Remember the 3 Americans kidnapped in Iraq? Here’s the real story

McClatchy reports: January 15 was a relatively quiet day for Baghdad, the bomb-battered capital where Waiel El-Maadawy, an Army veteran and former Florida sheriff’s deputy, had spent years as a contractor for the U.S.-led effort to train Iraqi security forces.

El-Maadawy was feeling relieved. He’d just hired an Iraqi he knew, a man nicknamed Abu Marina, as an interpreter to help with the urgent task of training Iraqi commandos to fight Islamic State jihadists. He and two fellow contractors – his cousin, Amr Mohamed, of Bullhead City, Arizona, and Russell Frost, of Wichita, Kansas, sealed the deal over tea at Abu Marina’s apartment in southeastern Baghdad.

About half an hour into their visit, the commander of a Shiite Muslim militia showed up, demanding to know who the Americans were and ordering them to stay put. At first, the contractors scoffed at the intrusion – they had pistols on their hips and Iraqi Special Forces authorization in their pockets.

“We walk outside and he was right – we can’t leave. There were 40 guys there with heavy weapons,” El-Maadawy recalled. “That’s when everything went downhill. We realized we were going to be taken.”

That was the beginning of a 31-day ordeal the Obama administration has never explained, and which is described in detail here for the first time, through a series of interviews with El-Maadawy, a phone interview with Frost, and with the cooperation of Mohamed, who is currently out of the country. [Continue reading…]


Iraq: Militias recruiting children

Human Rights Watch reports: Iraqi government-backed militias have recruited children from at least one displaced persons camp in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to fight against Islamic State forces. All security forces and armed groups should abide by international law and demobilize any fighters under age 18.

Witnesses and relatives told Human Rights Watch that two tribal militias (Hashad al-Asha`ri) recruited as fighters at least seven children from the Debaga camp on August 14, 2016, and drove them to a town closer to Mosul, where Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are preparing for an offensive to drive the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, from the city. The Hashad al-Asha`ri, made up of local Sunni fighters, are expected to play a key role in Mosul military operations, while the government may order the mainly Shia militias of the Popular Mobilization Forces to stay out of the Mosul fighting.

“The recruitment of children as fighters for the Mosul operation should be a warning sign for the Iraqi government,” said Bill Van Esveld, senior children’s rights researcher. “The government and its foreign allies need to take action now, or children are going to be fighting on both sides in Mosul.” [Continue reading…]


Massacre reports show U.S. inability to curb Iraq militias

Reuters reports: Shi’ite militias in Iraq detained, tortured and abused far more Sunni civilians during the American-backed capture of the town of Falluja in June than U.S. officials have publicly acknowledged, Reuters has found.

More than 700 Sunni men and boys are still missing more than two months after the Islamic State stronghold fell. The abuses occurred despite U.S. efforts to restrict the militias’ role in the operation, including threatening to withdraw American air support, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.

The U.S. efforts had little effect. Shi’ite militias did not pull back from Falluja, participated in looting there and now vow to defy any American effort to limit their role in coming operations against Islamic State.

All told, militia fighters killed at least 66 Sunni males and abused at least 1,500 others fleeing the Falluja area, according to interviews with more than 20 survivors, tribal leaders, Iraqi politicians and Western diplomats.

They said men were shot, beaten with rubber hoses and in several cases beheaded. Their accounts were supported by a Reuters review of an investigation by local Iraqi authorities and video testimony and photographs of survivors taken immediately after their release. [Continue reading…]


1.2 million Iraqis could be uprooted in Mosul battle, UN says

The New York Times reports: The United Nations refugee agency said on Tuesday that it was bracing to accommodate as many as 1.2 million displaced Iraqis when the battle begins to retake Mosul from Islamic State militants, who overran the northern city more than two years ago.

A spokesman for the agency, Adrian Edwards, said it was scrambling to build encampments in six locations in northern Iraq to handle such an influx, which could inflate the country’s displaced-person population by more than a third. Mr. Edwards also said that “other shelter options are being prepared.”

His announcement, at a regular news briefing in Geneva, the refugee agency’s headquarters, did not necessarily signify an imminent military operation to seize Mosul, about 250 miles north of Baghdad.

But the announcement provided detail on the efforts to prepare for enormous new pressure on the Iraqi government to house and feed hundreds of thousands of Mosul residents when the fighting starts.

