Archive for December, 2016

Iran appoints ambassadors to Syria, Oman

December 17, 2016

Iran’s foreign ministry has announced that it had made decisions on its new ambassadors to be appointed to both Syria and Oman, and that their names would soon be released, The New Khaleej reported yesterday.

Foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said that the names of the two ambassadors to the two countries would be released when a series of diplomatic and strategic considerations were concluded.

He noted that the sensitivity of the situation in Syria is one of the reasons why the appointment of the ambassador to Damascus was delayed.

The news website noted that the appointment of Iranian ambassadors is subject to strict censorship by the intelligence branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Qods Force brigade that focuses on Iran’s extraterritorial activities.

Reports indicated that the administration of President Hassan Rouhani had been severely criticized in the Iranian parliament due to the delay of the appointment of the ambassadors for the two aforementioned countries, especially to Syria, where there are Iranian forces fighting alongside Assad regime forces.

In April, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, the former deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, was chosen to head up the Iranian embassy in Muscat, but he withdrew himself from consideration for “personal reasons”.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161217-iran-appoints-ambassadors-to-syria-oman/.

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Iran threatens Bahrain, Yemen with ‘Islamic conquest’ like Aleppo

December 17, 2016

A senior Iranian military commander has threatened further wars of conquest after describing the recent collapse of the Syrian opposition in Aleppo as an “Islamic conquest”, as footage has appeared showing Syrian refugees attempting to evacuate the ravaged city being shot at by Iran-backed Shia jihadists.

In comments to local Iranian media, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) General Hossein Salami said: “It is now time for the Islamic conquests. After the liberation of Aleppo, Bahrain’s hopes will be realized and Yemen will be happy with the defeat of the enemies of Islam.”

The IRGC commander also said that “the people of Mosul will taste the taste of victory,” in reference to the ongoing Mosul operations.

The taste of “victory”, however, tasted of blood and terror in Aleppo as the Middle East correspondent for BuzzFeed News tweeted footage of what pro-Assad regime Iranian proxies were doing there.

Borzou Daragahi tweeted “This is what hell on earth looks like,” as video footage from the devastated city shows “hungry, freezing men, women and children” who are trying to evacuate Aleppo are fired upon by the Shia jihadists.

This footage was supported by further reports and footage from Syrian journalist Rami Jarrah. Jarrah’s footage shows witnesses recounting their stories of how their convoy that was travelling with the Red Cross was waylaid by the Assad regime.

As the men in the video are talking, they and a vast convoy of cars come under attack by Assad regime, creating panic as people try to escape.

Iran’s ’empire’ and ‘Shia Liberation Army’

Salami’s comments are not the first to emerge from within influential and powerful Iranian official circles.

In March 2015, Presidential Adviser Ali Younesi said that the Iraqi capital of Baghdad was now a “capital of the Iranian empire,” inflaming the Arab world and especially Iraqis who have felt Iran’s pervading and dominating influence in their country.

Last November, Iranian army Chief of Staff General Mohammed Bagheri said that his country would in all likelihood set up military bases in Yemen, Syria and other Arab countries.

Speaking to the state-run Mashregh news agency in August, retired IRGC General Mohammad Ali Falaki said that Iran had created a “Shia Liberation Army” under the command of IRGC Qods Force commander Brigadier-General Qassem Soleimani.

According to Falaki, the Shia Liberation Army was already active on three “fronts” in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161217-iran-threatens-bahrain-yemen-with-islamic-conquest-like-aleppo/.

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Iraq: Daesh reverse army assault in Mosul

December 7, 2016

Daesh militants have managed to force Iraqi soldiers to withdraw from districts in southeast Mosul today, less than a day after Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) claimed to have made advances towards the Tigris River, sources including an army officer and Amaq news agency have said.

The fighting came after the army’s campaign commander for the Mosul operation said soldiers surged into the city and took over the Al-Salam hospital, less than a mile (1.5 km) from the Tigris River which divides eastern and western Mosul.

Yesterday’s apparent rapid advance was thanks to an apparent change in military tactics after more than a month of grueling fighting in the east and southeast of the city, in which the army has sought to capture and clear neighborhoods block by block.

However, the new tactics have now turned out to have been undone by Daesh ambush tactics that drew ISF units into areas before subjecting them to fierce counterattacks.

