Iraqi forces recaptures crossing on Syria border from IS

2017-11-03

BAGHDAD – Iraqi forces said they recaptured an important crossing on the border with Syria from the Islamic State group on Friday as they advanced into the jihadists’ last bastion in Iraq.

Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said troops had “regained full control” of the Husaybah border post on the edge of the town of Al-Qaim after launching a push to oust the jihadists.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi released a statement congratulating the armed forces for “entering into Al-Qaim and liberating” the border crossing.

An Iraqi army officer said that the jihadists “deserted the border post after several of them were killed” and headed off into Syria.

Al-Qaim and the surrounding areas are the last remnants of the self-styled caliphate IS declared after rampaging across Iraq and Syria in 2014.

Iraqi forces backed up by air strikes from a US-led coalition launched the operation last week to seize back the strategically located pocket of barren desert along the Euphrates river.

IS is simultaneously battling for survival in its holdouts across the border in Syria, where government troops said they ousted the group from the key city of Deir Ezzor on Friday.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=85756.

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Iraq to hold parliamentary elections May 15

2017-11-01

BAGHDAD – Iraq plans to hold parliamentary elections on May 15 to choose a prime minister, a statement from the prime minister’s office said late on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi hasn’t yet said if he plans to seek a new term. Most executive power is held by the prime minister, who is also commander of the armed forces.

The May 15 date, agreed at a government meeting on Tuesday, has yet to be approved by parliament.

Abadi took over the premiership in 2014 from Nuri al-Maliki, a close ally of Iran held responsible for the army’s collapse as Islamic State militants swept through a third of Iraq.

Abadi is credited for quickly rebuilding the army and defeating Islamic State in its main Iraqi stronghold, Mosul, last July, with strong assistance from a US-led coalition.

Maliki holds the ceremonial title of vice-president. As head of the Shiite Dawa party and the largest block in parliament, he remains a powerful political figure.

The prime minister’s office is reserved for Iraq’s majority Shiite Arab community under a power-sharing system set up after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab.

The largely ceremonial office of president is reserved for a Kurdish member of parliament. The speaker of parliament is drawn from Sunni Arab MPs.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=85705.

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Iraqi army takes control of Turkey border from Kurds

2017-10-31

ANKARA – Iraqi government forces on Tuesday took control of the key border crossing with Turkey in the Iraqi Kurdistan region after weeks of tensions between Baghdad and Arbil, the Turkish prime minister said.

The border crossing “has been handed over to the central government” of Iraq, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told his ruling party at a televised meeting in Ankara.

He said all controls at the border will now be carried out by Iraqi and Turkish officials on their respective sides.

The Iraqi forces deployed at the Ibrahim Al Khalil crossing alongside Turkish forces with whom they have been carrying out joint exercises over the last weeks, the state-run Anadolu news agency said.

They were to raise the Iraqi national flag and take down the flag of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) which had until now controlled the crossing, it said.

The border crossing was closed while the handover was being carried out, leading to long queues, it added. There were no reports of any clashes.

The Kurdish region has found itself increasingly isolated after holding a non-binding independence referendum on September 25 that was opposed not just by Baghdad but also Iran, Turkey and the Kurds’ Western allies.

Turkey, which over the last years had cultivated strong trade ties with the KRG, reacted with fury to the referendum, fearing the move could encourage separatism amongst its own Kurdish minority.

Deemed by many analysts to have severely overplayed his hand by holding the referendum, the KRG’s leader Massud Barzani said at the weekend that he was stepping down.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=85691.

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Iraqi forces advance to edge of final IS bastion Al-Qaim

2017-10-31

BAGHDAD – Iraqi forces on Tuesday battled up to the edge of Al-Qaim, the largest town still held by the Islamic State group in the country, as they pushed a final assault on the jihadists.

Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said government troops — backed by US air strikes and Sunni tribal fighters — captured the village of Al-Obeidi, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the Syrian border on the eastern outskirts of the town.

“IS fighters resisted the advance of the troops, but the majority retreated to positions in the center of Al-Qaim,” it said in a statement.

Al-Qaim and the surrounding pocket of barren desert territory along the Euphrates river is now the last remnant in the country of the self-styled caliphate IS declared after rampaging across Iraq and Syria in 2014.

Iraq launched the offensive on the Al-Qaim region — which also includes the smaller town of Rawa — on Thursday to finish off a punishing campaign that saw it force the jihadists out their major urban stronghold Mosul in July.

Al-Obeidi was “one of the most important locations for IS fighters, who were there in great numbers,” local tribal militia commander Qatari al-Obeidi said.

“They had arms caches and production lines for making explosives and preparing suicide bombers.”

Since the start of the offensive last week government forces have also retaken a cement plant and phosphate processing facility, said operation commander General Abdel Amir Yarallah.

As Iraq makes its final push, IS is also battling for survival against competing offensives backed by the US and Russia in territory just over the porous border in Syria.

Long before the rise of IS, Al-Qaim became renowned as a hotbed of jihadist insurgency in the wake of the US-led invasion in 2003.

