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Syria’s Violence Prompts Worse Humanitarian Crisis In A Century

By Mitchell Prothero, McClatchy Foreign Staff

IRBIL, Iraq — Nearly half of Syria’s population has been displaced either internally or externally as refugees in the worst humanitarian crisis to strike the Middle East in at least a century, according to new data released by the International Rescue Committee.

The complex civil war, which has now morphed into a three-way free-for-all among rebels, the Syrian regime, and a caliphate of Islamic extremists attacking virtually everyone, has driven at least 3 million people from Syria into neighboring countries. The movement is stressing already fragile nations such as Jordan and Lebanon, who have born the brunt of the exodus even as both deal with their own unstable internal political situations.

Turkey also has received hundreds of thousands of refugees and continues to struggle to control its own border; thousands of foreign Jihadi fighters have used Turkey to access the Syrian battlefield. They offset the tens of thousands of Syrian fleeing the fighting, leaving southern Turkey awash in desperate refugees and militants of all stripes.

In terms of world history, the IRC, considered one of the world’s most effective aid organizations, says the situation has reached a level of disaster not seen worldwide since the Rwandan genocide more than 20 years ago that saw fewer people — about 1.5 million — displaced but nearly a million killed. The casualties in the Syrian conflict have been estimated by the United Nations conservatively at over 200,000 dead since it began in early 2011.

The lack of a coordinated international effort to address such an enormous catastrophe in the volatile region makes no sense in the modern era, according to an IRC official.

“This new milestone is as unacceptable as it is tragic. This level of human suffering, anguish, and misery does not belong in the 21st century — it is a devastating new hallmark of human failure,” said IRC President David Miliband. “It should not take these numbers for the crisis to hit the headlines — we are witnessing the biggest humanitarian catastrophe for a generation in one of the least stable and most dangerous parts of the world. This crisis needs more public attention, more international financing, and crucially more political endeavor to tackle the root of the crisis: political dysfunction that has led to violence, chaos, and death.”

The situation in Lebanon, which has absorbed at least 1.2 million refugees into an already unstable population of about 4 million people — and an additional estimated 300,000 Palestinian refugees that have been living in camps for decades — poses the greatest concern.
With a government widely considered the least effectual in an already unstable region, Lebanon has refused to formulate an official government plan to deal with crisis, leaving virtually all of the aid and organizational work to either outside aid groups or even to the refugees themselves, who instead of living in camps where the population can be easily accessed by aid groups — such as the enormous Zaatari Camp in northern Jordan — are scattered throughout Lebanon in small makeshift camps, private homes, or even living on the streets.

AFP Photo

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With Islamic State Advancing, Kurds Prepare For Last Stand Outside Capital

By Mitchell Prothero, McClatchy Foreign Staff

KALAK, Iraq — Kurdish fighters scrambled to set up a defensive line Thursday after militants from the Islamic State seized four strategic towns on a key highway and advanced to positions just minutes from Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.

Hundreds of Kurdish peshmerga militiamen built earthen berms near Kalak on the highway that links Irbil with Mosul, the Iraqi city whose fall to Islamic State militants in early June touched off a sweep across northern and western Iraq that until Thursday had spared Kurdish areas.

But that quiet appeared to be over, with the Islamic State boldly saying in an Internet posting Thursday that it intended to capture Irbil, a city previously thought so secure that the United States two months ago chose it as one of two Iraqi cities safe enough to receive scores of staffers evacuated from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

From Kalak, about 25 miles northwest of Irbil, the front line of the Islamic State — which everyone here refers to as “Daash,” an Arabic acronym — could be seen slightly more than a mile away.

“Daash is testing our defenses,” said Rosg Nuri Shawess, a top Kurdish military commander, pointing to two towns that had fallen to the Islamic State, Qaraqosh, and Bartella, that were visible in the distance. “And if we don’t show them we are strong here, then we have lost Irbil.”

Shawess, who also is a member of the Iraqi government’s national security council, called the situation “extremely critical” as he examined the foremost strong point along the highway. He described the Kurdish military plight as “too much distance to protect, with too few men and not enough weapons.”

“The Americans keep saying they will help us,” he added as surveillance planes or drones, likely American, circled far above the clouds. “Well, if they plan to help they had better do it now.”

It was unclear if the United States planned to do anything to help fend off an Islamic State thrust at Irbil, where the United States also has recently expanded its CIA station and set up a Joint Operations Center to coordinate military activities with the Kurdish and Iraqi governments.

There were reports from Washington that “military options” were under consideration, and U.S. officials said specifically that the United States was considering dropping supplies to refugees trapped on a mountain near the Islamic State-controlled city of Sinjar.

But there were no specifics about military steps to counter the Islamists’ move toward Irbil. At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest stuck closely to the administration’s months-old position that Iraq’s problems must be solved politically.

“There are no military solutions to the problems of Iraq,” he told reporters. He said the United States would move to protect American personnel but that American military action “would have to be closely tied to Iraqi political reforms.”

A sense of dread fell over the Kurdish capital as the magnitude of the threat became clear.

Western oil companies based in Irbil shut down operations and restricted their employees’ movements out of concerns for safety, while makeshift shelters popped up in public parks and churches in the Ain Kawa neighborhood to accommodate hundreds of people who’d fled the newly occupied towns. There was a noticeable increase in the presence of the Kurdish peshmerga militia in the city, and there were reports that hundreds of residents flooded the airport in hopes of buying tickets to elsewhere.

A refugee camp at Kalak that only two days ago was filled with tens of thousands of refugees who’d fled Mosul when it fell to the Islamic State was empty Thursday as the area became the new front line of a conflict that went from occasional clashes to a full-scale war between the Kurds and the Islamic State in less than a week.

AFP Photo/Safin Hamed

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Islamic State Pushes Back Kurdish Forces Near Irbil, Sparking Panic

By Mitchell Prothero, McClatchy Washington Bureau

IRBIL, Iraq — Militants from the Islamic State made a surprise attack early Thursday on strategic villages near Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, apparently capturing significant territory and sending thousands of refugees into the city.