Attacking ISF were exposed, and Daesh’s Amaq news agency said today that some units were surrounded. It said a suicide bomber blew himself up near the hospital, killing 20 soldiers. Eight armored personnel carriers (APCs) were also destroyed in the fighting that led to an Iraqi withdrawal, Amaq said.

There was no official Iraqi military comment on the fighting but the army officer, whose forces were involved in the clashes, said they had come under multiple attacks by suicide car bombers in the Al-Wahda district where the hospital is located.

“We managed to make a swift advance on Tuesday in Al-Wahda but it seems that Daesh fighters were dragging us to an ambush and they managed later to surround some of our soldiers inside the hospital,” he told Reuters by telephone, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

He said an armoured regiment and counter terrorism units, backed by US-led air strikes, were sent to support the stranded troops early today and had opened up a route out of the neighborhood.

“They have secured the position, evacuated the wounded and pulled out the destroyed military vehicles from around the hospital,” he said, adding that they were coming under fire from snipers and rocket-propelled grenades.

Amaq said it attacked the relief convoy as it advanced in the Sumer district, south of Al-Wahda near the outer edge of the city. This led to the convoy being forced to withdraw, in addition to the losses suffered by the ISF in the Al-Salam hospital.

Iraqi forces and allies numbering 100,000 men have been battling for seven weeks to crush Daesh fighters in Mosul, now estimated to be around 3,000 men strong. The city was seized by the militants in 2014 and is the largest in Iraq or Syria under their control.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161207-iraq-daesh-reverse-army-assault-in-mosul/.

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Battle for IS-held Mosul nears ancient site

By W.G. Dunlop with Delil Souleiman in Ain Issa, Syria

Baghdad (AFP)

Nov 10, 2016

The battle for Iraq’s second city Mosul neared the remains of ancient Nimrud on Thursday, as the offensive against the Islamic State group’s Syrian stronghold Raqa was hampered by a sandstorm.

Backed by a US-led coalition, Iraqi forces and a Kurdish-Arab militia alliance are advancing on Mosul and Raqa in separate assaults aimed at driving IS from its last major bastions.

The coalition, which launched air strikes against IS two years ago, is looking to deal a fatal blow to the self-styled “caliphate” the jihadists declared in mid-2014.

Launched on October 17, the Iraqi offensive has seen federal forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters advance on Mosul from the east, south and north, pushing inside the eastern city limits last week.

On Thursday the military said troops and allied militia were moving forward on two IS-held villages near Nimrud, which is some 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of Mosul.

“Units of the 9th Armored Division and the Hashed al-Ashaeri (tribal militia) are beginning to advance to liberate the villages of Abbas Rajab and Al-Nomaniyah, toward Nimrud,” the Joint Operations Command said, later announcing that Abbas Rajab had been retaken.

Nimrud was the one of the great centers of the ancient Middle East. Founded in the 13th century BC, it became the capital of the Assyrian empire, whose rulers built vast palaces and monuments that have drawn archaeologists for more than 150 years.

– Third of the way to Raqa –

In April last year, IS posted video on the internet of its fighters sledgehammering monuments before planting explosives around the site and blowing it up.

It was part of a campaign of destruction against heritage sites under jihadist control that also took in ancient Nineveh on the outskirts of Mosul, Hatra in the desert to the south and Palmyra in neighboring Syria.

IS says the ancient monuments are idols that violate the teachings of its extreme form of Sunni Islam.

In Syria, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said their advance on Raqa was being held back by a sandstorm that had hit the desert province.

“The situation is dangerous today because there is no visibility due to a desert sandstorm,” an SDF commander told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“We fear that Daesh will take advantage of this to move in and launch a counter-attack,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

Speaking in Ain Issa, the main staging point for the operation some 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Raqa, the commander said the sandstorm was also impeding visibility for coalition warplanes.

The SDF launched the offensive on Saturday and has been pushing south from areas near the Turkish border towards Raqa.

The commander said SDF forces advancing south from Ain Issa and Suluk were close to converging at a position some 30 kilometers (20 miles) from Raqa.

“We have been able to cover a third of the distance that separated us from Raqa,” SDF spokeswoman Jihan Sheikh Ahmed said, adding that 15 villages and hamlets had been taken.

