Archive for February, 2015

Qatar recalls ambassador from Egypt over Libya strikes

By David Harding

Doha (AFP)

Feb 19, 2015

Qatar recalled its ambassador to Egypt Thursday following a row over Cairo’s air strikes on jihadist targets in Libya, threatening fresh divisions among Western-allied Arab states.

A foreign ministry official said Doha was recalling its envoy for consultation after Egypt’s delegate to the Arab League accused Qatar of supporting “terrorism”, during discussions on Libya.

Egypt’s latest spat with Qatar, which was backed by its Gulf neighbors, came as Libyan officials urged the UN Security Council to lift an arms embargo to allow the country’s military to fight jihadists.

Qatar and most other Gulf Arab nations have joined the US-led coalition which is waging air strikes against the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq and Syria.

Cairo is also an ally of Washington, and a regional rift would complicate efforts to forge a united front against IS in Egypt’s neighbor Libya, where jihadists are trying to establish another stronghold.

US President Barack Obama urged Muslim leaders Wednesday to unite and reject the “false promises of extremism” and jihadists’ claims to represent Islam.

Cairo envoy Tariq Adel made his accusation, according to Egyptian media, after Doha’s representative expressed reservations over a clause in a communique welcoming the air strikes on IS targets in Libya.

The communique was released at the end of an ambassador-level Arab League meeting in the Egyptian capital.

Egyptian F-16s bombed militant bases in the eastern Libyan city of Derna Tuesday, after IS in Libya released a gruesome video showing the beheadings of a group of Egyptian Coptic Christians who had gone to the North African country seeking work.

Qatar’s director of Arab affairs in the foreign ministry, Saad bin Ali al-Mohannadi, said Doha had expressed reservations over welcoming the raids, stressing the need for “consultations before any unilateral military action against another member state”.

The ministry denounced the “tense” statement by Egypt’s representative to the Arab League, saying it “confuses the need to combat terrorism (with)… the brutal killing and burning of civilians.”

Mohannadi added though that Qatar “is supportive and will always remain supportive of the will and stability of the Egyptian people”.

There was no immediate response from Egypt, but Qatar did receive the backing of its Gulf neighbors Thursday.

Gulf Cooperation Council secretary general Abdullatif al-Zayani said in a statement that the GCC “rejects accusations by Egypt’s permanent envoy at the Arab League that Qatar supports terrorism”.

Ties between Doha and Cairo have been strained in recent years amid a spat over Qatar’s backing for ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi.

Ties reached a low point after Morsi was toppled by the army in 2013.

Qatar has repeatedly denounced Morsi’s removal and still provides shelter for many leaders of his Muslim Brotherhood.

In December, however, there was an apparent thaw after Qatar gave its full support to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the army chief who overthrew Morsi and was then elected to office.

– ‘A decisive stance’ –

Mohannadi’s statement also made clear that Qatar does not want a Libyan arms embargo lifted on “the principle of not strengthening one conflict party against another before the end of the dialogue and the formation of a national unity government”.

Libyan Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Dairi had appealed to the UN Security Council Wednesday to lift the embargo.

“Libya needs a decisive stance from the international community to help us build our national army’s capacity and this would come through a lifting of the embargo on weapons, so that our army can receive material and weapons, so as to deal with this rampant terrorism,” he said.

The UN embargo was imposed in 2011 after the uprising that ousted longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

There is increasing concern that some militias inside Libya have pledged allegiance to IS, following the beheading of 21 Copts.

Obama said Wednesday that more had to be done to prevent groups like IS from growing stronger.

At a White House summit on radicalism, he said the battle was as much about winning hearts and minds as waging a military campaign.

The “ideologies, the infrastructure of extremists, the propagandists, the recruiters, the funders”, must all be tackled, Obama said.

On Thursday, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told a press conference in Algeria that an “inclusive political solution” was needed in Libya, not military action.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Qatar_recalls_ambassador_from_Egypt_over_Libya_strikes_999.html.

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Building in Dubai’s Marina district in flames

February 21, 2015

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A high-rise tower in Dubai’s Marina district caught fire early Saturday, but there were no immediate reports of casualties.

The fire broke out in the Torch tower on the northeastern end of the densely populated district, which is packed with multi-story skyscrapers. Debris from the fire cluttered nearby streets after the blaze appeared to be extinguished. High winds whipped through the area.

