Archive for January, 2015

In Iraq’s war against extremists, a quiet sectarian purge

January 06, 2015

RAWASHID, Iraq (AP) — Sunni residents of this tiny village north of Baghdad are all gone. Their homes now have Shiite graffiti scrawled on the walls. Shiite banners, many emblazoned with images of revered saints, are hoisted on the roofs.

The only people here now are Shiite fighters, who nearly two weeks ago helped Iraqi forces wrest the town from the Islamic State group. Outside one of the homes the fighters have occupied, their leader sat with his men on a recent day, warming themselves by a fire where tea brewed.

He made it clear: They have no intention of allowing the Sunnis back, accusing them of supporting the extremists. “If we allow the residents of this village to return to their homes, they will do it all over again to us,” said Adnan Hassan, 59. The militants used the village to fire mortars at the nearby, mainly Shiite city of Balad — and they still hold villages only a few miles away.

“These are our lands. They were taken away from us centuries ago,” he told The Associated Press, pointing to the orchards and lush farmlands surrounding the village’s relatively affluent homes. Hassan’s claim of Shiite ownership of the lands is tenuous at best. But his comments expose a grim side of Iraq’s fight against the Sunni militants of the Islamic State group: The war is being used by Shiite militiamen to change the demographics of Sunni areas, in an attempt to solidify Shiite control. The practice appears mostly focused on Sunni areas astride roads leading to important Shiite shrines to the north and south of the capital, Baghdad.

The apparent sectarian cleansing plants the seeds of future conflict — or even an outright civil war that could eventually break up the nation along sectarian and ethnic lines, a fate that a growing number of Iraqis, particularly Sunnis, see as the solution to the nation’s bloody turmoil.

Tens of thousands of Iraq’s Sunnis fled their home regions over the past year to escape the brutal rule of the Islamic State group. The militants swept over much of the north and west of Iraq, overrunning Sunni-majority regions all the way down to the doorstep of Baghdad.

Shiite-led security forces and militias made up of Shiite volunteers have since driven the militants out of some of those areas. But the Sunni residents have mostly been prevented from returning, on the grounds that the regions are not yet safe. In many cases, they have been unable to return because their homes have been destroyed in the fighting or blown up by militiamen.

Sunnis who stayed put and endured Islamic State governance face a worse predicament when Shiite forces recapture their areas. They are accused of helping the militants, often their homes are blown up, men jailed or entire families banished, with their properties given to Shiites.

The militiamen appear to be the ones enforcing the demographic change, unsettling the Shiite-led government. The danger is real enough that Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has spoken forcefully about the need for national unity. Addressing graduating army cadets Tuesday, he called for residents of liberated areas to be allowed to return to their homes, so that their suffering ends. In an unusually bold gesture of reconciliation, he visited the capital’s two landmark Sunni and Shiite shrines on Friday.

Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, the Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, condemned the excesses of militiamen in a fatwa, or an edict, issued last weekend, specifically citing the theft of property in areas liberated from the Islamic State group.

“What we are dealing with here is a real attempt at demographic change, coupled with blatant abuses,” Sunni politician Hamed al-Mutlaq told The Associated Press. “It is now extremely difficult for the Sunnis to return to their homes” — not because their homes have been destroyed, he added, “it is genuine fear that is stopping them.”

The sectarian shift comes on top of one that occurred in the wave of vicious sectarian fighting sparked in 2006, when Sunni militants blew up the Shiite shrine of Imam al-Askari in the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad. That conflict became a virtual civil war, and it purged Baghdad of most mixed neighborhoods, leaving it sharply divided between Shiite and Sunni districts.

In Diyala province, northeast of the capital, Islamic State militants have almost completely been driven out, but Sunni Arab families have not been allowed back, said Raad al-Dahlaki, a Sunni lawmaker from the province. The province is a major route for Iranian pilgrims traveling overland to shrines in Iraq.

“They say they will only allow ‘loyal’ residents to go back. This is an excuse to change the demographics of the province,” al-Dahlaki said. Al-Mutlaq and other Sunni politicians said the area around Balad, about 65 kilometers (40 miles) north of Baghdad, is also targeted to keep out Sunnis.

