Analysis: Attack In France Spotlights Europe’s Vulnerability To Terrorism

Analysis: Attack In France Spotlights Europe’s Vulnerability To Terrorism

By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

PARIS — At a makeshift shrine down the street from a concert hall turned scene of carnage, a steady stream of well-wishers came Saturday to pay tribute to scores massacred when suicide assailants struck the music theater, a soccer stadium and several restaurants and bars.

“The French will combat these thieves of life,” declared a handwritten note.

But Friday’s brazen assaults — all targeting venues where people went to savor life in Europe’s storied cultural capital — served to dramatize anew the continent’s continued vulnerability to terrorism.

The string of shootings and bombings came less than a year after attacks here on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery that left 17 dead. Last January’s strikes, while horrific, were aimed at specific targets — an irreverent publication that had lampooned Islam and a market that catered to Jewish shoppers.

This time, the victims appeared chosen simply because they were in France and were out on a weekend night to enjoy music, sports and the company of fellow human beings.

Preventing such attacks in a free society is a daunting security challenge, experts caution, even for nations like France with considerable experience fighting extremist groups and infiltrating militant cells.

“Paris is … a warning that the best counter-terrorist efforts in the world cannot protect any country, particularly the open societies in the West, from every attack,” wrote Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

French President Francois Hollande labeled the synchronized series of attacks an “act of war” that was “organized and planned from outside,” though details about the planning were publicly vague.

The extremist Islamic State group took credit for the attacks, which claimed more than 125 lives, boasting that it had targeted “the capital of prostitution and obscenity” in retribution for France’s involvement in the U.S.-led coalition bombing of extremist-held terrain in Syria and Iraq.

If Islamic State indeed carried out the attacks, Friday’s operation would represent the latest in a string of deadly operations outside of Syria and Iraq, the group’s home base. Its ability to carry out such sensational assaults would now appear to equal or even eclipse that of al-Qaida, a fierce rival.

Islamic State, a Qaida breakaway faction, has also taken responsibility for twin suicide bombings in a Beirut suburb last week that killed more than 40, and for downing a Russian commercial airliner over the Sinai two weeks ago, killing all 224 on board.

When it first emerged on the scene amid the tumult of the long-running Syrian war, many commentators said that Islamic State’s interests appeared to be largely local in nature. But that has changed considerably, perhaps in response to intense international efforts to destroy the group’s self-proclaimed “caliphate.”

In a chilling tone, Islamic State called Friday’s attacks “the first of the storm and a warning to those who wish to learn.”

Thus the Paris carnage may have been the latest collateral damage from the calamitous Syrian war, which has already destabilized much of the Middle East and helped generate a refugee crisis in Europe.

Friday’s attacks seemed certain to increase pressure on deeply divided world powers to help broker a political settlement to the Syria conflict — and to escalate military operations against Islamic State and other extremist groups that have thrived amid the chaos in Syria.

As investigators delve into the attack, there are many unanswered questions: Was it indeed conceived and planned abroad or in Europe? Where did the assailants get the guns, ammunition and explosives — and where did they assemble the bombs? Do any attackers or support personnel, such as bomb assemblers — remain at large? Police on Saturday were investigating whether one team of attackers may have escaped.

Several witnesses at the Bataclan concert hall mentioned hearing attackers say the words “Syria” and “vengeance.”

“I clearly heard them tell the hostages, ‘It’s the fault of Hollande, it’s the fault of your president, he shouldn’t have intervened in Syria,'” Pierre Janaszak, a radio and TV presenter, told the Agence France-Presse news agency. “They also spoke about Iraq.”

The operation demonstrated a considerable level of sophistication and probably involved weeks or months of surveillance and organization, authorities and experts said.

The use of heavily armed suicide or “kamikaze” attackers, as the media here referred to the assailants, was regarded as a first in France — though experts voiced concerns that the tactic, numbingly familiar in the Middle East, could become more common in Europe and elsewhere.

“Simplicity,” noted Marc Trevidic, a former French anti-terrorism judge, in an interview with BFMTV here. “There is nothing better when it comes to terrorism.”

France is considered particularly vulnerable to domestic terrorism. More than 1,800 of its citizens are believed to have traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight with extremists. Radicalized returnees trained in the Syria-Iraq battle zone present a significant threat, authorities say. But it was unclear late Saturday how many, if any, of the attackers in Friday’s killing rampage had traveled to Syria or Iraq.

The nationalities of the Kalashnikov-wielding assailants in the Paris attacks also remained a question mark. Witnesses at the Bataclan concert described the assailants as young, perhaps in their 20s, and speaking unaccented French, according to media accounts here.

One of the attackers was a 29-year-old Frenchman who had been investigated for “minor offenses” but had never been implicated in acts of terrorism, French public prosecutor Francois Molins said during a news conference.

Still, his involvement would appear to raise anew the question of whether an intelligence failure contributed to the tragedy — as many charged was the case in the January attacks. Those perpetrators were three French citizens, of Algerian and Malian origins, with varying previous links to Islamic extremist elements. All three eventually were killed in police shootouts.

In the aftermath of Friday’s attacks, a Syrian passport was found near the body of one of the three bombers who struck near Stade de France sports arena, where a soccer match between France and Germany was being held. But it was not immediately clear if the passport belonged to the attacker.

A Greek official said the passport found at the scene in Paris had been presented by a Syrian who crossed into the European Union via the Greek island of Leros in October. That again raised the worrisome specter that some small minority of the multitudes of migrants coming to Europe from Syria could be terrorist operatives.

(Special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Times staff writers Alexandra Zavis and Michael Finnegan in Los Angeles and Richard A. Serrano, Bob Drogin, W.J. Hennigan, Brian Bennett and Paul Richter of the Tribune Washington Bureau in Washington contributed to this report.)

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

French fire brigade members aid an injured individual near the Bataclan concert hall following fatal shootings in Paris, November 13, 2015. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

Syrian President Meets With Vladimir Putin In Moscow To Discuss Military Operations

Syrian President Meets With Vladimir Putin In Moscow To Discuss Military Operations

By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar Assad made a surprise visit to Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Russian and Syrian press reported Wednesday, as Russian jets continued to pound opposition strongholds in the war-ravaged Middle Eastern nation.

The meeting, which took place late Tuesday, according to media accounts, was only announced early Wednesday as part of an apparent effort to maintain some hours of secrecy.

It was Assad’s first publicly announced trip outside Syria since the armed rebellion against his rule erupted in 2011.

Moscow has long been a chief ally of Assad and last month significantly escalated its aid, launching an intensive aerial bombing campaign in Syria against antigovernment insurgents — including some groups that reportedly receive clandestine support from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Moscow says its warplanes are solely targeting “terrorists” in Syria, including various al-Qaida-linked extremists who have come to dominate the armed opposition.

Washington has condemned the Russian aerial offensive in Syria as counterproductive and “doomed to failure,” in the words of President Barack Obama.

In Moscow, Russian news agencies reported, presidents Assad and Putin discussed the military situation in Syria and both agreed that a political solution is urgently needed to end the Syrian conflict.

“Naturally, the talks focused on fighting terrorist extremist groups, carrying on with the Russian operation, and support for the Syrian army’s offensive,” the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told journalists in Moscow on Wednesday, according to Russia’s RT news service.

On Russian television, Putin lauded Syria’s role.

“The Syrian people practically by themselves have been fending off and fighting against terrorism for several years,” Putin said.

Images on Russian TV showed Assad speaking with Putin in a formal gathering that included several other high-level Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

U.S. officials maintain that Assad has been a “magnet” for terrorism and must leave office before any permanent political resolution can be reached.

Officials in Moscow and Damascus say the Russian campaign has been a major boost for the Syrian military. Pro-government forces in Syria suffered significant territorial losses earlier this year to various opposition groups, including Islamic State, the breakaway al-Qaida faction that is being targeted by a separate, U.S.-led air bombardment campaign.

The Syrian Army, backed by Russian airstrikes, has in recent weeks launched ground assaults in key strategic areas of western Syria, including in coastal Latakia, where Russia has refurbished an air base as a platform for its Syrian campaign. Russia is coordinating its attacks with Damascus, which says it requested Moscow’s military aid.

With Russian air support, Syria says its forces have also been pushing back “terrorists” outside Damascus, the capital; in Homs, Hama and Idlib provinces to the north; and in the vicinity of the northern city of Aleppo, which has long been divided between government and opposition control.

Assisting Syrian ground troops are hundreds of military advisers from Iran, another key backer of Assad, and thousands of militiamen from Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based group allied with Iran.