– Thousands flee homes –

Ahmed said thousands of civilians had fled their homes since the start of the assault and pleaded for international assistance.

“More than 5,000 displaced people have arrived in regions liberated and secured by our forces. They are coming from combat zones through a corridor we opened for them,” she said.

“We need international help because our capacities are limited and, with winter coming, there is no camp to host them,” she said.

Dozens of families have been seen fleeing towards SDF lines in recent days.

Many have been arriving in trucks and cars around Ain Issa, loaded down with belongings and in some cases with livestock including cows and sheep.

Raqa had a population of some 240,000 before the eruption of Syria’s civil war in 2011 but more than 80,000 people have since fled there from other parts of the country.

Mosul is much bigger, home to more than a million people, and more than 45,000 people have fled since the offensive began.

Aid workers have expressed fears of a major humanitarian crisis once fighting begins in earnest inside the city, where IS is expected to use civilians as human shields.

Rights groups have also raised concerns for fleeing civilians, amid accusations of abuses by some Iraqi forces.

Amnesty International called Thursday on the Iraqi government to investigate the killings of six residents south of Mosul who it said were executed by men in federal police uniforms during the offensive.

Iraq’s federal police issued a statement denying its forces had been involved in extrajudicial killings.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Battle_for_IS-held_Mosul_nears_ancient_site_999.html.

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Daesh invades Shirqat, ‘liberated’ by Iraqi forces 2 months ago

November 4, 2016

Daesh launched yet another surprise attack against Iraq’s rear areas in a town that was supposed to have been “liberated” in September, exposing how Iraqi forces have been ineffective in securing towns and cities before moving on to launch their almost three-week-old offensive against Mosul.

In the early hours of this morning, Daesh assaulted Shirqat in Salahuddin province, over 100 kilometers from Mosul, Iraq’s second city and Daesh’s last major urban stronghold in the country.

Daesh claims that it has taken over several districts in the small town, and has apparently torched a police station, capturing five police officers and killing other Iraq Security Forces (ISF) troops, including an officer. Daesh also control the main hospital.

Local activists have confirmed that several Iraqi armored vehicles and personnel carriers were destroyed by the militants, including supply trucks apparently destined for Shia militias near the Mosul frontlines.

Fighting in Shirqat is ongoing, with ISF in disarray.

When Shirqat was recaptured by ISF in September, their victory was touted as a stepping stone on the road to prising Mosul from Daesh’s grip. At the time, it was hailed as a significant advance but today’s attack highlights the weakness of ISF soldiers in holding territory.

Iraqi authorities failing to prevent Daesh attacks

Since the Iraqi government launched its US-backed offensive to recapture Mosul on 17 October, Daesh have not only managed to hold off any real advance into the city itself, but have also managed to launch devastating attacks across the country.

Daesh first breached Kirkuk’s defenses, more than 170 kilometers from Mosul, and put the city into disarray for almost a week. The attack was eventually repulsed, but not before dozens of Kurdish security forces died, shaking confidence in their ability to detect and prevent attacks.

Following the assault on Kirkuk, Daesh successfully attacked Rutba, almost 600 kilometers south of Mosul, and held it for three days until ISF forces managed to take it back with air support from the international US-led coalition.

Analysts have said that this may herald a future Daesh strategic shift from holding towns and cities to disrupting security and economic activity in these cities once they are retaken, making the rule of Iraqi and Kurdish authorities untenable.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161104-daesh-invades-shirqat-liberated-by-iraqi-forces-2-months-ago/.

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Iraq’s Caucasus tribes demand formal recognition

December 9, 2016

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq — Three Iraqi Caucasus tribes are uniting to seek recognition under the Iraqi Constitution. The Circassians, Chechens and Dagestanis want to unify their communities under one national name, “Caucasus,” much like the Christians of Iraq did when they formed the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council political party in 2007.

The tribes seek formal recognition in the constitution to guarantee equal rights and legal protection from violence against minorities. On Nov. 24, the nongovernmental organization Masarat for Cultural and Media Development (MCMD) hosted a meeting of representatives of the three groups in the Sulaimaniyah governorate in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. There, they asked to be included among Iraqi minorities and officially declared their demands. MCMD is preparing a draft law regarding rights for minorities that it will submit to parliament.

