Posts Tagged Injustice of Iran
January 08, 2018
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s foreign minister on Monday warned neighboring countries over fomenting insecurity in Iran in a reference to anti-government protests that have roiled the country over the past two weeks.
The remarks by Mohammad Javad Zarif at a security conference in Tehran echoed the Iranian authorities’ stance, which alleges that foreign powers — including regional rival Saudi Arabia — stirred up unrest linked to the protests.
“Some countries tried to misuse the recent incidents,” Zarif said without blaming any specific country, and added that “no country can create a secure environment for itself at the expense of creating insecurity among its neighbors.”
“Such efforts” will only backfire, the official IRNA news agency quoted Zarif as saying. The anti-government demonstrations first broke out in Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city, on Dec. 28 and later spread to several other cities and towns. The protests were the largest seen in Iran since the disputed 2009 presidential election. They were sparked by a hike in food prices amid soaring unemployment but some demonstrators later called for the government’s overthrow and chanted against the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
At least 21 people were killed and hundreds arrested. Large pro-government rallies were held in response, and officials have blamed the anti-government unrest on foreign meddling. In the past few days, Iranian authorities said the protests are waning and on Sunday, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard claimed the nation and its security forces had ended the wave of unrest.
The powerful Guard blamed the unrest on the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as an exiled opposition group known as the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, and supporters of the monarchy that was overthrown in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Zarif also mentioned an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council on Friday. The United States had called the meeting, portraying Iranian protests as a human rights issue that could spill over into an international problem.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said the session had put Iran on notice that “the world will be watching” its actions but envoys from several other countries expressed reservations whether the Council was the right forum for the issue.
Zarif on Monday depicted the session as a fiasco and evidence that the Trump administration is “isolated at the international level.” The world “witnessed that (all other) members of the UN Security Council spoke about preventing the meddling in Iran’s internal affairs,” he said.
Zarif also warned that the Islamic State group is still active and a threat in the region and beyond, despite the destruction of its self-proclaimed “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq and called for a “complete crush” of the militant group.
Also Monday, Iran’s moderate President Hassan Rouhani said despite the abuse of the protests by outsiders, the authorities should heed the message of the people. “People rightfully say: ‘See us, listen to our words,'” Rouhani said.
He stressed that his policy of economic reform is the “right” way forward and urged for the lifting of bans on messaging apps, including the popular Telegram messaging service, that were shut down during the protests.
December 30, 2017
The Iranian authorities arrested 52 demonstrators on Thursday in the city of Mashhad and other areas, an official revealed yesterday. Those arrested were taking part in protests against inflationary price rises in the country.
Hundreds of people took to the streets in Mashhad, an important religious center, chanting slogans against the government of President Hassan Rouhani. They accused Rouhani of failing to deal with the economic crisis.
According to AFP, the head of the Revolutionary Court in Mashhad, Hussein Haidari, said that the authorities arrested the demonstrators for chanting “abusive slogans”. Demonstrations are the people’s right, he explained, but the authorities have to consider other people’s feelings.
Apart from chanting “Death to Rouhani”, the protesters also called for Iran’s issues to be prioritized over Gaza and Lebanon. Analysts say that this is an indication of the Iranians’ anger with their country’s concerns about regional issues instead of concentrating on improving the situation inside the country.
Source: Middle East Monitor.
Monday 3 July 2017
Many Ahwazis – Arab inhabitants who mostly live in southern Iran’s Khuzestan Province – believe that, over the course of nearly a century, the state intentionally neglected their lands, turning them into a desert and resulting in giant sand storms that have covered their skies and killed 2,000 locals from related illnesses in recent years.
It was in 1908 that oil was discovered in the area. In 1925, Reza Khan, the Shah of Iran, invaded what was then called the emirate of Al-Ahwaz, overthrowing the Arab ruler of the region and annexed the 330,000 square-kilometer area in 1934. The lands were confiscated by the state from their original Arab owners and then transferred to the government.
Since then, the state has systematically abandoned the land and people of the area, leading the fertile land to become a small desert and a source of pollution in the region.
These days, the drinking water delivered to homes in Al-Ahwaz city is so dirty and brown in color and the cost of repairing dated water infrastructure beyond the financial capabilities of the province, residents joke that they don’t drink water. They drink chocolate milkshake.
For Ahwazis, this is just one aspect of what they feel is widespread racism. Despite the fact that they make up the majority of those living in the province, they are often unable to get jobs because employers discriminate against Ahwazi candidates.