Balad is home to the shrine of one of the imams revered by Shiites and sits on the main highway from Baghdad to Samarra. While many of the larger towns in the area have Shiite majorities, the surrounding countryside along the Tigris River is dotted with Sunni towns and villages like Rawashid. Over the past weeks, Iraqi forces backed by Shiite volunteer fighters swept across the area, pushing back the extremists and trying to clear a corridor to Samarra.

Iraqi federal police and Shiite volunteers battled for five hours late last month to retake Rawashid. On Saturday, when AP journalists visited, the police were gone, and the volunteers led by Hassan were settled in, taking over several houses. Other houses were blackened, possibly by fire or shelling, or flattened by airstrikes.

It is not clear whether the village’s estimated 1,000 residents fled when the Islamic State militants took over in the summer or when the village was retaken. Either way, none were in sight Saturday. Laith Ahmed, an official with the “Popular Mobilization Authority” — the state agency overseeing the volunteers — painted the entire village population as Islamic State supporters.

“They own some of the most fertile farms in Iraq, so it’s beyond me why they chose to take the side of the armed militants,” he said. Anti-Sunni bias is just as pronounced in Balad. There, Shiite residents successfully kept the Islamic State militants at bay during a weeks-long siege in June and July. The city’s small Sunni population fled.

“By God, I will never allow the Sunnis to come back to Balad,” said Mudhafar Abdul-Reddah, a Shiite in his 50s. “They were in contact with the Islamic State during the siege.” “We are better off without any Sunnis in our midst,” said restaurant owner Hussein Shamel. “We (Shiites) all know each other and we are like one family,” he said. During the IS siege, he said, Balad residents shared the little food they had and organized resistance, manning sand barriers set up around the city.

All along the highway from Baghdad to Balad, the depopulation is clear — along with the sectarian nature of the fight. Shiite banners and images of saints fly over every military checkpoint and vehicle. Graffiti on concrete barriers and walls speak of Shiite victory. Farmland and homes along the road showed no sign of life.

Salah al-Karkhy, a farmowner, said that in late July Shiite militiamen came to his home village of Roufayaat near Balad and told its Sunni residents to leave as the Shiites fought IS nearby. Al-Karkhy, his wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren moved to Baghdad’s Sunni stronghold of Azamiyah where they remain.

“Death awaits us if we return,” he said, speaking of a “deliberate plan to force Sunnis from their homes.” “We never supported (the Islamic State),” he said, “but, as always in Iraq, the innocent are made to pay.”

Associated Press reporter Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report from Baghdad.

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UAE asks U.S. for $2.5B MRAP deal

by Richard Tomkins

Washington (UPI)

Sep 29, 2014

More than 4,500 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles are being sought from the United States by the United Arab Emirates.

The U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency, in its required notification to Congress of a Foreign Military Sales deal, said the sale of vehicles for refurbishment and modification is worth an estimated $2.5 billion.

The 4,569 vehicles to be sold separately would come from U.S. Army stock pursuant to section 21 of the Arms Export Control Act, as amended, as Excess Defense Articles, the agency said.

The vehicle list includes 29 MaxxPro long wheel base vehicle; 1,085 MaxxPro LWB chassis; 264 MaxxPro Base/MRAP Expedient Armor Program capsules without armor; 729 MaxxPro bases; 283 MaxxPro MEAP without armor; 970 MaxxPro Plus; 15 MRAP recovery vehicles; 1,150 Caiman multi-terrain vehicles without armor; and 44 MRAP all-terrain vehicles.

“Notification for the sale from stock of the MRAP vehicles referenced above has been provided separately, pursuant to the requirements of section 7016 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014 and section 516 of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, as amended,” the agency said.

Also included is the requested sales package are improvement kits for vehicle underbodies, spare and repair parts, support equipment and personnel training.

“The UAE intends to utilize the EDA MRAP vehicles to increase force protection, to conduct humanitarian assistance operations, and to protect vital international commercial trade routes and critical infrastructure,” according to the notification. “Additionally, these MRAPs will enhance UAE’s burden-sharing capacity and defensive capabilities.”

