Archive for November, 2014

Iraq death sentence to ex- PM threatens to damage ties with powerful tribe

2014-11-23

By Salam Faraj and Ammar Karim – BAGHDAD

An Iraqi court sentenced former Sunni MP Ahmed al-Alwani to death on Sunday for murder, a verdict that could damage Baghdad’s ties with a powerful tribe that is battling jihadists.

“The central criminal court sentenced Ahmed al-Alwani to death… for his killing of two soldiers,” judicial spokesman Abdelsattar Bayraqdar said, without saying when the murders took place.

He has a month to appeal the decision, Bayraqdar said.

Alwani is a member of the Albu Alwan tribe, members of which are fighting against the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group in the Ramadi area of Anbar province, a key front in the war against IS, which has seized key parts of Iraq since June.

Sheikh Omar al-Alwani, a leader of the Albu Alwan, said that any decision about Alwani should be put on hold and that the verdict could harm the fight against IS.

“All the Albu Alwan tribe is standing against (IS) on the side of the government,” but “half of the Albu Alwan fighters will withdraw if they actually executed Alwani in these circumstances,” the sheikh said, adding that even the former MP’s guards were fighting against IS.

He said the government should wait until the fighting is over and IS defeated, then “take any decision it considers appropriate.”

Illustrating their importance, the US Department of Defense has requested that Congress authorize $18.5 million in arms, ammunition and other equipment for tribes in Anbar and a further $5.5 million in contingency funding.

The gear includes 5,000 assault rifles, 12,000 grenades, 150 heavy machineguns, 50 82mm mortars and other items, according to a document outlining the request.

“Failure to equip these forces mean a less effective armed opposition to counter the Islamic State,” it said.

“Engagement from Sunni tribes is critical to the long-term defeat” of IS, the document said.

The arrest of Alwani, a prominent supporter of a now-collapsed Sunni Arab anti-government protest movement, was one of the factors that sent Anbar province spiraling into chaos.

He was detained during a raid on his house in late December 2013 that killed his brother Ali and five guards, inflaming Sunni Arab anger with the Shiite-led government, which many Sunnis view as having marginalized and unjustly targeted their community.

The defense ministry said at the time that one security forces member was also killed and five were wounded in the raid.

It said Ali was the target of the raid, but that both brothers and the guards opened fire when security forces arrived.

Ahmed had parliamentary immunity, but the constitution permits MPs to be arrested without their immunity being waived in cases of serious crime.

Just days after the raid, security forces demolished the country’s main Sunni anti-government protest camp near Anbar capital Ramadi, setting off a series of events that led to the government losing control of parts of that city and all of Fallujah, farther east.

Almost 11 months later, Fallujah is still entirely out of Baghdad’s control and is now a stronghold of the IS, while security forces and allied tribesmen are still battling for control of Ramadi.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=69040.

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Voters bet on stability in crucial Bahrain elections

2014-11-22

MANAMA – Bahrain went to the polls Saturday for its first legislative elections since a failed uprising in 2011, with the opposition boycotting the vote.

Bahrain’s electorate of almost 350,000 is being called to choose 40 deputies. Most of the 266 candidates are Sunnis.

Polling stations opened at 8:00 am (0500 GMT) and are due to close at 8:00 pm. Municipal elections are being held at the same time.

In Rifaa, a Sunni-dominated district south of Manama, dozens of people, mostly men dressed in traditional long white robes, lined up ahead of the start of voting.

“This election will help the development of the country under the leadership of the king,” said Naima El-Heddi, a civil servant in her 30s.

Voters were scarcer further north in the Shiite village of Jidhafs, where a witness reported seeing just 100 people casting ballots in the first two hours.

The boycott means turnout will be a key marker of the validity of the vote.

Information Minister Samira Rajab stressed ahead of the polls that the government would not tolerate “chaos, unrest and foreign meddling” — a reference to Shiite Iran.

Attacks that cause death or injuries can now be met with capital punishment or life imprisonment.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=69031.

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Iran hardliners resist possible nuclear deal in rare protest

2014-11-23

TEHRAN – Tensions over a possible nuclear deal between Iran and world powers were on display Sunday outside an atomic facility in Tehran where a rare protest saw hardliners criticize government negotiators.

While the crowd was small — about 200, mostly students, gathered at the entrance to the Tehran Research Reactor — the event was the first such officially approved demonstration in months.