Kurdish military officials said that the situation was under control, but the flow of people suggested otherwise — a startling reversal in a region long presumed safe from an Islamic State incursion. The United States, worried about security in Baghdad two months ago, selected Irbil as one of two Iraqi cities safe enough to receive staff evacuated from the U.S. Embassy.

Falah Bakir, the foreign minister for the Kurdistan Regional Government, said in an interview with CNN that the Kurds faced disaster and needed immediate assistance. “We are left alone in the front to fight the terrorists of ISIS,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State, who used to call itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

“I believe the United States has a moral responsibility to support us, because this is a fight against terrorism, and we have proven to be pro-democracy, pro-West, and pro-secularism,” Bakir said.

Tensions were high in the Kurdish capital. Western oil companies based in Irbil were shutting down operations and restricting their employees’ movements out of concerns for safety, while makeshift shelters popped up in public parks and churches in the Ain Kawa neighborhood to accommodate hundreds of people who’d fled. There was a noticeable increase in the presence of the Kurdish peshmerga militia in the city.

“I now know that the towns of Qaraqosh, Tal Kayf, Bartella, and Karamlesh have been emptied of their original population and are now under the control of the militants,” Joseph Thomas, the Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk and Sulaimaniyah, told the Agence France Presse news agency. If verified, the fall of those villages would represent the loss of the largest Christian communities in Iraq.

Kurdish officials repeatedly have claimed that the United States and the Iraqi government in Bagdhad have refused to send military aid and that they have only Saddam Hussein-era weapons and limited ammunition to counter Islamic State forces that are armed with advanced American weaponry captured from Iraqi army depots in June.

A statement attributed to the Islamic State posted on the Internet said that the Islamists would target Irbil as retaliation for Kurdish officials’ agreement earlier this week to coordinate operations against the Islamic State with the central government in Baghdad.

“We are pleased to announce to the Islamic nation a new liberation in Nineveh province, teaching the secular Kurds a lesson,” the statement said.

The United States has long been seen as the Kurdish region’s protector. After the first Gulf War ended in 1991, the United States imposed a no-fly zone over the region to prevent Saddam Hussein’s air force from attacking. The Kurdish zone became a rare outpost of economic development in an era when harsh trade restrictions were imposed on the rest of Iraq. After U.S. forces toppled Saddam in 2003, the region enjoyed enormous autonomy and was largely free of the sectarian warfare and chaos that plagued the rest of Iraq during the American occupation.

Prior to this week, there had been only limited clashes between the Islamic State and the Kurds’ peshmerga militia along the nearly 900-mile border between the Kurdish region and areas the Islamists captured in June. But that changed after the Islamic State last weekend captured Sinjar in northwestern Iraq and attempted to take Mosul Dam, Iraq’s largest. Though the area technically lies outside the boundaries of what is known as the Kurdistan Regional Government, it has a predominantly Kurdish population, and the Kurdish government ordered a counteroffensive, including attacks by thousands of Kurdish fighters from Turkey and Syria.

In response, Wednesday night, the Islamist forces attacked peshmerga positions just a few miles to the southeast of Irbil, taking at least partial control of the village of Makhmour, a town that controls the main highway linking Irbil with Kirkuk to the south.

There were also local news reports, citing witnesses, that the black flag of the Islamic State was seen flying over the Mosul Dam on Thursday despite official government claims it remained in Kurdish hands.

The Islamic State statement on Thursday claimed it had taken control of a total of 15 villages and the dam since the weekend.

On Thursday, the Islamic State attacked peshmerga positions along the highway connecting Irbil to Mosul, overrunning the village of Gwer and at least part of the Christian village of Qarakosh, where tens of thousands of Christians had fled after Mosul fell.

Heavy mortar and artillery fire into the neighboring city of Bartella also sent the population running for Irbil.

Inside Irbil, peshmerga security forces expanded their presence and checkpoints in an effort to keep control of the flood of refugees. Reports from Kalak, the main checkpoint entering Irbil from Mosul, indicated authorities had shut the road to the flood of fleeing people and were diverting them to a nearby refugee camp that already houses tens of thousands.

AFP Photo/Karim Sahib

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Islamic State’s Brutal Videos Send Message To Friend And Foe Alike

By Mitchell Prothero, McClatchy Foreign Staff

IRBIL, Iraq — The Islamic State, the radical Islamist group that now controls large swaths of eastern Syria and northern and central Iraq, posted another slickly produced video online this week that warns its religious and political rivals that they face brutal torture and execution if captured.

But the 36-minute film, “On the Path of the Prophets,” does much more than that, analysts said, and shows that the Islamic State has a remarkably sophisticated understanding of messaging that makes it clear that the group is probably the most tactically and strategically adept terrorist organization the world has ever seen.

The overall impression that analysts draw from the film is that far from being just a group of psychotic killers, the Islamic State’s leaders have thought out carefully how to harness the group’s brutality to spread its influence. The group’s targets aren’t valuable just militarily but also on a number of other levels that underscore the Islamic State’s communications goals.

“Executing several hundred men is one thing,” said Charles Lister, an expert on jihadi groups at the Brooking Institution’s center in Doha, Qatar, referring to one of the scenes that unfold in the video. “But to purposely film it in high quality and release it precisely at the end (of the holy month of Ramadan) … is a very purposeful message.”

“Not only is such a message directed towards its direct enemies — the Shiite, Alawite, and Syrian and Iraqi armies — but it also intimidates competitors and rivals towards submission and pledging of loyalty,” he said.

Such pragmatism in selecting targets — combining the practical with the spectacular — adds to the group’s reputation for ruthlessness toward friend and foe alike. The videos also help recruit adherents, despite the brutal nature of what they depict.

“While such horrific brutality is abhorrent for the vast majority of people, the IS is also aware that it does in fact help recruit, too — one need only scan over social media … to see the enthusiastic responses such violence receives among its supporters,” Lister said.

Aymenn al-Tamimi, who studies jihadi groups for the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based research organization, agreed.

“Around the world, recruiting is something they have in mind,” al-Tamimi said. “IS fan boys in particular go wild with all those killings of Rafidites,” he said, using a derogatory term for Shiite Muslims derived from the Arabic word for “rejectionists.” Radical Sunni Muslims accuse Shiites of being heretics for rejecting the Sunni view of who the rightful heir is to the Prophet Muhammad.

