Archive for November, 2014

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


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.


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Voters bet on stability in crucial Bahrain elections


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.


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Iran hardliners resist possible nuclear deal in rare protest


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.


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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


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.


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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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Iraq’s premier shakes up his military

November 12, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s prime minister on Wednesday ordered his first major shakeup of his military since taking office three months ago, relieving 26 army officers of their commands and retiring 10 others as a monitoring group said airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group and other extremists in neighboring Syria have killed more than 860 people, including civilians, since they began in September.

The Iraqi military shakeup, which included the appointment of 18 new commanders, was ordered “as part of efforts to reinforce the work of the military on the basis of professionalism and fighting graft in all its forms,” according to a statement posted on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s official website.

“The aim is not to punish anyone, but rather to improve our military performance,” al-Abadi later said in comments to senior army officers. A government official said the shake-up followed the findings of a probe ordered last month by al-Abadi on corruption in the military. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Under Iraq’s constitution, al-Abadi, like Nouri al-Maliki before him, holds the post of General Commander of the Armed Forces. But it was al-Maliki, now a vice president, who had tightly controlled the military during his eight-year rule, with several elite units taking their orders directly from him.

Al-Maliki, in the final months of his administration, had spoken at length about corruption in the military — particularly in the wake of an embarrassing rout of Iraqi forces which saw the Islamic State militants capture about a third of the country in a few months. He cited cases where soldiers paid half their salary to their commanders so they could stay away from their units and work a second job. He also relieved several top commanders from their command and ordered others investigated for dereliction of duty.

Al-Abadi’s move comes as government security forces and Shiite militias have largely halted the Islamic State militants’ advance, even rolling them back from some areas with the help of coalition airstrikes. But heavy fighting still rages on multiple fronts, and attacks on government troops and civilians remain common, particularly in Baghdad.

On Wednesday, three bombings in and around the Iraqi capital killed at least 17 people and wounded nearly 40, police and hospital officials said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks, but they all bore the hallmarks of the Islamic State group’s tactics.

The deadliest bombing took place in the turbulent Youssifiyah district south of Baghdad, where a suicide car bomber hit an army checkpoint, killing six soldiers and wounding 16 people, including 10 civilians. Earlier in the day, a car bomb near a cluster of shops in western Baghdad killed six civilians and wounded 13 just minutes before a suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance of a nearby police station, killing five policemen and wounding 10.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, meanwhile, said on Wednesday that the vast majority of the more than 860 people killed in coalition airstrikes in Syria — 746 people — were Islamic State militants, while another 68 were members of al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front. At least 50 civilians, including eight children and five women, also have been killed in the airstrikes, the group said.

The U.S.-led coalition’s aerial campaign in Syria began before dawn on Sept. 23 in what President Barack Obama has called an effort to roll back and ultimately destroy the Islamic State group. The militant extremist group has been the primary target of the coalition’s strikes, although on at least two occasions the United States has targeted what it says is a specific cell within the Nusra Front allegedly plotting attacks against American interests.

In northern Syria, meanwhile, Kurdish forces defending the town of Kobani from Islamic State militants took control of much of a strategic hill overlooking the town, local official Idriss Nassan and Kurdish fighter Dalil Boras said.

Nassan also said the Kurds managed to secure a road on the southeastern side of the town that the Islamic State had used to ferry supplies and reinforcements to its fighters besieging Kobani. “This is big progress for the Kurdish forces,” Nassan said.

The U.S. Central Command said the U.S. and allied nations conducted sixteen airstrikes in Syria and seven in Iraq since Monday. Most of those airstrikes were carried out near Kobani. Elsewhere in Iraq, government forces backed by Shiite militiamen are facing tough resistance from Islamic State fighters in the refinery town of Beiji north of Baghdad, a day after they pushed militants out of the town center, according to two military officials reached there by telephone.

They said government forces were inching closer to the besieged refinery in Beiji, which accounts for a quarter of Iraq’s refining capacity. Lifting the siege of the refinery was the next objective in the campaign, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Lucas reported from Beirut.

