iraq’s ever-parlous sectarianism.

The United States insists that Shia militias, many of whom are avowedly Islamist and fighting for their own version of holy war, must not enter Fallujah and should instead confine their activities to the outskirts or suburbs of the city. The Pentagon has been providing air cover only on the south and western fronts where professional counterterrorism forces, the Iraqi army units, Sunni tribal forces and local police have operated. The northern front, where the militias and Iraq’s Federal Police are located, have seen no U.S. air strikes.

Perhaps for that reason, the south has seen more progress. Al-Shuhada, a neighborhood at the southern doorstep of Fallujah, is still contested with fierce clashes between Iraqi Security Forces and ISIS jihadists. Although earlier statements by Iraqi commanders were claiming they have completely controlled al-Shuhada neighborhood, Sabah Numan, spokesperson of elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), told The Daily Beast, “We are currently in the first al-Shuhada neighborhood and we have been able to liberate 90 percent of it.”

Yet recent violations against Sunni civilians fleeing ISIS’s captivity in the north have complicated efforts to press on.

According to an official investigation carried out by the Anbar governorate, at least 49 people have been killed by Shia militias in two towns: Saqlawiyah, 8 kilometers northwest of Fallujah, and Al-Karmah, 16 kilometers northeast of the city. Additionally, 643 men have been declared missing between June 3 and June 5. The investigation records that have been signed by Sohaib al-Rawi, the governor of Anbar province, also state that “all detainees have been subject to severe collective torture.” Iraq’s Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi tweeted, “Harassment of IDPs is a betrayal of the sacrifices of our brave forces’ liberation operations to expel Daesh [ISIS] from Iraq.” [Continue reading…]

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The hell after ISIS

Anand Gopal writes: Falah sabar heard a knock at the door. It was just before midnight in western Baghdad last April and Falah was already in bed, so he sent his son Wissam to answer. Standing in the doorway was a tall young man in jeans who neither shook Wissam’s hand nor offered a greeting. “We don’t want you here,” he said. “Your family should be gone by noon tomorrow.” For weeks, Wissam, who was 23, had been expecting something like this, as he’d noticed a dark mood taking hold of the neighborhood. He went to get his father, but when they returned, the stranger was gone.

Falah is tall and broad-shouldered, with salt-and-pepper hair. At 48, he was the patriarch of a brood of sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren. He sat down with Wissam to talk things through. They had been in Baghdad for just three months, but that was long enough for the abiding principle of refugee life to imprint itself on Falah’s psyche: Avoid trouble. When Wissam had managed to find a job at a construction firm, Falah had told him to be courteous, not to mix with strangers, and not to ask too many questions. If providence had granted them a new life in this unfamiliar city, it could snatch that life away just as easily.

Six months earlier, isis had seized their village, in Anbar province, the Sunni heartland of Iraq, blowing up houses and executing civilians as they fled. A few hundred families had managed to escape and were now scattered across Iraq. Many had wound up in squalid refugee camps near the front lines. The Sabars considered themselves lucky to have landed in Baghdad, a city solidly under the control of anti-ISIS forces. [Continue reading…]

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A desperate woman’s email from Iraq reveals the high toll of Obama’s low-cost wars

The Washington Post reports: On small video screens inside their cockpits, the U.S. pilots spotted their target, an Islamic State checkpoint just south of the Iraqi city of Mosul.

In grainy black and white, they could see the enemy manning the barricades and a guard shack. As they prepared to launch their attack, the pilots noticed a potential complication: Two cars approached the checkpoint and stopped. The drivers appeared to be talking with Islamic State fighters.

Other cars moved through the checkpoint, but these two vehicles remained on the side of the road. Five minutes passed. Then 10. Nearly 40 minutes had gone by and the two vehicles still had not moved.

Running low on fuel and time, the pilots concluded that the people in the cars were allied with the militants and asked for permission to strike. After a brief discussion with their headquarters in Qatar, they got their reply: “You’re cleared to execute.”

This was one version of what war had become in the last years of the Obama administration: The pilots made two strafing runs over the checkpoint, their machine guns cutting through the two cars. Then they unleashed a 500-pound satellite-guided bomb that engulfed the area in dust, fire and deadly shrapnel.

As they returned to their base, the pilots offered an in-flight assessment of their mission: guard shack flattened, two vehicles destroyed and four enemy fighters dead. “There are no apparent civilian or other collateral concerns,” their report concluded.

The first sign that they had made a horrible mistake came in the form of an email, sent two weeks after the March 2015 airstrike, to an Iraqi citizen working at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

“I am Raja’a Zidan al-Ekabee . . . ” the email began. [Continue reading…]

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Can victories against ISIS last without support of Sunnis?