The roughly 150,000 people living in the Al-Qaim region — with 50,000 inside the town itself — are Sunni Muslims from a small number of influential tribes.

Under IS, the town has been a vital supply route between its forces in Iraq and the oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor it once dominated over the border in Syria.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=85701.

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Lebanon Investigates Visit of Iraqi Militia Leader to the South

Sunday, 10 December, 2017

The appearance of the head of an Iran-backed Iraqi militia during a visit to Lebanon’s border with Israel, accompanied by Hezbollah fighters, sparked a wave of anger, especially as it came shortly after the government announced the adoption of a policy to dissociate the country from external conflicts.

In a video released on Saturday, Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Iraqi paramilitary group Asaib Ahl al-Haq, declared his readiness “to stand together with the Lebanese people and the Palestinian cause”, just four days after the Lebanese political parties announced the adoption of the policy of “dissociation” from external and regional conflicts.

The video showed an unidentified commander, presumably from Hezbollah, gesturing toward military outposts located along the borders, while Khazali was talking to another person through a wireless device, telling him: “ I am now with the brothers in Hezbollah in the area of Kfarkila, which is a few meters away from occupied Palestine; we declare the full readiness to stand together with the Lebanese people and the Palestinian cause.”

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri ordered the security apparatus to conduct the necessary investigations into the presence of the Iraqi leader on the Lebanese territories, which he said violated the Lebanese laws.

Presidential sources told Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that President Michel Aoun has requested further information about the video, while military sources denied that Khazali has entered the Lebanese territories in a legitimate way.

“The entry of any foreigner to this border area requires a permit from the Lebanese Army, which did not happen,” the sources said, stressing that Khazali has entered the area illegaly.

A statement issued by the premier’s office said: “Hariri contacted the concerned military and security officials to conduct the necessary investigations and take measures to prevent any person or party from carrying out any military activity on the Lebanese territory, and to thwart any illegal act as shown in the video.”

The Lebanese prime minister also ordered that Khazali would be banned from entering Lebanon again, the statement added.

Source: Asharq al-Awsat.

Link: https://aawsat.com/english/home/article/1108901/lebanon-investigates-visit-iraqi-militia-leader-south.

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Iraqi gov’t assumes control after Kurds leave disputed areas

October 18, 2017

BAGHDAD (AP) — Kurdish fighters pulled out of disputed areas across northern and eastern Iraq on Tuesday, one day after giving up the vital oil city of Kirkuk — a dramatic redeployment of forces that opened the way for government troops to move into energy-rich and other strategically important territories.

The vastly outnumbered Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, appeared to have bowed to demands from the central government that they hand over areas outside the Kurds’ autonomous region, including territory seized from the Islamic State group in recent years.

The evacuations exposed a Kurdish leadership in turmoil in the wake of last month’s vote for independence as Iraq’s central government shores up its hand for negotiations over resource-sharing with the country’s self-ruling minority.

Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi acknowledged the power shift, saying Iraqi forces took over the disputed areas from the Kurds with barely a shot fired. “I call on our citizens to celebrate this day, because we have been united,” al-Abadi said, calling the independence vote “a thing of the past” as he offered to begin talks with the Kurdish regional government.

The developments followed weeks of political crisis precipitated by the Kurdish leadership’s decision to hold the referendum for independence in territories beyond the boundaries of its autonomous region in northeast Iraq.

The Iraqi government, as well as Turkey and Iran, which border the land-locked Kurdish region, rejected the vote. The U.S. also opposed the vote, saying it was a distraction on the war against IS. If the mood in Baghdad was triumphant, it was acrimonious in the Kurdish capital of Irbil, reflecting the sense among many Kurds that they had been betrayed — and by their own leaders.

“Kirkuk was sold out, everyone ran away,” said Amir Aydn, a 28-year-old Kirkuk resident as he returned to the city after fleeing the day before. A hospital in the nearby Kurdish city of Suleimaniyah said it had received the bodies of 25 peshmerga fighters killed in clashes over Kirkuk. The claim could not be independently verified.

Kurdish President Masoud Barzani said the evacuation of Kirkuk was forced by “certain people in a certain party,” a swipe at his political opponents in the Patriotic Union of Kuridstan, known as the PUK. Barzani heads the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP.

The General Command of the peshmerga, nominally in Barzani’s hands, went even further, accusing PUK officials of “a great and historic treason against Kurdistan.” Their accusations were grounded in reports that peshmerga divisions loyal to the PUK had abandoned their positions as the Iraqi government forces advanced, though the KDP-aligned divisions also withdrew, in Kirkuk and in other parts of the country.

The KDP leadership also condemned the PUK for meeting with Qassem Soleimani, a commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards who advises Iraq’s predominantly Shiite Popular Mobilization Front militias, in the buildup to this week’s territorial withdrawal. The Shiite militias are an integral part of Iraq’s military apparatus but are viewed with considerable distrust by the Kurds, who consider them a symbol of Tehran’s influence in Iraq.

