Archive for November, 2017
October 04, 2017
IRBIL, Iraq (AP) — Flags flew at half-staff across Iraq’s northern autonomous Kurdish region on Wednesday as Iraqi Kurds began observing a week of mourning following the death of the country’s former president, Jalala Talabani, once a symbol of unity.
Talabani’s death at a Berlin hospital on Tuesday afternoon, at the age of 83, came just days after the Iraqi Kurds’ controversial referendum on independence that has angered Baghdad and the region. A longtime Kurdish guerrilla leader, Talabani in 2005 became the head of state of what was supposed to be a new Iraq two years after the country was freed from the rule of Saddam Hussein. He was seen as a unifying elder statesman who could soothe tempers among Iraq’s Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.
Talabani suffered a stroke in 2012, after which he was moved to Germany for treatment and faded from Iraq’s political life. Sadi Ahmed Pire, a spokesman for the Kurdish party which Talabani headed, said on Wednesday that Talabani’s burial would take place in the city of Sulaimaniyah over the weekend.
Following news of Talabani’s passing, leaders across Iraq and beyond released statements expressing their condolences. Talabani was “a long standing figure in the fight against dictatorship and a sincere partner in building a new democratic Iraq,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement posted to Facebook on Tuesday.
The Kurdish regional president and longtime Talabani rival, Masoud Barzani, described him as a “comrade” in a statement posted to Twitter, also on Tuesday. Barzani also extended his condolences to the Kurdish people and Talabani’s family.
The United Nations described Talabani as “a leading voice of moderation, dialogue, mutual understanding and respect in Iraq’s contemporary politics” and a “patriot of unique wisdom and foresight.” “From the battlefront trenches in the 1980s during the struggle against dictatorship to the halls of power in Baghdad in the past decade, ‘Mam Jalal’ worked for and promoted national rights,” said Jan Kubis, the U.N.’s special representative to Iraq in a written statement late Tuesday night, using Talabani’s Kurdish nickname that translates to Uncle Jalal.
But the Sept. 25 Kurdish referendum reflected how hopes for a unified Iraq have faded over the years. At the time of the vote, Talabani had been out of politics for nearly five years, but his death was a reminder of the country’s frayed sectarian and ethnic ties, now nearly at the point of unravelling.
The Kurds voted overwhelmingly in support of breaking from Iraq to form an independent state, sending tensions spiraling with the central government in Baghdad and with Iraq’s neighbors, who fear similar Kurdish separatist sentiment on their soil.
The referendum vote, which was led by Barzani, is not expected to lead to a Kurdish state anytime soon and has further isolated the small land-locked region. Iraq and its neighbors have rejected the vote, and Baghdad has banned international flights and threatened to take control of the autonomous Kurdish region’s borders.
“I wish I could ask Mam Jalal how to try and control this fire,” said Pire, the spokesman for Talabani’s political party, referring to the escalated tensions with Baghdad and the Kurdish region’s neighbors stoked by the referendum vote.
“He was a singular figure that cannot be replaced,” Pire added, “he was a president for all of Iraq, not just the Kurds.” From Tehran, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed his condolences and said that “Talabani was definitely a distinguished figure,” the semi-official ISNA news agency reported Wednesday.
Rouhani also said that Talabani “had an important role in the national cohesion and unity of Iraq, and strengthened the political process to promote Iraq’s regional and international status.” Talabani joined the Kurdish uprising against the Iraqi government in the 1960. When the revolt collapsed in 1975, he broke off from the Barzani-headed Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, to form the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK.
Though united in the push for independence, Kurdish politics in Iraq remain to this day dominated by the two families: the Barzanis in Irbil and the Talabanis in Sulaimaniyah. In 1976, Talabani again took up arms against the central government and eventually joined forces with Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. In the late 1980s, Saddam launched the Anfal Campaign, in which more than 50,000 Kurds were killed, many by poison gas attacks.
Associated Press writer Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.
Sep 24, 2017
Hawija (IraqiNews.com) Iraq’s military command said Sunday it completed a first phase of operations to recapture Islamic State’s last holdout in Kirkuk.
The Joint Operations Command’s field commander, Abdul-Amir Yarallah, said government forces, backed by the Popular Mobilization Forces, completed a first stage of operations recapture the town of Hawija, which launched last Thursday, taking over al-Zab river region, the northern part of Makhoul mountains and several villages west of Tigris River.
So far, operations managed to retake the town of Shirqat, an IS stronghold in neighboring Salahuddin, and dozens of surrounding villages.
Parallel operations were launched last week targeting IS havens in western Anbar.