Russian officials have said the air operation in Syria would last several months, but have not set forth a precise date for its conclusion. Russia says it has no intention of sending ground forces to Syria.

Since Moscow’s air onslaught began Sept. 30, Russian and Syrian officials say, Russian aircraft and guided missiles have hit scores of “terrorist” targets, including ammo dumps, bomb-making factories, underground bunkers, gun emplacements, headquarter compounds and armed vehicles.

U.S. officials have voiced concern that Russian attacks are striking “moderate” rebel factions, including some backed by the United States and its allies. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and other U.S. partners have provided substantial military aid to what they call “moderate” rebel groups and have denied arming “terrorist” fighters in Syria.

The Russian air campaign appears to have injected new urgency into long-stalled initiatives to craft a political solution to the Syrian war, which has cost more than 200,000 lives, left much of the country in ruins and forced more than 4 million into exile. A wave of refugees from Syria and elsewhere into Europe has triggered a crisis in some European nations and resulted in calls from U.S. allies to ramp up efforts for peace talks.

U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said this week that he planned to meet with Russian and regional leaders in a bid to “work through real and tangible options that could perhaps reignite a political process and bring about a political solution in Syria.”

The Obama administration has long insisted that Assad must step down as part of any political accord in Syria. But Washington has lately modified its stance and said that Assad could remain for an unspecified but limited period as part of a negotiated transition government in Syria. No formal Syrian peace talks have been scheduled.

Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2015. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

U.S., Allies Pledge To Step Up Security Backing For Iraq

U.S., Allies Pledge To Step Up Security Backing For Iraq

By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

BEIRUT — Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi received fresh pledges from the United States and its allies Tuesday to expedite arms deliveries to Iraq, stem the flow of foreign fighters into the country, and cut off the financial pipeline of Islamic State militants.

Abadi had complained at a security conference in Paris that the global response had been inadequate at a time when the extremists were seizing territory in Iraq and neighboring Syria.

“I think this is a failure on the part of the world,” Abadi told reporters before the start of the conference, which included the United States and about two dozen allied nations. “There is a lot of talk of support for Iraq, (but) there is very little on the ground.”

Recent Islamic State advances in Iraq’s Anbar province and in Syria have raised grave doubts about the effectiveness of the current strategy to defeat the Qaida breakaway faction. Islamic State arose from the tumult of the Syrian war and last year advanced across vast stretches of Iraq.

As the conference wrapped up Tuesday, Abadi appeared with U.S. and French representatives at a news conference and assumed a conciliatory tone. The Iraqi leader, who came to office last year with strong U.S. backing, said he had been assured that international allies “are determined to continue to help Iraq.”

Abadi had urged his allies to take more steps to choke off Islamic State’s major income sources — including black market sales of oil and looted antiquities. He also called for more stringent steps to curb the influx of foreign fighters into Iraq. Most militant recruits enter Syria from Turkey and then cross into Iraq, security officials say.

The United States vowed to “keep the pressure” on Islamic State and pledged to expedite deliveries to Iraq of antitank rockets, cut Islamic State’s funding streams and reduce the flow of foreign fighters, said U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The moves outlined were not bold new steps but rather a continuation of the strategy in Iraq.

Neither the United States nor its allies are keen to send combat troops to Iraq. Many Iraqis also reject the presence of foreign forces.

At the Paris session, Western diplomats also backed Iraq’s plan to retake Anbar province, west of Baghdad, the capital. Islamic State occupies much of the province, considered the nation’s Sunni heartland. Last month, the extremists overran Ramadi, the provincial seat, in a humiliating blow for Abadi’s government.

The Iraqi blueprint to retake Anbar “is the right plan both militarily and politically for Iraq,” said Blinken, who was sitting in for Secretary of State John F. Kerry as Kerry recovered from a bicycling accident.

Baghdad says thousands of Sunni tribal fighters will take part in the announced offensive to retake Ramadi. Still, highly motivated and predominantly Shiite militias known as popular mobilization forces are expected to take the lead in the Ramadi counteroffensive, a fact that has led to fears of inflaming sectarian tensions.

While pledging to aid Iraq, the allies offered no remedy publicly to one of Abadi’s major complaints — that Iraq has been thwarted in efforts to buy arms from Iran and Russia because of Western-led economic sanctions against the two nations.

Neither Russia nor Iran is part of the U.S.-led alliance in Iraq; neither nation was represented in the Paris conference. Nor was the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad, a close ally of Iran and Russia.

The United States says it does not coordinate with the Iranian or Syrian governments, both of which are also involved in the campaign against Islamic State. The Baghdad government, however, lauds military and other aid from Iran as a crucial component in its battle against Islamic State.

A U.S.-led coalition has conducted more than 4,100 aerial bombing raids targeting Islamic State positions in Iraq and Syria. The United States and its allies have also stepped up arms supplies to the Iraqi government and are engaged in a large-scale training program for Iraqi security forces. But the effort remains far from achieving President Barack Obama’s goal to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Islamic State.

“It is a long battle that we are waging in Iraq,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

File photo: A flag of the Islamic State (IS) is seen in Rashad, Iraq, on September 11, 2014

Syria’s Assad Says He’s ‘Not Worried’ Despite Battlefield Setbacks

Syria’s Assad Says He’s ‘Not Worried’ Despite Battlefield Setbacks

By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

ISTANBUL — Syrian President Bashar Assad said Wednesday he was “not worried” about battlefield setbacks and exhorted supporters to avoid succumbing to “frustration” as the Syrian conflict rages on without an end in sight.

“In wars, there are wins and losses,” Assad said, while not explicitly conceding any recent rebel victories.

“But this doesn’t prevent us from warning people that the beginning of frustration leads to defeat,” the Syrian president declared at a ceremony in Damascus marking Martyrs Day, a national holiday.

The comments reported in the state-run media were Assad’s first public declarations since al-Qaida-linked rebels in March and April seized a number of towns in Syria’s northwest, including the provincial capital of Idlib and the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughur.

The remarks seemed designed to reassure supporters at a difficult moment. Despite Assad’s confident tone, the comments indicate some degree of concern within ruling circles in Damascus and a need to bolster public confidence.

In his address, Assad noted that a war could involve “thousands of battles,” with many “wins and losses, and ups and downs, but the important thing is for faith in the inevitability of victory to remain unchanging.”

The recent opposition gains have triggered international media speculation that Assad’s government may be wavering after more than four years of war. The overstretched Syrian army is fighting on multiple fronts and has suffered heavy losses, though the government maintains firm control of the capital, the Mediterranean coast, and major cities such as Homs and Hama.

Opposition forces — including the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front and Islamic State, the al-Qaida breakaway faction — also hold large stretches of Syria.

Recent reports have indicated that Islamist rebel factions, including Nusra Front, have regrouped and received renewed financial and military aid from outside allies, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar. The three nations have been major supporters of the armed effort to oust Assad.

But the Syrian president dismissed conjecture about his government faltering as part of an orchestrated “propaganda campaign” meant to stir doubts among the population. Similar reports that his leadership was nearing collapse after the war erupted in 2011 proved to be illusory, Assad noted, citing an even more tenuous period for his rule.

“I’m not worried over this, because as the first propaganda campaign…at the beginning of the crisis failed, this campaign will fail,” said Assad in his comments at a school honoring “martyrs” lost in the current conflict.

He also vowed that Syrian forces would rescue pro-government forces trapped in a hospital in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughur, now in rebel hands.

The comments appeared aimed largely at Assad’s core backers, including minorities, business leaders, security personnel and others who have remained loyal through the punishing war that has left more than 200,000 dead, destroyed large swaths of the country, and forced millions to flee Syria. Many supporters fear that an overthrow of Assad’s secular government would result in sectarian cleansing and a hard-core Islamist regime in Damascus.

Opposition representatives who routinely label Assad as delusional dismissed his latest comments as indicative of his lack of a grasp of the mounting military losses, economic setbacks, and popular discontent undermining his rule.

“Assad is completely out of touch with reality,” said George Sabra, an exiled opposition figure contacted by telephone in France. “Either he does not know the reality, or he truly is out of the picture….He is not ruling the country, but is merely imprisoned in it.”

Assad’s speech comes a day after a key ally, Hassan Nasrallah, who heads Lebanon-based Hezbollah, also labeled as “futile” and “baseless” a “wave of rumors” suggesting that Assad’s rule was foundering.

