Archive for July, 2015

Saudi Arabia says strikes push Yemen rebels out of air bases

March 29, 2015

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — A Saudi-led airstrike campaign targeting Shiite rebels who control much of Yemen has pushed them out of contested air bases and destroyed any jet fighter remaining in the Arab world’s poorest country, the kingdom has said.

Saudi Brig. Gen. Ahmed bin Hasan Asiri said the airstrike campaign, now entering its fourth day Sunday, continued to target Scud missiles in Yemen, leaving most of their launching pads “devastated,” according to remarks carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency.

However, he warned Saturday that the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, could control more of the missiles. His account could not be immediately corroborated. The Houthis began their offensive in September, seizing the capital, Sanaa, and later holding embattled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi under house arrest. The rebels later took over government in Yemen and ultimately forced Hadi to flee the country in recent days.

A Saudi-led coalition of some 10 countries began bombing Yemen on Thursday, saying it was targeting the Houthis and their allies, which include forces loyal to Yemen’s former leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

On Saturday, Hadi directly accused Iran of being behind the Houthi offensive as leaders at an Arab summit considered creating a military reaction force in the Mideast, raising the specter of a regional conflict pitting Sunni Arab nations against Shiite power Iran. Iran and the Houthis deny that Tehran arms the rebel movement, though the Islamic Republic has provided humanitarian and other aid.

Meanwhile Sunday, Pakistan planned to dispatch a plane to the Yemeni city of Hodeida, hoping to evacuate some 500 citizens gathered there, said Shujaat Azim, an adviser to Pakistan’s prime minister. Azim told state-run Pakistan Television more flights would follow as those controlling Yemen’s airports allowed them.

Pakistan says some 3,000 of its citizens live in Yemen. Ali Hassan, a Pakistani in Hodeida, told Pakistan’s private GEO satellite news channel that hundreds there anxiously waited for a way home. “We had sleepless nights due to the bombardment in Sanaa,” Hassan said.

Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed in Islamabad and Jon Gambrell in Cairo contributed to this report.

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Summer camp for Iraqi Shiite boys: training to fight IS

July 28, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — A quiet middle-class Shiite neighborhood in western Baghdad was transformed recently into a mini-boot camp, training teenagers for battle against the Islamic State group.

The Shiite boys and young men ran through its normally placid streets carrying out mock exercises for urban warfare since the toughest battles against the Sunni extremists are likely to involve street fighting. They were taught how to hold, control and aim light weapons, though they didn’t fire them.

In cities from Baghdad to Basra, summer camps set up by the Popular Mobilization Forces, Iraq’s largest militia umbrella group, are training teens and boys as young as middle school age after the country’s top Shiite cleric issued an edict calling on students to use their school vacations to prepare for battle if they are needed.

With dozens of such camps around the country, hundreds of students have gone through the training though it is impossible to say how many went on to fight the Sunni extremists since those who do so go independently. Of around 200 cadets in a training class visited by The Associated Press, about half were under the age of 18, with some as young as 15. Several said they intended to join their fathers and older brothers on the front lines.

It’s yet another way minors are being dragged into Iraq’s brutal war as the military, Shiite militias and Kurdish fighters battle to take back territory from Islamic State militants, who seized much of the country’s north and west over the past year. The Sunni extremists have aggressively enlisted children as young as 10 for combat, as suicide bombers and as executioners in their horrifying videos.

Among those training this month in the streets of Baghdad, 15-year-old Jaafar Osama said he used to want to be an engineer when he grew up, but now he wants to be a fighter. His father is a volunteer fighting with the Shiite militias in Anbar and his older brother is fighting in Beiji, north of Baghdad.

“God willing, when I complete my training I will join them, even if it means sacrificing my life to keep Iraq safe,” he said. Earlier this summer, the AP saw over a dozen armed young boys, some as young as 10, deployed on the front line with the Shiite militias in western Anbar province.