Police on the scene had no immediate reports of deaths or injuries. Police blocked off areas around the more than 70-story building, which still had power. Lights were on in many of the apartments inside. Multiple fire trucks and police vehicles were on the scene.

Residents of at least one neighboring tower were told to evacuate as a precaution because of strong winds, but they were later allowed back inside. The Marina area is home to dozens of towering apartment blocks and hotels, many of them built over the past decade. The apartments are popular with Dubai’s large number of expatriate professionals.

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Ahead of curfew ending, bombs kill 37 in Iraq’s capital

February 07, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — Ahead of Baghdad ending a decade-old nightly curfew, bombs exploded across the Iraqi capital Saturday, killing at least 37 people in a stark warning of the dangers still ahead in this country torn by the Islamic State group.

The deadliest bombing happened in the capital’s New Baghdad neighborhood, where a suicide bomber detonated his explosives in a street filled with hardware stores and a restaurant, killing 22 people and wounding at least 45, police said.

“The restaurant was full of young people, children and women when the suicide bomber blew himself up,” witness Mohamed Saeed said. “Many got killed.” After the blast, bloody water mixed with olives and other debris from the restaurant as authorities tried to clean.

A second attack happened in central Baghdad’s popular Shorja market, where two bombs some 25 meters (yards) apart exploded, killing at least 11 people and wounding 26, police said. Another bombing at the Abu Cheer outdoor market in southwestern Baghdad killed at least four people and wounded 15, police said.

Hospital officials confirmed the casualty figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to brief journalists. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks, though the Islamic State group has launched attacks on Baghdad in the past. The extremist group now holds a third of both Iraq and neighboring Syria in its self-declared caliphate.

The attacks came as Iraq prepared to lift its nightly midnight-to-5 a.m. curfew on Sunday. The curfew largely has been in place since 2004, in response to the growing sectarian violence that engulfed Iraq after the the U.S.-led invasion a year earlier.

There was no immediate comment Saturday from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who announced the end of the curfew on Thursday by decree. He also ordered that streets, long blocked off for security reasons, reopen for traffic and pedestrians.

Iraqi officials repeatedly have assured that the capital is secure, despite Sunni militant groups occasionally attacking Baghdad’s Shiite-majority neighborhoods.

Associated Press writer Murtada Faraj contributed to this report.

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Iraq PM orders end to years-old Baghdad curfew

Baghdad (AFP)

Feb 5, 2015

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has ordered an end to a years-old nightly curfew in Baghdad in a bid to ease restrictions on daily life despite persistent violence, officials said Thursday.

Lifting the curfew is a major change to a longstanding policy aimed at curbing violence in the capital by limiting movement at night, which has failed to stop the frequent bombings that hit Baghdad.

“The prime minister ordered that the curfew in the city of Baghdad be completely lifted starting from this Saturday,” said Brigadier General Saad Maan, the spokesman for the Baghdad Operations Command.

Abadi wants there “to be normal life as much as possible, despite the existence of a state of war,” his spokesman Rafid Jaboori said, referring to the battle against the Islamic State jihadist group.

This is “part of the response to terrorism and the war against it,” he said.

A statement from Abadi’s office said he had also directed that important streets in the capital be opened “to facilitate the movement of citizens,” and that the Adhamiyah and Kadhimiyah neighborhoods of north Baghdad be “demilitarized zones.”

It did not provide details on which streets would be opened, or on what the plan for the two adjacent neighborhoods — the former mainly Sunni, the latter Shiite — entails.

The army and police checkpoints across Baghdad cause massive traffic jams that are a major source of irritation for Iraqis and often follow lax security procedures that are unlikely to hamper the movement of militants.

The hours the curfew has been in force have varied over the years, but it has most recently lasted from midnight to 5:00 am.

The decision to lift it comes as Iraqi forces battle to regain ground from IS, which spearheaded an offensive that overran large areas north and west of Baghdad last June.

It was initially feared that Baghdad itself could be attacked by the militants.

But federal troops that initially wilted under the offensive have regained significant territory with support from Shiite militiamen, Sunni tribesmen and US-led air strikes.

In the north, forces from Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region are also making gains against IS, and evidence of atrocities likely committed by the group has been found in retaken areas.

Gains by security forces have not stopped militants from carrying out attacks in Baghdad, which they were able to do even when violence was at a low ebb in 2011-20112.

Bombs still ripped through markets, cafes and crowded intersections, and militants also frequently targeted security forces in the capital.