Nasrallah vowed that Hezbollah and its patron, Iran, would stand by the Syrian government despite the “psychological war” against Syria. Military and financial aid from Hezbollah and Iran have been crucial in maintaining Assad’s rule in Syria.

“The Syrian state and army are strong and they can change the course of the battle,” Nasrallah declared Tuesday.

Photo: watchsmart via Flickr

Iraq, Kurds Agree On Oil Deal, Uniting To Fight Islamic State

Iraq, Kurds Agree On Oil Deal, Uniting To Fight Islamic State

By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

BEIRUT — Iraq’s central government and leaders of the nation’s semiautonomous Kurdish region unveiled an oil and budget deal Tuesday aimed at resolving a months-long dispute and presenting a united front against Islamic State militants.

The accord provides an interim resolution to a divisive issue at a time when the extremists threaten the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish regional administration in the northern city of Irbil. The United States and other Iraqi allies have long pushed for an agreement to help improve often frosty relations between Baghdad and Irbil.

The deal calls for an Iraqi state entity to sell oil from Kurdish-controlled areas in the north while long-suspended federal revenues are restored to the Kurdish region. Both sides appeared to have compromised for now on the central issue: Who has the ultimate rights for the vast amounts of oil found beneath Kurdish lands?

Authorities said they hoped the accord would boost the nation’s faltering economy.

“This deal is a win-win deal for both sides,” Iraqi Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, told The Associated Press.

The disputed status of Iraq’s oil revenues has stoked tension for more than a decade and recently threatened the government of Prime Minister Haider Abadi, a moderate backed by the United States and Iran, Iraq’s major allies. Oil is Iraq’s major source of revenue.

Abadi came to power in September, a few months after Islamic State insurgents swept through a large part of the country in June, chasing government forces and posing a grave security threat less than three years after U.S. troops left Iraq. The Pentagon has since launched airstrikes in Iraq and neighboring Syria against Islamic State, which President Barack Obama has vowed to “degrade and ultimately destroy.”

Though leading a Shiite-dominated government, Abadi has vowed to reach out to Iraq’s disenchanted minorities, including Kurds and Sunni Muslims, as pro-government forces struggle to regain ground lost to the militants. Many experts saw Tuesday’s agreement as a concrete marker of improved relations between Baghdad and the Kurdish region.

Brett McGurk, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of State for Iraq, called the deal an “important breakthrough” in a Twitter post.

The United Nations envoy to Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, hailed the two sides’ “leadership and spirit of compromise in reaching this encouraging agreement.”

In a televised address, Oil Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi declared that the nation’s oil “was for all Iraqis.”

But independent analysts cautioned that the accord represented at best a temporary fix that leaves in place many major points of contention. The looming menace of the Islamic State, plus plunging oil prices that have battered the Iraqi economy, added urgency to negotiations, observers said.

“There’s a recognition in Baghdad and Irbil of a short- and long-term reality: that there is more to be gained being together than apart,” said Raad Alkadiri, managing director for petroleum sector risk at IHS Energy, a research organization.

Among the hard issues still pending are the Kurds’ asserted right to export oil independently and the future of disputed, oil-rich areas, notably near the northern city of Kirkuk, which is claimed by the Kurds and has been under Kurdish control since June. Baghdad says all oil must be sold via the central government and rejects the inclusion of Kirkuk in any Kurdish-governed zone. The central government has aggressively gone to court to block Kurdish sales of oil abroad.

“The agreement represents a Band-Aid to slow down some of the bleeding, but it isn’t something that is going to heal the wound,” Ramzy Mardini, an analyst at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, wrote in an email.

“It focuses on a small set of disputes to offset mutual financial problems due to the drop in oil prices,” Mardini wrote. “The more thorny issues on the energy front remain unresolved.”

Under the agreement, announced in Baghdad, 550,000 barrels of oil each day from areas under Kurdish control will be released to the federal government for export via pipelines to Turkey. That includes 300,000 from the oil fields outside Kirkuk.

In return, authorities said, Baghdad will resume sending 17 percent of the national budget revenue to the Kurdish region, which came to about $12 billion last year. The revenue was suspended this year when the central government balked at Kurdish efforts to hawk its crude on the international market.

In addition, the Kurdish region will receive about $1 billion in installments toward salaries and equipment for Kurdish peshmerga forces, who fell back in humiliating fashion to Islamic State fighters this summer across northern Iraq. The peshmerga say they have regrouped and are steadily gaining ground against the militants. Kurdish and Iraqi government forces have coordinated various attacks against militant positions.

The two sides had been edging toward an agreement for weeks. Last month, the Kurds agreed to provide about 150,000 barrels a day to Baghdad in exchange for $500 million to pay civil servant salaries in Irbil.

Relations hit a low point in July when Kurdish lawmakers in Baghdad walked out in protest against then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s allegation that the Kurds were harboring terrorists. Al-Maliki, widely criticized as a pro-Shiite sectarian leader, was later pressured to step down and replaced by Abadi.

Iraqi lawmakers are drafting a new budget that will reflect the decreasing price of crude after OPEC’s decision last week not to cut production. The militant advance also disrupted oil production in Kirkuk and elsewhere, further slicing revenues at a time when Baghdad must finance a sweeping military offensive against Islamic State, which uses black-market oil sales as a major source of its revenue.

This week, the Iraqi government said it had discovered about 50,000 “ghost soldiers,” fictional troops whose wages went to their officers _ one indicator of endemic corruption in the armed forces. Authorities say the phenomenon probably contributed to the lack of a defense against the lightning Islamic State advance across much of Iraq that saw the northern city of Mosul, the nation’s second largest, fall to militant forces without much of a fight.
(Staff writer Neela Banerjee in Washington and special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Beirut contributed to this report.)

AFP Photo/Younis Al-Bayati

Thousands Of Syrian Refugees Flood Turkey After Fleeing Islamic State

Thousands Of Syrian Refugees Flood Turkey After Fleeing Islamic State

By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times

The number of Syrians fleeing from Islamist militants and entering into Turkey in recent days has exceeded 130,000, making the flight one of the largest refugee flows to date during the Syrian conflict, the United Nations said Monday.

“In Turkey we have never witnessed such big numbers in a few days time,” Selin Unal, CQ spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency, said in a telephone interview from Ankara.

Most of the refugees are Syrian Kurds fleeing an offensive by the Islamic State, the al-Qaida breakaway group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. The flight of refugees was continuing on Monday, the U.N. said, but the numbers appeared to be less than during the weekend.

Islamic State militants, advancing along several fronts in northern Syria, have reportedly overrun more than two dozen mostly Kurdish villages, prompting terrified residents to abandon their homes. Kurdish officials say the Arab extremists are determined to carry out a program of “ethnic cleansing” in the Kurdish region of northern Syria.

The latest refugee push into Turkey began on Friday once Ankara opened its borders after initially refusing entry to the Syrians. Protesters on the Turkish side clashed with Turkish authorities, demanding that the displaced multitudes be allowed entry. The Turkish government eventually relented and permitted the Syrians into Turkish territory for safe haven.

Many have found shelter with Kurdish kin on the Turkish side, the U.N. said. Others are staying at transit camps along the isolated and barren stretch of border. Turkish authorities and the U.N. are providing food, shelter, medical care and other needs. The U.N. is calling for additional support from outside donors.

The current exodus is among the largest during the more than three-year Syrian war, which has seen in excess of 3 million Syrians flee their homeland, mostly to Turkey and other neighboring nations, including Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. The influx has severely stretched resources and exacerbated social and political tensions in the nations hosting the refugees.

The Syrian conflict has also spread to Iraq, displacing huge numbers of individuals.

In August, authorities say more than 200,000 people — mostly Kurdish-speaking members of the Yazidi religious sect but also including many Christians, Shiite Muslims and others — fled their homes in Iraq in fear of advancing forces of the Islamic State. The Sunni Muslim militant group embraces an ultra-fundamentalist doctrine and has become notorious for executing those whom it labels “infidels.”

The latest influx of Syrian refugees are fleeing an Islamic State advance toward the Syrian border town of Ayn-al-Arab, known as Kobane in Kurdish. The town and surrounding region have long been under the control of Syrian Kurdish militiamen known as the Popular Protection Units. Syrian government forces mostly left the area more than two years ago, leaving areas Kurds to arrange for their own security.

The Syrian Kurdish fighters, who embrace a secular, left-wing ideology, have long been arch-enemies of the Islamic militants. They Kurds have beaten back the extremists on several fronts in nothern Syria. But Kurds say their forces in Syria lack arms and equipment and have not received much external aid, except from fellow Kurds in Turkey.