While the state builds first-class living facilities in the province for Persian newcomers, the poverty levels in Khuzestan remain among the highest in any province in Iran, despite the existence of oil, gas and other lucrative national resources.
So in the eyes of the Ahwazis, the discovery of oil and these other resources has been no less than a scourge and an affliction that has resulted in the occupation and environmental degradation of the lands they inherited from their ancestors.
Dusty, smoky skies
Today, the Al-Ahwaz city is ranked as one of the most polluted cities in the world.
According to government reports, around 40 percent of gas which is extracted alongside oil in the province and could be used as an energy resource is actually burned off. This causes the emission of millions of tons of carbon dioxide gas in the air each year, further contributing to the air and environmental pollution already in Ahwaz as a result of the sand and dust in the air from desertification.
The Iranian regime appears to be concentrating solely on the process of extracting oil for income. Despite repeated appeals from the region’s parliamentary delegates, the Iranian regime has not even considered allocating a small percentage of the oil income made in the area to remedy the environment or build hospitals and other health institutions for the region.
In a remarkable speech last year, Ahwaz’s interim Friday prayers leader, Ayatollah Ali Heydari, warned international oil companies of excessive oil exploration in the province pointing out that they could endanger the Hor-El-Howayzeh wetlands.
He also said that excessive activity could create unprecedented security challenges in the area by triggering Ahwazi anger and confrontations with the state. It could even attract the involvement of neighboring countries who want to interfere to defend the Ahwazi.
Toxins dumped, fields burned
Oil extraction is not the only source of environmental damage in Ahwaz. The production of sugar cane in the region – which requires massive amounts of water and produces hazardous toxins when it is refined – has also harmed Alahwaz’s environment.
Not only are massive amounts of water from the Karoun River, the main source of drinking and irrigation water in the region, used in the process, but also the substances created in the refinery process are poured into the river. And the sugar cane companies set fire to the fields during harvest season, further threatening air quality and the ecosystem.
This industry, according to experts, is not economically viable for the government or the people of the region, but is purely designed to change the demographic balance of the region’s population, allowing the state to steal more Arab land.
By law, the state is allowed to take ownership of the land if resources are discovered. Owners are given two weeks notice to go to the state registry office and hand over their deeds. The state claims it will buy lands according to market value, but that rarely happens. Anyone who stands against this process is considered to be standing against the government and is heavily penalized.
The idea behind this policy goes back to the period of Mohammad Reza Shah, but it couldn’t be fully implemented at that time because of the internal instability and the eruption of the revolution. But eventually, it was implemented in 1988 by top-ranking politicians of the regime like Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president.
“The sugar cane project has had devastating effects on air pollution in the towns of Ahwaz and Al-Falahiya (Shadegan in Farsi) and their surrounding villages,” said Jawad Kazem Nasab, an Ahwaz city delegate in the Iranian parliament.
He added that, “the previous Iranian government had promised people of the region that it will take all measures and international standards to address these environmental risks and the collateral damage caused to the livelihood of the inhabitants of these areas”.
“However, as the delegate later confirmed, the sugar cane industry burnt its plants for economic purposes, which eventually caused even more air pollution in the region and left the lives of residents of the villages adjacent to these plantations under serious threat.”
Even the head of the environmental protection department in the province, Sayed Amid Hajti, reportedly said recently that “the oil and petrochemicals, sugar cane and other major industries in the region did not positively contribute to the lives of the people of the region, but instead increased the proportion of pollution in the air and environment”.
Dried up marshes
As a result of both the oil and sugar cane production in the region, the marshes of Hawr al-Howeyzeh and Hor al-Falahiya – which were used for fishing, wildlife conservation and helped reduce dust pollution – dried out over the past decade.
Once the marshes dried out, large sandstorms regularly occurred, disrupting the lives of people at their homes and at work and, according to some experts, causing a major increase in cases of lung infections and cancer.
Even Ahmed Reza Lahijganzadeh, the region’s environment department chief, revealed that the proportion of air pollutants is 66 times above the hazardous threshold.
“Until 12 years ago, the phenomenon of sandstorm did not exist and it came after the drying of the marshes for the purpose of oil,” said Kordawani, professor and director of the UN’s Anti-Desertification Organization.
In an interview with Tasnim New Agency, Qasim Saadi, another Ahwazi Arab MP representing Al-Khafajiyeh (Susangerd in Persian) in the Iranian parliament, criticized government policies toward the Alahwaz region by saying they are deliberate and aimed against Ahwazi Arabs. He accused the energy and agricultural ministers of staying silent about the impact of the policies.