Navistar Defense, BAE Systems and Oshkosh Defense would be the principal contractors. Multiple trips to the UAE by U.S. government and contractor representatives would be required for a period of three or more years for program support.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/UAE_asks_US_for_25B_MRAP_deal_999.html.

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US plans Patriot missile sale to Saudi Arabia: Pentagon

Washington (AFP)

Oct 01, 2014

The United States plans to sell Patriot missile batteries to Saudi Arabia worth $1.75 billion and long-range artillery to the United Arab Emirates valued at about $900 million, the Pentagon said Wednesday.

The Defense Department informed Congress of the potential arms sales this week as fighter jets from both of the Gulf states took part in a US-led air campaign against the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq and Syria.

The Saudi government had requested the purchase of 202 Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC)-3 missiles — the most sophisticated version of the Patriot anti-missile weapons — as well as a flight test target, telemetry kits and other related equipment, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency said in a statement.

“The proposed sale will help replenish Saudi’s current Patriot missiles which are becoming obsolete and difficult to sustain due to age and the limited availability of repair parts,” the agency said.

“The program will contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of a partner which has been, and continues to be, an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East,” it added.

Both Kuwait and Qatar already have purchased the PAC-3 weapons, which are designed to knock out incoming ballistic missiles as well as enemy aircraft and cruise missiles using ground radar.

Gulf countries in recent years have invested heavily in missile defense weapons, radar as well as air power, mainly as a hedge against Iran which they view as a regional threat.

The Patriot missiles, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, have an estimated range of up to 300 kilometers (186 miles) and have more advanced radar than the older systems.

Separately, the Defense Department notified lawmakers about a planned sale of 12 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) Launchers to the United Arab Emirates for nearly one billion dollars.

The system “will improve the UAE’s capability to meet current and future threats and provide greater security for its critical infrastructure,” the Defense Security Cooperation Agency said. The weapons, which deliver precise and powerful artillery fire at a long range, would also bolster the UAE military’s ability to operate with US forces, it said.

Congress has 30 days to raise objections to the potential arms sales. Without any move to block the deals, the US government can then negotiate contracts with the two countries.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/US_plans_Patriot_missile_sale_to_Saudi_ArabiaPentagon_999.html.

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Iraq offers ‘experience’ to Libya as Jibril visits

Baghdad (AFP)

Oct 6, 2011

Iraq offered its experience of rebuilding the country and gearing up for democracy during a visit to Baghdad Thursday by Libya’s interim premier Mahmud Jibril, officials said.

Jibril’s visit was his first since a mid-February revolt in Libya that eventually led to strongman Moamer Kadhafi’s overthrow, and he met with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.

“Prime Minister Maliki offered the experience of Iraq in rebuilding the state, writing a constitution and holding elections,” Maliki’s media advisor Ali Mussawi told AFP.

“The two sides found similarities between the two regimes of Saddam and Kadhafi,” he added, referring to now-executed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who was ousted by a 2003 US-led invasion.

Mussawi added that Jibril invited Maliki to visit Libya, with the Iraqi premier responding that he would do so as soon as possible.

Eight years after the invasion, Iraq remains a struggling democracy that is still one of the most violent countries in the world, despite a dramatic decline in the level of attacks since a brutal insurgency and sectarian war left tens of thousands dead between 2006 and 2008.

Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abawi said earlier that Jibril had been received by Zebari before meeting with Maliki.

“It was just a short visit, a preliminary visit, to express his gratitude for Iraqi support,” Abawi told AFP.

“We discussed the future relationship between Libya and Iraq, and we discussed the possibility of an exchange of high-level delegations between our two countries.”

Last month, Zebari said the uprising in Libya and those in other Arab countries had been inspired by Iraq’s example.

“We’ve been approached by the Libyans, by the Tunisians, by the Egyptians to see how we did it,” Zebari said on September 20 while speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Iraq_offers_experience_to_Libya_as_Jibril_visits_999.html.

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Saudi Arabia prepares to reopen Iraq embassy after nearly 25 years

2015-01-03

RIYADH – Saudi Arabia announced on Saturday it was sending a delegation to Iraq ahead of opening an embassy in Baghdad where its last mission closed nearly 25 years ago.