Associated Press correspondent Zeina Karam in Beirut and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Boston contributed to this report.

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Iraqi forces retake most of strategic oil town

November 11, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi soldiers battling the Islamic State group recaptured most of the town of Beiji, home to the country’s largest oil refinery, state television and a provincial governor said Tuesday.

The strategic town, 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Baghdad, will likely be a base for a future push to take back Saddam Hussein’s hometown just to the south, one of the main prizes overrun by the extremists last summer. But troops backed by Shiite militias faced pockets of stiff resistance around Beiji, hindering their advance.

There was no word on the fate of the refinery, which lies on Beiji’s northern outskirts, but the advances in the town could help break the five-month siege of the facility by Islamic State fighters. Since June, a small army unit inside the refinery, resupplied and reinforced by air, has successfully resisted wave after wave of extremist assaults.

Lifting the siege of the refinery, which sits inside a sprawling complex, was likely the next objective in the campaign to rid Beiji of the militants, according to military officials reached in the town by telephone.

Hours after news from Beiji broke, a suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden car into a military outpost in the Tarmiyah district north of Baghdad, killing seven soldiers and wounding 13 others, according to police and hospital officials. Those killed included the post’s commander, a major, and two other officers, a captain and lieutenant, they said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, but it bore the hallmarks of the militant Sunnis of the Islamic State group. Also, nine people were killed and 24 injured in three separate blasts in and around Baghdad.

State television quoted the top army commander in Beiji, Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, as saying troops recaptured Beiji’s local government and police headquarters at the center of the town. It aired footage taken Tuesday of army tanks and armored personnel carriers moving around the town’s dusty streets and a ball of white smoke rising in the background.

Al-Saadi later spoke to state television by telephone but the line appeared to be cut off after he said his forces were meeting stiff resistance. Three military officials later reached by The Associated Press in the town said the advancing army troops and Shiite militiamen are being slowed down by booby-trapped houses and ambushes.

Raed Ibrahim, the governor of Salahuddin province, where both Beiji and Tikrit are located, said the military had secured about 75 percent of the town as of Tuesday, retaking the center of the town and outlying districts. He said government forces continued to meet fierce resistance from the militants, whom he said were using suicide bombers to stall the military’s advance.

Ibrahim, speaking to the AP by telephone, also said booby-trapped buildings posed an added threat in Beiji. Neither the military officials nor Ibrahim gave casualty figures for the government forces or the militants.

The officials, however, said the forces had blocked access to Beiji from Anbar province, where militants control vast swaths of land, prior to their assault on the town to prevent militant reinforcements from reaching the city.

The military, police and hospital officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. Government officials in Baghdad offered no immediate comment on the news.

The Beiji oil refinery has a capacity of some 320,000 barrels a day, accounting for a quarter of Iraq’s refining capacity. A fire raged for days back in June at one of its storage units, but the refinery is believed to have also suffered major damage elsewhere.

Iraq’s army and security forces have partially regrouped after melting away in the face of the summer’s Islamic State group offensive. In recent weeks, they recaptured a string of small towns and villages, but taking Beiji would be strategically significant in what is shaping up to be a drawn-out campaign of attrition against the extremists.

Recapturing Beiji also would be a major boost for Iraq’s Shiite-led government. Airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition have aided Iraqi forces, militias and Kurdish peshmerga fighters battling Islamic State militants. Hundreds of U.S. advisers and trainers also have been working with the Iraqis.

U.S. Central Command said Monday that coalition aircraft conducted seven airstrikes near Beiji since Friday, destroying three small militant units, a sniper position and two militant vehicles, including one used for construction.

Meanwhile in Syria, U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura repeated his call for a truce in the northern city of Aleppo where rebels still hold large areas, although they are under increasing attack from advancing government forces. De Mistura, who met Syrian President Bashar Assad on Monday, said an Aleppo truce could be a step toward a wider resolution of the country’s civil war.