Baghdad natives Hussein Ali, 12, and his cousin Ali Ahsan, 14, said they joined their fathers on the battlefield after they finished their final exams. Carrying AK-47’s, they paced around the Anbar desert, boasting of their resolve to liberate the predominantly Sunni province from IS militants.

“It’s our honor to serve our country,” Hussein Ali said, adding that some of his schoolmates were also fighting. When asked if he was afraid, he smiled and said no. The training program could have serious implications for the U.S.-led coalition, which supports the Iraqi government but has distanced itself from the Iranian-backed militias. The U.S. does not work directly with the Popular Mobilization Forces, but they receive weapons and funding from the Iraqi government and are trained by the Iraqi military, which receives its training from the U.S.

The Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008 says the U.S. cannot provide certain forms of military support, including foreign military financing and direct commercial sales to governments that recruit and use child soldiers or support paramilitaries or militias that do.

When informed of the AP findings, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad issued a statement saying the U.S. was “very concerned by the allegations on the use of child soldiers in Iraq among some Popular Mobilization Forces in the fight against ISIL,” using an acronym for the militant group. “We have strongly condemned this practice around the world and will continue to do so.”

Last year, when IS took over the northern city of Mosul, stormed to the doorstep of Baghdad and threatened to destroy Shiite holy sites, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called on the public to volunteer to fight. His influence was so great that hundreds of thousands of men came forward to join the hastily-established Popular Mobilization Forces along with some of the long-established Shiite militias, most of which receive support from Iran.

Then, on June 9, as schools let out, al-Sistani issued a new fatwa urging young people in college, high school and even middle school to use their summer vacations to “contribute to (the country’s) preservation by training to take up arms and prepare to fend off risk, if this is required.”

A spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Forces, Kareem al-Nouri, said the camps give “lessons in self-defense” and underage volunteers are expected to return to school by September, not go to the front.

A spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister’s office echoed that. There may be “some isolated incidents” of underage fighters joining combat on their own, Saad al-Harithi told the AP. “But there has been no instruction by the Marjaiyah (the top Shiite religious authority) or the Popular Mobilization Forces for children to join the battle.”

“We are a government that frowns upon children going to war,” he said. But the line between combat training and actually joining combat is weakly enforced by the Popular Mobilization Forces. Multiple militias operate under its umbrella, with fighters loyal to different leaders who often act independently.

Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s senior crisis response adviser, said that if the Shiite militias are using children as fighters, “then the countries that are supporting them are in violation of the U.N. Convention” on the Rights of the Child.

“If you are supporting the Iraqi army, then by extension, you are supporting” the Popular Mobilization Forces, she said. The U.N. convention does not ban giving military training to minors. But Jo Becker, the advocacy director of the children’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, said that it puts children at risk.

“Governments like to say, ‘Of course, we can recruit without putting children in harm’s way,’ but in a place of conflict, those landscapes blur very quickly,” she said.

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Saudi airstrikes target rebel bases in Yemen

March 26, 2015

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Saudi Arabia bombed key military installations in Yemen on Thursday after announcing a broad regional coalition to oust Shiite rebels that forced the country’s embattled president to flee. Some of the strikes hit positions in the country’s capital, Sanaa, and flattened a number of homes near the international airport.

The airstrikes, which had the support of nine other countries, drew a strong reaction from Iran which called the operation an “invasion” and a “dangerous step” that will worsen the crisis in the country.

Iran “condemns the airstrikes against Yemen this morning that left some innocent Yemenis wounded and dead and considers this action a dangerous step,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said in a statement. She said military action would complicate and worsen the crisis in Yemen.

“This invasion will bear no result but expansion of terrorism and extremism throughout the whole region,” she said. The Saudi airstrikes came hours after President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, a close U.S. ally, fled Yemen by sea after rebels pushed their way toward the southern port city of Aden where he had taken refuge.

The back-and-forth between the regional heavyweights was threatening to turn impoverished Yemen into a proxy battle between the Middle East’s Sunni powers and Shiite-led Iran. Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya News reported that the kingdom had deployed 100 fighter jets, 150,000 soldiers and other navy units in “Operation Decisive Storm.”

The Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, were calling on their supporters to protest in the streets of Sanaa on Thursday afternoon, Yemen’s Houthi-controlled state news agency SABA reported. TV stations affiliated with the rebels and their ally, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, showed the aftermath of the strikes Thursday morning in what appeared to be a residential area.

Al-Masirah TV, affiliated with the Houthis, quoted the ministry of health as saying that 18 civilians were killed and 24 were injured. Yemen Today, a TV station affiliated with Saleh, showed hundreds of residents congregating around a number of flattened houses, some chanting “Death to Al-Saud”, in reference to the kingdom’s royal family. The civilians were sifting through the rubble, pulling out mattresses, bricks and shrapnel.

An Associated Press reporter on the scene in the Sanaa neighborhood near the international airport saw people searching for loved ones in the debris of flattened homes. Residents said at least three bodies were pulled from the rubble. There were traces of blood between the bricks.

Ahmed al-Sumaini said an entire alley close to the airport was wiped out in the strikes overnight. He said people ran out from their homes in the middle of the night. “This was a surprise. I was asleep and I was jolted out of my bed,” he said, waving a piece of shrapnel.

In addition to the airport, targets included the camp of U.S.-trained Yemeni special forces, which is controlled by generals loyal to Saleh. Yemeni security officials said the targets also included a missile base in Sanaa that was controlled by the Houthis earlier this year. One of the security officials said the strikes also targeted the fuel depot at the base.

The Houthis said in a statement that Saudi jets hit the military base, known as al-Duleimi, and that they responded with anti-aircraft missiles. The strikes also hit the al-Annad air base in the southern Lahj province. About 100 U.S. military advisers withdrew over the weekend from base, where they had been leading a drone campaign against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.

The crumbling of Hadi’s government is a blow to Washington’s counterterrorism strategy against al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen, considered to be the most powerful in the terrorist network. The security officials spoke on condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized to brief journalists.

Riad Yassin, Yemen’s foreign minister, told Saudi’s Al-Hadath TV that the airstrikes were welcomed. “I hope the Houthis listen to the sound of reason. With what is happening, they forced us into this,” he said.

Saudi ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir announced the military operation in a news conference in Washington. He said his government had consulted closely with the U.S. and other allies but that the U.S. military was not involved in the operations.

The White House said in a statement late Wednesday that the U.S. was coordinating military and intelligence support with the Saudis but not taking part directly in the strikes. Other regional players were involved in the Saudi operation: The United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain joined Saudi Arabia in a statement published by the Saudi Press Agency, saying they would answer a request from Hadi “to protect Yemen and his dear people from the aggression of the Houthi militias which were and are still a tool in the hands of foreign powers that don’t stop meddling with the security and stability of brotherly Yemen.” Oman, the sixth member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, didn’t sign onto the statement.

On a Thursday conference call with foreign ministers from the council, Secretary of State John Kerry commended the work of the coalition’s military action against the Houthis, according to a State Department official traveling with Kerry in Lausanne, Switzerland. Kerry noted U.S. support for coalition efforts, including intelligence sharing and logistical support for strikes against Houthi targets, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private diplomatic call.

Egypt announced political and military support, saying it is ready to send ground troops if necessary. Jordan confirmed it was participating in the operation. Pakistan, Morocco and Sudan were also taking part, the Saudi Press Agency reported Thursday.

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies believe the Houthis are tools for Iran to seize control of Yemen and say they intend to stop the takeover. The Houthis deny they are backed by Iran. Yemen now faces fragmentation, with Houthis controlling much of the north, including the capital of Sanaa, and several southern provinces. In recent days, they took the third-largest city, Taiz, as well as much of the province of Lahj, both just to the north of Aden.

The Houthis are backed by Saleh, the autocrat who ruled Yemen for three decades until he was removed amid a 2011 Arab Spring uprising. Some of the best-equipped and trained military and security units remained loyal to Saleh and they have helped the Houthis in their rapid advance.

