Archive for April, 2015

In Iraq, a historic Christian library saved from militants

April 03, 2015

MAR MATTI MONASTERY, Iraq (AP) — As Islamic State group militants advanced toward this monastery perched on a mountain in northern Iraq, the monks rushed to protect a cherished piece of their heritage: Their library of centuries-old Christian manuscripts. Dozens of the handwritten tomes were spirited to safety in nearby Kurdish-ruled areas.

There they remain, hidden in a non-descript apartment in the Kurdish city of Dohuk where Christians who have fled the extremists’ onslaught are living and watching over them. The Associated Press was allowed rare access to the library, a collection of copies of Bibles and biblical commentaries, mostly written in Syriac — a form of the ancient Semitic Aramaic language — and mostly dating back 400-500 years. The oldest is a copy of the letters of Saint Paul, some 1,100 years old. The bound tomes, some with tattered pages written in black and red ink, lay on shelves.

Their rescue is a bright spot in the devastating onslaught by the Sunni extremists against Iraq’s people — particularly religious and ethnic minorities — and Iraq’s heritage, as they took over much of northern and western Iraq the past year.

When they captured Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, and other parts of the north last summer, most Christians and other minorities fled the city and nearby towns for the Kurdish autonomous zone further north. The militants seized churches and monasteries in and around Mosul, removing symbols of Christianity like the cross and blowing some up. They have also attacked Sunni Muslim shrines they consider idolatrous. In recent months they have accelerated their campaign to destroy more ancient sites, like the 3,000-year-old ruins of Nimrud; they shattered artifacts in Mosul’s museum and burned hundreds of books at Mosul’s library and university, including rare manuscripts.

The Syriac Orthodox Christians of Mar Matti, a monastery that dates back to the 4th century, moved to rescue their library of around 80 manuscripts in August, at the height of the Islamic State group’s blitz, when its fighters were bearing down from Mosul to the north, toward the monastery, 35 kilometers (20 miles) from the city. Their advance was halted by Kurdish pershmerga fighters, who now hold the road leading to the monastery.

That was a relief to the monastery’s monks and their community. But they aren’t taking any chances and are leaving the manuscripts where they are until the group is decisively defeated. “Thank God they were unable to reach the monastery,” said Raad Abdul-Ahed, a local Christian who helped transport the library. But “we will keep it here until the crisis is over, until the situation is stabilized.” Abdul-Ahed, who fled his hometown near Mosul, now lives in the apartment with the manuscripts.

Still, their absence leaves a void — sentimental and practical — for the handful of monks who continue to live at Mar Matti, along with seven Christian families who have taken refuge there after fleeing their nearby town of Bashiqa. They can still see their houses — just a 10 minute drive away down the mountain — but they can’t return since it’s still held by the Islamic State group’s fighters.

The monastery used to get throngs of visitors — nearly 2 million a year from around Iraq, the monks say. Now it’s too dangerous, and the only visitors are Kurdish fighters, taking a break from battle to take pictures of the site.

The Syriac Orthodox archbishop for northern Iraq, Saliba Shimon, now lives at the monastery after fleeing his home village outside Mosul. There, he teaches Syriac to students. Unfortunately, the rich trove of Syriac tomes is no longer there for him to use. He wanders through the empty library room, showing where the manuscripts used to be.

He says many other Christian manuscripts that were scattered in churches in villages around Mosul are now lost after the militants overran the areas. He and other bishops managed to bring only a few as they fled.

“Each manuscript has its own spiritual value,” he said. “When we keep the manuscript, we are not doing it for the sake of its financial value, but rather because of its spiritual value.”

Yacoub reported from Baghdad.

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Iraq PM says Tikrit ‘liberated’ after month-long battle

Tikrit, Iraq (AFP)

March 31, 2015

Iraq said security and allied forces backed by US-led coalition aircraft “liberated” the city of Tikrit on Tuesday, its biggest victory yet in the fight against Islamic State jihadists.

The operation to retake the hometown of former president Saddam Hussein began on March 2 and had looked bogged down before Iraqi forces made rapid advances in the past 48 hours.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi “announces the liberation of Tikrit and congratulates Iraqi security forces and popular volunteers on the historic milestone,” his official Twitter account said.

He was referring to paramilitary groups which played a major role in the fighting to retake Tikrit, a Sunni Arab city which IS had controlled since it captured swathes of Iraq in June.

A spokesperson for the US-led coalition told AFP however that “parts of the city remain under (IS’s) control and there is still work to be done.”

In a statement to AFP just minutes before Abadi’s tweet, his spokesman Rafid Jaboori said: “Iraqi forces reached the center of Tikrit, raised the Iraqi flag and are now clearing the city.”

The provincial government headquarters was retaken on Monday and on Tuesday the Iraqi tricolor replaced the black IS flag on the building.

In scenes captured in an AFP video, jubilant fighters can be seen tearing up the black flag amid the extensive destruction in the city.