Scrapping the curfew does away with a measure that restricted the lives of ordinary people while doing little to stop the near-daily attacks they have suffered for years.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Iraq_PM_orders_end_to_years-old_Baghdad_curfew_999.html.

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UN warns of ‘systematic’ violence against children in Iraq

Geneva (AFP)

Feb 4, 2015

Many children in Iraq remain at the mercy of ruthless armed groups that use them as fighters, suicide bombers and human shields and subject them to systematic abuse, a UN watchdog said Wednesday.

In a report on the plight of children in the strife-torn country, a UN committee voiced deep concern over “the large number of children recruited by non-state armed groups,” and especially the Islamic State jihadists.

“It is a huge, huge, huge problem,” Renate Winter, a member of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), told reporters in Geneva.

IS spearheaded a sweeping offensive that has overrun much of Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland since June, carrying out a campaign of brutal killings, kidnappings and torture.

Children have not been spared.

CRC, which is composed of 18 independent experts who monitor the implementation of international children’s rights treaties, denounced numerous cases of IS militants torturing and murdering children, especially those from minorities.

The group has been targeting and attacking schools, executing teachers and subjecting children to systematic sexual abuse, including sexual slavery, the committee said.

“Children (are) being used as suicide bombers, including children with disabilities or who were sold to armed groups by their families,” said the report, which also detailed how children were used as “human shields” to protect IS facilities from airstrikes, to work at checkpoints or build bombs for the jihadists.

The committee has urged Baghdad to explicitly outlaw the recruitment of anyone under the age of 18 into armed conflict.

While the Iraqi government is responsible for protecting its citizens, Winter acknowledged it was probably powerless at present to hold the jihadists accountable.

She said the government should strive to do as much as possible to protect children in areas it controls and do everything it can to rescue youths from IS-controlled territory.

However, the committee took Baghdad to task for a number of abuses that cannot be blamed on the jihadists, including reports of underaged boys used to guard government checkpoints and children held in harsh conditions on terrorism-related charges.

It also denounced frequent honor killings as well as forced early and temporary marriages of girls as young as 11.

The committee took particular issue with a law that allows rapists to go free if they marry their victim, rejecting Baghdad’s argument that the law was “the only way of protecting the victim from reprisals of her family.”

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/UN_warns_of_systematic_violence_against_children_in_Iraq_999.html.

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Survivors accuse Shiite militia of Iraq village massacre

By Jean Marc MOJON, Ammar Karim

Baghdad (AFP)

Jan 29, 2015

The Iraqi government vowed Thursday to investigate accusations backed by eyewitness accounts that Shiite militias massacred more than 70 Sunni villagers during an operation against jihadists in Diyala province.

Survivors and Sunni officials say the massacre took place on Monday in Barwana as soldiers and allied militias wrapped up an operation to expel Islamic State (IS) jihadists from their last urban bastion in Diyala.

Some military officials have already denied the allegations but Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that an inquiry has been opened.

“The prime minister has ordered an investigation into the matter,” his spokesman Rafid Jaboori told AFP, without elaborating.

Barwana is a small village located just west of the town of Muqdadiyah. It housed several Sunni families who had fled IS rule over neighboring villages.

Shiite militiamen entered Barwana on Monday and allegedly selected young men after checking their IDs before lining them up to be shot.

“Cars filled with men carrying mostly light weapons entered the village. They gathered all the people in one place, including some children,” said Nahda al-Daini, a lawmaker from Diyala.

“They executed 77 of them,” she told AFP. “It was Shiite militia forces who carried out this massacre with cover from the security forces.”

Ali Juburi, a 27-year-old father of one, fled to Barwana from nearby Hamada village in June, when IS jihadists swept through swathes of Iraq.

– Hiding in orchards –

He said that when the fighters entered the village, some men were taken to one side.

“They were still checking some names when we heard shooting and women screaming,” he told AFP by phone.

“The mukhtar (village chief) went to a house where killings happened. He found 35 bodies in one place and there were about 40 other bodies nearby,” he said.

“He came back and told us to leave everything behind and run because they would kill us. So we ran to an orchard, hid and walked. I eventually reached Muqdadiyah at 1:00 am,” Juburi said.

Jamal Mohamed, a teacher who has been compiling names of the victims, said he knew of 71 people who had been executed on Monday but added that a few more were still missing.

“There were four boys aged nine to 12 among the victims, but no women nor girls,” he said.