A foreign ministry statement said the delegation would “take the necessary decisions to choose and equip buildings” for an embassy in Baghdad and a consulate in Arbil, capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region in the north.

Diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iraq were severed in 1990 but restored in 2004 after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

However, Riyadh had not yet reopened its embassy in Baghdad.

This mission to do so was decided after contacts between the neighboring states, the official SPA news agency cited a Saudi foreign ministry spokesman as saying.

Last November, Iraqi President Fuad Masum visited Saudi Arabia for the first such high-level trip in years in a sign of warming relations after years of strain between the two countries.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=69524.

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FBI keeping eye on China, Russia, Iran cyberspying

Washington (AFP)

Oct 6, 2011

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has made a campaign against cyberthreats one of its “highest priorities,” with China, Russia and Iran in the crosshairs, the bureau’s chief said Thursday.

FBI Director Robert Mueller told the House intelligence committee that cyber-espionage constituted “one of the most significant and complex threats facing the nation.”

When asked to name the worst offenders around the globe that pose a threat to the United States, Mueller said: “You have countries such as Russia and China, others, Iran perhaps, who have capabilities that we’re alert to.”

He singled out China for its capabilities in economic cyber-spying — or targeting commercial data.

“Since 2006, we’ve had several dozen cases, investigations, prosecutions of individuals related to China who have undertaken economic espionage, ex-filtration of information and the like,” the FBI director said.

Beijing has repeatedly denied any state involvement in cyber-attacks against government agencies and firms, including one against US Internet giant Google in early 2010 that sparked a row between the United States and China.

Mueller said cyberattacks had “impacted our military, other government agencies, the financial and telecommunications sectors, and other critical infrastructure.”

“Addressing this cyberthreat will be among the FBI’s highest priorities now and in the years to come,” he told lawmakers.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/FBI_keeping_eye_on_China_Russia_Iran_cyberspying_999.html.

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Iraqi general warns of military woes in fighting extremists

January 02, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi had 225 fighters, a single Abrams tank, a pair of mortars, two artillery pieces and about 40 armored Humvees when he set out to retake a strategic city in northern Iraq captured by Islamic State militants over the summer.

It took 30 days as his force made an agonizingly slow journey for 40 kilometers (25 miles) through roadside bombs and suicide car attacks, then successfully laid siege to the oil refinery city of Beiji. The campaign earned al-Saadi the biggest battlefield victory by Iraqi forces since Islamic State fighters swept over most of northern and western Iraq in a summer blitz, prompting the collapse of the military.

Yet al-Saadi is deeply pessimistic. In a two-hour interview with The Associated Press, he said Iraq’s military lacks weapons, equipment and battle-ready troops and complained that U.S. air support was erratic. Both the military and the government remain riddled with corruption, he said. Most of the senior generals serving when the military fell apart had skills “more suited to World War II,” he said.

“If things don’t get better,” warned the general, “the country could end up divided” between its Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish populations. The extremists are beatable when confronted with a proper force, he said. But he worries that the military’s multiple woes prevent it from doing so. Already, there is a danger the jihadis could retake Beiji, he said.

A Baghdad-born Shiite with family roots in southern Iraq, al-Saadi complained of “excesses” by some of the Shiite volunteers who joined the fight against the Sunni militants and on whom the military has come to rely.

“I am a military man, and they don’t respect the rules by which we operate,” he said. Volunteers, for example, looted homes in government-controlled areas around the Sunni city of Tikrit and tried to intimidate army officers, he said. During his march toward Beiji, some of the volunteers whom he deployed as a rear guard left their posts.

The government and its media consistently praise the volunteers’ role in the war against the Sunni militants. The U.S.-trained al-Saadi, who is second-in-command of the army’s elite counterterrorism forces, spoke at his office in one of Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad palaces. The chain-smoking general wore a baseball cap and green sweater — the same outfit he wears on the front lines, without helmet or body armor or indications of his rank. In the Beiji campaign, he was wounded by shrapnel in his arm and dangerously close to his eye, on top of wounds he suffered last summer in the western province of Anbar.

