Mosul mosque where Baghdadi declared caliphate ‘has been recaptured’ as ISIS reverts to its insurgent roots

The Guardian reports: Iraqi forces claim to have recaptured the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul – where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself leader of Islamic State three years ago.

The seizure marks a highly symbolic moment in the war, placing government troops in the heart of the Old City – the last redoubt of Isis in Mosul – and probably within a fortnight of recapturing all of Mosul.

Baghdadi declared a caliphate from the mosque three years ago to the day – 29 June 2014 – at the height of the group’s power. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: The Islamic State has carried out nearly 1,500 attacks in 16 cities across Iraq and Syria after they were declared freed from the militants’ control in recent months, providing new evidence that the group is reverting to its insurgent roots and foreshadowing long-term security threats.

The information was compiled by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point in a study made public on Thursday that warns that any military gains will fall short without increased efforts to restore the security, governance and economies in territory once held by the Islamic State.

“Pushing the Islamic State out as the formal governing party in a territory is not a sufficient development when it comes to ending the group’s ability to enact violence against individuals in Iraq and Syria,” the 20-page report said.

American diplomatic and military leaders say an even greater challenge than ousting the Islamic State, or ISIS, from its self-declared religious state, or caliphate, in eastern Syria and northern and western Iraq may well be the daunting political and economic reconstruction in the years ahead.

Counterterrorism specialists said the new study illuminates a trend that has been emerging for several months, as American-backed ground forces in Iraq and Syria have steadily rolled back territorial gains the Islamic State achieved in 2014 and used as the basis for its global appeal to Muslims to come join the caliphate. Now, its strongholds of Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, its self-declared capital, are besieged, and senior leaders have fled as opposing forces close in.

“ISIS has anticipated the loss of its government for over a year,” said William McCants, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of “The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State.” “They are prepared to wage a war from the shadows to reclaim it.” [Continue reading…]

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These are the civilian victims of the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS

Mike Giglio reports from Mosul: Residents of this quiet street in eastern Mosul sometimes see their former neighbor return to his rubbled home. He cuts a lonely figure as he climbs through the crushed concrete and twisted iron, stooping to dig for mementos — a photo, a scrap of clothes. Then he sits and cries.

Hassan Ali Hassan, 45, is a Jordanian who has lived for three decades in Mosul, where he married a local woman and raised a family. In June 2014, after ISIS captured the city, he tried to escape with his wife and three daughters to Amman, but the militants seized their passports and ordered them to stay.

Hassan and his family were still trapped in the city on Dec. 14, 2016, as Iraqi forces pressed their US-backed offensive to retake Mosul from ISIS. The fighting had not yet reached their neighborhood, and the family shared a late breakfast before Hassan stepped out to get gas for their generator. Barely a minute had passed when a massive explosion erupted behind him. He ran back to find his home demolished and engulfed in flames, pulverized by an airstrike carried out by the US-led coalition fighting ISIS. Body parts of his wife and daughters littered the street.

“We found some on the other houses here,” recalled a neighbor, Yasir Mohamed, on a recent afternoon, as some semblance of life returned to their neighborhood, called Hay al-Sukar, which was freed from ISIS in January. Reached later by phone, Hassan still seemed to be in shock. “Just everything was in pieces,” he said. “Everyone was dead.”

“Everything happened before my eyes,” he kept repeating.

Homes like Hassan’s riddle Mosul’s streets as Iraqi forces push into the last ISIS-held districts of the city. The US-led air campaign has taken a devastating toll on civilians — and there has yet to be an accounting of its extent. In any neighborhood, residents can quickly point the way to the wrecked houses nearby, detailing which ones held ISIS militants and which ones held only civilians. In late May, a reporter and photographer from BuzzFeed News visited seven sites where witnesses alleged that civilians were killed by airstrikes from the coalition. US warplanes lead the air campaign, but allies such as Britain, Australia, Canada, and France also participate.