Letting the world know
In the absence of powerful laws to protect civilians in Iran and under an autocratic system, most ethnic groups in the country are exposed to systematic discrimination and persecution. The Iranian regime should respect its own people, take its international obligations seriously and avoid violating the rights of its own people.
Although the regime repressed the media and limited correspondents only to the capital or one or two Persian cities, social media and technology has allowed us to share what is happening and let the world know.
Ahwazi Arabs would like to know that the international community will take a stance and stop the Iranian regime from committing human rights abuses against them. Ignoring or neglecting people’s demands will only fuel their confrontation with the state and lead to dangerous escalation.
Source: Middle East Eye.
March 8, 2017
A joint study by two European non-governmental organisations that have strong links to EU parliamentarians and other senior European and international figures has accused Iran of meddling in the affairs of 14 Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and playing a “destructive role” in the region.
The study by the European Iraqi Freedom Association (EIFA), led by former Scottish Conservative MEP Struan Stevenson, and the International Committee in Search for Justice (ISJ), both Brussels-based NGOs, paints a dire picture of Iranian interventionism in the region, and accuses Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of being directly involved.
“[Iranian] meddling in the affairs of other regional countries is institutionalized and the IRGC top brass has been directly involved,” the report said, directly implicating the Iranian military and state apparatus in destabilization operations around the Middle East.
The report, released earlier this week, criticized the IRGC for undertaking a “hidden occupation” of four countries, namely Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.
“In all four, the IRGC has a direct, considerable military presence,” the report detailed, adding that the troop presence in Syria alone in the summer of 2016 was “close to 70,000 Iranian regime proxy forces”. This included not only Iranians, but also sectarian Shia jihadists recruited, trained, funded and controlled by the IRGC, hailing from Iraq, Afghanistan and further afield.
The report exposed the locations of 14 IRGC training camps within Iran where its recruits are divided up according to their nation of origin and the tasks they are allotted, whether front line combat or international terrorist activities.
The European study said: “Every month, hundreds of forces from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Lebanon – countries where the [Iranian] regime is involved in frontline combat – receive military training and are subsequently dispatched to wage terrorism and war.”
According to the researchers who compiled this report, one of the worst affected countries due to Iranian meddling and interventionism is Iraq. Even Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, Brigadier General Iraj Masjedi, who was recently appointed to the post in January 2017 used to be the head of the Iraq desk at the IRGC.
‘Designate IRGC as terrorists’
Iran has been increasingly emboldened to act since former US President Barack Obama authorized the much touted nuclear deal with the Tehran regime, the NGOs argued. The deal, brokered by the so-called P5+1, was designed to limit Iranian nuclear ambitions that likely sought to acquire atomic weapons in exchange for sanctions relief.
Since sanctions have been largely lifted at the beginning of 2016, Iran has enjoyed increased financial and economic clout, which it has subsequently invested in its efforts to destabilize and influence more than a dozen countries in the Middle East.
The main countries assessed in the report include: Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Palestine. The latter is seen by experts on the region to be a public relations campaign conducted by Tehran to increase its Islamic credentials by appearing to support the Palestinians against Israel, while helping regimes around the region crush Palestinian refugee communities.
A prominent example of Iranian support for the brutal crackdowns against Palestinians was in Iraq after the illegal 2003 US-led invasion, where Palestinian refugees were perceived by Iran and their proxy Shia jihadists as being pro-Saddam Hussein. Iranian assistance for killing Palestinians also occurred in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, during the ongoing war against dictator Bashar Al-Assad.
Among its recommendations in its conclusion, the report argued that the IRGC should be designated as a terrorist organisation in the US, Europe and Middle East, with its operations curtailed and the organisation expelled from the entire Middle East, especially Iraq and Syria.
The NGOs also recommended “sanctioning all financial sources and companies affiliated with the IRGC” as well as “initiating international efforts to disband paramilitary groups and terrorist networks affiliated with the [IRGC’s] Quds Force.”
Source: Middle East Monitor.
Wednesday 28 December 2016
The fall of Aleppo to Iran-backed pro-government forces has brought a bubbling conflict between Iran and Hamas to the boil, with the former making thinly-veiled threats to cut off the Palestinian group.
The threats came from Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, a member of the Iranian Foreign Affairs and National Security Committee, in the wake of increasing solidarity from Hamas to Aleppo.
