Meeting ISIS fighters: Its young men were lost souls coerced or duped into service

Sebastian Meyer writes: As a journalist based in northern Iraq for the past six years, I’ve seen the war with the Islamic State closer than I’d like. In the summer of 2014, my best friend, a man I’d come to love and respect during my time reporting here, was taken prisoner by the militants. We were more like brothers than friends, and I haven’t heard from him since.

I was filming about 180 miles away on the evening he disappeared. I drove through the night to join a group of his friends and family in a rescue effort. While the militants stormed west across Iraq, we worked exhaustively to find him. (I can’t say more about him, because doing so could put him in further danger.) We were driven by rage and desperation.

Months later, Diji Terror, a Kurdish counterterrorism unit based in Sulaymaniyah, granted my request to interview an ISIS fighter I’d heard they had captured. Finally, a small chance to press the Islamic State for answers about its tactics. A chance for some catharsis.

Ali was seized during a nighttime raid caught on film: In the footage officials showed me, Diji troops handcuffed, blindfolded and bundled him off on a helicopter. Ali had beheaded prisoners, they told me; I couldn’t help but think of my friend.

When I met him, Ali wore an orange jumpsuit and plastic sandals. [Continue reading…]


Pentagon won’t say how many troops are fighting ISIS

The Daily Beast reports: In the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, there are two ways to count the number of U.S. boots on the ground. There’s the one that officials admit to. Then there’s the ground truth.

Officially, there are now 3,650 U.S. troops in Iraq, there primarily to help train the Iraqi national army.

But in reality, there are already about 4,450 U.S. troops in Iraq, plus another nearly 7,000 contractors supporting the American government’s operations. That includes almost 1,100 U.S. citizens working as military contractors, according to the latest Defense Department statistics. [Continue reading…]


The U.S. is killing more civilians in Iraq and Syria than it acknowledges

Paul Wood and Richard Hall report: Al Gharra is a mud-brick village built on hard, flat Syrian desert and populated by the descendants of Bedouin. It is a desolate place. Everything is dun colored: the bare, single-story houses and the stony desert they stand on. There is not much farming — it is too dry — just a few patches of cotton and tobacco.

Before the war, villagers got a little money from the government to look after the national park on Mount Abdul-Aziz, a barren rock that rises 3,000 feet behind the village and stretches miles into the distance. Mount Abdul-Aziz is named after a lieutenant of the 12th-Century Muslim warrior Saladin, who built a fort to dominate the plain below. There is a military base there today too, which changes hands according to the fortunes of Syria’s civil war. In 2011, the regime of Bashar al-Assad held the base; next it was the rebels of the Free Syrian Army; then the so-called “Islamic State” (IS); and finally the Kurds, who advanced and took the mountain last May under the cover of American warplanes.

Abdul-Aziz al Hassan is from al Gharra, his first name the same as the mountain’s. He left the village while the Islamic State was in charge, but it is because of a bomb from an American plane that he cannot go back. What happened to his family is the story of just one bomb of the 35,000 dropped so far during 10,000 missions flown in the US-led air war against the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]


From Iraq, general rebukes Ted Cruz’s plan to ‘carpet-bomb’ ISIS

The Washington Post reports: The top U.S. general in Iraq on Monday addressed recent political rhetoric in the presidential campaign that the United States should “carpet-bomb” the Islamic State, saying that the Pentagon is bound by the laws of armed conflict and does nt indiscriminately bomb civilian areas.

“We’re the United States of America, and we have a set of guiding principles and those affect the way we as professional soldiers, airmen, sailors, Marines, conduct ourselves on the battlefield,” MacFarland said. “So indiscriminate bombing, where we don’t care if we’re killing innocents or combatants, is just inconsistent with our values. And it’s what the Russians have been accused of doing in parts of northwest Syria. Right now we have the moral high ground, and I think that’s where we need to stay.”

The comments came in response to a question from CNN’s Barbara Starr during a Pentagon news conference. The general was asked why the military isn’t engaged in “so-called carpet-bombing,” a phrase that has been used often by presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R.-Tex.). [Continue reading…]


Trapped by ISIS, Iraqis in Fallujah say they are going hungry, too

The Washington Post reports: As Iraqi security forces choke off Islamic State fighters in the militant-held city of Fallujah, civilians inside say they are trapped and struggling to survive.

The military siege, which has tightened in the past two months, is preventing food and medical supplies from reaching the city 40 miles west of Baghdad, while the Islamic State won’t let families leave.

The United Nations says it is “deeply worried” about the deteriorating humanitarian situation and unverified reports of deaths from a lack of food and basic medicine.

