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Iraqi Forces Battle Islamic State Militants In Tikrit

By Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD — Iraqi government forces and volunteer fighters mounted a fresh drive Tuesday to oust Islamic State fighters from the northern city of Tikrit but were facing stiff resistance from the militant group, news agencies reported.

The Iraqi news site Shafaq reported that three columns of Iraqi soldiers had advanced on Tikrit on Tuesday morning but had withdrawn after coming under withering fire from militants. Islamic State forces have held the city, about 80 miles north of Baghdad, since June.

“The army lost its positions in the southern area of Tikrit that it had controlled a few weeks ago,” the news site quoted an Iraqi military official as saying.

The push to retake Tikrit, best known as the home of former dictator Saddam Hussein, came a day after pro-government Kurdish forces backed by U.S. airstrikes dislodged Islamic State fighters from the strategic Mosul dam in northern Iraq.

The battle in Tikrit, which Iraqi forces tried unsuccessfully to retake in June, suggested the Islamic State fighters would have better luck holding onto urban areas in northern Iraq, where they enjoy support among some Sunni Arab tribesmen.

Unlike the three-day battle for Mosul dam, during which U.S. forces launched 35 airstrikes against the Islamic State, American, and Iraqi warplanes were not part of the fight in Tikrit, officials said. U.S. officials have said airstrikes in urban areas are unlikely due to the risk of civilian casualties, making it more difficult for government ground forces battling the well-armed militants.

The Iraqi army has been joined by thousands of volunteer fighters, mostly Shiite Muslims, but many are ill-equipped and inexperienced, making them a liability on the battlefield. One volunteer fighter was killed in Tikrit and five others were injured, hospital officials in Samarra, 20 miles from Tikrit, told Shafaq news.

U.S. military advisors in Iraq have been wary of government forces attempting a ground battle in Tikrit because the militants are believed to be well entrenched. But the town carries significance for Baghdad not only as the birthplace of Hussein but also because it lies on a strategic highway between Samarra, home to a revered Shiite Muslim shrine, and Baiji, the country’s largest oil refinery.

Also Tuesday, United Nations officials in Geneva announced a major relief operation aimed at helping half a million Iraqis who have fled their homes to escape the fighting.

Planes from Jordan were expected to begin a four-day airlift bringing tents, kitchen goods, and other supplies to northern Iraq, with land and sea shipments to follow in the coming days, officials said.

Half the displaced Iraqis have settled in the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region, including about 200,000 people who fled their homes this month when Islamic State fighters seized the city of Sinjar and surrounding areas, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

“Emergency support is an urgent need that we are trying to meet,” an agency spokesman, Adrian Edwards, said in a statement.

AFP Photo/Azhar Shallal

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Iraqi Government Asks U.S. To Bomb Islamist Fighters As 30,000 Troops Flee Their Posts

By Mitchell Prothero, McClatchy Foreign Staff

ISTANBUL — Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria on Wednesday pushed their offensive south into Iraq’s Sunni Muslim heartland, capturing key crossroad towns on the highway to the capital, Baghdad, and taking control of a critical oil refinery.

The speedy advance of Islamic State fighters triggered recriminations in Baghdad, where Iraqi officials sought assistance from the United States to counter the advance.

A senior Iraqi official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive politics of the matter, said Baghdad even had asked U.S. officials to consider undertaking airstrikes to rout the fighters.

So far, the official said, the Americans appeared reluctant to take that step. “They have not committed yet,” he said, adding that it “doesn’t look like” they will, either.

Word of the request for armed American intervention came as insurgents captured the strategic city of Tikrit, took control of a critical oil refinery and power plant in the town of Baiji and pushed into the mixed Kurdish-Arab city of Kirkuk and the flashpoint city of Samara, just 70 miles north of Baghdad.

In a move that underlined the Islamic State’s ambitions, social media accounts associated with the group triumphantly announced the end of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the demarcation of modern Middle East borders by France and Great Britain after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. The group released credible but unconfirmed footage of heavy equipment adorned with the black flag of the Islamic State destroying fences and earthen berms along the Syrian border.

In Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein, who Iraq’s current government executed in 2006, the Islamic State was receiving heavy support from local anti-government tribes under an insurgent coalition called the General Military Council. Witnesses inside Tikrit said the rebels had taken control of much of the city, which was being adorned with posters of Saddam.

Dr. Issa Ayal, a local journalism professor, said the scene in Tikrit, the capital of Salahuddin province, was a near repeat of ISIS’ capture late Monday of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, when government soldiers and police shed their uniforms and their weapons and fled their posts ahead of the ISIS attackers.

“They had civilian clothes and left their posts,” he said of Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit.

The governor’s office in Tikrit fell about 11 a.m., he said. “Many members of Tikrit’s tribes loyal to the late President Saddam joined the fighters and I can see and hear them chanting Tikriti songs and chants near the governor’s office,” he said.

He said that ISIS gunmen had halted the broadcast of a Salahuddin satellite TV channel but did not harm journalists at the station and allowed them to leave safely.

In Baiji, which also lies in Salahuddin province, Islamic State fighters took control of the town and were poised to add one of Iraq’s most important oil refineries and pumping facilities to the substantial list of economic infrastructure captured in the past 48 hours. Security forces abandoned the facility, which is connected to a large electrical power plant, and Islamic State fighters had taken control of the area, though it remained unclear if they had entered the plant itself. Ben Lando, editor of Iraq Oil Report, a trade publication based in Baghdad, said the Iraqi government would likely shut down the pipeline feeding the facility if ISIS did take actual control.

Embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took to state airwaves to offer weapons to any civilians willing to fight against the quickly encroaching Islamic State, a call to arms that was aimed primarily at the Shiite Muslim militias that successfully battled Sunni groups for control of Baghdad in a sectarian war from 2006 to 2008. But how many would respond was not clear, and a key former militia leader, cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, suggested he would limit his response to protecting the Imam Ali Shrine in the holy city of Najaf, which is about 100 miles south of Baghdad and 200 miles south of the scene of Wednesday’s fighting.

Meanwhile, a number of Sunni Muslim tribes in the provinces of Anbar, Nineveh and Salahuddin appeared to be joining the Islamist advance after years of tensions with the Shiite government in Baghdad.

How the U.S. would respond to the Iraqi request for bombing strikes, first reported by The New York Times, was not immediately clear. Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby on Tuesday had gone out of his way seemingly to discourage speculation of direct U.S. involvement. “This is for the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi government to deal with,” he said.

That response came weeks, however, after al-Maliki had first asked the United States for help, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

A senior U.S. Defense Department official, confirming the report, said that al-Maliki first made the request around the time of his visit to Washington last October. The official described the administration’s response as cold and said al-Maliki had asked that the request be kept secret so that it would not appear that he was inviting the United States to return to Iraq.

While rejecting the idea of airstrikes, the Obama administration did agree to speed up delivery of F16 fighter jets and Hellfire missiles. But the jets are not expected to arrive until September, leaving Iraq with a limited ability to attack insurgent positions from the air.

There were reports Wednesday from the rebel-affiliated Local Coordinating Committee in Syria’s Deir el Zour province, however, that Syrian government aircraft had bombed an ISIS convoy that was moving toward Iraq. It could not be learned if the strike was at the request of the Iraqi government, which has supported Syrian President Bashar Assad in his efforts to remain in power.

In northern Iraq, Islamic State fighters appeared to be avoiding confronting the peshmerga militia loyal to the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, which had dispatched troops from the Kurdish capital of Irbil to impose a security cordon around Kurdish areas and to reinforce peshmerga troops in the Kurdish eastern half of Mosul and further south in the Kurdish sections of the mixed city of Kirkuk. But Islamic State fighters and local Sunni tribesmen were battling for control of Arab districts.

“We’ve fully mobilized, obviously,” said Sabaa al Barzani, a Kurdistan Regional Government security official in Irbil. “We’re sending peshmerga fighters to Mosul and Kirkuk and using them to form a protective circle around Irbil.”