“We are in the center of Tikrit. The city and all administrative buildings were completely liberated,” said one of them, policeman Bahaa Abdullah Nasif.

Iraqi military officials have been saying since the start of the operation that IS fighters had laid thousands of bombs in streets, houses and tunnels to make their last stand.

– Political tension –

There no immediate information on how many fighters were killed, wounded or captured in the fighting.

The government has not provided any casualty figures since the operation started.

Iraqi army and police forces, as well as volunteers and Iran-backed Shiite militias, completely surrounded Tikrit within two weeks of launching the operation.

There was a lull in fighting when government and allied forces apparently balked at the number of snipers, booby traps, berms and trenches which IS was using to defend its city center redoubt.

Iran was Baghdad’s top foreign partner in the early stages of the operation but Iraqi air force strikes were proving insufficient to break the back of IS resistance.

Abadi’s government eventually requested strikes from the US-led coalition which has been assisting Iraqi forces elsewhere in the country since August last year.

US jets began bombing IS targets in Tikrit on March 25. France also took part in the campaign.

The move sparked a freeze in the participation of the Popular Mobilization units, an umbrella organisation for volunteers and militias which accounted for the bulk of the forces in Tikrit.

The Pentagon had expressed unease at the role played by Iran and its proxies in the battle and said it conditioned its intervention on regular forces taking the lead.

– Mosul next –

On Friday, it hailed the withdrawal from the fight of “those Shiite militias who are linked to, infiltrated by, (or) otherwise under the influence of Iran”.

But after giving themselves political cover by declaring they do not want to work with each other, both sides took part in the operation this week.

Tikrit, once with an estimated population of about 200,000, had been largely emptied of civilians by the time the operation was launched.

The fate of those believed to have remained in the city was unclear, however.

Thousands of people displaced last year or more recently from Salaheddin province, of which Tikrit is the capital, have started returning to their homes in outlying liberated areas.

But the level of destruction and the threat posed by unexploded bombs mean residents could take longer to return.

Tikrit holds both strategic and symbolic importance.

It was the hometown of executed dictator Saddam Hussein, remnants of whose Baath party collaborated with IS last summer.

Iraqi forces had since June tried and failed several times to retake the city, seen as a key stepping stone to recapturing Mosul, the jihadists’ largest hub in Iraq.

Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi met all his top commanders Tuesday to discuss preparations for an operation to retake the Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Iraq_PM_says_Tikrit_liberated_after_month-long_battle_999.html.

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Iraqi Sunni tribe wages costly battle against IS group

March 27, 2015

DULUIYAH, Iraq (AP) — The consequences of the al-Jabouri tribe’s decision to ally with Iraq’s Shiite-led government against their fellow Sunnis in the Islamic State group are etched on row after row of gravestones in this palm-shaded town by the Tigris River.

As Khamis Daari paces the cemetery he points out the final resting place of his son Ali, killed in December alongside scores of others who battled the IS group. A few plots over lies Yazen al-Abeelah, a playful three-year-old killed when a rocket hit his home. Mahmoud Salama, 80, is said to have battled bravely alongside fighters half his age, only to die in an explosion.

Unclaimed plots may soon be filled. Daari’s other son Omar is preparing to join Sunni tribesmen fighting alongside Iraqi troops and Shiite militiamen in the country’s Sunni heartland. “If he doesn’t fight then he has no future,” Daari said, his face creased in distress and his eyes welling up with tears. “These terrorists are destroying Iraq.”

Sunni tribes played a key role in driving out al-Qaida in Iraq — a precursor to the IS group — and are widely seen as the only force capable of securing the country’s northwest Sunni heartland. But the few Sunni tribes that have stood up to the IS group have paid a heavy price, and anger at the Shiite-led government runs deep in the areas of northern and western Iraq that now make up the extremist group’s self-styled caliphate.

When IS fighters reached Duluiyah in June, some 45 miles (75 kilometers) north of Baghdad, they gave the al-Jabouri an ultimatum: join us or die. Many of Iraq’s Sunnis have chosen the former, however reluctantly, but the al-Jabouri elected to fight. They had learned their lesson years earlier, when al-Qaida in Iraq recruited some of the tribesmen to fight the government and the Americans only to turn on the tribe after suffering losses on the battlefield, killing more than 300 al-Jabouris.

“We suffered a lot from al-Qaida,” said Sheikh Eissa al-Dahour, an al-Jabouri tribesman. “We have no tolerance for this organization.” This time around, the al-Jabouris allied with Iraqi troops and Shiite militiamen against the IS group and drove out the extremists in December. Some 200 al-Jabouris are now taking part in a major offensive in the nearby city of Tikrit, and the government has held them up as an example for other Sunni tribes, hoping to create a non-sectarian national guard.

To do that, the government will have to somehow reverse the centrifugal forces unleashed by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, which toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein and handed power to the long-oppressed Shiite majority.