Meantime, Islamic State forces have seized vast stocks of weaponry from Iraqi and Syrian arms depots, including tanks and heavy artillery, and are awash in cash from oil-smuggling operations. The militants control a vast stretch of territory in Syria and neighboring in Iraq.

Kurdish authorities across the region have issued a call to arms for volunteers to help blunt the extremist advance in northern Syria. Some fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK, after its Kurdish acronym, have reportedly crossed the border to aid their Kurdish brethren.

But Ankara and the PKK have been bitter adversaries in a three-decade conflict, complicating the situation on the ground. Both Turkey and the United States label the PKK a terrorist organization, a label rejected by the Kurds.

On Sept. 10, President Obama vowed to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State group. U.S. forces have conducted scores of air strikes against militant positions in Iraq, but have yet to target the group in Syria, its base.

AFP Photo/Bulent Kilic

Islamic State Said To Claim Christian Town, Largest Dam In Iraq

Islamic State Said To Claim Christian Town, Largest Dam In Iraq

By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times

BEIRUT — A breakaway al-Qaida group that already holds sway in large swaths of Iraq and Syria made new territorial gains Thursday in northern Iraq, reportedly overrunning a major Christian town and seizing the nation’s largest dam.

The fresh advances by the Islamic State and its allies have drawn grave concern in the central government in Baghdad, in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region close to the latest fighting, and in Washington and other capitals alarmed at the militant onslaught.

On Thursday, France called for an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council “so that the international community can mobilize to counter the terrorist threat in Iraq,” the French government said in a statement. Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq have publicly pleaded for additional military aid from the United States to confront the threat from the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

“We are left alone in the front to fight the terrorists of ISIS,” the foreign minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, Falah Mustafa Bakir, told CNN in an interview Wednesday.

The Islamic State has at its disposal massive amounts of military materiel seized from Iraqi army depots, including U.S. armored Humvees and other U.S. equipment. Its forces fight alongside allies from Sunni Muslim tribes and other Sunni factions opposed to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The new thrusts by the Islamic State and its allies in Iraq’s northwest were the latest blow to Kurdish peshmerga forces who have taken over security in the disputed area since Iraqi government forces beat a hasty retreat in June. Some analysts have suggested that the Kurds’ reputation as fearsome fighters has been overstated.

Thousands of Christians were reported to be fleeing Thursday from the town of Qaraqosh, a major Christian center outside of Mosul, after Islamic State fighters occupied the town.

Several other Christian towns also faced being overrun, according to reports from the area. Many Christians had already vacated the zone and relocated to areas under the direct control of the Kurdistan Regional Government, based in the city of Irbil.

Kurdish forces were said to be tightening security in Irbil and elsewhere in the Kurdish zone amid reports of Islamic State attacks close to the borders of the Kurdish autonomous area.

The entire Christian population of Mosul is already believed to have fled the city after the Islamic State issued an ultimatum saying Christians must leave, convert or pay a special tax. Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, was among the areas seized by the militants in their June sweep through northern Iraq.

The region of northwestern Iraq is already dealing with a massive refugee flow, mostly of minority groups facing a threat from the Islamic State’s extreme Sunni Muslim fundamentalism.

Tens of thousands of Yazidis, a pre-Islamic sect with roots in Zoroastrianism, fled their homes in and around the town of Sinjar last weekend as Islamic State militants and allied fighters occupied Sinjar and other areas.

Many Yazidis are trapped in mountainous terrain outside Sinjar, lacking food, water, medicine, and other staples, aid workers and community representatives have said. The United Nations has warned of a humanitarian “tragedy” in the area.

Some Sunni fundamentalists view the Yazidis as “devil worshippers” because of their beliefs.

The Associated Press and other news agencies reported Thursday that Islamic State forces also had captured the Mosul dam, the largest in Iraq, forcing overwhelmed Kurdish forces to flee the facility. There was no immediate confirmation from Kurdish officials that the dam had been lost.

Control of the dam, on the Tigris River north of Mosul, would give the militants access to enormous water and power resources.

The Islamic State has already seized oil fields in Iraq and eastern Syria. Militant forces are also besieging a second major Iraq dam, in Haditha, close to the city of Fallujah in western Iraq.

AFP Photo/Safin Hamed

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U.N. Warns Of ‘Tragedy’ As Militants Seize Iraqi Towns

U.N. Warns Of ‘Tragedy’ As Militants Seize Iraqi Towns

By Patrick J. Mcdonnell, Los Angeles Times

The U.N. is warning of a humanitarian “tragedy” in Iraq as thousands flee advances by Islamist militants.

The United Nations is warning of a humanitarian “tragedy,” saying hundreds of thousands of civilians are fleeing the latest advances by Islamist militants in northern Iraq.

In recent days, fighters of the so-called Islamic State, an al-Qaida breakaway faction, and allied forces have overrun new stretches of territory in the Nineveh plains of northwestern Iraq, including the town of Sinjar. The town and its environs had previously provided shelter for vulnerable ethno-religious groups escaping the Sunni Islamist advance.

As many as 200,000 civilians, many from the Yazidi minority — who follow a pre-Islamic faith linked to Zoroastrian beliefs — have fled to nearby mountains and elsewhere, the U.N. says.

The Islamic State, a Sunni Muslim jihadist group, views as “infidels” both Yazidis and Shiite Muslims, who have also fled the area in huge numbers as the jihadists and their allies continue their onslaught. There have been reports of executions of Yazidis and Shiites and destruction of their places of worship.

Thousands of Christians have also fled the area in the wake of the Islamic State advance and its capture in June of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, long a hub of Christianity.

“A humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in Sinjar,” Nickolay Mladenov, the top U.N. official in Iraq, declared in a statement on Sunday, citing an “urgent need” for food, water, and medicine. “I call on all Iraqi authorities, civil society, and international partners to work with the United Nations to ensure the delivery of life-saving humanitarian assistance.”

The new Islamic State thrust drove out Kurdish peshmerga forces who swept into the area in June after the Iraqi military retreated south, leaving a security vacuum. The disputed zone is close to Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

The latest jihadist territorial gains, after weeks of a relatively stable front line in northwest Iraq, raise questions about how long Kurdish forces can hold off Islamic State and allied fighters in northwestern Iraq. Many Sunni Muslims tribal groups and other Sunnis disaffected with the Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad have formed alliances with the Islamic State, bolstering jihadist strength.

The Islamic State has vowed to march on to Baghdad, but the capital remains firmly in the hands of the central government and is heavily defended by the Iraqi military and allied Shiite militiamen.

Meanwhile, Islamic State forces have also overrun two small oil fields in northwest Iraq and threatened a major dam in the area, according to various reports. The jihadists have seized oil and gas fields in Iraq and neighboring Syria and have been reportedly selling oil on the black market.

AFP Photo/Safin Hamed

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Proud Sunni Neighborhood Writhes Under Iraq’s Shiite Security Forces

Proud Sunni Neighborhood Writhes Under Iraq’s Shiite Security Forces

By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD — He fought alongside U.S. troops battling Al Qaeda militants on the streets of Adhamiya, one of Baghdad’s most treacherous districts during the long American-led occupation. Now he is ready to take up arms against the Iraqi government that he once fought to preserve.

“We are prepared to fight and die,” said Hatem, a blacksmith by trade, his face contorted in stress as he described a daily routine of police and army intimidation here in one of the Iraqi capital’s signature Sunni Muslim neighborhoods. “We have sleeper cells in place. This area is about to explode.”

The sense of frustration and even desperation is pervasive these days among residents of Adhamiya, at one time a bastion of culture and learning and more recently a hotbed of violence during the 2006-07 civil war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

Today, residents are proud that their sons both fiercely resisted U.S. invaders and then joined forces with their former adversaries as part of the so-called Awakening movement, in which the U.S. military paid ex-insurgents and others to fight Al Qaeda-style hard-liners. Hatem, 36, a father of four, was one of hundreds of Sunnis from Adhamiya who signed up.

But the residents of Adhamiya and other mostly Sunni areas are now facing a more entrenched foe: the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and its heavy-handed security forces.

In interviews here, Adhamiya residents complained of a pattern of harassment, random arrests, and illegal imprisonment — the kinds of grievances that helped detonate the rebellion raging in Sunni-dominated provinces to the north and west.

Those interviewed said they empathized with Sunni fighters who have seized large swaths of Iraqi territory, but insisted that they did not back the Islamic State, the Al Qaeda breakaway faction spearheading the rebellion. Whether their professed antipathy against the militants was authentic or meant for Western consumption was not clear.

