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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The battle for Mosul stalls: ‘we are fighting the devil himself’

The Guardian reports: Heaving on a huge, scorched metal door and covered in engine oil, Sgt Hussein Mahmoud was deep into a morning’s work. Twisted hulks of wrecked army vehicles sat incongruously in the coarse dust that was kicked up by still-moving trucks as they crept around Mosul’s urban fringe.

Two other soldiers with industrial wrenches joined in, trying in vain to dislodge the door from its hinges. “We need it for humvees that still work,” said one of them. “We’re under pressure to provide them with parts.”

Impromptu salvage yards have appeared all around the Gogali neighbourhood in Mosul’s outer east, the immediate hinterland of the war with Islamic State and the most visible reminder of how destructive, difficult – and long – this fight is likely to be.

The startling progress of the first few weeks of the campaign to take Iraq’s second city, the terror group’s last urban stronghold in Iraq, has given way to a numbing reality: Isis will not surrender Mosul, and Iraq’s battered military will struggle to take it. [Continue reading…]

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The mounting death toll in Mosul forces questions about the battle plan

The Washington Post reports: They came to the clinic in Humvees or beat-up cars, twisted in pain or far beyond saving. An Iraqi special forces soldier, his body gutted by an explosion. Four children with lacerated faces, survivors of a car bomb that had set their house on fire. Another soldier, who had stumbled into a booby trap, pale on his stretcher with a hole in his chest.

The luckier ones trudged past the facility in eastern Mosul, looking for shelter. “The mortars are falling,” said an elderly man, one of hundreds of people displaced by the grisly battles on this side of the city. There was no water or electricity in his neighborhood, he said, and no way to stay home.

“The mortars,” he repeated.

Civilian and military casualties are mounting as misery spreads in Mosul six weeks after the Iraqi army launched an offensive to capture the city from the Islamic State. Nearly 600 civilians have been killed, according to one estimate, along with dozens of Iraq’s elite, U.S.-trained special forces soldiers — the vanguard fighters in the deadliest battle yet during Iraq’s two-year struggle to vanquish the extremists. [Continue reading…]

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Iraq gives militias official status despite abuse claims

The Washington Post reports: The Iraqi parliament passed a law Saturday making militia units, including ­Iranian-backed groups accused of human rights abuses, an official part of the country’s security forces.

Lawmakers passed the measure 208 to 0 in a session that was boycotted by most Sunni politicians, who opposed an initiative that extends the influence of powerful Shiite groups that many Iraqi Sunnis view with suspicion.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi praised the law, saying that it gave due to fighters who had proved themselves a key part of Iraqi defenses since the onslaught by Islamic State militants in 2014.

“Those heroic fighters, young and old, need our loyalty for the sacrifices they have made,” a statement issued by Abadi’s office said. “This is the least we can do.”

But the measure, which also legitimizes smaller Sunni tribal groups that have fought alongside Iraqi forces since 2014, threatens to inflame sectarian tensions that could surge anew after the defeat of the Islamic State. It could also complicate Iraq’s military cooperation with the United States and other Western partners. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS: A catastrophe for Sunnis

The Washington Post reports: The Islamic State is being crushed, its fighters are in retreat and the caliphate it sought to build in the image of a bygone glory is crumbling.

The biggest losers, however, are not the militants, who will fulfill their dreams of death or slink into the desert to regroup, but the millions of ordinary Sunnis whose lives have been ravaged by their murderous rampage.

No religious or ethnic group was left unscathed by the Islamic State’s sweep through Iraq and Syria. Shiites, Kurds, Christians and the tiny Yazidi minority have all been victims of a campaign of atrocities, and they now are fighting and dying in the battles to defeat the militants.

But the vast majority of the territory overrun by the Islamic State was historically populated by Sunni Arabs, adherents of the branch of Islam that the group claims to champion and whose interests the militants profess to represent. The vast majority of the 4.2 million Iraqis who have been displaced from their homes by the Islamic State’s war are Sunnis. And as the offensives get underway to capture Mosul, Iraq’s biggest Sunni city, and Raqqa, the group’s self-proclaimed capital in Syria, more Sunni towns and villages are being demolished, and more Sunni livelihoods are being destroyed.

Most Sunnis played no part in the militants’ rise. All are paying a heavy price for the sake of those who did, accelerating and deepening a reversal in the fortunes of the majority sect of Islam that had ruled the region for most of the past 1,400 years.