“The humanitarian impact of a military offensive there is expected to be enormous,” Mr. Edwards said in remarks posted on the refugee agency’s website.

The Iraqi government has been warning for months that the battle to retake Mosul is coming. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq said at a news conference in Baghdad that “Mosul will be liberated in 2016.” [Continue reading…]


How corruption paved the way for the rise of ISIS and the failure of Iraq

Ken Silverstein writes: It is hard to overstate the devastating role that corruption has played in the failure of Iraq and the rise of ISIS. According to a report last March by the Iraqi parliament’s auditing committee, the country’s defense ministry has spent $150 billion on weapons during the past decade — but acquired only $20 billion worth of arms. Much of the equipment it did obtain was useless, 1970s-era matériel from former Soviet bloc states that was invoiced at up to four times its actual value. Late last year, well-placed sources tell me, the Pentagon delivered a shipment of new weapons to the Iraqi government, including .50-caliber sniper rifles, which were supposed to be sent to Sunni fighters in Anbar Province. Instead, corrupt officials in the Iraqi ministries of interior and defense sold the arms to ISIS, which is using them to kill Kurdish peshmerga fighters.

“The Kurds are still using equipment we gave them in 2003,” says a former CIA official who spends a good deal of time in Iraq. “They’re forced to buy ammo and weapons that the U.S. government gives to Baghdad from corrupt Iraqi government officials.”

Weapons aren’t the only target for corruption. When it comes to the vast sums of money that have flowed into Iraq for reconstruction and economic development, officials at every level of government have been more focused on lining their own pockets than rebuilding their ruined country. [Continue reading…]


ISIS, losing fighters and territory, increasingly turns to child bombers

The Washington Post reports: The boy burst into tears as police apprehended him after he was spotted nervously pacing up and down a street in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk. When they cut open the Barcelona soccer shirt he was wearing, they found a suicide belt.

He was just 15, according to local officials.

Footage broadcast Monday on Kurdish television stations showed the dramatic moments as security forces gingerly stripped him of his explosives-laden belt. Tragedy was averted Sunday evening, but numerous young bombers have carried out attacks in recent months, as the Islamic State militant group has enlisted children in suicide missions.

The same evening that police foiled the Kirkuk attack, a suicide bomber of about the same age struck outside a Shiite mosque in the city, killing six people, security forces said.

The devastating bombing at a wedding in southeastern Turkey that killed at least 50 people late Saturday was also initially thought to have been carried out by a child. [Continue reading…]


ISIS is still holding nearly 2,000 Yazidi women as slaves

Vice News reports: The Islamic state still holds nearly 2000 Iraqi women as slaves, most of them Yazidis, and more than 300,000 Yazidis are still displaced almost two years after the group swept into the northern Iraqi district of Sinjar, according to a new United Nations report.

Sinjar district was home to more than 300,000 people — mostly Yazidis but also other ethnic minorities — before August 3, 2014, when Islamic State conquered the district, and at least 200,000 people fled north toward the safety of Kurdistan. Approximately 55,000 others fled to the barren slopes of Mt. Sinjar, which Islamic State surrounded. As temperatures passed 100 degrees, dozens perished before US airstrikes and Kurdish Peshmerga could open a corridor to allow the civilians to escape on August 8.

The UN now estimates that between 2,500 and 5,500 Yazidis were killed during Islamic State’s offensive and subsequent occupation of the area’s towns and villages. The group also abducted around 6,300 Yazidis, including 3,537 women and 2,859 men, and while many escaped, about 3,800 remained in captivity as of May 2016, the UN reported, including 1,935 women. [Continue reading…]


The never-told-before story of the meeting that led to the creation of ISIS

Harald Doornbos and Jenan Moussa write: Abu Ahmad never hesitated in his embrace of the Syrian uprising. Born in a northern Syrian city to a conservative and religious Sunni Arab family, he was a student when the revolt began in March 2011, and joined the protests against President Bashar al-Assad from day one.

“With excitement in our hearts we saw [the uprising in] Egypt happening, followed by the revolution in Libya,” he said. “We hoped the wind of change would not pass our country.”