But al-Tamimi said the murder of perceived apostate prisoners was part of an even more cynical plan, an attempt to draw an equally brutal response from regime-aligned forces and militias directed at the alienated Sunni population that has for the most part embraced the Islamic State, at least so far.

“They are hoping (enraged) Shiite militias will rear their heads and engage in ethnic cleansing, which they can then advertise to Sunnis to say, ‘You’re being threatened by the Rafidites. We will protect you,’ ” he said.

And that, according to Lister, plays on a major psychological element that’s been mostly overlooked in the success of the Islamic State’s seizure of much of Iraq: Sunni tribal pride, which suffered for years at the hands of the Shiite-led government that was installed in Baghdad during the American-led occupation.

“In the immediate term, I do think there has been some recognition among Sunni civilians in Mosul, for example, that the IS has brought stability and honor back to the community,” Lister said.

Opposition to the Islamic State may grow over time, Lister said, especially as public punishment for violating the group’s harsh rules increases. “But for now,” he added, “I think many people are simply ‘going with the winner’ and ensuring their own security.”

AFP Photo

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Mosul Christians’ Flight Triggered By Leaders’ Refusal To Meet Islamists

By Mitchell Prothero, McClatchy Foreign Staff

BARTELLA, Iraq — Abu Imad wasn’t particularly worried when masked gunmen from a range of militant Islamist groups took control of the northern city of Mosul, where he lived.

“When they came in June and drove out the army, things became normal quickly. I didn’t see any reason to flee,” he said, sitting in St. Georges Syriac Catholic Church in Bartella, a dusty, flyspeck Christian village less than 20 miles from Mosul.

“There were no problems at first, and the only sign of a change was that the traffic police were men that we did not know,” he said. “Some were Iraqi and others spoke (classical Arabic), so it was hard to tell where they were from. Some didn’t speak Arabic at all, but they treated everyone in a good way, and so I didn’t want to leave.”

But then on July 12, Islamists marked Abu Imad’s house with an “n,” for Nusari, a derogatory Arabic term for a nonbeliever. “When I asked them why, they said, ‘To mark your house as protected if outsiders come to Mosul.’ That’s when I grew worried,” he said.

A week later, Abu Imad, a Syriac Catholic, had packed up and left.

He and the rest of northern Iraq’s multitude of Christian sects have plenty of reason to worry about the self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate that’s taken hold in much of northern and western Iraq and eastern Syria since Mosul fell to the Islamic State on June 9. The men who lead the caliphate adhere to the most austere and literal interpretation of Islam, one that subscribes to the notion that improperly pious Muslims can be killed and that Christians, Jews, and other monotheistic minorities must pay a protection tax or face a similar fate.

“It’s a financial punishment for refusing to become Muslim,” said the rector of St. Georges, Father Ammar, explaining “jizya,” a tax the ancient caliphates levied on non-Muslims. Father Ammar, following local custom, gave only his first name.

Within days of the appearance of the scarlet “n” on Abu Imad’s house, the Islamic State’s Islamic law council demanded a meeting with the top religious authorities from the Christian sects in Mosul, in many cases calling on the officials to come to Mosul from Baghdad for the session.

“They really think they’re an Islamic state and can just call a meeting with other legitimate religious leaders. It’s insane,” said Father Ammar, whose Baghdad-based bishop was summoned to the session but chose not to attend. “I’m not even a bishop and am from Qarakosh, but I wasn’t going to go to negotiate jizya.”

The meeting was announced for June 17, and when not a single religious leader from any of the Christian communities attended, the Islamic State took offense.

“The next day we received the notification. We had only two choices, and jizya was not one of them,” said Abu Imad, who admits that he was likely to have considered paying a reasonable tax to keep his home. “Convert to Islam or leave.”

“You could have stayed and died,” Father Ammar pointed out, noting the third option.

Photo: McClatchy Washington Bureau/MCT/Mitchell Prothero

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Weeks Of Combat In Iraq Show Shiite Militias Have Few Offensive Capabilities

By Mitchell Prothero, McClatchy Foreign Staff

IRBIL, Iraq — The sectarian Shiite militias that the government in Baghdad has dispatched to fill the void created by the collapse of the Iraqi army are proving ill-equipped for offensive operations intended to reverse gains by the radical Islamic State, Iraqi soldiers, and military experts studying the current military situation have concluded.

The inadequacy of the militias to turn the tide was demonstrated again on Wednesday six miles south of Tikrit, the central Iraqi city that Islamic State fighters seized June 11 and that Iraqi forces and Shiite fighters have been trying to reclaim for more than two weeks.

Local residents and Iraqi media reported that the Iraqi military backed by militias attempted to push through the town of Awja toward Tikrit but were beaten back by heavy machine-gun and mortar fire from Islamic State positions.

“It was a big battle and the Iraqi army and the Iranian militias have gone,” said one local resident, whose reference to the Shiite militias as Iranians is common, if inaccurate, in heavily Sunni regions of Iraq. “They withdrew to a base south of Awja.” The resident declined to be identified for security reasons.

A Twitter account associated with the Islamic State posted photographs of what it said was the aftermath of the fighting, including images of burning armored vehicles and at least one destroyed pickup truck emblazoned with the logo of SWAT, a highly trained Iraqi army special forces unit. The photographs were consistent with descriptions of the fighting, the units present, and the location of the battle, though their authenticity could not be confirmed.

The apparent defeat underscored a growing sense that the Iraqi security forces have misplaced their hopes that the Shiite militias would prove decisive in the fight against the Islamic State. While the militias are given credit for stopping the Islamic State’s advance on cities such as Samarra, home of a major Shiite religious shrine, and Baghdad, they’ve proved ineffective in retaking ground. Their casualties apparently have been high.

“Without (the militias) we would have been gone a long time ago,” said Ahmad Hussam, an infantryman fighting on the critical western approaches to Baghdad near Abu Ghraib, one of the last majority Sunni areas still in government hands, who was interviewed while on leave in Baghdad. “But they have taken many lost on their side because of a shortage in training and experience.”