The battle has seen some of the deadliest urban combat since World War II — and it has been defined by airstrikes. As of June 3, the coalition had launched some 24,464 munitions into Mosul since the offensive began in October 2016, according to US Department of Defense statistics, and the intensity of the strikes has increased under the Trump administration. In the two years prior to the offensive the US-led coalition launched roughly 13,000 strikes in Iraq. But it’s not just airstrikes that have been raining down on Mosul, endangering civilian lives. The US army has deployed advanced HIMARS rocket launchers, capable of firing six guided missiles from a range of more than 40 miles away. Both sides have used mortar bombs and other artillery. Iraqi jets have carried out airstrikes too. [Continue reading…]

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Rival groups vie for supremacy as fight against ISIS reaches tipping point

The Guardian reports: Iraqi forces have advanced to the base of the toppled minaret of Mosul’s Great Mosque of al-Nuri, hours after it was destroyed by Islamic State militants, as the bitter eight-month battle to recapture the city reached a tipping point.

The destruction of the mosque marked a pivotal moment in the war against Isis, which declared its now withered caliphate from there three years ago. The terror group’s wanton act of sabotage was widely seen as a harbinger of its imminent defeat.

Across northern Iraq, only a portion of Mosul’s old city and a small adjoining neighbourhood remain under Isis control. The nearby towns of Tel Afar and Hweija, both of which are surrounded, make up the remainder of the group’s territory, a mere sliver of the lands over which it had lorded at the height of its power in mid-2014.

As its fortunes have turned, the group’s remaining members have fled Iraq for the deserts of Syria. So rapid has been their capitulation that plans are now being drafted for a decisive battle later this year, somewhere between the Syrian and Jordanian borders, areas far from those that Isis had coveted.

Lined up in pursuit are a range of players who had have staked claims throughout the fight with Isis, as well as parallel regional conflicts, and have waited for the time to consolidate. As the organisation crumbles, all sides have now started competing for an edge, who gets to define what emerges from the collapse of Isis is a prize bigger than winning the war itself. [Continue reading…]

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Destroying Great Mosque of al-Nuri ‘is ISIS declaring defeat’

The Guardian reports: The destruction came as Iraqi troops edged to within 50 metres of the mosque, in a densely packed neighbourhood of central western Mosul, more than eight months into the battle to free the city.

“As our Iraqi security force [ISF] partners closed in on the al-Nuri mosque, Isis destroyed one of Mosul and Iraq’s great treasures,” said Maj Gen Joseph Martin, commanding general of the US-led coalition fighting Isis.

“This is a crime against the people of Mosul and all of Iraq, and is an example of why this brutal organisation must be annihilated. The responsibility of this devastation is laid firmly at the doorstep of Isis, and we continue to support our Iraqi partners as they bring these terrorists to justice.

“However, the battle for the liberation of Mosul is not yet complete, and we remain focused on supporting the ISF with that objective in mind.”

Isis had vowed to defend the city it seized in July 2014 and had been fiercely resisting advancing forces this summer.

“They blew it up because they did not want the place they announced the caliphate from to be the place where the Iraqi military announces its victory over them,” said Hisham al-Hashimi, an author on extremist groups and a former government adviser.

The loss of the site is another devastating blow to Iraq’s heritage, which has been ravaged by 14 years of war since the US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein. The militants’ control over northern Iraq has taken a particularly heavy toll, with globally significant archaeological sites being vandalised and pillaged.

“When I looked out of the window and saw the minaret was no longer there, I felt a part of me had died,” Ahmed Saied, a 54-year-old schoolteacher in Mosul, told Reuters.

“In the early morning, I climbed up to my house roof and was stunned to see the Hadba minaret had gone,” Nashwan, a labourer living in the Khazraj neighbourhood near the mosque, said by phone. “I broke into tears. I felt I had lost a son of mine.”

The mosque was destroyed on the Night of Power, one of the holiest dates in the Islamic calendar, when the Qur’an was revealed to the prophet Muhammad. It was built in the 12th century by Noureddine al-Zanki, a famed commander and a contemporary of Saladin, whose family ruled the provinces of Aleppo and Mosul on behalf of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad.

The mosque was one of the great monuments in Islam after the grand mosques of Mecca and Medina, al-Aqsa in Jerusalem and the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, rivalling others such as the Amr ibn al-’As mosque in Egypt and other more modern structures built in recent centuries. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS blows up Mosul mosque where it declared ‘caliphate’

The New York Times reports: The Islamic State on Wednesday night destroyed Mosul’s centuries-old Al Nuri Grand Mosque and its distinctive leaning minaret, one of Iraq’s most famous landmarks, according to the Iraqi and American militaries.