It coincided with the penultimate day of talks in Vienna between Iran and the United States and other leading states about a permanent nuclear deal.

“Nuclear energy is our absolute right,” and “Sanctions won’t stop us,” read placards held by protesters, many of them suggesting there should be no compromise on Iran’s disputed atomic activities.

They chanted “Death to America” while a designated speaker rounded on the conduct of the year-long negotiations which entered their final 36 hours with a deal hanging in the balance.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister who is leading the talks in the Austrian capital, “do not know how to do diplomacy”, the speaker said.

One woman held a banner that said: “The centrifuges are not working, nor is the economy,” alluding to Rouhani’s pledge to restart talks with the West to help Iran’s sanctions-hit economy recover.

One demonstrator, a medical student who did not want to give her name, said she was “pessimistic about the Americans involved in the negotiations.”

“We want an agreement where if we give something we get something in return, and what we want is a total removal of sanctions,” she said.

Despite the protest back home, an Iranian source in Vienna signaled openness to extending the talks by six months or even up to a year.

Such an extension would be under terms of an interim deal reached in Geneva a year ago that traded a temporary freeze on some of Iran’s nuclear activities for limited sanctions relief, the source said.

“We are still focused on agreeing to a kind of political” understanding which would not be written but which would allow for negotiators to fine-tune technical aspects of the agreement later, the source said.

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and United States plus Germany — the so-called P5+1 — have been locked in talks with Iran since February to turn the interim Geneva accord into a lasting agreement.

Such a deal is aimed at easing fears that Tehran could develop nuclear weapons under the guise of its civilian activities.

The Islamic republic denies it wants to build an atomic bomb and insists its nuclear program is entirely peaceful.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=69039.

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Iraq, Turkey vow to work together against IS group

November 20, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s prime minister said on Thursday that his country and neighboring Turkey have agreed on closer security and intelligence cooperation in the face of the threat posed by the Islamic State group.

“We have a key agreement to exchange information and have full security cooperation,” Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told a news conference after talks with his visiting Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu. “The Turkish prime minister also wants us to have military cooperation in the face of terrorism and Daesh and we welcome that,” said al-Abadi, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.

Davutoglu confirmed the two sides’ agreement on closer security cooperation. “I can say that Daesh threatens both Iraq and Turkey, but we will cooperate and do everything we can to stand up to terrorism,” he said. “There is a new page in relations between Turkey and Iraq and that is why I hope that there will be close cooperation between our security and intelligence agencies to defeat terrorism.”

The Turkish prime minister also rejected charges that his country facilitated the transit of militants through its territory to Syria. “Turkey receives 35 million tourists a year and we cannot stop people from entering unless we have a case against them,” he said in reply to a question. “There is no evidence or proof any Daesh leader transited through Turkey and if anyone has one he should come forward.”

About a third of Iraq, which shares a porous border with Turkey, is held by the Islamic State group. Earlier this year, the group declared a caliphate on the large swaths of territory under its control in both Iraq and Syria.

Relations recently soured between Turkey and Iraq over what Baghdad sees as illegal oil exports through Turkey by its Kurdish self-ruled northern region. Al-Abadi said on Thursday the two countries have reached an agreement on the issue but did not elaborate.

He said Davutoglu has made clear to him that Turkey was keen to have “transparent and clear” relations on the oil issue and that Baghdad would be informed of any Iraqi oil exports going through Turkish territory.

Baghdad moved to withhold the 17-percent share of the national budget normally earmarked for the Kurdish region — an estimated $20 billion — after the Kurds independently shipped oil to Turkey in January. In May, the Kurdish government sold 1.05 million barrels — worth more than $100 million at the time — in Turkey.

Negotiations between Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government yielded some progress last week after Baghdad agreed to release $500 million in frozen budget payments. In return, the Kurds will provide 150,000 barrels of oil per day for Baghdad to sell.

In Paris, the prosecutor’s office said investigators on Thursday formally opened a terrorism investigation into three French Islamic State recruits calling for attacks back home in a propaganda video.

The three men, who appear under Arabic pseudonyms, appear in a montage that also shows multiple French passports being burned in a campfire. They call on fellow French citizens to join them or carry out attacks in France.