He added that to his knowledge only 12 of the victims had been buried, while the other bodies had been taken by government elite forces to an unknown location.

The teacher said Monday had started well.

“When an army commander and officials came in the morning, they were greeted with applause. Some women distributed sweets… We just told them we wanted to go back to our villages,” he said.

“They left but, later, the militiamen arrived in several vehicles. They had laptops and started listing names,” he said.

– Army denial –

Several other witnesses AFP spoke to gave slightly different death tolls but largely matching versions of events.

Lieutenant General Abdulamir al-Zaidi, the officer who commanded army operations in the Moqdadiyah area, denied the allegations.

“Not a bullet was shot in Barwana,” he told AFP, adding that 70 Iraqi forces were killed and at least twice that number of IS jihadists in the Diyala operation.

He said his men had found evidence that IS fighters had shaved their beards in their retreat in an apparent bid to escape by blending in with local residents.

Ali Juburi and Jamal Mohamed said the alleged executioners had scribbled messages on walls praising Imam Hussein, a revered Shiite saint.

Another message read “Revenge for Speicher”, in a reference to the IS massacre of hundreds of young recruits at a base near the northern city of Tikrit on June 12.

Top UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov welcomed the investigation.

“It is the responsibility of the government to ensure that all armed forces are under its control, that rule of law is respected and civilians are protected in all areas of the country, including those areas recently liberated from IS,” he said.

The government last year announced a probe into allegations that Shiite militias had gunned down 70 men at the Sunni mosque of Musab bin Omair in August.

The mosque is also in Diyala, an ethnically and religiously mixed province northeast of Baghdad, where Iran-backed Shiite militias have played a key role in the fight against IS.

Rights groups have documented many cases of revenge attacks and abuses by Shiite militias against Sunnis.

The accusations have infuriated Shiite leaders who argue it was the militias, which they prefer to call “Popular Mobilisation” forces, that saved Baghdad and the rest of Iraq from falling to IS.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Survivors_accuse_Shiite_militia_of_Iraq_village_massacre_999.html.

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Iraq coalition tensions emerge in Islamic State fight

January 22, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi commanders heavily dependent on outside support to defeat the Islamic State group are increasingly voicing frustration over the U.S.-led coalition’s efforts, complaining of miscommunication, failed deliveries of weapons, inadequate training and differences in strategy.

Speaking to The Associated Press this week, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said, “We want to see an acceleration of the training, acceleration of the delivery of arms” from foreign allies. Al-Abadi complained that Iraq is “left almost alone to get these arms and munitions for the army, for our fighters, and we expect much more.”

At the same time, he reiterated that his government does not want any foreign boots on the ground, and he acknowledged that coalition airstrikes had been “very, very effective.” Leaders of the coalition stressed its successes at a London meeting Thursday, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry saying that nearly 2,000 airstrikes had helped ground forces retake 700 square kilometers (270 square miles) of territory, kill 50 percent of Islamic State commanders and choked off some of the group’s oil revenue.

But three Iraqi generals who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss ongoing operations said the U.S. has on several occasions ignored guidance from Iraqi commanders and has failed to provide ample training and weapons to Iraq’s beleaguered forces.

“Whenever we complain about the poor training they provided us, they remind us that it was Iraq who forced them to leave” in 2011, one of the generals said. The generals noted, by contrast, Iran’s willingness to quickly accommodate their urgent needs for weapons and training, while the coalition makes them wait.

The U.S. spent billions of dollars training and equipping Iraq’s army during its eight-year intervention, only to see security forces crumble last summer when the Islamic State group swept across northern Iraq and captured the second-largest city of Mosul.

Many Iraqis blame the military’s weakness on the government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, saying it did little to target mounting military corruption and had replaced seasoned commanders with less-experienced loyalists.

A senior U.S. military official told the AP that as of June 2014, the Iraqi military stood at 125,000 men at best, down from 205,000 in January 2014. That left it relying heavily on unruly Shiite militias for reinforcements.

In November, President Barack Obama authorized the deployment of up to 1,500 more American troops to bolster Iraqi forces, which could more than double the total number of U.S. forces to 3,100. None has a combat role.

The Pentagon has requested $1.6 billion from Congress to train and arm Iraqi and Kurdish forces. That includes an estimated $89.3 million in weapons and other equipment to each of the nine Iraqi army brigades, according to a Pentagon document prepared in November.