A wide-scale campaign launched with the backing of a U.S.-led coalition in 2016 to recapture areas occupied by IS since 2014, when the militants declared a self-styled “caliphate” rule in Iraq and neighboring Syria based in Iraq’s Mosul.
Iraqi government, coalition and paramilitary forces recaptured Mosul and the neighboring town of Tal Afar early July and late August.
Commanders say more than 200 militants have been killed in the current operations.
Source: Iraqi News.
September 25, 2017
IRBIL, Iraq (AP) — Iraqi Kurds were casting ballots on Monday in Iraq’s Kurdish region and disputed territories on whether to support independence from Baghdad in a historic but non-binding vote that has raised regional tensions and fears of instability.
More than 3 million people are expected to vote across the three provinces that make up the Kurdish autonomous region, as well as residents in disputed territories — areas claimed by both Baghdad and the Kurds, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk — according to the Independent High Elections and Referendum Commission, the body overseeing the vote.
Lines began forming early in the day at polling stations across Irbil, the Kurdish regional capital. Tahsin Karim was one of the first people to vote in his Irbil neighborhood. “Today we came here to vote in the referendum for the independence of Kurdistan,” he said. “We hope that we can achieve independence.”
The Kurdish region’s president, Masoud Barzani, also voted early on Monday morning at a polling station packed with journalists and cameras. At a press conference in Irbil on the eve of the referendum, Barzani said he believed the vote would be peaceful, though he acknowledged that the path to independence would be “risky.”
“We are ready to pay any price for our independence,” he said. The referendum is being carried out despite mounting opposition from Baghdad and the international community. The United States, a key ally of Iraq’s Kurds, has warned the vote will likely destabilize the region amid the fight with the Islamic State group. The Iraqi central government has also come out strongly against the referendum, demanding on Sunday that all airports and borders crossings in the Kurdish region be handed back to federal government control.
In a televised address from Baghdad on Sunday night, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said that “the referendum is unconstitutional. It threatens Iraq, peaceful coexistence among Iraqis and is a danger to the region.”
“We will take measures to safeguard the nation’s unity and protect all Iraqis,” he added. In a strongly worded statement, Turkey said on Monday that it doesn’t recognize the referendum and declared its results would be “null and void.”
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry called on the international community and especially regional countries not to recognize the vote either and urged Iraq Kurdish leaders to abandon “utopic goals,” accusing them of endangering peace and stability for Iraq and the whole region.
The ministry reiterated that Turkey would take all measures to thwart threats to its national security. On Saturday, Turkey’s parliament met in an extraordinary session to extend a mandate allowing Turkey’s military to send troops over its southern border if developments in Iraq and Syria are perceived as national security threats.
Initial results from the poll are expected on Tuesday, with the official results to be announced later in the week. At his press conference, Barzani also said that while the referendum will be the first step in a long process to negotiate independence, the region’s “partnership” with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad is over.
He detailed the abuses Iraq’s Kurds have faced by Iraqi forces, including killings at the hands of former leader Saddam Hussein’s army that left more than 50,000 Kurds dead. Iraqi Kurds have long dreamed of independence — something the Kurdish people were denied when colonial powers drew the map of the Middle East after World War I. The Kurds form a sizable minority in Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. In Iraq, they have long been at odds with the Baghdad government over the sharing of oil revenues and the fate of disputed territories like Kirkuk.
The Kurds have been a close American ally for decades, and the first U.S. airstrikes in the campaign against IS were launched to protect Irbil. Kurdish forces later regrouped and played a major role in driving the extremists from much of northern Iraq, including Mosul, the country’s second largest city.
But the U.S. has long been opposed to Kurdish moves toward independence, fearing it could lead to the breakup of Iraq and bring even more instability to an already volatile Middle East. In Baghdad, residents strongly criticized then referendum, saying it would raise sectarian tensions and create an “Israel in Iraq.” An Arabic newspaper headline said “Kurdistan into the unknown,” a reference to the name Kurds use for their region.
“This is a division of Iraq,” said journalist Raad Mohammad while another Baghdad resident, Ali al-Rubayah, described the referendum as a “black day in the history of the Kurds.” Lawyer Tariq al-Zubaydi said the referendum was inappropriate amid the “ongoing threat of terrorism and Islamic State” militants. “The country is going through a difficult period, this requires a coming together of our efforts, he said. “A unified country is better for all.”
Voting was also underway on Monday morning in Kirkuk. The oil-rich city has large Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen and Christian communities and has seen some low-level clashes in the days leading up to Monday’s vote.