Though the discontent evident in Adhamiya and other Sunni districts could break into open warfare, Sunni insurgents would face daunting odds against the Shiite-dominated security forces and allied militias in the overwhelmingly Shiite capital.

Nonetheless, the antagonism toward Maliki and his security services seems genuine — and overwhelming.

“We’re all prisoners here — the entire neighborhood,” said Mohammed, a 30-year-old car mechanic who, like others interviewed, requested that his full name not be used for security reasons.

Mohammed said he had spent a week trying to get his elderly father out of jail after a recent police sweep landed dozens in custody. At one point, he said, a dismissive police guard told him: “You are all Al Qaeda,” referring to all Sunnis.

His younger brother, Abdullah, recently escaped to the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq after having been arrested seven times, he said.

“I spent all my savings trying to get him out of jail, paying bail, paying bribes,” Mohammed said in his apartment here, adding that the total was $45,000. “Finally I told him he had to leave.”

The government denies that it favors Shiites or acts in a sectarian fashion. But most Sunnis appear to see it otherwise.

Many are still enraged that the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, the late strongman who was a popular figure in Adhamiya — and was famously last publicly seen here before being captured by U.S. forces in December 2003 in a hide-out near Tikrit. The ouster of Hussein, a Sunni, upended the nation’s sectarian balance, empowering the long-repressed Shiite majority and marginalizing Sunnis, who had enjoyed a measure of preference in Hussein’s Iraq.

During the U.S.-led occupation, Adhamiya became infamous as a hub of snipers and roadside bombs targeting American forces. On several occasions, U.S. soldiers sealed off the entire neighborhood. Then, in 2007, at the height of the Sunni-Shiite conflict, the U.S. Army erected a 12-foot-high, 3-mile-long concrete wall around Adhamiya, ostensibly to protect residents from attacks by Shiite paramilitaries. Residents were enraged.

Today, the police and military maintain a robust presence on the streets of Adhamiya, resembling an occupying army. Police commandos in helmets and body armor now man the Humvees once driven by U.S. troops. Checkpoints ring off the neighborhood. Security men staff high-profile posts, including one in front of the Abu Hanifa mosque, the capital’s major Sunni shrine and the spiritual heart of Adhamiya.

Still, the neighborhood remains a lively place in the evenings, with cafes and restaurants doing a brisk business and many people on the streets. But residents insisted on speaking to a reporter behind closed doors, away from the prying eyes of the security services and their webs of informers.

“They have spies everywhere,” said a shopkeeper who gave his name as Abu Ali, speaking deep in the cool shade of his grocery store on a recent blazing afternoon. “We’re basically under siege here. If you’re not off the streets by 11 p.m. you’re likely to be arrested or shot.”

The Sunni uprising in the north and west has only made things worse, residents say. On several occasions, residents said, brazen convoys of Shiite militiamen have paraded provocatively down the main drag leading to the Abu Hanifa mosque in a show of strength and a not-so thinly veiled warning.

Fearing that the violence is bound to escalate, many residents have decamped — for the Kurdish-controlled north, for Jordan, Lebanon, wherever they can get to. Flights out of Baghdad are heavily booked, travel agents report. Many of those who remain are marshaling their resources, hesitant to spend cash that may be needed for a quick escape. Nearby Syria, with its own civil war, is hardly an option.

“I have thousands of dollars in unfinished orders — no one wants to pay me,” said a portly pane-glass merchant who gave his name as Abu Mohammed.

“Everyone is worried, or thinking of leaving,” said the 37-year-old father of two, who fled to Syria after the U.S.-led invasion. “But where can one go now? Where is the sanctuary?”

In a nearby alley, a woman who gave her name as Um Fadla showed a reporter a poster bearing photographs of her five brothers — all killed during the 2006-07 sectarian bloodletting, she said. All stare innocuously from the frames in ID-style snapshots. Only one of their bodies was found, she added.

Recent history may be about to repeat itself, Um Fadla warned.

“I don’t want my brothers’ fate to be the fate of others,” she said, hastening back to her home with the solemn images of her lost brothers, their stares frozen in time.

Special correspondent Nabih Bulos contributed to this report.

AFP Photo/ Sabah Arar

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Iraqi Shiite Fighters Of Balad Provide Bulwark For Baghdad

Iraqi Shiite Fighters Of Balad Provide Bulwark For Baghdad

By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times

BALAD, Iraq — The Shiite militia commander, slight of build and decked out in green fatigues, views the checkpoint that he oversees as much more than an isolated outpost amid the endless palm groves of the Tigris River valley.

“We are the forward defensive line for Baghdad,” said the militiaman, who gave his name as Abu Ali, as he stood with comrades at a battered intersection where the charred remains of shops and a gas station attest to recent combat.

The town of Balad, about 50 miles north of the capital, has emerged as a key bulwark in the defense of Baghdad from Sunni Muslim insurgents allied with the Islamic State, an al-Qaida breakaway faction.

Just as it was during the U.S.-led occupation, when Balad hosted the largest American military base, Anaconda, the town is a vital supply, communications, and logistic hub on the highway from Iraq’s capital north toward Sunni strongholds such as Tikrit and Mosul, recently overrun by the Islamic State.

At Balad, the Sunni insurgent rampage down the Tigris has stalled against Iraq’s relentless sectarian calculus: Balad, like Baghdad, is overwhelmingly Shiite. Home to an illustrious and resplendent religious shrine, it is the first major Shiite bastion on the road south from Mosul.

Government posters in Baghdad that defiantly proclaim “They Shall Not Pass” have thus far been validated in this sprawling agricultural market town of perhaps 100,000 residents.

Sunni militants may someday find it possible to infiltrate Baghdad from other areas, or to activate dormant cells in Sunni neighborhoods of the capital. But storming through Balad from the north would surely prove costly for Sunni forces, even before they faced the daunting task of attacking Baghdad, where they would face massive Shiite resistance.

Indeed, the response here to the Shiite religious leadership’s call to arms demonstrates its ability to marshal masses of volunteers against takfiris, as al-Qaida-style Sunni militants are labeled derisively both here and in the Levant nations of Syria and Lebanon.
While government forces scattered in the face of Sunni militants in northern and western Iraq, enthusiastic Shiite militiamen — both novices and battle-hardened veterans of Syria and against the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq — have arrived here and at other frontline areas in large numbers.

In Balad, government forces who were initially routed appear to have reasserted some semblance of control of the critical Baghdad highway — dubbed Main Supply Route Tampa during the U.S.-led occupation and fortified at the time with blast walls, sand barriers, and concrete observation posts. The obstacles are now in the service of Iraqi forces, along with the Humvees and other heavy equipment left behind by the Americans.

Still, the situation is tenuous, the battlefield fluid. On Sunday, Sunni militants reportedly stormed into the nearby largely Sunni town of Duluiya, sparking fierce clashes.

Large stretches of the highway from Baghdad to Balad appear nearly abandoned, eerily absent of traffic and subject to deadly attacks. The few motorists tend to hit the accelerator between the many checkpoints. Adding to the sense of uncertainty is the fact that Islamic State activists have posted at least one video online of a fake government checkpoint actually manned by Sunni execution squads decked out as official Iraqi forces.

“They kill you if you are a Sunni working for the government,” said one policeman here, who, like others interviewed, did not want his name used because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “And of course if you are a Shiite they kill you no matter what.”

Stretches of scorched grass and burned palm trees mark the fierce battles of recent weeks. A number of U.S.-built concrete towers along the highway have been blown up by Sunni militants.

Much of the heavy lifting on the dispersed battle front here appears to be left to the thousands of Shiite militiamen who have answered the religious leaders’ fatwa to fight the Sunnis. The various militias’ multicolored flags are ubiquitous.

Abu Ali and his charges at the checkpoint adjacent to the main highway are members of the group Hezbollah Brigades, which once fought in Iraq against U.S. forces and is reportedly backed by Iran. (The group is separate from the Lebanon-based Shiite paramilitary and political organization also named Hezbollah.) The sundry militiamen in Balad unanimously exude a sense of bravado and confidence. Whether it is justified on the battlefield is hard to ascertain.

“We have all the help we need: planes, artillery, troops,” said one fervent militiaman, from a group called the Vanguard of the Khorasani, a reference to a Shiite site.

