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Islamic State Captures Key Iraqi City

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

BEIRUT — Islamic State fighters wrested control of Ramadi on Sunday as Iraqi troops beat a hasty retreat from the strategic city, according to government and opposition accounts.

A spokesman for the governor of Anbar province confirmed that Ramadi, the provincial capital, had fallen to the militants, though he said there were still “pockets of resistance.”

The takeover appeared to be a major victory for Islamic State, which has withstood a large-scale U.S. bombing campaign and maintains strongholds in Iraq and neighboring Syria.

Supporters of the militant group uploaded dozens of images on social media depicting smiling fighters standing before what they said were landmarks in Ramadi, about 60 miles west of Baghdad. Some images also showed what the militants said were police and army Humvees and other armored vehicles fleeing Ramadi before Islamic State’s advance.

A statement released by Islamic State said the city had been overrun after its forces drove out the Iraqi army’s 8th Brigade and Anbar operations command, “which led to the killing of tens (of government soldiers) and the fleeing of hundreds of the apostates.”

Islamic State, the dominant faction in the Sunni Muslim-led insurgency in Iraq, considers the Shiite Muslim-dominated government as an “apostate” entity whose people should be killed.

The statement also asserted that Islamic State captured a number of tanks and rocket launchers.

Muhannad Haimour, the spokesman for Anbar province’s governor, said in a telephone interview Sunday that although the “city had officially fallen into Daesh’s hands, there are still pockets of resistance and fighting is ongoing in some neighborhoods.” Daesh is the Arab acronym for Islamic State.

Ramadi’s fall was not unexpected, the spokesman said. For months, the government had held out in the city center against the militants, but the tide of battle had turned in recent days.

“The city had been fighting for a very long time, and unfortunately there was never enough help for the city,” Haimour said. He said pro-government Sunni tribal fighters had been clamoring for assistance and reinforcements from Baghdad to little effect.

The spokesman credited Islamic State’s victory to more aggressive tactics adopted by the group, including the extensive use of large, explosives-packed suicide vehicles.

“Daesh started … armoring bulldozers and heavy construction equipment driven by suicide bombers and gained momentum,” the spokesman said.

Anbar, encompassing a full third of Iraq and sharing borders with Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia, has been a stronghold for the Sunni insurgency since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that ousted Saddam Hussein, who was popular in the Sunni-dominated province.
The government’s defeat in Anbar highlights how sectarian calculations continue to dominate Iraq in the post-Saddam Hussein era. Residents of Sunni-dominated areas such as Anbar province and the northern city of Mosul, also under Islamic State control, have little confidence in the central government.

Many Sunni residents and tribal leaders view Islamic State as a better alternative despite the militants’ brutal ruling style. Many Sunnis from Ramadi and elsewhere in Anbar have joined Islamic State.

The central government has hesitated to deploy Shiite-led militias in Ramadi for fear of sectarian clashes with the province’s Sunni residents. The militias, known as Popular Mobilization forces with some backed by Shiite Iran, are considered the best pro-government fighting force.

On Sunday, however, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abadi directed “the commission of the Popular Mobilization to prepare along with the armed forces and sons of the (Sunni) tribes to liberate Anbar from Daesh,” according to state news channel Al Iraqiya.

The Shiite militias were key in the retaking in March of the largely Sunni city of Tikrit, which had long been under Islamic State control. There have since been accusations of abuses by the militias in Tikrit.

Many U.S. troops died or were wounded fighting against Sunni militants in Ramadi during the U.S. occupation of Iraq, which ended in 2011. The militants also control nearby Fallujah, another place where the U.S. military launched large offensives to oust Sunni militants.

The latest collapse of Iraqi government forces came despite numerous airstrikes on militant positions around Ramadi from the U.S.-led coalition. The setback underscores the limitations of airstrikes that lack an effective military partner on the ground.

The fight for Ramadi has caused thousands of civilians to flee toward Baghdad, but many are not allowed into the capital because they are suspected of being Islamic State sympathizers.

In a news conference Sunday in Baghdad, Anbar Gov. Suhaib Rawi demanded that officials facilitate the entry into the capital of the displaced people of Ramadi and give assistance in this “unprecedented humanitarian crisis” for Anbar, according to local broadcaster Sumariya News.

(Bulos is a special correspondent.)

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

Image via Google Maps

10 Lebanese Soldiers Killed In Battle With Syrian Islamist Fighters

By Patrick J. McDonnell and Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times

BEIRUT — Clashes raging between Syrian Islamist rebels and Lebanese security forces in a town close to the Syrian border killed 10 soldiers, the Lebanese army said Sunday.

An additional 25 were wounded in one of the most serious cross-border incidents since the Syrian civil war erupted more than three years ago. The army had also lost contact with 13 soldiers who may be “held captive,” the official Lebanese news service said, quoting Gen. Jean Kahwagi, who heads the Lebanese armed forces.

Fighting began Saturday in the town of Arsal after Lebanese authorities detained a member of Al Nusra Front, the al-Qaida affiliate fighting in Syria. Rebels were demanding his release.

The Syrian conflict has severely aggravated sectarian and political tensions in Lebanon, where a fragile democracy has taken hold since the end of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war in 1990.

Militants attempted to storm an army post in Arsal on Sunday, the Lebanese news agency reported, as many civilians tried to flee the town amid heavy gunfire and plumes of smoke rising from the battles.

There were no precise figures on the number of civilian and Syrian rebel casualties in the fighting in and around Arsal, situated in the Bekaa Valley, about 60 miles northeast of Beirut, the capital.

Witnesses said parts of Arsal came under shelling as government forces fought to evict Islamist guerrillas.

“The situation is going from bad to worse,” the mayor of Arsal, Ali Hujeiri, said in a brief telephone interview Sunday. “We have shells here that are falling right in front of the civilians, and the people are totally surrounded.”

In an unverified video posted on the Internet, Nusra fighters alleged that a number of Lebanese security officers had defected to their cause.

The Arsal area is home to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees and has long been a transit point for rebels and arms headed for Syria. Many residents in the largely Sunni Muslim town sympathize with the Sunni-led rebellion against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

But Arsal is also adjacent to areas of Lebanon where the population supports Hezbollah, the Shiite movement that is a major military and political force in Lebanon. Hezbollah has dispatched thousands of militiamen into Syria to fight on behalf of Assad’s government. Hezbollah leaders view Al Nusra Front and all al-Qaida-style Sunni militants as mortal enemies.

The U.S. government regards both Hezbollah and Al Nusra Front as terrorist groups.

In a statement Saturday, the State Department said it “strongly condemns the Nusra Front’s attack today on the Lebanese armed forces.”

Lebanon is officially neutral in the conflict that has devastated Syria. But many Lebanese back one side or the other, often based on sectarian allegiances. Sunni and Shiite volunteers from Lebanon have fought and died in Syria.

Since the Syrian war began in 2011, more than 1 million refugees have poured into Lebanon, straining social and political cohesion in the nation of 5 million. Lebanon has experienced car bombings, assassinations, gunbattles, kidnappings, and other violence linked to the Syrian conflict.

Bulos is a special correspondent.

AFP Photo

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