He added that many volunteers — summoned by Iraq’s senior Shiite cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to support the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — had arrived at the front lines without weapons or food. “We have to help them just to stay alive,” he said.

Aymenn al-Tamimi, who studies militant groups in Iraq for the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, said the past few weeks have disproved the common wisdom that the Shiite militias would be a fearsome force because of their experience fighting U.S. forces during the American occupation of Iraq and, more recently, their role in helping defend the government of President Bashar Assad in Syria.

“These are supposed to be the guys who can scare ISIS and are skilled in urban warfare,” Tamimi said, referring to the Islamic State by the acronym for its previous name, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. “Well, I don’t see evidence of that.”

Andrew Exum, a former Pentagon adviser and expert on low-intensity conflicts, said that recent weeks suggest that the militias will require a firmer hand from Iranian commanders or officers from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, who reportedly led many of them during their presence in neighboring Syria. But whether Iran and Hezbollah are willing to commit that manpower is unclear, even as the Obama administration has said no U.S. ground troops will be committed to Iraq.

Pentagon officials are finalizing recommendations for what the United States should do to bolster Iraqi forces. An initial assessment found, among other conclusions, that Iraq’s forces lacked the offensive capabilities to decisively end the Islamic State’s threat to Baghdad.

“I think it’s clear that just as Iraq’s army benefited greatly from embedded U.S. advisers, Iraq’s Shiite militias benefited greatly from embedded Iranian and Hezbollah advisers,” said Exum, a former U.S. Army officer who has a doctorate in counterinsurgency studies from King’s College in London. “Too bad for the former that America is so reluctant to commit ground troops, and too bad for the latter that Iran and Hezbollah are so busy in Syria.”

Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.

AFP Photo/Ahmad al-Rubaye

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Al-Maliki Urges Iraq’s Neighbors To Join Fight Against Islamists

By Mitchell Prothero, McClatchy Foreign Staff

IRBIL, Iraq — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called Wednesday for support from neighboring countries in his government’s struggle against Islamist insurgents, saying the formation of an Islamic caliphate in much of Iraq and Syria threatens the entire region.

The declaration of the caliphate by the radical terrorist group Islamic State and the call by its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, for Muslims the world over to join it in a holy war puts every nation in the region “within a red circle,” al-Maliki said.

The prime minister’s message appeared to be an appeal not just to Iraqi Sunni Muslims, some of whom have openly supported the Islamic State’s offensive in Iraq, but also to countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, which have openly opposed assistance to the Shiite Muslim-led Iraqi government.

He urged politicians in his own country to come together to pick a new government. On Tuesday, Iraq’s parliament failed to select a new speaker after Sunni Arab and Kurdish members stormed out a few minutes into the opening session. Al-Maliki described the failure to form a government as a “state of weakness.”

“God willing, in the next session we will overcome it with cooperation and agreement and openness,” he said. The parliament is scheduled to convene again next week.

Al-Maliki, a Shiite nationalist, has so far resisted rather broad calls to either form a national unity government quickly or step aside for a new leader, amid claims by allies and foes alike that his policies toward Iraq’s Sunni minority had led many of the country’s tribes to join the Islamic State rebellion.

Al-Maliki also addressed on Wednesday growing division with Iraq’s Kurds, whose Kurdistan Regional Government is largely autonomous but remains part of the country. As the Iraqi army collapsed last month before the Islamic State’s onslaught, the Kurds expanded their control to the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Kurdish President Massoud Barzani also has said he will hold a referendum on independence.

Al-Maliki noted that the Iraqi Constitution allows for a federal system but contains no provisions for such a move to independence. He angrily charged that the Kurds were “trying to take advantage of the situation” with their occupation of Kirkuk, and he described the situation as unresolved.

It was unlikely that al-Maliki’s call for support from his neighbors would be greeted positively. With the exception of Iran, which like Iraq is ruled by Shiites, and Syria, where the Shiite-linked Alawite sect holds sway, al-Maliki’s neighbors are ruled by Sunni monarchies, and they’ve bitterly opposed his leadership. Even Baghdadi’s Ramadan message, in which he singled out Sham — an Arabic geographic term that would include Lebanon and Jordan — and Egypt from the Arabian Peninsula as regimes that oppress Muslims, was unlikely to rally those countries to al-Maliki’s side.

AFP Photo/Ali al-Saadi

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Iraqi Commandos And Shiite Militias Battling To Retake Tikrit

By Mitchell Prothero, McClatchy Foreign Staff

IRBIL, Iraq — Iraqi army commandos and Iranian-trained Shiite Muslim militias pressed their first significant counteroffensive against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria on Friday, battling Sunni insurgents in rebel-held Tikrit after a dramatic helicopter assault into the town Thursday afternoon.

The assault’s stakes are high for Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whose army has been in headlong retreat for nearly three weeks as ISIS and its tribal allies captured the country’s second-largest city, Mosul, besieged its largest refinery at Baiji and threatened its biggest military base at Balad. Recapturing Tikrit — Saddam Hussein’s hometown — would be a major boost ahead of the start of next week’s parliamentary session. Defeat would be disaster.

The initial assault on Thursday involved commandos from a unit that reports directly to al-Maliki. They were airlifted aboard three helicopters to Tikrit University’s stadium, where they were met with heavy fire from ISIS. At least one of the helicopters was shot down.

The commandos managed in all-night fighting to take control of tall buildings near the stadium, according to witnesses and local residents. On Friday, they were reinforced by militiamen believed to be members of the Shiite group Asiab al-Haq, an Iranian-trained militia with extensive experience fighting in Iraq against the U.S.-led occupation and in Syria in support of the regime of Bashar Assad, which faces its own Sunni rebel uprising. Reports indicated the commandos and militia members were battling to expand their perimeter late Friday, with uncertain results.

Massive desertions in recent weeks have crippled Iraq’s American-trained and -equipped military, making it ineffective in countering ISIS fighters, who’ve teamed up with Sunni tribes and former officers from Saddam’s Baath Party to storm within a handful of miles of Baghdad. ISIS fighters have essentially cut off the capital from neighboring Jordan and Syria by seizing villages and cities along highways north and west of Baghdad.