Hadi left Sanaa for Aden earlier this month after escaping house arrest under the Houthis, who overran the capital six months ago. In Aden, he had sought to make a last stand, claiming it as the temporary seat of what remained of his government, backed by allied militias and loyal army units.

With Houthis and Saleh forces closing in on multiple fronts, Hadi and his aides left Aden Wednesday on two boats in the Gulf of Aden, security and port officials told AP. The officials would not specify his destination.

Arab leaders are meeting in Egypt this weekend for a pre-planned summit. It is unclear if Hadi will join them.

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Saudis, Egypt consider intervention in Yemen, likely by air

March 25, 2015

CAIRO (AP) — With Yemen’s president swept out of power by Shiite rebels, neighboring Saudi Arabia and allies such as Egypt are considering whether and how to intervene to stop a takeover of the country by rebels they believe are backed by Shiite Iran.

President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has asked Gulf countries for military intervention and asked the United Nations to set up a no-fly zone to shut down rebel-held airports that he claims are being used to fly in Iranian weapons. The question is how Arab nations might act: Experts say a ground operation would be a likely impossibly daunting task, but that airstrikes are an option.

Gulf intervention would have been hard enough when Hadi was clinging to his authority after fleeing from the capital Sanaa to the southern port city of Aden. But it became an even tougher issue Wednesday, when Hadi was forced to flee Yemen by boat as rebel fighters — known as Houthis — and their allies advanced into Aden. The Houthis now control much of the north and a few southern provinces, backed by military forces loyal to Hadi’s predecessor, longtime autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was removed in 2011 after a popular uprising.

There does remain resistance to the Houthis and Saleh — chiefly Sunni tribesmen in the north and center of the country, local militias and some units of the military and police remain loyal to Hadi, though they are profoundly weakened by his departure. The scattered nature of the opposition raises the question of whom would any foreign intervention being aiming to help. Also battling the Houthis are militants from al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen, which has attracted some Sunni tribesmen as allies.

A summit of Arab leaders being held this weekend in Egypt is due to address a proposal to create a joint Arab defense force, an idea promoted by Saudi Arabia and Egypt to intervene in regional crises. Hadi is to attend the summit, being held in the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. The summit is also likely to address the crisis in Yemen and how to deal with it — opening the door for a possible Arab League stamp of approval for action.

Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdellaty said that he and his Arab counterparts would discuss the idea of establishing a joint force on Thursday, to prepare for national leaders to decide on Saturday.

Gulf nations also have cited their own pretext for intervention. The Gulf Cooperation Council, made up of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Bahrain, warned earlier this year that they would act to protect the Arabian Peninsula’s security and described the Houthi takeover of parts of Yemen as a “terrorist” act. The Gulf’s emergency military force, known as Peninsula Shield, intervened in Bahrain in 2011 to help the Sunni monarchy crush protests backed by the Shiite majority.

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies fear that the Shiite advance in Yemen is putting that strategic country on the southern Saudi borders into the control of Iran. The Houthis and Iran both deny Tehran is arming the rebels. Still, a direct air route recently opened from Tehran to Sanaa, which has been held by the Houthis since September, officially to being aid and medical supplies. Hadi and his allies say the heavy air traffic along the route is delivering Iranian weapons.

This week, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal warned that “if the Houthi coup does not end peacefully, we will take the necessary measures for this crisis to protect the region.” On Sunday night, Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman visited troops in the south near the Yemen border. According to the state news agency he ordered the rapid completion of plans on building a naval base and new military camps in the area, apparently part of plans to build up the army presence in the area.

Egypt has said for months that it would act if the Houthis threaten vital shipping lanes that lead to its Suez Canal through the Gulf of Aden, an area the Houthis have already approached. Much of the Gulf region’s oil exports destined for the West sail through the area.

But what would a military intervention look like? Not a ground invasion, says Sir John Jenkins, Middle East Executive Director for the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “I think the likelihood of boots on the ground is very low,” he said. “The Houthis are on home terrain, supported by Ali Abdullah Saleh, and have proved themselves effective fighters. They also have heavy weaponry and political support from Iran.”