Barzani said the stream of refugees that began fleeing Mosul for Irbil had become a torrent on Wednesday.

“We’re counting 20 cars a minute right now, and they’ve been coming all day,” he said.

The International Rescue Committee estimated that at least 500,000 people had fled fighting in Mosul by Wednesday afternoon, leaving a humanitarian crisis in the making as Iraq is already struggling to house 200,000 refugees from the fighting in neighboring Syria.

Reports that the peshmerga were attempting to recapture Mosul’s international airport, which fell Tuesday to the Islamic State, could not be confirmed. But the site represents a major strategic asset that would allow the Iraqi army to send troops and establish supply lines for any attempt to retake the city.

Barzani would not comment on specifics but said that “security operations on several fronts are planned or ongoing.” A security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, did confirm that Kurdish units had retaken the Rabia border crossing with Syria earlier in the day.

ISIS stormed the Turkish consulate in Mosul at midday Wednesday and captured the consul-general, Ozturk Yilmas, a career diplomat, and 48 other staff members, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in Ankara. On Tuesday it arrested 31 Turkish truck drivers as they were delivering diesel fuel to a depot in Mosul.

With 80 people being held, Turkey called for an emergency meeting of the NATO council. But it wasn’t clear what the government in Ankara would undertake as a response, or what support it would seek from its NATO allies. Reports in the Turkish media said ISIS had demanded a $5 million ransom for the release of the drivers. The fate of the diplomats was also unclear. A Twitter account thought to be linked to ISIS stated that the “Turks are not kidnapped. They are only taken to a safe location and until the investigation procedures are completed.”

It was still unclear just how much U.S.-provided military equipment had been captured in the seizure of Mosul, but the booty no doubt totaled tons of heavy weapons. The Islamic State’s treasury also was no doubt swollen by the hundreds of millions of dollars the group’s fighters seized from government offices and banks in Mosul.

In Washington, Lukman Faily, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States, said the Iraqi government had yet to determine how much war materiel the insurgents had captured. But he provided fresh insight into the depth of the unfolding debacle, saying that around 30,000 Iraqi forces had abandoned their posts in the ISIS onslaught. “Disappointing is an understatement,” he said.

He also pleaded for U.S. support, saying that the Islamic State had proved to be a formidable foe. “They have been creative, aggressive, thinking outside the box, with advanced weapons and financial support,” he said. “This is not a local insurgency.”


Interested in learning more about the crisis in Iraq? You can read more here.
AFP Photo/Mauricio Lima

Islamist Fighters Capture Saddam Hussein’s Hometown, Move On Key Oil Refinery

By Mitchell Prothero, McClatchy Foreign Staff

ISTANBUL — Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria on Wednesday pushed their offensive south into Iraq’s Sunni Muslim heartland, capturing key crossroad towns on the highway to the capital, Baghdad, and threatening a critical oil refinery.

As hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled their homes for the safety of nearby Kurdish-controlled areas, the fighters of the Islamic State — clearly much more of an entity than the label “terrorist group” implies — occupied much of the strategic city of Tikrit, were battling for control of a key oil refinery in the town of Baiji, and were pushing into the mixed Kurdish-Arab city of Kirkuk.

Social media accounts associated with the Islamic State also triumphantly announced the end of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the demarcation of modern Middle East borders by France and Great Britain after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. The group released credible but unconfirmed footage of heavy equipment adorned with the black flag of the Islamic State destroying fences and earthen berms along the Syrian border.

In Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein, who Iraq’s current government executed in 2006, the Islamic State was receiving heavy support from local anti-government tribes under an insurgent coalition called the General Military Council. Witnesses inside Tikrit said the rebels had taken control of much of the city, which was being adorned with posters of Saddam.

Dr. Issa Ayal, a local journalism professor, said the scene in Tikrit, the capital of Salahuddin province, was a near repeat of ISIS’ capture late Monday of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, when government soldiers and police shed their uniforms and their weapons and fled their posts ahead of the ISIS attackers.

“They had civilian clothes and left their posts,” he said of Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit.