It remained unclear Friday whether the government forces would succeed in taking back Tikrit, which fell to the advancing insurgents June 11. The Defense Ministry in Baghdad offered no comment on the fighting.

Witnesses interviewed by local television and rebroadcast by international satellite television channels described the fighting as dramatic in a city where opposition to the Maliki government has been intense and the ISIS invaders were greeted as rescuers.

Ahmed al-Jubbour, a professor at the university’s college of agriculture, said in an interview later replayed on Al-Jazeera that he had witnessed battles for control of the university’s colleges of agriculture and sports education.

“I saw one of the helicopters land opposite the university and I saw clashes between dozens of militants and government forces,” he said.

The arrival of ISIS reinforcements at the stadium Friday was followed by air attacks on areas around Tikrit, which were shown on videos uploaded to the Internet. They showed damage from what residents said were crude barrel bombs, which generally cannot be aimed effectively at military targets and are commonly used by the government in Syria against rebel-held areas.

The video showed at least one helicopter being shot down by militant gunfire on Friday afternoon and fixed-wing aircraft dropping bombs on neighborhoods near the university. The Iraqi air force has no jet aircraft and its so-called strike capability is believed limited to a pair of single-engine Cessna aircraft capable of firing Hellfire missiles.

“They dropped barrel bombs here, we were home and all of a sudden two blasts took place. There is no one here. No militants here in the region,” one resident said in video broadcast by Al-Jazeera.

AFP Photo / Ahmad Al-Rubaye

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Attack In Lebanon Reflects ISIS’ Resolve To Disrupt Wide Region

By Mitchell Prothero, McClatchy Foreign Staff

IRBIL, Iraq — The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria apparently expanded its operations to Lebanon on Friday, narrowly failing to assassinate a top Shiite Muslim security official with a suicide car bomb just hours after a series of government raids captured at least 20 suspected militants described as being members of ISIS in a central Beirut hotel.

Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, the director of the powerful General Security Directorate, had passed a checkpoint in the Beqaa Valley on the highway linking Beirut and Damascus on Friday morning when a suicide car bomb exploded, killing at least two people and wounding dozens, but left his convoy unscathed.

Lebanon went on high alert last week after ISIS, which has been occasionally fighting the Lebanon-based Shiite radical group Hezbollah in Syria, took over a large swath of northern Iraq as part of its declared goal to turn the entire Levant region, which includes Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan, into an Islamic caliphate. ISIS presently controls much of eastern Syria and western and northern Iraq, and has been pressing a conventional military offensive backed by disenfranchised Sunni tribes on Baghdad.

In Iraq, the nation’s top Shiite cleric during a sermon on Friday urged Iraqis to unite to expel militants from the country and called for the formation of a new government.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said a new government would help avoid “past mistakes,” a thinly veiled critique of Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite politician who has served as Iraq’s prime minister since 2006.

The cleric described ISIS as a “plague” on the region.

Friday’s deadly car bombing came just hours after a series of raids by Lebanese security forces on a central Beirut hotel led to the arrest of 22 people and saw armed men chasing suspects through the streets of one of the capital’s most cosmopolitan central districts. Earlier, the government announced that it had uncovered a plot to assassinate both Ibrahim and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, both prominent Shiite Muslim political figures and close allies of Hezbollah.

It was not precisely clear if the attack was directly aimed at Ibrahim in that spot, as some local security officials claimed, but he had been named a target by ISIS in the past because of his high-profile involvement in both cracking down on Syrian rebels along the Lebanese border as well as in negotiating the release of Lebanese hostages held in Syria.

Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Basbous of the Internal Security Forces told reporters on the scene that it seemed the car was meant to explode in Beirut and might have doubled back to hit Ibrahim’s convoy in an incredible coincidence.

“The car was headed from the Beqaa to Beirut. ISF patrols chased it, compelling its driver to return to the Beqaa,” Basbous said, according to local media reports.

Lebanon had been the victim of a dozen suicide bombings spanning from last summer until February by groups including al-Qaida and ISIS in revenge for Hezbollah’s strong support for the Syrian regime, a move that angered large swaths of Lebanon’s Sunni population, which mostly has supported the rebels.

A series of arrests and military operations by both the government inside Lebanon and by Hezbollah along the Syrian-Lebanese border appeared to end the attacks. But fear that ISIS would reconstitute a militant network appeared to come true on Friday.

“This is why we’re fighting in Syria,” a Hezbollah commander said by instant messaging from Beirut; he asked to speak anonymously because the group does not allow members to speak to the press. “These Takfiris have shown they want to take over the entire region and have an agenda to fight Iran and destroy the Shiite government in Iraq. We know they will come for Lebanon again and are ready to fight them every day.”

Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.

Photo via WikiCommons

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Iraq’s Largest Refinery Ablaze As Militants, Government Fight For Control

By Mitchell Prothero, McClatchy Foreign Staff

IRBIL, Iraq — Skirmishes over Iraq’s largest oil refinery left part of the facility ablaze Wednesday as Islamic militants battled Iraqi security forces for control.

Iraqi state television reported that security forces remained in control of the refinery and electric-generation plants in Baiji, just north of the rebel-held city of Tikrit. But witnesses contacted by independent Iraqi media outlets reported that fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and their Sunni Muslim tribal allies had taken over at least portions of the facility and sent home the workers trapped inside.

Black plumes of smoke could be seen from at least a dozen burning storage tanks on local television stations as much of Iraq went into a panic over the possibility of a sustained gasoline shortage in a country already forced to import more than 100,000 barrels of gasoline a day because of high demand and crumbling infrastructure.

In addition to Tuesday’s announcement that the government had shut off the oil supply to the facility — either to stop the output from falling into ISIS’ hands or to prevent the facility from exploding amid the fighting — the German firm Siemens and the security company Olive said they’d cleared dozens of foreign workers and security guards from the complex, which has been surrounded by militants since much of northern Iraq fell in last week’s surprise takeover. The government, however, denied that foreign workers had left.

Government helicopters reportedly struck either the facility itself or rebel positions close by and, according to some witnesses talking to local media, caused the fires.