In an interview last week with the reformist Qanun newspaper, Falahatpisheh made clear there would be material consequences if Hamas did not change its position on Iran’s role in the region, not least its intervention in Syria.
If Hamas does not reconsider the “inconsistent positions by its leaders,” Tehran will be forced to turn to “the most detested of available options” – turning to other Palestinian factions such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, said Falahatpisheh on 21 December.
The tensions between Hamas, the most renowned anti-Israel movement in the region, and Iran are significant, as Tehran legitimizes its foreign policy through its “Axis of Resistance” against Israel and the United States, which includes Hamas, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“Currently, the sphere of influence of the resistance extends from the Indian subcontinent to the borders of Israel,” Falahatpisheh said.
The harshness of the senior Iranian official’s tone underlines the depth of the crisis in relations. Falahatpisheh accused Hamas of continuing to “support terrorist groups working under the umbrella of the Syrian opposition”.
He described Hamas’ current stance as “hostile,” and saw the group as moving out of Iran’s sphere of influence.
Falahatpisheh demanded Hamas not forget that Syria was, in his words, “a leader in the resistance, and much of its misfortunes are now due to this position”.
Hamas’ support for Aleppo
“We are following with great pain what is happening in Aleppo and the horrific massacres, murders and genocide its people are going through, and condemn it entirely,” read a statement from Hamas at the height of the bombardment of Aleppo.
The movement asked those whom it described as “wise, free and responsible in the ummah (global Islamic community) to act promptly to protect civilians in Aleppo and save those who are still alive”.
It also called on international, human rights and humanitarian institutions around the world to intervene immediately to “stop these dreadful massacres, stand by the children, women and elderly of Aleppo and save them from death and destruction”.
Ahmed Youssef, a senior Hamas figure and former foreign relations head, told al-Khaleej Online that his group would not change course – not least after what happened in Aleppo.
Youssef said the group’s position reflected that of the Palestinian public, who themselves have suffered similar brutality during Israel’s repeated assaults on the Gaza Strip.
He was adamant that Hamas would continue to stand in solidarity with Syria and condemn the killing of civilians there.
During Hamas’ recent parade commemorating the movement’s 29th anniversary, civilian Gazans and Qassam Brigade soldiers alike were seen carrying banners in solidarity with the people of Aleppo.
On the issue of Iranian-Hamas relations, the Iranian outlet Qanun threw in its own two cents: “It seems that Hamas moved away from Iran a long time ago.”
“This can be clearly seen from what is taking place in Syria. All of this is occurring at a time when leaders of the movement deny the existence of any differences of opinion between Tehran and the movement.
“In reality, however, their actions contradict their words.”
“Its financial relations with the Arabs are the reason behind the incoherent positions among the movement’s leaders,” Falahatpisheh said, going as far as to add that the “Israeli lobby” was influencing the group’s position.
He accused a “current” within Hamas of “seeking to save Daesh under the label of the Syrian opposition”.
There are also tensions within Hamas’s leadership over Iran’s influence on the group’s direction, which were made public through information leaked to the London-based pan-Arab al-Sharq al-Awsat daily.
The leaks came from a meeting of senior Hamas leaders, where a leading commander of Hamas’s military wing expressed his concern over growing Iranian influence due to its financial and military support for the group.
Salah al-Arouri is a founding commander of Hamas’ military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, and the movement’s preeminent figure in the West Bank.
According to the leaks, he accused Qassem Soleimani – leader of the Quds Force, the elite branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) – of trying to weaken the Qassam Brigade’s allegiance to Hamas and attempting to absorb them into the Quds Force.
Arouri also protested in the meeting against the pressure Soleimani was putting on the group to pledge complete loyalty to Tehran in the same way Islamic Jihad had done when their general secretary, Ramadan Shalah, led a delegation to Tehran and pledged an oath of allegiance to the Iranian regime.
Relations between Hamas and Iran deteriorated sharply following the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011. The following year, the group’s leadership left Damascus after being based there for more than a decade. Their funding was reduced drastically shortly thereafter.
“Our position on Syria affected relations with Iran. Its support for us never stopped, but the amounts [of money] were significantly reduced,” a senior Hamas official said in 2013.
In response to this turn of events, Iran ramped up funding for other Palestinian groups, most notably the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Islamic Jihad moves closer to Iran
Islamic Jihad has staged its own show of force in Gaza in recent months in a rally including its military wing – the al-Quds Brigades.
Shalah, quoted in the al-Sharq al-Awsat leaks as criticizing Iranian influence, spoke via video link at the October rally, saying: “[Iran] is the only country which commits to the unending support of the Palestinian cause”.