Agnes Thibault-Lecuivre, spokeswoman for the Paris prosecutor’s office, said the anti-terrorism investigation would seek to identify the men. A former French fighter linked to the Islamic State group is accused in a deadly shooting at a Brussels Jewish museum, and European officials fear that newly radicalized and trained militant recruits will return from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq to cause havoc at home.

In the embattled northern Syrian town of Kobani along the Turkish border, the U.S.-led coalition carried out at least four airstrikes against Islamic State positions on Thursday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Islamic State militants launched their offensive against Kobani in mid-September. After an initial rapid advance, the campaign has slowed to a grind as they faced stout resistance from the town’s Kurdish defenders backed by international airstrikes.

Amnesty International has meanwhile called on the Turkish government to ensure safe passage for Syrian refugees seeking a safe haven in Turkey. In a new report, the London-based human rights watchdog said it has recorded at least 17 refugee deaths by border guards who used live ammunition at unofficial crossings between December 2013 and August this year.

Turkey is currently home to at least 1.6 million refugees from Syria, of which over 220,000 are accommodated in government-run refugee camps, Amnesty said. While Turkey maintains an open-border policy for Syrian refugees at official crossings, there are only two fully open crossing points along a 900-kilometer (559-mile) stretch of the border.

Associated Press reporters Lori Hinnant in Paris and Ryan Lucas in Beirut contributed to this report from Paris.

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New Kurdish offensive targets Islamic State group

November 19, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Kurdish forces, backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, launched a new offensive Wednesday targeting the Islamic State group in areas of Iraq that the extremists had captured this past summer.

The operation came as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said details haven’t been finalized for a deal that would have his country train rebels to battle IS in Syria, where the militants also hold territory

A U.S.-led coalition is targeting IS from the sky in Iraq and Syria, supporting Western-backed Syrian rebels, Kurdish fighters and the Iraqi military on the ground. The strikes have helped halt the extremists’ move to take the Syrian city of Kobani near the Turkish border, and enabled Iraqi forces to make key advances.

The U.S. Central Command said that the U.S. and allied nations have conducted 24 airstrikes against IS militants in Iraq since Monday, a majority near the city of Kirkuk. In Syria this week, the coalition has carried out six airstrikes against IS. Most of the strikes targeting IS in Syria took place in Kobani, according to the statement.

On Tuesday, the Kurds captured six IS-controlled buildings in Kobani and confiscated a large amount of weapons and ammunition, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. In Iraq, the new offensive by Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, targeted areas in Diyala and Kirkuk provinces, said Jaber Yawer, a peshmerga spokesman. The IS extremists had seized the territory in their August offensive that saw them capture a third of Iraq.

In Diyala, the peshmerga worked with Iraqi security forces to retake the towns of Saadiya and Jalula, Yawer said. In Kirkuk, Kurdish forces backed by coalition airstrikes launched attacks to retake territory near the town of Kharbaroot, located 35 kilometers (22 miles) west of the city of Kirkuk.

The offensive began as a suicide car bomber struck in the heart of Irbil, killing at least five people, officials said. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the midday attack in the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, though authorities suspected the Islamic State group. Authorities also suspected IS in three Baghdad bombings that killed at least 10 people and wounded almost 30.

Turkey, while previously backing Syrian rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad, has been hesitant to aid the Kobani fight over its own fears about stoking Kurdish ambitions for an independent state. On Wednesday, Erdogan said no deal had been finalized for Turkey to train rebels under the auspices of the U.S.-led operation against IS.

“If we only talk about train and equip, we would be lying to ourselves,” Erdogan said, reiterating that overthrowing Assad must be a priority as well. Retired Marine Gen. John Allen, the U.S. envoy for the international coalition, held talks with Turkish officials in Ankara on Wednesday but few details were released.

The IS group has declared a self-styled Islamic caliphate in areas under its control in Iraq and Syria, governing it according to its violent interpretation of Shariah law. The group has carried out mass killings targeting government security forces, ethnic minorities and others against it, including a video released Sunday with militants showing they beheaded American aid worker Peter Kassig.

Among the militants in that video were two French citizens, identified by the government in Paris as Maxime Hauchard, 22, and Mickael Dos Santos, 22. Both men were said to have left for Syria in August 2013.

France also said Wednesday it would send an additional six fighter jets to back the U.S.-led coalition. The jets will be deployed next month to Jordan, reducing the flying time to Iraq, said Col. Gilles Jaron, a French military spokesman. France already has 12 aircraft taking part in strikes in Iraq.