At a nearby checkpoint, a Chinese-made pickup truck played Shiite martial ballads. In the rear were several teenage fighters with green headbands, along with one who appeared to be in his 60s, seated in a white plastic chair with his AK-47. They waved at visiting journalists.

Some militiamen here say they have experience fighting in neighboring Syria, where thousands of Iraqi Shiites have battled alongside government forces against Sunni-led insurgents.

“In Iraq and Syria, it’s basically the same fight,” said a 30-year-old commander of the Hezbollah Brigades who uses the nom de guerre Abu Askar, as he stood outside an abandoned apartment building apparently used as a command post.

Abu Askar, who wore orange-tinted wraparound sunglasses, said he had fought in Syria for almost two years outside Damascus, Aleppo, and other locales. With the Islamic State having declared its “caliphate” across the borders of both nations, the two wars seem to be merging. And in Balad, the Iraqi conflict has the feel of a religious war.

“We’re getting new recruits all the time,” said Abu Askar, his young charges nodding in agreement.

Pickup trucks with militiamen came and went at the compound where Abu Askar and his fighters stood guard.

In daily operations, Shiite militiamen seek out Islamic State militants ensconced in nearby Sunni villages and in palm orchards along the Tigris and its network of irrigation canals. The fighters appear to distinguish little between al-Qaida-style militants and their allies — Sunni tribesmen and nationalists still angry that the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 upended Iraq’s balance of power in favor of the Shiite majority.

“Some people will tell you these are the (Sunni) tribes we are fighting against — that’s nonsense,” countered one federal police officer. “They’re all with al-Qaida.”

AFP Photo/Ahmad al-Rubaye

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In Iraq, Death Toll Rises Among Shiite Recruits Battling Insurgency

In Iraq, Death Toll Rises Among Shiite Recruits Battling Insurgency

By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times

NAJAF, Iraq — The unadorned wooden boxes arrive lashed to car roofs or secured in the beds of pickup trucks, a steady procession of mortal remains on a doleful final journey to this holy city.
Only days ago, they were enthusiastic Shiite Muslim recruits who answered the call of their clerics to fight a Sunni Arab insurgency. Now they are coming home lifeless and broken — the victims of bullets, bombs, and shells.

Each day brings the remains of dozens of young men honored as martyrs. First, they are given a ritual washing. A fleet of converted golf carts, painted black, stands by to shuttle their caskets to a farewell blessing at the majestic shrine of Imam Ali, an important figure in Shiite Islam. Finally, they are buried in the Valley of Peace, one of the largest cemeteries in the world.

Among the plain coffins that arrived Wednesday was one containing the remains of Anwar Jassem, 26, who last month joined Iraq’s most powerful Shiite militia, Asaib Ahl al Haq, or League of the Righteous.

“Anwar wanted to go to battle for Iraq, for his homeland,” said an uncle, explaining that the militiaman was felled by a sniper’s bullet a day earlier near Fallujah, a bastion of Sunni insurgents fighting to overthrow the Shiite-led government.

As Iraqi forces battle a Qaida breakaway faction and its allies, there has been no official word about casualties among pro-government forces. But the numbers are mounting daily in what by all accounts is a grueling guerrilla war against a well-armed and experienced adversary.

Iraqi state media tout the abundant deaths of “terrorists” in dispersed battle zones to the north and west of the capital. In Baghdad, the war seems far away, with the Ramadan fasting season proceeding at a torpid pace beneath the sweltering midsummer sun.

But here in Najaf, final resting place of the Shiite masses, the rising death toll is impossible to ignore.

The roster of the lost is largely composed of young men such as Jassem, idealistic and fervent volunteers who followed their religious leaders’ fatwa to enlist and soon found themselves thrown onto the front lines.

Facing them are seasoned and dug-in Sunni insurgents, among them skilled snipers, expert bomb makers and savvy street fighters. Many have extensive experience battling U.S. troops, Iraqi forces, and, in some cases, the neighboring Syrian army and its allies.

By contrast, many Shiite volunteers appear to have had little formal training, according to interviews here. They were rushed into battle as Iraqi army units disintegrated and the government scrambled to deflect an existential threat.

“They’re being thrown out there without training against experienced soldiers,” said an undertaker in this shrine city, where death is an industry and war means more business.

While proud of the young men’s courage, the undertaker also seemed appalled that so many were so ill-equipped. “They have no chance,” said the undertaker, who gave only his first name, Salim, for privacy reasons.

Distraught relatives from a sect long steeped in martyrdom are left to mourn their losses and try to comprehend what happened. Cell phone calls from military units daily convey news of loved ones’ deaths. The bodies soon follow, brought first to a military air base in Baghdad. Some coffins were wrapped in nylon to prevent blood from leaking.

“They called us and said he had been shot,” said Salah Jubayr, mourning his son, Ali Hussein, 24, killed the previous day in Ramadi, another Sunni insurgent stronghold in Anbar province, west of Baghdad. “He just volunteered 10 days ago.”

With little training, Ali Hussein was placed in a police unit in one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq. Ramadi was a hub of Sunni resistance to the U.S.-led occupation and of the subsequent rebellion against the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The ferocity of the resistance in Anbar was legendary among U.S. soldiers and Marines.

“He would call us and say there was fighting going on all the time,” said the distraught father, outfitted in a traditional tribal cloak and Arab headdress. “He wanted to volunteer even before the fatwa,” he added, referring to the edict last month from Shiite clerics urging young men to sign up at recruitment centers.

The grieving family was gathered at a site where bodies are washed and wrapped in white shrouds for burial, in accordance with Muslim custom. This washing establishment, subsidized by Muqtada Sadr, the Shiite cleric whose Mahdi Army once fought against U.S. troops, charges only about $20 for the service. The fees pay for the shroud, workers explained.

The number of body washings has doubled in the last month to about 60 a day, including many young men killed at the front, workers here said. This site is only one of many pre-burial washing spots.

“These are all soldiers who died doing their duty,” said Awad Moussawi, 52, who is among the staff of professional washers. “This is a necessary jihad. Islam will be victorious.”

The office held bundles of white shrouds and a cardboard box filled with plastic bottles of soapy water to be used in cleansing. Sand is preferred for washing if bodies are badly burned. Efforts are made to place severed body parts in their appropriate position, the washer said.

“I started doing this two years ago because I know I will receive a greater reward from God,” said Moussawi, who left his previous job as a perfume salesman.

Outside, the midday sun beat down relentlessly on the seemingly boundless horizons of the Valley of Peace. Domes adorned some graves, while others were marked with simple concrete headstones inscribed with Islamic texts and the names of the deceased. Stylized color posters here and there showed deceased young men come to life in various guises — in military uniforms, in suits and ties, T-shirts, and tribal robes.

AFP Photo / Ahmad al-Rubaye

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Syria Hands Over Last Of Declared Chemical Weapons, Monitor Says

Syria Hands Over Last Of Declared Chemical Weapons, Monitor Says

By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times

BEIRUT — The last of Syria’s declared chemical weapons material was loaded onto a Danish vessel Monday for future destruction, marking a “major landmark” in the effort to do away with the nation’s toxic arsenal, an international oversight agency said.

The action would appear to signal an end to the most difficult and controversial stage of an ambitious program to eliminate Syria’s once-imposing chemical weapons program.

Never before has an entire arsenal of a category of weapons of mass destruction been removed from a country experiencing a state of internal armed conflict. — Ahmet Uzumcu, director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

The government of President Bashar Assad agreed to the destruction of its toxic arsenal last year in a deal brokered by the United States and Russia that averted threatened U.S. airstrikes on Syria for its alleged use of the nerve agent sarin outside Damascus on Aug. 21.

Syria denied using poison gas on the battlefield in its civil war but still acceded to an international plan to destroy its stockpiles.
A United Nations investigation found that sarin had been used but did not conclude which side in the conflict was responsible.

Many experts were skeptical that the ambitious effort to destroy the Syrian arsenal could be completed in less than a year, the time frame outlined in a United Nations-backed destruction plan. That the process unfolded as Syria was engulfed in a war greatly complicated matters.

Syrian authorities had to transport hazardous chemicals through roads subject to attack from rebels. Russia lent its ally, Syria, armored vehicles and other assistance to help with the task.

“Never before has an entire arsenal of a category of weapons of mass destruction been removed from a country experiencing a state of internal armed conflict,” Ahmet Uzumcu, director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said in a statement issued at the group’s headquarters in The Hague. “And this has been accomplished within very demanding and tight time frames.”

It was the OPCW that made the announcement confirming that the last consignment of Syrian chemical weapons material was loaded Monday onto the Danish vessel Ark Futura for shipment out of the country.