Islamic Jihad has had their own tensions with Iran over Syria for the past two years, but have recently changed tune and become one of Iran’s most vociferous Palestinian proxies.
Earlier this year, Shalah led a Palestinian Islamic Jihad delegation to Tehran and met with Soleimani.
“The defense of Palestine amounts to a defense of Islam,” Shalah said, adding: “The Arab states did not support the popular uprising in Palestine and will never support it since it contradicts their leaders’ agendas. Iran is the only state that supports the intifada and the martyrs’ families.”
Soleimani pledged to provide $70m in annual assistance to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad after the visit, which could explain their change in direction.
JPost reported that the move could be seen as a snub to Hamas following the 2015 visit by the movement’s political chief Khaled Meshaal to Iran’s arch-rival Saudi Arabia, which appeared to mark a significant warming of relations with the Gulf state.
At the end of his interview, Falahatpisheh said that Tehran “does not see Hamas as the whole of the resistance.
“If Hamas continues its current political direction in obstructing things, then Iran will develop new relations with other Palestinian groups without seriously harming the resistance.”
Source: Middle East Eye.
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.
June 17, 2014
BAGHDAD (AP) — In a sign of Iran’s deepening involvement in the Iraqi crisis, the commander of Tehran’s elite Quds Force is helping Iraq’s military and Shiite militias gear up to fight the Sunni insurgents advancing across the country, officials said Monday.
Washington signaled a new willingness work with Iran to help the Iraqi government stave off the insurgency after years of trying to limit Tehran’s influence in Baghdad — a dramatic shift that would have been unthinkable a few weeks ago.
The United States is deploying up to 275 military troops to Iraq to protect the U.S. Embassy and other American interests and is considering sending a contingent of special forces soldiers. But the White House insisted anew the U.S. would not be sending combat troops and thrusting America into a new Iraq war.
The insurgents seized the strategic city of Tal Afar near the Syrian border Monday, part of its goal of linking areas under its control on both sides of the Iraq-Syria frontier. West of Baghdad, an army helicopter was shot down during clashes near the city of Fallujah, killing the two-man crew, security officials said.
The Quds Force commander, Iranian Gen. Ghasem Soleimani, has been consulting in Iraq on how to roll back the al-Qaida-breakaway group, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, according to Iraqi security officials.
Soleimani’s presence in Iraq is likely to fuel longtime Sunni suspicions about the Shiite-led government’s close ties with Tehran. The security officials said the U.S. government was notified before Soleimani’s visit.
Soleimani has been inspecting Iraqi defenses and reviewing plans with top commanders and Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militias, the officials said. He has set up an operations room to coordinate the militias and visited the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala south of Baghdad, home to the most revered Shiite shrines, and areas west of Baghdad where government forces have faced off with Islamic militants for months.
The Islamic State has vowed to march to Baghdad, Karbala and Najaf in the worst threat to Iraq’s stability since U.S. troops left in 2011. A call to arms Friday from Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, gave prominence to the need to defend the holy shrines.
Soleimani’s visit adds significantly to the sectarian slant of the mobilization by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Armed Shiite militiamen have been parading on the streets and volunteers joining the security forces are chanting Shiite religious slogans.
Al-Maliki rejects charges of sectarianism and points to recruiting efforts by some Sunni clerics, but there is no evidence of Sunnis joining the fight against the Islamic State in significant numbers, if at all.
The legitimacy accorded by his government to the Shiite militias poses a risk of Iraq sliding back into the deadly sectarian bloodshed of 2006 and 2007. Such tensions were rising months before the Islamic State’s lightning incursion of last week, with thousands killed since late last year. Bombings killed Shiites and security forces as militants took hold of vast territory and at least one city in the mainly Sunni Anbar province west of Baghdad.
Soleimani is one of the most powerful figures in Iran’s security establishment, and his Quds Force is a secretive branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard involved in external operations. In the mid-2000s, it organized Shiite militias in a campaign against U.S. troops in Iraq, according to American officials. More recently, it has been involved in helping Syrian President Bashar Assad in his fight against Sunni rebels.
His visit and the empowerment of the Shiite militias that his Quds Force trains and arms means Iran could take a role in Iraq similar to the one it plays in Syria. The Quds Force — along with Iraqi and Lebanese Shiite fighters — has been crucial to the survival of Assad, himself a member of a sect that is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in an interview with Yahoo! News that Washington is “open to discussions” with Tehran if the Iranians can help end the violence and restore confidence in the Iraqi government.