When the uprising became a full-fledged civil war by mid-2012, Abu Ahmad decided to take up arms and fight. He joined a jihadi-leaning rebel group, whose members were mostly Syrians but also included some foreign fighters from Europe and Central Asia. The composition of the brigades was in flux then — every couple of months, Abu Ahmad’s group would either change its name or unite with other jihadi rebels. But then the groups began to consolidate: In Spring 2013, Abu Ahmad chose to side with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant when it officially expanded into Syria, as tensions escalated between the jihadi group and the Nusra Front. The group would go on to proclaim itself a worldwide caliphate in June 2014, assuming the name “Islamic State” to reflect its global ambitions. To this day, Abu Ahmad is a serving member in the organization, with unique insight into the group’s behavior and its history.

Over the course of our more than 15 meetings with Abu Ahmad, we questioned him intensively about his knowledge of the jihadi group and his bona fides as one of the “soldiers of the caliphate.” Over a period of 10 months, we spent more than 100 hours with him. He patiently answered our questions on everything from how he ended up with the Islamic State, how the organization is organized, and the identity of the European foreign fighters within the group. Our interviews would go on for six hours a day, in week-long stretches.

Abu Ahmad took a great personal risk in talking to us. Because he is still with the Islamic State, we had to deliberately obscure some details about his life to protect his identity.

Abu Ahmad agreed to speak to us, he explained, for several reasons. Although he is still with the Islamic State, he doesn’t agree with everything the outfit does. He is attracted to the organization because he views it as the strongest Sunni group in the region. However, he is disappointed that it “has become too extreme,” blaming it for doing such things as crucifying, burning, and drowning its opponents and those who violate its rules.

For example, Abu Ahmad objected to a punishment that the Islamic State implemented in the northern Syrian city of al-Bab, where it put a cage in the middle of the city center, known as Freedom Square, to punish Syrian civilians guilty of minor crimes, such as selling cigarettes. The group, Abu Ahmad said, imprisoned Syrians in the cage for three days at a time, hanging a sign around their neck stating the crime that they had committed.

“Now the square is known as the Punishment Square,” he said. “I think this kind of harsh punishment is bad for us. It is making ISIS more feared than liked by Sunnis, which is not good at all.”

In the past, Abu Ahmad said, he had hoped the Islamic State would become “jihadi unifiers,” capable of bringing Sunni jihadis together under one banner. He admired the foreign fighters whom he knew, mainly young men from Belgium and the Netherlands who had traveled to Syria to fight jihad. They had all lived in rich and peaceful countries, and while tens of thousands of Syrians had paid large sums of money to be smuggled to Europe to escape the war, these jihadis voluntarily traveled in the exact opposite direction.

“These foreigners left their families, their houses, their lands and traveled all the way to help us here in Syria,” Abu Ahmad said. “So to support us they are truly sacrificing everything they have.”

But Abu Ahmad would soon sour on aspects of the jihadi group. First, the Islamic State has not brought jihadis together; on the contrary, tensions have risen with other groups, and he worried that “the rise of ISIS led to the breakup with the Nusra Front and the weakening of unified jihadi forces in Syria.”

Secondly, while some of the foreign fighters were men who led truly religious lives in Europe, he discovered another group that he took to thinking of as the “crazies.” These were mostly young Belgian and Dutch criminals of Moroccan descent, unemployed and from broken homes, who lived marginal lives in marginal suburbs of marginal cities. Most of these crazies had no idea about religion, and hardly any of them ever read the Quran. To them, fighting in Syria was either an adventure or a way to repent for their “sinful lives” in Europe’s bars and discos. [Continue reading…]


Promises unfulfilled: How a State Department plan to stabilize Iraq broke apart

The Washington Post reports: A week before the last U.S. soldiers left his country in December 2011, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki traveled to Washington to meet the team that would help shape Iraq’s future once the troops and tanks were gone.

Over dinner at the Blair House, guest quarters for elite White House visitors since the 1940s, the dour Iraqi sipped tea while Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke of how her department’s civilian experts could help Iraqis avoid a return to terrorism and sectarian bloodshed.

Iraq would see a “robust civilian presence,” Clinton told reporters afterward, summing up the Obama administration’s pledges to Maliki. “We are working to achieve that,” she said.

Less than three years later, the relatively calm Iraq that Maliki had led in 2011 was gone. The country’s government was in crisis, its U.S.-trained army humiliated, and a third of its territory overrun by fighters from the Islamic State. Meanwhile, State Department programs aimed at helping Iraqis prevent such an outcome had been slashed or curtailed, and some had never materialized at all.