On his office walls hung photos of himself with former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Al-Saadi said he had a close relationship with al-Maliki during his eight years in office. But the Shiite leader, he said, bears the “moral responsibility” for the debacle against the Islamic State group.

Al-Maliki stepped down in August, replaced by Haider al-Abadi, who has sought to draw Sunni support against the militants. According to al-Saadi, al-Abadi has largely left the military to run the war against the Islamic State as it sees fit. Al-Abadi has also shaken up the military, pushing aside dozens of corrupt or inefficient officers. He has also stopped payments of millions of dollars in salaries disbursed to thousands of nonexistent troops, or “ghost soldiers.”

Al-Saadi is the head of military operations in Salahuddin province, where Beiji is located, and his troops were stationed in a base outside Tikrit. The Islamic State group holds Tikrit itself and most of the surrounding ground.

A veteran of Iraq’s 1980-88 war against Shiite Iran, al-Saadi said he turned down offers of help from Iranian military advisers in retaking Beiji. Iran has been closely helping Iraq’s government in the fight against the extremists.

“If I had accepted help from non-Iraqis, the history books will say the victory was not ours, the Iraqis,” he said. He had troubles from the outset with top military leaders in Baghdad who wanted Beiji retaken quickly.

“I told them I can reach Beiji from Tikrit in three days, but I will lose many of my men,” he said. “(I) told them I will do it my way and get Beiji back. They were unhappy, but they had no choice.” Setting out from Tikrit in mid-October, al-Saadi advanced slowly, abandoning the main road he knew to be infested with roadside bombs. Instead, he and his men went by foot through the desert parallel to the road.

Each day, they walked several kilometers, stopped and built a sand barrier on the main road to fend off suicide car bombers, while engineers would clear roadside bombs. Once the road was cleared, the Humvees and lone tank would proceed up to the barrier where they would wait until another stretch of the road was cleared, he said.

The top brass in Baghdad called him repeatedly on his cell phone to complain he was moving too slowly. “I told them again and again that I need to move cautiously to protect my men,” he said — though he added that al-Abadi called him to express support.

It took three weeks to reach Beiji, fighting the whole way, then another week to take the town. All in all, more than two dozen suicide car bombs were hurled at them. He said logistical bottlenecks in the military left him with only one earth-mover to construct sand barriers, which broke down often or had its tires shot out by snipers.

He blames one of its breakdowns for the death of police Lt. Gen. Faisal Malik al-Zamel during the fight in Beiji. With no sand barrier, a suicide attacker in an explosives-packed truck — its tires and windshield protected by plates of armor — struck while al-Zamel stood in the open speaking on his telephone on Nov. 7.

“His men shouted for him to get back inside his armored vehicle but he didn’t act fast enough,” said al-Saadi, who was at the scene. Al-Saadi was also left skeptical that the Americans are serious in helping Iraq defeat the extremists with the coalition air campaign.

“Sometimes, they would carry out airstrikes that I never asked for, and at other times I begged them for a single airstrike and they never did it,” citing logistical issues or orders from higher up, he said. “I don’t think they trust Iraq’s government or military.”

Also, al-Saadi’s only means of communication with Baghdad was a mobile phone and whenever it had no signal he could not call in airstrikes. In the end, his strategy paid off. Beiji was recaptured in mid-November, and the entire campaign cost 12 lives and about 30 injured among his troops. On the other side, he estimates his forces killed around 1,500 Islamic State fighters.

Brig-Gen. Ayad al-Leheibi, of the police’s Rapid Deployment Force, echoed that estimate and confirmed most of the details in al-Saadi’s account. Al-Leheibi and about 120 of his men fought alongside al-Saadi in the Beiji campaign.

Now al-Saadi worries the victory is in danger of being reversed. Already Islamic State militants are back on the outskirts of Beiji, and he said the men left to hold the city are too few. One unit of reinforcements was attacked on the way to Beiji and quickly retreated, he said. A second one, 50-man strong, made it to the city but came under night attack by militants.

“There was so much confusion and panic, they started shooting at each other in the dark,” he said. “We lost 10 men, nearly as many as we lost in the entire campaign.”

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