Assad has said the suggestion was “worth studying.” And in Qatar, ruling emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani warned that U.S.-led airstrikes won’t be enough to defeat “terrorism and extremism” in Iraq and Syria. Speaking to the Gulf nation’s legislative advisory council, he said the policies of Assad’s government and “some militias in Iraq” — a thinly-veiled reference to Iranian-backed Shiite militias — are the most important factors contributing to extremism in the two countries.

Qatar allows U.S.-led coalition forces to use its vast al-Udeid air base to launch airstrikes against IS positions in Syria and Iraq. It also has provided arms and other aid to Syrian rebels, but has come under fire from critics for its support of Islamist groups. Qatar denies the charge.

__ Associated Press writers Vivian Salama in Baghdad; Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Boston, Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria; Abdullah Rebhy in Doha, Qatar; and Diaa Hadid in Beirut contributed to this report.

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Islamic State group massacres more families

November 03, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Islamic State group militants shot and killed 36 Sunni tribesmen, women and children in public Monday, an Iraqi official and a tribal leader said, pushing the total number of members slain by the extremists in recent days to more than 200.

Sheik Naim al-Gaoud, a senior figure in the Al Bu Nimr tribe, said the militant group killed 29 men, four women and three children, lining them up in the village of Ras al-Maa, north of Ramadi in Anbar province.

The tribal leader said that 120 families were still trapped there. “These massacres will be repeated in the coming days unless the government and its security forces help the trapped people,” al-Gaoud said.

An official with the Anbar governor’s office corroborated the account of Monday’s killings. He spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to brief journalists. Some Sunnis in Anbar province supported the militants when they seized Fallujah and parts of Ramadi in December. That came after widespread Sunni protests against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad for what they described as second-class treatment.

At least 214 members of the Al Bu Nimr tribe have been killed recently by the Islamic State group. Analysts believe IS may be trying to take revenge for the tribe’s siding with Iraqi security forces and, in the past, with U.S. forces. The killings are also likely intended as a warning to other Sunni tribes.

A number of Sunni tribes have played an important role in stalling the IS advance across Iraq, taking up arms and fighting alongside Iraqi security forces. A U.S.-led campaign of airstrikes is targeting the group as well, with nine strikes hitting its fighters Sunday and Monday in Beiji, Fallujah and Ar Rutbah, U.S. Central Command said.

Meanwhile, IS claimed responsibility for two bombing attacks against Shiite Muslim pilgrims that killed 23 people in Baghdad on Sunday. In a statement, the group boasted that the bombings took place despite the tight security measures protecting the Shiites’ “biggest infidel event.” The attacks targeted pilgrims on their way to the holy city of Karbala to mark the Ashoura holiday.

Ashoura commemorates the 7th-century death of Imam Hussein, a grandson of Prophet Muhammad and an iconic martyr among Shiites. Sunni insurgents frequently target Shiites, whom they consider heretics. In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the reported massacres of the Al Bu Nimr tribe and other attacks on Shiite pilgrims “proves once again that ISIL does not represent anything but its warped ideology,” using an acronym for the Islamic State group.

The attacks provide “more evidence, if any were needed, why our coalition partners, including Iraqis from every background, must work together to defeat these terrorists,” Psaki said Monday. Also Monday, police said a bomb struck a group of Shiite pilgrims, killing five people and wounding 11 in Baghdad’s southwestern suburb of Nahrawan.

Another bomb blast on a commercial street killed three people and wounded 11 others in Baghdad’s western district of Amil, police said. In the western suburbs of Baghdad, police said a roadside bomb blast struck an army patrol, killing two soldiers.

At night, police said three mortar shells landed on the edge of Baghdad’s district of Khazimiyah, where thousands of Shiites are converging to mark Ashoura, killing five people and wounding 17. Hospital officials confirmed the casualty figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to journalists.

Associated Press writer Lara Jakes in Washington contributed to this report.

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