U.S. expects up to 700,000 people to be displaced in the fight to drive ISIS from Mosul

The Wall Street Journal reports: The U.S. expects up to 700,000 people to be displaced in the fight to drive Islamic State from Mosul and has positioned stocks of food and supplies on the outskirts of Iraq’s second-largest city, senior administration officials said Monday.

Underscoring concerns about humanitarian fallout from the battle, Iraqi troops discovered what could be a mass grave some 30 miles southeast of Mosul, according to Iraqi Lt. Gen. Abdulamir Yarallah, commander of the Nineveh liberation operation, where he said 100 decapitated bodies were found at an agriculture school in the town of Hamam al-Alil.

He provided few details but said Iraqi officials will be sending specialized teams to investigate. Mosul is located in Nineveh Province.

Displaced people continued to flow Monday to camps miles away from the front lines of Mosul, with approximately 33,000 fleeing the city since the campaign began about three weeks ago, according to Iraqi and U.S. government tallies. The figure is lower than the U.S. initially expected, a senior administration official said, while warning much of the heavy fighting is still ahead. [Continue reading…]


Civilian casualties are starting to rise as Iraqi forces push into Mosul

The Washington Post reports: The vehicles screeched into the small field hospital on the outskirts of Mosul carrying desperate loads: soldiers injured in battle as well as men, women and children caught in the crossfire of Iraq’s war against the Islamic State.

Some staggered out clutching bleeding wounds; others were lifted by medics onto stretchers. They had come face-to-face with chlorine gas, mortar fire, bombs and artillery shells.

For a few, it was too late, and instead of a stretcher, a body bag waited.

The medical station, manned by medics from Iraq’s special forces alongside U.S. and Serbian volunteers, provides a small window onto the inevitable human toll of the battle to oust the Islamic State from Mosul as the war pushes deeper into the city. [Continue reading…]


On the front lines inside Mosul


CNN reports: For more than 28 hours, CNN senior international correspondent Arwa Damon and photojournalist Brice Laine were with Iraqi special forces during their push into ISIS-held Mosul. It was a new phase of the liberation operation — switching from villages and open terrain to a dense city that a well-equipped ISIS is determined to defend.

Their convoy was leading the attack Friday when it came under attack multiple times.

Vehicles were destroyed, soldiers were hurt. Troops and journalists sought shelter in a succession of houses, calling for backup again and again.

Inside the armored vehicles, hiding with families in houses, Arwa Damon kept notes amid the heat of the battle. Here is her account, with occasional strong language. It has been lightly edited for clarity. [Continue reading…]


With Mosul under siege, ISIS leader anticipates collapse of the sky

The New York Times reports: After a nearly yearlong silence, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-declared caliph of the Islamic State, released a blistering audio recording imploring his forces to remain firm in the face of the American-backed Iraqi offensive in Mosul and excoriating those who might consider fleeing.

“Know that the value of staying on your land with honor is a thousand times better than the price of retreating with shame,” he said, adding: “This war is yours. Turn the dark night of the infidels into day, destroy their homes and make rivers of their blood.”

The last time Mr. Baghdadi addressed his followers was in a recording released Dec. 26. His silence since then has led to persistent rumors that he had been wounded or killed. He was not heard from even after one of his closest associates — the extremist organization’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who headed the group’s efforts to export terror abroad, including overseeing attacks in Paris and Brussels — was killed in an airstrike in August.

The terrorist leader’s tone in the new recording at times suggested an air of panic, as if he was trying to shore up his fighters and enjoin them to continue battle, promising them heavenly rewards: “Oh soldiers of the caliphate, if you stand in the line of fire from America’s jets and its allies, then stand firm.”

He added: “Know that if the sky collapses onto the earth, God will make room for the believers to breathe.” [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: Western intelligence sources believe the Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is no longer in Mosul, Boris Johnson has said.

In an unusual reference to intelligence, the British foreign secretary said Baghdadi’s audio recording issued on Thursday calling for the defeat of the Iraqi forces fighting to liberate Mosul was “cruelly ironic since some of the intelligence we have suggests he had himself vacated the scene himself and is yet using internet media to encourage others to take part in violence”. [Continue reading…]


Survivors recount how ISIS used torture, guns and bureaucracy to hold sway over thousands

The Wall Street Journal reports: After more than two years of enduring Islamic State’s harsh rule, desperation trumped fear for Assad Ali Hassan and other residents of Faziliya, Iraq.

A few dozen militants controlled the village near the ISIS stronghold of Mosul with torture, fear and bureaucracy, recounted some who survived the occupation. The small band were the only ones with weapons, enabling them to exert outsize power over the 7,000 villagers, said Muhammad Ayub, an English-speaking graduate of Mosul University.