Sunni grievances mounted during the long rule of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was widely seen as pursuing sectarian policies and who responded to protests with a heavy hand. When IS militants swept across Iraq last summer, many Sunnis initially greeted them as liberators and cheered the retreat of the despised security forces.

“The reason so many tribes joined Daesh in the first place is because they saw them as revolutionaries fighting against the government that abandoned them,” said Sheikh Amin Ali Hussein of the al-Khazraji, another government-allied tribe in the nearby town of Samarra, using an Arabic acronym for the group. “The government now has a big chance to make up for all the blood that was shed.”

The government hopes to somehow revive the Sahwa, or Awakening Councils — Sunni tribes and militias who switched sides starting in 2006 and allied with the Americans to drive out al-Qaida. But the U.S. and Iraqi commitment to the Sahwa waned once the threat had passed, an experience many Sunnis fear will be repeated.

Sunnis also fear the brutal consequences of confronting the IS group. In November, the extremists killed more than 200 men, women and children from the Sunni Al Bu Nimr tribe in the western Anbar province, apparently viewing it as a threat. The mass killing, and grisly online pictures of bodies displayed in the streets, led the remnants of the tribe to go into hiding, fearing the government could not protect them.

When the al-Jabouri rebelled, the IS group laid siege to Duluiyah for six months and blew up the only nearby bridge across the Tigris. Many homes were destroyed, and those left standing are still pocked and blackened from the fighting.

But the al-Jabouri say if the government helps them rebuild their community then the tribesmen can help sew the country back together. “The al-Jabouri are trying to make amends with the other tribes that may have supported Daesh in the beginning,” said Col. Azzam Abed, a police officer from the al-Jabouri. “But the government needs to show that it is sincere.”

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Sectarian tensions simmer in Iraq shrine city targeted by IS

March 25, 2015

SAMARRA, Iraq (AP) — The al-Askari shrine in the Iraqi city of Samarra is surrounded by thousands of Shiite militiamen in mismatched uniforms, many of them awaiting transport to the nearby front lines of the war against the Islamic State group.

For months, they have fended off attacks by the extremists and now they are on the offensive in Tikrit to the north, but their presence has alarmed Samarra’s mainly Sunni residents, who fear both sides of the increasingly sectarian conflict.

The golden-domed shrine is among the holiest sites in Shiite Islam, and pilgrims from neighboring Iran continue to flock there despite the fighting. In 2006, Sunni extremists bombed the site, sparking a wave of sectarian bloodletting across the country that killed tens of thousands of people.

As the Islamic State group swept across Iraq last summer, Shiite militiamen heeding a call from the country’s top cleric flooded into Samarra to defend the shrine and halted the militants’ advance 60 miles (95 kilometers) north of Baghdad. Today, the area around the shrine is festooned with militia banners and portraits of Iraqi and Iranian Shiite clerics.

But just across the city there is a conspicuous lack of security forces, and while traffic flows and shops are open during the day, residents say they are walking on eggshells. “We’re concerned about the presence of the militias, with regard to kidnappings and killings,” said Ghani Younis Hassan, the owner of a children’s clothing shop, who said he doesn’t let his wife and children walk the streets for fear of harassment.

“They feel that the shrine justifies their presence here,” he added. “It’s the militias who have the power, not the military, so we feel a lot of concern and unease.” The United States spent billions of dollars training and equipping Iraq’s army during its eight-year occupation, only to see security forces crumble last summer when the Islamic State group rampaged across the north, capturing the country’s second-largest city Mosul as well as Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown.

The rapidly mobilized Shiite militias halted the Islamic State advance and have successfully defended Samarra, which is home to a famed ninth century A.D. spiral minaret and is considered a UNESCO world heritage site. The structure is still standing, but today it is covered in black and red graffiti hailing the various militias.

Human rights groups say Shiite militiamen in other parts of Iraq have carried out revenge attacks against Sunni civilians. The reported kidnappings and killings pale in comparison to the well-publicized atrocities committed by the Islamic State group, but have complicated efforts to mend the war-ravaged country’s sectarian divide.

Iraqi officials believe Samarra — the last major city between Baghdad and the Islamic State’s self-styled caliphate — is still vulnerable, despite the heavy security presence. Even more Shiite militiamen have streamed in since the launch of the Tikrit offensive earlier this month, with many setting up bases in the city.

The city is also hosting Sunnis who fled the Islamic State group or were displaced by the fighting. At a half-built school now housing residents from the nearby village of Kashiefa, one displaced Sunni man, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said the militias visit the camp on occasion, confiscating what few belongings the displaced have, including government food aid.

Majda Hamoudi, a displaced woman, said neighbors had called to tell her that Shiite militiamen destroyed her home. “We were afraid of Daesh and now we are afraid of the militias. It doesn’t end for us,” she said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.