A ground invasion now would face the tough terrain between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and a fierce enemy that for years beat back Yemeni government forces from its northern highland redoubts. Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen against the Houthis once before, in late 2009 to early 2010, when the rebels’ battle at the time with Saleh’s regime spilled over across the border into the kingdom. Saudi Arabia retaliated with airstrikes against the Houthis and a ground incursion. The campaign left more than 130 Saudi troops killed.

More likely now would be airstrikes by some combination of Saudi Arabia, UAE or Bahrain, all of which have advanced versions of American F-16s, or Egypt, which has large numbers of older versions. Egypt would have to send its planes to air bases in Saudi for the raids, and other countries would likely opt to do the same.

Saudi Arabia could also step up its arming of Sunni tribesmen against the Houthis. The kingdom already funds and arms Sunnis in Yemen’s Marib province, which borders the kingdom. But with Hadi driven out, there isn’t a clear front line for international intervention to support. Any intervention would likely be in the name of restoring Hadi — but doing so with airstrikes alone would be a difficult task.

“Air strikes are a possibility, against military targets, particularly Houthi air assets, artillery and tanks, but that brings its own risks,” Jenkins said. “At the moment preserving the integrity of the land border with Saudi Arabia and the key passages in the Red Sea seems to me the priority.”

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Iraq begins operation to oust Islamic State group from Anbar

July 13, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — The Iraqi government began a long-awaited, large-scale military operation on Monday to dislodge Islamic State militants from the country’s sprawling western Anbar province, a military spokesman announced.

The spokesman for the Joint Operations Command, Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, said in a televised statement that the operation started at dawn and that government forces were being backed by Shiite and Sunni pro-government fighters. Rasool did not say whether the U.S.-led international coalition was taking part.

This is not the first time the Iraqi government has announced an operation to retake Anbar — where several key towns, including the provincial capital, Ramadi, remain under Islamic State control. In May, authorities announced an operation to retake Ramadi, but there has not been any major progress on the ground since then.

In a brief statement, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi vowed to “take revenge from Daesh criminals on the battlefield … and their cowardly crimes against unarmed civilians will only increase our determination to chase them and to expel them from the land of Iraq.”

The Islamic State group, also known by the Arabic acronym Daesh, seized large parts of Anbar in early 2014 and captured Ramadi in May. Iraqi forces, which had been making steady progress against the extremists in recent months with the help of the air campaign, scored a major victory in recapturing Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit in April.

During the past few weeks, the troops have been moving to cut the militants’ supply routes and to surround and isolate Ramadi and Fallujah. Rasool didn’t provide any further details on the ongoing operations. By noon, the country’s state TV reported government forces recapturing villages and areas around Fallujah, which is located half way between Baghdad and Ramadi.

Hours after the announcement of the military operation, Iraq’s Defense Ministry announced the arrival of four F-16 fighter jets from the United States to Balad air base north of Baghdad. They are part of 36 F-16s purchased by the Iraqi government.

The new fighter jets will boost Iraq’s air force, which depends only on several Russian-made secondhand Sukhoi jets. Last week, a Sukhoi fighter jet accidentally dropped a bomb over a Baghdad neighborhood, killing at least 12 people.

Meanwhile, U.S.-led coalition forces continued their aerial campaign across Iraq and Syria, ramping up attacks near Ramadi, which IS captured in May. A statement by the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve said that 29 airstrikes struck 67 IS staging areas near Ramadi over the previous day. The strikes destroyed two IS excavators, a militant armored personnel carrier, and a militant vehicle, the coalition said.

Also, on Monday, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for a series of bombings Sunday in Shiite areas of Baghdad that killed at least 29 people and wounded 81. Iraq is going through its worst crisis since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops. The Islamic State group controls large swaths of the country’s north and west after capturing Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul and most of Anbar.