Shortly after the military’s report, the terrorist group used its news agency to claim that the mosque had actually been destroyed by an American airstrike.

Col. Ryan Dillon, an American military spokesman in Baghdad, said that the coalition had confirmed, through drone surveillance footage, that the mosque had been destroyed. “We don’t know how,” said Colonel Dillon, who added that the coalition was investigating.

But shortly afterward, the United States Central Command issued a statement bluntly accusing the Islamic State of destroying the mosque.

“As our Iraqi Security Force partners closed in on the al-Nuri mosque, ISIS destroyed one of Mosul and Iraq’s great treasures,” Maj. Gen. Joseph Martin, the American commander for the operation, said in the statement. “This is a crime against the people of Mosul and all of Iraq, and is an example of why this brutal organization must be annihilated.”

The mosque is where the Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ascended a pulpit in 2014 and declared a caliphate after his fighters took control of Mosul and swept through other areas of northern Iraq and Syria. [Continue reading…]

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As ISIS retreats in Syria and attacks Tehran, the U.S. and Iran scramble for control

The Washington Post reports: U.S. and Iran-backed forces are locked in a race to take Islamic State strongholds in southeastern Syria and seize a stretch of land that will either cement Tehran’s regional ambitions, or stifle them.

The scramble for pole position in Deir al-Zour province is likely to be one of the most consequential fights against the extremist group in Syria, posing a regional test for President Trump as his administration turns up the rhetoric against Iran.

While the battle for the Islamic State’s most famous Syrian stronghold of Raqqa is heating up, there are signs that an offensive to seize Deir al-Zour will be tougher, and have greater consequences for the group’s long-term survival as a force holding significant territory.

On the Euphrates River between Raqqa and the Iraqi border, the city of Deir al-Zour is the largest urban center in eastern Syria. Victory for Syrian and Iran-backed forces there would give Tehran control of a large swath of the Syrian-Iraqi border, securing a land route through Iraq and southeast Syria to Damascus in the southwest, and on to its proxy, Hezbollah, in Lebanon. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: At least 12 people were killed and 42 others wounded Wednesday morning in a pair of devastating attacks on two of Iran’s most potent symbols: the national Parliament and the mausoleum of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The Islamic State immediately claimed responsibility; if that is found to be true, the attacks would be the terrorist group’s first major assault within Iran’s borders. Suspicions in Tehran were also directed at Saudi Arabia, Iran’s nemesis in the region, which has been newly emboldened by a supportive visit from President Trump last month.

In the view of many in Iran, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is inextricably linked to Saudi Arabia. Hamidreza Taraghi, a hard-line analyst with ties to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said, “ISIS ideologically, financially and logistically is fully supported and sponsored by Saudi Arabia.”

“They are one and the same,” he added.

The attacks on Wednesday followed a familiar pattern of Islamic State assaults hitting more than one location. Assailants armed with assault rifles and suicide vests descended on the Parliament and on the Khomeini mausoleum. Six attackers were killed: four at the Parliament, and two at the mausoleum. [Continue reading…]

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Iraqi troops torture and execute civilians in secret videos

ABC News reports: Officers of an elite Iraqi special forces unit, praised by U.S. military commanders earlier this year for its role in fighting ISIS, directed the torture and execution of civilians in Mosul in at least six distinct incidents caught on tape.

“That’s a murder,” retired Green Beret Lt. Col. Scott Mann told ABC News after reviewing the graphic footage. “There should be punishment for anyone doing it. It’s reprehensible and it shouldn’t be allowed on any modern battlefield.”

The alarming footage was smuggled out of Iraq by a prize-winning Iraqi photojournalist, Ali Arkady, who spent months embedded in combat with the elite Iraqi troops leading the fight against ISIS late last year. Since turning over his cache of photos and videos to ABC News, he says he has received death threats from the soldiers he once considered friends and has now fled Iraq to seek asylum in Europe. [Continue reading…]

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Abedi flew from Istanbul to Manchester 4 days before bombing; UK security services tackle large-scale threat

The Telegraph reports: The security services have foiled five attacks in the past two months since the Westminster attack, a senior Whitehall source has said.