The Shiite militiamen deny such accusations, and say they distrust the Sunni residents of the city they are defending. “Daesh consists of 10 percent foreigners and 90 percent residents of the area,” said Sheikh Jaber al-Lami, a militia fighter from Baghdad. “We’re the ones who are defending this city — it’s (the Sunnis) who let them come into this area in the first place.”

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Iraqi offensive to dislodge Islamic State from Tikrit appears to stall

March 13, 2015

By Saif Hameed BAGHDAD, March 13 (Reuters) – The offensive to retake Tikrit appeared to stall on Friday, two days after Iraqi security forces and mainly Shi’ite militia pushed into Saddam Hussein’s home city in their biggest offensive yet against the militants.

A source in the Salahuddin Operations Command said Iraqi forces would not move forward until reinforcements reached Tikrit, of which Islamic State still holds around half.

Using guerrilla warfare tactics, the militants have turned the city into a labyrinth of home-made bombs and booby-trapped buildings, and are using snipers to halt their progress.

Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Shi’ite paramilitary Badr Organisation and now one of the most powerful men in Iraq said the outcome of the battle for Tikrit was in no doubt, but Iraqi forces needed time.

“We are not in a hurry, but we have a plan and we are following it,” Amiri told Iraqi state television from the Tikrit frontline. “Even if the battle drags on for two, three or four days that is okay. We will celebrate the liberation of Tikrit from the enemy.”

A victory in Tikrit would give Iraqi forces momentum for the next stage of the campaign to retake Mosul, the largest city under control of Islamic State, which now rules a self-proclaimed caliphate in Sunni regions in Syria and Iraq.

But the involvement of Iran, which backs some of the Shi’ite militia at the forefront of the campaign and is also playing a direct role, is a source of unease for some Sunnis in Iraq and across the wider region.

Islamic State fighters overran Tikrit last June during a lightning offensive that was halted just outside Baghdad. They have since used the complex of palaces built in Tikrit under Saddam, the executed former president, as their headquarters.

MARCHING TO MOSUL

The insurgents were still in control of the presidential complex and at least three other districts in the centre of Tikrit on Friday.

Iraqi special forces attacked a medical college in southern Tikrit at dawn, but the militants managed to fend them off, killing three soldiers. A further six people were killed when a Humvee vehicle packed with explosives rammed into an outpost of the Iraqi forces and to the west of the city.

More than 20,000 Iraqi troops and Shi’ite militias, supported by local Sunni tribes are taking part in the offensive, which began 11 days ago, advancing from the east and along the banks of the Tigris.

Any assault on Mosul is likely to be a far more complex undertaking. The northern city is larger, further away from core government-held territory and still densely populated, unlike Tikrit, most of whose residents fled long before the operation began.

The foreign minister of Sunni kingdom Saudi Arabia, Saud al-Faisal, last week said the battle for Tikrit showed how Iran was “taking over” Iraq.

Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani has been spotted on the battlefield overseeing the Tikrit offensive, in which Shi’ite militia are a prominent actor, since the regular army folded last June.

The Shi’ite militia are accused of committing abuses against Sunnis in other territory they have retaken from Islamic State — charges they deny.

OFFENSIVE AROUND KIRKUK

Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani said in an audi-recording published on Thursday that its fighters remained “steadfast” and were growing in strength, dismissing its enemies claims of gains in Tikrit as “fake”.

Adnani warned followers of the danger posed by Shi’ites, using a derogatory term to refer to them: “The rejectionists have entered a new phase in their war against the Sunni people: they have begun to think of taking and controlling the Sunni areas,” he said. “They have come to take your homes and belongings, kill your men and rape and enslave your women.”

Even if the militants are routed from the city, they still hold a vast area straddling the Syrian border where they are likely to regroup, and Iraqi forces have previously struggled to hold ground they have retaken from the extremist group.

Islamic State is on the back foot in the north, where Shi’ite militia and Kurdish forces known as peshmerga went on the offensive around the oil-rich city of Kirkuk on Friday.

The peshmerga began attacking IS positions near Kirkuk on Monday and have since retaken territory and a number of villages to the southwest. Kurdish commanders said they had faced relatively weak resistance, but were being held up by homemade bombs the militants laid before retreating to their stronghold of Hawijah.

Shi’ite militiamen, many of them from Iraq’s ethnic Turkman minority, were closing on the village of Bashir south of Kirkuk, which Islamic State overran last June, massacring more than a dozen people.

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Islamic State militants seize villages near Ramadi in Iraq

April 15, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — The Islamic State extremist group launched an offensive Wednesday in Iraq’s western Anbar province, capturing three villages near the provincial capital of Ramadi in what was the most significant threat to the city by the Sunni militants to date.

The militants’ push comes after the Islamic State was dealt a major blow earlier this month, when Iraqi troops routed the group from Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown. Wednesday’s fighting could also further threaten Ramadi, 115 kilometers (70 miles) west of Baghdad. Nearly a decade ago, Ramadi was one of the strongholds of the insurgency in the U.S.-led war in Iraq. It now is mostly held by Iraqi government forces, although militants control some parts of it, mainly on the outskirts.