Between 30,000 and 60,000 people are estimated to remain in the city, which has been under Islamic State control for more than two years. Their worsening plight comes amid an international outcry over starvation in the besieged Syrian town of Madaya — a disaster residents and officials from Fallujah say they fear could also unfold there if civilians aren’t evacuated. [Continue reading…]


The rise of the paramilitary Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq

Renad Mansour writes: Many of Iraq’s Shia are taking up arms to fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State. However, rather than enlisting with the Iraqi military via the Ministry of Defense (MOD), they are opting to join paramilitary groups under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF or al-Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic), which has become the single largest ground force combating Islamic State fighters in Iraq. Despite Human Rights Watch’s accusation that some groups under the umbrella, such as the Badr Brigades, League of the Righteous (Asaib ahl al-Haq), and Imam Ali Battalions are carrying out widespread and systematic human rights violations, the PMF has maintained its popularity and legitimacy among the Shia base. A recently published poll showed that 99 percent of Iraqi Shia support the PMF in its fight against the Islamic State.

As a consequence, the number of recruits rushing to enlist with the PMF is substantial. According to various claims from well-informed sources in Baghdad, more than 75 percent of men ages 18 to30 residing in the Shia provinces have signed up. Although most of these recruits are reservists who will not fight, the mere volume is indicative of the PMF’s support in that region.

The sheer extent of such numbers would typically indicate some form of conscription. However, there is no such formal mandatory recruitment in place. The PMF is merely guided by Ayatollah Sistani’s al-wajib al-kifai fatwa, which itself very carefully restricts recruitment to only as many as needed to combat the threat posed by the Islamic State. Yet, a PMF administrator in Najaf told the author that more than enough recruits have joined. They are having no trouble attracting members who come from a diverse set of social classes and geographic regions. According to him, the only distinguishable group that is not joining is university students. [Continue reading…]


Battered by war, Iraq now faces calamity from dropping oil prices

The New York Times reports: Iraqis seeking to withdraw money from banks are told there is not enough cash. Hospitals in Baghdad are falling back to the deprivation of the 1990s sanctions era, resterilizing, over and over, needles and other medical products meant for one-time use.

In the autonomous Kurdish region in the north, the economic crisis is even worse: government workers — and the pesh merga fighters who are battling the Islamic State — have not been paid in months. Already, there have been strikes and protests that have turned violent.

These scenes present a portrait of a country in the midst of an expensive war against the Islamic State that is now facing economic calamity brought on by the collapse in the price of oil, which accounts for more than 90 percent of the Iraqi government’s revenue.

Analysts and officials, though, say much tougher economic times are ahead, even as they insist the war will be largely unaffected because of help from foreign powers determined to defeat the Islamic State. The United States, for instance, recently extended new loans to Iraq to buy weapons, and other countries are stepping up with donations of arms and ammunition. [Continue reading…]


Iraq: Possible war crimes by Shia militia

Human Rights Watch: Members of Shia militias, who the Iraqi government has included among its state forces, abducted and killed scores of Sunni residents in a central Iraq town and demolished Sunni homes, stores, and mosques following January 11, 2016 bombings claimed by the extremist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS. None of those responsible have been brought to justice.

Two consecutive bombings at a café in the town of Muqdadiya, in Diyala province, some 130 kilometers north of Baghdad, on January 11, killed at least 26 people, many of them Sunnis, according to a teacher who lives near the café. ISIS claimed the attacks, saying it had targeted local Shia militias, collectively known as Popular Mobilization Forces, which are formally under the command of the prime minister. Members of two of the dominant militias in Muqdadiya, the Badr Brigades and the League of Righteous forces, responded by attacking Sunnis as well as their homes and mosques, killing at least a dozen people and perhaps many more, according to local residents.

“Again civilians are paying the price for Iraq’s failure to rein in the out-of-control militias,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Countries that support Iraqi security forces and the Popular Mobilization Forces should insist that Baghdad bring an end to this deadly abuse.” [Continue reading…]


Danish migration law: A sign of things to come?


Iraqis freed from ISIS’s rule now threatened by ethnic and sectarian ‘cleansing’

Aida al-Khatib reports: Thanks to the security crisis caused by the extremist group known as the Islamic State, the demographics of the province of Diyala are changing. The extremist group has been driven out of certain parts of the province and some of these are now controlled by Iraq’s sometimes-controversial Shiite Muslim volunteer militias while others are run by the Iraqi Kurdish military.