The governor’s office in Tikrit fell about 11 a.m., he said. “Many members of Tikrit’s tribes loyal to the late President Saddam joined the fighters and I can see and hear them chanting Tikriti songs and chants near the governor’s office,” he said.

He said that ISIS gunmen had halted the broadcast of a Salahuddin satellite TV channel but did not harm journalists at the station and allowed them to leave safely.

In Baiji, which also lies in Salahuddin province, Islamic State fighters were pressing to add one of Iraq’s most important oil refineries and pumping facilities to the substantial list of economic infrastructure captured in the past 48 hours. In what would be a rare bright spot in the abject humiliation of the Iraqi army in recent days, Iraqi government media reported that the army garrison at the refinery had repelled the initial attack. But fighting was continuing for control of the facility, whose capture would be a huge boon to the rebels and a major blow to the government.

Embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took to state airwaves to offer weapons to any civilians willing to fight against the quickly encroaching Islamic State, a call to arms that was aimed primarily at the Shiite Muslim militias that successfully battled Sunni groups for control of Baghdad in a sectarian war from 2006 to 2008. But how many would respond was not clear, and a key former militia leader, cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, suggested he would limit his response to protecting the Imam Ali Shrine in the holy city of Najaf, which is about 100 miles south of Baghdad and 200 miles south of the scene of Wednesday’s fighting.

Meanwhile, a number of Sunni Muslim tribes in the provinces of Anbar, Nineveh and Salahuddin appeared to be joining the Islamist advance after years of tensions with the Shiite government in Baghdad.

Islamic State fighters appeared to be avoiding confronting the peshmerga militia loyal to the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, which had dispatched troops from the Kurdish capital of Irbil to impose a security cordon around Kurdish areas and to reinforce peshmerga troops in the Kurdish eastern half of Mosul and further south in the Kurdish sections of the mixed city of Kirkuk. But Islamic State fighters and local Sunni tribesmen were battling for control of Arab districts.

“We’ve fully mobilized, obviously,” said Sabaa al-Barzani, a Kurdistan Regional Government security official in Irbil. “We’re sending peshmerga fighters to Mosul and Kirkuk and using them to form a protective circle around Irbil.”

Al-Barzani said the stream of refugees that began fleeing Mosul for Irbil had become a torrent on Wednesday.

“We’re counting 20 cars a minute right now, and they’ve been coming all day,” he said.

The International Rescue Committee estimated that at least 500,000 people had fled fighting in Mosul by Wednesday afternoon, leaving a humanitarian crisis in the making as Iraq is already struggling to house 200,000 refugees from the fighting in neighboring Syria.

Reports that the peshmerga were attempting to recapture Mosul’s international airport, which fell Tuesday to the Islamic State, could not be confirmed. But the site represents a major strategic asset that would allow the Iraqi army to send troops and establish supply lines for any attempt to retake the city.

Al-Barzani would not comment on specifics but said that “security operations on several fronts are planned or ongoing.” A security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, did confirm that Kurdish units had retaken the Rabia border crossing with Syria earlier in the day.

ISIS stormed the Turkish consulate in Mosul at midday Wednesday and captured the consul-general, Ozturk Yilmas, a career diplomat, and 48 other staff members, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in Ankara. On Tuesday it arrested 31 Turkish truck drivers as they were delivering diesel fuel to a depot in Mosul.

With 80 people being held, Turkey called for an emergency meeting of the NATO council. But it wasn’t clear what the government in Ankara would undertake as a response, or what support it would seek from its NATO allies. Reports in the Turkish media said ISIS had demanded a $5 million ransom for the release of the drivers. The fate of the diplomats was also unclear. A Twitter account thought to be linked to ISIS stated that the “Turks are not kidnapped. They are only taken to a safe location and until the investigation procedures are completed.”

It was still unclear just how much U.S.-provided military equipment had been captured in the seizure of Mosul, but the booty no doubt totaled tons of heavy weapons. The Islamic State’s treasury also was no doubt swollen by the hundreds of millions of dollars the group’s fighters seized from government offices and banks in Mosul.

AFP Photo