Ahmed Kataw, the leader of Circassians in Iraq, spoke to Al-Monitor about these demands, saying, “The Iraqi Constitution should recognize the Iraqi Caucasus tribes — Circassians, Chechens and Dagestanis — like the rest of the officially recognized minorities. Their names should be included within the Iraqi minorities protected under the draft law. … We want to make sure the Caucasian minorities are represented in the parliament according to the quota system, by virtue of which other minorities are represented.”

The Caucasus tribes were late presenting their demands to MCMD because, they said, they were unable to form a political party to represent them at the official level, and there were disagreements about selecting leaders to convey these demands.

Kataw said tense security situations, such as scattered armed confrontations and the battle against the Islamic State, have made it risky to start a political movement. “We did not form a political party. We did, however, start establishing a cultural-social organization called Solidarity Association back in 2004, headquartered in Kirkuk,” he said. “As a representative of the Circassians in Iraq, I have served as vice president of the association, and a Chechen was nominated president, while the secretary-general was a Dagestani. The 450 members of the general assembly took a vote, but the security conditions impeded us from turning the association into a political body. In addition, we were afraid we would be dominated by major political movements once we had announced we were forming an independent political party.”

Adnan Abdul Bari, who represents the Dagestanis in the Solidarity Association, spoke to Al-Monitor about the importance of joint work between the representatives of the Caucasus tribes. “These tribes are considered from the same origins. Their common history, geography, culture and traditions differentiate them from other tribes,” he said. “They have the identity of the peoples of the North Caucasus, so it is time for them to come forward as one people with a single cultural identity.”

The small number of Caucasus tribes and the fact that they are not concentrated geographically has weakened their participation in public life.

Researcher Mohammed Hussein Dagestani, the editor of the magazine Tadamon (Solidarity), which is concerned with Circassians, Chechens and Dagestanis, is head of the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate in Kirkuk. He told Al-Monitor, “Russia forced the Caucasus tribes into displacement in 1864. They had to move from North Caucasus to Turkish territory, and the Ottomans then forced them out to Jordan, Syria and Iraq.”

Hussein Dagestani added, “This tragedy is similar to some experienced by other minorities, such as the Armenians, who fled to Iraq and other countries after the massacres committed by the Turks in 1915. We also share some experiences with the Yazidis, who had been subjected to a series of genocides, most recently by the Islamic State in 2016.”

Mazen Abdul Rahman, the Chechen representative of the Solidarity Association, told Al-Monitor there are scattered Chechen settlements, but “there are no settlements for either Dagestanis or Circassians because they are rather integrated into the urban centers.”

According to Katwa, there are more than 15,000 Caucasians, and the tribes’ representatives agree that the Chechens are ranked first in terms of number, followed by the Dagestanis, then the Circassians.

Only a limited number of seniors in Caucasus families still speak Caucasian languages, but their numbers are gradually decreasing, which means their languages will inevitably be forgotten.

Another factor contributing to the demise of Caucasian culture is their way of blending in and their refusal to stand out in society. They act as Arabs in Arab areas, as Kurds in Kurdish areas and Turkmen in Turkmen areas. The Caucasian families who lived in Shiite-dominated areas embraced the Shiite sect, while those who lived in Sunni areas followed the Sunni sect.

However, the long years of blending in did not stop these tribes from practicing their traditions, such as applying the norms and principles of the so-called Adiga law, by virtue of which parents and grandparents have to follow Caucasus traditions when it comes to marriage, childbirth and other social occasions.

Source: al-Monitor.

Link: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/12/caucasus-circassians-chechens-dagestanis-iraq.html/.

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Defeating IS will only usher in new conflicts in Iraq

Monday 12 December 2016

Little is left standing in Bashiqa, a formerly Christian town now gutted of both its infrastructure and inhabitants.

After two years of Islamic State occupation, it is little more than a skeleton, a name on a map. But sitting to the east of the city of Mosul the town, or what remains of it, encapsulates the precipice on which Iraq, and perhaps even the wider Middle East, sit.

Having besieged the city for months on end, Kurdish forces have drawn a new line in the sand here. The town, formerly outside of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, represents the western frontier of a new Kurdistan.