Riechmann contributed from Istanbul. Associated Press writers Bram Janssen in Irbil, Iraq, Hamza Hendawi in Baghdad, Lori Hinnant and Jamey Keaten in Paris, Ryan Lucas in Beirut and Jon Gambrell in Cairo contributed to this report.

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Iraq forces break ‘Islamic State’ siege of main oil refinery

2014-11-15

By Marwan Ibrahim – KIRKUK

Iraqi forces broke a months-long siege by jihadist fighters of the country’s largest oil refinery Saturday as the top US officer flew in to discuss the expanded war against the Islamic State group.

Ousting IS fighters from around the refinery would mark another significant achievement for Baghdad, a day after pro-government forces retook the nearby town of Baiji.

“Iraqi forces… reached the gate of the refinery,” the governor of Salaheddin province, Raad al-Juburi, said.

Three officers confirmed that Iraqi forces had reached the refinery, 200 kilometers (120 miles) north of Baghdad, where security forces have been encircled and under repeated attack since June.

The new success for Iraqi forces came a day after they recaptured nearby Baiji, the largest town they have taken back since IS-led militants swept across Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland in June.

Fully clearing the Baiji area of jihadist fighters would further boost Baghdad’s momentum and cap a week which also saw pro-government forces retake a major dam.

A joint operation by the army and Shiite militia earlier this week wrested back the Adhaim Dam in the eastern province of Diyala.

A breakthrough preliminary deal reached on Thursday between the federal government and the autonomous Kurdish region on long-standing budget and oil disputes also raised the prospect of increased coordination in the fight against IS.

The group on Thursday released an audio recording purportedly of its chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, after rumors that air strikes may have killed or wounded him.

The IS group has had most of the initiative, both on the ground and in the propaganda war, in recent months.

But the man said to be Baghdadi seemed at pains to reassure his followers and the lack of video failed to dispel speculation he might still have been wounded.

America’s top military officer, General Martin Dempsey, arrived in Iraq for talks on the the further expansion of military operations against the jihadists.

A US-led coalition is carrying out air strikes against IS jihadists in both Iraq and Syria, while Washington has announced plans to increase the number of its military personnel in the country to up to 3,100.

Dempsey was to hold talks with “Iraqi political and security officials on (the) next phase of the campaign to defeat (IS),” Brett McGurk, the number two US envoy for the coalition battling the jihadist group, said on Twitter.

The US and other governments have pledged trainers and advisers to aid Iraqi security forces in their battle against IS.

American personnel are assessing possible deployment sites in Iraq, including Al-Asad Air Base in Anbar province, a key area that stretches from the borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the western approach to Baghdad.

The operation to retake Baiji began more than four weeks ago when security forces and pro-government fighters began advancing towards the town from the south, slowed by bombs militants had planted on the way, and finally entered the town on October 31.

The huge refinery once produced 300,000 barrels a day, accounting for half of the nation’s needs in refined oil products.

It is also on the road linking the two largest cities under jihadist control, Mosul and Tikrit.

Washington has repeatedly stated that it will not deploy “combat troops” to Iraq, but Dempsey said on Thursday that sending out advisers alongside Iraqi forces was something that “we’re certainly considering.”

As federal forces, Kurdish peshmerga, Sunni tribesmen and Shiite militia battle IS on several fronts, car bomb blasts in Baghdad continue to take a near-daily toll.

At least 17 people were killed in two explosions in northwestern neighborhoods of the capital.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=68934.

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Shiite holy month sees show of strength in Baghdad

November 14, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Red and green Shiite banners line the streets of Baghdad, portraits of religious figures and slain “martyrs” stare down from billboards, hymns blare from shops and cafes, and grim-faced militiamen prowl the streets in pickup trucks.

The holy month of Muharram has brought an unprecedented show of strength by Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority, underscoring its domination of the bitterly fractured capital and the vulnerability of the once-dominant Sunnis, while raising fears of a new round of sectarian cleansing by Shiite militias allied with the government.

“They want to turn Baghdad into a purely Shiite city,” said Abu Abdullah, a community leader in Baghdad’s Sunni enclave of Azamiyah, who asked that his full name not be published for fear of retribution.