“I feel so great and happy, I feel we’ll be free,” said Suad Pirot, a Kirkuk Kurdish resident, after voting. “Nobody will rule us, we will be independent.”
Associated Press writers Ali Abdul-Hassan in Irbil, Iraq, Bram Janssen in Kirkuk, Iraq, and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.
BAGHDAD – Iraq has begun an offensive to retake Hawija, one of two remaining bastions of the Islamic State (IS) group in the country, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced Thursday.
“At the dawn of a new day, we announce the launch of the first stage of the liberation of Hawija, in accordance with our commitment to our people to liberate all Iraqi territory and eradicate Daesh’s terrorist groups,” he said in a statement, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
“Greetings to all of our forces, who are waging several battles of liberation at the same time and who are winning victory after victory and this will be another, with the help of God,” he said.
Iraqi forces have now forced IS out of all its Iraqi territories except Hawija, 300 kilometers (190 miles) north of Baghdad, and several pockets of territory near the border with Syria. The town was one of the first areas to fall under IS control in 2014.
Artillery fire was heard Thursday morning, with the army heading towards Sharqat, southwest of Hawija, an AFP reporter said.
Source: Middle East Online.
Visitors to Kirkuk in northern Iraq are greeted by an imposing statue of a Kurdish Peshmerga fighter with a gun slung over his shoulder, a reminder of tensions building in the hotly-contested city ahead of a referendum on Kurdish independence.
Erected in July, the statue has come to symbolize how the Kurds want to cement their hold on oil-rich Kirkuk and other parts of the region by holding next Monday’s vote. Peshmerga, which means those who confront death, are the military forces of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The referendum is risky, especially in Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic city also claimed by Arabs since oil was discovered there in the 1930s. The Kurdistan region produces around 600,000 barrels per day (bpd) of oil.
The central government in Baghdad, Iraq’s neighbors and Western powers fear the vote could divide the country and spark a wider regional conflict, after Arabs and Kurds cooperated to dislodge Islamic State from its stronghold in Mosul.
Already at least one Kurd has been killed in pre-referendum clashes, and security checkpoints have been erected across the city to prevent further violence.
But the Kurds say they are determined to go ahead with the vote, which, though non-binding, could trigger the process of separation in a country already divided along sectarian and ethnic lines. Iran, Turkey, the United States and Western allies oppose the vote.
Some non-Kurds fear Baghdad will attempt to regain control of Kirkuk and send in Shiite militias (PMU), also known as the Hashid al-Shaabi, stationed just outside the province.
“I fear the Hashid will come and fighting will start in Kirkuk,” said Nazim Mohammed, an Arab from Mosul who fled to Kirkuk when the northern city was overrun by Islamic State.
Backed by Iran, the militias fear an independent Kurdistan would split Iraq, giving them and Tehran less influence.
Kirkuk, populated by Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Christians and other minorities, is one of 15 ethnically mixed areas in northern Iraq that will participate in the referendum. They are claimed by both the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
A decision by KRG President Massoud Barzani to include these so-called disputed territories in the plebiscite was widely interpreted as a unilateral move to consolidate Kurdish control.
Critics say Kurdish intentions were already clear before the referendum was announced. Peshmerga fighters seized Kirkuk in 2014, after fleeing Iraqi security forces left its oil fields vulnerable to Islamic State militants who had just swept across northern Iraq.
The statue is dedicated to the Peshmerga and is designed to represent the appreciation of the people of Kirkuk.
KURDS MARK OUT TERRITORY
Tensions between the KRG and Baghdad are not new, and hinge on oil revenue. The Kurds have long accused Baghdad of failing to make budget payments to the region, while central government has opposed oil deals made by the Kurds without its consent.
Nevertheless, the Kurds have been marking their territory in the run-up to the vote. Peshmerga outposts dot the area, protecting the flaming oil fields on Kirkuk’s outskirts. Kurdish flags have been hoisted across the city since the spring, and now fly alongside Iraqi flags on government buildings.
Dreaming of long-denied statehood since World War One, the Kurds say they are ready to fight if necessary. “Kurdistan’s land belongs to the Kurdish people,” Kemal al-Kirkuki, the Kurdish military commander responsible for the front-line against Islamic State, told Reuters at his base in Dibis.
“No one, not the PMU, has the right to take it … We will ask them to leave Kurdish territory, peacefully. But we are prepared to fight if we need to.”
On Monday, clashes broke out in Kirkuk after a Kurdish convoy celebrating the referendum drove by a Turkmen political party’s office. A Kurd was killed, and two others were injured, security sources said.