One executive with a Western oil-services company that’s working in Irbil — who spoke only on the condition of anonymity so as not to annoy the Iraqi government, which he does business with — said control of the facility appeared to be split between militants and an army unit that had been sneaked into the area recently to reinforce the beleaguered security guards usually assigned to protect it.

“We don’t exactly know, because Baghdad has lost all credibility with the oil industry this week,” the executive said. “They keep announcing things they wish were true instead of giving us the information we need to make proper decisions.”

He added: ‘This does not inspire confidence in their competence or their handle on events on the ground.”

Little in the performance of the Iraqi government has inspired much confidence of late, as tens of thousands of soldiers and police officers deserted their posts and fled the battlefield when ISIS — which previously had controlled large chunks of eastern Syria and the western Iraq province of Anbar — suddenly materialized in force on June 9. Within 24 hours, ISIS had overrun the northern city of Mosul, the country’s second largest, capturing huge amounts of military hardware and perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars from banks.

Within days, the group’s militants had reached the northernmost edges of Baghdad’s suburbs, backed by what appears to be a broad Sunni rebellion against the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who’s been widely accused at home and abroad of fostering unrest with sectarian political policies.

In Irbil — which remains quiet and under the control of the semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government despite a local gasoline refinery remaining online — the loss of the highway from Turkey through Mosul, on top of the loss of the Baiji facility, caused a mild panic. Motorists faced long lines and severe limits on gasoline purchases.

But the oil industry executive said an impending shortage was, at least so far, unlikely to be truly disruptive.

“It’s a lot longer trip now (avoiding Mosul), but the Turks want to make money and can send it by land,” he said. “This seems a combination of both prudent rationing and psychological panic as people realize the conflict isn’t going away.”

Ahmad Al-Rubaye via Flickr

ISIS Takes Last Government-Controlled City In Northern Iraq

By Mitchell Prothero, McClatchy Foreign Staff

IRBIL, Iraq — The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria took control Monday of the last major city that had been held by the government in northern Iraq, forcing hundreds of families to flee for the safety of nearby areas controlled by Kurdish militias.

ISIS’ capture of Tal Afar allowed the group to consolidate its control of a strategic supply corridor between its Syrian and Iraq strongholds.

It also ended, at least for now, any claim by the central government in Baghdad to authority in northern Iraq and allowed ISIS to claim for its nascent caliphate a contiguous territory that stretches from the Syrian city of Raqqa through Iraq’s Nineveh province to the outskirts of Baghdad.

The fall of Tal Afar was freighted with historic import. American troops battled ISIS’ early incarnation, al-Qaida in Iraq, for control of the city in 2005. At one time, the pacification of Tal Afar was considered a major triumph for U.S. forces.

In the wake of Tal Afar’s capture, ISIS reportedly offered a temporary cease-fire Monday in its battle with Syrian rebel groups. The cease-fire was intended to allow ISIS to respond more forcefully to attacks by Syrian government forces in Deir el-Zour province, which lies between ISIS’ Raqqa stronghold and ISIS-controlled territory in Iraq’s Anbar province.

ISIS-related Twitter accounts also celebrated the apparent capture at Tal Afar of Iraqi Gen. Abu al-Waleed, the onetime commander of the elite U.S.-trained Wolf Pack counterterrorism unit often accused by Sunni Muslims of committing a range of crimes against civilians.

The Iraqi government denied that al-Waleed had been captured, but his status was unclear and he made no public appearances.

Refugees and residents from Tal Afar who spoke with relatives in Irbil described Tal Afar as mostly in ISIS’ control, though some skirmishing was still taking place.

The rapid advance by ISIS to the outskirts of Baghdad has put the capital on edge. On Monday, the United Nations announced that it would pull at least 58 staff members from its mission in Baghdad and move them to Amman, Jordan. The announcement came a day after the United States said it had reassigned an undisclosed number of staffers from its embassy in Baghdad to Amman or the relative safety of Irbil or Basra, in southern Iraq.

Iraqi state television said airstrikes targeted ISIS formations around the ISIS-controlled city of Tikrit, but these claims couldn’t be verified.
Whether the United States would take any action to assist the Iraqi government remained uncertain. In comments Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry put special emphasis on U.S. frustration with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

“We are deeply committed to the integrity of Iraq as a country,” he said. “We are deeply committed to the constitutional process, but we’ve also had great difficulties with the existing government in their unwillingness to reach out and be inclusive and bring people to the table and be sufficiently responsible in their pluralistic approach to governance.”

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AFP Photo/Ali al-Saadi

U.S. Cuts Embassy Staff In Baghdad As Insurgents Approach Iraqi Capital

By Mitchell Prothero, McClatchy Foreign Staff

IRBIL, Iraq — The United States announced Sunday that it was removing an undisclosed number of workers from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in a tacit acknowledgment that the situation in the Iraqi capital had become unpredictable and that violence seemed likely.

The announcement came as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed to have executed 1,700 Iraqi soldiers, all of them Shiite Muslims who’d been captured last week.

In a statement, the U.S. State Department did not reveal how many of its workers were being moved out of the embassy compound, saying that “overall, a substantial majority of the U.S. Embassy presence in Iraq will remain in place.” But even if a majority remains at the compound, the evacuation could mean the departure of hundreds of workers. The Baghdad embassy is the United States’ largest, with 5,300 U.S. government employees.

A separate announcement from the Defense Department said the evacuation of embassy personnel was “being facilitated aboard commercial, charter and State Department aircraft as appropriate.” The statement said U.S. military “airlift assets” were “at the ready,” but suggested that the State Department had not requested military assistance in the evacuation.

The statement by Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said the U.S. military also had sent a “small number” of Defense Department personnel to assist “State Department security assets in Baghdad to help ensure the safety of our facilities.”

The decision to evacuate Americans from the huge embassy compound came as the likelihood of sectarian and ethnic violence in Baghdad grew. Fighters allied with the Sunni Muslim ISIS vowed to press their lightning advance across northern and central Iraq into the capital.

Earlier Sunday, ISIS posted photos on the Internet that it said depicted the execution of hundreds of members of the Iraqi security forces taken prisoner when ISIS overran the Iraqi city of Tikrit last week.