In a dawn advance, IS extremists seized the villages of Sjariyah, Albu-Ghanim and Soufiya, which had also been under government control until now, and residents said they had to flee their homes. Fighting was also taking place on the eastern edges of Ramadi, about 2 kilometers (a mile) from a government building, they added.

In Soufiya, the militants bombed a police station and took over a power plant. The residents, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared for their safety, said airstrikes were trying to back up Iraqi troops. Iraqi security officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

Around noon Wednesday, the militants opened another front with government troops on three other villages to the northeast of Ramadi, the residents added. An Iraqi intelligence official said the militants were preparing to launch another offensive from the western side of the city, describing the situation as “critical.”

The IS was also trying to take control of the main highway that goes through Ramadi to cut off supplies, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

Defense Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Tahseen Ibrahim acknowledged that Islamic State militants “gained a foothold in some areas” in Anbar. But he said reinforcements were sent to the province and that airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition were supporting Iraqi forces.

“The situation is under control, and the standoff will be resolved in the coming hours,” Ibrahim told The Associated Press. He added, however, that most of the villagers in the area had fled from their homes amid the fighting.

Hundreds of U.S. and coalition forces have been training Iraqi troops at Anbar’s Ain Al-Asad air base, about 110 kilometers (68 miles) west of Ramadi, which came under IS attack in mid-February. The attack, which involved a suicide bomber, was repelled.

The Anbar fighting coincides with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s visit to Washington where he met Tuesday with President Barack Obama and appealed for greater support from the coalition carrying out airstrikes against the IS militants, who have also captured large areas in neighboring Syria. While Obama has pledged another $200 million in humanitarian aid, he made no mention of any further military support.

In an interview with a group of U.S. reporters, al-Abadi made no mention of the events in Ramadi. He spoke optimistically of gaining Sunni tribal fighter participation in the government’s offensive, saying about 5,000 tribal fighters in Anbar had signed up and received light weapons. “There is a problem because they are asking for more advanced weapons, which to be honest with you we don’t possess,” he said.

Those Sunnis are working “hand-in-hand” with Iraqi security forces, al-Abadi said. As an example of this cooperation, he said he recently visited Habbaniya in Anbar province and walked among 1,500 armed Sunni tribal fighters.

“I felt safe,” he said. “That’s how much the situation has changed in the country. That says a lot about the situation in Anbar,” he said. Ramadi and Fallujah were major strongholds for al-Qaida insurgents during the eight-year U.S.-led invasion, and fighting in Anbar was especially costly for Americans there. A lasting image of the war was the bodies of U.S. contractors hanging from a bridge in Fallujah in March 2004. The six-week fight in November 2004 to retake Fallujah was an iconic moment for the Marines — with nearly 100 Americans killed in battle and hundreds more injured.

Many of the insurgents were forced to flee Iraq or go into hiding in the latter years of the invasion. In late 2013, however, militants of the Islamic State group used the Syrian civil war to their advantage and began to push back into Iraq through Anbar province. They capitalized on resentment toward the Shiite-led government in Baghdad to secure their position among predominantly Sunni residents. In January 2014, Fallujah was the first major Iraqi city seized by the militant group, and it has been making slow, but steady progress in the province ever since.

The seizure of about a third of Iraq by the Islamic State has pushed the country into its worst crisis since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops. Al-Abadi said Iraqi forces will follow their victory in Tikrit with campaigns against Islamic State in the oil town of Beiji and western Anbar province. He said a counteroffensive against the northern town of Mosul would not come before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins in mid-June.

The U.S. Central Command said the international coalition carried out 23 airstrikes on militants in Iraq and Syria since Tuesday. Of those, 17 were in Iraq, including three near Ramadi on tactical units an armored personnel carrier, two near Fallujah, and nine near Beiji, it said.

In addition to the clashes in Anbar province, a series of militant attacks in and around Baghdad killed at least 43 people in the past two days.

Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub, Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Vivian Salama in Baghdad and National Security writer Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.

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Russia lifts ban on delivery of S-300 missiles to Iran

April 13, 2015

MOSCOW (AP) — President Vladimir Putin on Monday sanctioned the delivery of a highly capable Russian air defense missile system to Iran, a game changer move that would significantly bolster the Islamic republic’s military capability and fuel Israel’s concerns.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry objected to Moscow’s decision in a phone call to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and the White House indicated the move could endanger plans to ultimately lift sanctions on Iran as part of a proposed nuclear deal.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said unity and coordination with nations like Russia is critical to the success of the negotiations. Washington has said Moscow played a constructive role in the Iranian nuclear talks, despite sharp differences between Russia and the West over Ukraine.