This followed a week of escalating rhetoric between the Kurdish leadership and Baghdad, where parliament voted to reject the referendum and oust Kirkuk’s Kurdish governor, Najmaddin Kareem.
The conflict over the disputed territories is bitter. If the Kurdistan region of Iraq declared a break-off from Baghdad, Kirkuk would fall right on the border between the two. Kirkuk produces around one quarter of the region’s oil.
“If the Kurds want to press for a separation of sorts,” said Joost Hiltermann, MENA programme director at the International Crisis Group, “the boundary question becomes critically important.”
“If Baghdad and Erbil continue to take unilateral steps,” he said, “things can only escalate”.
There are no reliable statistics on Kirkuk’s population, where both Kurds and Arabs say they have a demographic majority; vital to legitimize their respective claims over the province.
Kirkuk was meant to have a census under the 2005 constitution, drafted two years after former Iraqi leader Saddam was toppled in the US-led invasion, but it did not take place because of the risk of ethnic and religious tensions.
During Saddam’s Anfal campaign waged against the Kurds in the 1980s, there was a forced “Arabisation” of disputed areas, which ejected Kurds from the province. Arabs from other parts of Iraq were then settled, taking over Kurdish homes and businesses.
In 1988, Saddam caused international outrage by staging a chemical attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja which killed thousands of people.
Many Arabs have been ousted since Saddam was toppled in 2003, emboldening the Kurds to reclaim large parts of the disputed territories, including Kirkuk. Displaced Kurds were provided with incentives to return, while Kurds from other areas were also moved in, angering other minorities.
“Since 2003 some 600,000 Kurds have arrived, many of them are here illegally,” said Ali Mehdi Sadiq, a Turkman member of Kirkuk’s local council. “Without dialogue everything is possible. We need to avoid a war engulfing the whole of Iraq.”
“NOTHING COMES WITHOUT A PRICE”
He blamed Governor Kareem, a Kurd who lived for more than 30 years in the United States for what he called a Kurdish discrimination of minorities.
The governor said the Kurds would guarantee minorities’ rights, pointing to relative stability in the Kurdistan region in contrast to Baghdad where suicide bombings are frequent.
But his support for Kurdish independence is worrying minorities: he refused to sit behind an Iraqi flag during an interview, preferring the Kurdish one and said he would destroy his Iraqi passport the minute he got a Kurdish one.
He shrugged off the decision by Iraq’s parliament last week to sack him as “unlawful”, adding: “This is a proud day for me.”
Anticipating trouble ahead, some residents of Kirkuk have been stockpiling basic foods such as flour, rice and milk.
“Since they announced the referendum I have hardly had any customers. The market is dead,” said 27-year-old Ali Hamza, an Arab who has a small textiles shop in the old city.
Several Kurds interviewed supported the independence vote but privately said they were worried about clashes afterwards.
But faced with his people’s fears of clashes and economic problems, Governor Kareem said that when taking a big step like the referendum, “anything was possible”.
“Nothing comes without a price.”
Source: Middle East Online.
September 17, 2017
BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq is prepared to intervene militarily if the Kurdish region’s planned independence referendum results in violence, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview Saturday.
If the Iraqi population is “threatened by the use of force outside the law, then we will intervene militarily,” he said. Iraq’s Kurdish region plans to hold the referendum on support for independence from Iraq on Sept. 25 in three governorates that make up their autonomous region, and in disputed areas controlled by Kurdish forces but which are claimed by Baghdad.
“If you challenge the constitution and if you challenge the borders of Iraq and the borders of the region, this is a public invitation to the countries in the region to violate Iraqi borders as well, which is a very dangerous escalation,” al-Abadi said.
The leaders of Iraq’s Kurdish region have said they hope the referendum will push Baghdad to come to the negotiating table and create a path for independence. However, al-Abadi said such negotiations would likely be complicated by the referendum vote.
“It will make it harder and more difficult,” he said, but added, “I will never close the door to negotiations. Negotiations are always possible.” Iraq’s Kurds have come under increasing pressure to call off the vote from regional powers and the United States, a key ally, as well as Baghdad.
In a statement released late Friday night the White House called for the Kurdish region to abandon the referendum “and enter into serious and sustained dialogue with Baghdad.” “Holding the referendum in disputed areas is particularly provocative and destabilizing,” the statement read.