Defending against accusations that MI5 had been repeatedly warned the Manchester suicide bomber, Salman Abedi, was dangerous, the source outlined the scale of the job facing counter-terrorism officials.

The source said MI5 is currently managing 500 active investigations, involving 3,000 subjects of interest at any one time. [Continue reading…]

In February, The Guardian reported: In the small pocket of Manchester where the suicide bomber who killed himself in Iraq this week grew up, many before him had trodden the same path.

The handful of streets in Moss Side within a mile of the childhood home of Ronald Fiddler, also known as Jamal al-Harith, have been home to nine who are known to have joined terrorist organisations and have either been jailed, have disappeared or have killed themselves in the name of Islamic State.

A Guardian investigation has found that 16 convicted or dead terrorists have lived within 2.5 miles of al-Harith’s home address. It is understood that they were part of a radical network and some of them prayed at the same mosque.

In a nearby gym a group of young men are sweating and sparring through a Friday afternoon boxing session. The scene could easily be one of those glossy local authority propaganda pictures that tells the story of a community trying to shed its guns-and-gangs reputation.

Former champion boxer Maurice Core has trained young men there for decades and acknowledges that terrorism is stalking the area’s disaffected youth.

One of those who is understood to be dead after joining Isis is Raphael Hostey. The 24-year-old was a member of Core’s gym and knew al-Harith. He died last year after leaving Moss Side in 2013. [Continue reading…]

Sky News reports: Abedi and Hostey hung around on the same estates and worshipped in the same Didsbury mosque, before they became disaffected with life in the West.

Counter-terrorism sources have told Sky News they have established a “significant” connection between the two men as they investigate the murder of 22 concertgoers and search for possible accomplices. [Continue reading…]

Financial Times reports: [Abedi] flew from Istanbul to the UK via Dusseldorf’s international airport, a German intelligence official said. A senior Turkish official said the Turkish government sent a file on Abedi to British authorities on Wednesday morning, but declined to discuss the details of the communication. [Continue reading…]

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Smoke-filled pool halls are back in Mosul. After ISIS, ‘we seek joy’

The Washington Post reports: Inside the Captain pool hall in eastern Mosul there are few signs that a war still rages in this city or that earlier this year the Islamic State was in control here.

A gathering place for pool and snooker lovers since the 1990s, the smoke-filled room tiled with grimy beige marble exudes a faded charm, one mirrored in its customers, now back at the tables after being deprived of their favorite pastime for more than two years.

Shortly after the Islamic State took control of Mosul in the summer of 2014, hitting brightly colored balls with a well-chalked cue was among the many activities the group ruled un-Islamic and a distraction from jihad, and it ordered the halls to be shut down.

With the militants now expelled from the city’s east, Captain is one of more than a dozen pool halls that have reopened as residents try to bring back a sense of normalcy to their lives. New clubs have also opened up, betting that residents will indulge in some of the pleasures that were banned by the militants.

“We don’t seek winning, we seek joy,” said the owner, Faris al-Abdali, an international snooker referee, as he finished up a game. “The wheel of life is turning again, but it’s slow.” [Continue reading…]

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How ISIS took over Mosul

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad writes: From Baghdad, Mosul is viewed with suspicion if not outright hostility. Its people – educated, relatively wealthy and religiously conservative – had dominated both state bureaucracy and the officers’ corps since Ottoman times. In the sectarian politics of post-invasion Iraq, in which the farmers of Diyala, the tribesmen of Ramadi and the merchants of Mosul were all treated as like-minded Sunnis, squeezed into a corner and challenged to provide a coherent political programme, Mosul was the only place where an indigenous Sunni political identity took root, helped along by an old social structure that had survived the invasion relatively intact. In the civil war that followed, a brutal and highly effective urban insurgency emerged in Mosul. Unlike the tribe-based insurgencies in Ramadi and Falluja, crushed when tribal elders and commanders were bought off and converted into pro-American militias, the insurgency in Mosul was never defeated.

Maliki, who worked to dismantle Sunni power and believed that demonstrations in Sunni cities were a plot financed by Turkey and Qatar to create a Sunni province, fuelled the animosity between Shia Baghdad and Sunni Mosul. He unleashed his police and security forces to suppress any opposition in the city and they behaved like an occupying army, detaining at will, disappearing, torturing and humiliating the people. So in June 2014, when the triumphant jihadis paraded their pick-up trucks through the streets of Mosul, many saw them as liberators, or at least as the lesser evil.