The official line had always been that Arab towns such as Bashiqa would be returned to Arab rule, but this was, perhaps unsurprisingly, tossed in the air when Kurdish Premier Massoud Barzani made a defiant speech in the town last month asserting that the Kurds would never relinquish control over towns for which Kurdish blood had been spilt.

Indeed these tensions are already visible in rhetoric. Baqir Jabr al-Zubeidi, a senior Shia politician and former commander of the Badr organisation, the country’s largest Shia militia involved in fighting near Mosul, has threatened to attack Kurdish forces with the militia if it wasn’t returned to Arab control.

To add to this, a searing report from Amnesty International released last month accused Kurdish authorities of forcibly displacing Arabs from the contested city of Kirkuk.

If there is one thing we can learn from Iraq’s traumatic history, it is the power of memory. Barely a conversation passes in Kurdish circles without a reference to the Halabja massacre conducted by Saddam Hussein in 1988. In a similar vein, the expulsion of Arabs by Kurdish forces from Kirkuk and towns and villages to the east of Mosul is something that will remain entrenched in the Iraqi psyche for many years.

Return of ‘the man who ruined Iraq’?

As the largely Shia Iraqi army enters the city, many are also fearful of a sectarian backlash. Rasha Al Aqeedi, a Mosul native now based in Dubai as a research fellow at Al-Mesbar Studies and Research Centre, writes: “Mosul’s alienation from post-2003 Iraq can be partially understood within the context of a general Sunni distaste for Shia ascendency.”

Despite being a minority, Sunnis ruled Iraq from 1932 until Saddam Hussein’s toppling in 2003 when elections put Iraq’s Shia majority in charge of the government, and with that the army. Al-Aqeedi is cautiously optimistic that Haider al-Abadi’s Shia government is doing enough to fight this fearfulness “thanks to the professional conduct of the Iraqi army and [Abadi’s] calming leadership” but, as she warns “that could easily change”.

But al-Abadi’s efforts have made him deeply unpopular and none more so than with disgraced tyrant and former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. With the world’s and particularly the US’s attention understandably focused on the fight for Mosul, al-Maliki is on maneuvers, and scheming a return to power.

It was under al-Maliki that the Sunni disenfranchisement capitalized on by Islamic State reached its apex – a result of his intensely sectarian rule. Now, under the pretext of an anti-corruption drive, he is picking off al-Abadi’s ministers one by one through secret ballot. A tragic irony considering his alleged siphoning off of billions from the Iraqi treasury during his time in office, something some have described as “the greatest political corruption scandal in history”.

His first target, former defense minister Khaled al-Obeidi, who had successfully overseen the recapture of the strategically critical Qayyarah airbase in July, was forced from office as a result of a secret ballot orchestrated by al-Maliki in late August. Then in late September under almost identical circumstances finance minister Hoshyar Zebari was also forced from his ministry.

Neither has been replaced and some believe that the next target is the country’s minister of foreign affairs Ibrahim al-Jaafari. If successful, Haider al-Abadi’s government would be untenable, and the stage would be set for “the man who ruined Iraq” to return.

‘My daily life was the same’

The other elephant in the room remains IS’s ideology. It goes largely unchallenged on an intellectual level within Iraq and hundreds of thousands of children have spent some of their most formative years having it drilled into them.

Liberated towns such as Qayyarah and Hamam al-Alil to the south of Mosul are undoubtedly grateful to be freed from the gratuitous violence of the jihadists. But these deeply conservative areas remain susceptible to the ideological underpinnings of the jihadists.

Four months after the town’s liberation, women in Qayyarah are rarely seen outside the house and the ones that are remain clad in niqabs. As one woman fleeing the eastern Mosul suburb of Gogjali said to me: “I can’t tell you how things changed, because for me, apart from the violence, they haven’t, there were bombs and beheadings, but my daily life was the same, my faith was the same.”

IS is undoubtedly on the decline, the group’s unofficial motto of “remaining and expanding” is now as expired as their treatment of women. But the opportunism of Iraq’s Kurds, coupled with unaddressed Sunni grievances and Shia expansionism, are a deadly cocktail.

Al-Abadi is stretched in every imaginable direction, but if al-Maliki’s efforts to topple his government and return to power are a success, then the fall of Mosul will likely just spell a new chapter of trauma for Iraq.

Source: Middle East Eye.

Link: http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/iraq-post-islamic-state-837887658.

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