Tensions between Irbil and Baghdad have flared in the lead-up to the Sept. 25 vote. Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, has repeatedly threatened violence if Iraqi troops or Shiite militias attempt to move into disputed territories that are now under the control of Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga, specifically the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
“It’s chaotic there,” Muhammad Mahdi al-Bayati, a senior leader of Iraq’s mostly Shiite militiamen, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, said earlier this week, describing Kirkuk in the lead-up to the vote.
Al-Bayati’s forces — sanctioned by Baghdad, but many with close ties to Iran — are deployed around Kirkuk as well as other disputed territories in Iraq’s north. “Everyone is under pressure,” he said, explaining that he feared a rogue group of fighters could trigger larger clashes. “Anything could be the spark that burns it all down.”
Al-Abadi said he is focused on legal responses to the Kurdish referendum on independence. Earlier this week Iraq’s parliament rejected the referendum in a vote boycotted by Kurdish lawmakers. Iraq’s Kurds have long held a dream of statehood. They were brutally oppressed under Saddam Hussein, whose military in the 1980s killed at least 50,000 of them, many with chemical weapons. Iraq’s Kurds established a regional government in 1992 after the U.S. enforced a no-fly zone across the north following the Gulf War.
After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion ousted Saddam, the region secured constitutional recognition of its autonomy, but remained part of the Iraqi state. When asked if he would ever accept an independent Kurdistan, Al-Abadi said, “It’s not up to me, this is a constitutional” matter.
“If (Iraq’s Kurds) want to go along that road, they should work toward amending the constitution,” al-Abadi said. “In that case we have to go all the way through parliament and a referendum to the whole Iraqi people.
“For them to call for only the Kurds to vote, I think this is a hostile move toward the whole of the Iraqi population,” he said. Al-Abadi began his term as prime minister after Mosul had fallen to IS, plunging Iraq into the deepest political and security crisis since the sectarian bloodshed that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Over the past three years, Iraqi forces have slowly clawed back territory from the extremist group and al-Abadi has used the battlefield victories to garner public support. In July, Iraqi forces retook Mosul and effectively shattered IS’s self-declared territorial caliphate.
However the military successes have come at great cost. In the fight for Mosul alone between 970 and 1,260 civilians were killed and more than twice as many members of Iraq’s security forces lost their lives, al-Abadi told the AP Saturday.
Despite territorial losses, IS continues to carry out attacks in Iraq. Thursday, an attack claimed by IS at a checkpoint and restaurant in southern Iraq left more than 80 killed and 93 wounded. Years of war have displaced more than 3 million people. Cities, towns and villages retaken from IS lie in ruins and the forces made powerful by the arms and training that flooded Iraq to fight the extremists are now attempting to leverage that influence.
Despite the challenges ahead, al-Abadi repeated a call for Iraqis who fled the country over the past three years, to return home. Some 80,000 Iraqis made the treacherous journey to Europe by sea in 2015 alone, according to the United Nations.
“I’m not going to support forced repatriation into Iraq but I think all of Iraqis, they found it very tough to be in Europe as refugees,” al-Abadi said, explaining he is in “lengthy negotiations” with his counterparts in Europe to aid the return of refugees.
“These are Iraqi people. We don’t want to lose our citizens,” he said.
by Mohamed Mostafa
Sep 12, 2017
Baghdad (IraqiNews.com) The Iraqi parliament voted Tuesday against a planned referendum by Kurdistan Region Government on independence from Iraq, obliging the Iraqi government to take measures to “preserve the unity of Iraq”.
The session was attended by 204 of parliament’s 328 members.
“The Iraqi Constitution had enumerated issues for which a referendum is required, and those do not include the Kurdistan referendum,” parliament speaker Salim al-Jubouri said in a statement by his office. “The inclusion of disputed territories in the referendum is also a violation of the constitution,” the statement added.
The negative vote prompted Kurdish representatives to walk out of the chamber.
Sirwan Sereni, a Kurdish representative from the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) told Kurdish network Rudaw that the petition which was voted on and approved by the parliament contains “military measures” against the move. He said they “were not consulted with or informed of the petition in the first place, and when a hearing given to the petition “we were not allowed to comment on it.”
Kurdistan Region slated a vote on independence from the central government in Baghdad for September 25th, and has, since then, defied calls from Baghdad to postpone the measure.
Kurdistan gained autonomous governance based on the 2005 constitution, but is still considered a part of Iraq. The region was created in 1970 based on an agreement with the Iraqi government, ending years of conflicts.
Baghdad has maintained that the planned poll was unconstitutional, and a political crisis erupted when Kurds included oil-rich Kirkuk, a disputed territory, as a voting constituency.
Source: Iraqi News.