“Sometimes one of them would just show up in a village around here wearing a suicide belt and blow himself up,” said Mr. Hassan, 45 years old. There might be no apparent justification for it besides ensuring people remained terrified, he said.

Survivors from villages surrounding Mosul recounted how the militants kept them impoverished and scared, crushing them with a bureaucracy that included levying frequent fines, encouraging children to inform on parents, and ensuring people depended on the caliphate for essential supplies.

Reports from Mosul, still under Islamic State control, suggest the militants there have stepped up their brutality, executing dozens suspected of aiding Iraqi security forces and herding thousands of families into positions as human shields. Iraqi forces began a new phase of their offensive on Monday, aiming to enter the city itself for the first time.

Though Faziliya and other villages in the area were primarily Sunni, locals who decided to stay and live under the new regime lost faith in their Sunni occupiers after the militants showed a brutal face and piled on the regulations.

“They would get small children like this to flog grown men in public,” Mr. Hassan said, gesturing to his young son. “They would slide a pen into your beard and if it didn’t stay, if it fell out because the beard wasn’t long enough, you would get lashings.”

Such punishments often would be meted out in a public square, the violator forced to stand on a single floor tile. If the offender wavered and stepped off, the lash count would start over, villagers said.

Women were subjected to a different, painful punishment: They were bitten. A woman, for example, was deemed to be indecent. A female ISIS militant would preside over a quick trial, then administer the punishment. Was a hand too exposed? After a summary judgment, the militant would bite it.

Risking penalty of death for using a cellphone, Mr. Hassan began making secret calls to his brother Rifad, 40, who had escaped the village after it fell to the militants in 2014. Assad reported Islamic State positions to Rifad, who then passed the information to Kurdish intelligence. [Continue reading…]


Unless Baghdad fills the political vacuum in Mosul, ISIS will revive

Hassan Hassan writes: Islamic State’s doctrine of survival is based on a simple notion: defeat on the battlefield must always leave behind the seeds for a comeback. Whether the operation to retake Mosul will be the beginning of the end for Isis or the beginning of a new cycle hinges largely on understanding this basic fact.

The security and political vacuum in Mosul will be the likely seed that could enable an Isis regeneration. Unless the government in Iraq allows a situation in which local Sunnis fill the void, a new cycle is almost certain. That much seems to be accepted by Iraqi and American planners directly involved in the effort to dislodge Isis from its most populous and prestigious stronghold. The current strategy stipulates that Shia and Kurdish militias will not fight inside the city, a way to reduce local concerns about political ambitions.

The question, though, is who will fill the void? Can the government in Baghdad empower a Sunni alternative to isolate Isis? Even if Baghdad has the desire and the ability to do so, who is this alternative?

The northern parts of Iraq stretching from Anbar to Nineveh are a microcosm of the problems that plagued the country for a decade. Isis was able to emerge out of the ashes in 2014 but the country is significantly more fractured today than when the group was driven out of the urban centres in 2007. Deeper wounds have opened over the past two years and many sectarian, ethnic and political stakeholders are vying for influence in this particular region of Iraq.

Yet there is cause for guarded optimism amid today’s bleak landscape. [Continue reading…]


Treatment of Sunnis in areas liberated from ISIS is laying the groundwork for more hatred, violence, and terror

The Daily Beast reports: “This is payback for the Speicher massacre,” a Shia soldier said to a Sunni as he stomped all over him and some other helpless Sunni prisoners, his colleagues hitting them with whatever came to hand: metal rods, shovels, pipes, cables. He was referring to a notorious mass execution of Shia military cadets by ISIS in June 2014. In August this year, the Baghdad government executed dozens of people for the atrocities at Speicher. But that was not enough for these Shias seeking their own revenge.

With Iraqi forces inexorably advancing on Mosul, more and more villages are being liberated from the rule of ISIS. Ever more Sunnis are fleeing into other areas of Iraq (if they are not first killed by ISIS snipers or mines). The opportunities for such revenge are growing every day, and they are being taken not just by the Shia militias operating in this war but by the state apparatus, too, fuelling a cycle of violence which can only lead to the next insurgency, whatever form that will take.

A recent report from Amnesty International details this and many other atrocities: cases of torture and extra-judicial executions with hundreds upon hundreds of Sunni men still missing; 643 from one tribe following the liberation of Saqliwa in June, with a further 49 definitely killed. What the report implicitly shows is that Iraq after ISIS promises to be more, not less, unstable, even after this global battle for Mosul and the inevitable military defeat of ISIS. [Continue reading…]


ISIS abducts 8,000 families from around Mosul and take them into city to use as human shields

The Telegraph reports: Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has abducted tens of thousands of men, women and children from around Mosul to use as human shields in the imminent battle for the city, the UN has said.