In neighboring Syria, government helicopter gunships dropped barrel bombs on a diesel market in the northern town of al-Bab that is held by the Islamic State group, activists and pro-IS social media pages said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday’s airstrikes killed 13 people, including six women, and wounded as many as 40. A Facebook page used by Islamic State supporters said 35 people died. The discrepancy could not be immediately resolved.

Monday’s attack on al-Bab came two days after activists said army airstrikes killed at least 28 people in the town, which is a frequent target of Syrian army strikes that often kill civilians. On May 31, Syrian army airstrikes that hit a packed market in al-Bab killed around 70 people, most of them civilians.

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

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Tariq Aziz family says his body has gone missing in Iraq

June 11, 2015

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — The body of Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein’s former top aide who died last week in prison in Iraq, went missing on Thursday after it was snatched in Baghdad while en route to Jordan for burial, Aziz’s daughter said.

Aziz’s daughter Zeinab said she was told by her mother — who was in Iraq and waited to accompany the casket to Jordan — that his body went missing at the Baghdad International Airport. No further details were immediately known.

A Royal Jordanian official confirmed that the last flight left Baghdad on Thursday without Aziz’s casket. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.

Calls to the Iraqi government for comment or information were not immediately returned. Aziz died last Friday in the city of Nasiriyah, where he was imprisoned awaiting execution. Iraqi forensics chief Zaid Ali Abbas says autopsy results Thursday confirmed that he died of a heart attack.

He was the highest-ranking Christian in Saddam’s regime and was the international face of the Baath Party in Iraq. He was sentenced in October 2010 to hang for persecuting members of the Shiite Muslim religious parties that now dominate Iraq.

In recent months, a number of other former Saddam loyalists have been suspected of working with the Islamic State militants in what is viewed as a Sunni alliance of convenience against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.

Another senior Saddam aide, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, is suspected of working directly with the Sunni militant group. In April, a number of Iraqi government officials and members of the country’s Iran-backed Shiite militias announced that al-Douri was killed in fighting near Tikrit. But DNA results were never released to confirm the death as promised.

Aziz’s daughter, obviously distraught, would not speculate or who may have snatched the body and for what purpose. In Baghdad, Aziz’s wife Violet and airport officials could also not be reached for comment.

Associated Press Writer Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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Iraq begins operation to oust Islamic State from Anbar

May 26, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq vowed Tuesday to retake Anbar province — now mostly held by the Islamic State — by launching a large-scale military operation less than two weeks after suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of the extremists in the provincial capital of Ramadi.

The operation, which Iraqi state TV said was backed by Shiite militias and Sunni pro-government fighters, is deemed critical in regaining momentum in the fight. But as a sandstorm descended across the region, there was no sign of any major engagement against the extremists, who have been gaining ground in the province west of Baghdad despite U.S.-led airstrikes.

A Pentagon spokesman, Col. Steve Warren, said Iraqi forces have begun “shaping operations” and “security zone interactions,” which he described as probing and reconnaissance actions that would precede any major combat in or around Ramadi.

The Iraqis have begun moving forward from their base at Habbaniyah, and IS fighters likewise are probing in the direction of Habbaniyah, Warren said. He added that he could not confirm that the Iraqi forces have surrounded Ramadi.

The Islamic State — also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL, and Daesh in Arabic — seized large parts of Anbar in early 2014 and captured Ramadi earlier in May. Iraqi forces, which had been making steady progress against the extremists in recent months with the help of the air campaign, scored a major victory in recapturing Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit last month.

Elsewhere in Anbar province, the Islamic State group last week captured the Iraqi side of the key al-Walid border crossing with Syria. Those gains followed the IS seizure of the ancient town of Palmyra in Syria.

The launch of the operation in Anbar came only days after U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Ash Carter, criticized Iraq’s forces, saying its troops fled the IS advance on Ramadi without fighting back, leaving behind weapons and vehicles for the extremists.