Ahmad, an engineer who once owned a thriving computer business in Mosul, was visiting friends in Erbil that month when his wife called him to say that something was happening. ‘I drove back quickly,’ he said. ‘The roads were blocked and the situation was tense. When I arrived I started hearing from friends and neighbours that the insurgents had been battling Iraqi troops on the outskirts of the city and had taken over a neighbourhood in the west.’ At first he thought nothing of the news: such clashes were common in Mosul. The insurgents were the de facto rulers after dark, levying taxes, imposing protection rackets and controlling the roads in and out of the city. Like all owners of businesses, he had to pay them, on top of the usual bribes he had to pay the army and the police to be left alone.

The next day rumours were spreading, and when the government imposed a curfew he realised the situation was serious. Then came unbelievable reports: the rebels were in full control of the western part of the city, and the governor and all high-ranking officials had fled. The army was in disarray and officers had abandoned their men, who were deserting en masse. ‘We started seeing the poor soldiers running through the streets, some in their underwear. They begged us to tell them how they could leave the city. In my street I showed two soldiers the way out. Some of my neighbours said we should attack them, take their weapons, but I said no, they hadn’t harmed us. Truly, no one in the city harmed the soldiers. Those who fled survived, those who were captured were killed. No one could believe that the army that had oppressed us for so long, that had treated us so badly, had vanished so quickly.’

‘I have to be honest,’ he added. ‘When the Islamic State first entered Mosul everyone was happy. People started clapping for them. They allowed us to remove the concrete blocks the army had installed to close the neighbourhoods. Before, it would take an hour to go from one area to the other, afterwards the roads were open and we felt free. They let the people alone and didn’t mind if people smoked, if people prayed or not. You could go anywhere, do anything you wanted, as long as it didn’t hurt them. I would go to the woods with a friend, sit in a café, smoke a nargileh, and they would turn up. Tall, muscled and mostly foreigners, they wouldn’t dare say a word to you. In the early days we said this was the life.’

Unlike their previous incarnations, the jihadis didn’t just promise the people of Mosul a Sunni resistance to the injustices inflicted on them by the American invasion or the sectarian politics of the Shia government in Baghdad. They went further: they promised a state, a just state based on the principles of Sunni Islam, military strength and effective bureaucracy. In their literature and sermons the jihadi ideologues used different names: the Caliphate, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, the Islamic State. All these names were eventually superseded and one name remained: the State, al-Dawla. It signified to the people of Mosul the nature of the new rulers, who were going to provide them with a strong, non-corrupt and functioning administration, just like the one they had before the Americans came and messed everything up.

‘They conned the people,’ Ahmad said. ‘They brought prices down and reimposed order. People from the heart of Mosul, from its oldest houses, would join them because they said this was the true Islam. Doctors and university professors joined them, my son’s teacher became a preacher for them, carrying a pistol and grenades on his belt. The whole city joined them.’

This new state took on all the familiar qualities of the ancien regime: it was narrow-minded, pathologically suspicious and phantasmagorical in its call for a return to a glorious past. This wasn’t because it was all a conspiracy on the part of the former regime to enable it to come back to power but because – apart from the novel possibilities afforded by social media for the dissemination of messages and propaganda – the jihadis had no new vision when they came to govern beyond the rotten practices they had inherited from the totalitarian regimes that ruled and still rule the region. [Continue reading…]

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Pentagon expands rebuke of Turkey over Iraq, Syria strikes

The Washington Post reports: The Turkish government gave the United States less than an hour’s notice before conducting strikes on partner forces in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. military said on Wednesday, stepping up its criticism of airstrikes the United States said endangered American personnel.

Col. John Dorrian, a U.S. military spokesman, said the lead time failed to provide adequate notice to reposition American forces or warn Kurdish groups with whom the United States is partnering against the Islamic States.

“That’s not enough time. And this was notification, certainly not coordination as you would expect from a partner and an ally in the fight against ISIS,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

American officials expressed indignation at the Turkish bombing, which killed as many as 20 Kurdish fighters in Syria and, according to the U.S. military, five Kurdish peshmerga troops in a coordinated attack across the border in northern Iraq. According to the Turkish government, both attacks targeted members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which both Ankara and Washington consider a terrorist group.

A defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss operations, described the assault as a “massive, highly coordinated attack” involving more than 25 strike aircraft.

In Syria, the Turkish jets targeted leadership sites used by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-dominated force that has emerged as the United States’ primary military partner in Syria, according to a second U.S. official. Turkey has objected to that alliance because, it says, the SDF’s largest component, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), is a PKK affiliate.

Despite the Turkish position, Dorrian signaled the United States would continue its support for the SDF, as it would for Iraqi government troops across the border.

“These are forces that have been integral in fighting ISIS. They’ve been reliable in making progress against ISIS fighters under very difficult and dangerous conditions,” he said. “They have made many, many sacrifices to help defeat ISIS and that keeps the whole world safer. So that is our position on that.” [Continue reading…]

Kom News reports: Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) spokeswoman, Nesrin Abdullah, has said that the group’s forces will withdraw from the operation to capture the Islamic State’s stronghold, Raqqa, if the US doesn’t take concrete action against Turkish airstrikes targeting Kurdish forces in Syria.

“The is unacceptable in international law. If the USA or coalition or the US [State Dept.] spokesperson can only say, ‘We are concerned or we are unhappy’ [about Turkey’s airstrikes] then we will not accept this. If this is the reaction, we do not accept it. It means they accept what was done to us,” Abdullah told Sputnik Turkish on Wednesday.

The spokeswoman for the all female YPJ, which is part of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a leading force in the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces that has encircled Raqqa, went on to say that unless the US gave a concrete response they would withdraw from the operation. [Continue reading…]

AFP reports: Fighting erupted on Wednesday along Syria’s northeastern border between Turkish forces and Kurdish militiamen, as tensions boiled over in the aftermath of deadly Turkish air strikes the previous day.

The strikes against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have thrown the complexity of Syria’s war into sharp relief and even sparked calls for a no-fly zone in the country’s north.

The skies over northern Syria are increasingly congested, with the Syrian government, Turkey, Russia and the US-led international coalition all carrying out bombing raids across the region. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS faces exodus of foreign fighters as its ‘caliphate’ crumbles

The Guardian reports: Large numbers of foreign fighters and sympathisers are abandoning Islamic State and trying to enter Turkey, with at least two British nationals and a US citizen joining an exodus that is depleting the ranks of the terror group.

Stefan Aristidou, from Enfield in north London, his British wife and Kary Paul Kleman, from Florida, last week surrendered to Turkish border police after more than two years in areas controlled by Isis, sources have confirmed to the Guardian.

Dozens more foreigners have fled in recent weeks, most caught as they tried to cross the frontier, as Isis’s capacity to hold ground in Syria and Iraq collapses. Some – it is not known how many – are thought to have evaded capture and made it across the border into Turkey.

Aristidou, who is believed to be in his mid-20s, surrendered at the Kilis crossing in southern Turkey along with his wife – said to be a British woman of Bangladeshi heritage – and Kleman, 46. The American had arrived at the border with a Syrian wife and two Egyptian women, whose spouses had been killed in Syria or Iraq, Turkish officials said.

Aristidou said he had travelled to Syria to settle rather than fight. The officials said he had admitted to having been based in Raqqa and al-Bab, both of which had been Isis strongholds until al-Bab was recaptured by Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces earlier this year. He went missing in April 2015 after flying to Larnaca in Cyprus. Neighbours told the Guardian that he had adopted Islamic dress shortly before he disappeared. [Continue reading…]

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Syria: The hidden power of Iran

Joost Hiltermann writes: Despite his largely symbolic strike on a Syrian airfield in response to the April 4 nerve gas attack by the Assad regime, President Donald Trump has given no serious indication that he wants to make a broader intervention in Syria. As a candidate, and even as a president, Trump has pledged to leave the region to sort out its own troubles, apart from a stepped-up effort to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS). He may quickly learn, though, that one-off military actions driven by domestic politics have a way of turning into something far more substantial.