Putin’s move was quickly welcomed by Tehran, while it worried Israel, which saw it as a sign that Iran already had begun to cash in on the emerging nuclear deal with world powers that is expected to be finalized by the end of June.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the missile system could be shipped to Iran at any moment. Russia signed the $800 million contract to sell Iran the S-300 missile system in 2007, but suspended their delivery three years later because of strong objections from the United States and Israel. Putin on Monday lifted that ban.

The preliminary agreement on settling the Iranian nuclear standoff struck earlier this month made the 2010 Russian ban unnecessary, Lavrov said in a televised statement. The framework agreement reached by Iran and six world powers is intended to significantly restrict its ability to produce nuclear weapons while giving it relief from international sanctions. The agreement is supposed to be finalized by June 30, and there is no firm agreement yet on how or when to lift the international sanctions on Iran.

The S-300 missile system, which has a range of up to 200 kilometers (125 miles) and the capability to track down and strike multiple targets simultaneously, is one of the most potent air defense weapons in the world.

“The S-300 is exclusively a defensive weapon, which can’t serve offensive purposes and will not jeopardize the security of any country, including, of course, Israel,” Lavrov said. Deployed in big numbers, the system could provide a strong deterrent against any air attack. If Israel decides to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, the S-300s would further complicate the already daunting task.

Israeli Cabinet minister Yuval Steinitz said the framework nuclear agreement helped legitimize Iran and cleared the way for Monday’s announcement by Russia. “This is a direct result of the legitimacy that Iran obtained from the emerging nuclear deal,” Steinitz said. “Instead of demanding Iran stop its terror activities that it spreads in the Middle East and the entire world, it is being allowed to arm itself with advanced weapons that will only increase its aggression.”

Israel has harshly criticized the U.S.-led nuclear deal, saying it would give Iran relief from sanctions while leaving its nuclear program largely intact. Israel believes Iran still intends to develop a nuclear weapon.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t specifically mention the Russian move Monday, but poured scorn on the proposed nuclear agreement, saying that “Iran draws encouragement from the concessions that it is receiving from the major powers.”

“It is a deal that leaves Iran in possession of the capability to arm itself with nuclear weapons, that fills its coffers with a lot of money and that not only enables it to continue its terrorism and aggression in the Middle East and around the world but does not even demand that it stop doing so,” he said.

Moscow’s plans to sell the S-300s to Iran long have been an irritant in Russia-Israeli relations. In recent years, Israel has refrained from providing sophisticated weapons to Georgia and Ukraine as part of an “understanding” with Russia that it not sell the s300s to Iran — a position that now may change.

Russian officials previously said that the specific model of the S-300 that Russia was to deliver under the 2007 contract is no longer produced, and offered Iran a modified version of it called S-300VM, or Antey-2500.

But instead of manufacturing new missile systems for Iran, Russia may provide some S-300s from its own military arsenals. In that case, the delivery may happen quickly. In Tehran, Iranian Defense Minister Gen. Hossein Dehghan welcomed Russia’s decision to lift the ban. “The decision is the translation of political determination of leaders of both countries for improving and promoting cooperation levels in all fields,” Gen. Dehghan was quoted by the official IRNA news agency as saying.

Back in 2010, Russia linked its decision to freeze the missiles’ delivery to the sanctions the United Nations Security Council imposed on Iran over its nuclear program, but Lavrov argued Monday that the Russian move was voluntary and not directly required by the U.N. resolutions.

“It was done in the spirit of good will in order to encourage progress in talks,” Lavrov said. “We are convinced that at this stage there is no longer need for such an embargo, specifically for a separate, voluntary Russian embargo.”

Iran responded to the Russian ban by filing a lawsuit with a court in Geneva seeking $4 billion in damages for breach of contract, but the court has not issued a ruling. Lavrov said that Russia had to take into account “commercial and reputational” issues linked to freezing the contract.

“Because of the suspension of the contract, Russia has failed to receive significant funds,” he said. “We see no need to continue doing that.” He added that Iran badly needs modern air defense systems because of a tense situation in the region, specifically in Yemen.

Observers said the go-ahead on the S-300 deliveries could reflect Moscow’s maneuvering to secure a niche at the lucrative Iranian market before other powers move in. Vladimir Sazhin, an expert on Iran with the Moscow-based Institute for Eastern Studies, said the move came “at the turning point, when the Iranian market is becoming a strong attraction.”

“Preparation is already going on for the day when the sanctions are lifted and everyone will rush to Iran,” he was quoted by Interfax as saying. Lifting the ban could also mark an attempt by the Kremlin to raise the heat on Washington and its allies and make them more willing to listen to Russian arguments in the Ukraine crisis.

Lynn Berry in Moscow, Josef Federman and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran contributed to this report.

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IS group tightens its grip on Mosul residents

By Sinan Salaheddin

March 13, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — Freedom from the Islamic State group comes at a steep price, as one newly wedded couple recently discovered. Eager to live a normal life, away from the harsh dominion of the militants’ self-styled caliphate, the young pair is searching for ways to bypass the extremists’ newly-implemented departure taxes and escape the IS-held city of Mosul.