Syria will miss a June 30 deadline for complete destruction of its chemical weapons materials_about 1,300 tons of substances including mustard gas and precursor chemicals for producing sarin and other agents. As of mid-June, 8 percent of the toxic arsenal still had not been removed from the country. That final batch was put on the ship Monday, authorities said.

Assad’s government blamed the delays on rebel attacks and other war-related factors, including opposition shelling of the port of Latakia, from where the chemicals were put on ships for transport abroad. The United States and its allies, who are backing rebels seeking to overthrow Assad, accused Damascus of foot-dragging and deliberately slowing the process.

The latest shipment of chemicals is to be sent for destruction aboard a specially rigged U.S. vessel, the Cap Ray, and at commercial facilities in Europe and the United States.

Some skeptics have alleged that Syria may have failed to declare some part of its arsenal. The Syrian government has denied holding back any chemical weapons materials. The OPCW has noted that Syria’s declared stockpiles were in line with outside estimates of the size of the nation’s chemical weapons program.

Recently, the Syrian government and the armed opposition have exchanged allegations that chlorine gas, a common industrial chemical used on the battlefield in World War I, has been deployed in Syria. Chlorine is not considered a chemical weapon but international law bans the use of any toxic material on the battlefield.

The OPCW sent a team to Syria and found evidence that “irritating agents” such as chlorine may have been used there. However, the organization did not indicate who may have been responsible.

The group’s investigation was hampered by an attack on an OPCW convoy in Syria. Each side in the conflict blamed the other for the attack on the convoy.

AFP Photo

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Lebanon Car Bomb Attack Kills 2, Shatters Months Of Relative Calm

Lebanon Car Bomb Attack Kills 2, Shatters Months Of Relative Calm

By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times

BEIRUT — A suicide car bomb that may have targeted Lebanon’s internal security chief exploded Friday on the Beirut-Damascus highway, killing at least two people and wounding dozens, according to official and media accounts.

It was the first such attack after several months of relative calm in Lebanon and raised fears that the sectarian-fueled violence that has lately erupted in Iraq could be reverberating in this vulnerable Middle Eastern nation. Lebanon has long experienced episodes of spillover violence from the war in neighboring Syria.

According to various accounts of Friday’s attack, a booby-trapped four-wheel drive vehicle driven by a suicide bomber exploded close to a military checkpoint along the highway east of Beirut, the capital.

Lebanon’s internal security chief, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, was quoted in local media as saying that the explosion detonated moments after his convoy passed through the checkpoint.

Ibrahim heads Lebanon’s powerful General Security directorate. He has been a key player in an ongoing crackdown against Sunni Muslim extremists blamed for bombings in Lebanon, and has also helped negotiate the release of Shiite and Christian hostages held by Sunni rebels in neighboring Syria.

The two dead in Friday’s bombing included at least one security official, media reports indicated. Most of the victims appeared to be civilians traveling in a passenger vehicle.

The attack occurred after a reported security raid at a Beirut hotel that targeted terrorism suspects.

The Daily Star, an English-language Lebanese newspaper, quoted a security source saying that officials had received word that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria was plotting a suicide attack in Lebanon.

ISIS, an al-Qaida breakaway faction made up of Sunni fighters from various nations, is battling to topple governments in Syria and Iraq. Last week, the group made global headlines when its forces grabbed large swaths of land in northern and central Iraq, threatening the central government in Baghdad.

In recent months, Lebanese security forces have cracked down hard on militant Sunni factions, some linked to al-Qaida, blamed for deadly bombings and other attacks in Lebanon during 2013 and early 2014. Friday’s blast broke a period of several months that featured an absence of car bomb attacks in Lebanon.

Lebanon, like neighboring Syria, is composed of a combustible mix of religious and ethnic groups. Lebanon experienced its own sectarian-fueled, 15-year civil war that ended in 1990. Lebanon’s fragile democracy faces severe threats from extremists inflamed by sectarian and geopolitical currents roiling the Middle East.

Photo via WikiCommons

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Car Bomb In Syria Village Kills At Least 34

Car Bomb In Syria Village Kills At Least 34

By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times

BEIRUT — A massive car bomb exploded Friday in a government-controlled village in central Syria, killing at least 34 people and wounding dozens more, Syrian state media reported.

The blast was the latest in a series of bombings apparently targeting zones in Syria where the population is loyal to the government of President Bashar Assad.

While global attention has shifted to the violence in neighboring Iraq, Syria continues to be the site of a raging, more than three-year war that has cost more than 100,000 lives and left vast swaths of the country in ruins.

Al-Qaida-style rebels who have gained a foothold in Syria have expanded their battle for the creation of an Islamist caliphate across the border to Iraq, where they are fighting to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

Friday’s car bomb in Syria exploded in the village of Hurra outside the central city of Hama, the Syrian media reported.

A powerful Syrian rebel coalition, the Islamist Front, with close ties to Saudi Arabia, reportedly took responsibility for the strike. A posting on the social media forum Twitter attributed to the Islamic Front said the blast targeted pro-government forces. The Syrian government said all the victims were civilians.

Friday’s attack follows a car bombing that left at least six people dead Thursday to the south of Hama in the city of Homs, news agencies said. That attack reportedly targeted a neighborhood that is home to many Alawites, the ultra-loyalist sect whose members include Assad.

Syrian rebels, overwhelmingly from the nation’s Sunni Muslim majority, have often targeted Alawite districts in car bomb and mortar attacks. Rebels have accused the government of indiscriminate attacks on Sunni areas with aerial bombardment and heavy artillery.

Photo: Karam al-Masri via AFP

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Syrian Residents Return To The Ancient And Now Ruined City Of Homs

Syrian Residents Return To The Ancient And Now Ruined City Of Homs

By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times

HOMS, Syria — Wary of looters and anxious to get back home, the displaced residents of the war-battered Old City of Homs have been filing back into their bombed-out neighborhoods.

They push baby strollers and drag suitcases to be used in an epic salvage operation. At times, it is hard to distinguish between ex-residents gathering what little is left of their belongings and those picking the ruins clean of others’ possessions.

Soldiers checked IDs to be sure people had a right to what they were taking, but inspections weren’t especially rigorous. Pickups parked outside blown-up buildings, their drivers busy emptying out the contents.

Some stood guard over their reclaimed dwellings.

“No one should leave their home now,” said Ibrahim El Helu, 64, a Boston-trained engineer who packed a pistol to discourage thieves.

From afar, the vast rubble zone brings to mind images of Dresden, Stalingrad and other cities destroyed in World War II. Much will have to be razed.

Amid so much chaos, many returnees have camped out in their old homes, despite the lack of water and electricity and the apocalyptic scenes that greeted them. Few did not find their residences looted and trashed during the rebel occupation — closets emptied out, clothes scattered on the floor, drawers rifled through and wood furniture chopped for kindling.

“This is my home; I invested everything in it,” said Umeima Aboud, 44, who decided to stay with her two grown sons at her second-floor flat in the Bustan al-Diwan district. “I will rebuild.”

Access became possible early this month when gunmen agreed to decamp in a deal for safe passage. Insurgents had occupied the district for almost two years as government troops laid siege to the Old City, directing heavy bombardment at the vast warren of narrow streets and alleys.

Returning residents dumped soiled clothes, broken furniture and other items onto ever-growing trash piles on the rubble-strewn streets.

The mood was alternately cheerful and despondent, elated and sober. Many were outraged.

“This is their democracy?” asked Hassan Jubrail, taking a visitor through the charred remains of his home, cursing the rebels who had occupied the zone. “I don’t want to have anything to do with their democracy!”

Still others came to the Old City to seek traces of missing relatives, believed kidnapped by the rebels during the worst of the fighting. Hundreds are counted among the “disappeared” in Homs. One man said he found his brother’s car, burned beyond repair, but no sign of his sibling. Charred and crushed vehicles, some riddled with bullet holes, blot the streets.

Multitudes clamber inside bullet-sprayed storefronts and up creaky stairways to snatch some relic of a past existence. They are among Homs’ displaced legions, their lives subject to great upheaval since the war began.

They haul out vacuum cleaners and beds, lamps and side tables, photos, toys, carpets, clocks — just about any reminder of the material hodgepodge of daily existence.

Many seem to take comfort in grabbing some artifact of their previous, stable lives in this once tranquil provincial town. Before the war, Homs was known for its fierce desert wind, its relaxed lifestyle and plethora of Muslim and Christian houses of worship.