Clinton’s political foes would later seek to blame her, together with President Obama, for the Islamic State’s stunning takeover of western Iraq, saying the State Department failed to preserve fragile security gains achieved at great cost by U.S. troops. In a speech Monday on how he would deal with terrorist threats, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said, “The rise of ISIS is the direct result of policy decisions made by President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton.”

But an intensive review of the record during Clinton’s tenure presents a broader picture of missteps and miscalculations by multiple actors — including her State Department as well as the Maliki government, the White House and Congress — that left Iraqi security forces weakened and vulnerable to the Islamic State’s 2014 surge. [Continue reading…]


Fractured lands: How the Arab world came apart

The following New York Times Magazine feature story is more than a long-read — at 42,000 words it’s more like a short book. Scott Anderson writes: Before driving into northern Iraq, Dr. Azar Mirkhan changed from his Western clothes into the traditional dress of a Kurdish pesh merga warrior: a tightfitting short woolen jacket over his shirt, baggy pantaloons and a wide cummerbund. He also thought to bring along certain accessories. These included a combat knife, tucked neatly into the waist of his cummerbund, as well as sniper binoculars and a loaded .45 semiautomatic. Should matters turn particularly ticklish, an M-4 assault rifle lay within easy reach on the back seat, with extra clips in the foot well. The doctor shrugged. “It’s a bad neighborhood.”

Our destination that day in May 2015 was the place of Azar’s greatest sorrow, one that haunted him still. The previous year, ISIS gunmen had cut a murderous swath through northern Iraq, brushing away an Iraqi Army vastly greater in size, and then turning their attention to the Kurds. Azar had divined precisely where the ISIS killers were about to strike, knew that tens of thousands of civilians stood helpless in their path, but had been unable to get anyone to heed his warnings. In desperation, he had loaded up his car with guns and raced to the scene, only to come to a spot in the road where he saw he was just hours too late. “It was obvious,” Azar said, “so obvious. But no one wanted to listen.” On that day, we were returning to the place where the fabled Kurdish warriors of northern Iraq had been outmaneuvered and put to flight, where Dr. Azar Mirkhan had failed to avert a colossal tragedy — and where, for many more months to come, he would continue to battle ISIS.

Azar is a practicing urologist, but even without the firepower and warrior get-up, the 41-year-old would exude the aura of a hunter. He walks with a curious loping gait that produces little sound, and in conversation has a tendency to tuck his chin and stare from beneath heavy-lidded eyes, rather as if he were sighting down a gun. With his prominent nose and jet black pompadour, he bears a passing resemblance to a young Johnny Cash.

The weaponry also complemented the doctor’s personal philosophy, as expressed in a scene from one of his favorite movies, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” when a bathing Eli Wallach is caught off guard by a man seeking to kill him. Rather than immediately shoot Wallach, the would-be assassin goes into a triumphant soliloquy, allowing Wallach to kill him first.

“When you have to shoot, shoot; don’t talk,” Azar quoted from the movie. “That is us Kurds now. This is not the time to talk, but to shoot.”

Azar is one of six people whose lives are chronicled in these pages. The six are from different regions, different cities, different tribes, different families, but they share, along with millions of other people in and from the Middle East, an experience of profound unraveling. Their lives have been forever altered by upheavals that began in 2003 with the American invasion of Iraq, and then accelerated with the series of revolutions and insurrections that have collectively become known in the West as the Arab Spring. They continue today with the depredations of ISIS, with terrorist attacks and with failing states.

For each of these six people, the upheavals were crystallized by a specific, singular event. For Azar Mirkhan, it came on the road to Sinjar, when he saw that his worst fears had come true. For Laila Soueif in Egypt, it came when a young man separated from a sprinting mass of protesters to embrace her, and she thought she knew the revolution would succeed. For Majdi el-Mangoush in Libya, it came as he walked across a deadly no-man’s-land and, overwhelmed by a sudden euphoria, felt free for the first time in his life. For Khulood al-Zaidi in Iraq, it came when, with just a few menacing words from a former friend, she finally understood that everything she had worked for was gone. For Majd Ibrahim in Syria, it came when, watching an interrogator search his cellphone for the identity of his “controller,” he knew his own execution was drawing nearer by the moment. For Wakaz Hassan in Iraq, a young man with no apparent interest in politics or religion, it came on the day ISIS gunmen showed up in his village and offered him a choice.