Muharram — a period of mourning over the death of Imam Hussein in a 7th century battle that cemented Islam’s Sunni-Shiite divide — is observed with grieving and fasting by Shiites across the region. But this year in Iraq the traditional Muharram banners are being unfurled at a time when large numbers of Shiite militiamen are battling alongside the army against the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State group, which has seized a third of the county and massacred hundreds of Shiites, whom it views as apostates.

Religious banners and portraits of Imam Hussein hang from homes, bridges, stores and even colleges across much of Baghdad and can be seen even in Sunni-majority areas. They also adorn government buildings and hundreds of security checkpoints across the city, reinforcing Sunni fears that Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is no less sectarian than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, whose policies were widely seen as aggravating Sunni grievances.

Sunnis say Shiite militiamen drive through their streets in pickup trucks, brandishing weapons and blaring Muharram hymns. Some Sunnis say they themselves hang Shiite religious banners from their homes to avoid unwanted attention.

Shiites reject the accusations, saying they should be free to openly practice their religion after decades of marginalization and abuse under successive Sunni-led dictatorships. “The Sunnis have ruled for 1,400 years, it’s our time now. What do they want? They want us to be the slaves and they the masters?” said Hashem Enad, a 50-year-old father of 10 who runs a photography studio in the sprawling Shiite district of Sadr City. “We don’t force anyone to fly Shiite banners,” he said.

“Who is fighting the Islamic State? We are,” said Mohammed Hanash Abbas, a Shiite and co-owner of a bookshop in a part of the old city dating back to the Ottoman era. “And how many Sunnis have volunteered to fight Daesh? Very few,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the group.

Other Shiites go further, pointing to the city’s persistent bombing attacks as evidence of sleeper cells among their Sunni neighbors. The other bookshop owner, Shiite Atallah Zeidan, acknowledged that Sunnis live in “genuine fear” of Shiite militias, but said the divide is political and not religious. “All this sectarianism is created by politics. It is about power. Ordinary folks will get along just fine if left alone.”

Iraq’s long-dominant Sunni minority saw its power rapidly erode following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein and brought Shiite religious parties — many with strong ties to Shiite Iran — to power.

Sunni grievances against the Shiite-led government were a key factor in the Islamic State’s lightning offensive over the summer, which in turn prompted the remobilization of Shiite militias and an influx of Iranian military advisers, raising fears of a return to the sectarian violence that convulsed the country in 2006 and 2007.

The carnage of those years redrew the map of Baghdad, a once-cosmopolitan city where Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and Kurds lived side-by-side for centuries, with the Sunnis the dominant class. The violence emptied out the capital’s most diverse neighborhoods and left it with a Shiite majority estimated at 70-80 percent, with hundreds of thousands of Sunnis fleeing the city and the holdouts squeezed into scattered enclaves.

Today, billboards feature Shiite “martyrs” who fell in battle against the Islamic State group alongside the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — a remarkable sight in a country that fought a devastating eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s.

A senior official at the government’s internal security agency, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters, acknowledged that some Shiite militiamen were using their membership in the “popular mobilization” forces as a cover to intimidate Baghdad’s Sunnis.

Dozens of people were killed last summer in sectarian attacks, but the violence eventually died down and there has been no sign of a return to the mass violence of eight years ago, when dozens of people were abducted, tortured and killed on a daily basis. And yet concrete barriers erected around the city’s most volatile neighborhoods a decade ago remain in place.

Baghdad’s Sunnis and Shiites alike are terrified of the Islamic State group, which has imposed a harsh version of Islamic law, or Sharia, in areas it controls in Syria and Iraq and massacred those standing in its way, including fellow Sunnis.

Earlier this month the group killed scores of male members of a prominent Sunni tribe in the western Anbar province, offering a chilling glimpse of what could await both Shiites and many Sunnis if the capital were to fall.

Iraq’s media has strived to portray the country as united against a common threat, repeatedly showing footage of Sunni clerics and tribesmen rallying against the Islamic State or calling on Iraqis to close ranks against it.

But Khalil Abu Omar, a 46-year-old resident of Baghdad’s mainly Sunni Mansour district, said the icy rapprochement between the capital’s Shiites and Sunnis is “a question of mutual interests, not a common understanding.”

“It is temporary,” added the father of four, who sent his teenage son to Turkey, fearing that his age and sect would make him a kidnapping target.

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