“We’re lucky; we found something,” said a lamppost-thin man who went by the nickname Abu Anas. He pushed a bicycle stacked with a jumble of stiff arms, legs and torsos, a macabre apparition in a war zone. They were remnants of mannequins from his nearby clothing store, called Spring.

“There’s a lot of damage, but we can rebuild,” Abu Anas declared with relief as he urged his ghoulish cargo forward.

Walls remain sprayed with sometimes blood-curdling rebel graffiti, often of a blatantly sectarian nature. “Watch where you sleep,” warns one scrawl. “I will come from a tunnel to kill you.” Another announces the presence of “Abu Qutada … the Chechen.” The walls of an apartment apparently used as a kind of command center contain scribbles proclaiming that fighters eagerly anticipate their posthumous encounters with the “mermaids,” the virgins awaiting martyrs in the after-life, according to the militants’ belief.

Ahmad Halbani, 50, a father of three, carried a pair of shopping bags filled with mementos salvaged from his destroyed apartment in the Khalidiya district, adjacent to the Old City.

They were just odds and ends: women’s curlers and hairpins, and a stylized, 1960s photograph of Halbani’s late father in military uniform.

“At least we all got out alive,” said Halbani. He and his family headed down Hama Street, once a lively boulevard, now a ghostly route flanked by obliterated multistory buildings.

Some structures are pancaked, signature destruction of direct hits from aerial bombs; others are hollowed out, blackened and shot through with holes, like giant slabs of moldy Swiss cheese. Atop one six-story structure, a massive air conditioner perched precariously, seemingly about to cascade down onto a pyramid of debris atop of what was a sidewalk.

“At least I got what I came for,” said an exhausted, veiled woman, 27, who went by the nickname Um Omar.

She pushed a wheeled metal hospital bed stacked high with household items.

“Our house is gone,” Um Omar said, taking a break from her solitary labors.

She trudged off along Hamidiya Street, having found at least some part of her former life in this ancient and now ruined city.

AFP Photo

Many In The Syrian Town Of Homs Feel As If The Civil War Has Ended

Many In The Syrian Town Of Homs Feel As If The Civil War Has Ended

By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times

HOMS, Syria — On the long-militarized edges of Syria’s Old City of Homs, volunteers Monday took down walls of cinder block and brick that had long served as shields against snipers hidden in the ruins of the rebel-held ancient quarter.

“For us, the war is over,” said Firas Alabdallah, an engineer helping to collect material for use in a cemetery for pro-government “martyrs.”

The Syrian war is certainly not over. Broad swaths of the country remain contested or under opposition control. But to many in Homs, once dubbed the “capital” of the Syrian uprising, it does feel like the end.

The fact that the core of Syria’s third largest city is back in government control is a major triumph for President Bashar Assad and the latest setback for rebels fighting to oust him. In a deal with Syrian authorities, some 2,000 insurgents agreed to leave the Old City last week and were given safe passage out.

An almost two-year military siege succeeded in wearing down a rebel force lacking food, medical supplies and other essentials.

Residents were thrilled to take strolls again in recent days, despite the dystopia of hollowed-out buildings and rubble-strewn streets. Many shed tears of joy.

Months of bombardment and gun battles turned the once-venerable Old City and several adjacent districts into something like an outsized set for a Hollywood disaster blockbuster. Thin rays of light beamed into the previously dark confines of the old covered souk from multitudes of shrapnel punctures in the metal roof.

Landmarks, streets, cafes and houses of worship that had long been integral threads in the town’s fabric of life were not cut off anymore in a deadly no-go zone.

People walked about in wonderment as though viewing ancient historical ruins.

The war has left profound scars. People don’t like to talk about it much, but Homs’ combustible sectarian mix was a major reason the war took on such a punishing character locally.

“It is easy to repair physical destruction,” said Father Tamer Awil, a Syriac Orthodox priest in the Old City, speaking inside the heavily damaged Church Our Lady of the Belt, named after a relic said to be from a belt associated with the mother of Jesus. “But the people of Homs have been damaged in their hearts and souls. Repairing that damage is much more difficult.”

Many residents, especially among the Sunni Muslim majority, remain embittered about the government, though few if any feel safe talking about such matters publicly.

Three years ago, the Old City hosted vociferous anti-government protests that reached a global audience on the Internet. Many of the rebels were sons of Homs. Now soldiers with AK-47 rifles man those same streets, taking breaks with mate tea sipped through metal straws, a South American custom brought back by Syrian expatriates.

“I don’t care that my house was destroyed,” said one distraught Sunni woman in a headdress and black cloak who spoke Monday while exiting the Old City with a small shopping bag of items salvaged from her home. “I want the president to get my son and the others out of prison.”

The woman, who identified herself by the nickname Um Asaad, broke into tears as she spoke about her missing son, one of thousands in government jails and prisons. “I haven’t seen him in two years,” she sobbed, before heading off without further elaboration.

A few minutes later, a group of Christian women headed into the Old City to view the remains of their family home. The Christian minority is generally effusive about the “liberation” of an area central to their ancient identity.

“The Army has swept away all of the bad people from our city,” said Hannan Ragap, 45, a mother of two who sported spike heels and jeans as she walked toward the Old City.

In the adjacent Zahra district, people were savoring a victory against what many view as an existential threat from a radical Islamist force. The neighborhood is home to many Alawites, the Muslim sect whose members include President Assad.

“They wanted to force us out, but we refused to leave,” said Alabdallah, the engineer who is in charge of the neighborhood “martyr’s” cemetery, with more than 2,000 graves, and is helping take down the sniper barriers, some as high as 30 feet.

Once the Old City opened up, some from Zahra went searching for traces of missing relatives kidnapped during the war, presumably by the rebels. Officials say hundreds remain missing.

“We found my brother’s car burned, but no trace of him,” said Mustafa Ahmad Alabood, a municipal official who explained that his brother, Amer, a taxi driver, was among the many kidnapped and presumably killed.

In general, though, many people seemed inclined to put such dark thoughts aside as they sought to reclaim Homs. The longing for a pre-conflict sense of normality and order was evident among residents of all sects and creeds who headed to the remains of the Old City.

“People here are tired of the war, they’ve had enough,” said Jamal Moazen, 52 a metal worker who was hauling blankets and other scavenged items onto a pickup. “We want our city back.”

© / Joseph Eid

Landmark Syrian Hotel Destroyed As Rebels Set Off Underground Blast

Landmark Syrian Hotel Destroyed As Rebels Set Off Underground Blast

By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times

BEIRUT — A huge blast destroyed a hotel in the historic heart of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Thursday after rebels detonated explosives in a tunnel dug beneath government lines, according to opposition and government accounts.

The explosion ripped through the Carlton Citadel Hotel, near the landmark medieval Citadel and Aleppo’s walled Old City, both deemed United Nations World Heritage sites. Opposition activists said the onetime luxury hotel had become a military base.

Islamist rebels tunneled beneath the hotel and “detonated a large quantity of explosives,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitoring group based in Britain. The hotel was “completely collapsed,” the group said, along with several neighboring buildings.

At least 14 soldiers and “pro-regime militants” were killed in the blast and during subsequent clashes, the observatory said.

The state media reported “huge damage to the historic site” after rebels blew up “tunnels they dug under archaeological buildings.”

Video posted on the Internet purporting to document the explosion showed a massive blast and a plume of smoke erupting into the air and drifting over the city, followed by automatic weapons fire.

The Carlton Citadel Hotel, among the most luxurious of the hostelries that catered to Aleppo’s once-booming tourist trade, was situated in a renovated stone building that once housed an Ottoman-era hospital.

Syrian rebels have gained considerable expertise at building tunnels, often beneath the rubble in bombed-out districts, and apparently have also mastered remote detonation of explosives cached underground. Earlier this week, the opposition said that dozens of pro-government forces were killed when rebels set off a bomb in a tunnel excavated beneath a checkpoint in northwestern Idlib province.

Aleppo, a trading terminus going back to ancient times, has been a battleground for almost two years in the Syrian conflict. The city, Syria’s commercial hub before the war broke out, remains divided between government and rebel forces.

Vast swaths of Aleppo, including parts of the landmark Old City, have been destroyed in bombardments and gun battles. In recent weeks, both sides have mounted attacks in a bid to gain ground and break the stalemate.

A fire swept through the Old City’s ancient covered market in 2012, causing extensive destruction. The 12th-century Umayyad Mosque has also suffered heavy damage from shelling.

AFP Photo/Ward al-Keswani