At the meeting in London, where officials from 21 countries met to present a united front in the fight against the extremists in Syria and Iraq, Kerry said the coalition “can do better.” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Iraqi forces were in a “state of disarray” and “it will be months yet before they are ready to start significant combat operations” against the extremists.

“The trajectory of this fight … will be neither short, nor easy. That has been a consistent statement,” Kerry said at a news conference with al-Abadi and Hammond. “I don’t think there’s any undertaking in its early months where you can’t do better and you can’t find things you can’t improve on.”

After the meeting, al-Abadi said, “I have asked people for more support and I think my call didn’t go unnoticed.” The growing Iraqi impatience in many ways stems from concerns about the speed and success of the Islamic State’s advance, and the government’s inexperience in handling a security crisis of this magnitude. Until recently, Iraqi security forces were focused on protecting against insurgent bombings and other attacks, not on repelling an advancing force or retaking areas seized by the militants.

The U.S. set up a joint-operations center so coalition officials could coordinate with the Iraqi Defense Ministry to identify the needs of Iraqi security forces, locate targets and streamline operations — a concept that coalition officials say has not resonated with the Iraqi military.

Richard Brennan, a former Department of Defense policymaker now at RAND Corp., said the Iraqi military operates in “exactly the opposite” way to the Americans’ more decentralized system, where “if you go to a U.S. army platoon, squad leaders do things independently.”

“In the absence of directions, we find Iraqi subordinates are reluctant to take any action on their own for fear of doing something their commanders wouldn’t approve,” he said. “There’s a paralysis in the ability of the Iraqi army to move.”

By contrast, the militants of the Islamic State group appear to operate in a fluid, decentralized command structure that has enabled them to adapt quickly and more nimbly to the changing environment amid airstrikes and Iraqi and Kurdish ground offensives.

With the weapons they have seized over time — mostly from defunct Iraqi battalions — they have managed to make significant gains in Iraq’s Anbar province, despite the airstrikes. They also continue to challenge strategic territories retaken by Iraqi security forces, including areas near the Mosul Dam and Beiji.

Militants used the breakdown of law and order in Syria’s civil war to operate freely and set up unpoliced training camps where fighters from around the world could go to join the battle. Camps have emerged more recently in Iraq as the IS group gained territory.

Coalition officials say Iran’s role in Iraq also imposes limitations on their mission. Two to three Iranian military aircraft land at Baghdad airport a day, bringing in weapons and ammunition. The elite Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and its commander, Gen. Ghasem Soleimani, are organizing Iraqi forces and have become the de facto leaders of Iraqi Shiite militias that are the backbone of the fight. Last month, Iran carried out airstrikes to help push militants from an Iraqi province on its border.

Iraqi government officials noted Iran’s willingness to quickly accommodate requests for weapons and frontline assistance in the absence of faster support from the coalition. They have also claimed that coalition forces have provided more support to Kurdish fighters in semiautonomous northern Iraq. Last summer, the Kurdish capital of Irbil was within shelling distance when Islamic State fighters made a lightening advance across the country.

Canadian special forces in northern Iraq have been helping Kurdish peshmerga fighters by directing coalition airstrikes against Islamic State extremists — work generally considered risky because it means they are close to the battle. Canadian soldiers this week traded fire with militants after coming under a mortar and machine gun attack while training on the front lines.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has repeatedly said the U.S. would consider directing attacks from the ground, but that it has not done so. Iraqis have served as the forward air controllers for much of the coalition’s mission thus far, but one of Iraq’s top generals, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to brief the media, told the AP he has grown frustrated because his tips for airstrike targets are frequently ignored.

Another, Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, who led Iraqi soldiers to recapture the oil refinery city of Beiji, called U.S. air support erratic. Even public perception toward the coalition mission has taken a turn in recent weeks, with reports and public statements highlighting alleged missteps.

Lawmaker Hassan Salem, a member of Iraq’s Security and Defense Committee, alleged that “American planes are dropping food and weapons to Daesh,” using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group, which is also known as ISIS and ISIL. He could not offer proof for his claims, saying only: “They deny it but we know it’s happening.”

At a news conference in Baghdad last week, Gen. John Allen, the U.S. envoy to the coalition, was asked by an Iraqi journalist about the same accusations. “We are dropping weapons all over ISIL areas and we’re dropping them on ISIL,” Allen joked, then quickly turned serious. “That is not correct — we are not supplying ISIL.”

Associated Press writer Jill Lawless in London contributed to this story.

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