A senior State Department official said the issue was briefly discussed with Iranian officials Monday on the sidelines of nuclear talks in Vienna. “We are open to engaging the Iranians, just as we are engaging other regional players,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The official said any engagement with Iran “will not include military coordination or strategic determinations about Iraq’s future over the heads of the Iraqi people.” In a formal report to Congress, President Barack Obama said the troops in the deployment he was announcing would be equipped for combat and would remain in Iraq until the security situation improved. About 160 troops are already in Iraq, including 50 Marines and more than 100 Army soldiers.
Under the authorization Obama outlined Monday, a U.S. official said, the U.S. would put an additional 100 soldiers in a nearby third country where they would be held in reserve until needed. Separately, U.S. officials emphasized that a possible limited special forces mission — which has not yet been approved — would focus on training and advising beleaguered Iraqi troops, many of whom have fled their posts across the nation’s north and west.
The capture of the city of Tal Afar was a key prize for the militants because it sits on a main highway between Syria and Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which the Islamic State seized last week. Iraqi military officials said about 500 elite troops and volunteers were flown Monday to Tal Afar and preparing to try to retake the city.
Tal Afar, with a population of about 200,000, is located 420 kilometers (260 miles) northwest of Baghdad. Its residents are mostly ethnic Shiite and Sunni Turkomen, raising fears of atrocities by Islamic State fighters, who brand Shiites as heretics.
Over the weekend, the group posted graphic photos purporting to show its fighters killing scores of Iraqi soldiers captured when it overran other areas. Tal Afar Mayor Abdulal Abdoul said the city was taken just before dawn. One resident, Hadeer al-Abadi, said militants in pickup trucks mounted with machine guns and flying black jihadi banners roamed the streets as gunfire rang out.
The local security force fled before dawn, and local tribesman who continued to fight later surrendered to the militants, al-Abadi said as he prepared to leave town with his family. Another resident, Haidar al-Taie, said a warplane dropped barrels packed with explosives on militant positions inside the city Monday morning, and many Shiite families had left the town shortly after fighting broke out a day earlier.
“Residents are gripped by fear and most of them have already left the town for areas held by Kurdish security forces,” al-Abadi said. The city is just south of the self-rule Kurdish region and many residents were fleeing to the relatively safe territory, joining refugees from Mosul and other areas that have been captured by the militants.
Some 3,000 others from Tal Afar fled west to the neighboring town of Sinjar. Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Tal Afar was often hit by car bombings and other attacks by Sunni militants targeting its Turkomen minority.
At one point, after a major American offensive in 2006 to drive out insurgents, then-President George W. Bush declared Tal Afar a success story that shows “the outlines of the Iraq that we and the Iraqi people have been fighting for. … A free and secure people are getting back on their feet.”
Farther south, the ISIL militants battled government troops at Romanah, a village near another main border crossing to Syria in Anbar province, according to a security official in Baghdad. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
The Islamic State already controls territory in Syria in several regions next to the Iraq border. Its fighters move relatively freely across the porous, unprotected desert border, along with money, weapons and equipment. Seizing an actual border crossing, however, would be a major symbolic gain for the group.
Also Monday, militants ambushed a vehicle carrying off-duty soldiers to Samarra, a city north of Baghdad that is home to a much-revered Shiite shrine. Six soldiers were killed and four wounded, a government official said.
Security has been tightened around Baghdad, particularly on its northern and western edges, and food prices have dramatically gone up because of the transportation disruptions on the main road heading north from the capital.
Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Saad Maan Ibrahim said Iraqi security forces killed 56 “terrorists” and wounded 21 just outside the capital in the last 24 hours. He made no mention of Tal Afar.
Security at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has been strengthened and some staff members sent elsewhere in Iraq and to neighboring Jordan, the State Department said Sunday. The State Department also cautioned U.S. citizens to avoid all but essential travel to Iraq. The warning said the Baghdad International Airport was “struck by mortar rounds and rockets” and the international airport in Mosul also has been targeted.
A senior Baghdad airport official, Saad al-Khafagi, denied the facility or surrounding areas have been hit. State-run Iraqiya TV also denied the attack, quoting the Ministry of Transport. The United Nations said it has relocated 58 staff members from Baghdad, and may move additional personnel out of the capital due to security concerns.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee, Lara Jakes and Julie Pace in Washington, George Jahn in Vienna, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad contributed to this report.