Yaroslav Trofimov writes: Two years after Islamic State launched its blitzkrieg on Iraq, exploiting Sunni Arab grievances there and in neighboring Syria, the militant group is steadily losing ground in both countries.

But, instead of local Sunnis reclaiming their lands, forces dominated by other communities — Iraq’s Shiite militias, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, and the Alawite-run Syrian regime — are inflicting these defeats.

On the only occasion where Sunni Arab rebels attempted a major offensive against Islamic State in recent months, in Syria’s northern Aleppo countryside along Turkey’s border, it ended in a rout and a further loss of territory — partially reversed this week — to the self-proclaimed caliphate.

All of this raises a question: How meaningful are the recent victories if the root cause behind the emergence of Islamic State remains, and as more Sunni towns such as Fallujah become devastated by the fighting?

Fallujah seemed largely pacified following the campaign against al Qaeda in Iraq a decade ago — only to succumb to Sunni Islamist extremists again as the Shiite-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad turned to sectarian repression.

“We could be looking at a Groundhog Day scenario,” warns Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank close to the Democrats. “The campaign seems to be going well militarily, but it may have extreme costs in the long run. The biggest risk is the re-emergence of radicalism in a few short months, or year or two.”

So far, the few areas repopulated by Sunni Arabs, such as the city of Tikrit, have remained largely peaceful — in part because they are still garrisoned by Shiite militias, with relatives of suspected Islamic State members banned from returning. As more towns become liberated in Iraq and Syria, however, exercising that kind of control will be harder.

A backlash in those areas against victorious Shiites or Kurds would allow Islamic State to keep recruiting new fighters and bombers for a renewed insurgency, warns Robert Ford, a scholar at the Middle East Institute who served as U.S. ambassador in Syria and deputy envoy in Iraq.

“If that happens, the fight against Islamic State doesn’t end, it just morphs into a different kind of battle — and the terrorist threat to the West doesn’t go away,” he says. [Continue reading…]

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Global violence worsens, driven by Middle East conflicts

Reuters reports: The world has become increasingly violent with deaths from conflict at a 25-year high, terrorist attacks at an all-time high and more people displaced than at any time since World War Two, the 2016 Global Peace Index showed on Wednesday.

The annual index, which measures 23 indicators including incidents of violent crime, countries’ levels of militarisation and weapons imports, said intensifying conflicts in the Middle East were mostly to blame.

But beyond the Middle East, the world was actually becoming more peaceful, researchers behind the index said.

“Quite often, in the mayhem which is happening in the Middle East currently, we lose sight of the other positive trends,” said Steve Killelea, founder of the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), which produces the index.

“If we look in the last year, if we took out the Middle East … the world would have become more peaceful,” Killelea told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. [Continue reading…]

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Will Fallujah put an end to ISIS in Iraq?

Al Jazeera reports: As the Iraqi army, backed by a coalition of militias and forces, makes slow advances toward Fallujah, one of the most circulating theories suggests that if the Islamic State group (Daesh) (ISIL, also known as ISIS) loses Fallujah to the army, then it is finished off in Iraq.

Al Jazeera talks to Iraqi scholar, Zaid al-Ali, author of the book The Struggle for Iraq’s Future, on why the battle for Fallujah matters in the larger context of the war on Daesh in Iraq, the human rights abuses committed by the militias accompanying the Iraq army and best approach to end Daesh’s rule of terror in the country. [Continue reading…]

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Iraqis who flee fighting in Falluja find hardship and hunger

The New York Times reports: Out of security concerns, the Baghdad government, which is Shiite-led, has long restricted the movement of people between the capital and Sunni-dominated Anbar, almost as if the two areas were separate countries. For some agencies, it can be difficult and time-consuming to receive permission from the Iraqi government to travel across the bridge and deliver aid.

In some instances, aid agencies have turned to a powerful Shiite militia, Kataib Hezbollah, which is controlled by Iran and in charge of an important checkpoint in Anbar, to get aid to the displaced.

Also, as the offensive for Falluja unfolded, the Iraqi authorities were eager to facilitate access for journalists to the front lines, but have not allowed them to travel to areas to see displaced civilians.

It was only because of an invitation to join a local aid agency’s convoy on Sunday that a reporting team from The New York Times was able to visit the camps for civilians fleeing the violence around Falluja.

The government-controlled areas of western Anbar Province, a Sunni-dominated region that has been a heartland for the Islamic State, have become vast wastelands of human suffering.

Bare-bones tent cities are sprouting up all over, providing little more than basic shelter and some, but not nearly enough, food, water and medicine. The heat is terrible, always well above 100 Fahrenheit during the day, and most tents do not have fans or the electricity to run them.

When Iraqi forces reached his town of Saqlawiya, north of Falluja, last week, Hatem Shukur waved a white flag to catch their attention. In an interview, he said he and his family had been given cold water, watermelon, apples and bananas — delights after months of being under siege.