As disparate as those moments were, for each of these six people they represented a crossing over, passage to a place from which there will never be a return. Such changes, of course — multiplied by millions of lives — are also transforming their homelands, the greater Middle East and, by inevitable extension, the entire world.

History never flows in a predictable way. It is always a result of seemingly random currents and incidents, the significance of which can be determined — or, more often, disputed — only in hindsight. But even accounting for history’s capricious nature, the event credited with setting off the Arab Spring could hardly have been more improbable: the suicide by immolation of a poor Tunisian fruit-and-vegetable seller in protest over government harassment. By the time Mohamed Bouazizi succumbed to his injuries on Jan. 4, 2011, the protesters who initially took to Tunisia’s streets calling for economic reform were demanding the resignation of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the nation’s strongman president for 23 years. In subsequent days, those demonstrations grew in size and intensity — and then they jumped Tunisia’s border. By the end of January, anti-government protests had erupted in Algeria, Egypt, Oman and Jordan. That was only the beginning. By November, just 10 months after Bouazizi’s death, four longstanding Middle Eastern dictatorships had been toppled, a half-dozen other suddenly embattled governments had undergone shake-ups or had promised reforms, and anti-government demonstrations — some peaceful, others violent — had spread in an arc across the Arab world from Mauritania to Bahrain.

As a writer with long experience in the Middle East, I initially welcomed the convulsions of the Arab Spring — indeed, I believed they were long overdue. In the early 1970s, I traveled through the region as a young boy with my father, a journey that sparked both my fascination with Islam and my love of the desert. The Middle East was also the site of my first foray into journalism when, in the summer of 1983, I hopped on a plane to the embattled city Beirut in hopes of finding work as a stringer. Over the subsequent years, I embedded with a platoon of Israeli commandos conducting raids in the West Bank; dined with Janjaweed raiders in Darfur; interviewed the families of suicide bombers. Ultimately, I took a five-year hiatus from magazine journalism to write a book on the historical origins of the modern Middle East. [Continue reading…]


45,000 ISIS fighters killed in past two years, says U.S. general

AFP reports: About 45,000 militants have been killed in Iraq and Syria since the US-led operation to defeat the ISIS group began two years ago, a top general said Wednesday.

“We estimate that over the past 11 months, we’ve killed about 25,000 enemy fighters. When you add that to the 20,000 estimated killed (previously), that’s 45,000 enemy (fighters) taken off the battlefield,” said Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland, who commands the US-led coalition campaign against ISIS.

MacFarland said estimates for the overall remaining strength of ISIS vary from about 15,000 to 30,000 but said the jihadists are having increasing difficulties replenishing their ranks. [Continue reading…]


Middle East bishops say U.S. has ‘moral responsibility’ to help Christians

Crux reports: Catholic leaders in the Middle East say that the United Sates has the “moral responsibility” to help stop the savagery against Christians in the region, and to provide assistance to help them stay in the region, because it was the U.S. that unleashed the chaos in the first place.

“They were the ones who invaded [Iraq] in 2003 and changed the whole region, and they had the moral responsibility to fix the situation before leaving the country,” said the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Erbil, Iraq, Bashar Matti Warda.

Jean-Clément Jeanbart, Greek Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo, the “martyred city” of Syria, said that the U.S. has a two-fold responsibility. On the one hand, he asked the U.S. government to ensure that the aid being sent to the region is also distributed among Christians, which, he said, means entrusting a portion of it to the churches.

As the system is set up, he said, all the aid goes to the refugee camps. Yet Christians see their lives at risk there, so they generally choose to seek shelter at churches and convents instead.

“If the help went to the churches, it wouldn’t mean that they’re giving special rights to Christians, but that they’re actually helping everyone,”Jeanbart said at a press conference held on Wednesday during the Knights of Columbus’s 134th Supreme Convention, which took place in Toronto, Canada.

The many Christian churches in the region – in Syria, there are six different Catholic rites alone – fund schools, hospitals, and provide shelter to all refugees, without distinguishing between Muslims, Yazidis or Christians, he said. [Continue reading…]