“Demographic changes have become a reality here,” says Raad al-Dahlaki, a Sunni Muslim MP and head of the Iraqi Parliament’s Committee on Immigration and Displacement. “There are many areas where security is extremely lax and there are violations of the law that should not be tolerated. For example certain areas have been shelled deliberately and it’s causing the mass displacement of [mostly Sunni] families.”

Al-Dahlaki believes the perpetrators of these acts are “militant gangs that pretend to be part of the volunteer militias but who are actually carrying out agendas set by foreigners”. And by this he means neighbouring Iran – many of the Shiite militias are funded or otherwise supported by the Iranian military.

“These gangs want to sow discord and change the demography of the province,” al-Dakhali argues.

Al-Dakhali believes the federal government should be doing more to stop the targeting of civilians by military groups, including the Shiite Muslim volunteers and Iraqi Kurdish troops. [Continue reading…]


As U.S. expands military operations in Iraq and Syria it is withholding detailed information about civilian casualties

The Washington Post reports: As the U.S. military prepares to expand its operations against the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria, it has altered how and when it discloses sensitive information about when it kills civilians with airstrikes.

In recent days, U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East from its headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., announced the results of investigations into 10 airstrikes “alleged to have resulted in civilian casualties and determined to be credible.” The first five were announced Jan. 15, and the second five were disclosed a week later. In each case, military officials released just a sentence or two of information.

The recent disclosures varied from earlier cases of civilian casualties because the military did not release documents detailing what happened in the incidents. Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, a Central Command spokesman, said that was by design. [Continue reading…]


America shouldn’t remain indifferent to the crisis in Europe

Natalie Nougayrède writes: In 1947 George Marshall, the US secretary of state, went to Europe. He was shocked by what he saw: a continent in ruins, and rampant hunger. The mood in Paris, Berlin and other capitals was resigned and doom-laden. On returning to Washington, Marshall told President Truman that something dramatic needed to be done – and very soon. The initiative would have to come from Washington, he said.

On 5 June, in a speech to students at Harvard, Marshall announced his European recovery programme. It became, in the words of the British politician Ernest Bevin, “a lifeline to sinking men”. The Marshall plan not only helped Europe back on its feet, it laid the groundwork for the cooperation that ultimately led to the creation of the European Economic Community, the European Union’s predecessor.

In Davos this week Joe Biden, the US vice-president, may well have had a shock similar to Marshall’s. Of course today’s gloom in Europe is not comparable to the devastation left by the second world war – but alarmist language is being heard all the same. Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, has spoken of a risk of European “dislocation”. “Europe has forgotten that history is fundamentally tragic,” he said. Joachim Gauck, the German president, also used the word “tragic” when describing Europe’s difficulties over the refugee crisis.

Europe today is in such a shambles that it is not absurd to ask whether the US should again do something about it, or whether the old continent even matters to American strategic interests any more. The answer to both questions should be a resounding “yes”.

It is obviously unrealistic to think the US is likely to repeat the kind of assistance it deployed in 1947. But the US urgently needs to seriously re-engage on European matters. Failing that, it risks seeing the European project unravel, with more disorder pouring into and across the continent and, ultimately, the loss of key allies.

Europe is currently struggling with the danger of Brexit and major security threats (which include terrorism, and Russian aggression), as well as the political fallout of the refugee crisis. It’s not that US action in itself would miraculously solve all these problems, but its aloofness has arguably contributed to making them worse. [Continue reading…]

Update in response to comments: Natalie Nougayrède’s reference to the Marshall Plan seems to have led readers to conclude the lifeline she’s calling for is financial. After all, that’s what foreigners always do, isn’t it: beg for money from the U.S.!

Actually, her first appeal is for Obama to be forthright in making it clear that the U.S. has a strong interest in Britain remaining in the EU. The British naively and nostalgically cling on to the UK’s (one-sided) “special relationship” with the U.S.. A wake up call from Washington might alienate a few people, but I think they’d be outnumbered by those who recognized that this kind of counsel was well-intentioned and realistic. Moreover, departure from the EU would have much larger repercussions than diminishing the value of U.S.-UK relations. It may well lead to the rapid breakup of the UK as Scotland seeks swift independence so that it can remain in the EU.

How much would this piece of political engagement cost the U.S.? Nothing.

Second, she calls for “more US political leverage” in supporting a common European defense policy. Cost? Nothing.

Third, “the US cannot continue to treat the refugee crisis destabilising Europe as if it were a far-flung problem that doesn’t affect its direct interests. Around 4.5 million refugees have fled the Syrian civil war. The US has taken just 2,600.”

Refugees are not only fleeing from Syria but also Iraq and Afghanistan (and many other countries).