Baghdad defended its troops and said preparations were underway for the large-scale counteroffensive in Anbar, involving Iranian-backed Shiite militias known as Popular Mobilization Units. That possibility sparked fears of potential sectarian violence in the Sunni-dominated province, long the site of protests and criticism of the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.

The Shiite militias chose a religious name for their campaign, deepening those worries and drawing criticism from the Pentagon. The Popular Mobilization Units have named it “Labaik Ya Hussein,” which is Arabic for “I am here, Hussein” — referring to a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and one of the most revered figures of Shiite Islam.

Warren called the title “unhelpful,” adding: “We’ve long said … the key to expelling ISIL from Iraq is a unified Iraq that separates itself from sectarian divides.” Karim al-Nouri, a spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Units, said the name wasn’t sectarian.

“This name has no sectarian dimension (or meaning) because all Iraqis, regardless of their sect or religion, love Imam Hussein,” al-Nouri said. A spokesman for Iraq’s Shiite militias said the operation would “not last for a long time,” and that Iraqi forces have surrounded Ramadi on three sides.

New weapons are being used in the battle “that will surprise the enemy,” said Ahmed al-Assadi, who is also a member of parliament. He told reporters that another operation was underway north of the nearby province of Salahuddin.

Plans called for the forces in Salahuddin to move against Ramadi from its northeastern side, al-Assadi added. The Anbar operation aims to cut off supply routes and recapture the outskirts of Ramadi first — not the city itself, according to provincial councilman Faleh al-Issawi and tribesman Rafie al-Fahdawi.

They told The Associated Press there was ongoing fighting and airstrikes west and south of Ramadi on Tuesday, adding that more Sunni fighters will be armed starting Wednesday to fight the Islamic State.

The sandstorm complicated efforts to retake the city, al-Issawi said. “There is zero visibility on the front lines and our men are highly concerned that they might come under attack by Daesh in such bad weather,” he said.

Security forces and Sunni militiamen who had been battling the extremists in Ramadi for months collapsed as IS fighters overran the city. The militants gained not only new territory 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, but also large stocks of weapons abandoned by government forces as they fled.

Carter said Sunday that Iraqi forces had “vastly outnumbered” the IS militants in Ramadi but “showed no will to fight.” Saad al-Hadithi, a spokesman for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, said Carter’s remarks surprised the government and that he “was likely given incorrect information.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest defended Carter’s remarks, saying the Iraqi government acknowledged that the setback in Ramadi was the result of a breakdown in command and planning. Earnest added that the Iraqi forces in Ramadi had not benefited from U.S. or allied training.

He praised Iraq’s announcement it had launched a major military operation to drive Islamic State from Anbar, adding: “I think that is a clear indication of the will of the Iraqi security forces to fight. And the United States and our coalition partners will stand with them as they do so.”

Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of the elite Quds forces in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard who has taken on an advisory role with the Shiite militias, lashed out Monday at U.S. efforts. The Iranian daily newspaper Javan, seen as close to the Revolutionary Guard, quoted Soleimani as saying the U.S. didn’t do a “damn thing” to stop the advance on Ramadi.

“Does it mean anything else than being an accomplice in the plot?” he reportedly asked, later saying the U.S. showed “no will” in fighting IS. Al-Abadi had urged the Shiite militias to help retake Anbar province. The militiamen have played a key role in clawing back territory from IS elsewhere in Iraq, although rights groups and Sunni residents have accused them of looting, destroying property and carrying out revenge attacks — especially after government forces recaptured Tikrit last month. Militia leaders deny the allegations.

The participation of the Shiite militias in the Anbar operation risks exacerbating tensions that arose amid retaliatory sectarian killings that roiled Iraq in 2006 and 2007. Distrust of the Shiite-led government runs deep in Anbar, where U.S. troops fought some of their bloodiest battles since Vietnam and only succeeded in rolling back militants when Sunni tribesmen and former insurgents rallied to their side as part of the Sahwa, or Awakening, movement in 2006. After the U.S. troop withdrawal, Sunni anger at Baghdad has grown steadily.

Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad and Robert Burns and Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington contributed to this report.

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