“ISIS was a tsunami that swept away the Sunnis,” said Sheik Ghazi Mohammed Hamoud, a Sunni tribal leader in the northwestern Iraqi town of Rabia, which was briefly overrun by the Islamic State in 2014 and is now under Kurdish control. “We lost everything. Our homes, our businesses, our lives.” [Continue reading…]

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Iraq after ISIS: At site of massacre, bridge-building replaces blood feud

Christian Science Monitor reports: Darkness descends upon the massacre memorial at the water’s edge, where gutted concrete buildings – the remains of a Saddam Hussein palace – are smeared with graffiti that evokes loss and calls for revenge.

The Tigris River flows wide and silent here, as it did on that June day in 2014 when it was stained with the blood and floating corpses of Iraqi Shiites, victims of the single most deadly event in Iraq since the US invasion of 2003.

Even by the high atrocity standards of the so-called Islamic State (IS), the slaughter of some 1,700 people in the Camp Speicher massacre reached a new level. It was designed, filmed, and broadcast both to shock and terrorize Iraqi security forces – which duly disintegrated as IS militants swept across northern Iraq that summer – and to hammer a permanent sectarian wedge between Sunnis and Shiites.

But instead of Tikrit being consumed by an escalating, vengeful blood feud, something very different has taken root here: Peace, for tens of thousands of Sunnis returning to their homes; and relative justice, for Shiite families from southern Iraq whose sons were killed by the jihadists. [Continue reading…]

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Local resistance is the way to stop ISIS impetus

Hassan Hassan writes: At the peak of ISIL’s military momentum in 2014, the Iraqi city of Haditha was in the middle of it all. From its northwestern tip, ISIL had seized areas that stretched to Aleppo. The group’s territorial depth east of the city extended to the Jordanian border. The militants also seized Tikrit, west of the city, and Baghdadi to its south. The group enforced a siege around the city that would last for two years.

Haditha’s remarkable resistance is even more impressive given that ISIL saw the city in western Anbar as a vital prize. In September 2014, ISIL tried to take control of the Haditha Dam, Iraq’s second largest hydroelectric facility after the Mosul Dam. In May 2015, ISIL’s takeover of Ramadi deepened Haditha’s isolation from the south.

But Haditha still survived the pressure from ISIL. In an audio statement released one month after ISIL took over Ramadi, ISIL’s former spokesman specifically mentioned Haditha as a top priority for the group. In particular, he singled out the Jaghayfa tribe that led the effort to protect the city.

“If we do overrun Haditha before they repent, we won’t spare anyone until it is said that there used to be Jaghayfa here and homes for Jaghayfa,” said Abu Muhammad Al Adnani, who was killed in an American attack in August.

Attempts to take the city further intensified after Adnani’s speech. As the operation to expel ISIL from Mosul enters its second month and the campaign to isolate Raqqa enters its third week, the story of little-known towns such as Haditha deserves attention. ISIL swept through cities such as Mosul and Raqqa with relative ease but, despite all odds, failed to take ones such as Haditha. [Continue reading…]

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In once-tolerant Mosul, a social unraveling that feels permanent

The New York Times reports: More than two years ago, a Christian farmer in his 70s named Mosa Zachariah fled his village near Mosul with, as he put it, only the pants he was wearing. He left behind his house, “tons of wheat” and a BMW.

But now that his town, an early target of the Iraqi security forces as they advance on Mosul itself, has been cleared of the Islamic State forces, it is not jubilation he feels, but fear of what awaits him if he tries to return. He wistfully talked about his city’s diversity as something completely unattainable now. “In that time, the Muslims and Christians were like brothers,” he said.

Musab Juma, a Shiite who used to live in the Mosul area, said he would not be going back, either. He relocated to Najaf, in southern Iraq, where he has a food stall and has decorated his home with old photos and antiques from his hometown. Yazidis and Kurds and Shabaks, other minorities that were once vital pieces of Mosul’s human tapestry, have moved on, too. And many Sunni Arabs, who make up most of Mosul’s population, say they will never go home again, even if that is where their parents and grandparents are buried.

Before the Islamic State’s occupation began more than two years ago, Mosul was Iraq’s most diverse city. Its rich culture, stretching back to the ancient Assyrians, and reputation for tolerance made it a vital symbol of an Iraq that could at least aspire to being a unified and whole nation.

Now, as Mosul’s exiled civilians watch the battle for their city unfold, the only thing they seem to have in common is the belief that they once shared a special history that can never be reclaimed. [Continue reading…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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