“Do they really want me to give up the house my father spent years building to an Afghani or Chechen or to an Iraqi villager so that I can leave for good? They are dreaming,” the 29-year old groom said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. Most of his family had already fled last June when a shocking Islamic State blitz overran Mosul, but he stayed behind to protect his family home.

Fearing the city might simply empty of civilians, or that fleeing residents may join the fight against them, the Islamic State extremists are imposing tough measures to prevent people from leaving their territory.

Several residents, who spoke to The Associated Press by telephone on condition of anonymity to ensure their safety, said anyone seeking to leave must submit the title for their family home or car — if the vehicle is worth more than $20,000 — to be granted permission to leave for two weeks. If they fail to return within that period, their property will be confiscated.

Married earlier this year, they are finally ready to leave Mosul but trapped by the tough new restrictions, which were imposed in stages starting last October. The couple, who were engaged before Mosul fell, had dreamed of a lavish wedding with the traditional honking motorcade taking the bride from her father’s home to the social hall for a celebration packed with friends and relatives.

“Instead we had a tiny wedding party with only three cars with modest decoration and almost no songs or music and only few relatives attended,” said the 22-year old wife. “What bitterness.”

The Islamic State group, which now controls about a third of Syria and Iraq, first banned all former police and army officers from leaving, for fear they would join the fight against IS-rule. Then the restrictions were tightened to allow only patients with urgent medical requirements or retirees who need to collect their pensions outside the city. In late February, the requirement for travelers to turn over their home or car title was imposed.

Mosul residents are watching with keen interest the ongoing offensive by the Iraqi army and allied Shiite militiamen to dislodge the Islamic State group from Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, about 200 kilometers (124 miles) southeast of Mosul. The retaking of Tikrit is seen as a crucial test for the Iraqi troops and a key step toward the ultimate recapture of Mosul.

The Iraqi forces entered Tikrit for the first time on Wednesday, from the north and south, and by Thursday, they were fighting their way through the city, along two fronts, hoping to reach the center within three to four days, according to commanders on the front-lines.

Meanwhile, in Mosul — Iraq’s second largest city — many residents feel they have no choice but to endure under Islamic State rule.

“I can’t leave here with my family because I have no other source for living,” said a Mosul resident and father of four who sells wholesale cosmetics. “Every day when I come back home, I lock the house door on my family.”

The restrictions apply only for those wishing to head south into government-held Iraq; residents can still travel to and from Turkey. Those leaving for urgent medical reasons now also have to provide collateral, and can only leave if their claim is approved by a special medical committee made up of IS-loyalist doctors.

One resident told the AP that when doctors in Baghdad changed the date of his surgery, one of his companions had to travel back to Mosul to obtain an extension to his two-week leave or else he would have lost his home.

Unwilling to surrender the deed to the groom’s family home, the young Mosul couple found a taxi driver who moonlights as a smuggler sneaking residents out of the city. But the pair, both civil servants, could not meet his $20,000 price tag.

Trapped in their hometown, they are chafing under the Islamic State group’s harsh interpretation of Islamic law. The wife has to cover herself from head to toe with an enveloping niqab garment. When out in public together, they constantly have to show proof of their marriage at militant checkpoints.

“I’m fed up, I want to live a normal life with my husband where I can go out with him at any time without worrying about our safety, the marriage documents and even without being annoyed by the niqab when eating at a restaurant,” she said.

Both are now looking for a more affordable smuggler, saying the most they can afford is $5,000.

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Iraqi forces push into Tikrit from north and south

11 March 2015 Wednesday

Iraqi security forces and militias fought their way into Saddam Hussein’s home city of Tikrit on Wednesday, advancing from the north and south in their biggest counter-offensive so far against ISIL.

The provincial governor said the army and militia fighters captured part of the northern district of Qadisiya, while in the south of the Tigris river city a security officer said another force made a rapid push towards the center.

“The forces entered Tikrit general hospital,” an official at the main military operation command center said. “There is heavy fighting going on near the presidential palaces, next to the hospital complex.”

Islamic State fighters who stormed into Tikrit in June during a lightning offensive through north and central Iraq have used the complex of palaces built in Tikrit under Saddam, the executed former president, as their headquarters.

More than 20,000 troops and Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim militias known as Hashid Shaabi, supported by local Sunni Muslim tribes, launched the offensive for Tikrit 10 days ago, advancing from the east and along the Tigris river.

On Tuesday they took the town of al-Alam on the northern edge of Tikrit, paving the way for an attack on the city itself.

“The governor of Salahuddin announces the purging of half of Qadisiya district, the largest of Tikrit’s neighborhoods,” a statement from governor Raed al-Jubouri’s office said.

The army and militia fighters raised the national flag above a military hospital in the section of Qadisiya they had retaken from the militants, security officials said.