A statement accompanying the photos claimed the men were all Shiite Muslims — an assertion that is sure to inflame Iraq’s emotion-filled sectarian divisions that in recent days have inspired thousands of Shiite men flock to Baghdad to volunteer to help the army counter ISIS’s push into the capital and nearby cities.

ISIS, which now controls much of Anbar province in the west and Nineveh province in the north and has pushed into Salahuddin and Diyala provinces just north of Baghdad, considers Shiite Muslims to be heretics subject to death. The feud between Sunnis and Shiites dates to A.D. 680, when a Sunni army beheaded one of the most revered figures in Shiite history at the Battle of Karbala. Recent ISIS statements have urged its followers to march to Karbala.

In its statement accompanying the photos, ISIS said it had executed 1,700 Shiite prisoners in Tikrit, a claim that could not be verified. ISIS also said it had released 2,500 Sunni prisoners after receiving promises that the men would repent and no longer fight for the government.

An Iraqi military spokesman told the Associated Press that the pictures appeared to have been taken after a former U.S. military facility in Tikrit fell to ISIS forces. The spokesman, Lt. Gen. Qassim Moussawi, did not comment, however, on whether 1,700 had been confirmed killed, as the group claims.

The photos showed dozens of young men bound in the back of trucks, then being led into open fields and executed by masked men firing assault rifles. Most of the men appeared to be wearing civilian clothes.

The caption on one photograph, which showed a dozen young men with their heads bowed and hands bound behind their backs while being menaced by masked gunmen, said the Iraqi Army’s “lions had been turned into ostriches.” Other captions described similar scenes as “the apostates being led to their doom.”

The decision to spare Sunni prisoners — if true — undoubtedly stems from a desire by ISIS to maintain good relations with the large number of Sunni tribes in central and western Iraq that have joined its offensive, fueled by rising anger at Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al Malaki, whose been accused of sectarian discrimination and brutality.

In addition to ISIS, a mix of tribal fighters and supporters of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi strongman who was deposed by the Americans in 2003 and executed by the Shiite-led government that came to power afterward, have joined the fight, angered at what they say is sectarian discrimination and brutality by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al Malaki’s government.

Highlighting the sectarian nature of the conflict, which has threatened the future of the modern Iraqi state, was Malaki’s decision — backed by Shiite religious figures — to call upon Shiite militias that had mostly been disbanded after the sectarian civil war that followed the American-led invasion. It has also drawn the attention of Shiite-ruled Iran, which appears willing to send aid and expertise, and perhaps deploy ground troops to help protect the regime.

The Obama administration also is considering aid to the Iraqis, including possible airstrikes. But President Barack Obama conditioned any assistance on Maliki and other Iraqi politicians putting aside their differences — something most observers say is unlikely.

On Sunday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki raised the issue of internal reconciliation, event as she condemned the reports of the execution of 1,700 Iraqi military personnel, whom she described as “air force recruits,” as “a true depiction of the bloodlust that these terrorists represent.”

“This underscores the need for Iraqi leaders from across the political spectrum to take steps that will unify the country in the face of this threat,” she said.

The sectarian nature of the conflict was emphasized by the U.S. announcement on where it was redeploying its embassy workers.

The State Department said the they would be sent to Amman, Jordan, where the U.S. operates a mission to support American activities in Iraq, or to two Iraqi cities distinguished by their ethnic and religious homogeneity — Irbil, in the north, which has a majority Kurd population, or Basra, in the far south, where Shiite Muslims predominate.

The State Department also warned Americans to limit their travel to five Iraqi provinces where Sunni Arab Muslims are either the dominant group or a significant minority— Anbar, Nineveh, Salahuddin, Dyiala and Kirkuk.


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AFP Photo/Safin Hamed

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.”


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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

Police, Army Flee As al-Qaeda Group Seizes Iraq’s Second Largest City

By Mitchell Prothero, McClatchy Foreign Staff

ISTANBUL — Iraqi police and army forces abandoned much of the northern city of Mosul Tuesday after fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria seized control of key government buildings late Monday night, leaving the central government’s control of northern Iraq in grave doubt.

Residents told local news outlets and wire services that hundreds, if not thousands, of ISIS fighters swarmed government facilities, military bases, prisons and media outlets on Tuesday, essentially taking complete control of northern Iraq’s most important city.

The speaker of Iraq’s parliament, Osama al Nujafi, released a statement Tuesday that said “terrorists” now controlled Mosul and called on the security forces to send reinforcements to retake the city.

Atheel al Nujafi, the speaker’s brother and governor of Nineveh Province, went on state television Monday night to call on “all the brave men of Mosul to take to the streets to defend their homes.” He then promptly fled the city for Baghdad, according to local media reports.

An Interior Ministry official admitted to the AFP wire service that security forces had discarded their uniforms and abandoned the city after key installations were overrun.

“The city of Mosul is outside the control of the state and at the mercy of the militants,” the official told AFP.

ISIS is a radical offspring of al-Qaida that has waged a brutal campaign in both Iraq and Syria to establish an Islamic state. Earlier this year, it seized much of the Iraqi province of Anbar as well as much of the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. It also controls much of eastern Syria, including the provincial capital of Raqqa.

A victory in Mosul, home to 2 million people, would provide both a major psychological victory and a fresh infusion of arms and manpower.

Iraqi provincial officials confirmed reports from ISIS media outlets that at least one major Iraqi military base had fallen and with it, huge amounts of American-supplied military equipment, including possible attack helicopters. ISIS-linked Internet accounts were filled with credible appearing photos of large amounts of captured and destroyed U.S.-built armored vehicles.

Local residents and ISIS linked media outlets reported that three jails filled with thousands of prisoners had fallen to the group, including a well-known special security facility for captured ISIS prisoners. A Twitter account associated with the group said that 1,150 men had been released from that facility, and local residents told the Iraqi media that men wearing prison uniforms had flooded the streets of the city Tuesday morning.

Multiple reports said hundreds of thousands of Mosul residents were fleeing the city for the safety of nearby Erbil, or further south to the city of Kirkuk. The reports could not be immediately confirmed.