Already, tensions with Syria’s close ally, Russia, have been escalating, with little sign that the US administration can bring about a change toward Damascus. Bashar al-Assad long ago learned he can operate with impunity. But even larger questions surround another Assad ally, Iran, which, though less conspicuous, has had a crucial part in the changing course of the war and in the overall balance of power in the region. While the Trump administration regards Iran as enemy, it has yet to articulate a clear policy toward it—or even to take account of its growing influence in Iraq and Syria.

If the Syrian leader ignores the warning conveyed by the Tomahawk missile strike, what will be Trump’s next move? Will he be able to resist the temptation to deepen US involvement in Syria to counter a resurgent Iran? How might this affect the battle against the Islamic State—a battle that has already created an intricate power struggle between the many parties hoping to enjoy the spoils?

Consider the array of forces now in play: in Syria, the war on ISIS has been led by Syrian Kurds affiliated with the PKK, the militant Kurdish party in Turkey, which has been in conflict with the Turkish state for the past 33 years—another US ally. In Iraq, there are the peshmerga, the fighters of a rival Kurdish party, who are competing both with the PKK and with Iraqi Shia militias for control over former ISIS territory. There is Turkey, an avowed enemy of Assad that is currently at war with the PKK and its Syrian affiliates, and has moved troops into both northern Syria and northern Iraq in order to thwart the PKK. There is Russia, which, in intervening on behalf of Assad, has created a major shift in the conflict.

And finally, there is Iran, which has made various alliances with Assad, Shia militias, and Kurdish groups in an effort to expand its control of Iraq and, together with Hezbollah, re-establish a dominant position in the Levant. Moreover, Iran has also benefited from another tactical, if unofficial, alliance—with the United States itself, in their efforts to defeat ISIS in neighboring Iraq.

Given all this, the US strike does nothing so much as complicate an already explosive situation. The loudest cheerleader of Trump’s action last week was Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has been especially concerned as Iran and its ally Hezbollah benefit from their tactical military alliance with Russia to prop up the Syrian regime. But whatever advantages some may see in the recent US stand against Assad, it makes it even less likely that a stable postwar order can be achieved.

As my own trip to northern Iraq and northern Syria last month revealed, even as the international coalition makes major gains against the Islamic State, the region’s crises are multiplying. Worse, they are also, increasingly, intersecting, sucking in outside powers with a centripetal force that has proved impossible to withstand. [Continue reading…]

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Why is Iraq’s Muqtada al-Sadr calling for Assad to go?

Michael Weiss writes: A decade ago, the name Muqtada al-Sadr was for Iraqi Sunnis synonymous with electrical cables and power drills—the preferred torture and murder implements of the powerful Shia cleric’s Mahdi Army. By the end of 2006, at the height of Iraq’s civil war, around 3,000 Sunnis caught up in the Sadrist wave of violence were dumped in a soccer field in Adhamiya, in eastern Baghdad, a sporting center that took on the nickname “martyrs’ cemetery.”

For the U.S.-led coalition, Sadr was persistent and dangerous threat in a country with those to spare. A leading insurgent-warlord, at one point had as much blood on his hands as al-Qaeda, and a lot of that blood was from American soldiers. He was also in charge of what really was a “deep state” apparatus in the fledging Iraqi government; with Sadrist goons in charge of the transportation ministry, Baghdad International Airport, and all of its attendant facilities, right down to the sky marshals and cleaning company used to vacuum and mop the terminals. They moonlighted as sectarian spies, tracking the movements of traveling Sunnis, planning kidnapping schemes, and also trafficking in guns and cash into and out of Iraq.

Today, Sadr has become one of the most prominent Shia voices in Iraq calling for reconciliation with Sunnis. But, more striking still, he is calling the ouster of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who has outdone the Sadrists by orders of magnitude in waging war against adherents of Islam’s majority Sunni sect.

Iran, its expeditionary forces, and proxies wield enormous power in Iraq, and are committed to supporting Assad in Syria. So Sadr’s position puts him in direct opposition to the mullahs in Tehran. [Continue reading…]

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After reports of civilian deaths, U.S. military struggles to defend air operations in war against militants

The Washington Post reports: The Pentagon has struggled in recent weeks to explain what lies behind a surge in reported civilian casualties in its air campaign against the Islamic State, fueling speculation that the new Trump administration is pursuing policies resulting in a greater loss of life.