After pausing while helicopters attacked ISIL snipers and positions, the ground forces were progressing steadily, taking “one street every 30 minutes” the security official said. He said there was fierce fighting around Tikrit police headquarters just south of Qadisiya.

To the northwest, troops and Hashid Shaabi fighters were clashing with ISIL militants in the city’s industrial zone, he added.

RAMADI ATTACKS

If Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government is able to retake Tikrit it would be the first city clawed back from the Sunni insurgents and would give it momentum in the next, pivotal stage of the campaign – to recapture Mosul, the largest city in the north.

Mosul is the biggest city held by the ultra-radical Islamic State, who now rule a self-declared cross-border caliphate in Sunni regions of Syria and Iraq.

Over the past few months Islamic State has gradually lost ground in Iraq to the army, Shi’ite militias and Kurdish peshmerga forces, backed by air strikes carried out by a U.S.-led coalition of mainly Western and allied Arab states.

The United States says Baghdad did not seek aerial backup from the coalition in the Tikrit campaign. Instead, support on the ground has come from neighboring Iran, Washington’s longtime regional rival, which has sent an elite Revolutionary Guard commander to oversee part of the battle.

In the western province of Anbar, suicide car bombers in seven vehicles attacked Iraqi army positions in the provincial capital Ramadi, about 90 km (55 miles) west of Baghdad, police and medical sources say.

A total of five people were killed in the attacks, including two policemen, and 19 were wounded, a medical source said, stressing that the toll was only preliminary.

One of the car bombs exploded near a bridge in the west of the city and damaged part of the bridge, a police source said.

In the north, an Islamic State suicide bomber struck a position of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the town of Sinjar. After the bombing around 70 militants attacked but were driven back by coalition airstrikes, according to a senior Kurdish security official in the area.

Source: World Bulletin.

Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/todays-news/156445/iraqi-forces-push-into-tikrit-from-north-and-south.

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In battle against IS, Iraqi forces retake town near Tikrit

March 10, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi security forces on Tuesday retook a town next to the militant-held city of Tikrit as they pressed their offensive against Islamic State militants, two military officials said.

The Iraqi forces entered Alam early in the morning and hours later gained full control of the town adjacent to Tikrit, the two Iraqi officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

The battle for Saddam Hussein’s hometown is a key test for the Iraqi forces as they struggle to win back some of the Islamic State group’s biggest strongholds in Iraq. Ahmed al-Karim, the Salahuddin provincial council chief, told The Associated Press that progress had been slow due to roadside bombs and sniper attacks.

Tikrit, Salahuddin’s provincial capital that lies about 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad, fell to the Islamic State group last summer, along with Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, and other areas in the country’s Sunni heartland.

The offensive to wrest Tikrit from IS has received significant assistance from Iranian military advisers who are guiding Iraq’s Shiite militias on the battlefield. U.S.-led coalition forces have said they are not providing aerial support for this particular mission because the Iraqis have not requested it.

Before Alam, the offensive succeeded in clawing back a few villages and towns, most notably Dawr, south of Tikrit. Among those directing operations is Iranian Gen. Ghasem Soleimani, commander of the powerful Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force. The overt Iranian role and the prominence of Shiite militias in the campaign have raised fears of possible sectarian cleansing should Tikrit, an overwhelmingly Sunni city, fall to the government troops.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Syria, activists said Tuesday that more than 70 prisoners escaped from an Islamic State jail in a town held by the militant group. The militants then went house-to-house and set up checkpoints around the northern town of Al-Bab, searching for those who fled.

The prisoners took the opportunity to escape when clashes erupted between rival militant groups, said Bari Abdelatif, an activist from al-Bab who is now based in Turkey. “There are checkpoints everywhere,” Abdelatif said of the situation in the town. He said he was contact with residents and added that IS fighters were driving through town streets and calling on people over loudspeakers to hand over any prisoners they were hiding.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Abdelatif said those who fled included Kurdish fighters who were captured by the Islamic State group in recent months. The Observatory said the IS extremists were able to recapture some of those who fled but did not provide details or numbers.

Along with a third of Iraq, the Islamic State last year also captured a third of Syria last year. In the past months, the group has been defeated in some areas, including the Syrian border town of Kobani and several surrounding villages.

U.S. military officials have that said a coordinated military mission to retake Mosul will likely begin in April or May and involve up to 25,000 Iraqi troops. But the Americans have cautioned that if the Iraqis are not ready, the offensive could be delayed.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said while on a visit to the region on Monday that he is “a bit concerned” about whether the international coalition fighting the Islamic State is sustainable for the longer-term challenge of confronting extremists elsewhere.

Dempsey said that in military terms the campaign against IS is “on path.” But he put equal emphasis on the importance of sustaining the coalition for the longer term. Shiite dominance in Baghdad has upset predominantly Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Associated Press writers Vivian Salama in Baghdad and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

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