Peshmerga commander Wista Rasoul, who led a PUK-aligned division in Kirkuk, denied fractures in the Kurdish military ranks and said the pullout was a response to the central government’s vastly superior firepower.

Ala Talabani, a leading PUK official, also defended her meeting with Soleimani on Saturday when he came to pay his respects over the death of her uncle, the late Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. She said Soleimani’s counsel was wise and praised Iran’s role in Iraq.

“Soleimani advised us … that Kirkuk should return to the law and the constitution, so let us come to an understanding,” she told the Arabic language TV station al-Hadath. Barzani insisted he would not give up his campaign for independence, though such hopes seem more distant than ever in the dismal fallout from the referendum. Kirkuk was a vital source of oil revenues for the Kurdish regional government.

Vahal Ali, a senior adviser to Barzani, told The Associated Press the peshmerga would have to withdraw to the areas it held in 2014, before it deployed across northern Iraq in the fight against the Islamic State group — territory that accounts for much of the land the central government wants back. The Kurdish leadership has been quick to point out that it secured Kirkuk and its oil bounty against the Islamic State after regular Iraqi forces fled that year.

Analysts saw a return to the opportunism that characterized Kurdish party politics before the independence vote allowed them to paper over their differences, if only briefly. The PUK did not want to appear opposed to Kurdish independence even though it expressed misgivings over the referendum called by Barzani.

Both parties have an eye on Kurdish regional elections slated for November, said Ahmed Rishdi, an adviser to Iraqi Parliament speaker Salim al-Jabouri. “I think the PUK and the KDP distributed roles,” he said “The KDP are the dream makers and the PUK are the peacemakers, so now they are going to divide the Parliament between them,” and squeeze out other minor parties.

But voters may not want to cast their ballots for either party. “Nobody is looking especially good at the moment,” said Fanar Haddad, a senior Middle East research fellow at the National University of Singapore.

If there is a silver lining for the PUK, it is that it may now be in a position to undermine Barzani for calling the ill-fated referendum, he said. And while its coziness with Baghdad and Iran exposes the party to accusations of treason, which ring strongly in Kurdish national politics, the PUK may find itself in a position to attract Iranian or Iraqi largesse.

“If the PUK is able to pay salaries and spread some wealth then their treason just might be put aside” by some, Haddad said.

Szlanko contributed from Kirkuk, Iraq.

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Iraq: After losing Kirkuk, Kurdish forces pull out of Sinjar

October 17, 2017

KIRKUK, Iraq (AP) — Kurdish forces lost more territory in Iraq on Tuesday, withdrawing from the town of Sinjar a day after Iraqi forces pushed them out of the disputed city of Kirkuk. Meanwhile, thousands of civilians were seen streaming back to Kirkuk, driving along a main highway to the city’s east. The Kurdish forces had built an earthen berm along the highway, reinforced by armored vehicles, but were allowing civilians to return to the city.

Many returnees were seen with their children and belongings packed tight in their cars. The Iraqi forces’ retaking of Kirkuk came only two weeks after they had fought together with the Kurdish fighters to neutralize the Islamic State group in Iraq, their common enemy.

As Kirkuk’s Arab and Turkmen residents on Monday evening celebrated the change of power, thousands of Kurdish residents, fearful of federal and Shiite militia rule, packed the roads north to Irbil, the capital of the northern autonomous Kurdish region.

On Tuesday, they were going back. When Iraq’s armed forces crumbled in the face of an advance by Islamic State group in 2014, Kurdish forces moved into Kirkuk to secure the city and its surrounding oil wells though it was 32 kilometers (20 miles) outside the Kurds’ autonomous region in northeast Iraq.

Baghdad has since insisted Kirkuk and its province be returned to the central government, but matters came to a head when the Kurdish authorities expanded their referendum last month to include Kirkuk. To the Iraqi central government, that looked like Kurdish expansionism.

The city of more than 1 million is home to Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, as well as Christians and Sunni and Shiite Muslims. By midday Monday, federal forces had moved into several major oil fields north of the city, as well as the Kirkuk airport and an important military base, according to Iraqi commanders. Kurdish party headquarters inside Kirkuk had been abandoned.

In the predominantly Yazidi town of Sinjar, Masloum Shingali, commander of the local Yazidi militia, said Kurdish forces had left before dawn on Tuesday, allowing Iraqi Shiite militiamen to move in. The Yazidis were massacred by the Islamic State group when the jihadis seized the town in 2014. More than 2,000 were killed, and thousands of women and children were taken into slavery. Kurdish forces, supported by U.S. airstrikes, liberated the town in 2015.

Town Mayor Mahma Khalil said the Iranian-supported Popular Mobilization militia forces were securing Sinjar. The militias are recognized by Iraq’s government as a part of its armed forces but are viewed with deep suspicion by the country’s Kurdish authorities, which see them as an instrument of Tehran.

The Kurdish forces “left immediately, they didn’t want to fight,” Shingali said. The Shiite militia had supported Iraqi forces’ to oust Kurdish troops out of Kirkuk. The Kurdish forces withdrew to their autonomous region in the northeast.

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