Military officials insist there has been no significant change to the rules governing its air campaign in Iraq and Syria, and ­instead attribute the string of alleged deadly incidents to a new, more intense phase of the war, in which Islamic State fighters are making a final stand in densely populated areas such as the Iraqi city of Mosul.

But some in Iraq and Syria are left wondering whether the higher death count is a product of President Trump’s bare-knuckle military stance and his suggestions that the United States should “take out” militants’ families.

The recent incidents, and the attention surrounding them, have generated concern within the military that the strikes have undermined the United States’ ability to fight the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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Iraq’s Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr urges Syria’s Assad to step down

AFP reports: Influential Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Saturday called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, also calling on Washington and Moscow to stop intervening in the conflict.

The Najaf-based Shiite cleric condemned the killing of 87 people, including 31 children, in a suspected chemical attack last week in a rebel-held Syrian town that has been widely blamed on Damascus.

“I would consider it fair for President Bashar al-Assad to resign and leave power, allowing the dear people of Syria to avoid the scourge of war and terrorist oppression,” he said in a statement. [Continue reading…]

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Removing Assad no longer a priority for U.S.

BBC News reports: The US representative to the United Nations has said that the US is no longer prioritising the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Ambassador Nikki Haley told reporters on Thursday “we can’t necessarily focus on Assad the way that the previous administration did”.

Under President Barack Obama, the US said Assad must go and backed rebels fighting against him.

But US resources shifted after the rise of the so-called Islamic state.

“Our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out,” said Mrs Haley.

“Our priority is to really look at how do we get things done, who do we need to work with to really make a difference for the people in Syria,” she added.

BBC State Department correspondent Barbara Plett Usher says Mrs Haley is stating something quite bluntly that has quietly been US policy for some time.

The battle against IS in Syria became the overriding priority in the last year of the Obama administration, says our correspondent. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: A United States military spokesman said Thursday that Islamic State fighters had been herding local Iraqi residents into buildings in western Mosul, calculating that rising civilian casualties would restrain the United States from using airstrikes to help retake that half of the city.

“What you see now is not the use of civilians as human shields,” said Col. Joseph E. Scrocca, a spokesman for the American-led task force that is battling the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. “ISIS is smuggling civilians into buildings so we won’t see them and trying to bait the coalition to attack.”

An episode this week in which Islamic State fighters forced civilians inside a building, killing one who resisted, was observed by American surveillance aircraft. Islamic State fighters then positioned themselves inside the same structure to fire on Iraqi forces, according to an account provided in a briefing for Pentagon reporters by Colonel Scrocca. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. war footprint grows in Middle East, with no endgame in sight

The New York Times reports: The United States launched more airstrikes in Yemen this month than during all of last year. In Syria, it has airlifted local forces to front-line positions and has been accused of killing civilians in airstrikes. In Iraq, American troops and aircraft are central in supporting an urban offensive in Mosul, where airstrikes killed scores of people on March 17.

Two months after the inauguration of President Trump, indications are mounting that the United States military is deepening its involvement in a string of complex wars in the Middle East that lack clear endgames.

Rather than representing any formal new Trump doctrine on military action, however, American officials say that what is happening is a shift in military decision-making that began under President Barack Obama. On display are some of the first indications of how complicated military operations are continuing under a president who has vowed to make the military “fight to win.” [Continue reading…]

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Shell-shocked Mosul survivors tell of intense airstrikes

The Guardian reports: Covered in dust, their hands raw from digging, Ali Assad and his cousin made a desperate choice – to leave their family under the rubble of their west Mosul home and flee while they still could.

The two men were among hundreds to be evacuated on Sunday, during a lull in the fighting prompted by outrage over the high civilian toll caused by multiple airstrikes that have battered the city and its trapped population over the past eight days.

With the ground war now suspended as a result, families that have sheltered in ruins or taken their chances in what is left of their homes have been leaving Mosul in droves, many arriving shell shocked and starving at refugee processing centres on its southern outskirts, where they spoke of more than a week of terror.

“There are six of my family still under our house,” said Assad, 32, cupping his raw hands. “My father, I saw him die in front of me, my brother, two sisters and two cousins. My mother survived, but then she was hit by some other explosion and a concrete slab fell on her. She’s badly hurt.” [Continue reading…]

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