“But now we are facing another problem,” Mr. Shukur, 58, said. “Can you imagine your family living here in this heat?”

He waved his arm around the space where he and his family live, a small square of concrete floor, a metal frame and plastic sheeting for walls. On the floor, lying on a blanket, was his 8-month-old granddaughter, Rawan, flies buzzing around her as she slept.

Aid workers expressed frustration at their inability to meet the basic needs of civilians caught up in the war — there is not even enough fresh drinking water in the camps, officials said. There is always this question: Why is there always so much more money for military operations than for water and food for the civilians uprooted by them? [Continue reading…]

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Iraq on the path to disintegration

Michael Weiss writes: A fortnight before the battle got underway in Iraq to retake the city of Fallujah from the so-called Islamic State, I sat down with a native son of that restive town, Sheikh Khamis al-Khanjar. He was once a central power broker in Iraq’s political system and is now an exile with, it would seem, many millions of dollars at his disposal to try and buy his way back in.

As we talked in the lounge of the Radisson Blu Hotel in Tallinn, Estonia, where we were both attending the annual Lennart Meri Conference, Khanjar touched on the core problem bedeviling Iraq, of which ISIS is only one manifestation. The United States, he believes, is almost autistically focused on the issue of Sunni jihadism at the expense of broader social cohesion and geopolitics, particularly Tehran’s meddling in the affairs of its next-door neighbor. The very integrity of the modern nation-state a Western superpower tried hubristically to reinvent in Mesopotamia 13 long years ago is now in mortal jeopardy.

“Instead of saying, ‘We need to keep Iraq united,” Khanjar said, echoing a favored American talking point, “we must admit that Iraq is no longer united and ask what can we do to bring it back together. Iraq is on the path to disintegration.”

“Again today, we are repeating the mistake of betting completely on one person: Abadi,” Khanjar said. He was referring to Iraq’s prime minister, a Haider al-Abadi, a U.S. ally who has faced popular revolt against his dysfunctional government and seems ever less in control over Iraq’s security apparatus. [Continue reading…]

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Deadly hatred fractures anti-ISIS alliance in Iraq

Christoph Reuter reports: For over a year, the US has been pushing for the launch of an offensive on IS-held Mosul and has been bombing the city almost daily. But despite repeated announcements that an attack was imminent, very little has happened on the ground aside from the recapture of a handful of surrounding towns and villages. Nevertheless, Iraqi commanders have already made competing claims on the expected spoils.

“Nothing and nobody will stop us from marching into Mosul,” says Hadi al-Ameri, the top commander of a conglomerate of Shiite militias that are officially called the Popular Mobilization Units but which are widely known as Hashd.

“All areas of Mosul east of the Tigris belong to Kurdistan,” counters Brigadier Halgord Hikmat, spokesman of the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, which controls the Kurdish fighting force. “We aren’t demanding any more than that, and the river is a clear border.”

What’s more, the Sunni ex-governor of Mosul — together with several thousand fighters and the support of 1,200 Turkish troops whose presence in Iraq is tolerated by the Kurds — is planning to invade the city from the north. Under Sunni leadership.

The government in Baghdad, under the leadership of the respectable yet weak Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, has mostly stayed out of it — despite the fact that the Iraqi army would seem best positioned to prevent a fight among the allies over the spoils of Mosul. But Abadi has been fighting for political survival ever since followers of the Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr stormed the government quarter in Baghdad a short time ago, the second such incident in a month. Instead of recapturing Mosul, once Iraq’s second-largest city, the military has now been tasked with first liberating Fallujah, the much smaller IS stronghold west of Baghdad.

Right in the middle, located at the halfway point between Baghdad and Mosul, is Tuz Khurmatu — the harbinger of Iraq’s future. It is a place where those groups fighting together to defeat IS are killing each other away from the front lines. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. falters in campaign to revive Iraqi army, officials say

Reuters reports: A 17-month U.S. effort to retrain and reunify Iraq’s regular army has failed to create a large number of effective Iraqi combat units or limit the power of sectarian militias, according to current and former U.S. military and civilian officials.

Concern about the shortcomings of the American attempt to strengthen the Iraqi military comes as Iraqi government forces and Shi’ite militias have launched an offensive to retake the city of Falluja from Islamic State. Aid groups fear the campaign could spark a humanitarian catastrophe, as an estimated 50,000 Sunni civilians remain trapped in the besieged town.

The continued weakness of regular Iraqi army units and reliance on Shi’ite militias, current and former U.S. military officials said, could impede Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s broader effort to defeat Islamic State and win the long-term support of Iraqi Sunnis. The sectarian divide between the majority Shi’ite and minority Sunni communities threatens to split the country for good. [Continue reading…]

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