The militants forced more than 8,000 families to leave their homes before marching them into Iraq’s second city, which they are defending from advancing troops.

“Isil’s depraved, cowardly strategy is to attempt to use the presence of civilian hostages to render certain points, areas or military forces immune from military operations,” said Ravina Shamdasani, a spokesman for the UN rights office. [Continue reading…]


Erdoğan pursues his plan for even greater power


Politico reports: If you’ve been listening to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan this past month, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Turkish president was intent on redrawing his country’s borders.

In a series of provocative speeches, he has lamented the loss of Ottoman territories, complained that Turkey “gave away” islands to Greece, and invoked a century-old plan that included the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Kirkuk in Turkey’s boundaries.

“We did not accept the borders of our country voluntarily,” Erdoğan said in one of his speeches. Yet while he has used this expansionist rhetoric to argue that Turkey has a say in the ongoing battle for Mosul, his target audience are not Greek or Iraqi officials. Rather, it’s intended for potential voters back home — election talk ahead of a looming referendum on the nature of his presidency.

Erdoğan’s long-standing ambition to replace Turkey’s parliamentary system with an executive presidency — a constitutional change that would grant him significantly greater powers — is inching closer to becoming reality. This month, ministers and officials began floating a timeline, suggesting that a parliamentary vote could be held early next year with a subsequent referendum in April.

After this summer’s attempted coup, Erdoğan’s popularity has soared; a popular vote may well succeed. Yet it remains uncertain whether his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will be able to shore up enough support from other parties to reach the necessary parliamentary majority to call a referendum.

Politicians across the otherwise deeply divided opposition parties object that the introduction of a presidential system would allow the increasingly authoritarian Erdoğan to rule Turkey unchecked.

The president’s best bet is the nationalist opposition: Their leader, Devlet Bahceli, signaled he would not challenge a plebiscite in recent weeks. If his parliamentary group follows suit, the AKP could take their proposal to a referendum.

Hence the belligerent rhetoric. The talk of Turkey’s rights regarding parts of Iraq and the Aegean islands plays well with the nationalists, who often bemoan the territorial concessions made in the 1920s by the crumbling Ottoman Empire.

“Erdoğan is a savvy politician who understands very well the sort of emotional chords of the Turkish public,” said Sinan Ülgen, a former Turkish diplomat and visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. “This is part of an overall strategy to shore up national support that started in the wake of the elections last June.” [Continue reading…]


How ISIS is using scorched earth tactics as it retreats

The Washington Post reports: Satellite imagery of the current operations by Iraqi forces to retake Mosul reveal how the Islamic State can inflict damage even when the militant group is on the run.

Iraqi forces began the operation to retake Mosul on Oct. 16, with forces advancing from the south along the Tigris River and from the east with the goal of retaking the outskirts of the city before beginning a block-by-block clearing of the largest city still held by the Islamic State in Iraq.

Imagery from the past week reveals front-line fires near the city as well as two large industrial fires that were set off by the Islamic State as the militants retreated from those positions. The black smoke is from the Qayyarah oil field, which burned for over four months, and the white smoke that begins on Oct. 20 is from a sulphur plant in Mishraq that was retaken by Iraqi forces within days of the start of the operation. [Continue reading…]


Iraqis are world’s most generous to strangers

Reuters reports: Although torn by civil war, Iraq is the world’s most generous country towards strangers in need, according to a new global index of charitable giving.

Eighty one percent of Iraqis reported helping someone they didn’t know in the previous month, in a global poll commissioned by the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF).

For the first time since CAF began the poll in 2010, more than half of people in 140 countries surveyed said they had helped strangers – with many of the most generous found in countries hit hard by disaster and war. [Continue reading…]


Fears battle for Mosul could open new front in wider Sunni-Shia conflict

Simon Tisdall writes: The risk that military operations to expel Islamic State terrorists from Mosul in northern Iraq could morph into a new frontline in the wider conflict between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam has intensified with Turkey’s disputed entry into the fray.

Binali Yıldırım, Turkey’s prime minister, confirmed reports that Turkish troops based in the contested Bashiqa area outside Mosul were firing on Isis positions with artillery, tanks and howitzers. Yıldırım said the bombardment followed a request from Kurdish peshmerga forces.

But Iraq’s joint operations command flatly denied Turkish involvement. “[Iraq] denies Turkish participation of any kind in operations for the liberation of Nineveh,” it said on Monday, referring to the Iraqi province of which Mosul is the capital.

Iraq’s obfuscation reflects deep anxiety in Baghdad about predominantly Sunni Muslim Turkey’s intentions. The Shia-led, Iranian-backed government of Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, is under pressure not to tolerate the presence on Iraqi soil of troops from a country alleged to have previously aided the Sunni jihadis of Isis. [Continue reading…]