AFP Photo/Jim Lopez

Syrian Islamists’ Call For A Free State Likely Directed At West

By Mitchell Prothero, McClatchy Foreign Staff

BEIRUT — The largest coalition of Islamist rebels in Syria issued a manifesto over the weekend that calls for the increasingly fractious rebels to unite around the notion of liberating the country from the government of President Bashar Assad and installing a free state that will protect the rights of religious minorities, not an Islamist state.

The position spelled out in the statement, titled the “Revolutionary Manifesto of the Islamic Front,” marked a reversal of a policy articulated last year that called for creating an Islamist state after the defeat of Assad. Analysts and observers agreed that the statement seemed directed at the international community, particularly the United States, which has been reluctant to support widespread military aid for the rebels over concerns about radicalism.

The statement, which was released as an audio posting on jihadi websites, was said to have the support of the Islamic Front’s leadership, including Hassan Abboud, the leader of a conservative militant group, Ahrar al-Sham, whose founders included members of al-Qaida and which previously had espoused developing an Islamic emirate as a predecessor to the return of a caliphate to rule all Muslim lands. Ahrar al-Sham is thought to be the largest group in the Islamic Front.

The statement was immediately attacked by the most radical groups in the anti-Assad movement, al-Qaida’s Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an al-Qaida-inspired group that’s broken with al-Qaida over tactics in Syria. Analysts said the denunciation of the statement by Nusra and ISIS lent it credibility as a sincere policy position.

The manifesto “seems sincere considering the rabid response against it by (Nusra) and its supporters/sympathetic ideologues,” said Aaron Zelin, who studies radical Islamist groups as a fellow at the Institute for Near East Policy in Washington.

Whether it will influence the Obama administration’s reluctance to authorize aid for the Islamic Front remains to be seen. Zelin acknowledged that Ahrar al-Sham’s acquiescence to the new position was “weird,” considering the group’s al-Qaida connections.

AFP Photo/Ahmad Aboud

New Videos Show More Rebel Groups In Syria Have U.S.-Made Anti-Tank Missiles

By Mitchell Prothero, McClatchy Foreign Staff

BEIRUT — Advanced American-made anti-tank missiles can be seen in numerous videos posted by Syrian rebel groups over the weekend, an indication that what experts thought was a limited trial program to arm moderate pro-Western units recently has been expanded.

The trial program was revealed early last month when videos posted by the Hazem Movement, a rebel group with ties to the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army, showed a small number of TOW anti-tank missiles being fired at Syrian government targets. Experts who examined the videos concluded that the missiles likely had been supplied by Saudi Arabia after the United States approved transfer of the advanced weapons.

New video released over the weekend suggests the program has since been expanded to at least five rebel groups, most with ties to the FSA but some that are loyal to the Syrian Revolutionary Front, another secular rebel coalition. The videos purport to show combat operations in both Syria’s north near the border with Turkey and in its south, along the border with Jordan.

Besides a new video showing the Hazem Movement operating the system, videos of the TOW system in use were also posted by the FSA-aligned Southern Front, the Southern Front’s Omari Brigade, the FSA’s Martyr Ahmad Abdo Brigade, and the Syrian Revolutionary Front.

In one video, the Martyr Ahmad Abdo Brigade’s fighters could be seen missing what appeared to be a Syrian armored military vehicle as it sped down a road, while the Omari Brigade video showed what appeared to be a hit on a stationary Syrian tank within a construction site on a Syrian military base outside the southern city of Deraa.

A military attache in Beirut who works with both U.S. officials and Syrian rebel units said that he suspected the Hazem Movement was the first to have received training in the weapons and that other groups were added later. He said he believes the program remains relatively small. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his position.

“It seems like a carefully vetted network of rebels with American training are getting these as part of a pilot program,” he said. “If none leak out to other more radical groups, I’d expect the program to be expanded.”

“I believe these missiles can still be counted in the low scores rather than the hundreds, at least at this stage,” he said.

American officials have expressed concern for years that any weapons given to rebel allies not fall into the hands of Syria’s increasingly powerful Islamist rebel groups, many of which have significant ties to al-Qaida and subscribe to its ideology. In January, the U.S. stopped deliveries of nonlethal aid and equipment to the Free Syrian Army after units affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an al-Qaida-inspired group noted for its brutality, seized control of an FSA base that held American equipment.

Adding to the concerns is the close working relationship that so-called moderate rebels have developed with the Islamists. For example, Jamal Marouf, who commands the Syrian Revolutionary Front, which received a TOW system, told the British newspaper The Independent that he had no problem coordinating with the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s official Syrian franchise, and had even sent weapons to the group in the past.

“It’s clear that I’m not fighting against al-Qaida,” the newspaper quoted him as saying. “This is a problem outside of Syria’s border, so it’s not our problem. I don’t have a problem with anyone who fights against the regime inside Syria.”

Marouf told the paper that he had dispatched “a lot of weapons” to rebels fighting in Yabroud, where Nusra battled government troops before abandoning the city in March.

In an email exchange, Charles Lister, who studies the Syrian rebels for the Brookings Centre in Doha, Qatar, said there is now little doubt that the provision of the missiles was expanding, despite whatever concerns there might be about them finding their way to radical groups.

“While there is no way yet to determine exactly how many TOWs have been sent into Syria, these American manufactured anti-tank guided missiles are now in the hands of at least five moderate rebel units, whose areas of operation stretch from Deraa in the south to Idlib and Aleppo in the north,” he said, noting it seemed likely the rebels had more missiles than the initial reports of two dozen indicated.

“All discernible recipients can be placed solidly within the moderate camp and all have their initial roots in organizations linked to Saudi Arabia. It seems very clear from all available video footage that those operating the TOWs have themselves received professional training in their use, particularly in terms of their clear and methodical loading and preparing of the system,” he said.

“All of this adds up to what looks to be a well-organized and planned-out weaponry provision program,” he said. “The more groups that continue to appear armed with TOWs, the more this apparent program could potentially symbolize a genuinely strategically significant development in the wider battle for Syria.”

©afp.com / Ammar al-Arbini