Instability across the Middle East cannot be attributed solely to American meddling and yet in the last two decades there was no single action that had a more destabilizing effect than the decision to invade Iraq.

Americans who supported the war and many of those who opposed it are now apparently unified in believing that, like a hit-and-run driver, the best course of action is to flee the scene of the crime.

Certainly, those who argue that America’s military interventions invariably seem misguided have plenty of evidence to support their argument.

But when it comes to the issue of helping Europe handle the refugee crisis, the primary impediment in the U.S. is not financial; it’s Islamophobic cowardice.

After the United States had finished carpet-bombing Vietnam and dousing its jungles with Agent Orange and the war’s failure had become undeniable, part of the aftermath of that unconscionable and delusional intervention was that there was sufficient decency in the U.S. to accept what eventually amounted to 1.3 million refugees settling here.

For the U.S. to now step up and welcome tens or even hundreds of thousands more refugees from the Middle East is not to make some unreasonable demand on American generosity. It’s part of paying the price of war.

It’s one thing to argue in advance against meddling in the affairs of other countries and on that basis to promote a relatively benign insularity, but when the meddling has been rampant and long-running, then insularity is just another name for irresponsibility. The United States doesn’t have the option of becoming Switzerland.

Having said that, Nougayrède’s appeal here is less blaming and by no means strident: it is for the U.S. to recognize that it really does have a stake in Europe’s future and it should not remain a mute bystander watching the European project fall apart.

Is that too much to ask?


In plain sight a weapon of mass destruction threatens Iraq


National Interest reports: A lethal threat sits in Iraq right now, one that could kill hundreds of thousands of civilians with little notice. The weapon briefly fell into the jihadis’ hands last summer, and still poses a destructive risk to much of the country.

The 750-megawatt Mosul Dam is the country’s largest, and one of the most productive in the Middle East. But its proximity to Mosul, ISIS’s biggest Iraqi city, has caused nightmares in both Baghdad and Washington.

Built during the Saddam era on a weak foundation of gypsum, the dam requires continuous maintenance and reinforcement with fresh concrete. Without these efforts, some ten billion tons of water threaten to sweep down the Tigris, flooding towns and villages hundreds of miles downriver. Baghdad could see flooding of more than fifteen feet, according to one report. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study in 2006 called it “the most dangerous dam in the world” and estimates of the potential civilian death toll reach as many as half a million. [Continue reading…]


French PM Manuel Valls says refugee crisis is ‘destabilising’ Europe


The Guardian reports: The French prime minister, Manuel Valls, has said Europe cannot take in all the refugees fleeing wars in Iraq and Syria and that the crisis was putting the concept of Europe itself in grave danger.

Speaking to the BBC at the economic forum in Davos, Valls said Europe needed to take urgent action to control its external borders. “Otherwise,” he said, “our societies will be totally destabilised.”

Asked about border controls inside Europe, which many fear put the passport-free Schengen zone at risk, Valls said the concept of Europe was in jeopardy. “If Europe is not capable of protecting its own borders, it’s the very idea of Europe that will be questioned,” he said.

He said a message to refugees that says “Come, you will be welcome”, provoked major shifts in population. “Today, when we speak in Europe, a few seconds later it is mainly on the smartphones in the refugee camps,” Valls said.

The large numbers of refugees in Europe has been a persistent theme of the Davos summit. The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, on Thursday said Europe was close to breaking point and needed to come up with a common response or run the risk that one of the European Union’s founding principles would start to unravel. [Continue reading…]


Iraqi Kurdistan president: Time has come to redraw Middle East boundaries

The Guardian reports: The president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish north has called on global leaders to acknowledge that the Sykes-Picot pact that led to the boundaries of the modern Middle East has failed, and urged them to broker a new deal paving the way for a Kurdish state.

Massoud Barzani, who has led the troubled country’s Kurds for the past decade, said the international community had started to accept that Iraq and Syria in particular would never again be unified and that “compulsory co-existence” in the region had been proven wrong.

“I think that within themselves, [world leaders] have come to this conclusion that the era of Sykes-Picot is over,” Barzani told the Guardian. “Whether they say it or not, accept it or not, the reality on the ground is that. But as you know, diplomats are conservatives and they give their assessment in the late stages of things. And sometimes they can’t even keep up with developments.”

The political map of northern Iraq has changed drastically in the 18 months since Islamic State overran Iraq’s second city, Mosul. Kurdish forces are now in full control of Kirkuk and Sinjar and have claimed control of thousands more miles of land that had been under control of Iraq’s central government. [Continue reading…]